PW talks with Barbara McClintock about her new picture book, Adèle & Simon (FSG/Foster)
On their way home from school, the title characters of Adèle & Simon explore 1907 Paris (charted on an antique map in the endpapers). Simon loses things along the way. Did your idea originate with the history, the map, the puzzle, or all of the above?
There are areas of Paris I love, and I wanted to use specific locations for a hide-and-seek, Where’s Waldo? sort of story. Waldo was just a guy who lost things, so he’d go through all these modern, contemporary European settings. I wanted to do it in the historic realm.
I have some Dorling Kindersley map books, and when I travel I make little tracings of my perambulations around Paris. I thought it would be nice to integrate a map for those travelers who are highly ambitious and might take a lengthy walk—it’s a way to connect all those places.
You picture a famous, sometimes intimidating city as it looked long ago, yet your characters are two ordinary children. What were your reasons for balancing a grand setting with everyday lives?
One of the many things I love about Paris is the multiple layers of things there that exist, so I was trying to think of something that would work on a number of levels. When I approached my editor, Frances Foster, with the idea of puzzle book based in Paris, she wanted the story to be every bit as important as the puzzle aspect. That’s where the characters Adèle & Simon originated.
I have an older sister, too. I was more a Simon sort of character, very happy go lucky, not a care in the world, and I’m sure I drove her crazy. She would try to keep me in mind, and she was tidy, proper, and organized compared to me. Those characteristics are repeated frequently with siblings, and the story of a sister and brother helped make Paris accessible, to bring it down to earth more.
You personalize the city at the end of the book as well, when Parisians form a queue to return all of Simon’s missing things.
Certainly there is a community in every city. I found that in New York City when I lived there, and I have friends in Paris who have families there. France gets such a bad rap from Americans, yet the people I’ve encountered have been helpful, friendly and personable.
In some ways Paris is such a mythic place for people. I grew up in North Dakota and had seen Minneapolis and Winnipeg, but when I first went to Paris [during college, at age 19] it was a fantasy place. This could open a door for children to someday travel there.
Your images depict places that Paris residents and visitors still love, like the Jardin du Luxembourg, the Notre-Dame Cathedral, and traditional city streets. How did you choose the locations and develop the action of the story?
I set the story in 1907—a little later than my usual time period. But I wanted to show a time when the Eiffel Tower was new and all those Art Nouveau Métro entrances had just been built. I also wanted to draw things that are still in existence that have the same or very similar uses now. I thought that would be wonderful—a child traveling in Paris would have that deep sense of history.
I had a general idea of locations I wanted to feature in Adèle & Simon—I wanted to draw places in Paris that held a magical allure to me, ranging from the charming and small Jardin des Plantes, to the immense, maze-like connecting galleries of the Louvre. Once I decided on a location, I began to imagine what small view of each place I would draw, based on memories, old prints and drawings of various locations, and my photos and sketches.
I began with a very general idea of place, and then began hunting for any and every scrap of visual material, and also written descriptions, of the places I’d decided to feature. Once I started looking, I found material in magazine ads, end papers from books, tiny cameo shots in films. I have a scrap drawer where I toss little sketches, things I rip out of magazines, Xeroxes of photos in books, and drawings by various artists, and as I draw I take all the little bits and pieces of paper, tape them up on a wall near my drawing board, look at them and puzzle out what would be the most interesting visual details to include in my drawing.
Did you study costume history and early 20th-century street life to make the scenes look accurate, too?
I love doing research and there are so many wonderful sources for finding visual information from the 19th and early 20th centuries. I spent a lot of time in front of copy machines.
At the Alliance Française library in New York City, they have marvelous books of photography for architectural study. To find things that were older, the Yale Center for British Art has got an amazing collection that includes French costumes and architectural scenes.
I described the scene of acrobats in front of Notre-Dame to Dominique Coulombe, at the John Hay Library at Brown University. She said, “I have just the thing!” and she came back with this amazing book of engravings of acrobats and circus performers in France at the end of the 19th century, all hand colored. It was the sweetest, most whimsical book—I just wanted to tuck it under my arm and run for the front door. And for the puppet scene in the Luxembourg Garden, I drew marionettes’ faces I found at the Bibliothèque Nationale.
Doing research is like being a detective—you’re looking for a wonderful item you know is out there somewhere. I identify something I know I’m looking for, like a nanny costume, and work on finding it.
You’ve done a lot of homework; your illustrations and afterword allude to Daumier, Atget, Vuillard, Degas and Cassatt. Meanwhile your watercolor and ink images recall Caldecott, Greenaway and Shepard too. Do these artists share some approach that influences your work?
I actually taught myself to draw by going to the library and checking out books of artists I admired, then copying every drawing. When I was trying to identify my definitive style, I took an enormous pile of books, from Ronald Searle to Daumier and Delacroix to Albrecht Durer and all the cartoonists I loved. I spread them on my kitchen table and analyzed what common thread was between all these drawing styles that attracted me, and what I could let go.
An energetic line was the continuous thread that ran through all the artists I admire; they are all very skilled and competent draftsmen, and all have very strong narrative streak. If you put a still-life in front of me, I could just take a nap, but if there’s a Jacques Callot drawing where someone has an attitude, holding a staff, that’s very intriguing.
We’ve heard about your idea and research—what is your process for bringing it all together?
I begin with a very rough, loose sketch that is much smaller than what the finished sketch will be just to get a general feeling for the composition of the final drawing. I then blow that sketch up on my copier in sections, and, putting tracing paper on top of all the blown-up fragments of the little drawing, do another loose drawing; I place another sheet of tracing paper on top of the larger loose sketch and refine my drawing until I have a very tight, precise pencil drawing. That final drawing is placed on a light box, and watercolor paper placed on top of the final pencil drawing. I then redraw the entire drawing onto the watercolor paper, and draw in pen and ink over the pencil drawing on the water color paper. I erase the underlying pencil sketch, and color the ink drawing with watercolor.
And yes, I do actually have time to sleep and eat, but I don’t have a very active social life while I’m working!