Flora and the Flamingo, Molly Idle’s story about an unlikely pair who dance their way into friendship, was named a 2014 Caldecott Honor Book. While Idle and her editorial team at Chronicle were still working on the book, they debated an illustration meant to show reflections on water. “It reminds me of ice,” observed the art director. “In which case the bird would have to be a penguin,” they joked—and then realized they had a concept for a sequel. Flora and the Penguin, in which Flora exchanges her bathing suit for ice skates and ruffles the feathers of a new avian friend, is due out from Chronicle in October. Idle talked with PW from her home in Tempe, Ariz., about living up to expectations, the importance of being taken seriously, and the secret meaning of fish.
Did Flora and the Penguin go relatively smoothly, or were there places you got stuck?
It was a pretty daunting project. The original thought was that the penguin book would be a companion to Flora and the Flamingo. It would be a little boy and a penguin, and it would be blue. The little boy would be fishing. It would have been a lot of sitting.... Then my editor came back and said, “I’m really interested in getting to know Flora better.” And I was happy to do it that way.
But you rang some changes on the friendship theme.
The first thing I felt was that it was important that Flora not be the victim this time. She would be the person who would cause the conflict instead of being hard done by. I wanted to tackle an established friendship, what happens when you don’t agree. I had this very clear memory of something that had happened when I was small. A girl was going to come over to my house to play. I thought we were going to play Barbies. She showed up with her My Little Ponies. I thought, “Well, I guess this is over!” But we’re still friends, 30 years later.
Once I decided I wanted Flora to be the source of the problem, I couldn’t think of a problem that wasn’t contrived. Why couldn’t she fish? Probably because I don’t enjoy fishing. What if she doesn’t enjoy fishing? The penguin likes to fish… and she doesn’t like to fish… and then it all just came together.
After that I felt, Now we have a story. And it also led to a decision about how were we going to use the flaps. Ice skating is circular; it’s movements around and around in a fixed space. I thought it would be neat if the flaps could move the characters through the space in the book. In the first book, the flaps change the mood. Here they change the space.
Did you come up against any technical problems with Penguin that you hadn’t figured out with Flamingo?
Not really. We managed to vet a lot of those problems going through the first one.
Talk about the people you worked with at Chronicle.
Julie Romeis was the editor on the first book, and Kelli Chipponeri was the editor on this one. But really, the books are so visual that it’s by and large [art director] Amy [Achaibou] and I who do the most back and forth. We totally get each other. We can both get lost in either the visual metaphor or some clever bit of visual play. And Julie or Kelli are the ones who say, “Guys, guys, I don’t get that!” An editor is not a totally visual person. And you want something that works for everyone, not something that’s only just clear between two people who get the same visual jokes.
Both editors were really good at helping me sort out the pacing, whereas Amy and I would just spend oodles of time saying things like, “What if we move them a millimeter over this way – does that create more tension?”
Have you always known you would be an artist?
I always loved to draw. My mom is an actress, and an artist as well. When she was painting she would let me use her easel and use her paints. That was really important – to be taken seriously and to be treated as an adult. I always enjoyed it. I wasn’t supernaturally gifted, I just did it a lot, so I got better. I drew so much it was like, “Oh, you’re the good drawer in the class.”
What turned you towards animation?
When I was 12, everything came together when I saw Disney’s The Little Mermaid. At that point I was thinking, “Will I be an artist, or will I be a marine biologist?” This movie combines my two great loves. I thought, “This is what I will do! I will draw whales. This is awesome!”
This was before DVDs. If you wanted to see the movie, you had to go see the movie. My Dad sat through it with me 12 times. I watched to see who had drawn Ariel. It was an animator named Glen Keane. I wrote him a fan letter. I sent him drawings. I cringe to think of it now. But he wrote me back! I still have the letter. The letter said, “What you need to do is to draw all the time – draw all the time, from life.” From that moment my future was set. And it was that same thing – it was another adult taking me seriously. Saying, Yeah, you can do this, you can do it. I was like a girl with a mission. From that moment on, I knew.
Fast forward, years later. I was working at DreamWorks, and I was at a conference with [the late animator] Pres Romanillos. Glen Keane was his mentor, and Pres said, “Do you want to meet him?” So I had a chance to say “thank you!” to Glen.
But there’s another part to the story, and I had yet another opportunity to say “thank you” to Glen. His presentation happened during the transition in the world of animation from hand-drawn artwork to computer-generated artwork. And I was feeling lost. This was before I found the world of picture books. During the Q&A that night, someone asked Keane, “What are you going to do?” He had made it clear he didn’t want to switch from drawing by hand to computer-generated images, either. And he said, “I think if you want to do something, you need to make a place for yourself.”
That was the answer for me, too. I wanted to draw, so I needed to make a place for myself. I needed to make a place to keep drawing. I had no idea that I was going to fall in love with the storytelling format of picture books. So that was the second time that Glen Keane helped me figure out what to do.
And you’re working on a third volume now, a third Flora book?
Yes, I’m working on Flora and the Peacocks. This time I’m thinking about what can happen when three friends get together. Groups of three can be tricky. So often someone ends up feeling left out. I’m looking forward to exploring that dynamic – as well as all those fabulous feathers!
Flora and the Penguin. Molly Idle. Chronicle, $16.99 Sept. ISBN 978-1-4521-2891-7