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Book Focus - May 2006

My Senator and Me
By Senator Edward M. Kennedy; Illustrated by David Small
0-439-65077-1; $16.99; Ages 4-8

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Arthur A. Levine editor, Cheryl Klein, talks about how coffee with her boss led her to Washington D.C. to work on a project with Senator Edward Kennedy…and his dog “Splash”

I first learned about the book that was to become My Senator and Me over coffee with my boss on my twenty-sixth birthday. He asked me about my plans for this great new year of my life, and after I mentioned an upcoming ten-kilometer run and maybe learning to knit, he said something that would take me far beyond running shoes and knitting needles.

“Jean has a project she’d like to have you work on,” he said casually. “It’s a picture book by Senator Ted Kennedy, and David Small is going to do the illustrations. A dog book, I think. Jean wants to know if you’d be interested.”

Jean Feiwel, Scholastic’s publisher at the time? Ted Kennedy, one of the most eminent and courageous legislators in Congress? David Small, the winner of the Caldecott Medal for So You Want to Be President? ? The chance to work with all of these people in making a beautiful, enjoyable, informational book? Was I interested? I was so interested.

And thus began one of the most fascinating and instructive projects in my career as an editor. My Senator and Me focuses upon Senator Kennedy’s Portuguese Water Dog, Champion Amigo’s Seventh Wave, whose original owner gave him the nickname “Splash.” Splash regularly comes to work with the Senator and sits in on meetings and other official business, and the manuscript wove together a number of incidents from Senator Kennedy and Splash’s lives to create a smart, funny portrait of a day in the life of a Senator.

As Jean and I worked on the manuscript with the Senator and his wife Victoria, who was helping him with the project, we discovered they had an instinctive sense of child appeal and a strong authorial vision for the book. But they were also open to editorial suggestion—something that can’t be said of every celebrity writer, but a quality common to all the good ones! Together we developed the manuscript so the myriad events of a senator’s day—visits with constituents, a committee meeting, a press conference, a floor vote—followed a loose narrative line about the passage of an education bill, which both strengthened the book’s story and added educational value by showing how a bill became a law.

While the Kennedys and Jean and I discussed the manuscript, David Small created a “thumbnail dummy” with quarter-page-sized mini-sketches of each spread. He knew intuitively that the design should be big, open, spacious, to reflect the grandeur of the Washington setting, and his first text divisions and sketches became our working template for the final book. Even these tiny “thumbnails” had those distinctively Smallian gifts of character and energy that made him the perfect illustrator for the project.

In December of 2004, the entire creative team met in Washington to discuss the book. David, his lovely wife Sarah Stewart, Jean and I waited nervously in the Senator’s office, which was crowded with mementos of his and his family’s long career in public service: a bust of President John F. Kennedy, a painting of his brother Robert, photographs of the Senator with other important political figures and on the family’s beloved sailboat.

When the Senator arrived, Splash loping along behind him, we found him just as warm and personable as the manuscript had promised. As we talked over David’s dummy, Splash inspected each of us in turn, and a photographer snapped pictures David could use for reference as he created the illustrations.

We learned a lot about the Kennedys and Washington life on that trip, but the most important thing we discovered was the deep devotion between the Senator and Splash. When Senator Kennedy stood up, Splash rose as well. When the Senator walked, Splash followed six inches behind his heels. And when he sat down again, the dog settled in by the chair, his head on his paws until the next moment his master might require his attendance. I had never seen a dog so attached to a human being, and as the Senator reached down to scratch Splash’s ears, it was clear the devotion was mutual.

After the meeting, we all went out to East Capitol Park, where the Senator lobbed tennis balls across the grass and the photographer caught pictures of Splash in full running, leaping action. Then Senator Kennedy and Splash departed on official business, while David, Sarah, the photographer and I set out to take photographs of the rest of the book’s backgrounds. We rode the tram over to the Capitol and wandered past the Ohio Clock on the ground floor up to the Rotunda. While Sarah and I admired its height and space, David stood a few feet apart from us, his sketchbook crooked in his left arm and his right hand scribbling busily away. A few minutes later he showed us his work—and there on the page were the great windows beaming light, the tourists peering up at the paintings, and a tour guide in a red jacket, all instantly captured by David’s expert pen. We visited the Senate Reception Room, the Capitol steps, and a beautiful conference committee room before driving out to the Lincoln Memorial, where the Senator and Splash often took their evening exercise. All of these places would eventually find their way into the final book.

After our return home, the Kennedys and I perfected the manuscript while David painstakingly refined his sketches for the book. As the text carried the story forward, he felt the pictures should convey the emotional heart of the narrative: that extraordinary relationship between the Senator and Splash, with a warmth and purity that stood in sharp contrast to the usual cynical view of Washington politics and politicians. David drew every illustration two, three, sometimes four or five times, until it met his high standards for beauty and emotion. The Kennedys checked each sketch for accuracy, and at last David created his final gorgeous paintings.

A year and three months after my twenty-sixth birthday, I held the first bound copy of My Senator and Me in my hands and marveled at what Senator Kennedy and David Small had created between them. More than just another celebrity book, it offered readers insight into the legislative process, an illustrated tour of Washington and the Capitol, and most especially a warm portrait of the affection between the Senator and Splash—an affection any dog-lover might recognize. The book just received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, praising its “airy, comical ink-and-watercolor illustrations” and “amusing, informative account” of life in Washington. It was by far the most fascinating present I received that year—and one I’m glad I get to share with readers everywhere.