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Sat November 9, 2013
Author Interviews

'A Rose Is A Rose Is A' 75-Year-Old Kid's Book By Gertrude Stein

Originally published on Sat November 9, 2013 5:01 pm

You might know Gertrude Stein from that college class where you studied her experimental fiction, or maybe you remember her as the host of salons for famous 20th-century artists like Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway.

But here's a side of her you might not know: Stein the children's book author. Her book for kids was a collaboration with illustrator Clement Hurd, the artist behind Goodnight Moon and the mystical rabbits in The Runaway Bunny. The book, The World Is Round, follows the adventures of a young girl named Rose, and it's just as beautiful and fascinating as anything Stein — the mother of modernism — put her hand to.

The World Is Round turns 75 this year, and the anniversary is being marked with a rerelease that replicates how the book looked when it first came out in 1939. Clement Hurd's son, Thacher Hurd, a children's book author in his own right, contributed the foreword. He tells NPR's Don Gonyea about how Stein came to write a children's book and why it's a good read for adults, too.


Interview Highlights

On how Stein came to publish her first children's book

My parents were just starting to get into doing children's books in the late '30s in New York, and there was a children's publisher called Young Scott Books, and one of the people involved in this was also Margaret Wise Brown [author of Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny]. So one day at an editorial meeting, she said, "Why don't we write to some well-known authors and see if they'll do a children's book?"

And Hemingway and Steinbeck said, "No,thanks," but Gertrude Stein said, "Yes, I would love to write a children's book — in fact I've almost finished it already."

On how his father was chosen to illustrate the book

The first choice was an English painter named Francis Rose. Stein wanted him to illustrate the book mainly because his name was Rose, and the heroine of The World is Round is named Rose, and, of course, it's Stein's most iconic saying: "A rose is a rose is a rose."

But nobody really liked Francis Rose's paintings. ... They convinced her, they said, "We'll have a kind of competition, and then you decide." And when the package [from Hurd] arrived, [the customs people] called up Gertrude Stein ... and they said, "We'd like you to come down and pick up this package, and there's a customs duty on it."

So she went down to the customs house, and they told her some exorbitant amount for the duty, and she said, "Well, I'm not going to pay it until I see what's inside." So they open it up for her, and she sat in the customs house looking at the artwork and then she closed it up and said, "I don't want it, send it back," thereby avoiding the duty.

And she went back to her apartment and she wrote a very detailed letter to my father saying that she would like to have him illustrate it and with very specific suggestions about the artwork. So she had taken the whole thing in, just by briefly looking at it.

On why this children's book works for adult audiences

It's sort of an abstract book. It doesn't have a particularly strong plot, but it has this sense of rhythm underlying it that's quite fascinating, I think. ... And I think it's a wonderful thing to just sit around and read out loud for adults.

When they first got the book, Margaret and the editors — William Scott and his brother-in-law — they sat at her apartment reading it out loud, that was the first way they read it. And in the middle of reading it, the lights went out, because Margaret chronically forgot to pay her utility bills, so they sat by candlelight reading the book and, I think, were entranced.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DON GONYEA, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea. Perhaps you're most familiar with author Gertrude Stein from a college class where you studied her experimental fiction, or as the famous host of 20th century salons at her house with artists like Matisse, Picasso and Hemingway. But here's a side of her you may not know: Gertrude Stein, the children's book author. Her book for children is a collaboration with the great illustrator Clement Hurd. He's the one who created the drawings in author Margaret Wise Brown's children's classic "Goodnight Moon."

This book, "The World is Round," is as beautiful and fascinating as anything Stein, the mother of modernism, put her hand to. "The World is Round" is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year with a re-release that replicates how the book looked in 1939 - deep rose-colored pages with blue text and illustrations. Clement Hurd's son, Thacher, contributed the foreword to the release, which also includes an essay from his mother, a children's book author herself. Thacher Hurd writes books for kids too now, and he joined us to explain how on earth Gertrude Stein came to write a children's book in the first place.

THACHER HURD: My parents were just starting to get into doing children's books in the late '30s in New York and there was a children's publisher called Young Scott Books, and one of the people involved in this was also Margaret Wise Brown. So, one day at an editorial meeting, she said why don't we write to some well-known authors and see if they'll do a children's book? And so Hemingway and Steinbeck said no thanks, but Gertrude Stein said, yes, I would love to write a children's book; in fact I've almost finished it already.

GONYEA: Tell me how your father, Clement Hurd, came to be the illustrator. I understand he wasn't the first choice.

HURD: No. The first choice was an English painter named Francis Rose. Stein wanted him to illustrate the book mainly because his name was Rose, and the heroine of "The World is Round" is named Rose, and, of course, it's Stein's most iconic saying: A rose is a rose is a rose. But nobody really liked Francis Rose's paintings. So, they convinced her, they said we'll have a kind of competition, and then you decide. And when the package arrived, they called up Gertrude Stein and they - the customs people - and they said we'd like you to come down and pick up this package, and there's a customs duty on it. So, she went down to the customs house, and they told her some exorbitant amount for the duty, and she said, well, I'm not going to pay it until I see what's inside. So, they open it up for her, and she sat in the customs house looking at the artwork and then she closed it up and said I don't want it, send it back, thereby avoiding the duty. And she went back to her apartment and she wrote a very detailed letter to my father saying that she would like to have him illustrate it and with very specific suggestions about the artwork. So, she had taken the whole thing in, just by briefly looking at it.

GONYEA: This is an unusual book. It's the sort of thing that is absolutely perfect for a child or maybe it's just the opposite. I'm not even sure myself. But I think I'd like you to read a little bit of it for us, just a passage.

HURD: (Reading) Rose was here name, and would she had been Rose if her name had not been Rose? She used to think and then she used to think again. Would she had been Rose if her name had not been Rose? And would she had been Rose if she had been a twin? Rose was her name all the same, and her father's name was Bob. And her mother's name was Kate. And her uncle's name was William. And her aunt's name was Gloria. And her grandmother's name was Lucy. They all had names, and her name was Rose. But would she have been? She used to cry about it. Would she had been Rose if her name had not been Rose? I tell you at this time, the world was all round and you could go on it around and around.

GONYEA: We noted both of your parents known for creating great literature for children. What do you think makes a great book for kids, and I wonder if you think this is one?

HURD: I think it is a great book for kids. I think it's a really extraordinary book. I think it's not for all kids. But not all art is for everybody. I think it brought a kind of change to how people thought about children's books. That was really important and really affected children's books to come. So, it's sort of an abstract book. It doesn't have a particularly strong plot, but it has this sense of rhythm underlying it that's quite fascinating, I think.

GONYEA: This is a children's book but it's also very much a Gertrude Stein book.

HURD: And I think it's a wonderful thing to just sit around and read out loud for adults. When they first got the book, Margaret and the editors - William Scott and his brother-in-law - they sat at her apartment reading it out loud. That was the first way they read it. And in the middle of reading it, the lights went out, because Margaret chronically forgot to pay her utility bills, so they sat by candlelight reading the book and I think were entranced.

GONYEA: Thacher Hurd is a children's book illustrator and author. He is also the son of Clement Hurd, the illustrator of Gertrude Stein's children's book, "The World is Round." Thanks so much for joining us.

HURD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.