Heights illustrator reflects on working with Norman Rosten

for The Brooklyn Paper
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"A City Is," a collection of children’s poems by Norman Rosten with illustrations by Melanie Hope Greenberg, is a true product of Brooklyn.

Not only was Rosten a longtime resident of Brooklyn Heights, but Greenberg, who has lived in Brooklyn Heights for 28 years, actually met the poet and playwright at Cousin Arthur’s, Bob Tramonte’s children’s bookstore formerly located on Montague Street.

"Norman was a friend of Bob," Greenberg told GO Brooklyn. "Bob had a small poetry press called Blue Star Press, which had published Norman’s ’Song’s for Patricia,’ and I designed the book."

Rosten’s "Songs for Patricia" was written for his young daughter; his "Under the Boardwalk, Neighborhood Tales" was inspired by his home borough; and his memoir of his friendship Marilyn Monroe became the libretto for the opera based on her life.

Rosten and Greenberg would work on the paste-up for "Song’s for Patricia" at Wingate High School where Rosten had a friend who allowed them to use the school print shop. It was there that Greenberg discovered, "Norman had lots of energy. He was always bounding up the stairs. I had to chase after him."

After Greenberg’s second book, "My Father’s Luncheonette," was released, Rosten asked her if she’d look at some of his poems for children to see if she’d be interested in illustrating them for publication. Greenberg went through a big collection of poems called "A City Is" and chose the ones best suited for children and illustration.

"The poems went through a journey," says Greenberg. "From 1992 to 1994 they were rejected by four publishers. Everyone had different ideas about what the book should be - broader, narrower, about different cities in the United States."

Then in 1995 Rosten died, and Greenberg returned the poems to his daughter and heir, Patricia Rosten Filan, a librarian in the history department of Brooklyn Public Library’s Central branch.

"The poems lay in Pat’s drawer for three or four years," Greenberg recalls. "Then I pitched the book to my editor at Henry Holt, and she liked the idea. She asked me to give it a cementing glue that would give the book continuity. I used seasons and New York City scenes, because that was my truth and that was Norman’s truth."

Greenberg also drew a mother and son who accompany the reader around the city and back to their home in Brooklyn.

The book includes many recognizable views of Manhattan - the subway station at 72nd Street, Central Park, the arch in Washington Square. But it also contains typical Brooklyn scenes - rooftops with bridges leading to Manhattan, a snowy night with the Brooklyn Bridge all lit up in the distance and busy neighborhood streets.

Having already illustrated such city-based books as Miriam Cohen’s "Down in the Subway," Eve Merriam’s "On My Street" and her own "Aunt Lilly’s Laundromat," Greenberg was well-prepared for work on Rosten’s poems. Her technique is primitive and sophisticated at the same time.

"I’ve been influenced by Haitian art. The colors are bold and bright with random patterns placed next to each other," she says. "I used muted colors, but I gave them a glow through the technique of shadowing the outlines and the way I placed colors next to each other so they will vibrate and have movement."

Although Rosten’s poems are simple they are also quirky and playful. He asks questions like, "Sometimes I visit the pocket park. Is that a park you can put in your pocket?"

Or he might wax philosophical with poems like, "What’s a street? What’s an avenue? Sometimes they cross/ sometimes they never meet/ but go on and on/ till they come to an end-/ to a garden maybe/ with a scarecrow waving."

And he certainly understands the inner world of children when he writes, "A skyscraper is a place for a star to rest, to look its best, or maybe to take a nap."

"The book doesn’t talk down to children or give them what we think they want," Greenberg says. The illustrator’s great respect for the writer was both a challenge and a responsibility.

"A friend once told me, ’Melanie, aim high and you’ll have room to grow,’" said Greenberg. "The fact that Norman Rosten gave me his poems made me aim high."


"A City Is," a collection of children’s poems by Norman Rosten, with illustrations by Melanie Hope Greenberg (Henry Holt, $16.95), is available in local bookstores.

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