What do you get when you pair a Newbery Medalist and a Caldecott Medalist? In the case of author Laura Amy Schlitz and illustrator Brian Floca, the answer is Princess Cora and the Crocodile: a slapstick fairy tale, starring a princess-in-training whose prim and proper lifestyle is upended by a mischievous pet crocodile. PW asked the author and illustrator to let us in on their creative and collaborative process, and some of their favorite moments in the new chapter book.
Thank you for the glorious Princess Cora cards! I also loved the sketch you made of the reclining crocodile. You wrote that he looked a bit more risqué than you had expected. Personally, I wasn’t surprised: he is that kind of crocodile. I’m amazed you were able to keep him decent throughout the story.
I’m curious about your relationship with him. I loved how you described him as “part kid, part id, all reptile.” Did he ever give you trouble?
I’m glad you enjoyed the sketch; thank you! Croc never gave me trouble, no! I don’t always get to say that about a character I’m illustrating, but he was so busy giving other people trouble, and other people’s trouble is fun to draw. Indeed, I think I knew who he was from the moment Cora first sees him, and exclaims, “An alligator!” to which he smiles a toothy smile and replies, “Guess again!” Ah, I thought! This is the sort of writing that makes an illustrator’s life easy. He leapt out of the pen after that.
I especially enjoyed drawing him just so pleased with himself as he’s welcoming Cora back to the palace toward the end of the book, and also tangled in the jumping rope at the moment he realizes he’s not enjoying himself at all and that instead of jumping rope, he could be biting the king, and wouldn’t that be better?
As author, you had a much more open relationship (pardon the expression) with Croc than I did. Were you ever worried he would turn around and bite you?
And a follow-up. As an illustrator, I realize what leaps of faith authors are obliged to take in handing over their characters and stories to another set of hands, usually with the carte pretty blanche. Did Croc come back from the drawing board in any way as you’d originally imagined him?
Crocodiles hold no terrors for me. I began my career as a librarian with a crocodile puppet. He helped me during story hour and bit many children, to their delight.
I wasn’t that worried about trusting an artist with my crocodile. Crocodiles have charisma; I thought most artists could drum up a suitably outrageous crocodile. But I was very anxious about entrusting an illustrator with my people. The King and Queen and Princess Cora—even the snippy nanny—are all earnest and well-intentioned. I wanted them to be specific and human. I love the way you drew them—you respected them and made fun of them at the same time. I was delighted by the inventive touches you added—the crowns on the King’s boxer shorts, and the look on Cora’s face when she embraces her much-desired dog. She’s ecstatic, but her body is slightly rigid, because she’s not only encountering the thrill of doggy love, she’s experiencing foul breath and a slick tongue.
As for the way you drew the crocodile... the minute I saw your sketches, I gave a deep sigh of fulfillment, because you saw him more clearly than I did. Your crocodile is more cunning, more intelligent, more unpredictable; he’s dangerously speedy and supple; he’s buoyant, volatile, and jaunty. I’ve looked through the book dozens of times—the binding is beginning to relax—and I can’t get through it without laughing out loud. Did you go look at crocodiles in the zoo? I know you went to Kensington Palace and the Victoria & Albert. Where else did you go?
That’s generous and appreciated; thank you. And I did indeed have a good week in London looking at palaces and castles and costumes and other Victoriana— details I hoped would give the book a sense of period and place and a kind of credibility, talking reptile and all. So there were the dresses and the chairs and the desks, and lots of other things, too, large and small. I spotted a couple of really nasty instruments in the Tower of London dungeons that I tucked into the former-dungeon-now-gym inside Cora’s palace, for instance. They seemed like the sorts of things that might have been absentmindedly left lying around, next to the thing for your abs and the thing for your biceps. (I kept waiting for someone from Candlewick to tell me to take them out, but either no one noticed them, or no one minded, I’m not sure which. Perhaps we’ll find out which after this article is published.)
The other especially useful piece of research came closer to home. I realized I wasn’t so good at drawing a mop being used as a wig, at least without reference, so I went by the hardware store on Court Street and bought an old-fashioned mop head for $10. Extremely helpful, although it did tend to shed.
Having said all that, the most useful thing of all for me in making the drawings was that I believed in Cora, her parents, her nanny, and Croc. I liked them, I cared about them, I wanted the best for them. When that’s the case, when the characters are alive and real for me, half my work is done before I’ve started, so thank you for that.
I have to tell you, I wondered about some of the things in the dungeon. I didn’t wonder about them a lot, but it did cross my mind that some of the king’s exercise equipment looked a little odd. Then I thought: why split hairs? If you ask me, exercise equipment and instruments of torture have a lot in common.
Odd that you should mention the mop. Don’t get me wrong—your paintings of my people are beyond all praise, and your crocodile is a comic miracle—but you drew the wrong mop. You drew a wet mop, a spaghetti mop. I had in mind the woolly yarn kind that costs 35 bucks at the Vermont Country Store. (It doesn’t shed.) Because I am slightly insane, I actually worried whether or not this was important. After time and consideration, I decided you were right—the woolly kind would make the better wig, but the spaghetti mop has longer strands, which allows for a more expressive line.
I enclose a watercolor sketch I did of the Croc and Cora—it’s just after he’s disguised himself. Notice the mop.
Draw what conclusions you will about the state of my apartment (squalor!), but this notion of a woolly mop is a revelation. Huh! Well, here we are, and too late for revisions. I’m glad you’ve made peace with the hairpiece mop as it appears in print.
I love your sketch of Cora and Croc. Your Croc is the same size as Cora. Mine is not! An illustrator invokes E.H. Shepherd at peril, but I’ve always loved the absurdity of his drawings—the two-foot Toad in The Wind in the Willows disguised as a washerwoman (successfully!). Those drawings gave me a sense of license for how unconvincing the crocodile could be and still get away with his disguise.
All the art is in the hands of Candlewick now, but you will eventually need to pick a picture from the book, any picture, for me to send you. You might be the kind of person who might protest. No protesting.
Oh, it’s definitely better to have the crocodile tower over Cora—it’s yet another way that you saw him more clearly than I did. I particularly enjoy the way his dress rides up, showing his belly—and he’s not the least bit ashamed. He’s perfectly happy in a pink dress that doesn’t fit him. His aplomb is unshakeable.
Apropos of your extraordinarily generous offer, I have not the slightest intention of protesting. I would LOVE, love, love to have a piece of Brian Floca’s artwork in my house.
I’ve been poring over the pages, trying to choose which picture I like best. You provide so many different kinds of pleasure, from the Victorian castle details to those idyllic outdoor scenes.
But I keep coming back to the crocodile when the Cook leaves him alone with the cream puffs. There he is, with a whole epergne of chocolate and cream and pastry. And he’s not gobbling the puffs; he’s venerating them. I love his pudgy little choir-boy arms and the way his whole body yearns towards the epergne. It’s such a happy picture—that carefully held moment between rapturous anticipation and consummation.
I love you for knowing that the crocodile worshipping the cream puffs is funnier than having him eat them. If you can bear to part with that picture, I promise you I will have it framed by a very good framer and placed in a special place in my house.
As for all the other pictures—I’ll possess them, too, because they’re inside the pages of my book! Thank you!
Princess Cora and the Crocodile by Laura Amy Schlitz, illus. by Brian Floca. Candlewick, $18.99 Mar. ISBN 978-0-7636-4822-0