24 May 2007, Lewiston, Maine, USA
Much disqualifies me from receiving this honorary degree from Bates, or from dispensing advice to you. I was a poor student who hated school [laughter] and dropped out of high school at the age of 16. But what does qualify me to stand before you was my unerring confidence that when I grew up I would draw pictures. I was maybe 4 or 5 years old when I knew that, long before I knew the word “artist.”
Today, we call that following your dream, or listening to your inner voice. I encourage you not to silence that inner voice. At the same time, I must warn you that following your dream comes with a price. In my case, since I knew I would draw pictures, I didn’t feel the need to learn math, chemistry, Latin, etc., etc. That turned out to be a big drawback, and I regret that.
Also, following that dream, listening to that little voice, does not guarantee success. I must really emphasize that. Luck is an ingredient not to be overlooked. I was lucky; a lucky later bloomer. One day Bill Martin Jr. asked me to illustrate his Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See after he had seen one of my illustrations for an advertisement. A couple of years later, I wrote my first own book, and I was very careful not to use words. It is called 1, 2, 3 to the Zoo. At that time, I was 39 years old.
Soon afterwards, I absent-mindedly punched holes with a hole puncher into a stack of papers. The holes made me think of a bookworm, and, with the help of my good editor, the bookworm became a caterpillar. [applause] It was published when I was 40 years old. You see, a good editor, a hole puncher in good working order, and a little bit of luck take you a long way [laughter].
If I had another piece of advice to give, it would be this: Be kind to others. This is the conclusion of the wise old man on top of the mountain. Kurt Vonnegut gave the same advice: Be kind. Love your partner and tend your garden, said another philosopher toward the end of his life. Simplify, slow down, be kind. And don’t forget to have art in your life — music, paintings, theater, dance, and sunsets.
Being an author brings with it letters from his audience, and here are two of my favorites. A boy in Texas, and I live in Massachusetts, writes: “I wish I could visit you, but I’m not allowed to cross the street” [laughter]. Another of my all-time favorites: “Our teacher made us read all of your books. Will you ever retire?” [laughter]. With that, I will retire from my little speech, and good luck.