During more than 35 years of collaboration and friendship, Caldecott Honor illustrator Lois Ehlert and Beach Lane v-p and publisher Allyn Johnston worked on 28 books together. Ehlert’s bold, crisp-edged collage artwork gave her books traffic-stopping visual impact. They didn’t just look handmade—they were handmade. She carefully crafted dummies for each new title (“Nothing was ever done on the computer,” Johnston said), with a brand-new dummy made for every round of editorial revisions until the book was done.
Some months after Ehlert’s death in May 2021, Johnston got a phone call from the artist’s sister-in-law, Pat Ehlert. In the artist’s files, Ehlert told her, the family had found another one of those handmade dummies—one Johnston had never seen. It was a Christmas story, built loosely around the opening lines of Clement C. Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas,” with die-cut pages full of holiday shapes: a Christmas tree, a wreath, a poinsettia. “Lois had given me brief hints that she was working on something that had to do with Christmas, something funny, something for the very young,” Johnston recalled. But it was clear that Ehlert wasn’t ready to show it to her editor yet, and Johnston knew it was better not to ask: “I never pressed her when she was in that early phase. I didn’t want to break the spell.”
When Johnston saw the dummy for the first time, she was electrified. “It was intensely beautiful, even in its rough state—and so Lois-y!” Text and images, everything was where Ehlert wanted it: each page turn, each die-cut, the type hand-lettered, in rough-cut, collage-sketch form, the text about 85% finished. She hadn’t had time to complete the actual final art. Was it publishable? It was hard for Johnston to make the call alone: “I was too close to having just lost Lois.” She made a video of the dummy on her phone and sent it to Andrea Welch, Beach Lane’s executive editor and her colleague of 23 years. Welch’s response was unequivocal: “ ‘We’ve got to publish this! I love it!’ ”
Simon & Schuster executive art director Sonia Chaghatzbanian saw the video, too. She knew it would be a challenge to transform Ehlert’s collage sketches into finished art; they’d have to find the right person to do it justice. “Lissi Erwin had been working with us on several other picture book projects as a freelance art director,” she said, “and I remembered her expertise in designing books with flaps and die cuts from her work with Little Simon years ago.”
Erwin, who had not known Ehlert, was smitten with the dummy when she saw it. “It was amazing to me to be holding this artifact. I have a love for handmade things: collage, handmade art. Especially as a lover of type! That handwritten, hand-pasted writing—I could so picture Lois actually working on it.”
At the end of her life Ehlert lost some of her manual dexterity, but her mind stayed sharp. “That she successfully planned all those complicated die-cuts showed that her brain was still working,” Johnston said. “‘We can make this work,’ ” we kept saying to each other. “ ‘We can do the die-cuts.’ We were all kind of encouraging each other along the way.”
Staying True to the Artist
Erwin labored to preserve the dummy’s handmade look, and the intentional imperfections of all the cutouts. “The circles weren’t perfectly round, and I didn’t correct any curves. I tried to stay true to the hand-cut collage art. I worked from scans of every single page and followed them exactly. Even though it was digital, I wanted to somehow still have the hand of Lois present in the work.” She created the die-lines for the book with the help of a blank physical dummy made especially for the project by production director Elizabeth Blake-Linn and the printer in China.
The text needed some polishing, according to Johnston: “It was pretty much just basic stuff, tweaking the rhyme and the line breaks in small ways in order to smooth the flow of the rhythm while not changing the meaning,” she said, “the kind of thing I had in the past always done with Lois—which of course made it especially scary to do without her!”
Faithful attention to replicating Ehlert’s vision continued right up to the project’s end. The folded paper petals of a blooming poinsettia bore faint shadows, Johnston realized late in the process; Erwin went back into the files to re-create them. Foil sprinkled through the final version would echo the shiny paper shapes that appeared here and there in the dummy. They decided on bright green endpapers to go with the stop-sign red cover flaps, a punchy combination that broadcasts the book’s title the minute the book is opened. “We kept asking ourselves, ‘What would Lois do?’ Erwin said. “It was really important to us to get it right—it was a labor of love.”
Johnston knew Ehlert would have attended to every change. “Sometimes designers who worked on her books made arbitrary decisions like shifting the artwork in relation to the type, and I wouldn’t notice, but she would. ‘On page 10, I think the art’s been moved’—and she’d be right. And always respectful. But she’d still want the art to be where she wanted it.”
Their knottiest problem was what to do about the story’s star. In Ehlert’s twist on Moore’s original, “not a creature was stirring... except a small mouse!” The dummy contained glimpses of the mouse’s tail—but no mouse. In the file with the original dummy, though, they found a separate collage, a jaunty mouse portrait. “This was our biggest puzzle. Lissi and I worked and worked on this,” Johnston said. “He’s got so much personality! Where were we going to put him?”
They were helped by the fact that they had some room. “Once we added separate endpapers, we had an extra spread to play with, so we decided to have the mouse appear one more time there. Including him on that final spread with an unfinished-sentence lead-in seemed the most Lois-y to us.” It would give young listeners a hide-and-seek feeling, a chance to say, “The mouse! There he is!” They rejoiced when Welch read the story to her children and reported that they’d said exactly that.
Red & Green publishes today. While they’re excited about its official debut, Johnston and Erwin have already received the praise that means the most to them. Lois’s family has seen the book, and they are happy. “They felt we’d done right by her,” Johnston said, “and that, to me, was the most important thing of all.”