Local illustrator wins the prize
by Steve Gilzow
The call came to the Depot Street apartment about 9 a.m. on Monday, January 10. Erin Stead heard the news, but couldn't believe it. "Relax for the next few hours," the woman from the American Library Association told her. "At noon your entire life is going to change."
Erin, who is quiet and shy, phoned her publisher to check. It was true: her artwork in A Sick Day for Amos McGee, written by her husband, Phil, had just won the ALA's Caldecott Medal, the most prestigious prize in children's book illustration. At noon, her award would be announced to the rest of the world.
Phil and their dog, Wednesday, had been heading out for a walk in Wheeler Park when the phone rang. After absorbing the news, Erin sat silently, allowing her breathing to return to normal. Then she raced after them. "I'm not a screamer," she says. "But running down to the park, that was helpful."
One of the first people the couple called was their art teacher at Dearborn's Divine Child High School, where they met in 1999. Phil was a few months from graduating and Erin was a sophomore. "It sounds cheesy, but I noticed what she was drawing and I was really impressed," he recalls.
At first, Erin didn't know what to make of Phil's attention. "He was a really popular senior and I was very shy. I thought he was making fun of me, for the first month or so. But he kept calling, and we started dating that summer."
That fall, Phil entered the U-M on an athletic scholarship. He ran the 800 meters and studied art, "filling my electives with creative writing classes." He also worked at Zingerman's, turning out hundreds of drawings in the distinctive style created by their primary illustrator, Ian Nagy.
The couple maintained their relationship long distance as Erin embarked on a checkerboard series of moves: a year of art school in Baltimore, then a year of
art school in New York City, combined with a job at the children's bookstore Books of Wonder, then back to art school in Baltimore. In 2004, she and Wednesday, a Baltimore shelter dog, joined Phil in Ann Arbor. Erin got a job in children's books at the downtown Borders.
The Steads married in 2005 and moved to Brooklyn. Phil did freelance illustration and worked at the Brooklyn Children's Museum. Erin went back to Books of Wonder as assistant manager, but soon left to become assistant to the creative director of the children's department at HarperCollins. A lofty title, she says, but actually it was "the lowest of the low-sifting through the slush pile." She filtered stacks of artwork sent in by aspiring artists, people struggling to be noticed, just like Phil and herself. The job had benefits, but living in New York City was expensive. Money was tight. Worse, Erin's confidence as an artist was slipping away. She went an entire year without producing a single drawing.
The couple were sustained, Erin says, by "an amazing community of friends" from Books of Wonder. The famed store's young employees sold books by day and drew or wrote at night, hoping to be published. Finally, one friend broke through and sold a book to Roaring Brook Press, an imprint of Macmillan. He brought Phil's work to the attention of its editor, Neal Porter. Before long, Phil had a contract to write and illustrate his first book, Creamed Tuna Fish and Peas on Toast. The same friend told Porter that "Phil's wife is also an artist, but she keeps to herself and she'll never show you anything."
Erin broke her yearlong drought with a single drawing-of an elephant and an old man. Without her knowledge, Phil emailed the image to Porter. "I knew if I ever said anything to her about it," he explains, "this thing would end up in the trash."
Porter emailed back: "This is fantastic, I love it. How can we get her to do a book?" He scheduled a meeting for the next week. Phil parked himself at his computer and, in a few hours, composed the basic story for Amos: a zookeeper, sick at home, is visited by his animal friends. Though the story would undergo revisions, its arc and its characters were established.
It took Erin more than two years to create Amos's distinctive illustrations, a soft blend of woodblock and pencil. During that time, the Steads lived in four different houses. To save money, they left Brooklyn for the tiny Catskill town of Willow, near Woodstock. Within a week, a tree fell onto their car, totaling it. Their house had mold and a bad landlord. They moved next door, but even then "basically felt we were in prison."
In the summer of 2008, with no paying jobs, both working on unpublished books, their money and nerves at low ebb, the Steads heard from Phil's old landlord in Ann Arbor. She knew an inexpensive place on Keech Avenue they could have. Why not come back, she suggested, "for a three-week break?"
"So we wind up back in Ann Arbor and it's instantaneous," Phil says. "Waves of stress are falling off us. Wednesday is happiest of all, finding her old walks, going to Dogma Catmantoo."
The house on Keech led to a house on Seventh Street, where Erin did what she calls "the final and best" Amos illustrations. The book was published last spring, about the time they moved to the converted Detroit Edison barn on Depot.
Their "three-week break" in Ann Arbor is now in its third year. "We're loving life," says Phil, who's teaching at WCC while working on his next book. His Jonathan and the Big Blue Boat will be published in June.
Erin, too, has a book coming out soon-a collaboration with a friend from Books of Wonder-and is working on another, written by Phil. Meanwhile, her publisher is increasing Amos's print run to close to 100,000 copies. As a Caldecott winner, it's guaranteed to sell strongly to libraries and likely to remain in print for decades. But its greatest value to Erin may be as a reassuring touchstone.
When she was a girl, Erin's favorite book was Imogene's Antlers, by Michigan writer and illustrator David Small. Small also won the Caldecott Medal, in 2001. He has this to say about its effect on his life: "If I had to put the whole thing into one sentence I'd say-without irony-that winning the Caldecott immediately cleared up whatever professional insecurities I previously suffered from! It continues to be a source of encouragement and hope in my most doubtful moments-and we all have 'em, no?"
Erin has those doubtful moments. Phil, her friends, and Wednesday have all been treasured supports. But now she has the Caldecott, too.
[Originally published in February, 2011.]
On March 2, 2011, Katie Whitney wrote:
Erin and Philip will be reading from the book at Nicola's next Tuesday (Mar. 8) at 6 p.m.