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October 21, 2013

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The Story of the Sesame Street Dictionary: Part 1

Betsy Loredo is the executive editor of Sesame Workshop’s publishing group.

PART 1: The Quest

How do you define a concept as big as “I” or as difficult as “easy” to someone as little as a 4-year-old? Go ahead – try explaining the words “of” or even “off”…using words that someone who still employs a binkie can understand.

Yup. Not so easy.

It’s certainly a whole lot simpler to express an idea like “alligator” or “banana.” A toothy green reptile is a concept that you can really wrap your mind around without one word of text, if you’ve got a telling piece of art: 

And a banana…well, usually a banana is simply a banana.

With pictures like that, you may not need a thousand words…but how fabulous the combination of so many whimsical pictures and challenging words could be, especially when you toss in some highly-strung and hilarious Muppets.

More than 30 years ago, the editors of Children’s Television Workshop (as we were known then) and Random House chose to tackle a dictionary that was every bit as ambitious and comprehensive as that.

253 pages.  1300+ words.

It was a mammoth undertaking, which took almost three years from start to finish and resulted in seemingly countless drawings. But the end justified the means and madness. That years-long effort resulted in the Sesame Street Dictionary, first published in 1980 and still an active title for Random House today.

And that continued success and relevance recently led us to think about other uses for this iconic title, so we set out to bring the original hand-painted artwork home to Sesame Workshop.

Before we go forward, let’s go backwards a little to explain a long-lost art: how books used to be printed. For decades, the dictionary was being processed from the initial 4-color film. The original book was created at a time when painted art was photographed by cameras at the printing house, with the results printed onto film, separated into 4 colors (blue, magenta, yellow and black). These were used as masters to etch miniscule dots onto metal plates that essentially “stamped” each page with color, in sequence, while on press.

And that system was reason for concern. Because we’re in an era when book printing very rarely now uses a process where pages are printed this way, in a method that utilizes physical film…

No, today printing relies heavily on high resolution digital scans of illustrations. And so we began to wonder: Random House had only those aging 4-color films and plates for the book, not the original art. What would happen when we needed that source art to revitalize the book in print, or even re-imagine it in some altogether new media?

That’s why the Sesame Workshop Publishing team went on a bear hunt.

Well…really just a regular-Joe hunt. Because the artist, Joe Mathieu, is luckily for us still illustrating books for Sesame, though these days most often using a stylus instead of a paintbrush. We were able to track him to a nearby semi-rural suburb. (Much like bears, these days.)

Once we contacted Joe, we realized just how lucky we and the legions of Dictionary fans are because it turns out that Joe is something of a preservationist. Or a pack rat, if you are his speaking with his wife instead of his editor. Joe still had the complete set of original art!…well, minus just two pages passed off to family and an art buyer years ago.

So the Publishing group began a year-long conversation about bringing the images back to the fold.  Instead of just borrowing the art to scan, we realized we had to protect it for posterity and make it a focal point of the Sesame Street Publishing Archives. Archives is not a word in the dictionary, but special is….and that’s what our Archives holds: very special works of original Sesame Street book illustration dating back to 1972.

Read part two here.

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