To create her educational and humorous picture books, Valorie Fisher photographs toy dioramas and creates step-by-step diagrams. Fisher’s Everything I Need to Know Before I’m Five (2011) includes the alphabet, counting exercises, and images of weather events and annual seasons. Her new book, I Can Do It Myself, shows tiny toys tracing letters, setting the table, and making the bed, and pictures actual children mastering tasks like tying their shoes, using safety scissors, and pouring lemonade. Fisher also has introduced arithmetic in How High Can a Dinosaur Count?... and Other Math Mysteries (2010) and played with the alphabet in Ellsworth’s Extraordinary Electric Ears... and Other Amazing Alphabet Anecdotes (2003). She spoke to PW from her home in Cornwall, Conn.
In all of your books, you see tiny items from a child’s-eye perspective. How did you arrive at this up-close and almost magnified point of view?
I started with my demographic [as a parent]. My Big Brother  was my first book, and my two children were the inspiration. One of them is in college now, and the other is about to start high school, but at the time, my son was about five, and my daughter was about four months old. I’d have her in the living room, on a blanket, and he would run way too close to her, way too fast, with his dirty sneakers. He did a lot of the stuff that is in the book – like examining her with a magnifying glass – and the whole time she was gurgling and just loving it. She would be smiling and clearly enjoying it and thinking this was the coolest person in the room. I thought, “What is she even seeing? It’s just his shoes.” All these images I had of what looked like through her eyes just made me laugh, and I thought it was a great idea for a book. Luckily Anne Schwartz [of Schwartz & Wade] thought so too.
When and how did you become a photographer and a maker of dioramas?
I picked up the camera in high school, and I studied photography at the Museum School in Boston. Also, I’ve always been interested in creating little scenarios, and as a kid, I’d make shoebox dioramas. I grew up in England, and we used to have Pollock’s Toy Theatres, which were basically paper; you’d make a proscenium arch from folded paper and you’d have characters that were paper. So I liked constructing, and I still make, three-dimensional collages, shadowboxes for my own work.To come full-circle, about 12 years before I did children’s books, I worked in New York City as a prop stylist. I didn’t take the photographs – I was the stylist. I would gather the props, help build the set, for advertising and editorial. A combination of all those factors – being a photographer, and loving to make things, and being a stylist, and making things out of paper as a kid – it all came together. And for me, it seemed like the natural way to do it: this is how you make an illustration.
Your dioramas have such bold color backdrops. Do you use digital color, or do you use real paper or cloth?
I have lots and lots of decorative papers. There are some great resources in the city, like New York Central, that bring in papers from all over the world. They’re just fabulous. So the sets are probably two feet by three feet; I build them from paper and then I photograph them. Sometimes it doesn’t work out and I shoot things again. I might tweak a color in Photoshop, but if I change it drastically, it never looks real to me.
I do use Photoshop at times – for the cover of I Can Do It Myself, for instance – because the little dolls are so small and have limited flexibility. They’re dollhouse dolls – the ones on the cover are probably 3 1/2 inches – so they’re pretty much to scale [in the photos]. They can move, but they don’t really hold their hands up as much as I ask them to. So actually all of their little hands are pinned to the board they’re holding up, and their feet are pinned down too, because they want to flop over. And later on in Photoshop I have to get rid of the pins. Or, a lot of time, there will be a wooden dowel to hold everything in place, and I have to get rid of the wooden dowel.
You picture girl and boy dolls, as well as racially diverse dolls, in I Can Do It Myself. What sources do you use for the toys you pose in the illustrations?
Some of them are new. The African-American ones are new, but all the other ones I’ve collected. I’m always looking on eBay for bendable dolls. I found a bunch that were unopened, from Shackman, this wonderful toy dealer in New York, from the ’60s and ’70s. Some of them have the original clothing, and I actually make tiny shirts and pants for others. It’s really hard to make a tiny little two-inch shirt! I look for fabric that has a tiny, tiny pattern that can repeat over the size of two inches. The little buttons, also, do not exist, so they’re Photoshopped; on the cover, the buttons would be the size of a pinhead.
I love making the illustrations and I work so hard on them, and for me, it’s nice to know that it’s intriguing, that someone asks, “Wait a minute, how is that done?” It’s satisfying for me when people don’t just assume that it’s easy.
The dolls don’t just snap into position, then.
As much as I ask them nicely, they never do what I tell them.
You have a longstanding interest in preschool and kindergarten education. How do you speak with educators and research your subject matter when preparing a book?
I talk with parents and I talk with teachers. I’ve stayed in touch with teachers I met when I lived in Brooklyn, and I know teachers locally. My daughter is just finishing in a small K–8 school right now, so I’ve talked a lot with the kindergarten, first- and second-grade teachers. I try to run things by them. Teachers are pretty consistent about what they think kids should know.
Did you deem any of your subject matter too easy, or too difficult, based on educators’ recommendations?
In fact, there was something I wanted to add that was controversial: the three-dimensional shapes in the Everything book. Since I did How High Can a Dinosaur Count?, one of the things I love is math. I feel like the sooner children are introduced to those concepts, the easier those concepts are going to be.
Some teachers will say, “Absolutely, in kindergarten, children are introduced to the cone and the sphere and the cube.” Others will say, “No, we really don’t do that, it’s too complex, it’s too hard a concept for a book called Everything I Need to Know Before I’m Five.” So we struggled back and forth, and I felt we should include the three-dimensional shapes.
Anne Schwartz and Lee Wade have been your editors on several books now. Can you talk about your collaboration with them?
The first few books, I worked more with Anne, and now more with Lee. But still, both of them work together on everything. And I couldn’t ask for a better team – they’re so supportive. In the beginning, we usually hash out the ideas, and with both of these two books, I came up with a list of the concepts I thought were important for each. After we played that back and forth, I moved forward. They certainly give a lot of input, but they also give a lot of leeway.
Presumably the photography is the most labor-intensive aspect for you.
Creating the images – for both of these books, and particularly for Everything – took a long time, because there were a lot of images that required intricate steps. Putting together the whole alphabet, with another set for each letter, took a long time. Each of the seasons [of the year] is a set, with little railway miniatures, about an inch tall. It’s time-consuming work with tweezers.
Knowing you pose railway miniatures with tweezers helps to visualize the sets, like I Can Do It Myself’s toothbrush sequence, with its toy teeth and actual-size brush.
Those are wind-up teeth, but I took the wind-up [key] off them, and those are railway figures holding up the toothbrush and opening the mouth. They’re held on with the tiniest piece of glue tack, so invariably they fall off while I am shooting.
But it’s a lot of fun. For instance, when I came up with the idea for the teeth, I thought, we’ve all seen the pictures of how to brush your teeth as a child. I don’t want to do that. For me, children are going to be more engaged if it’s silly and funny. If it makes them laugh, they’re more likely to spend time on the how-to-brush-your-teeth spread.
What new work do you have in progress? These past two are almost a set.
Right now, I’m finishing a stop-motion animation as a trailer for I Can Do It Myself. It’s very cute. In the teeth-brushing spread, the toothbrush is actually moving, and to change it up, a miniature firetruck comes in at the very end and sprays the teeth.
I have a few ideas percolating too. I would love to do a science-based cross between Everything I Need to Know and the math book I did. The last two books are fun, they’re useful, they’re informational. I like the idea that they are your first reference books. I know when I was a kid I loved ’50s and ’60s early graphic informational books on facts and figures, the highest mountains, the graphs of how much liquid is in the body. Again: math and science.
As someone who loves collectables, do you have a favorite tiny toy or flea market find?
Since I was six or seven, I’ve been a collector. I started with the usual rocks and shells and seedpods, and now I have all sorts of vintage toys and contemporary ones. And when you live in a very small town, like I do, you bring your garbage to the transfer station, the town dump, and you always spend a few minutes there, because the guys running it don’t throw anything away. I have found some fabulous toys and dolls and dollhouse miniatures there that someone must have taken out of their attic. I find some of the best stuff there. The dump is a treasure trove.
I Can Do It Myself by Valorie Fisher. Random/Schwartz & Wade, $17.99 July ISBN 978-0-449-81593-9