Marcia Brown: The Tokyo Interview

“We need the stranger to understand ourselves”

Marcia Brown is a celebrated artist and author of children’s books. She was born in Rochester, New York, in 1918 and educated at the Woodstock School of Painting, the State University of New York at Albany, the New School of Social Research, Columbia University, and the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (Hangzhou, China). She now lives in Laguna Beach, California. She has written and/or illustrated more than thirty books and received numerous awards. I interviewed her in Tokyo (May 31, 1994), The following is our edited conversation prepared for publication in a magazine and for an accompanying recorded CD.

GRISWOLD: My name is Jerry Griswold, and I’m here with our distinguished guest Marcia Brown, a famous children’s book author and illustrator. Since The Little Carousel in 1946 and Stone Soup in 1947, she has published dozens of books of her own and she’s illustrated stories by others (Hans Christian Andersen’s, for example) and she’s illustrated many stories and pieces folklore (for example, The Three Billy Goats Gruff). She’s also made a specialty of doing and illustrating stories from various cultures–Hawaii, Russia, Jamaica, Africa and elsewhere. In America, the most distinguished award for an American children’s picture book is the Caldecott Medal. Marcia Brown has received three Caldecott awards–in 1955 for Cinderella, in 1962 for Once a Mouse, and in 1983 for (my particular favorite) Shadow–a book that was printed here in Japan by Dai Nippon. I want to welcome you today, Marcia Brown.

BROWN: Thank you. I’m delighted to to see a fellow American traveling the same road.

GRISWOLD: I understand one of your topics in your lecture yesterday was what you saw as a sorry state of affairs in Japanese children’s books and children’s books publishing. Would you mind talking a little bit about that?

BROWN: The Japanese desperately need some vital illustrators. And I think it must be a way that they’re training young people. They’re getting to be much too cerebral. And I have suggested to some of them: why don’t you get artists that have come up in the traditional kind of sumi-e painting where calligraphy (where the powerful stroke that is right out of your own spirit) is behind your line, and get some action, some real vitality into your work.

GRISWOLD: Are you suggesting that these conceptual books are meant more to appeal to adults rather than children?

BROWN: No. I don’t know enough about them to make any such statement. But I do think they are basically somewhat cold. They don’t have the kind of vitality that appeals to a little child, where you get a richness, an emotional richness as well as a background scene, action, all kinds of things that you get in in a book like Make Way for Ducklings or Millions of Cats, these old children’s books.

GRISWOLD: So, you sense a renaissance of interest in children’s literature, in children’s books in Japan?

BROWN: Oh, very much, very much. You know, in the twenties and thirties they did some very beautiful books here in Japan. It was a period when things were opening up all over. And American picture books were very good in those years. All we have to do is go back and see if they’ve lasted.

GRISWOLD: But at an earlier time, what kinds of problems did you run into when your books where being translated or produced here in Japan?

BROWN: You know, you’re not aware of a problem until it’s way, way too late to solve it. I was startled when I was reading on this trip that I’m on. I think at Kurashiki I was reading Once a Mouse, in the English of course. And someone else read it immediately afterwards in Japanese. And we discovered that the translator had enlarged on the text, when the text had been purposely pared down to the barest bones to say the things as simply and as powerfully as it could and in as few words as possible. It’s a teaching fable, after all, from India. At the end, when the hermit sat there thinking about “Big and little,” the translator had translated it: this hermit sat thinking about “This and that” . . . which is . . .

GRISWOLD: . . . not quite the same thing.

BROWN: No, no. That was very upsetting that that could happen. I have no idea about the other translations. I have to trust the people that do them.

GRISWOLD: You’ve done a lot of work with folklore. And I’m sure you must have thought of this problem many times before . . . but there seems to be, at least in the Western tradition, a choice between individual talent and personal style and originality and creativity (on the one hand), and (on the other hand) folklore, preservation, timelessness. You’ve written your own books, but you’ve also been particularly drawn to folklore and stories by other peoples and illustrating them. Do you see any competition between these two points of view?

BROWN: No. I think a good story is a good story. If you could write it yourself, fine. If you can’t, you find a good story that you relate to and put all you have into it. I don’t think there’s any conflict.

GRISWOLD: You’ve also spent time in Jamaica, all over Europe, time in Africa. I know you spent a year studying in China, and this is your third trip to Japan. Why is travel so important to you or why is it so necessary for you to explore these other cultures?

BROWN: I feel somewhat like Joseph Campbell: that we’re on the top of a big pyramid and the apex is at the bottom and all peoples have similar emotional and psychological problems–reactions to the world, to death, to these great big forces in life–and they express themselves differently up here on the surface but basically man is man, and he has very similar problems way down there at his beginning.

GRISWOLD: Do you think there’s a resistance in America to this exploration of other cultures that you don’t find in Japan, for example?

BROWN: No, I don’t think there’s a resistance. I don’t think there is as much curiosity.

GRISWOLD: I was struck by a statement you made in one of your Caldecott acceptance speeches where you say, “We need the stranger to understand ourselves.” This seemed to be an inspiration for Shadow and the whole idea of reflections and mirrors and echoes and so forth. But I wonder if that doesn’t in some way summarize a lot of your work, that you’re interested in the stranger as a way of finding out about yourself?

BROWN: Very probably. (laughs) Who knows? You suddenly see yourself as others see you often. In a way, that’s been valuable–sometimes gratifying, sometimes not.

GRISWOLD: Besides your artwork, you’re very interested in the other arts as well. You’re very interested in dance. I understand you play the flute. You’re involved in other kinds of work with Chinese brush painting. Do you think all young artists should be exploring all the arts?

BROWN: You do what you nature directs. It’s a little hard to say to a person who has only one interest: “Look, you’ve got to involve yourself in music, theater, and everything else under the sun.” It depends upon your background. I was trained in English, coaching dramatics in college. I’ve always been interested in music, all my life, and that doesn’t stop. And I’m no great flute player, but I enjoy it enormously and can play well enough to give myself pleasure. The interest in Oriental art comes from way back.

GRISWOLD: Can you tell us a little bit about what you plan to do in the future?

BROWN: Keep on with calligraphy. Keep on painting. I’ll be illustrating as long as I feel I can do good work.

GRISWOLD: Well, Marcia Brown, thank’s very much for talking with us this morning.

BROWN: It’s been a pleasure.

This essay originally appeared in “The Study of Current English” [Tokyo: Kenkyusha Publishing Co.], October 1994. Marcia Brown died on April 28, 2015, at her home in Laguna Hills. She was 96.

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02. October 2016 by
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