Humor and charming revelations were the highlights of the hour, when children's authors and illustrators Kadir Nelson, Pam Muñoz Ryan, and David Shannon shared the stage last Saturday at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books for a lively panel called Children's Books: Feeding the Imagination, in a packed hall on the UCLA campus.
Sonja Bolle, children's book columnist for the Times, moderated a discussion that was frequently interrupted by bursts of laughter from the audience as the panelists teased and cajoled one another into disclosing the inspirations for their bestselling picture books and the childhood experiences that led them to become illustrators and authors. Shannon, best known for his No, David series of picture books, said he was honored to be chosen by the Times this year to illustrate the poster for the 15th annual event. "I'm dreading Monday," he said, "because it will be the first time in weeks that I won't see my work in the newspaper!"
Shannon's father was a medical illustrator, and he gave his son reams of orange paper that x-ray film came wrapped in. Shannon's early attempts at art were drawn on this paper. "It was a long time before I knew what the color blue was," he said with a laugh. No, David was based on a book he made when he was five and only knew how to spell those two words. "I drew pictures of what I wasn't supposed to be doing, and even added a drawing of my mother spanking me!"
Because his parents gave him all the art materials he needed, Shannon said he drew all the time as a boy. "In a way," he mused, "that interest in drawing constantly was more important than having talent." Today he works above his garage in a room filled with guitars, art, TVs and books—and he watches a lot of baseball.
"I start out by reading the story many times over," Shannon told the audience. "Then I make hundreds of thumbnail sketches, and narrow them down as I go. Each book starts out like a puzzle before I really get a sense of it." In describing his latest book, Robot Zot! (S&S, 2009), for which he partnered with writer Jon Scieszka, Shannon noted, "It's about a brainless character, a three-inch tall alien who learns to love—in this case, a cell phone—instead of hate. I'm looking forward to the sequel."
The Dreamer (Scholastic, Apr.) is the latest book from Pam Muñoz Ryan, with illustrations by Peter Sis. The story follows a young and very shy Pablo Neruda at his childhood home in Chile when one day a gift is passed to him through a hole in the backyard fence. Neruda reciprocates, which leads to his artistic awakening. Through daydreaming and forays in the rain forest the young poet learns to cope with his cruel, cold father. "Capturing the father's dimensions was the hardest thing for me about writing the book," said Ryan, "because he was such a difficult man." Her research included a visit to Chile; there she was given access to two houses where Neruda lived as a child.
According to Ryan, her own childhood was "unchoreographed, and very special. My parents practiced a form of benevolent neglect, and I was always encouraged to go out and play. I spent a lot of time in my own world." Yet as the eldest sibling in her family, she also frequently found herself in charge of organizing activities. "I was the boss kid!" she joked. "Yes—she even told us where to sit today," Shannon interrupted playfully (Ryan turned beet-red while the audience laughed).
Nelson, whose illustrations have earned awards for such books as We Are the Ship and Testing the Ice discussed his latest, Mama Miti, written by Donna Jo Napoli (S&S, Jan.). The book describes the life of 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai of Kenya, an environmental activist who grew up loving nature and turned her passion into the planting of 40 million trees by Kenyan village women. Nelson turned to collage work for the first time to illustrate Mama Miti, and incorporated fabrics and a variety of patterns into the design. "My first try really stunk," he admitted, "so I re-did the illustrations and added more color." Nelson also confessed that he was using the wrong kind of scissors to cut the fabric during his early days of experimentation. "I couldn't figure out why it was so hard to do until a woman in the fabric store explained it to me!"
Nelson, who lives in San Diego, said he grew up in a supportive home environment. "My mother gave me paper and paint, and she saved all my drawings," he said. "When my drawings were good, I got a lot of positive attention from her." When he was 11 he spent the summer with his uncle, the artist Michael Morris, who told Nelson, "Always take care of your work and your gift."
Perhaps the key to Nelson's success as an illustrator lies in his ability to connect emotionally with his subjects. "You have to step into their shoes, and get into their state of mind," he explained. "I find myself responding physically while I'm working, scowling or smiling depending on the text. You really have to channel the people you're painting."