Pioneering author and illustrator Aliki Brandenberg (known simply as Aliki) is turning 94 this week. She has written more than 100 books for children in a career that spans six decades. Geisel Honoree Stephen Savage is the author and illustrator of 15 books for children, including last year’s Moonlight. Savage credits Aliki’s 1969 picture book My Visit to the Dinosaurs with helping foster a lifelong love of art and books. Recently, the two authors sat down in Aliki’s Manhattan apartment for a conversation about books, illustration, and the life of a creative.
Stephen Savage: Did you always want to be an artist?
Aliki: I was born with a pencil in my hand!
Savage: What accounts for your artistic versatility?
Aliki: I started doing books about people and things that interested me. I’m from Philadelphia, so I chose to do a book about William Penn. I’ve always been interested in science, so after finding a fossil in Greece, I began studying dinosaurs. And one thing led to the other.
Savage: You created your first book, The Story of William Tell, in 1960. Why that story?
Aliki: When my husband, Franz, and I were first married, we were living in Berne, Switzerland, and the story was all around me. Then a friend, who worked for the London publisher Faber and Faber, came to visit us. He brought us the most wonderful book, How Saint Francis Tamed the Wolf. It was so simple and beautiful and inspiring. At the time, most nonfiction books had to be boring or they weren’t good. [laughs]
Later that year, we returned to the U.S. where there was a boom in children’s books and my career took off.
Savage: What book came next?
Aliki: It was The Wish Workers in 1962. Then my brother-in-law, who was a brain surgeon, suggested I do a book on George Washington Carver. I just fell in love with the story and where he came from, and what he did with his life. It was so inspiring. It’s one of my favorite books because the message is universal. You don’t have to be black or white or pink!
Savage: Around that time, you created The Story of Johnny Appleseed, a book I adore. I love the forest spread where the animals gather around Johnny.
Aliki: People love that period of mine. But I couldn’t hold on to it. Years later, those books were called “mid-century.”
I’ve always let the subject dictate the style. Certainly, with nonfiction. When I did My Visit to the Aquarium, I went to 11 aquariums. I had a stack of books to make sure the right fish was in the right tank. If I wanted to illustrate a fish, it had to be a particular fish. It had to be right.
Savage: Your books Feelings and Manners were pioneering. How did these books come about?
Aliki: They were inspired by my daughter, Alexa, who had big emotions growing up. It’s funny—people are so afraid to talk about their feelings.
Susan Hirschman [at Greenwillow Books] was the editor. She was a quick decider. She was born for that job. She would look at something and know that she wanted it or didn’t want it. She liked it or she didn’t. I said, “Susan, I don’t know how to illustrate this book,” because what was I going to do? Just put happy faces and sad faces on the characters? And she responded, “Well, the pictures don’t have to be so big.” So I thought, “Yes! Each one is a story!” And then came Manners and Communication. I call it my trilogy!
Savage: I love the tiny drawings in those books.
Aliki: Well, I grew up with comic books like Prince Valiant. And Jason, my son, who was little at the time, loved the books of Richard Scarry. He loved looking at all the little things. It just worked.
Savage: What have you enjoyed most about your career, aside from the actual bookmaking?
Aliki: Visiting kids and teachers. When I began a career in books, I didn’t know about school visits and how wonderful they could be. I just started illustrating. I wasn’t thinking of glory or anything.
You know, I really don’t feel the way you do about my own books. I love that you see what you see.
Savage: Oh yes! I’m an Aliki fan— a super fan. But like you, I don’t get all that much enjoyment from my own work either. Aliki, we haven’t spent all that much time together, but I feel we are kindred spirits!
Aliki: I just love our relationship. I can’t believe you knew my work when you were a little boy.
Savage: You mean before my hair turned gray? Yes, you know I’m an Aliki fan because I’ve been carrying My Visit to the Dinosaurs around for 50 years. From one apartment to another. I can’t even find the pair of socks I had on yesterday.
Aliki: Why is it so important to you?
Savage: I’ll tell you why…
Aliki: You like dinosaurs, right?
Savage: It’s more than that. I chose your book because the hand of the creator was right there on the page. It wasn’t a personality-less science book. The viewpoint was personal and warm. And the artwork itself wasn’t perfect. “Child-like” is not the right word. It was accessible to me. So much so that I copied your illustrations. I thought, “I can draw like this, too.”
You also had only one name. Superstars always have only one name.
You managed to stay incredibly productive and also raise children and stay married for over 60 years. How did you balance career and family?
Aliki: I had an awesome husband.
Savage: So sorry to hear that he passed away recently.
Aliki: Yes, Franz did a lot of the things around the house. You know, they talk about Mr. Pelosi. Yeah, Franz was more. He did the shopping. He took the kids to the playground. He planned the trips. He chopped the vegetables. He was my sous chef. And I was so grateful. But on the other hand, I couldn’t leave my desk. It’s not something that you can, you know, just add a couple of colors and then peel the onions. You have to stay with it, and he respected it. And he found his own pleasure. Then he started writing his own books.
I have a niece who recently said, “Franz was always standing in back of you.” And I thought, “That says it exactly.”
We had a wonderful life together. And now I can’t hear the music that I love so much. But you just have to say “thank goodness I had it.” I’m so grateful for what we had.
Savage: What part of the writing process do you enjoy?
Aliki: I love editing. But it’s very hard to take away all the words that are unnecessary. I hope you’re planning to edit me here!
Savage: Ha! And I agree: less is more when it comes to the words.
Aliki: And your books read beautifully. They glide! We need more of them!
Savage: So nice of you to say that. I guess I’m always just trying to pare down, pare down. Simplify, simplify.
Aliki: It’s amazing to discover how many words we don’t need to write a sentence. I find that exciting and challenging.
Savage: Important, too, to figure out whether the words or the pictures should do the heavy lifting on a spread. Never together at the same time.
Aliki: Yes. The last thing we want to illustrate is something that’s written down, right?
Savage: Are you working on something now?
Aliki: I’m not sure it’s a children’s book, but it’s about inspiration, because everything rests on inspiration. And determination.
Savage: It’s amazing and inspiring to hear that you go into your studio every day.
Aliki: Yes—I’m busy at my desk, after a little break. I found my happy place. Finally, again.