Ben Clanton is Awesomerific!

Ben Clanton is one of the coolest author/illustrators in children’s literature right now. I found his book Rex Wrecks It! by chance in the picture book stacks of my bookstore and it quickly became one of my favorites. Lucky for us, he’s been very prolific in a very short period of time, so we have many great books to read from him!

We had a great time chatting for this interview. I hope you’ll enjoy it! You won’t be RAWRY you stopped by to read. 😉

 

AliaQ1. What are three words to describe yourself?

Ben: Kind, creative, and ambitious. That last one is always what gets me sorted into either Gryffindor or Slytherin even though I feel like a Hufflepuff.

Alia: Haha. Nice. Yeah I’ve been sorted as a Ravenclaw or a Gryffindor. I think I feel more like a Gryffindor but I’m not quite sure.

Ben: Hooray for a fellow Harry Potter fan! I’m far too fond of those quizzes. I take a new one almost every year.

Alia: Have you done the “Official” Pottermore one yet?

Ben: Yes, both the one from the previous Pottermore site and the revamped one. I was a Gryffindor the first time and am now a Slytherin (as much as that pains me to say).

Alia: Yeah I heard that happened to a lot of people and they’re kinda upset, lol. It’s totally understandable though. Identity crisis kind of situation.

Ben: I take some solace in that apparently Merlin was a Slytherin and he wasn’t such a bad guy.

Alia: True, true. I know some great Slytherins. Okay, next question, lol.

Ben: Haha! No promises I won’t steer the conversation back to HP.

Alia: HAHA! Well let’s see how you answer question 2. I feel like HP might have some influence. This is a big question…

Q2. Why picture books? Your art style is very approachable; you could illustrate really anything for kids…

Ben: Great question! And thanks! I do have an interest in exploring & making other sorts of books and content, but picture books are particularly dear to me for a number of reasons. For a start, the format allows for a great range of creative exploration. There are so many options with what you can do with the words and pictures in a picture book that other formats don’t provide. I feel like in chapter books, for example, the illustrations usually parallel the text. But in picture books, the illustrations augment the text or even contradict it. Also, with the picture book there is much less of an expectation that it will follow particular narrative conventions. So that out-of-the-box potential that picture books welcome is a big part of why I love them.

Also, I was a reluctant reader of words as a kid. Chapter books were hard; I didn’t read my first on my own until 4th grade. But picture books I could spend ages with. I loved reading the pictures. Still do! I’m a highly visual thinker.

I also love the general brevity of picture books. They are poetic in many ways. So much can be said in a picture book and of the format.

Alia: Yeah it’s obvious that picture books are what you enjoy creating. You put your heart into each one and it shows.

I’m also a very visual thinker so I’m drawn to the magic of picture books. I agree with you. Their brevity also leaves a lot for your imagination to fill in. A lot of people might say that chapter books do that (obviously they do) but picture books also have room for exploration. Kids know this magic immediately (and some adults). 😉

Ben: Just so! They welcome creativity, interaction, and the really good ones become like a friend that you want to spend every night with just before you go to bed. Something special about that time just before dreams and how you choose to spend those last waking hours. Some kids will form such a bond with a particular picture book that it might even see hundreds of readings or viewings.

Alia: Exactly. It’s a pretty special thing to find a book that you connect to!

Okay next question? 🙂

Ben: Sure thing! I could easily get stuck talking and thinking about the picture book format all day.

Alia: Oh man, me too! But onward!

Q3. Do you like ice cream and if so, what’s your favorite flavor and topping?

Ben: ‘Like’ is not a strong enough word. I don’t like ice cream, I love it!

Alia: Haha!

Ben: Caramel ice cream with hot fudge sauce is my favorite.

Alia: Oooh nice choice.

Ben: I spend so much time in ice cream lines I’ve come up with a few of my books while waiting in ice cream lines. 😉

Alia: Haha really?

Narwhal

Image Credit: Tundra Books, Ben Clanton

Ben: True story! My Narwhal and Jelly series for a start. And both of those characters have a love for waffles which I think might have been a result of the smell of freshly made waffle cones while I was standing in line.

Alia: LOL the smell went right to the creative side of your brain.

Ben: And stuck! Narwhal and Jelly both have a borderline obsession with waffles!

Your favorite flavor?

Alia: I mean, that’s a pretty awesome obsession if you ask me. So many possibilities.

My go-to ice cream flavor is probably chocolate chip cookie dough. I’m not big on sauces or toppings. Just give me the scoops.

Ben: Fair enough! And classic choice! I approve.

Alia: lol Thanks!

Q4. Congrats on your new baby boy, by the way. 🙂 Are you already thinking up stories to tell him?

Ben: Thank you! Lots of stories in the works but none that have been inspired by Theo as of yet. I’m sure there will be many, though! I can’t wait until he is old enough for me to share my stories with him and my favorite books.

Alia: Yeah that’s going to be fun. Some babies are so attracted to color and faces and books.

Ben: Adds a whole new level of specialness to making stories!

Alia: For sure! “My dad makes books” I mean…your coolness factor…

Ben: I wish I had been working on more board books now that I have a baby. But Mo’s Mustache will be coming out as a board book. Rex Wrecks It! too!

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Alia: OMG!!! I’m excited!

Ben: Haha! I’ve heard from other authors with kids that their kids aren’t overly impressed because it is just part of their lives. That’s okay with me as it is pretty great to have books be a part of everyday life.

Alia: That makes sense. Right! Your kid is going to grow up with so much richness. All the creativity and that’s great!

Q5. You REALLY like jokes and puns, don’t you?

Ben: I do! I so dearly do! Which, funnily enough, if you just met me on the street and had no idea what my job was, you wouldn’t begin to expect it. I’m generally a fairly serious person. But I do love to play with words and am overly fond of puns (both the bad ones and the good ones).

This is the point where I’m supposed to make a clever joke, but they tend to come to me at the most inopportune times.

Alia: Haha the best ones come organically. I really love how you integrate them into your stories. It’s really fun. I love corny jokes anyway so it’s perfect.

Ben: Haha! Yay! Kindred spirit!

Alia: Yay! I also read that you studied Anthropology? Me too!

Ben: I’m not surprised! I read that open letter you wrote to J.K. Rowling about her new writings involving magic and Native American peoples and it seemed to me you had a solid foundation in anthropological thinking. Told you I might steer things back to HP!

Alia: Ah yes!

Ben: But perhaps that is a conversation for another time as I’m sure we could both get stuck on that particular subject.

Alia: Well, thank you. I really enjoyed studying Anthropology and Native studies. Really enjoyed.

Haha you weren’t lying. 🙂

Yes, for sure.

Ben: I see in your profile photo that you’re holding a copy of Thunder Boy Jr.! Great book! J.K. should have consulted someone(s) like Sherman Alexie!

Alia: Yes! Such a good book. I love that book. I anticipated it for over a year before it came out and both Yuyi Morales and Sherman Alexie came through (of course). Sherman is amazing and yes, she definitely could’ve and should’ve!

Let’s talk a bit about your art, if you don’t mind.

Ben: Much less interesting of a topic. 😉

Alia: Haha! I mean, it’s a hot (and important) topic BUT I do really enjoy your art.

Q6. For Mo’s Mustache, did you really use a mustache as a brush to make the art??

VoteForMe

Image Credit: Kids Can Press, Ben Clanton

Ben: Haha! Yes, and according to my bio for Vote for Me! I’m nine feet tall and am President of the Universe. What is for sure true, though, is I used elephant poop paper for Vote for Me!. The mustache is admittedly a fib.

Alia: Oh man, I’m too naive, lol.

Ben: Hey, knowing me I might have actually done it!

Alia: Ah, so that’s why the art in Vote for Me! looks speckled but unlike your paint splatters. That’s neat. Yeah I could see you taking a mustache and crafting your own paintbrush. Cause why not?

Ben: Exactly! When I remake that book someday I promise to look into that!

Alia: Yes, please, lol. Or a sequel? *wink wink*

Ben: Haha! Perhaps! I’m finishing a sequel to Rex Wrecks It! called Boo Who? currently and I wasn’t sure that would come about. Wouldn’t say ‘no’ to another with Mo!

In regards to the materials/art question, I do like to use techniques and media that fit with the content of the book. For example, with It Came in the Mail (my latest picture book) mail ephemera plays a big role in the art.

Alia: Oh yeah! I’m really excited about that! Rex Wrecks It! is my favorite of yours.

That’s really cool and probably makes it more interesting for you.

I noticed that with the mail! I have some questions about it later for you! I have a few things I want to mention about your art, if you don’t mind.

Ben: Please! Have you noticed I can’t draw backgrounds? 😉

Alia: lol. You like to splatter paint and draw squiggles and stars?

But it’s actually pretty cool, I think. Some picture books can get too busy and I like how you focus in on what we need to see. In general, I love how your style is so simple but not really; it’s pretty complex. Just a few lines and a pop of color go a long way. You create really cool stories about relationships that are fun to look at. 🙂

Ben: Thanks Alia! Definitely some Mo Willems influence there for me. I like to focus on the characters and story and let the reader fill in the white space. To me this goes back to the question regarding the picture book format . . . less can often be more. That’s what I strive for! And the reader really does bring a lot to the book. It’s a collaboration. I’m not making the book alone.

Alia: Ah yeah I can see that! Definitely. It’s a conversation you’re sending out to people to continue.

Ben: And splatter paint is just too much fun! Also, as I can get somewhat tight when doing final art, it forces me to loosen up and go with it.

Alia: Oh man, it is! I just did a workshop with Hervé Tullet and one of the best parts was when he told us to lift the brush and DROP it on the paper. So fun!

Ben: I’m jealous! Hervé Tullet’s work is amazing! I’ve got to try that!

Alia: It really is! He’s so kind too and you should. It’s very freeing.

Q7. Would you rather have a dinosaur best friend who’s a master chef or a monster best friend who’s slightly better than you at basketball?

Ben: Haha! Tough one! This one requires some serious thought as both are great options. I think I’ve got to go with the monster best friend who is slightly better than me at basketball. I like a challenge! Even more than food! Which is saying something.

Alia: Yeah I agree this is a tough question, lol. Good choice though. You’d probably have more laughs with your monster best friend too (and maybe a few arguments).

Ben: Yes! I think so! Can you make this happen for me?

Alia: Umm I wasn’t expecting that question. Let me see who I can call…I’ll get back to you.

Ben: Figures! 😉

Alia: Haha! Okay Q8. I’m all about stories and characters that reflect our world. How do you feel about the push in the publishing industry to get more diverse characters, stories and authors out there?

Ben: I think it is hugely important! It has been great to see the increasing rhetoric and push to have more diverse books, authors, and industry people.

Alia: I think so too!

Ben: In addition to writing and illustrating books, I’ve been working as an editor-at-large for Sasquatch Books (their Little Bigfoot imprint) for about a year. We’ve had a number of conversations about this!

Alia: Oh wow.

Ben: And whenever I’m with fellow authors and illustrators it has come up a lot recently. We’ve all got to keep at it! Keep moving forward!

Alia: Definitely. It’s important for our children to see themselves in books and to learn about others (and each other). It’s how we build community. Books are important parts of development, yeah?

Ben: I was just trying to formulate something coherent along those lines!

Alia: Haha

Ben: Yes, way important! Books are such a great space for exploration!

Alia: Definitely. It’s the only space for exploration for some children.

Ben: True! For new topics and familiar ones and subjects that are uncomfortable.

Alia: Exactly. We need it all.

Ben: Yes.

AliaQ9. Seems like you’re pretty busy (yet amazingly organized). Any non kid-lit books you’re currently reading or strongly recommend?

Ben: Haha! There was a time I wouldn’t have had any recommendations outside kid-lit, but now I listen to a lot of books while illustrating. I’m big into science fiction and fantasy in particular. Recently I’ve been enjoying (?) or at least captivated by the Game of Thrones books. I’m finishing the fifth and will be impatiently awaiting the sixth and seventh. Haven’t watched any of the TV series yet! Red Rising series by Pierce Brown is gripping. And I’ve been listening to a lot of Brandon Sanderson lately.

Alia: Very cool. Oh man, I’m sure you’ll have strong feelings about the series. 🙂 I’m always meaning to listen to audio books but I never do…

Ben: I love audio books! I usually go through 2 or 3 books a week. It’s lovely!

Alia: I think I’m gonna have to try them soon.

Ben: But it has got to be the right voice actor. The wrong voice actor can totally ruin the experience.

Alia: Yeah I’ve heard that. There’s a science to it! Has to feel right.

ItCameIntheMail

Image Credit: Simon & Schuster, Ben Clanton

Q10. Your next book, It Came in the Mail, comes out June 21st (Yay!). Do you mind talking about it a bit? I’ve read it and it’s very sweet. Also what do you hope children take from it?

Ben: Thanks!! It Came in the Mail is particularly special to me. I’ve been working on that one for a long time. Since 2011 I believe. Might have even been 2010. I love mail! I love to get it and I love to send it! And I love the experience of opening a mailbox . . . there is always that ‘what if’ possibility. Perhaps there will be something special in the mailbox. Perhaps something extraordinary and life changing! I’m very good at coming up with elaborate daydreams involving mailboxes. It Came in the Mail is pretty much a love letter to mail! The story itself has evolved a lot since I first had the idea for it. My first take focused a lot on the dragon and became more or less about the pitfalls of having a dragon as a pet. Which was actually quite a fun take, but that wasn’t what I wanted the core of this book to be about. I wanted it to be about the mail and reciprocation. But I didn’t really have a specific message I was setting out to impart.

But I suppose what I hope is that children will be inspired by it to dream big dreams. And send mail! And, perhaps even pay it forward!

Alia: There’s something special about knowing that someone took the time to send you something, isn’t there? Waiting, anticipating or being surprised. I think children will enjoy it; there’s a lot packed in there for them to experience, learn and reflect on!

Ben: Thanks! I hope so!

TableSetsItself

Image Credit: Walker Childrens (Bloomsbury Publishing), Ben Clanton

Alia: You said that you’ve been working on It Came in the Mail for a while…and that you love mail. I think we can see that in your book The Table Sets Itself! It’s obvious that you lovingly spent time on those spreads with the postage stamps and envelopes and letters.

Ben: Haha! Yes! I have a feeling this won’t be the last time mail plays a big part in a book of mine. Even in Mo’s Mustache it all starts with receiving a package in the mail!

Alia: Oh yeah! “Huzzah!” He’s so cute (and frustrated). >_<

Ben: It can be tough being a little monster thing!

Alia: It really can. I’m sure your monster friend will tell you that during a game of pick up, lol.

Ben: Haha! He better not if he is beating me!

Alia: Haha! 🙂

You touched on it earlier and I’m wondering…(Q11.) Did you actually collect the old postcards & envelopes featured in It Came in the Mail and then draw on them?

Ben: Not all of them. Some of those were ones I found online free for commercial use, but many are ones I collected. I would frequent antique stores and thrift stores and seek them out. My wife’s grandmother has a treasure trove of old love letters sent in those classic airmail envelopes! And because of the history of the ephemera (and because drawing on them was a bit daunting) I actually drew on blank paper and scanned the images and combined them with the ephemera in Photoshop. Same for the burned paper in the book. Actually, I got in trouble with my wife over that. I work late and was inspired at two in the morning one night to burn the edges of paper for the dragon illustrations.

Apparently the smell of burned paper is enough to wake someone up in the other room! My bad!

Alia: Ah, I see. I guess that’s the cool thing about technology; you can use it to make so many great effects and art. I love those classic airmail envelopes! They’re lovely.

Haha well I’m glad you decided to do the burned paper. It adds something special to the story and design. I’m a night owl too so I understand completely.

Also, I like the bolder line you use in It Came in the Mail! It looks good and I feel like this book story-wise and art-wise is showing off how much you’ve grown as an author and illustrator.

Ben: Thanks! That is so good to hear! I feel like a bolder and more expressive line is working much better for me than my previous line work. With each new book I’m learning new things. Which can make it hard to look back at books I’ve done. So many things I feel I could do better now! But I suppose it will likely always be that way. Growing pains!

Alia: Yeah, we always look back and think about how we could’ve improved. But I think it looks great!

Q12. Is there any cool place in Seattle that you recommend and like to escape to to relax?

Ben: Seattle has a lot of great places! But I really love to be by the water. The Bainbridge Ferry or Vashon Ferry or really any of the ferry rides around here I find to be particularly relaxing and enjoyable. Great for being inspired too! Oh, and Molly Moon’s Ice Cream is pretty great. Grab some of that and head to the park. Maybe stop by Elliot Bay Books first or University Book Store.

 

 

Thanks Ben for taking time to chat with me! It was fun and I wish you the best of luck with promotions for It Came in the Mail! I can’t wait to see it on bookshelves! 🙂

If you’d like to learn more about Ben Clanton, check out his:

Website, http://www.benclanton.com/

Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/Clantoons

Twitter, https://twitter.com/Clantoons

 

 

Color and Charisma: Talking with Lois Ehlert

Lois Ehlert is, without a doubt, one of the most important creative talents in children’s literature.

I grew up with Lois’ art but it wasn’t until I found her Scraps book tucked in the art section in my bookstore that I really started to LOOK at her work and think about her legacy. As I re-familiarized myself with her books, I wanted to learn more about her…and so, a tiny seed was planted. That flower has finally bloomed and I hope you’ll enjoy our conversation.

 

Alia: Q1. What are three words to describe yourself?

Lois: By that do you mean my work?

Alia: Your work or just you. Anything you’d use to describe yourself.

Lois: Well, let’s see…I dress colorfully. I enjoy nature and I love to walk.

Alia: Cool! Those are good. I like that.

Alia: Q2. What’s your favorite type of sandwich?

Lois: Oh boy. I think peanut butter sandwiches.

Alia: What kind of jelly do you put on your peanut butter sandwiches?

Lois: I don’t put the jelly in at all. I just love chunky style peanut butter.

Alia: Ah. I’m more of a creamy peanut butter person.

Lois: Ah. Oh okay. We can differ on that. 🙂

[Laughing]

ScrapsBook

Image Credit: Beach Lane Books (Simon & Schuster), Lois Ehlert

Alia: Q3. The way that I started to learn more about your work was when I read your Scraps book and then your Hands book. In those books, you talk to us about how creative your parents were. So I’m wondering how important it is, in your opinion, to have parents or family who really nurture and encourage creativity.

Lois: I think it’s extremely important and in my case, when I speak with children, I always tell them the story about my dad fixing up an old table, a folding table, which I mention in the Scraps book and also in the Hands book. They made a bargain with me that if I kept working at my artwork on that table, I didn’t have to put things away every day. I think that was very unusual because I’m the oldest of three children and we had a very small house and I was right in the middle of everything. I often said to them, when I grew up to be an artist, did you realize how important that was for you to allow me that because a lot of parents want things to be too neat and if you have a creative soul, you can’t always be neat. You have to be messy some of the time. So, I think it’s very important.

Being the oldest of three, I would think [being an artist] was an unusual vocation to choose because there are certainly other vocations that are more steady. But they just allowed me to do what I wanted to do and I always said they were creative but they always said “No, no we’re not creative.” “Yes, you are!” But that was before the time that art was considered a profession, in a way, except maybe for painters (fine arts) and so they did their thing in their spare time because they both worked at other jobs during the day but I watched them and got little scraps from them. I do think I had creative parents.

Alia: I can kind of relate to that too because I’m also the oldest of three and I understand what you mean about as the oldest you might expect your parents to have strict expectations for what you want to do for your career but my parents too always told me “No you just do what you want to do.”

Lois: Yeah and that’s very liberating.

Alia: Yeah. Definitely. To not have that pressure; to know that they’re supporting you in everything that you’re going through and learning.

Lois: Yeah.

Alia: Q4. I really like your books because they’re not only beautiful, they’re very educational. I really appreciate how approachable your books are because children of many ages can enjoy them because of the way you write. You have simple text but then you also have a little more complicated text for them to grow into or for older children to enjoy. So I’m wondering, how did you go from an art school student to picture books??

Lois: Well, when I was growing up and I learned to read, we would go to the library every week, usually Saturday mornings and the three of us (my younger brother and sister and I) would pick out a maximum of five books each. So we had fifteen a week. Then we would read those and kind of interact with them; our mom would read them to us. So first of all, I loved reading and secondly, the only art, really, that I was exposed to, because I was from a small town, was art in picture books. And maybe later Art History books but I never went inside of an art museum until I was older, much older, because we didn’t have an art museum. I always like to think that art and writing help each other. That sometimes the younger children read the pictures-

Alia: Yeah! Yeah!

Lois: -and the middle kids, like my sister, would read the big type and then the older of the three (if there were three as we were) would read those little labels or read the content in the back of the books for some of the science books like about butterflies or animals or whatever. So what I try to do is to span the ages a little bit, both ways, younger and older but having the same thing. It’s deceptively simple because I really work on the text so that each word works. I don’t know if that makes sense or not but that’s my theory.

Alia: Oh it does because now that I look back on your books (I’ve been doing some research for this [interview]), you think “Oh it looks simple” but really when you dive into them, you can see how they are written for such a ride range. Like you said, the whole family can experience the book.

Lois: That’s right and if the book is popular, you know, if you’re a parent you’re going to be reading that book over and over and over until you’re kind of sick of it, so it better be something! I always liked the books where you didn’t notice everything the first time you read them and you could go back and discover little things like, for instance, have you looked at Fish Eyes?

FishEyes

Image Credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, Lois Ehlert

Alia: I haven’t looked at that one yet but I’ll check it out.

Lois: It’s a counting book and it’s all fish and where the eye of the fish would be, it’s a cut out circle. From a tactile sense, you could read the text for “Number 2” and then there would be two fish on that page with two eyes cut out. Anyway, if you look at that, there’s a big fish for “Number 1” and the fish scales spell out a word! I won’t tell you what it is, but some kids see it the first time they read the book and other kids never see it until I ask them about it. So I like to put those surprises in. Another thing is I kind of blend fiction with non-fiction and I know the Library of Congress sometimes has trouble putting me in a category because it’s not one or the other; it’s both. But I like to do that because I think it’s all a part of learning and when I do research, I might as well share it, you know?

Alia: Yeah, I mean picture books are art and you can tell how much time and thought you put into every page. They’re very carefully laid out but it’s not overdone.

Lois: Yeah, I majored in graphic design when I was in art school and that encompassed both the page composition and a lot of things; other artists might not come from that point of view. Especially if somebody else is doing the writing for a book, some illustrators might not think about the placement of the text, particularly, and it’s understandable because they don’t interact with it. But when you do both the writing and the art, you have an advantage because you can talk to yourself and say “Lois, I don’t think that’s in the right spot! [Laughing] Either move the art over or put the type somewhere else.” You don’t want a young kid to have to struggle too much to read the book.-

Alia: Because you’ll lose their attention.

Lois: -It’s hard enough learning to read. Yeah, yeah. But you want it to be a challenge also. So, somewhere in between there is best, I think.

Alia: Q5. So I noticed that you like moles! At least four books of yours that I read were about moles or had moles so what do you like about moles?

Lois: Well, first of all, I am very interested in Anthropology…

Alia: Oh really? I studied Anthropology in college.

Lois: Oh! We’re twins I think!

Alia: Yes!

Lois: I’ve done a lot of traveling in a lot of countries so I have a collection of folk art but what I noticed is that the mole is an animal that appears in a lot of folk tales and it’s funny because they’re not particularly good looking; they’re small and rather insignificant and people don’t like them here because they dig holes in their lawn. But I started by looking up some folk tales. One is from Peru [Cuckoo], another one is from Mexico [Moon Rope], and one is Native American [Mole’s Hill] and the fourth one is pretty much the Midwest where I live. But I don’t know, I’ve always thought that they could be joined together in one book and be called “Mole Tales” but nobody’s done that yet.

holey-moley-9781442493018_hr

Image Credit: Beach Lane Books (Simon & Schuster), Lois Ehlert

Alia: So you were kind of inspired by the moles that you saw in different indigenous people’s stories so that made you interested in the animal itself and you incorporated moles into your books and art. I also noticed for Holey Moley you just gave the mole his own book! He’s just running around in that one…

Lois: Yeah, actually he takes care of some of the predators in the garden but they don’t surface very often. They stay primarily underground; their eyes are not very well developed. They just keep digging, you know, and I think there’s something to be said about that as a trait, even for human beings. Just keep working, you know.

Alia: Just keep stay working on your work and focus on what you’re doing; your own projects. Yeah, I think so.

Lois: Yeah, right.

Alia: Q6. So you touched on it a little bit but where are some of the places you’ve traveled through in your life and how do you think going to those different places has influenced your art style?

Lois: Well I have been to Europe but I’ve been to Central and South America more frequently. I just simply love color and of course my art is based on realism but it’s stylized realism and a lot of the cultures, especially their weavings and things are simplified but not simple. Like Pre-Columbian things are just beautiful in their simplicity but you can learn a lot about the culture; like what vegetables they have because they portray them in their art. I just have a big collection of things like that; some expensive and others very inexpensive and what I like best about it is they’re made by hand. They’re not made by machine.

Alia: Q7. The thing I like about picture books is that I think the images in picture books are very powerful and visceral because they stick with you. I’m twenty seven so I grew up with Chicka Chicka Boom Boom [she laughs joyfully] because that book was out when I was in pre-school so…that coconut tree, those bright letters, the bright cover; those images are a part of my childhood. That’s what I love about picture books and growing up with them. So my good friend Nida, she has a question for you. She wants to know 1) What’s your favorite color? and 2) What’s your favorite letter of the alphabet?

Lois: Oh boy. I don’t really have a favorite color. If you saw my studio you would know that I just love every color. If you read Planting a Rainbow, that’s about flowers and colors. I just can’t…I try to use as many colors as I can in the books and experiment with quiet colors and loud colors and as far as the alphabet’s concerned, I don’t know. I can’t quite think that I like one better than the other either. I think the idea that I put all the alphabet, for the endpapers [of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom] appeals to me more; each letter in a different color-

Alia: Yeah I really liked that.

Lois: -The capitals and the lower case. A lot of books like, if you’ve seen Eating the Alphabet, have you seen that?

Alia: Yeah I think that’s my favorite one of yours, actually…

Lois: So that’s a completely different approach to the alphabet as far as letters, style and everything. I just try to use as many of the letters of the alphabet and as many colors as I can, I guess. I just can’t make the other letters feel bad by picking one of them.

Alia: Just like with the colors, you can’t make them feel bad. There’s just too many good ones, right?

Lois: Yeah! Right!

[Laughing]

Lois: I don’t think you can have too many colors as far as I’m concerned!

Alia: I think so too! When I was in middle school I had a favorite skirt (I like long skirts) and it had all types of colors on it and maybe I was teased a little bit for it but I just loved that skirt because it was so bright.

Lois: Yeah, I dress that way and I have colorful socks and t-shirts all different colors that I wear when I’m working. I don’t know, it’s hard to find a lot of color in today’s clothing industry. They have a lot of gray and black and white, you know. It’s hard to find.

Alia: I think some people, it’s not that they’re afraid of color, they’re hesitant to embrace it maybe? Especially around the cold months and winter time. It’s like for some reason people think “Well I have to wear dark clothes, dark brown, black, grey.” I’m like “Wear bright colors too!” It kind of livens things up, you know.

Lois: Yeah. It’s also economical to have a lot of black and neutral colors, you know. Because if you wear something red people will remember that! If you wear it every day, they’ll say “Well…” you know, but I like color wherever I find it.

Alia: Me too.

Lois: Now you said you saw the advanced copies for Rain Fish, right? And so you can see I even found some colorful things in the gutter!

Alia: Oh, yeah! 🙂

[Laughing]

Alia: Q8. This might be tough but out of all your books, do you have one that you just really, really enjoyed working on or when you think about it, it makes you very happy?

Lois: No, I really don’t because I work a long time on the books. I spend maybe 50 percent of the time making art and doing the writing and the other 50 percent of the time taking things out and doing it over. But they’re all enjoyable I think. When an artist gets an idea, an original idea, that’s probably the most joyous part about it. Working on it is really work! But I try to use different art techniques and different art materials and different ideas for the writing and subject matter so it’s pretty hard to pick out one. I think if there is one that’s closest to my heart, it’s Hands.

hands

Image Credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, Lois Ehlert

Alia: Yeah, yeah. Yeah I really enjoyed that one because I felt like Hands was very, not only is it educational, but it felt personal. You can really tell how close you were to your parents, especially when you were creating, when you read through that book. So I really enjoyed that one.

Lois: Yeah I would say that began as an artist’s book which, simply put, is one of a kind. I was studying the composition of books at the university as a graduate student and my dad had died and one of the assignments was to make a book about someone or something. So what I did with the artist’s book was to talk about my dad but indirectly by showing his gardening gloves for instance and that he liked to go fishing, without showing a photograph of him. It evolved twelve years later and by that time my mom had died, into that book. So I have to thank Allyn Johnston, my long time editor, for asking me to change it from an artist’s book, which is one of a kind to like thirty thousand of them. I devised a format and everything, which is more graphic design than illustration, in some regards, but it’s closest to my heart.

Alia: About the design of the book, that’s another thing that I think really stands out because as you’re reading it, you’re flipping the pages and you’re not only reading, you see the images, you see the gloves, you see the paints, and it’s like you’re a part of the story as well as-

Lois: Yeah you’re using your hands to read it!

Alia: -Right! Yeah, exactly. Using your hands to read Hands! You’re reading about the relationship between your hands and your dad’s hands and your mom’s hands. It’s such a nice book.

Lois: Well thank you.

Alia: Q9. So you touched on it a little earlier but I can tell that you’re a collector. [She laughs and we both laugh] Is there anything that you’re collecting these days that you’re excited about? Any new collections?

Lois: I’m trying not to collect so much. I have a very, very full apartment but one of the things that I collect that is pretty Midwest is ice-fishing decoys. There’s one spread of some of them in the Scraps book. They’re little carved, wooden, painted things and they have lead in their bellies and then they cut a hole in the ice in a lake and put those on a line and supposedly they attract a larger fish to come to the opening in the ice and then they’re speared. It’s a Native American tradition but now other fishermen partake in it too. So that’s an ongoing collection. They’re hard to find but I like the ones that look like they’re used and I think I have 178 now-

Alia: Wow…

Lois: -and they’re small. They’re like 6 inches, 7 inches and I have them all swimming together on top of my bookcases. It looks kinda nice. So there’s always room for a couple more of those!

Alia: I bet you like the thrill of seeking them out too. I think that’s-

Lois: I do indeed!

Alia: -the best thing because I like collecting things too and I like markets. I know you like markets; I read your book Market Day. I like markets and flea markets and thrift stores but half of the fun is going there to look, you know? The thrill of the hunt.

Lois: Absolutely! Yeah. And you know a lot of things that I have are not very expensive. I’m not into modern paintings, although I love them at the art museum. That’s not my interest…but I do like the fish.

Alia: Yeah they’re cute. I saw the photo you mentioned in your book. They’re really pretty; the different designs on each one.

Lois: Yeah, they’re neat.

Alia: Q10. Do you still do author visits at schools and if not, do you miss doing them?

Lois: I’m afraid I don’t do them anymore. As I grow older, I find I just don’t have the energy to do everything and I kind of decided I better just stay home a little bit more and make art as long as I can. But I do miss it. But I have hope that the Scraps book would be my stand-in a little bit, so that young kids would understand what it’s like to be an artist. So I’m doing my best but I just can’t do everything unfortunately. I have to leave that to the younger artists and writers. I did it for many years, so.

Alia: I bet that all the kids you’ve met really enjoyed seeing you.

Lois: I still do workshops once in a while at the art museum with kids and so I keep my hand in it but, you know. I’ve just decided, can’t do everything!

Alia: Right. I’m glad you’re still creating and putting books out there.

Lois: Oh, so am I!

Alia: Because we want to keep reading them, so we’re glad for that!

Lois: Oh good. Good, good!

RainFish

Image Credit: Beach Lane Books (Simon & Schuster), Lois Ehlert

Alia: Q11. So since you’ve been talking about it a little bit, can you tell us what Rain Fish is about? I know it comes out in April. Can you give us a little bit about it and what you hope kids will take from it?

Lois: Sure. I’d be happy to. Sometimes I see things that I don’t think other people see. For instance when I go to a farmer’s market, I sometimes see faces in the potatoes or I might see something in the leaves in a tree. I have often been out when it’s raining and I notice on the sidewalks, mostly and in the gutter there are things that people throw away that to me, look like they might be like a fish. Now again, that’s maybe something that if somebody else looked at it they wouldn’t think the same thing, so that’s how I began with the idea of Rain Fish. Things happen with the rain and the wind and just for a moment these things come into play with each other and they look like fish! But then as it continues to rain, they wash away and go down the drain and so it’s sort of a story that is more magical than real.

When I started looking for objects to make fish, because I thought that’s what I could do for the art, I looked for things that most people would throw away. I got to thinking that lots of times people go to art supply stores and they buy expensive things and this could be something where kids, some of whom maybe didn’t have extra money to buy art supplies but were so creative, could find things that people had discarded and make them into fish. I thought well, that was the way that I did it and I hope maybe there will be some kids that could do that too. I used that technique a little bit in other books like Snowballs. I don’t know if you’ve seen that?

Alia: Yeah, Mmm hmm.

Lois: Where I use real objects and then part of it is painted or Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf and Leaf Man. I’m playing with free art supplies so to speak and also with the idea that if you look at something and you use your imagination, it turns into something else. We’ll have to wait and see if the book is successful in its message or not; I always try my best but you never know really. It’s interesting because kids don’t all have the same favorite book of mine and I like that!

Alia: Kids connect to different things.

Lois: Yeah I think that’s good.

Alia: Well when I read it myself and now thinking about what you just said, what I like about it is that it encourages kids to use their imagination and I do know a lot of teachers like to do “Found Art” units in school so I think your book would work well for those kind of units where they take the kids out to the woods to get sticks and stones. I think it would fit well into that Pre-School-2nd/3rd grade age when they’re still doing those fun art projects, you know?

Lois: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I hope so.

Alia: Also Rain Fish reminded me of Leaf Man in the way that in Leaf Man you have to really look at the leaves to find the turtle and the fish and all the little things. So with Rain Fish you kind of have to stretch your brain a little bit and say “Yeah that looks like a fish, I see it swimming.” I think that’s good for kids and their brains. I think they’re going to enjoy it.

Lois: And you know so many things in our world are so nailed down and so prescribed. It’s kinda nice to float out a little bit and use your imagination, you know? That’s my own opinion!

Alia: Definitely. And I think kids these days, they’re so tied down to media and TV, etc. and it’s good to go back to a good book that they can sit down with and just “Go” and explore with their mind. I think that’s important.

Lois: Yup. I bet you were a good teacher.

Alia: Haha. Oh thank you. I tried. I had fun with my students and I was about making sure that they felt comfortable and that they had a good time in the classroom. That’s what it’s about.

Lois: Yeah, I think so. But you know it’s too bad that some of that joy is taken out of the classroom, I think.

Alia: Yes, I think school can be extremely stressful for kids, all over the world. I taught in Korea and their education system is very tough and the kids there have a lot to do, a lot of responsibilities and sometimes they don’t have moments to just play and explore so it’s extremely important for children and their development to have those moments to just be kids.

Lois: Yeah, I agree. It’s interesting. Quite a few of my books are reprinted in Korean.

Alia: Oh good! Yay!

Lois: And Chinese and Japanese and other countries too, like Spanish speaking ones. But I’m thinking maybe it’s the visual aspect of them that appeals to their sensibilities.

Alia: Yeah, I think, from my experience, Korean kids are just like American kids. They enjoy funny books, they like the jokes and the good thing about your books is that they could translate well. Like we talked about how they’re simple but are also complicated. I think that’s why they work well.

Lois: The only thing that’s missing when they translate it is the rhyme.

Alia: Yeah…

Lois: And of course, that can’t always be translated. But that’s okay. I think rhyming helps a young kid to learn the pronunciation of words that maybe are spelled differently but pronounced the same.

Alia: Well maybe there’s a young author/illustrator in Asia who’s been inspired by your style and they’re doing their own original work with rhyme. So that’s a possibility.

Lois: Yeah.

Alia: Q12. You’ve been a part of the evolution of the picture book/children’s literature industry. It’s really grown to become a very big industry. How do you feel about the current push for more diverse stories and diverse authors in children’s books?

MoonRope

Image Credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, Lois Ehlert

Lois: Oh I’ve always been for that. In fact, some of my earlier books [Cuckoo and Moon Rope], two of the mole books, are bilingual and I really at the time had to argue about having two languages in the same book to make them more multicultural. But they did it. So, now it’s not uncommon to do a lot of those things but I’ve always felt that I was talking to a child no matter where they lived and of course some books are more specific than mine are. My books speak a little bit more about things that any child can approach but I think the more the merrier. I really do.

Alia: The good thing about your books is that any child can pick them up and see nature and learn about that. I think that’s why they’re so good for all types of children to learn from.

Lois: I always worry about kids not going outside so much anymore.

Alia: Yeah that’s true. Also some schools have cut back on recess time too. It’s a tough time for education but I have hope for the future. I’m hopeful.

Lois: I am too. I’ve always been and you can’t maybe change the word but just a little part of it.

Alia: Yes, definitely.

Alia: Q13. Did you have a favorite food when you were growing up?

Lois: No. Not really. I’ve always liked fruits and vegetables. We always had a garden and to this day I’m not sure what made me like them so much. I think sometimes it was the way they looked, the colors, like red strawberries and green leaves. I just don’t know but for fruits and vegetables I love to go to the farmer’s markets and pick out things. I would say fruits and vegetables.

eating-the-alphabet-lois-ehlert

Image Credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, Lois Ehlert

Alia: Well you can definitely tell because in Eating the Alphabet, just the amount of time and love you put into each fruit and vegetable-

Lois: Yeah and I ate all those too!

Alia: -Oh you did!? When you were doing research?

Lois: Yup.

Alia: I remember reading it for the first time and there were a lot of fruits and vegetables in there that I’d never heard of. I was like “Oooh what’s that?” and it made me want to look them up!

Lois. Yeah! One of my best friends was a food editor at the Milwaukee Journal newspaper and so I’d sometimes ask her about things. Like at that time, kiwi fruit and star fruit were not very common. They are a little bit more now. Also ugli fruit, you know? It was fun to do; I painted them and then I ate them.

Alia: That’s some good research.

Lois: Well you know, you gotta be practical about these things!

[Laughing]

Alia: That reminds me. There’s a book that I’m not sure if you’ve read it but it’s called The Ugly Vegetables by Grace Lin. Have you read that one?

Lois: No.

Alia: It’s really good. It was Grace Lin’s first book and it’s about a Chinese family that’s growing a garden and the little girl is a little dismayed because she thinks their garden is ugly. Their neighbors have beautiful flowers and they have ugly vines but her mom has a plan; she’s growing a vegetable garden. I think you’d really enjoy that one. It’s a good one.

Alia: Q14. We know Rain Fish is coming out in April. Do you have any other projects that you can talk about yet?

Lois: Well I am working on a project right now. I’m about halfway done but I never talk about it until I get it done. Partly because I think it dissipates the idea somewhat to talk about it too much but sometimes the idea changes too. But there will be something that’s scheduled for probably of Spring 2017.

Alia: Okay so not too far. So, about a year from now.

Lois: No. But the deadline to do the art and everything is the end of this June because they need time to allow for printing and biding but I’m hopeful. I keep changing the text; every day it seems I change a word or two but it’ll get together. It’s quite different than any of the other things.

Alia: Oh? Oh really?

Lois: Which is probably no surprise to you, right?

Alia: No! Because every one of your books is a little different!

Lois: Yeah!

Alia: Which is good. Oh good, I’m excited.

Alia: Q15. Do you have a favorite place that you recommend in your hometown of Beaver Dam or in Milwaukee? A place that you really enjoy going to?

Lois: I like to go to the Audubon Center in Milwaukee. I love to go out there and walk around but for a more formal setting, I live about three blocks from both Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee Art Museum and that is a very interesting building. They’ve just remodeled the interior of it so I spend a lot of time over there both with teaching children and just looking. But there are not so many wild places left but the Audubon center is kinda wild and nice.

Alia: Yeah, I always like to ask authors/illustrators in my interviews about your favorite places because it helps me get a better understanding of where you come from.

Alia: Before I go, because I’m coming to the end, I wanted to give you one more book recommendation because that’s what I do! I’m a bookseller. Do you know the author/illustrator Julie Flett?

Lois: No.

Alia: She is Canadian, Cree-Metis-

Lois: Oh! 🙂

Alia: -and she is awesome. She mostly illustrates but has also written her own books. But her style, I think you’d like her because she does collage and painting too. She does a lot of depictions of Native families and also, like you do, incorporates nature like the woods and areas in which she grew up. I really think you would like her work.

Lois: Oh, okay!

 

Thank you again Lois. I really enjoyed our talk and I encourage you all to check out her many, many beautiful books! They’re a part of most public library collections and are available at your local bookstores.

Website: http://authors.simonandschuster.com/Lois-Ehlert/1877089

 

 

 

People

Image Credit: Doubleday Books for Young Readers, Peter Spier

Image Credit: Doubleday Books for Young Readers, Peter Spier

People takes a snapshot of the world. This book has a lot of emotional meaning for me because it was one of my favorites as a child. I still have my original copy from 1980. Look what I wrote inside the front cover:

Image for People

I’ve always loved meticulous illustration and Peter Spier doesn’t miss any details. His bold and colorful illustrations of peoples, towns, foods and traditional games are amazing. People is essentially about cultural diversity. His simple sentences prompt reflection and discussion about our similarities and differences. Children learn about tolerance, humanity and how varied our cultures are. As I read through this book again, I thought “Well goodness, he taught me about cultural relativism!” I’m pretty certain that this book is one of the reasons why I studied cultural anthropology in college. It sparked an early interest in learning about all types of people.

Though there are many great things about this book, there are some problems. Some parents and teachers might not like that Adam and Eve are the first people in the book. Spier does a fair amount of cultural stereotyping with his illustrations and the book is rather dated in many ways. So why am I recommending this book? I’m recommending it because I believe that it’s still an excellent book that people of all ages can learn from. For his mistakes, he has many more successes and a book like this one is still a good resource for a curious child. Parents and teachers can use these stereotypes (ex. Native American houses in USA are teepees/The Japanese family always wears Kimono) as learning tools. By encouraging questions and prompting discussion about these issues, children can take away more valuable lessons. A teacher or parent can also challenge their children to “update” this book by having them choose a culture featured and research how they live today.

**I reviewed the 1980 version but there is a more updated version now available. Information below

Recommended for: 1st Grade and Up
Great for: Cultural Diversity, Cultural Relativism, Discussion, Anthropology
Book Info: People by Peter Spier, 1988, Doubleday Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 9780385244695