When artist Emily Winfield Martin launched her Etsy shop in 2005, she never imagined a career in illustrating children’s books. But encouraged by Random House editor Mallory Loehr, she made the transition to the page. Her first book for young readers, Oddfellow’s Orphanage (2012), was a chapter book told in vignettes; Martin went on to write and illustrate several picture books, including Dream Animals (2013) and The Wonderful Things You Will Be (2015). Her new book, Snow & Rose, marks her first venture into middle-grade territory. Using the Brothers Grimm tale as a point of departure, Martin tells the story of two sisters and their search for their father, who has mysteriously vanished in the forest; their journey leads them to an eclectic cast of creatures, both friendly and sinister. We spoke with Martin from her studio in Portland, Ore., about crafting longer narratives, collecting old fairytale books, and finding the magic in ordinary objects.
Why did you choose to retell the story of “Snow White and Rose Red”?
Snow White and Rose Red were nicknames my mom had for me and my sister when we were young. I always loved that fairy tale. I may still have my Little Golden Book version. I was fixated on the fairy tale, partially because the elements of it are so interesting. Like many Grimm stories, it’s made up of a series of non sequiturs. For people who may not know the Grimm tales, the storytelling is actually terrible! Things happen out of nowhere, people don’t have much of an MO—it’s all kind of a glorious mess.
But I’ve always loved the elements of the two girls in the woods and their series of encounters with strange creatures. And at the end, one of the creatures is not what they seem. Then there’s the “happily ever after.” All of those elements just haunted me, until maybe five years ago. And I thought, “I have an idea that would be so personal for me.” I knew how to do it. It was one of those things burning a hole in me. It definitely couldn’t be ignored.
Snow & Rose is your first middle-grade novel. Why did you decide to write this story for this particular audience?
Initially, I wrote it as a picture book. I still have the manuscript and I still have the concept art, which informed a lot of the middle-grade book. It’s about four or five years old. I was nursing it before I showed it to my editor. Looking back, the word choice is so similar to the novel.
But we felt like the story was too extensive for a picture book. Even when it was a streamlined story with just the sisters, we felt there was more to this. So then I wrote the novel. I wrote it over the course of about three months. We worked on it for a really long time, in lots of drafts. I spent all of last year and the beginning of this year making the art.
It’s been my biggest and most holistic undertaking so far. It’s also the most quintessentially mine; it’s deeply personal. My own father died when I was about 12, so a lot of it is wish fulfillment. It’s my way of making something right that couldn’t be made right in real life.
Prior to publishing your first children’s book, you gained exposure as an active member of Etsy. How did you find your way to kids’ books?
Mallory was a big part of that. I had been approached by a bunch of children’s book editors from different houses early on, when I was about a year out of college. But I wasn’t really ready. At that time, it wasn’t a plan of mine to make kids’ books, even though I loved them. Then four or five years later, Mallory found me. I’d done a book for Potter Craft, The Black Apple’s Paper Doll Primer, a very large paper doll book. It’s really a narrative, with all the characters and their likes and dislikes. Mallory saw it and saw that I had a narrative mind. Basically, the whole time I was making illustrations for stories that didn’t exist yet, unwittingly. I had also made a series of portraits of orphans, which was the catalyst for Oddfellow’s Orphanage, a vignette-y chapter book. That was the start of our work together.
My agent, Brenda Bowen, also sort of plucked me out of the ether and said I should be making children’s books. At that point, I was already making one with Mallory. My path has been so unconventional, a weird confluence.
As an emerging writer, what were some of the challenges of translating your artwork into book form?
I am one of those people for whom writing is incredibly hard, really arduous. It’s exhausting emotionally, and in general. But it’s the thing you have to do to get the idea out into the world and on paper. So part of the process has been getting more comfortable with that. I know some people for whom it’s really quick at the keyboard and breezy. For me it’s very intense. And editing something that’s of length was a big change for me, for Snow & Rose especially. We did revisions for Orphans, but it wasn’t super plot-heavy. Getting over the fear of the blank page—that’s probably universal. When I wrote Dream Animals, Mallory said, “Please, just put anything down. Don’t be afraid.”
I’ve always been a reader. I love words. But jumping into ownership of being a writer is definitely a transition. I’ve been making art for my entire conscious life. It’s very soothing and very relaxing most of the time. I feel so grateful to be able to wed those two things. There’s kind of an alchemy if you can do both. There’s also an alchemy when there are two separate brains working together. That’s special in a different way. But there’s something special when it’s one person’s heart and sensibility. It’s an intimate thing to try to put into words.
With Snow & Rose, how did your process differ in creating an illustrated novel, as opposed to a picture book?
Mostly it’s just the scale and the way that I approach picture books. The scale is so concentrated. I feel like the best influence for picture book writing is listening to songs, especially narrative ones. That’s the way I jumped into writing my four picture books. It’s good to read other picture books, too. But songwriting is such a good place to look for what could possibly work in a picture book. Usually something works fairly quickly or it doesn’t; it’s not a fiddly art. You have ideas percolating and when one of those starts to take form, you jot it down.
A novel is like a painting. You can work on a painting for a month or even a year. But in a little beautiful sketch, gestures either work or they don’t. Lines either work or they don’t. Picture books are the same. You can feel that little click. There’s a kind of immediacy you experience. You feel it in your gut right away, instead of in that cumulative way that a novel grows and creeps like ivy, and expands.
Much of the novel’s action unfolds episodically. When thinking about pacing, how did you decide on the placement of the illustrations?
I’m a big believer in internal rules for books, maybe ones that other people won’t notice. For Snow & Rose we decided, by and large, we wanted one full-color illustration per chapter. I collect old fairytale books—turn-of-the-century books—and we wanted that kind of feeling, mimicking the color plate you get every 20–40 pages, that treat you get.
We also had another rule. Initially we had some spot illustrations interspersed throughout. But I didn’t like the way they were jostling the text around, so we decided on a spot at the end of each chapter. I loved the elegance of the text as it was. I didn’t want it bumped around by a frog or a sweater. I also have the sketchbook at the end of the book—lots of odds and ends. It was such a luxury to be able to do an entire book full-color. And I asked if it would be more sensible budget-wise to do plates. But color plates are actually a more expensive treatment than full-color, with current printing capacities.
Along their journey, Snow and Rose discover a library of objects that contain stories. What are some of your essential tools for storytelling? What does your workspace look like?
My workspace is full of strange little things. I loved the Library as an idea and a place. But I also like that it’s a way of thinking about stories, because they’re all these ordinary objects. It’s up for debate if any of the objects, or the Librarian, is magical—it’s up to the reader. I loved the idea that each person imbues ordinary objects with significance. And the idea of storytelling being what you make of whatever is available to you, whether that’s by telling the story of your own life, or by using objects as building blocks of stories. What is the brass key? What’s the spool of thread, the pair of scissors—the ordinary things that you imbue with power?
In my studio there’s a shelf full of wind-up toys, tons of books, a ship-in-a-bottle, collections of small swan figurines. There’s nesting dolls, a little paper theater that shows The Nutcracker inside of it, an old needle book, a shell, a glass narwhal, a little plastic dinosaur, a big spool of gold thread, a lantern with a red tassel, a tin with a dragon on it, and a cup with flowers. Those are some of my favorite things. And then there are my boring old art supplies.
You could tell stories with all of those objects!
That’s why they’re very important to me. I might be moving to a new studio soon, and I was talking to someone about building shelves there. I said, “I need shelves!” I have so many little things and I need them around me.
Guillermo del Toro has Bleak House, an entire house for the objects he loves. It was on tour—a whole house of inspiration objects. I have my own little room. I’m not that far off from the Librarian.
In Snow & Rose and in your picture books, so much of the characters’ inner life is conveyed through their costumes. What kind of visual research do you do?
I love clothes so much, and the care in the way people are dressed. I’m glad that is apparent. The main thing was that Snow and Rose be each other’s opposite. And the color symbolism: they both have their own color themes. Clothes are just a great way to express yourself. They make the internal external. I love old clothes, especially of the last century.
It’s also important to me that things be interesting and iconic, in a way. I love details. Details can make art of anything. When I think of the way I dress my characters, the silhouettes are simple. This is a polka dress, or this is the red cape, or these are the little brown shoes and socks. There’s a simplicity that I crave.
Your descriptions of flora and fauna are also very detailed, down to the whimsical names of the mushroom varieties. Did you draw from life or from your imagination, or both?
When it comes to writing, making imaginary names for things is an absolute joy—especially lists of imaginary names. I’m a huge gardener. It’s one of my big loves. And I also love going to the woods. I live in Portland, so I’m nestled all around with forests, and the ocean is about two hours away. Besides making pictures and books, I spend a lot of my time growing my roses and dahlias and anemones and everything. That’s where that obsessive flora detail comes from.
And I got more into mushrooms. The different shapes are fascinating. Most of the ones in the book are real, even though they’re stylized. I just gave them fanciful names through Ivo [the mushroom collector]. I love blending things that are grounded in the real with a sprinkling of something imaginary. But the real world is already pretty miraculous.
What’s next for you—a picture book? Do you think you’ll return to middle grade in the future?
I would love to write another middle grade. I hope that is on the horizon for me. The book that’s immediately next for me is another departure. Technically it’s a picture book, but it’s kind of a hybrid picture/art book called The Imaginary that is a series of images. Accompanying the illustrations are tiny scraps of the story they belong to. It’s kind of enigmatic, as if someone stumbled upon these scraps of a story and conjured up the pictures. I’m really excited. And then I also have several picture books I’d really like to do, burning a hole in me. Maybe even an Ivo middle-grade book, something about subterranean creatures in caves.
Snow & Rose by Emily Winfield Martin. Random House, $17.99 Oct. ISBN 978-0-553-53818-2