The illustrator of several dozen picture books, Nancy Carpenter brings to her projects a notable ability to work in a broad range of styles and mediums. From the early American folk-style paintings of Loud Emily to the splashy photo collages of 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore, Carpenter communicates not just through line, form, and color, but through genre itself. Carpenter spoke with PW from her home in Brooklyn about her illustrations for Lucky Ducklings (Scholastic/Orchard, Feb.), Eva Moore’s story of a group of Montauk townspeople who save five ducklings from a storm drain.
The pictures in Lucky Ducklings of firefighters helping a mother duck and her ducklings bring to mind a certain classic picture book about people and baby ducks. Did you think about your work as a tribute to Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings?
Oh, absolutely. I had the book right next to me on my desk the whole time I was working on it. Those drawings are remarkable. If it’s even close to the work he did, I would be thrilled and flattered.
That said, I really can’t imitate anybody’s style. If I sat down next to Chris Raschka and tried to draw the way he does, it would still come out Nancy Carpenter. The people would still look the same.
It’s striking how simple and natural your drawings of the ducks are.
They didn’t start out that way! I was planning something more graphic. I thought of this nature versus man-made kind of concept. But it required yellow ducks, and when I went out to Montauk to look at some, I realized that there weren’t any yellow ducks out there! Then I talked to the author and she said, “Oh yes, they’re mallards, they’re not yellow.”
Then I got obsessed with the down on the ducklings, and wanted to create the feeling of the downy duck that’s so soft that you want to hold it. I tried it with pen and ink and with all sorts of other mediums and nothing worked as well as a charcoal line. I manipulated the charcoal to look more sepia – that was part of the homage to McCloskey, too. It took a number of years to learn how to keep the drawings simple. I took this book on ages ago.
There was no trouble about the delay?
Nobody wants a bad book. I never compromise. I always do the best book I can do at the moment. I work on every possible angle and in every possible medium until I find something that works.
What’s happening internally as you go through that process?
Oh, the feeling that everything I’m doing is wrong and that I have to start over. I am always in turmoil – even about one page. It can take months. Once I get the right thing, though, I can sail. Once I did the page where the ducklings are very close to the mama duck, all of a sudden something snapped, and then I was able to move along pretty quickly.
Are there exceptions to that? Projects that seem to go unusually smoothly?
Loud Emily (written by Alexis O’Neill, published by S&S, 1998) – boy, was that fun to do. That was a complete pastiche of that early American work. I only did it because it was appropriate for an 18th-century story about whaling. It took a long time to paint but I didn’t try any other ideas. Well, only something like five others. Whatever my first idea is, I always throw it out, because that’s the first thing that someone else will think of, too. I try to bring to each book something that somebody else couldn’t do, or wouldn’t think of. And Heroes of the Surf (written by Elisa Carbone, published by Viking, 2012) – that seemed to go right from the beginning, too.
Some illustrators find that the process of working back and forth with an editor toward a final drawing can be sort of discouraging – you can feel that the energy and life of the first sketches has drained away.
Oh, yes! When the sketch is just spot on, it’s fresh, it’s indescribable. But that process of refinement can’t be avoided. For those of us who see differently, it’s just a matter of accepting that other people need more detail.
Your mother was an art teacher, and I have a mental image of you drawing right from the moment you could hold a pencil. Is that how it was?
Yes! I was drawing from really as early as I can remember – almost before I started to talk. It was a great way for me to communicate. I wasn’t good with words, but I could see that this was something I did better than my peers. It was like the way some kids just hear music better than others. When I was five, my father got a Fulbright and we went to Denmark for a year and a half. During that time we also traveled to Italy and France and I got dragged kicking and screaming through a lot of art museums. I drew a lot of what I saw – a lot of crucifixions. My parents still have on their wall a drawing of Jesus on the cross I did during that period. It’s amazing what a kid will do when they don’t have an iPad right there.
Do you feel as if you’re a different artist now than you were when you started out, or do you still feel like the same kind of artist?
That’s a hard question. I’ve experienced a lot more. I’ve done so many different styles and stories that I come to it with more experience... but maybe with not as much freshness as I had in my 20s. I’m a little bit more reflective. I think I have more humility and less cockiness.
Can you say something about what you’re working on now?
I’m working on several projects right now, and they’re all fantastic. One is a hilarious book about Queen Victoria. Another is a very funny book about George Washington. I get to do George Washington in an assortment of funny situations. Another one is about [John] Newbery, of the Newbery awards. I have no idea how I’m going to get started on it. It’s a great story about the change in the writing of children’s books. It’s a very funny manuscript and of course I’m panicking, but that’s the process – thinking about how to do the manuscript justice.
Lucky Ducklings by Eva Moore, illus. by Nancy Carpenter. Scholastic/Orchard, $16.99 Feb. ISBN 978-0-439-44861-1
See PW’s review here.