In Show Me a Story! Why Picture Books Matter: Conversations with 21 of the World’s Most Celebrated Illustrators, due out this month from Candlewick, children’s literature historian Leonard S. Marcus interviews a diverse group of artists about everything from their own childhoods to the mechanics of their craft. Greatly expanding on and updating an earlier volume called Ways of Telling: Conversations on the Art of the Picture Book (Dutton, 2002), the collection is introduced by three-time Caldecott Medalist David Wiesner. “The first art that most children see is in picture books,” Wiesner writes. “That’s a big responsibility for the illustrator.” Clearly, Marcus’s interviewees take that responsibility seriously. Read on for their thoughtful—and sometimes quite funny—responses, excerpted from the book.
LSM: How did you become interested in children’s books?
QB: Initially, all I knew was that I wanted to draw and that I liked being funny. It took me some time to get to the idea that it was a good thing to do a picture book. When I finally did get there, it was partly because I had trained as a teacher: in a very small way I see making children’s books as being like teaching a class. I am interested in that relationship, even though I didn’t go on to make teaching my career. It became even more appealing when full-color printing became readily available to illustrators. I had become known as an illustrator who worked in black and white and was fed up with that reputation. So when I wrote my first picture book, I deliberately made Patrick a story that had to be illustrated in color.
LSM: It seems that drawing for an audience really matters to you.
QB: Yes, I would say it does. Some artists insist, “I draw for myself!” I think it’s possible to draw for an audience and to draw for oneself. That’s one of the things that have always interested me about making children’s books. You’re thinking about the young audience while also thinking about the drawing you want to do—about questions that the child who sees it won’t ever think about.
The theater aspect of illustration is very important to me too. When I’m drawing I feel in a sense that I’m acting out whatever it is that the characters are doing. Michael Rosen, the poet with whom I’ve collaborated on several books, said of me once, “You’re a mime, really.”
LSM: In the Mr. Gumpy books, you rendered the animals in such a painterly, sensuous way. Then for the illustrations across the page, you chose to have line drawings.
JB: I think I started by having all the illustrations in Mr. Gumpy’s Outing in color and then decided it would be more powerful to have one side of each page be monotone. Making pictures is like making a conversation: you can use hundreds and hundreds of different colors and patterns and things but it will be completely meaningless unless it accomplishes what you set out to do. Some people can’t stop talking. It’s a sign of insecurity, usually. They fear the silence. And there’s this awful idea about illustration that if you have lots and lots of color, then you have given children what they want. I think that that is a way to make kids bored. The wonderful thing about kids is that when they’re bored they let you know.
LSM: Adults sometimes assume that young children don’t think abstractly. Judging from your books, you don’t agree.
MA: A young child might not understand Picasso, but if I draw a circle and add a short line at the top for a stem, even a two-year-old will see that it’s an apple. No color is needed, just the outline. This is one of a child’s first steps toward abstract understanding. And if I make a simple drawing with circles for heads and rectangles for bodies and single lines for arms and legs, a child will understand me when I say, “This is Father. This is Mother.” Adults take such leaps for granted. That a two-year-old can do so is a kind of miracle.
Vera B. Williams
LSM: There’s always an emotional intensity in the faces you draw—even in the faces of the little children in “More, More, More,” Said the Baby.
VBW: To illustrate that book, I drew a great deal, and ultimately I drew the final images on a high-quality red tracing paper. I then cut out the figures with manicuring scissors and glued them in place. I wanted the paint in that book to look like children’s paint. When young children are painting they become mesmerized by the color. They’re not really making a picture. They’re playing with the color. I wanted to paint like that too.
LSM: You have talked about wanting to make books that are also toys.
EC: Up to a point a child is more tactile than verbal: holding hands, holding his or her bottle or rattle, and being held is what matters to them at first. School comes later, and with school comes sitting still and focusing on the words in books. So I thought there should be something between the warmth of being held and of holding on to a toy, and the more abstract experience of book learning. There should be a bridge between—and that is what I’ve tried to create in the form of a book with holes in it, for example, a book that is partly also a toy. It is a toy you can read, and a book you can touch.
LSM: In your books you often show parents in unguarded moments. Why is that?
HO: It’s almost the opposite of a television commercial, where everything is perfect and the mother produces white clothes out of the washing machine. I find that awful because it’s not true, and because it makes people feel dissatisfied and inadequate.
In We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, when the bear is finally found, it’s the dad who runs like hell to get away, ahead of the children, which of course is meant to be comical. I think it’s very important to show the child that parents are only human. To show that they have weaknesses is perhaps not a bad thing.
LSM: Where were you in your career when your son was born?
CR: My first book had appeared in 1992 and several more were in the pipeline when I became a parent in 1995. The first books to be influenced by the experience of being a father were the Thingy Things books. They were very much taken from my son’s daily life as a three-year-old getting up in the morning, not wanting to wear long pants or short pants; the reverse psychology that parents try on their children and the silly jokes they share; hide-and-seek; that kind of thing. My wife was teaching six-to-nine-year-olds in a public Montessori school in Yonkers, and I would often have contact with those kids too.
When I first came to New York with the thought of possibly getting involved in children’s books, I thought that as a way of educating myself I should have some regular contact with children. So I volunteered in the education department at the American Museum of Natural History, and would go every Monday, and would be stationed in one of the galleries and approach a class that was there on a field trip to offer my services. Finding the right level on which to engage children of different ages was the great challenge. You quickly learn that with the very little children, you ask, “Is an elephant little or big?”—and you go from there. Once I was stationed in Ocean Hall and was standing under the giant model of a blue whale, which is suspended from the ceiling. I had just pointed out the belly button of the whale to a group of fourth-grade Catholic school girls, when one of the girls asked: “How can you tell a male whale from a female whale?” I replied, “A male whale has a penis and a female whale has a vagina.” Suddenly, all these little heads tilted upward as the jaws of the chaperoning parents and teachers dropped. I thought: I’m going to be run out of the museum. Somehow it had been the only thing I could think to say.
LSM: What did you learn at Sesame Street that has carried over into your books?
MW: Clarity, brevity, and that funny is funny. Sesame Street is where I not only learned how to write for kids, it’s where I learned that I wanted to write for kids. Before that, I’d set my sights on writing for snarky 20-somethings like myself.
As an animator, Sesame Street is where I created my first continuing character, Suzie Kabloozie, and my first abstracted backgrounds that served as emotional templates as opposed to locations, a technique I used in the Pigeon books and Leonardo the Terrible Monster.
As writers, we were required each season to attend a weeklong seminar on child development research, which, frankly, could become onerous. But one year we had a fabulous speaker who told us, “I saw a sign in a school that said, ‘Everyone is number one.’ Well, that’s a statistical impossibility. Someone is going to be number eighty-three and somebody is going to be ninety-two.” That rocked my world!
Philosophically, a lot clicked for me that day. Kids, like me, are constantly failing at things, but we live in a culture that is terrified of admitting even the slightest mistake. Personally, my legion of personal and professional failures have turned out to be quite helpful for me in the long run. Maybe I should write about failure. Besides, failure is always funny.
LSM: Do you set specific technical challenges for yourself as you start a new book? Is that one of the ways you keep bookmaking interesting for yourself?
KH: I wanted Kitten’s First Full Moon to be different. I wanted to illustrate the book in black and white, and I wanted it to be bold. I had been used to using a certain kind of paper, certain kinds of pen nibs, a certain kind of ink. I had been working with the same materials for years and years, and it felt very comfortable. I knew what to expect. I’m a creature of habit, so setting all that aside felt very scary.
But the text for Kitten begged for something different. The words pulled me in a different direction. Besides limiting the color, I tried to keep anything out of the pictures that I didn’t need.
The early sketches included several background elements. I eliminated most of them. J.M. Barrie said something like, “Cut it down by half and leave nothing out.” I think that’s the ideal to strive for in picture books.