Joanna Cotler will enter yet another chapter of her publishing life this month, when Philomel releases If I Were a Dog, her first solo picture book since she left HarperCollins Children’s Books in 2008 to focus on her own painting and writing. During her 21-year tenure at HarperCollins (the last 13 as publisher of her own eponymous imprint), Cotler edited the work of a panoply of children’s books luminaries, including Harry Bliss, Laura Cornell, Sharon Creech, Jamie Lee Curtis, Art Spiegelman, Jerry Spinelli, and William Steig. Cotler’s name has graced the cover of two earlier picture books: Sky Above, Earth Below, which she wrote and illustrated for Harper’s Charlotte Zolotow Books in 1990; and Sorry (Really Sorry), a spring 2020 release from Philomel, written by Cotler and illustrated by Bliss. PW spoke with Cotler about her experience both editing and creating children’s books and the genesis of If I Were a Dog, which celebrates the emotions and the unconditional love shared by humans and their dogs.
What prompted you to leave the helm of Joanna Cotler Books and embark on this alternative creative path?
I just decided that it was time to do other things. It seems like yesterday that I left HarperCollins, but it was actually 13 years ago. I have been an artist for my entire life—I remember making a tiny little children’s book when I was six years old. When I began my work life, I didn’t have enough self-confidence to launch a career as an artist. So, I got into publishing, knowing it was a field where I could support other artists’ work. I was still drawing and painting at the time, and still thinking that I wanted to both write and illustrate books as well as edit. When I did Sky Above, Earth Below at the beginning of my career, I realized how difficult it is to illustrate a book, and I couldn’t figure out how to both edit a full line of books and write and illustrate them too. I have always had so much respect for illustrators—now more than ever since creating If I Were a Dog.
What did you find most challenging about swapping out the role of children’s book editor for author-illustrator?
When I was primarily an editor, my head was always filled with others’ stories. So, at first, I found it difficult to hear my own voice and discover what I wanted to say in picture books. As an artist, I found that being a painter is entirely different from being a book illustrator. When I paint, I let my intuition guide me. When illustrating a book, I am trying to tell a narrative. That’s what picture books are all about and, for me, it is a very different experience. It has been quite a long journey to get here.
How have your years of working with other authors and editors fueled or informed your own creative endeavors?
When I think of all the authors whose books I have edited, I realize how lucky I have been to have learned something profound from each of them. And because I have had so many long-term relationships with such talented book creators, it has been like being in one long master class in creative development. I remember sitting with Art Spiegelman in his studio, as he pulled books off his shelves to school me in the history of comics. Or visiting with William Steig (whom I worked with when he was between the ages of 89 to 95) at his dining room table, while he showed me hundreds and hundreds of his drawings and paintings, talking through each one.
I have learned so much from my authors and illustrators—and I am so deeply thankful to each of them. And I suppose some of them learned from me too. Now, I try to ask myself some of the same questions I asked of them. How do you work with your limitations? How do you stay true to yourself? What do you have to contribute that is new and worthy of contributing?
What inspired the message of If I Were a Dog?
I am a cuckoo dog person! And since I love them, I started painting them. As my pile of paintings began to grow, I decided I wanted to do a wordless dog book, but when I showed that to my agent, Elena Giovinazzo at Pippin Properties, she told me that I needed to find the story I wanted to tell. And of course, she was right. From the dog paintings I had done, I knew those dogs were trying to tell me something. And when the phrase, “If I were a dog” came to me, I knew that my dogs were telling me to write what they feel, and that they were urging me to be more unconditionally loving.
This is the second book, after Sorry (Really Sorry), that I have had published during the pandemic. I realized that this is a time when we are all struggling with many feelings, including empathy. Then one day, as I was walking in my Upper West Side neighborhood, I passed a dog who looked directly at me and began wagging his tail. And his owner said to me, “Oh, you must have locked eyes with Myron! He is all love.” It was a moment that made me laugh and touched my heart. I am convinced that dogs show us how to be our best selves, how to make friends, and to empathize with those who may look different than we do. In celebrating what it means to be a dog, I hope I am also celebrating what it means to be human. If you can see the world through a dog’s eyes, you’ll see that love is everywhere.
If I Were a Dog by Joanna Colter. Philomel, $17.99 Apr. ISBN 978-0-5931-1610-4