- The Birds and the Beasts Were There:An Interview with Martin Provensen
Alice and Martin Provensen were married in 1944 and have been writing and illustrating books for over thirty years. Their first book, The Fireside Book of Folk Songs, published in 1947, is still in print. Among their recent books are A Peaceable Kingdom; The Golden Serpent; a group of four books based on their experiences at Maple Hill Farm, their home in Dutchess County, New York; and The Glorious Flight, which was awarded the Caldecott Medal for 1983. In 1981, they collaborated with Nancy Willard on the widely acclaimed A Visit to William Blake's Inn. Among the honors the Provensens have received are the Art Books for Children Citation of the Brooklyn Museum and the Gold Medal for Illustration of the Society of Illustrators. Their work has been exhibited at the American Institute of Graphic Arts and has frequently appeared on the New York Times list of Best Illustrated Children's Books of the Year.
Past chicory, goldenrod, and Queen Anne's lace nodding on both sides of this road that winds through the back woods of Dutchess County; past the nature camp where my son spent so many summers; through the gate and past the pond, as flat and tidy as a carpet in the green meadow; past the horse browsing and the gray geese posing like Chinese porcelains; past the gray barn, and now Martin and Alice have heard our car, and they come out of the farm house, which so many children who have never made this journey know well. This is Maple Hill Farm.
A flock of chickens the color of butterscotch rushes up to inspect us. Their legs are feathered right down to their toes; they appear to be wearing pantaloons, though my husband Eric says they are sherpa guides from the Himalayas, and Martin tells us that this particular species comes from China.
"I saw them at the County Fair and got some for the farm," he explains. "These are still young chicks. They will be twice as large when they're grown."
Half a dozen more familiar black hens bustle past us, pursuing important business in the vegetable garden.
"We call them the Thurbers," Alice remarks, "because Thurber writes so well about hens."
The name suits them perfectly. Beyond the vegetable garden lies the [End Page 171] jungle, from which an occasional fox comes to carry off an occasional hen.
Because we have arrived late, we go directly into the kitchen for lunch and seat ourselves at the round table. On the wall facing me hangs a photograph of Abraham Lincoln and another of a figure so mysterious and appealing that both Eric and I ask who it is.
"Corot," replies Alice, adding with a smile that one visitor mistook it for Eleanor Roosevelt.
The prints and engravings which decorate the kitchen have the look of illustrations from old chapbooks and remind me of my favorite pages in the Provensens' The Mother Goose Book. On the ice box hang notices, reminders, and a little tin cake mold which, if put to use, would produce an ornamental heart. A blue willow tray on the sink and a bowl of fruit are as lovely and complete as a still life.
"It's a good house for us," says Alice. "No huge drafty halls—and just one of everything. One dining room, one kitchen, one library."
The library, which we visit after lunch, holds some of the handsome and rare books that Alice has bound, including a three-volume edition of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks. I find myself especially drawn to a book on falconry; the hunted beasts move from page to page on a single line, like notes on a staff of ancient music. When I tell Martin that it reminds me of A Peaceable Kingdom, the Shaker abecedarius he and Alice illustrated, he smiles.
"We studied this book," he says.
Alice and Eric walk out to the barn to look at the studio; Eric has brought his camera and hopes to photograph there. Martin and I sit down at the kitchen table and talk.