Welcome back, son

IPSWICH — For the Emberleys, writing and illustrating children’s books is a family business. And for over half a century now, business has been good.

Michael Emberley, son of legendary children’s author and illustrator Ed Emberley, is the 2023 recipient of the American Library Association’s Theodor Seuss Geisel Award. The award is named in honor of (you guessed it) Dr. Seuss and is presented annually to the most distinguished book for beginning readers published in the United States.

The book for which he won — I Did It! — was both written and illustrated by Michael.

According to Kirkus reviews, “It’s a quiet story, but one that will speak volumes to young readers experiencing new challenges. Emberley masterfully balances colorful characters and the use of white space, keeping the focus on the action and the emotions associated with trying and failing.”

Sketches from Michael’s notebook for I Did It!

When asked if the Geisel Award has added or relieved any pressure on his career, Michael says, “I wish it did put more pressure on my career, but it’s hard to say. In any artistic profession, not being completely lost in the forest is a good thing. So if it helps people notice that I exist, that’s great.”

Emberley was raised in Ipswich. After spending many years in California, Michael now lives in Ireland, where he’s been for the past 15 years. He returns to Cape Ann periodically to see his parents, Ed and Barbara, now in their 90s, who live in assisted living in Newburyport. 

Michael Emberley (left) with his parents, Ed and Barbara

Family enterprise

In 1968, Ed Emberley received the most distinguished award that any American children’s book illustrator can hope to place on their mantel — the Caldecott Medal — for his illustrations in Drummer Hoff, a book written by Barbara. Maurice Sendak had won the award four years earlier for Where the Wild Things Are. 

In 1970, Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book of Animals was published, creating an entirely new genre of children’s books — teaching kids to draw. It was a genre in which Ed would enjoy enormous success.

From a young age, Michael and his sister, Rebecca, were helping their parents with the family enterprise: assisting with illustrations on many of the drawing books. In 1979, when he was 19 and working on Ed Emberley’s Big Green Drawing Book, Michael decided to branch out on his own. 

“I was young, and I was just trying to make some money,” he says. “I was doing a section of the Big Green Drawing Book, and the style didn’t look exactly like an Ed Emberley book should. So instead of adjusting the drawings, [Dad] said, ‘Why don’t you just add a few more dinosaurs and take it down to the editor to see if they’ll make it into a stand-alone.’ So that’s what I did.”

Michael’s first book, Dinosaurs! A Drawing Book, was published in 1980. It was, as he says, “a spinoff” of his father’s work. It is a title that he doesn’t take much credit for, but it was also the beginning of a prolific career. A career which, after Dinosaurs!, immediately diverged from his father’s style.

Book banning

Since that first book, Michael has illustrated and written approximately 48 more. Beyond stylistic differences, there is another unique characteristic of Michael’s work that separates it from his father’s: several of his books have found their way onto “banned” lists across the country.

Most recently, in January, a group calling itself Citizens Defending Education (CDE) attempted to have two books that were illustrated by Michael removed from the public library in Glen Ridge, New Jersey.

Written by author Robie H. Harris, the two titles that the CDE targeted were It’s Perfectly Normal (published in 2004) and It’s NOT the Stork! (2008). The books are focused on educating children of varying ages about reproduction and sexual health.

“One year, we had the most banned book in America,” Michael says without the slightest hint of pride (many authors would relish such a designation).

According to its website, the CDE “is a group of Glen Ridge residents seeking transparency and accountability on all issues involving the school district, particularly the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives currently being implemented in our schools.”

Michael’s diplomatic response when asked about being the target of such groups may come as a surprise:

“There’s a lot of disagreement on how to educate kids about being healthy in their lives, and growing up,” he says. “It is disappointing. But not because these groups disagree. It’s disappointing that they would take this sort of action. But it’s a process. And people are allowed to make their opinions known.”

On Tuesday, February 7 — before a boisterous and standing-room-only crowd — the library trustees of Glen Ridge, N.J. voted unanimously to keep the challenged books on their shelves.

The Message

While he seems content to talk about the dangers of censorship and the awards that he’s won (he also won an Irish Book Award in 2022 for his illustration of author Bob Johnston’s Our Big Day), these matters aren’t of supreme interest to Michael.

He’s more interested in bicycles (or pushbikes, as they sometimes call them in Ireland) and technology. He has a lot of thoughts on the mysterious value of currency, the deep-sea laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable in the 1850s, and cellphones.

Over a chicken kabob salad at Sofia’s in downtown Ipswich, Michael exuberantly detailed the evolution of communication technology from the 1800s to present day.

“Part of that whole story of laying down the first telegraph cable was … it didn’t work,” he says. “In order to make it work, they had to change how they thought about the nature of something they’d been using quite happily for years: electricity.”

He artfully explains the way in which a text message travels “at the speed of light from our tap-dancing fingertips” and undergoes translation after translation through wires and cables “the size of a human hair.”

At the end of this mind-bending journey over mountains and beneath the sea, your lover receives the simple message: “Miss u baby.”

Even over the clinking of silverware and restaurant chatter, one can almost hear the whirring of the artist’s brain at work. Michael encapsulated some of these thoughts in his 2021 book The Message: The Extraordinary Journey of an Ordinary Text Message.

“The thing that amazes me is how interesting all of this stuff is,” he says. “And how bloody boring they made it when I was in school. Maybe my great mission in life is to make it all more interesting.”

Michael attended the Rhode Island School of Design (his father’s alma mater) for a brief period before dropping out to chase his pushbike-racing dreams, eventually settling into his career as an illustrator.

Other side of the planet

As we go to leave Sofia’s, the owner — clearly an old friend of Michael’s — calls out to him teasingly, “We’ll see you next winter? Okay!” Michael turns back and assures her that he’ll return for coffee the next morning. But his return to Ireland isn’t far off.

Maybe someday in the future, we humans will be able to traverse such transatlantic distances — back and forth, like a loving text message, at the speed of light.

Until then, however, Michael says, “People seem to think that when you’re in Ireland, you’re on the other side of the planet. But it’s not very far away. I can always come back.”

He will return to the States this summer to accept the Geisel Award in Chicago — and, more importantly, check in with Mom and Dad.

Welcome Back Sun (1993), written and illustrated by Michael Emberley