Author of such picture books as Ballpark, Dance!, and Beach, Elisha Cooper has transported young readers to numerous child-pleasing locales. His latest book takes them to yet another. Due from Orchard, Farm follows the workings of a Midwestern farm over the course of a year. Physically removed from that bucolic setting but obviously close to it in spirit, Cooper spoke to Bookshelf from his home in New York City.
Why choose a farm setting for this book?
The inspiration for this book was cumulative, actually. I grew up on a small, nonworking farm in Connecticut. We had goats that I milked every morning. It was a farm that was really right out of a children's book. But I was much more interested in writing about what actually happens on a farm—and moving beyond all the cute little pigs.
So you reached beyond your own farm experience to find inspiration for the book?
Exactly. I was inspired by the huge, great Midwestern farms I saw when I was living in Chicago. I'd get in my car and drive out past these farms with their monster John Deere tractors and huge, open fields and I realized that that was the real American farm. I knew then what kind of farm I really wanted to write about and draw.
I was also definitely inspired by the Maple Hill Farm books by Alice and Martin Provensen, and also by Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, which I'd just finished reading at the time. The idea of farms and where food comes from was very much in my mind.
How did you tackle the research?
My research mostly entailed getting into my car and riving out to DeKalb County. I'd see a beautiful barn and pull over and draw it. Sometimes I do my best work when I'm driving and am able to stop, walk in fields, draw clouds. I walked into some farms and introduced myself. One farm I went back to four or five times. I hung out there and the farmer let me have the run of the place. He told me all about growing corn—and he even let me drive his combine harvester, which was very cool. It was huge—bigger than my apartment!
Farm makes its way through all the seasons. Did you visit these farms at various times of the year?
Yes. I started driving around in March, and I followed the arc of the planting season. Every couple of weeks I'd get back in my car and often return to the same fields to draw. I remember watching the corn grow—first to a foot and then to six feet. I kept going out there all summer and then, toward the end of summer, my wife and daughters and I moved to New York City, so I traveled back to Illinois for the harvest.
It seems as though immersing yourself in various worlds—of farming, dance, baseball, the beach—is an important part of creating a book.
Yes, definitely. I love all parts of making books. I love the sketching, painting, writing, design, and the crafting of a book. But if there's one part I love most, it's probably that raw, initial moment when it's just me and my sketchbook and I'm standing in a field, or in a dance studio, and it comes together. Watching the way a dancer moves, noticing that a tractor looks like a beetle. You have to be there, in that moment. That is a huge part of what I do.
Can you say which book was the most fun to research?
Oh, doing Beach was very hard! Spending all that time at beaches? I'd say that was probably my most fun book to do.
You've also written for young adults, in ridiculous/hilarious/terrible/cool: A Year in an American High School, and for adults in Crawling: A Father's First Year. That must have been quite a different challenge for you, to write books without or with very little art.
It was different. But I like doing all of these books. I love writing essays, and Crawling gave me the chance to go to my local café and hang out with my laptop and try to make those essays work. Working on different things, I feel I can never get bored. It's like working different muscles. With Farm, I was able to both write and do sketches, and I love the way art and words work together. Right out of college, I worked at the New Yorker, first as a messenger and then in the art department, where one of my jobs was dropping in the spot art. How art works with text has always really interested me.
Your next picture book, Beaver Is Lost, has very few words. Did you initially conceive of that as a nearly wordless story?
I guess so. I was at the zoo with my daughters and we were watching the beavers. Up close, beavers are huge, furry, fun monster things. They are all roundness, which is how I draw. I'm not good at horses or legs. But beavers are like circles—one on top of another. I had one of those moments and the idea just came to me of a quiet, resolute little beaver guy who gets lost in a city and tries to make his way home. I picture him as a kind of Odysseus!
And you liked telling his story without words?
It was fun, but of course very different from Farm. I would say I like doing them both equally. Beaver Is Lost has just four words, so it was a lot easier to edit and copyedit! I printed out the text and gave it to my editor—just for fun.
You dedicated Beaver Is Lost to your two daughters, Zoë and Mia. Do they inspire your picture books?
Well, I do put little bits of them in my books. In Farm, there's a spot where there are kids' handprints in the concrete floor of the barn. Of course when I drew them I was thinking of how I did that as a kid, but I put my daughters' initials into the picture of the handprints. They love to show that to their friends and say, "That's us!" I love having them around. They're five and seven and they're trouble. But they're good trouble.
And Farm is dedicated to your parents?
Yes, since I grew up on a farm, I wanted to thank them in a way. But that may be unoriginal. Usually I dedicate my books to things like my desk or my cleats. I'm afraid I'm getting traditional. That's bad. Very bad!
Or not so bad! So what's your next book project?
I've been coming up with some ideas, but none I'm really ready to talk about—not to sound coy. I'll probably do another nonfiction book on an iconic subject, and also maybe another animal story. I like going back and forth between those kinds of books. Beaver Is Lost is of course fiction, but all of the drawings are of Chicago. Both kinds of books give me an excuse to get on my bike, see what I find, and draw. In some ways, I think that's why I do what I do.
Farm by Elisha Cooper. Scholastic/Orchard, $17.99 ISBN 978-0-545-07075-1
Beaver Is Lost by Elisha Cooper. Random/Schwartz & Wade, $17.99 ISBN 978-0-375-85765-2