When your first book wins the Caldecott Medal, life tilts. Doors open. Everyone is your friend. It’s hard to know what to do next. So Erin Stead put the medal in a drawer and got back to work.
"I have a lot more books to make, so I think if it were out all the time it would be really intimidating,” says Erin, 29, winner of the 2011 Caldecott for A Sick Day for Amos McGee (Roaring Brook/Porter), written by her husband and fellow children’s book illustrator, Philip Stead, 30.
The Steads have three new books out for 2012, including Bear Has a Story to Tell, which he wrote and she illustrated. (When not working together, he writes and illustrates solo; she illustrates for writer Julie Fogliano.) They also each have a new book in the works for 2013.
The volume of work pouring out of these young artists may surprise others, but for the Steads, it means they are staying true to a compass they’ve followed since they were teenagers. If their lives were a story book, they would just be getting to the good part.
How They Work
The couple lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., in a renovated barn across the street from the Amtrak station. Their living area is on the second floor; their studio is on the first. With sunlight streaming through large windows, Erin works at an oak drafting table that once belonged to a Detroit Edison electrical draftsman. Phil sits across the room, but “not directly behind me, so I don’t feel like he’s looking over my shoulder,” Erin says. His broad desk is covered with art supplies: cans holding Windsor and Newton red-handled paintbrushes, fancy colored pencils, a row of pastel-hued inkpots, a box of chalk pastels, a collection of crayons. Her desk is as spare as her quiet personality: pencils, ink pots, a wide space to work.
Phil’s first two books were done in collage, but for A Home for Bird (June) he used crayon and gouache. Erin works in woodblock printing, then uses pencil to finish the illustration, the technique she used for Amos. Her upcoming book If You Want to See a Whale (spring 2013), with author Julie Fogliano (the pair also collaborated on And Then It’s Spring), will feature linoleum block printing.
They constantly bounce ideas off each other, but they hardly ever work at the same hour. Or early.
In the mornings, “We walk the dog for a really long time, then we sit and drink coffee for a really long time,” says Erin.
“Then I try to squeeze my work into a solid block of time starting about 11 a.m.,” Phil says, “whereas Erin is more of an hour burst here and an hour burst there. She might sit down for the first time at 10 p.m.”
He is both illustrator and writer. She is a pure illustrator. “I will probably never write my own story,” she says. “But happily, he’ll do it for me.”
How They Began
The Steads met when he was a senior and she a sophomore at Divine Child High School in Dearborn, Mich. In 1999, he went to art school at the University of Michigan. There, his education in children’s books came not from academics but from guidance he got from an art instructor, William Burgard, and time spent prowling Kaleidoscope Books, a rare/collectible bookshop in Ann Arbor.
While in college, he started sending mockups for picture books to publishers. And got a lot of rejections. “I’ve been rejected by probably every publisher in the country,” he says. “I paid my dues for both myself and Erin.” Even as they rejected his ideas, though, publishers urged him to keep pitching.
Meanwhile, Erin studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, and then the School of Visual Arts in New York. She worked part-time at Books of Wonder children’s bookstore in New York City, “which was the most important job I ever had,” she says. “It taught me about illustration, but I also met really good friends. Most of them are illustrators or authors or doing something in publishing.” She also worked as assistant to the then creative director of HarperCollins Children’s Books.
Detailing the saga of where they lived individually and as a couple could take an entire novel, but by 2005, they were married and living in Brooklyn, attempting to get published. They knew no agents, but author friend George O’Connor introduced Phil to editor Neal Porter at Roaring Brook. Porter gave him a contract for his first book, Creamed Tuna Fish & Peas on Toast (2009). Phil also showed Erin’s artwork to Porter because she was too shy to pitch it herself.
“Basically, I showed Neal one single drawing she had done,” Phil begins.
“It wasn’t even finished,” Erin adds. Why the reticence? “It’s very difficult to be an illustrator. You have to put yourself out there. I have very thin skin. It’s a little thicker now, but not much.”
That one drawing did it. The Steads got the green light for the Amos concept. Phil quickly wrote the story before Erin could change her mind; it took her 16 months to do the illustrations.
While they worked on the book in 2007, they decamped for the Catskills to save money. Magnificent isolation did not suit them. “It turned out we hated it. We hated every single minute of it,” Phil says. Even introverted Erin missed contact with civilization. “It was just us and the moon,” she says. In 2008, they moved back to Ann Arbor, where they felt most at home. And that is when their careers really took off.
Winning the Caldecott
When they turned in Amos, it was Phil’s second published book and Erin’s first. “We had very low expectations for it, and our publisher had very low expectations for it,” Erin says. “I turned it in, and Neal said, ‘This is a very quiet book.’ I think there was at that time a real trend of louder, more boisterous picture books. In Amos nothing glitters, or is pink, or is designed to sell to a specific kid.”
Phil also was not expecting much response. “We were turning it in at the end of 2008, and that was when the entire world was falling apart, and publishing, like other industries, was running scared. I’m not sure if any publisher other than Neal would have had the inclination to publish a book like Amos that wasn’t obviously something that would jump out at you on the shelf.”
With its soft colors, uncoated stock, and old-fashioned feel, everyone expected it to sell a few thousand copies at most. But then, even before its May 2010 publication date, strange things began happening. It started selling in other languages—French, Spanish, Japanese, Hebrew, Russian—and would go on to sell rights in 17 countries. The book’s sales blossomed (300,000 copies are currently in print). That fall, it was named a best book of the year by PW and a Best Illustrated Book by the New York Times.
One morning in January 2011, the Steads were at home, planning to watch the Caldecott announcements on a live Web feed, when the phone rang just as they were about to walk the dog. He took out the pooch. She answered the phone. It was the Caldecott committee.
“They put me on speaker phone, and there were 15 people trying to talk to me,” Erin recalls. “And I thought I had to have heard wrong. Because they said ‘medal.’ They didn’t say ‘honor.’ ”
They’d won. She ran down the street to find her husband, and they celebrated by going out for milk and doughnuts.
The biggest change for the Steads since winning the Caldecott is a higher profile in the fickle publishing world, and a greater appreciation of the relationship they have with their editor, something Porter says he relishes as well.
“The exciting thing about Phil and Erin’s work, both together and separately, is that it continues to evolve in surprising ways,” he says. “The only thing I know for sure is that it will be carefully planned, beautifully executed, and never lose sight of the intended reader.”
Since the Caldecott, the Steads have been trying to shield their creative mojo from increased demands for their advice and time. The only people they never say no to are students, because they were students themselves not long ago. When fans ask how to become a children’s book writer, “mostly, we just tell people to read,” Erin says. “A lot of people try to come into this job without reading picture books. I think that’s crazy. It’s so important. You have to know your history. And picture books are, as far as a literature form, quite young. And so there is a lot more to do. The themes might be recurring, but the ways to tell a story can be endless.”
And telling a story is critical, Phil contends. The central conflict of Amos may be simple—a zookeeper gets a cold—but young readers deserve the same care with plot that adult readers do.
“A lot of children’s books get published these days that have no conflict,” he says. “And it’s difficult. It is unthinkable to write for adults and not have a conflict in your story line. But some writers think that because they’ve had a pet or a grandmother they loved, they think they are qualified to write a picture book. They forget the same rules that apply to writing for adults apply to writing for children, just distilled to their essence.”
The Steads hold in the highest esteem The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats and the work of Alice and Martin Provensen (The Glorious Flight won the Caldecott in 1984). They also have been inspired by other children’s book power couples—H.A. and Margret Rey, Stan and Jan Berenstain, Maud and Mishka Petersham, and Leo and Diane Dillon.
“The difference we have from these other folks is, we never draw together,” Phil says. “We don’t make our art together. I don’t think we ever will.”
“We’ve thought about it,” Erin adds. “But we haven’t figured out how to meet in the middle without making a worse picture.”
Yet the Steads’ creative focus comes from making their books for the one person whose opinion they value most—each other. “If you worry too much about writing for a kid, you are done,” Erin says. “Even if it is a child you know. It’s almost like they are too new at life, so you can’t predict what they’ll like.”
And there is one more thing the Steads have learned since the Caldecott. They have a new policy: no giving away original art. While the Caldecott Medal shines inside its brown box in a drawer next to original Amos illustrations, some of the pictures are missing. That’s because they gave away some of the original artwork to family members to frame.
“We regretted it later,” says Erin. But then again, they’re new at this.
In the Works
The Steads have eight books published or in the works for Neal Porter Books at Roaring Brook Press:
Creamed Tuna Fish & Peas on Toast, written and illustrated by Philip C. Stead (2009)
A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead, illus. by Erin E. Stead (2010; Caldecott winner 2011)
Jonathan and the Big Blue Boat, written and illus. by Philip C. Stead (2011)
And Then It’s Spring by Julie Fogliano, illus. by Erin E. Stead (Feb. 2012)
A Home for Bird, written and illus. by Philip C. Stead (June 2012)
Bear Has a Story to Tell, by Philip C. Stead, illus. by Erin E. Stead (Sept. 2012)
If You Want to See a Whale by Julie Fogliano, illus. by Erin E. Stead (spring 2013)
Hello, My Name Is Ruby, written and illus. by Philip C. Stead (fall 2013)