Bookshelf talked with illustrator Nancy Carpenter about her latest book, 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore, written by Jenny Offill (Random House/Schwartz & Wade).
You have illustrated a number of picture books and each one has a different, very distinct style. Why is that?
I’m not sure I’m capable of doing one style. I gravitate to manuscripts that challenge me so I can try something new each time. It keeps me fresh.
I knew I wanted to work on 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore because it was so irreverent. [Thebook’s narrator] was such a risky character that I’ve never done before. As soon as I read it, I said I wanted it. I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle it but I knew I wanted my artwork to be risky and irreverent as well.
What is your thought process when you receive a manuscript? Does the story dictate what type of style you will use? Do you discuss the style with your editor?
The story is the launching point. If it’s a manuscript about a certain period, I’ll look to that period for my inspiration. I usually work out what style I’m going to do around the time I hand in my sketches. I tend to work often with the same editors because they will give me the leeway I need because the finished art is usually a surprise to them.
What was your first job as an illustrator?
My first job was working for the New York Times, but my first children’s book was with Virginia Duncan [now publisher of Greenwillow Books]. I did a book cover for her. I handed it and they somehow ruined it by spraying it with something. I redid the painting for free and they were so pleased that they offered me a whole book [At Taylor’s Place by Sharon Phillips Denslow, S&S, 1990]. I still do a few illustrations for the Times, but children’s books take up most of my illustration time now.
Who do you consider your main artistic influences?
It really depends on what I’m working on. For 17 Things, I was inspired by Lauren Child and Dave McKean, who did The Day I Swapped My Dad for 2 Goldfish. And you wouldn’t know it by looking at my illustrations, but I love Roz Chast.
You have illustrated 17 Things with a mixture of photographs and paintings. How did you decide what would be painted and what would be photographed?
For all my books, I start out by working out the character. Then for each piece of art, I started out by doing a pen-and-ink drawing, then I scanned that in. Almost everything else was done on the computer. I took digital photos and put those into the piece. In one of my favorite pieces, I poured frozen succotash onto my scanner. I think it worked. There is a universal dislike for frozen succotash.
I had to keep a balance so there was always art and photo realism on each page, so it was trial and error, but in general, if I can photograph it [instead of draw it], I will.
How long did it take you to do the illustrations for 17 Things?
It took about a year from start to finish. It was a long process because my normal work time on a book is about four to six months. I wanted each painting to work on more than one level. It was almost like doing conceptual editorial work. Some pages came easier than others but in the end I think it all looks like I did it in three minutes. What I hope is that kids will look at it longer each time they read it.
What about working with the design team? Can you talk about their contribution?
They really worked hard to get the proper text for this book. They manipulated it so it would look hand-stamped. I think I made them work pretty hard.
Lee Wade was the designer and she’s so supportive. She has more trust in me than I have in myself. If she thinks I’m doing something wrong, she nudges me in another direction. I know I’m getting it right by the intensity of her laughter. I don’t know what I’ll do if I don’t do a funny book!
Do you have a favorite style that you’ve used so far?
This is my favorite style! As I was working on this book, I thought that this is the most quintessential book for me and for my sensibility. It almost felt like I wrote it myself, although I’m not that clever. It felt like a perfect marriage of text and art.