Every book has a story to tell, but there’s also a story behind every book—one that reveals how it came to be published. In the case of Richard Blanco’s One Today, the journey from inaugural poem to children’s picture book includes an attentive aunt, an editor with a long memory and a best-selling author-illustrator with a softer side.
The result is a dazzling collaboration in which the poem that Blanco wrote and read at President Obama’s second inauguration in 2013 is beautifully illustrated by Dav Pilkey, best known as the creator of the raucous, phenomenally popular Captain Underpants series.
The credit for this unexpected pairing goes to Susan Rich, editor-at-large at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, who has worked with such acclaimed authors and illustrators as Lemony Snicket, Frank Viva, Sophie Blackall, Jon Klassen, Maira Kalman and many others.
“When Dav Pilkey created Captain Underpants, which took the world by storm, we stopped thinking of him as a picture book creator. I had been waiting all these years to see him return to picture books.”
The story of how One Today was turned into a picture book “is unlike most stories of this sort in that it starts with my Aunt Marji,” Rich tells us from her home in Toronto. “She went to see Richard [Blanco] do a poetry reading in Maine, where she lives and he lives. And she called me early the next morning so excited about Richard and his poetry and said that I must talk with him.”
As Rich points out, she gets a lot of tips like this one, but they rarely result in beautiful picture books. In this case, however, she decided to follow her Aunt Marji’s advice and get in touch with Blanco’s agent.
“I was speaking with Richard’s representative and telling him some of my thoughts about publishing poetry for children, and he said, ‘Well, the thing about the inaugural poem . . .’ And I stopped him and said, ‘Are you telling me that the publishing rights for the inaugural poem are available?’ And he said they would be in May. So I snapped them up.
“Not every poem is suited to be adapted into a picture book, and not every poem is an inaugural poem. But this poem is both,” Rich notes, which made her decision to buy the rights to the work a relatively easy call.
Richard Blanco (left) and Dav Pilkey
Though Blanco’s poem was originally written for adults, Rich had no difficulty in envisioning its transition to a picture book. “One Today is a journey from dawn to dusk, from coast to coast, from history to the future,” she says. “It’s a grand journey of a poem and the best picture books are grand journeys.”
Rich’s next task was finding the right illustrator for the material, and she immediately thought of Pilkey, since she had been “an early, huge fan” of his artistic talent.
“When I started working in publishing many moons ago, I was an assistant at Orchard Books where Dav Pilkey was also starting out his career as a picture book artist. He did a number of beautiful, painterly picture books, including a Caldecott Honor-winning book called The Paperboy ,” Rich recalls. [Watch a video of The Paperboy.]
“When Dav Pilkey created Captain Underpants, which took the world by storm, we stopped thinking of him as a picture book creator. I had been waiting all these years to see him return to picture books and thought he would do a spectacular job with this text.”
Pilkey’s illustrations for the book in acrylics and India ink are indeed spectacular, capturing the bright orange glow of early morning, the hustle and bustle of a city on the move, and the joy and everyday companionship of a mother and two young children making their way through a single day.
“His talents are vast, and I knew that there were any number of ways that he could tackle and succeed with this kind of text,” Rich says. “There is something about The Paperboy that stuck with me all these years. He captures in The Paperboy the dawn of a day, and One Today captures a similar dawn—and the promise and the coziness and the sense of many things happening at once. I could picture it in Dav’s hands.”
An early part of Blanco's poem reads:
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise.
Pilkey illustrates these lines with a glorious spread that lets us peek inside windows as five different families get ready for the day—waking up, getting dressed, being together. Young readers are sure to enjoy his detail-packed illustrations, from a black cat that appears on every spread to the brightly colored cars and trucks that traverse the cityscape.
“Another thing about Dav that he’s done so well in his past picture books that he brought to One Today is that he’s able to depart comfortably from reality,” Rich notes. “There’s an elevated sense of existence. We’re not taken into the land of high fantasy but we’re able to see the fantastic in the world that we live in.”
Blanco, who was on board from the start with the picture book concept for the poem, has described Pilkey’s illustrations as “just beautiful.” And Rich considers herself lucky to have been part of the project.
“This is coming as we’re moving into the end of a historic presidency, and Richard Blanco’s voice has captured something essential. I feel very proud of this book in a way. I feel this is a historic book, for the ages. It’s a modern anthem for America,” she says.
And as for Aunt Marji? She’s justifiably proud and enthusiastic about the book.
"Aunt Marji is so excited,” Rich says. “She actually came to visit us recently, and I had just gotten my box of printed, bound books. I met her at the airport with one of them and then left a pile of five more on her bed so that she could give them away because I knew she would take such pride in sharing them with others."
Photo of Richard Blanco by Alissa Morris.
Photo of Dav Pilkey by Kai Suzuki.