PW: The Day the Babies Crawled Away (Putnam) does not look or sound like your previous work in picture books such as Officer Buckle and Gloria. Did you start with a piece of rhyme or with the silhouettes?
Peggy Rathmann: I had tried an exercise where you divide a paper with a diagonal line. Dr. Seuss said that a great way to start a picture is to divide the paper in half, and make one side light and one side dark. This reads as a landscape to a human being. Even without any details, it makes a dynamic composition.
When I did this, I was so taken with what happened in my brain chemistry! I felt really zippy. This must be a hard-wired response to high contrast. It was all metabolic, I guess.
PW: What media did you use? Are your images cutouts, ink, or computer illustration?
PR: I tried black paper, and I used barrels of ink. I made clay models of my characters, and I projected them onscreen so I could see what they looked like in silhouette. In the rescue scene, there is a machine the boy has built, and I wanted to make sure, theoretically anyway, that it could work. I built myself a model to see how it would hang. The book rolled out in a cinematic way; the pictures almost connect to each other.
PW: Why did you choose to give the rescuing child a firefighter's helmet?
PR: I knew he had to have headgear, because when I started testing it on little kids, they couldn't always tell him from the babies. So I tried quite a few hats, like cowboy hats, but all of them seemed so regional. I finally realized, this child is search and rescue! And the fireman's hat is so distinctive, you could see it perfectly from the side. After that, kids who looked at it could always tell the boy who was the shepherd, the guy who was in charge, doing the rescue. It worked.
PW: Even though the babies get into precarious situations, your illustrations make them seem safe, and the parents do not come across as neglectful. Was this intentional?
PR: Oh yeah. What was most important was that the babies not look like victims, and that the parents not look like villains. Because that's how it goes. It only takes a minute and babies are off on a mission.
The other thing is—and this makes me nervous—that I'm showing a kid how he could get himself up off the bottom of a cliff, with the babies. Now, how many kids would go out and try this, without needing to? I wouldn't want that to happen. But I like the idea of giving them a look into how rescues work [by showing how the boy does it in the book]. It's nice to give a little lesson about a simple machine that could help you get out of a hole.
PW: Are you also trying to suggest how an older child might take responsibility for younger ones?
PR: Well, when a kid graduates from being the youngest in a family to being a big brother or sister, there's an amazing transformation. They have to make a big effort, and when they accept their new position in the family, everybody breathes a sigh of relief. All of a sudden they seem bigger, and they seem smarter, and they feel good about it, too.
PW: Children with secret lives, or lives separate from the adults in their world, seems to be a theme in your work overall. Is this parallel life something you set out to explore?
PR: It's a great way to make tension. When you make illustrations, you're supposed to have a subtext; you're not just communicating words, you're actually adding another story altogether.
As for children's secret lives, we really don't know, as adults, what's going on there. The stuff that really terrifies children, for example, they'll never tell. When you look at children, they're so beautiful and they seem so peaceful, because their faces aren't all wrinkly and worried. They're like beautiful little pieces of pottery or something. You want to think they have this peace, because they have no big responsibilities, but it's just not true.