Celebrating Our Culture  

Storytelling
 through Pictures
Kate Salley Palmer:
Editorial Cartoonist,
Author and Illustrator

by Joyce Dixon

Editorial cartoonists have always fascinated me.  It takes a special talent to capture and exaggerate the features of a famous person, display mood and emotion through facial features or props, and tell a story in a one-frame graphic.  The editorial part of the drawing requires the artist to stay current with news events and have the courage to express an opinion in a public arena.

Kate Salley Palmer is a former newspaper cartoonist who has since applied her graphic storytelling skills to the creation of picture books for children.  The stories for her picture books are inspired by family members and her personal experiences.  

Kate with her husband, Jim, have founded Warbranch Press in their hometown of Clemson, South Carolina. 

You got your start with a cartoon strip for The Gamecock, University of South Carolina’s student newspaper.  How did this experience make you want to make cartooning a career choice?  How did you deal with coming up with ideas to meet the tough deadlines in print media? 

I grew up reading comic books and the Sunday funnies...I guess I’ve always wanted to be a cartoonist.  Even when I was trying to be an “artist”, everything I did turned out “cartoony”.  The Terrible Tom experience showed me that it was possible, even if I wasn’t very good.  My plan was to get better!   

Ideas came to me all the time, as they do with most cartoonists.  It’s the way we think, I guess.  Some of the ideas were good, some not.  I dealt with deadlines by drawing the best one I had at the time.  I’m a night owl, and did the drawings late at night.  My schoolwork suffered.   

As a former nationally-syndicated political cartoonist for The Greenville News, were there any taboos to avoid?  Which cartoon received the most feedback from readers? 

There are no taboos for editorial cartoonists.  Editorial cartoons are not always funny, as on the comic pages.  Many readers don’t understand the difference. 

On the Opinion Page, a cartoon is really like a column.  The cartoonist comments on some issue of the day, humorously or not.  Many times, we are accused of tastelessness, and we frequently are.  Tasteless.  The only “taboos” were placed by my editors.   There were/are sacred cows in every community and for every newspaper.  My editors and I often had heated discussions about the subjects I was to either avoid or to treat with kid gloves.   

Many of my cartoons were controversial for the times, back in the 1970’s and 1980’s, but my pro-ERA (feminist) cartoons evoked much comment, as did my commentary on the SC State Legislature, such as the one about the expensive furnishings for new Senate offices during a time when state agencies were being asked to cut back.   

Gun control cartoons were always unpopular, as were my “take the Confederate Flag down” cartoons, the first of which I did in 1983.  The cartoon that received the most negative reader comment was the obituary cartoon I did about John Belushi, in 1982.  Readers were offended that I had placed Belushi, who had died of a drug overdose, (I didn’t know the cause of death at the time--the LA coroner didn’t release that fact until after the cartoon ran) at the gates of Heaven; that I called God “The Old Man”; and that I implied that God has a “sense of humor.”  There were letters for weeks about that cartoon.   

Was it hard to draw a caricature of anyone in politics?  What do you look for? 

The hardest thing about drawing caricatures of folks in politics was getting good photos of them.  It’s easy to draw from life, or from TV--or even good photographs, but those were the days before the 24-hour news cycle, and likenesses of politicians were hard to come by.  State cartoons were the hardest.  My paper, not being in Columbia, didn’t have good photos of the many State Legislators that I needed.  I often had to draw “generic” legislators, when I really wanted to nail one or two particular people.   

Reading The State newspaper would have been a help, but we didn’t always get it in time for me to search for the pictures I needed.  Another thing--if your readers don’t know what a politician looks like, there’s really no use for the cartoonist to draw a caricature.  No matter how good a job you do on it, or how badly you want to do it. 

As a woman editorial cartoonist, were there any walls that you had to break through to be accepted in your chosen field? 

Well, as one of only two female members of The Association of Editorial Cartoonists, you have to resign yourself to the fact that you’ll never be “one of the guys”.  They were nice, and welcoming, when I joined in 1976--although the ones who hadn’t met me did try to keep me out of the “cartoonists only” business meeting the last morning; (I had to show them the sketchbook I’d been working on all week at the convention before they let me in.)  My husband, Jim, was the first male member of the AAEC “Ladies’ Auxiliary”.   

There are about six women cartoonist members now, and the male cartoonists are from a different generation.  The new women have it a bit easier than I did.  

Another difference between me and every other member of the Association is that I was the only female member with young children.  But what ultimately matters--now and then--is the quality of your work, and though acceptance was a bit slow, and there was some patronizing treatment by the older members, as the population of cartoonists “youthened”, it got easier.  I never took it personally.  I knew where they were coming from.   

 

 

How did you make the career move from editorial cartoonist to children’s book illustrator? 

That transition was one of necessity.  I’d left The Greenville News in 1984, remained nationally syndicated until 1986, and then syndicated my own cartoons until 1988.  After that, I was looking for another way to put the words I like to write together with the funny pictures I like to draw.  

I happened to be hanging out with some of my schoolteacher friends one day, and “rediscovered” picture books in a children’s bookstore.  I bought a few that I admired, and studied them carefully.  Then I went to the library and checked out every book I could find on the history of picture books, plus books on biographies and techniques of the best picture book writers and illustrators.   

You may wonder why I keep saying “picture books”.  Picture books are usually for very small children who either are too young to read to themselves, or are just beginning to read.  The pictures in these books are every bit as important as the words.  In fact, if one person writes a picture book and another person illustrates it, the publisher pays the author and illustrator equally.  

I wrote and illustrated three of my own picture books, which I then sent to publishers, collecting an amazing stack of rejection slips before Simon & Schuster published A Gracious Plenty, about my great-aunt, May Zeigler.   

The research on picture books and how to submit a manuscript took more than six months.  From that day to this, it is difficult for me to get illustration assignments.  Large publishers told me then, and they tell me now, that they think my art is too “cartoony”.  Hardcover, full-color picture books are expensive to produce and expensive to buy.  Grown-ups are the ones who buy the books, and they want “art”--more abstract work, by folks who went to art schools. 

What was instrumental in your decision to write children’s books as well as illustrate them? 

I’m no different from the children.  I like to talk about myself.  I write about myself and my family.  Most writers do, actually.  I write FOR myself, too--not for children.  But since I use small words and big pictures, folks THINK my books are for children.  

 

A GRACIOUS PLENTY is a wonderful tribute to your Aunt May.  It shows the loving relationship between children and childless adults.  Since this was based on a real person, has the response to the book by children been even more endearing? 

May was a wise and wonderful woman.  She never talked down to us kids.  She had a Master’s Degree in Educational Psychology, and taught for many years at the University of Georgia before retiring to Orangeburg, my hometown--and hers--when I was young.   

The thing that students seem to enjoy most when I do school talks, is learning that May was a real person, and that the children in the book are my sister and me.  I even show slides of the old black-and-white photos of May, my sisters, and me from the fifties--(since I fictionalized the story, I felt free to leave my youngest sister, Margaret, out of the book--due to laziness on my part--I thought it would be too much work to draw THREE little girls on every page!  Margaret’s still mad about it.  My young audiences love this part, and many of them want me to write a book about Margaret.  They have even suggested titles!)   I also show photos of May in New York, when she was working on her Master’s at Columbia University.   

It helps youngsters to know that they have their own stories to tell.  I try to impress upon them that they must try to remember everything--people, sights, sounds, smells--because someday, they may want to write about it.  I start each session by asking for a show of hands from those who like to talk about themselves.  All children do, of course, and I tell them that that is what writers do.

In THE LITTLE CHAIRS, you address a family member’s depression.  Why did you choose this topic?  What tips would you offer writers who choose serious subjects for children’s books? 

I didn’t “choose a topic”--I fictionalized a true story about my mother and father, as my mother told it to me.  She probably would have been more careful if she’d known I’d make a book of it, but she likes the book.  I think.  It isn’t entirely accurate--fiction never is. 

Daddy only painted one chair, one color, and Mama made him paint it seven times!  He had “blue” periods, and Mama was a genius at knowing when it was time to get him up and out, and at knowing just how to do it.  Of course, Daddy cooperated, because he knew he’d feel better.  

I really don’t know what to tell writers who wish to write about difficult topics, if they haven’t experienced difficulties.  Perhaps a therapist or teacher who experiences things second-hand could do a credible job, but it has to ring true. 

THE PINK HOUSE is a heart-warming story of an annual family reunion at Edisto Beach, SC.  This book is becoming a beloved classic on the coast.  What has been your favorite response to the book from readers? 

My favorite response to the book has been that the owner of the house, (my sister Marty’s mother-in-law), has two sequels in mind!! 

Another special thing I’ve learned from all three books--but especially this one--is that when you tell a story you think is only your story, but you tell it true, and you tell it straight, and you tell it simply--it becomes almost universal.  It seems to become everyone’s story. <g>

 

 

You haven’t given up your political cartoons completely.  Warbranch Press, Inc. offers a news press service that distributes your editorial cartoons.  Do the topics remain the same as much as they change in editorial cartooning? 

I’d like to assure my political cartoonist friends that I am NOT doing editorial cartoons.  I’m selling editorial ILLUSTRATION, which is different.  I am only illustrating the news.  They are commenting on it.  My main emphasis is on caricature and drawings of famous faces that editors can drop into columns or editorials to liven up the gray page. 

Cartoonists get nervous when they hear someone is encroaching on their territory.  Newspaper jobs are hard to come by, and easy to lose.  Don’t worry, guys--you are safe from me.  All I want is a tiny little space in somebody’s column on your editorial page.   

Your national cartoons will soon become a part of the Cartoon Research Library at Ohio State University.  Your South Carolina cartoons, documentation on the founding of Warbranch Press and your books for children will be archived in the USC Caroliniana Library.  How does it feel to have your work preserved for historians and future illustrators? 

It will be nice to get all that stuff out of my house!!  I’m grateful that there are those who actually plan to preserve and archive things I can’t keep track of.  As for historians and future illustrators, I hope they can use it. 

I plan to keep on working, so I’m not thinking so very much about what’s being preserved, except, as I indicated, I’m happy to let someone else wrestle with 25 years’ accumulation of art and rejection slips.   

What can readers expect from your upcoming book about political cartooning? 

The book I’m working on is a combination memoir/cartoon retrospective.  There’s a bit about my early life in Orangeburg, illustrated with photos and drawings; how I came to be interested in politics; I tell the truth about my problems as a mediocre student; my days at The University of South Carolina; the cartoon strip I did for The Gamecock; and my quest to find something I could do well. 

There are illustrated chapters on my life as a newspaper cartoonist; my take on how cartooning has changed over the years, including the difficulties faced by political cartoonists today; and the many new methods cartoonists use to produce our work. 

Many cartoons illustrate the history of the past two-plus decades, ranging from the Carter administration to today’s political issues & leaders.  these cartoons come from my years at The Greenville News and from my national syndication.   (There are hundreds of these—I’ll need to cull them!)  I talk about cartoonist conventions, about being one of the few women cartoonists, about the hate mail I’ve gotten over the years--hate mail being something that political cartoonists, contrary to “normal” folks--BRAG about. There is a bit of the recent history of South Carolina politics, also illustrated with cartoons of the day.   

I don’t think it will be boring.

 

Kate Salley Palmer's Bibliography

A Gracious Plenty, Warbranch Press, 1998.

The Pink House, Warbranch Press, 1999.

The Little Chairs, Warbranch Press, 1999.

How Many Feet in the Bed? by Diane Johnston Hamm, illustrated by Kate Salley Palmer. Aladdin Paperbacks, 1994.

Night of the Five Aunties, by Mesa Somer, illustrated by Kate Salley Palmer. Albert Whitman & Co., 1996.

Upstairs, by Judith Ross Enderle, Stephanie Gordon Tessler, illustrated by Kate Salley Palmer.  Boyds Mills Press, 1998.

Octopus Hug, by Laurence Pringle, illustrated by Kate Salley Palmer. Boyds Mills Press, 1996.

 

Visit Kate Salley Palmer's web site:
http://www.warbranchpress.com/index.html

© 2001 Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved