Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sammy in the Sky by Barbara Walsh, Illustrated by Jamie Wyeth!

 Barbara Walsh figured the worst that could happen was he would say no.  In truth, she hardly expected any response at all. She assumed Jamie Wyeth probably would just blow her off. No way the famous painter would take the time to illustrate her children's book about the death of the family dog, she said to herself.
Sammy in the Sky"But a friend persisted. She insisted, 'Call Jamie.' I thought, 'Oh, sure -- and I'll go to the moon, too,'" Walsh said.  Walsh, a veteran newspaper reporter who has made many awkward phone calls in her life, dialed Wyeth directly.

 He encouraged Walsh to share with him what she had written.  "Send me the book," he assured her. "I'll take a look."

Months passed. Walsh rewrote and tweaked her story endlessly, all the while without a peep from Wyeth. Then one day, a letter arrived at her Winthrop home, her address printed with a flourish of bright blue ink.  She opened the envelope expectantly, and was thrilled and surprised to read that Wyeth wanted to explore collaborating further.

The result of their effort is "Sammy in the Sky," a new children's book that Massachusetts-based Candlewick Press published this week. It's a gripping and honest story about how one family coped with the death of a beloved family pet.

The title refers to Sammy's place in the clouds, where good dogs go to chase bubbles after they die. The book stars Sammy, Walsh's loyal hound, who died in 2003. The co-stars are Walsh's daughters, Emma and Nora, now 13 and 10, respectively.

Jamie Wyeth PHOTOS
Jamie Wyeth
In an interview at his home in Tenants Harbor, Wyeth said Walsh's manuscript made an immediate and lasting impact on him. He's illustrated a couple of children's books before, and he receives frequent requests to do more. But he's busy enough with his painting career that he simply can't take the time required to do justice to a book.  This one was different.

His illustrations convey the range of emotions in Walsh's story -- the joy of companionship, with Sammy gleefully licking the little girl's face, and the thrill of the chase as he bounds after gulls on the beach.

The difficult emotions are there, too -- the uncertainty in Sammy's eyes when the family learns he is sick and dying; the trepidation of the girl as she hugs her dog just before he dies; the undulating waves of grief upon his death and the pensive confusion that follows the morning after.

Jamie Wyeth Painting
"The next morning, Daddy and I went for a long walk on the beach," Walsh writes. "I searched for Sammy in the sky. I searched and searched for a cloud that looked like Sammy. I looked for his face, his paws and his big brown eyes.  "'Can't Sammy come back?' I asked Daddy. 'Just for a little while?'  Daddy shook his head. 'You'll have to remember him in your heart,' he said.

Wyeth labored over the illustrations, and treated each as a separate painting. The book includes nearly two dozen paintings, which Wyeth completed in gauche and watercolor over the course of many months.

An avowed dog lover, Wyeth saw no point in toning down the pain of loss.
"The dog dies. People get sad," he said. "Animals mean a lot to me. I spend more time with animals than I do with people. Animals are almost always loving and kind."

In his dedication, he said he illustrated the book, "For all the dogs I have loved and lost."
"Sammy in the Sky" is Wyeth's third picture book. His others, "The Stray" and "Cabbages and Kings," came many years ago. He did his work for "Sammy in the Sky" in honor of his late grandfather, the legendary illustrator N.C. Wyeth, whose work Jamie adores.

This is Walsh's first book. A second, "August Gale," is due this fall. It is a memoir geared toward adults.

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