From the gentle bear cub puzzled by autumn’s changes in Leaves to the brash young fowl who drives her father bonkers in Interrupting Chicken, David Ezra Stein’s characters instantly endear themselves to readers. Stein won the 2008 Ezra Jack Keats New Writer award and a bouquet of other accolades for Leaves, and Interrupting Chicken earned him a Caldecott Honor in 2011. His newest title, Ol’ Mama Squirrel (Penguin/Paulsen), tells the story of a resolute rodent prepared to do anything necessary to protect her babies from danger. PW spoke to Stein by phone from his home in Kew Gardens, Queens, about his own tenacity and what it takes to get the artwork just right.
Is Ol’ Mama Squirrel a biography of an actual Mama Squirrel you know, or more like an amalgam of many Mama Squirrels you’ve known throughout your life?
It’s based on a squirrel we met while we were walking through this park. She yelled at us really fiercely. She was going to take us on and prevent us from getting her babies and she didn’t care how big we were, or if we were grizzly bears, or anything! She stuck with me as a character. They make this amazing noise.
Is it the “Chook chook chook!” in the book?
Yeah, that’s my transliteration of it. I was working on another story that wasn’t working, and I wrote this one as an escape from that. I wrote it in about a day and a half. That’s happened to me quite a few times. Leaves came to me that way. It was as if a voice was dictating it to me. And I wrote Cowboy Ned [& Andy] on an airplane on the way back from Europe.
Was the artwork like that, too – a very smooth process?
Well, there’s a staging inherent to the story. Some things just naturally fall into the word category, and others naturally fall into the picture category.
It’s the technique that can be a struggle. It takes a month or two to get the right technique for the artwork. At first you’re trying things out and you feel, “Oh god, this is terrible! I’m a fraud. I’m not even a real artist.”
I actually did all the artwork for the book and I didn’t really like the character that I’d come up with. But I felt deadline pressure, so I did the whole book with her. Then I went to Penguin and I laid out the art on the table and I looked at it all and I said, “Can I do this over again?” And Nancy [Paulsen] and Cecilia [Yung] said, “Sure!” That was a first for me. I had to get out of the way of the story and let the story tell itself. And to have the art be transparent, to just float.
Do you do a lot of preliminary sketches of the characters to be sure you can make them come out the same?
I do practice. Just to design it I went through reams of paper, drawing. I try to figure out what it is about the character that I like. What are the proportions of the body? Where are the eyes on the head? How big is the nose? I draw until I get a muscle memory for the proportions. Squirrels are really complicated creatures and they have all these curves and fluffy parts and interesting hands... they have so many details. I had to pick the ones that said “squirrel.”
A lot of it was the nose. I drew her with a round nose. My wife said, “They have a V nose!” “OK,” I said finally, “I’ll use the V nose, but I’ll take away her feet.” You don’t really see her feet. She’s almost like one of those circus punching bags that you hit and they come right up again. After I got the character down it set the tone for everything else. The art has to support her as the leading lady. Everything falls into place around her.
And the palette is fairly restrained.
I wanted to keep it really simple. That green was the most important color. Once I found that color, I said, “This is it!” It sets the mood. It’s like seeing a tree out of the corner of your eye.
The drawings are done with pencil that I dipped into a jar of ink. It’s the first time I’ve ever tried that. Dipping the pencil in the ink gives a lovely variation of line. I’ve always wished that pencils had really, really dark lines. This way I could use the pencil as the final tool instead of a pen.
Can you talk a little more about working with Nancy and Cecilia?
I’ve been working with them for about six years. Nancy’s outgoing, really gregarious, and she has this great sense of what’s out there, what people will like. And Cecilia – where do I start? She’s a person who cares deeply about imagery and understands how it works. It goes way beyond her job. It’s who she is. She’s the kind of person that I can just enjoy talking about art with, and the fact that we’re making a book is icing on the cake. There’s a designer I work with, too, and an assistant editor – it’s a great team of people.
Some illustrators say that they feel as if they’ve always been artists, and others come to art later in their lives. Which way was it with you?
I just kind of came this way, as an artist. I’ve been writing since I was born, telling stories, drawing. My parents were both artists. My father was a cartographer, and my mother was a painter – although later she worked as an editor. There were always art supplies around the house. That was my mom’s philosophy: not to do art in front of me, but to let me find it. I do it for meditation, or just to feel grounded. I doodle to figure out how I feel about things.
And it’s not just illustration, right? You’ve done a lot of work with puppets, too.
I took a year off from college and I lived on Cape Cod, and a friend of mine said I should work with puppets, that I should be a puppeteer. One thing led to another and I ended up going to a puppetry guild meeting in New York City. It was a little strange.... Some of them were the kind of people who take their puppets to the men’s room with them, you know, or they say “Hi!” to you with their puppets. But I ended up getting a job at the Swedish Cottage [Marionette Theater] in Central Park for the summer. At the audition they gave me this huge, 15-pound marionette and they had me do things like make her sit down, or make her take a drink of water. And then they said, “You’re in!”
I was the low guy on the totem pole. I got to do things like throw a Styrofoam rock onto the stage, and open and close the curtains, and turn lights on and off. But I started doing stage makeup, painting the faces of the marionettes so you could see them from far away, and I learned a lot about painting from that, and I also learned about building marionettes. I taught a puppet-making workshop for the kids in my neighborhood last summer. I’m hoping the books will lead to more performance stuff, telling stories on stage.
Is there another book on the way?
Well, Dinosaur Kisses is coming out in August. It’s about a T. rex who wants to kiss somebody but she can’t quite get it right. She keeps squashing them and eating them. But she finally meets her sibling and they express their love for each other in their own way. (Slips into a smooth, radio announcer-type voice) “It’s a simple tale of a dinosaur’s search for love.”
Ol’ Mama Squirrel by David Ezra Stein. Penguin/Paulsen, $16.99 (Mar.) ISBN 978-0-399-25672-1
For PW’s review, click here.