Scraps of musical scores, old ledger sheets in swooping script, catalog shots of plaid dresses, and more are crisply cut and meticulously assembled into the collages that illustrate Carin Berger’s In the Night Garden, an invitation to explore a garden transformed by the arrival of night. In intricate spreads, a black cat pads past moonflowers that “unfurl and release their intoxicating perfume,” surveys clouds of fireflies, watches meadows full of flowers and skies full of stars, offering the gift of its presence until its young owner drifts off to sleep. PW spoke by phone with Berger from her house in upstate New York about the satisfaction of making a book from start to finish, books that rebel, and collaborating with a neighbor.

What were some of the inspirations for the book?

When my daughter was younger, she had some anxiety around sleep time and darkness; when we got our house upstate, we used to lie on the porch and talk about the noises we heard before she went to bed, to make that transition a little easier. That ritual definitely informed the book. And when I was a kid, I was close to my grandmother. It was comet season, and I would go to see her and we would lie out in the meadow and look for shooting stars. That was an experience I loved as a kid—so magical.

Is it simply a bedtime book?

It is for sure a bedtime book, but I’m hoping maybe it’s also a book about being curious, an inquiry into the unknown. I’m hoping that in addition to being treated as a transition into sleep time, it will start conversations about what we’re unsure of or afraid of—walking towards that and being open.

Did the book start out pretty much as it appears now?

I had thought maybe I would do something really different from the art I had been making, something looser and more painterly. I was going to do all this painting—I have, historically, painted—but the book just wouldn’t let me do that. It’s like the book rebelled on me. It’s the opposite of what I wanted to do, but at some point I had to relinquish my own idea of it and let it be what it wanted to be.

Were there places in particular where your editor, Neal Porter, contributed?

Working with Neal has been wonderful and extraordinary. Mostly he let me wander on my own, and if I was feeling a little lost he was sort of... “You got this.” He’s so knowledgeable and accessible and warm.

There was one place where he gave me such a gift. He was looking at the spread with the cricket and the bullfrog. Their songs were shown with musical notes in pretty much the same way, and he said, “I think you could do more with it. How can you make it more?” He left it to me to solve. In the final version, the songs of the two creatures take quite different visual forms.

Oh, and another interesting challenge was that I felt strongly that the book should be on uncoated paper. It’s classic, it felt better in the hand, it’s in tune with the tone of the story, but the art is super intricate, there are subtle tonal changes, and the real art is even more complicated in that way. My background is in graphic design, and I said, “I know that it’s a taller order to say it’s on uncoated, but I’d really like to do it.” The production team was hesitant. We got proofs on both coated and uncoated paper. The uncoated paper absorbs like a sponge. The coated paper was the obvious choice. There was a bit of a dance, and Neal was like, “I know we can get there.” We did a couple more rounds and did color correcting to get where we needed to be. That was a collaboration, and a leap of faith.

Do you often have a hand in the production of your books?

I worked in design for 25 years, I still do, and I design all my books. It’s a gift to see the whole thing through, and to be able to achieve your vision in that way. I love all the pieces of a book: the case, the jacket, the endpapers, the whole experience—the objectness of a book. I can toggle between the visual, the textual, the storytelling, the editor’s changes, and then I can design it. It’s a complete thought. If I could just do the words and get out, it would be so much faster....

As a collage maker, do you stockpile paper the way some quilters stockpile fabric?

Yes! Some of them are carefully sorted by polka dots and colors. There are old materials, 1850 ledgers and old letters, but I also work with J. Crew catalogs, when they still printed them. They had really good buttons, good textiles, polka dots and plaids. I have, over the years, tripled-subscribed to catalogs.

Do you use tiny scissors to cut those intricate shapes?

I use both scissors and an X-Acto knife. And a lot of X-Acto blades! I go through hundreds of them for every book.

It is for sure a bedtime book, but I'm hoping maybe it's also a book about being curious, an inquiry into the unknown.

Now that you’ve done a series of books in collage, how does it feel to look at some of your earlier ones? Are there things you’d do differently?

Truthfully, I rarely look back. Each book is its own problem to be solved. There seems to be this intractable way of doing art. I’ve heard other makers say this. The process is pretty long, from the concept to sketches to final art to book, and then you’re back at the beginning again. And when I start in again, I can’t quite remember how to do it. Sometimes I’m a little scared about what’s coming up. There’s always a little sense of dread about what I’m doing. It’s a useful—maybe, creative—anxiety.

What are you working on now?

In my apartment building, four flights up, lives Rachel Vail. She’s an author, she writes YA and picture books; she wrote Sometimes I’m Bombaloo. She has a pet tortoise, and I have a pet rabbit, and for more than a decade we’ve been joking that we should do something with them—we did race them once! It felt like a stretch to do something really seriously character-driven, but we just pulled something together, and it’s an early reader series about Tort and Hare and friendship.

Will that also be collage?

It’s still a little bit collage-y. I was drawing with quill and ink on paper and then collaging them. They’re kind of structured, purposely more graphic, a very limited color palette. I’m excited about it. It’s been fascinating because we have a lot of intricate conversations about how to reach different kinds of learners. There are spreads of visual storytelling. We’re conceptualizing together ways of reaching those early readers.

The other thing I’m working on is about the butterfly effect, how one small gesture grows to reach the next thing and the next thing; it’s about communal connection and change. I tend to like spare text, getting it just right, getting it scientifically right, but keeping it lyrical and going where I want it to go. I haven’t quite decoded it yet.

In the Night Garden by Carin Berger. Holiday House/Porter, $18.99 July ISBN 978-0-8234-4986-6