Brock Cole's books charm children and young adults--and their parents, tooThose who insist on putting people in nice, neat niches would list Brock Cole '60 under "writer and illustrator of children's books," or even a subcategory of "author of young-adult fiction." But Cole resists such labels. "There is nothing special about writing children's literature," he says. "It has the same problems and ambitions as any type of literature."
For Cole, the problem lies in employing a writing method some may find unorthodox.
"What I generally try to do is start with an idea--a situation or scene--that captures my attention and try to see what can be done from that," explains Cole, who has written and illustrated a number of wonderfully whimsical children's picture books and written two touching and widely read young-adult novels. "My computer is full of beginnings but not a lot of endings. It's not the most effective way to write, but it's the only way for me."
As for ambitions, Cole wants his young readers to read like adults. So he writes stories filled with adult themes and intriguing charac-ters who--like all of us--must deal with life's ambiguities. And in the end, there is hope.
"I couldn't finish one otherwise," Cole says of that last component. "I have a reputation for writing about difficult subjects, but mine are really tame compared to what goes on in the world. If the books were to end in despair--what point is there in writing like that?"
His young-adult novels The Goats (1987) and Celine (1989) have received wide critical acclaim and earned him a loyal readership, according to a recent profile of the author in Publishers Weekly. The books have been so popular that they can be found on the shelves of most school and public libraries. Cole's new young-adult novel, The Facts Speak for Them-selves, will be in bookstores in September.
The success of his young-adult novels followed that of his picture books. Their titles, including Nothing But a Pig, No More Baths, and Alpha and the Dirty Baby, hint of the lyrical, comic tales and charming illustrations that lie within their pages. Cole's first book, The King at the Door, was published in 1979, lifting him from the ranks of "struggling artist" to that of a rising writer and illustrator.
Cole has followed a circuitous route to success. An English major at Kenyon, he recalls how the College's emphasis on in-depth analyses of great works of literature left him wondering how his writing could ever measure up to the technical standards of the masters. "Now, it seems to me that wasn't necessarily good training to become a writer," he notes. "I think writers need to leave a lot to the subconscious."
While Cole may have mixed feelings about Kenyon's approach to training young writers, he has warm memories of some of his professors, including John Crowe Ransom. "I took his Milton course, and he read Paradise Lost to s in a wonderful accent," says Cole. He also clearly revels in his memories of the natural beauty of the campus and surrounding country-side. "Gambier was an incredible place," says Cole. "I loved it."
After graduating from Kenyon, Cole went on to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Minnesota and became a professor at the University of Wisconsin. By the mid-1970s, however, he had tired of his life in academe and felt it was time to pursue interests in painting and writing. "I had known for a long time that was what I wanted to do," he recalls. "So it became a matter of deciding when I was going to do it." Drawing on the spiritual support of his wife, Susan, now a tenured professor of classics at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Cole took the plunge.
While painting full time, he saw that drawing illustrations could be a way to earn some quick cash. Cole didn't have any stories to illustrate, so be began writing his own. His writing, he remembers, is what first attracted the attention of publishers of children's books. "I think I write better than I illustrate," he says, "but both give me a lot of pleasure."
Today, Cole says he could earn a lot more money if he focused only on writing. But he's not ready to do that. "Every now and then, I feel the urge to be a painter," he says. "It will probably never be anything more than an amusement, but I really enjoy it." To keep his artistic skills sharp, he is illustrating and writing a new picture book, Buttons, a story that he calls a "made-to-order fairy tale." Cole is also writing another young-adult novel.
While he seems to thrive on his work, Cole also talks of its difficulties. Writing is a lonely profession, and Cole says he is his own harshest critic. Still, just like his books, this story ends on a note of hope. "My experience has been that if you work at it, things will work out," notes Cole.
Jeff Bell, a freelance writer, is a member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group and a former news director for the College.
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