Stephen Gammell Illustrator lets his art do the talking MUG OF STEPHEN GAMMELL
m The stack of storybooks on the table outside The Dream Maker bookstore Saturday morning had an extra gleam. On the dust jacket of each copy of ``Song and Dance Man'' was a big, shiny gold seal -- the symbol of the Caldecott Medal, awarded by the American Library Association for the best illustrations of the year in a book for children.
Behind the table sat a slim man wearing small, round eyeglasses with thick lenses. His short hair and beard were almost white, although he is only 46 years old. Stephen Gammell of St. Paul, the prize-winning artist, was signing books and talking to children and their parents.
He was talking to everyone who came along except a newspaper reporter. To the reporter he said, pleasantly, ``I don't give interviews. Not even for my publishers. It's just my policy.''
To learn more about Gammell, it is necessary only to look at his books. He has illustrated about 50 of them in the 16 years since he started. Most of them are done in pencil, both black-and-white and colored.
In a rare interview with Rachel Koeing, printed in a reference book, ``Something About the Author,'' Gammell had said, ``What you see on the page is really me.''
It's true. The kindly grampa in Karen Ackerman's story, ``Song and Dance Man,'' wears little round eyeglasses, just like Gammell's. Sometimes the light reflects off of them, giving a pensive expression, and sometimes, you can see the crinkled, laughing eyes behind the glasses.
Old MacDonald, in one of the few books Gammell both wrote and illustrated, ``Once Upon MacDonald's Farm,'' wears the same kind of glasses. So does Ora Mae Cotton's chubby brother in ``Airmail to the Moon.''
Behind the glasses, the complexities begin. Gammell's drawings seldom fill the page with color. Instead, figures often are surrounded with white space. In ``The Old Banjo,'' the finely-detailed black-and-white illustrations fade out around the edges, giving them a magical, floating quality that fits the mysterious events about to unfold.
That story is about forgotten musical instruments stored in out-of-the-way places on a farm, and how they begin to create their own music. ``I play guitar, banjo, mandolin, piano -- anything with strings,'' Gammell told Koeing. ``If I hadn't become an artist, I probably would have pursued music.''
So do the characters he draws. Old Henry, in the book of the same name, doesn't bring much to the boarded-up house he moves into, but he does have a banjo in a battered old case. So does the aging song and dance man, who entertains his grandchildren with vaudeville shows in the attic.
Gammell's interest in Native American and Western artifacts shows up in the beaded moccasins, Indian rugs and pieces of pottery in his illustrations. His Iowa background is reflected in the details of farm animals and the way an old work boot curls up at the toes.
Gammell's lines are as fine as winter branches and barbed-wire fences, and as broad as the cobbled masses of gray which, with the addition of one bright eye, become an elephant. His use of color can be as delicate as the golden sheen on the surface of an old table, or as profligate as the rainbows of light that create the magic of theater in an attic before Sunday dinner.
His pencil work is especially fine in ``Old Henry.'' An endearing old gaffer moves into a tumble-down house with his brightly-colored parrots, his blue-striped trainman's hat and red neckerchief and his unmatched socks.
Gammell penciled the house in shades of gray, giving a feeling of age, dust and abandonment. Only a red door and mixed colors on the windows suggest something interesting might be inside. Indoors, the gray walls and stairway show faint blushes of color where the sunlight falls. It is Old Henry who brings color to the house and to the neighborhood, much to the distress of his neighbors, who often appear in shades of gray themselves.
This technique of combining the black and colored pencils is especially effective in ``Airmail to the Moon'' in a scene showing the rambunctious Ora Mae asleep with just her face and a corner of her patchwork quilt glowing with tender color in the moonlight.
Beyond the details of line and color that define an artist's work, Gammell brings an enormous warmth of character. His song-and-dance Grampa loves those grandchildren with a feeling that touches the reader's heart, too. His Old Henry has so much dignity that it is quite unthinkable to fuss at him for not mowing his grass.
He evokes a sense of place in shadows, fat and purple on a stairway wall, and in a blue easy chair bathed in yellow lamplight that invites the reader to come in and snuggle down.
About his first full-color book, which he also wrote, ``Wake up, Bear -- It's Christmas,'' Gammell told the author of ``Fifth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators'' he had ``no particular inspiration for the story, just an enjoyment of winter, Christmas, bears and sleeping.''
In all, Gammell's work gives the impression of a man who is thoroughly enjoying his life. His work is earning more recognition and numerous awards, including two Caldecott Honor awards for ``Where the Buffaloes Begin'' in 1981 and ``The Relatives Came'' in 1985.