On June 3, 2000, the day that Leonard Baskin died, the art world lost a true renaissance man, and I lost my mentor, collaborator and close friend.
 
 Leonard Baskin: A Remembrance  
 
By Richard Michelson        
 
 Leonard Baskin couldn’t count. This I discovered 8 months into our 6th collaboration and 4th children’s book, Ten Times Better. “It’s a counting book,” I reminded him. “You should have told me earlier.”  
I’d just gotten the call from our editor. “You might want to,” she said wearily, “try to sell this one somewhere else.” “And the advance?” I asked. “Keep it!” She hung up the phone. Then there was the dial tone following the silence.
It had been, in part, her idea. “How about a book with your wonderful animals,” she’d written Leonard, thinking of his now classic Leonard Baskin’s Miniature Natural History, and Caldecott-honored Hosie’s Alphabet. “Not too scary, and teaching simple multiplication. The teachers tell us there’s a need.” “And so,” Leonard said to me over our usual dinner of duck (his) and veggies (mine), “why don’t you come up with something witty and clever.”
“I’m a poet,” I reminded him, “math, is not my specialty.” But then neither was science, and we’d just finished, A Book Of Flies: Real Or Otherwise. At Leonard’s urging I’d learned more than I’d ever wanted to know about that pesky picnic pest. “You need to know everything about everything,” Leonard had told me when we’d first met, more than fifteen years ago. And if anyone was ever, as he himself said “a jack of all trades and a master of all,” Leonard Baskin was the one.
A true renaissance man, Baskin was a writer, printer, graphic artist, children’s book illustrator and, in the estimation of many (including himself), the preeminent sculptor of our time (“not because I am so great, but because the others are so wretched”). His most prominent public commissions included sculpture for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and the Woodrow Wilson Memorial, both in Washington D.C., and the Holocaust Memorial in Ann Arbor, MI.
Not one of these Leonard Baskins suffered fools easily. And compared to his intellect, everyone else was foolish. He had an intimidating presence and a biting wit. He spoke dozens of foreign languages, could discuss brain surgery with brain surgeons and the Bible with Rabbis. He knew the minutiae of world history and biology and sociology. And so it never occurred to me, beginning Ten Times Better that he couldn’t count. Or at least wouldn’t.
     Here was my idea: Dueling poetry: a brag fest, with each animal defending its number as best. I gave Leonard a list of animals and their attributes: A squid (with ten tentacles) vs. an elephant (one nose); a centipede (thirty feet) vs. a sloth (three toes); and so on. Then I waited for his call.
It came weeks later, with boyish enthusiasm. “Stop whatever your doing, and hurry over,” he said. “I’ve finished the drawings and they’re brilliant.” Leonard detested what he called “the humbug of modesty.” By now I was used to the unveiling of new works. Leonard would have them all turned face down, and like a little boy, he’d flip them over one by one, watching my eyes all the while.
“Wonderful,” I said. But then I started to count. The elephant was right: one nose. And the camel did have two humps. “But Leonard, I said, the squid has 8 arms.”
He stopped as if trying to comprehend what I was saying. “The squid is a masterful drawing,” he said. “How can you not like it?” “I do like it, Leonard, but there are only eight tentacles.” I could have been speaking the only foreign language Leonard didn’t understand. “The kids will love this drawing,” he insisted, unable to conceive of a utilitarian purpose for his art.” “But the verse says ten tentacles Leonard, and that’s what squids have.”  He threw up his hands, impatiently. “Rewrite it!” he commanded, losing his patience and his temper,” make it eight tentacles.”
Later I tried again. “You know I’d be happy to rewrite the text for you Leonard, but the theme of the book is counting by tens!” “I won’t change it,” he said. “I won’t ruin the drawing!” “OK,” I said, we’ll come back to this one.”  
I turned over the crocodile and I read, out loud, what I had written: “I have sixty teeth, I’m a great masticator./That means I chew first and I ask questions later.” “Your crocodile,” I said, speaking slowly, “has fifty-three teeth.” He waved aside my objection, becoming more annoyed than I could remember ever seeing him. “No one else will ever count, who’s got the patience.” “Kids,” I answered impatiently. “I promise you Leonard, they’ll count every molar.”
I moved on to the giraffe’s spots. Me, I have seventy, just on my neck/See, you can count them yourself. C’mon check. I checked.  Forty-eight spots. “The others,” Leonard said, his face brightening, “are on the other side of the neck. You just can’t see them. Every child will be able to figure that out.”  He was triumphant.
 I sent the drawings to our beleaguered editor, along with Leonard’s explanations. Then I waited for the call.
Ten Times Better was just published this October by Marshall Cavendish, overseen by the book’s new editor, a woman with a sense of humor and infinite patience. Leonard did not live to see the final product, but I know he’d be proclaiming its brilliance. And the numbers, I am happy to inform you young mathematicians, are all correct. Here, with permission, I unveil the truth: Two tentacle arms, seven crocodile teeth and twenty-two giraffe spots were drawn by an assistant. Can you find which? Oh yes, we’ve also added armadillo bands, zebra stripes, and….
“Do what you will,” Leonard finally agreed. “There is no way anyone can ruin the brilliance of these drawings. That’s what the kids will care about, not whether the toad has exactly forty warts. It’s the art that counts.”