Growing up, I used to anticipate a glimpse of the mime Marcel Marceau on Sunday nights’ Ed Sullivan Show. He would step into the spotlight of a darkened stage and, through small gesture and simple steps, he made me see city streets teaming with rushing people while a lone white-faced man worked his way against a crowd. With a red flower bobbing in his stovepipe hat, his simple joy became flying as an imagined bird or his quiet strength turned into a tree when he stretched his arms out like branches and grew tall. When he walked against the wind, I could feel the bitter cold as it chafed his face and he struggled forward. Although he often made me laugh, there was something—a seed of loss—deep within this sweet and innocent mime’s soul that came through too.
Author Leda Schubert and Illustrator Gerard DuBois have captured the amazing genius of Marcel’s mime in the picture book Monsier Marceau. But they have also captured that seed, it is buried in the silence of a mime who survived World War II and, as a soldier helped save children escaping the Nazis, only to feel he must bury his own history, his own Jewish heritage.
Leda and I recently connected and I was able to ask her about choosing this mime as her most recent subject. I learned that Marcel’s survival in war led to his silence as the world’s best-known mime.
What drew you to Marcel as a character for a picture book?
I knew about him, of course. But it wasn’t until he died that I learned about his life outside of his work as a mime, and I was fascinated. My agent, Steven Chudney, mentioned that maybe I should think about writing a picture biography of M. Marceau. As you probably know, we hardly ever write because of someone else’s suggestion, but this one struck a deep chord and I began the research.
How did you think his story might translate into a picture book? In other words, why not a middle grade or ya biography?
I love picture books. That’s the truest answer. I think they are one of the great art forms. A good picture book is an entire world for a child; it opens minds and creates images that stay forever (or until the memory goes, as mine is, ugh). Also, I’ve been involved in one way or another in early childhood education for most of my life, and it seems natural for me to gravitate to the child reader. On the other hand, I don’t really think about audience when I write–but that’s another question. Plus I wanted illustrations! I wanted readers to see him and experience the magic as much as possible.
In telling Marcel’s story, you’re also telling the story of mime. What is it about this art form that engages you and that you hope readers also respond to?
When I was a senior in college, I had fulfilled most of my requirements (I majored in history and minored in English). A Swiss mime joined the faculty and some friends and I thought it would be cool, as it were, to take his class. We were so right. We learned that mime is one of the most physically demanding of all the arts and that it’s very very difficult. The control required over every single part of the body is phenomenal, as is the immersion in emotion and communication. Also, I love that mime is truly international: that anyone, anywhere, can understand the basic humanity of mime. (Much of what we see as street-corner mime is a bastardized version of what a truly great mime can do. A lot of people have told me that they hate mime but, if they saw M. Marceau, they loved him.)
In telling Marcel’s story, you quote him saying that he changed his name so that people wouldn’t know he was Jewish. He credits this as a reason he might have been drawn to mime. Can you elaborate a bit on this concept?
I couldn’t find out much more than what’s in the book, but the comment resonated with me very deeply. Look at what he’d just been through: the extermination of European Jewry. Much of his family wiped out. He also said he chose silence, perhaps, as a response to the Holocaust. I assume he felt the danger deep in his soul, and changed his name to minimize anti-semitism, but I’m more or less making that up.
What did you think when you first saw these and how did you respond?
I was actually at our mother ship, Vermont College of Fine Arts, when my wonderful editor, Neal Porter, sent me one illustration. I had it on my laptop, which I then rushed around Noble Hall to show to everyone within range. It was winter, so I had to restrain myself from running through the snow to catch total strangers on the street.
I couldn’t believe my luck. I had no idea how anyone would illustrate this book. Look at how much of what is described is invisible! And Marceau is so well-known, but of course we couldn’t use photographs, so how would an artist work with these words and this subject? I could not be more thrilled with what Gerard DuBois did. He’s a genius.
How is this book different from your other writing?
I think the World War II sections are much darker than anything I’ve published, and they’re certainly dark for a picture book. They were difficult to write and I almost deleted them, but they were also the core of M. Marceau’s story. Other than that, it’s more similar than different, in that it’s always a matter of finding the right story, the through-line, and the right words–and then cutting it down to what’s absolutely necessary. Non-fiction is both easier and harder. Easier because so much is given; harder because nothing can be made up.
What are you working on next?
Oh, help. I’ve got several nonfiction projects in the works, but I’m not sure what I’m doing. I’m playing guitar instead for a while– the guitar I gave up for decades while I played Irish traditional music on the fiddle. So that’s what I’m working on. I’ve got finger-picking in my head instead of stories. Weird, I know.