Remarks by Barbara Cooney Porter, Doctor of Humane Letters, delivered at Bowdoin's Commencement May 25, 1996
Story posted May 25, 1996
[President Edwards, Governor King,] the Board of Governors and the graduating class, I am so happy to be here, joining my "children," which are in the museum--those three books that are my favorite books are here, and I hope they'll stay here forever.
I'm going to take just a few minutes to tell you a little story.
Last year, a school in Freeport, Maine, put on a operetta. The children wrote the words and the music, and they made the costumes and stage sets and fantastic props. Outlying schools bused in chorus after chorus for the grand event, for this was a celebration to honor some people whom the children felt were important to them and to the State of Maine. The plot revolved around three characters and the roads they traveled and had chosen in life. None of them had ever met before. The first character was a writer and zoologist who loved the sea; who was instrumental in awakening the world to conservation and ecological issues; who worked to preserve the beauty of our world. She had a house on Southport Island; her name was Rachel, Rachel Carson, and she truly knew the road that she was going to travel.
The second character somehow bumbled and stumbled onto her road. You don't always find the right one in the beginning. When she was little, she had planned to become a ballet dancer, but sadly, she was born in the shape of a butterball. So, since her great uncle was a lithographer in Ohio, and her great-grandfather carved cigar store indians in lower Manhattan, and her mother painted pictures of her babies whenever she found time, it was inevitable that character number two gravitated toward one of the arts and started making pictures. Then she made up stories to go along with them, and thus she became a maker of picture books. That was the start of a journey into the publishing world that stretched over 50 years. The research itself for the stories was really a treasure hunt a lot of the time. If the book was about far-away places, the author/illustrator went to far-away places, usually with a child, or two or three or more. There were many adventures along the way. She climbed Mount Olympus to sit in the lap of the gods, but down at sea level she was chased by a mad mule and ran into the ocean to escape, with all her Nikons banging on her chest--a terrible day. I know all this, because, you see, the Freeport children had flatteringly chosen me for slot number two in their cast of characters.
There are many people I met and worked with along the way--editors, art directors, production departments, and, of course, printers. I try always to be at the press when the book is printed because there is too much to learn--the technology changes all the time and has ever since I began, and I run to keep up with it, and I'm still running and I'm still keeping up with it.
But perhaps the most unique thing about picture books is the double-barreled approach--some things can be best said in pictures; some can be best said in words, whichever thing is the most telling. Selfishly, making these books gives me great pleasure, and I hope it gives some joy to other people too.
Now this one last character I have to tell you about:
The last character in this operatic trio was an inventor. He invented the shock absorber. The Freeport children were fascinated. It gave them an opportunity to create ingenious Rube Goldberg props. The invention they liked best, however, was not the shock absorber, but what the inventor advertised as champion ear protectors--in short, here in the cold State of Maine, he had invented earmuffs. One that folded--they wore vests in his day a lot more than they do now--so as to be conveniently carried in the vest pocket; ones guaranteed to wear for years, and they were worn extensively by ladies. For the carriage trade--for those who wished a "toney" article-- they were available covered with silk velvet and satin, with gold and silver plated springs that were just elegant.
The cold world cheered and became a better and warmer place, for , as the ads claimed, over 100,000 pairs were being worn in the United States alone, and that was not a small accomplishment.
The inventor's name was Chester Greenwood; he lived in Farmington, Maine.
So, you can see, there are lots of paths open to you, and you are right at the point where you can just go out there and--I mean, this is shopping day for you. Anyhow, as you set forth, I wish you all bon voyage, and I hope your journeys will be long ones, filled with adventures. Don't hurry the journey; your arrival is your destiny, but it is the trip that counts. Good luck.
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