A girl’s contagious smile sets off a chain of good feelings that make their way around the world in Because Amelia Smiled (Candlewick), the latest picture book by David Ezra Stein, whose Interrupting Chicken was a Caldecott Honor book. The story, which he wrote in 1999 while a student at Parsons The New School for Design, came quite quickly to the author. The art did not.
“I had just spent time with my sister,” Stein recalls. “We are both interested in Buddhism, and she’d talked about how you can choose to be happy or choose not to be. Like if someone cuts in front of you when you’re crossing the street, you can get angry and carry that feeling around all day, or you can let it go. As I walked home after riding the subway, which I always find inspirational, my brain clicked into gear and the story started to write itself. I began to jot it down on the paper bag I was carrying. By the time I got home, the whole story was more or less there, except for the ending.”
The following week, Stein began a course in children’s book illustration, and his teacher, author and illustrator Pat Cummings, gave the assignment to come up with an idea for a picture book. When Stein showed her his story about Amelia, she was impressed and suggested he show it to a publisher. An editor also encouraged the author, who then had some difficulty creating illustrations for his tale. “I hadn’t really found my visual voice yet – what to put on the page and what not to put,” he explains. “I was 22 and really into drawing from life and drawing from my imagination, but I wasn’t ready to illustrate a book. After months of trying, I put the book aside for a long time.”
Stein went on to publish other picture books –Interrupting Chicken, which he worked on with Candlewick editor Sarah Ketchersid, was his seventh – and finally felt ready to tackle Amelia. “I showed Sarah a batch of ideas for my next project, and she picked Amelia,” he says. “Ten years after I’d written it, I realized it must be Amelia’s time.” Stein found a new illustrative style for the book. “I call it ‘Stein-lining,’” he explains. “It imitates a printmaking look for the line work of the book by using label paper. I apply crayon to label paper, turn it over, and press on the back to create a line on the artwork. It’s like creating my own carbon paper, using different colors of crayon.”
Stein was at Table 24 in the autographing area at BEA on Wednesday, 9:30–10:30 a.m., signing lithos from Because Amelia Smiled.