Thank you, Fred Grandinetti by Janet Tashjian
On a recent school visit in San Diego, a student asked my son Jake – who illustrated my novels MY LIFE AS A BOOK, MY LIFE AS A STUNTBOY, and MY LIFE AS A CARTOONIST – who his biggest influences were. I would’ve bet anything that Jake would say cartoonists like Bill Watterson and Jim Davis or animators like Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. But like most teenagers, he surprised me.
“There was a guy called Fred Grandinetti,” Jake said. In a million years I never thought he would’ve remembered a man who worked at the Watertown Public Library a decade ago, let alone site him as a major influence. As I thought about it, however, it made perfect sense. And since we now live in a time where library services, hours, and branches are being slashed, the effects of one of these ‘non-essential’ library programs on a budding young artist should be shouted from the rooftops.
Besides working at the Watertown Public Library, Fred Grandinetti had a local cable show called ‘Drawing With Fred’ where he taught kids how to draw such cartoon characters as Olive Oyl, Henry, and Felix the Cat. (Talk about another area in need of funding – whatever happened to local cable stations with original programming?) Fred was also the president of the Popeye Fan Club, wrote a book on Popeye, and was instrumental in getting those cartoons released onto DVD.
Jake loved Popeye as a kid, which was why we drove to the Watertown Library for Fred’s very often Popeye-related programs. (I recall one storytime coinciding with Popeye’s 75th birthday. As we drove to the library, I remember thinking we’d be the only people there on a sunny Sunday afternoon. But the library was mobbed with kids and their parents reading comics, drawing, and singing Happy Birthday to the beloved cartoon character. For a kid who loved drawing and cartoons like Jake did, it was a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.)
These types of library programs – the first things cut in a budget crunch – fed my son’s creativity and imagination, as well as his drawing skills. Fred generously made (VHS!) copies of his show so Jake and his friends could follow the drawing lessons whenever they wanted to. I remember many an afternoon where Jake and his buddies Greg, Sam, and Jack took turns leading drawing ‘classes’ on the easel set up in our living room. These are times I remember fondly, but never would’ve bet those afternoons would form the backbone of my son’s illustration career. Of course so did the work of Bill Watterson and Tex Avery, but it was the personal connection made at the Watertown Public Library that Jake remembers most.
We recently did school visits in Waltham and Newton, Massachusetts and in between presentations, stopped in to the Watertown Public Library to see if Fred still works there. He doesn’t, but it was fun to visit the rooms where Jake spent so many hours reading and drawing cartoons. When we got back home, I found Fred online and sent him an email telling him how much his drawing lessons meant to Jake. He asked for our address and a week later, a package arrived with new DVD’s of his drawing show and a book on Jack Mercer (the man who did the voice of Popeye, as Jake will gladly tell you.) It’s amazing that years later and three thousand miles away, Fred still cares enough about a kid who loves to draw that he went out of his way to send those thoughtful presents.
Jake and I have done a zillion school visits and signings for MY LIFE AS A CARTOONIST, as well as our new series EINSTEIN THE CLASS HAMSTER. Jake’s illustrations have received rave reviews – not bad for a kid who started out taking free drawing classes at the local library. So whenever librarians ask us to come and talk to students, I say yes. I belong to ALA, I go to librarian conferences, I attend library fundraisers each time I’m invited. I follow the librarian listservs where I listen to librarians try and figure out exciting ways to bring new readers into their folds. And to those librarians and volunteers who spend their time setting up these programs, I can only say, “Yes, they’re worth all the time you spend putting them together. Yes, they’re worth fighting for funding.” Thanks for continuing to make libraries a haven of learning for kids. And thank you Fred Grandinetti from Watertown Public Library for helping a young kid with a pencil and a piece of paper make his first cartoons come to life.
Janet Tashjian writes early chapter books, middle grade, and young adult novels. She lives in Los Angeles.