In Chicken Little, a March picture book from Roaring Brook’s Neal Porter imprint, Rebecca Emberley’s text puts a new spin on an old tale. The book’s art, which she created with her father Ed Emberley, likewise represents a mingling of old and new. As she has done in the past, Rebecca, creator of more than 30 children’s books, used cut-paper as the basis for the illustrations. She and her father then scanned the shapes into a computer and experimented with arranging and coloring them, which was a novel way of working for both Emberleys. Here’s how the project evolved.
Several years ago, Rebecca concluded that she was “burnt out” from both the collage style of book art she had been creating for 25 years and from long days of administrative work that running her company, Pebble in the Pond Press, had required for three years. “I hadn’t done any artwork for a while and was at a standstill in terms of where I wanted to go in my career,” she recalls. “And one day I got a call from my father, who said he was kind of bored and suggested we play around with something different. I told him I was only interested in doing artwork that makes me happy rather than having to think about setting up a 32-page book. At that point I didn’t want to think about books.”
“Yes, I was seriously bored,” says Ed, who had used 20 different illustration techniques, including woodcuts, pen and ink and computer, to create 100 earlier picture books. “I asked Rebecca if she would be willing to sit down for a couple of sessions to see if she could help me loosen up the way I was working on the computer. We had never worked together and we’re used to making our own decisions. We agreed to give it a try without preconceptions. I think we both knew after about 15 minutes that it was working.”
Three generations of Emberleys: Ed, Rebecca, and Rebecca’s daughter Adrian.
Years of paper-cutting has left Rebecca with a repetitive-use injury to her right hand, so when her father suggested experimenting with bird figures,she took brown paper and cut what she calls “loose, vague shapes, which didn’t bother my hand.” Ed then scanned the shapes into his computer and they started “playing around” with them.
“We have a very different approach,” she explains. “My father is much more linear thinking—he wants to have everything lined up and even—and I’m much looser. But this was even looser than what I’ve done in the past, and it set me free. I began to think that maybe this would be a book after all.”
After completing Chicken Little, the Emberleys similarly collaborated on a re-imagining of another classic tale, The Red Hen. “Creating these books had been a joyful experience, and now it was time to try to sell them,” says Rebecca. Through a fortuitous dinner date in Manhattan, she found a publisher. She was dining with her brother, Michael Emberley, and his then-fiancée (now wife) Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, both children’s authors and illustrators.
Also present was Fitzpatrick’s editor, Neal Porter, whom Rebecca had never met. “Some time before that, I had mentioned to a friend in publishing that I like the quality of the books published by Roaring Brook, who had told me Neal Porter was the person to contact there,” says Rebecca. “As I sat down at the restaurant that night, I literally froze halfway to my seat, suddenly realizing this was the same person.”
When Rebecca said she had been working on a new project, Porter asked to see it. The following day, he viewed the materials for Chicken Little and, he says, “I made a lightning-quick decision to publish it. I loved the illustration style and the wacky, sardonic tone of the text, and I relished the opportunity to work with Rebecca and Ed, both of whom I have admired for so long.”
A prototype for the Chicken Little plush doll, currently in development.
To promote Chicken Little, Roaring Brook has created a trailer video accessible on a dedicated Web site and on YouTube. A plush Chicken Little based on the book’s art is in development, as is an iPhone app tying into the book.
Roaring Brook has scheduled The Red Hen for fall 2010 release, and at least two more daughter-father Emberley collaborations in this same vein will follow: The Ant and the Grasshopper in fall 2011 and The Crocodile and the Scorpion in fall 2012.
The next Emberley generation gets into the act in a new song-inspired series that Orchard Books is launching this summer with There Was an Old Monster!, a twist on the song “There Was an Old Woman.” Rebecca’s 23-year-old musician daughter Adrian co-wrote the book, which features computer-scanned collage art by Rebecca and Ed.
“My collaboration with my father continues to be a big experiment as we go along,” says Rebecca, who seems to be enjoying the endeavor as much as her Dad. “It is Rebecca’s vision that fuels the process,” Ed adds, saying that, despite exhausting days, “we both get real pleasure from this work. It is not the kind of pleasure you get from sitting on the beach watching the sun set. It is more like the fierce pleasure you get from skiing or climbing mountains. The result is wild, wonderful books that are not in the least bit boring.”
Chicken Little by Rebecca Emberley and Ed Emberley. Roaring Brook/Porter, $16.95 ISBN 978-1-59643-464-6