Gerald McDermott, award-winning author, illustrator, and filmmaker who died on December 26 at age 71, will be fondly remembered for his unique style of vibrant, visual storytelling, which has inspired and engaged generations of kids, those who worked with him and fans of his work tell School Library Journal.
McDermott’s career spanned a 49-year period and included such acclaimed and diverse folktales as Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti (Holt, 1972), a Caldecott Honor book and an animated film; Arrow to the Sun (Viking, 1974) the Caldecott Medal winner and also an animated film; and Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest, (Harcourt, 1993), a Caldecott Honor book and Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award winner. The film version of Anansi won the Blue Ribbon at the American Film Festival when it debuted, and Wilson Library Bulletin called it one of “the two most popular children’s films” produced that year.
From the beginning of his career, those who worked with McDermott recognized his talent.
“He was a totally independent voice at the time, and his technique and training in film taught him a tightness of scale, bravura use of color, and use of symbolism which was utterly unlike other illustrators of the period,” George Nicholson, McDermott’s editor on Arrow to the Sun, tells SLJ.
And after a long career filled with high-caliber works from start to finish, “There is still no one who equals him in my view,” Nicholson says.
Nicholson was head of children’s publishing at what was then Holt, Rinehart & Winston when he first discovered McDermott at a film festival in 1970, at which he was screening Anansi and another film, The Magic Tree, a folktale of the Congo. Nicholson immediately envisioned the possibilities of transforming both works into beautiful picture books.
“I was bowled over by the several films I saw there which were unlike anything I had even seen,” says Nicholson, who is currently a senior agent at Sterling Lord Literistic. “I was so taken with both Anansi and The Magic Tree that after serious discussions with Gerald about how these films might become books I bought them both.” They soon realized, however, that—though the American picture book was deeply cinematic in its structure—McDermott had to reconceive the art altogether to capture the pacing and dynamism of the film, he says.
When Nicholson moved to Viking, he worked with McDermott on Arrow to the Sun, which scored a picture book’s most prestigious honor. Notably, winning the Caldecott Medal for the book was something McDermott felt was an honor for both book and film, says Nicholson.
Throughout his career, McDermott interpreted into picture books many more myths and folktales whose origins spanned the globe, including The Voyage of Osiris: A Myth of Ancient Egypt (Dutton, 1977); The Knight of the Lion (Four Winds Press, 1979), an Arthurian tale; Daughter of Earth: A Roman Myth (Delacorte, 1984); and Daniel O’Rourke: An Irish Tale (Viking, 1984).
“Gerald was a marvelous storyteller,” Regina Hayes, former publisher of Viking Children’s Books, tells SLJ. “He had a deep knowledge of folklore and myth, and he also had the ability to adapt his artistic style to suit each story, from Native American legend to Irish tall tales.”
McDermott also added many more picture book titles to his expansive global “Trickster Tales” series: Papagayo: The Mischief Maker (Windmill/Wanderer, 1980; reissued by Harcourt, 1992 ), a Brazilian folktale; Zomo the Rabbit: A Trickster Tale from West Africa (Harcourt, 1992); Coyote: A Trickster Tale from the American Southwest (Harcourt, 1994); Jabuti the Tortoise: A Trickster Tale from the Amazon (Harcourt, 2001); Pig-Boy: A Trickster Tale from Hawaii (Harcourt, 2009); and Monkey: A Trickster Tale from India (Harcourt, 2011).
“Gerald McDermott’s trickster tales always worked magic with my 2nd graders. The engaging, accessible text and bright art pulled reader-listeners in,” remembers Mollie Welsh Kruger, former 2nd grade teacher and current graduate faculty of Bank Street College of Education. “One year, my class created their own stage production of Zomo the Rabbit that left the lower school in stitches.”
Considered in his lifetime an expert in mythology and folktales, McDermott was a disciple of the famed mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell, one friend recalls.
Says Arnold Adoff, children’s poet and husband of the late Virginia Hamilton, award-winning children’s author, “When Virginia and I first entered the world of children’s books, Gerald was one of the first people we met. [He] was…unguarded and open…expansive and excited…as he talked about his ground-breaking visual efforts…he and Virginia talked Joseph Campbell long and deep into the night.”
McDermott was the first Fellow of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, and a leader of the “Mythological Toolbox” workshop at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. “Dream weaver, tale spinner, portrayer of visions, interpreter of the human spirit,” the institute says of McDermott on its website. “Through his bold, graphic renderings of timeless tales from around the world, Gerald communicated his deep understanding of the transformative power of myth.”
Another friend, children’s author and editor Lee Bennett Hopkins, remembers McDermott as “infectious, witty, dashing” and “brilliant about the art of bookmaking.” They first met in 1973 when Hopkins worked for Scholastic, and the fledgling artist McDermott was looking for freelance work. “I was lucky to have Gerald as a friend in my life for over forty years,” Hopkins tells SLJ.
Hopkins, among several others who knew and worked with McDermott, has already posted an online tribute to him, though many remembrances are sure to come from those whose lives McDermott touched in the worlds of publishing, filmmaking, and education.
Fans are confident his storytelling legacy will live on, they say. Adds Kruger, “What McDermott did with words and illustrations will continue bringing stories to life in classrooms.”