Answers to Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some of the questions people ask me most frequently. I appreciate hearing from readers who have questions about my books. It helps me to know what is of interest to them.
Q: I know you use a variety of artistic mediums. Is there a particular one you favor more than the other? Why?Answer:
I usually do my books in collage. I like working with paper. I like the feel of it. I can cut out the pieces for a whole illustration and arrange them before I have to commit to gluing them down.
Q: Why did you decide to become a children's book author? Have you always wanted to be one? How did you get into it? Answer:
I went art school when I was 35. I had been doing very realistic work and thought that going to school would help me perfect my illustration techniques. To my surprise, my work changed dramatically. It became bolder and more graphic and began to look like it belonged in a children’s picture book. Then I got two ideas for books. One came from a newspaper article about two spiders that NASA sent into space to see if they could spin webs in a weightless environment. They did and I wrote and illustrated a story about them called Space Spinners.
The idea for Alphabatics came out of an assignment I had in a typography class. We were asked to turn a letter into something using a series of boxes. I turned an A into an owl. Then I realized I could turn A into something that began with A. Then I knew I had an idea for a book. Alphabatics was my first book. It won a Caldecott Honor and jumpstarted my career.
Q: Whose work inspires you? When you first ventured into children's books, was there somebody who guided you? Did you have a model to follow? Answer:
I had a teacher in school named Bill Oakes. He was terrific and encouraged me to experiment and try different techniques. While taking his classes my work changed a lot. It went from being very tight and realistic to being much bolder and more graphic. It began to look like it belonged in a children’s picture book. While I was studying with Bill, he and I also became very good friends. After I did my first book Alphabatics, we wrote and illustrated three books together, Puzzlers, Numblers and Once Upon Another.
Q: Was it hard to get started as a children’s book author and illustrator? Answer:
Yes, the beginning was hard. Over a three year period I had forty six appointments with editors and art directors in New York City before I sold anything. On the forty seventh visit I showed Alphabatics samples for the first time and sold the book to Bradbury Press. Nine months after its publication it won a Caldecott Honor. After that editors were always happy to see me.
Q: How do you know if your book is successful? Answer:
You know by the number of copies you sell and the length of time it stays in print.
Q: What do you do when you get artist's/writer's block? Answer:
I keep working. I keep a regular schedule. I look at magazines and books, go to book stores and sometimes I just wait for something to come to me. After doing nineteen books I know that eventually I will figure out how to get my idea to work.
Recently I found myself thinking about the rhyme: 1 potato, two potato, three potato, four. I hadn’t thought about it since I was a kid. I figured there was a reason it popped into my head. So I played around with it and came up with a counting book about fish. My agent sent it to Little Simon, the novelty imprint of Simon and Schuster. They published it. It is called Fish Swish Splash Dash! Counting Round and Round. Since 2008 I have done three more books with Little Simon; Alphabet Animals, Shape by Shape and Circus Opposites.
Q: Is there a particular goal you hope to accomplish through your work? How do you plan to accomplish it? What makes your books special? Answer:
I think children are very inventive. I create books that encourage that inventiveness. Many are about transformation: taking something we are used to viewing in one way and showing it to my readers in another. In Shape by Shape I turned circle, diamond and crescent shapes into a dinosaur. In Alphabet Animals the animals appear in the shape of the letter that begins their name. Alphabatics is also about transforming letters into something else that begins with that letter. This way of looking at the world encourages children to make their own artistic discoveries.
Q: What is the most rewarding thing about being a children's book author? Answer:
I get to work as an artist. Each project is different. The deadline for finishing a book can be tough, but, for the most part, I have my own schedule and work at a pace that feels right to me. The work is fun. I create…..
Q: What qualities do you find are most important in order to be a successful children's book author? Answer:
You need tenacity, some business and marketing skills, a strong illustration technique, good ideas, and a willingness to try new things.
Q: What is often the inspiration for your work? Answer:
I draw from my imagination, dreams, newspaper articles, ideas that pop into my head and most often from something I have seen.
I began by drawing a picture of a stall. There is a shape that looks like a chicken’s tail that shows above the stall door. When the reader opens the stall door it’s a cow with a hat on its head. The hat also looks a bit like a chicken. Those images are below. I don’t know exactly how I end up where I end up. But I do know it was the photo of the cow that got me going.
Book ideas also show up in other ways. Fish Swish Splash Dash began during a meditation. “One potato, two potato, three potato, four” a rhyme from my childhood popped into my head. I wondered why? Then I thought “maybe I’m going to do a counting book.” Fish is a nice one syllable word. “One fish, two fish, three fish, four” sounded pretty good. I cut a fish shape from a piece of blue paper. When the phone rang, I put my fish down on top of some paper scraps on the drawing table. When I came back I saw the fish had a design that the papers underneath made. From that chance occurrence the book took off. In the final version each cut out of a fish had a design on its body created by the two layers behind.
Q. What do you compose first, the art or the text, and which is more difficult for you? Answer:
I am a visual person. So figuring out how an illustration should look is much easier for me than figuring out words. Most often I get ideas for my books from something I have seen. If there is text the book unfolds with me going back and forth between the text and the art. Sometimes I manage to get the text down before I do the illustrations, but that doesn’t happen often. And is usually not necessary because most of my books are concept books with very few words. I have only published two books with stories, and the text was very minimal.
Q. Describe your Technique. Answer:
I usually do my illustrations in collage using either commercial paper that comes in flat colors or paper I have colored and textured myself. I often use tissue paper.
I’ll describe the process. If I am using tissue paper, the first step is to paint gesso on one side of the tissue paper and let it dry. Then I paint on the gessoed surface. If I use regular watercolor paper the gesso is not necessary. Here is an illustration from a book called Puzzlers that I did a long time ago with Bill Oakes. It is a toucan made out of numbers. All the pieces for the illustration were cut out and placed in position before I glued anything. I don’t use regular glue. I dry mount the pieces onto illustration board.
Q. What makes your books special? Answer:
I think children are very inventive. I create books that encourage that inventiveness. In that way my books are unique. Many are about transformation. Taking something we are used to viewing in one way and showing it to my readers in another. In Shape by Shape I turn circle, diamond and crescent shapes into a dinosaur. In Alphabet Animals the animals appear in the shape of the letter that begins their name. Alphabatics is also about transforming letters into something else that begins with that letter. This way of looking at the world encourages children to make their own artistic discoveries.
Q. How would you make reading a family activity? Answer:
As a child I loved to be read to. I felt loved and close to my parents at those times. As I learned to read I began reading in bed before I went to sleep. As I got older there were still occasions when my mother read out loud. Tolkein’s trilogy, Stuart Little and Robin Hood are a few of the books I remember. TV was very new when I was young. Even so, my parents limited the amount of time that I spent watching TV. I think that is a good practice. That makes more time for children to use their imaginations and read.
Q. What age group is best for your books? Or do you find that children of all ages enjoy them? Answer:
My books are primarily for children from age three to six. I don’t think older children would necessarily pick up my books. However, when I am asked to speak to older children during school visits, they are very interested in how I create my books. They also enjoy drawing exercises. For example, I give them a large gray capital letter and a piece of tracing paper. I ask them to draw an animal whose name begins with that letter in the shape of the letter. For many students that opens the door to inventiveness.
Q. What are some of your favorite children’s books? What makes them your favorites? Answer:
There are the books I favored as a child and the books that inspire me as an artist. In my childhood I favored illustrated stories like Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, Stuart Little and Homer Price.
As an illustrator, I look at a lot of children’s books for inspiration and layout ideas. The illustrators I admire most are Tommi Depaola, Lois Ehlert, Eric Carle and Leo and Diane Dillan. I love Tommi’s colors and many of his stories. A favorite is The Clown of God. The Dillan’s color pallet attracts me, and I am fascinated by all the different illustration techniques they use. Lois and Eric use paper collage, as do I, and I feel an affinity with their bold and colorful illustrations.
Q. What are three things you keep in mind when writing and illustrating your books? Answer:
I strive to make my books simple and colorful. Children are inventive. I focus on finding original ideas that encourage my readers to make their own artistic discoveries.
Q. How do you like to spend your time outside of work? Answer:
I am an avid gardener. I find organizing the colors for my flower beds as satisfying as creating the color pallet for my books. I also like to read, meditate, play tennis, cook and spend time with my husband, Stuart and my family.
Q. What would you tell parents who are trying to find the right books for their children? Answer:
Find books on subjects that interest them. Read to them on a regular basis. Older children like adventure stories like the Tolkein Trilogy. Go to the library. Take them to bookstores with money to buy a book or two. Go on line to authors’ and publishers’ websites. Simon and Schuster have activities to do and videos of authors talking about their work. Many other publishing houses have similar offerings.