A Tribute to
Amy Krouse Rosenthal
by DAVE EGGERS
A few days ago, the world said goodbye, far too soon, to one of its most original and joyful minds. There was no one remotely like Amy Krouse Rosenthal.
Amy and I went to high school together. She was a few years older, so I didn’t know her well while we were teenagers. After high school and college, though, some friends and I started a magazine called Might, and Might brought Amy into my life, and into the lives of thousands of unsuspecting readers.
Amy used to write a column for the magazine. It was a mostly handwritten collection of her observations, jokes, asides and existential questions; it displayed the same curious and playful sensibility that coursed through the books she went on to write for kids and adults. Every month or so, she would send her column through the mail, and we would set it into the spot saved for her. As you can tell, the column demonstrated a unique mind that was visibly bursting out of its confines. She could never fit all her ideas into one 2 by 8-inch rectangle.
She also couldn’t decide on the name of the column. She changed it every time. Once it was Shiny Hair. Another time it was Sandwich. When she called it Toe, we thought maybe she’d hit upon some permanent moniker, but no luck. At one point it became Thigh High.
Eventually she branched out into social experiments, which she conducted with no scientific method at all. In one of her first, which she undertook with the illustrator Charise Mericle, they stood on a busy Chicago block and offered passersby the chance to get either a free book, a free pair of shoes (black pumps) or a crisp new dollar. The passersby had to choose. But most people just walked by, which baffled Amy and Charise. Offered a free book or dollar, they would rather not be bothered. Those who did stop, though, had their world made less logical, and, for a moment, maybe even more meaningful.
Amy noticed things, and made people notice things, and as often as not, she made people notice things she’d created with the express purpose of making them notice things. She made things stranger. More random and more beautiful. She wanted something odd to happen in Chicago that one day, so she became the purveyor of that odd thing. She did that hundreds of more times over the years. She created the world that she wanted to inhabit.
No more so than in her picture books. She flat out wrote classics. Little Pea is a classic. Little Hoot is a classic. Exclamation Point absolutely floors every kid I’ve read it to (and even inspired a professional football player to write a book of his own). Most of her books contain something of the absurd. Some play with words. She was great with narrative, but she was even better with upending the way children could look at the world. A duck could be a rabbit when you looked at it a certain way. An owl could plead to go to bed in defiance of his owl-parents, who, as owls, insisted he stay up late. There are a handful of children’s authors who inspire utter devotion from young readers, and Amy is one of them.
A few years ago, she was passing through the Bay Area for a book event, and afterward, Amy and I took a walk on the beach with my kids. At some point some kind of wordplay occurred to Amy, and she said, “You know what…?” And it was obvious she’d just come up with a book idea. That was within maybe fifteen minutes of saying hello to her. She had that kind of high motor. So we were preoccupied with that idea, the book idea she’d just come up with — I wish I could remember it now — when we discovered that we had walked into the middle of some kind of marathon. It was finishing by the shore. We tried to get out of the way, but found ourselves stuck between the finish line and the water. People were yelling. Finally we had two choices: pretend to be runners ourselves and run across the finish line, or swim home, or scamper across the path of the race. We scampered.
That was a very Amy kind of thing. In one walk on the beach, she came up with a book idea and almost inadvertently finished a marathon.
The last time I saw her was this past summer. Her son Miles was interning at McSweeney’s and she had come out to San Francisco to visit. I took my kids to meet her, and we ate on the waterfront near the Ferry Building, and of course she knew all the right things to say to these two kids who had read everything she’d written. She had been sick, but on that sunny day, with a cool breeze coming off the bay, she looked radiant. She was very proud of Miles, and for good reason. She’d raised a great kid, and they were close friends, that was obvious. He was much taller than her by then, and protective of her. He seemed, with the occasional gentle touch to her arm or assurance that she was okay, to want to guard her from harm with his youth and health.
Before she left that day, she gave my kids something she’d brought from Chicago. For each one of them, she’d made a little heart, the size of a Valentine, out of sandpaper. It took some explaining, and I can’t articulate it as well as she did, but it had something to do with the toughness of the human heart. It’s okay, she said, if it’s not always smooth and shiny. It can be rough. It’s still a heart. Maybe it’s better to toughen it up, she said. The world contained some terrible things.
One last story: a few weeks ago, when she knew her days were few, she took the time to send a short film she’d just made. The film is called Leaf Learns Guitar.
Apparently a friend had brought a small orange tree to her house. They set the plant on a window ledge, near a guitar that was laying flat. Every few hours, Amy would hear what sounded like a guitar—as if someone was plucking a string on the guitar. But there was no one near the guitar. Were the strings loosening in the humidity? she wondered. Was the guitar strumming itself? Finally she figured it out. The orange tree was shedding its leaves, and when each leaf dropped, it touched a string and made music.
That was Amy, too.