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. 🙂
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.
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?
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!
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.
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!
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! 🙂
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.
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-
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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!
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?
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!
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?
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.