Author Judy Schachner’s world is so filled with wonder that some grownups have trouble believing everything that goes on there. Take, for example, the Viking ship in her backyard. While doing research for a term on Scandinavian history, one of Schachner’s daughters fell under the spell of Nordic lore. Knowing her interests well, a librarian showed the child a newspaper ad in which members of the Leif Ericson Society proposed to sell a replica of a Viking ship “for 7,000 dollars or best offer…to keep or burn.” The child and her sister pooled their resources, a whole 128 dollars from their piggy bank, added a fox tooth and two baseball cards and sent the lot to the ship owners. They added a plea “not give the ship a Viking funeral.”
“The old Vikings, descendants of Leif Ericson, were charmed by these two little girls. They wanted them to have the ship. “ The girls got their wish, the Vikings found a good home for their ship and Schachner wrote and illustrated Yo, Vikings, a whimsical account of the event. All but one critic pronounced it “beautifully written and rendered…filled with luscious illustrations… overflowing with humor.” The dissenting voice was a that of a reviewer who found the story “totally implausible.”
The unjust criticism stung.
“I cried for two days,” says Schachner.”
Crying is an unusual activity for her. She spends much of her time in her new studio, surrounded by decorated hat boxes filled with visual prompts, shiny objects, sequined hats, Chinese dragon shoes, old keys. Her work, she says, keeps her in a permanent state of 3rd Grade bliss.
Schachner’s life was not always as blissful as it is today. She was a shy little girl whose family had little money and whose mother was ill. Her brothers’ sense of humor and imagination helped brighten her childhood and the stories they told stimulated her own creativity. Her talent for drawing became evident in grade school. She drew scenes from a world where mothers were healthy and teachers were kind.
“Teachers were always complaining that I needed to speak up, to do better in arithmetic, but no one complained about my artwork.”
Though her SAT scores were less than brilliant, her artistic talent won her a place at the Massachusetts College of Art. After getting a Bachelors Degree in Fine Arts, she went to work for greeting card companies, something she eventually found so dissatisfying that she reached a point where she did not want to pick up a paintbrush again. It was only after she got married that she was able to develop a portfolio of children’s book art. Then, she and her husband Bob had two daughters whose upbringing took precedence over art work. Reading children’s books to them inspired Schnacher to return to artistic endeavors. She completed her portfolio and took it to New York where she met editor Lucia Moncrief. That was the beginning of a successful career.
Schachner has written and illustrated books on subjects as diverse as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Erik the Red. Her best known creation is, arguably, Skippyjon Jones, a Siamese cat who morphs into Don Juan Bumblito, the Great Sword Fighter.
“He’s based on my Siamese cat. He had these large ears and he reminded me of a Chihuahua. Every night, as ritual, he sort of bounced on my bed ,” she says. “I loved my cat enough that he spoke Spanish to me. I had just seen the movie Zorro, with Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas think I linked the two.”
Whether inflicting hilarious fractures upon the Spanish language in the company of his buddies, Los Chimichangos or doing battle with a Alfredo Buzzito, “the blimpo bumble- beeto bandito,” El Skippito has as devoted a following as a movie star’s. There are, however, a few sourpusses who argue that it is politically incorrect for an Anglo writer to create a Mexican character. They deplore Skippy’s obsession with beans and the way he mangles the Spanish language. These crusading adults are very much in the minority. Both Anglo and Spanish-speaking children love El Skippito Friskito’s lingo as much as they love his flights of fancy.
“I have always related to children very well. I have two daughters and I have a silly sense of humor,” says Schachner. “I write to please myself, but I think my brain stopped maturing when I was eight. It was my favorite age.”
Schnachner thinks that the best part of her job is maintaining the sense of wonder most adults misplace as they grow up.
“Many children’s books are written for an adult sensibility,” she says. “Kids very often identify with Skippy. I think it is very comforting to kids to have a character that reminds them of themselves.”
She does not recall having a “tremendous number of books” when she was growing up, but one of her favorites is the politically incorrect Sambo. As a first grader, she was not tuned into racial politics. What she found most attractive the Sambo book was the way tigers melted into butter. Internet polemics still rage about the appropriateness of Schachner’s retelling of the Sambo story, but so far it seems to only adults who raise the banner of racial politics. Children seem to take the little girl with whom Schachner replaced the polarizing Sambo character very much at face value. The writer does not dwell on controversy. She prefers to talk about the illustrators who helped shape her artistic visions.
“Arthur Rackam had the most influence on my work. Martin and Alice Provensen, Evaline Ness and Trina Schart Hyman are my all time favorite illustrators. I love (Russian illustrator) Ivan Bilibin, and (Swedish painter) Carl Larsson. I was so inspired by Carl Larsson that I painted a picture on my coat closet door of my mother and myself, as a little girl, sitting on her lap.”
Besides books and her brothers’ stories, Schachner’s happy memories of her childhood include Shirley Temple movies such as Heidi.
“I was a child of the movies. I didn’t draw animals much. I drew the beautifully dressed women I saw in movies and I pretended to be them. I grew up in an Irish Catholic family and I remember making them go into convents. I loved nuns and I drew them wearing habits.”
Eventually, she left the drawings of nuns behind and began working on stories where animals appear more often than humans. She imbues her characters with a playfulness and giddy sense of humor most of us had when we were eight. Call it a imagination, call it a lighthearted ability to see the world with a child’s eye, and you have the essence of Schachner’s gift. Open her books, see how she distills the transformative power that turns reality into enchantment and you feel the years receding until you reach the right age to believe in magic. Look at her work with older yes and you will agree that stylistically, Schachner is her own woman. Her artwork is fresh, vibrant, colorful and bold without losing any of the tenderness that separates the best children’s books illustrators from the rest.
Schachner’s latest book, Mummy Trouble, follows Skippyjon Jones to Ancient Egypt, There The World’s Greatest Sword Fighter must answer the riddle of the Finx in order to gain admittance the under world, the Under Mundo, as it is called in in SkippitoSpanglish. Ancient Egypt will never be same again.