In 1970, “Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book of Animals” was published, the first in a long line of how-to draw books by the Ipswich author that have gone on to inspire millions. Among them is Caleb Neelon, who spent the past couple weeks painting a tribute in the Children’s Room at the Cambridge Public Library, 449 Broadway.
Neelon is not just any admirer of Emberley. With designer Todd Oldham, he authored the 2015 book “Ed Emberley” (Ammo Books). And he curated the 2017 “KAHBAHBLOOOM: The Art and Storytelling of Ed Emberley” exhibit at the Worcester Art Museum.
A squiggly purple character that populates Neelon’s own murals was inspired by Emberley’s how-to-draw books. And the Cambridge artist has painted Emberley tribute murals at the Boston Children’s Hospital, with Souther Salazar, and for the Worcester exhibition. (Neelon was not involved in the Emberley drawing books mural completed in Malden last spring.)
“Why did I think I could do a drawing book?” Emberley told me in 2015. As a boy growing up in Cambridge, he learned to draw Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy from the Sunday newspapers. “I also could draw a submarine because the Sunday paper showed me how to make a submarine by making a rectangle, a triangle for the bow, a triangle for the stern, a rectangle for the top, another small rectangle. And it showed me how to make a tank by making two circles, a large circle and a small circle, joining them together and making a rectangle like that. I suddenly realized in my 30s, I looked back and I said, ‘Yes, I can still draw those two things today. I can’t draw Mickey Mouse and I can’t draw Goofy and I can’t draw Donald Duck, but I can draw those two things.’ Those two things were marked down to very simple shapes. I said, ‘Well, what if I could start with just three shapes—a circle, a rectangle and a triangle?’”
The drawing books originated as a sort of placeholder between what Emberley envisioned as more substantive projects. In 1968, a year after being one of the runners up for children’s publishing highest honor, the Caldecott Medal, Ed Emberley won the prize for “Drummer Hoff,” a rhyme about elaborate preparations for firing a canon that he lavishly illustrated with woodcuts. As a follow up, he planned an elaborate masterpiece.
“But suddenly two years went by and I wasn’t finished yet,” Emberley told me in 2015. “My editor said, ‘You know, you haven’t published anything. You’ve won a Caldecott Medal. Usually that means, ‘We like your work. We’d like you to do more.’ … I said, ‘I’ve got this little book that I can turn out in two weeks. A novelty that might last a year or so.’”
Emberley’s infecious idea was to simplify drawing into an alphabet of those three shapes plus two dots, three numbers, four squiggles and 10 letters which when combined could illustrate anything. He wrote in the introduction to the first one: “If you can draw these shapes, letters, numbers and things, you will be able to draw all the animals in this book.”
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