I listen to a lot of radio while I work and am able to be completely absorbed by what I hear as most of my work is just “filling in the squares“… or now with the cities, filling in the roof tops.
In 1985, living in Sydney, I happened to hear Walter and Lois McVitty interviewed on the ABC. Walter had been a lecturer in children’s books and in his retirement wanted to start publishing them. His first book had just won Children’s Book of the Year, hence the interview. He was talking about getting quality back into children’s books. I got in touch with him and we arranged to meet. I had a portfolio of 24 paintings ready to go to the framer as I had an exhibition coming up at the ‘Holdsworth Galleries’ in Sydney. Most of the paintings were scenes from Medieval history, the crusades, Robin Hood etc.
There was also a painting based on a Mathew Arnold poem called “Sohrab and Rustum”, which was really an excuse to use Persian art as my reference. I had said to Walter McVitty I doubted he would be interested in my work but he might be able to suggest someone I could approach. I hadn’t thought of doing children’s books but thought one of my paintings could be used as the cover of a history or poetry book.
When he saw my work he turned to me and said, ‘if I write the book, will you illustrate it?’ So this was the beginning of my children’s books.
Another piece of luck was finding my American publisher, Paul Gottlieb, the CEO of Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York.
In 1988 Walter McVitty received a call from the Australian Council’s Literary Arts Board asking if he could entertain a very important visiter they had in Sydney. As Walter was leaving the following day for the Children’s Book Fair in Bologna, it was not exactly convenient. Nevertheless he agreed. Paul Gottlieb arrived in a chauffeur driven Rolls Royce, probably the first to be seen in Glebe. Walter had put a selection of books on Australian Art on the coffee table he thought might interest Mr Gottlieb.
Before Mr Gottlieb arrived Walter had been pasting up final colour proofs for my first book, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”, into a dummy book. While he was in the kitchen making them both some coffee Mr Gottlieb spotted the proofs. ‘My God, Walter, what have we got here?’ he called out.
‘Oh, they’re just proofs of a picture book we’re publishing later this year,’ he told him. ‘I’m trying to get a mock-up finished to take to Bologna tomorrow.’
He could hear him muttering ‘My God, my God’ over and over again as he leafed through the proofs. Finally he called out, ‘Listen Walter, do me a favour. When you get to Bologna, don’t show this stuff to any American publishers. You wanna know why, Walter? Because I want it, that’s why.’
He could hardly believe what he was hearing. ‘But you publish fine art, not children’s books.’
‘Hell, Walter, this is fine art. I want to publish it as fine art, not just as a children’s book. So listen, don’t show it to anyone else. Get a quote from your printer and give me a fair price per copy, delivered to New York, and you’ve got yourself a deal’
Extracts from A Life in Children’s Books by Walter McVitty 2004