At 82, picture-book creator Lois Ehlert continues to enrich her oeuvre, which encompasses 38 titles, 28 of which she both wrote and illustrated. Ehlert published her first book, Growing Vegetable Soup, in 1987, and won Caldecott Honors in 1990 for another, Color Zoo. Her collaborative successes include 1989’s Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, written by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault. Born in Beaver Dam, Wis., and now living in Milwaukee, Ehlert is renowned for her vivid collage art, which she again showcases in her latest book, Heart 2 Heart, a rebus-style celebration of love and friendship that combines puns, numbers, alphabet letters, and images of fruits and vegetables. This small-format hardcover will be released by Simon & Schuster’s Beach Lane Books on January 3; we spoke with Ehlert about her career steps – and about reaching this latest rung on her creative ladder.
You began creating art as a child – what fueled your artistic aspirations at such a young age?
I was very lucky. My parents both encouraged me to be creative, from an early age. My mother was a seamstress and my father was a woodworker, and they both provided me with art supplies. I began to make collages using cloth, felt, and other items not traditionally used. The scraps of material my mother gave me were so much better and more colorful than the only real alternative at the time – construction paper – which only came in wimpy colors. And my father also was fond of bright colors.
What first inspired you to parlay your artistic ability into a children’s book?
I had always wanted to be an artist, but I had no idea how I was going to do that. I was always a very good reader, and growing up I went to the library with my brother and sister once a week. I actually read all books in the children’s section of our local library over a period of time, and so did my siblings. As a kid, I chose which book I wanted to read based on its art – even though it wasn’t possible in those days to get good color in picture books.
So your love of reading and art both sparked your career choice?
Yes, I’d say so. I realized that a picture book is so much more than just words and pictures – it’s what happens when they come together. I knew that creating picture books was what I wanted to do, but it took me a long time to achieve that goal. I say I was a years-long overnight success!
What was the first milestone in your publishing journey?
When I did my first book, Growing Vegetable Soup, I had been doing more textbook illustration at the time. I didn’t have a publisher, but I made a dummy and eventually sold the book to Harcourt, after about two and a half years. Part of the issue was that many people thought my colors were too bright and my collage art style was too wild. There wasn’t really an ability to reproduce bold colors at the time, but I made the dummy to look as close as possible to what I envisioned as the finished book, which in the end really helped.
Your debut book, and many others that followed – Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf, Feathers for Lunch, Oodles of Animals – are rooted in nature. Is this a theme that is especially dear to you?
I don’t know exactly why I’ve done so many books with nature themes. I grew up in a small town, where my siblings and I could roam very freely. Nature and animals were always close at hand. To me, nature has always been intriguing, and I guess, as a picture book creator, it’s all about whatever turns you on.
You’ve created books on your own, and in collaboration with others. Do you find one or the other more challenging – or gratifying?
Well, there really is quite a difference between the two. I majored in art in school and worked as a graphic designer, so I’m used to blending text with visuals. When you work as the illustrator of stories written by other writers, you can’t ask them to change or cut words if the text runs long on a page. When I’m more involved in the concept of a book, I generally go from art to words and then go back and forth, till they are compatible.
I guess it’s quite egocentric, but I like it best when I do both the writing and the illustrations. That way I can determine the size of the book and the art style, and try my best to make sure that when a child steps into the book, he or she is in an entirely different world – the world of that book.
What inspired your most recent solo effort, Heart 2 Heart?
At one time in the past, the only Valentine’s Day-themed books you could buy were activity books, with Valentines to cut out that featured funny sayings. So I started with that idea, and since I’m kind of a foodie, I tried to keep the images in the food range. The book is sort of like a rebus, using pictures, numbers and letters. Some pages may stretch the idea a bit, but in a good way, I think. I do like the playfulness of the book, and its message. I think we need a little bit of love in the world right now, don’t we?
You’ve received so many awards and commendations over three decades of creating picture books. Do you have an inkling, as you create a book, that what you have on your drawing board is something special that will garner attention?
No! Actually, the opposite is true for me. When I’m working on a book, I know when it’s not special enough. So I’ll set it aside. I really believe that it isn’t what you put in, but it’s what you take out, to make it simpler, that is most important. I often tell kids that creating a picture book is sort of like making soup: you’ll know when it’s done, even though you may not have the faintest idea exactly how you’ll know. You make it as good as you can – it’s a slow process.
Do you currently have a new picture book in the works that you’re making as good as you can?
At the moment, I don’t have a new book idea. I’m just looking at the world, listening to good music, and enjoying time with friends. When an idea comes, it comes. It’s a crazy way to live, but that’s how it is!
Heart 2 Heart by Lois Ehlert. S&S/Beach Lane, $9.99 Jan. ISBN 978-1-4814-8087-1