5 QUESTIONS with LIZZY ROCKWELL, author/illustrator of “Plants Feed Me.”

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There’s not a person in all of children’s literature whom I respect more than Lizzy Rockwell. She’s the real deal, the genuine article. We haven’t been friends for long, but every time I get a chance to speak with Lizzy — when we’re invited to the same book festivals, fortuitously — I am struck by her kindness and intelligence. I find myself wishing I was that nice, or that smart. Oh well! The truth is, children’s literature is in Lizzy’s DNA. And so she quietly puts good work into the world, day by day, book by book. I know you’re going to like her.

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Lizzy, thanks for coming. In honor of your visit, I’ve set out a delicious array of snacks. Let’s see, here’s some tinned corned beef; a bowl of cheese puffs; a plate of tilefish –- rich with mercury; microwaveable popcorn with bags lined with perflourooctanoic acid (you don’t want to know), and some Chef Boyardee Beef Ravioli! Pretty sure that’s every food group. What’s the matter, Lizzy, not hungry?

Oh Jimmy, you shouldn’t have. No, I mean it, you really shouldn’t have.

Okay, fine, more perflourooctanoic acid for me! Lizzy, you know I’m a big fan. I have so much respect and admiration for your work. Your books are always clear, concise, and uncluttered. You strip away the superfluous, anything that might confuse or complicate. I think that’s your great, under-rated gift — your unique ability to hone in on the essence of a book. You make it look easy.

I don’t always share this with adults, but do readily with kids, I struggle a lot to get to that simplicity. My first writing project, edited by Phoebe Yeh at Harper, was Good Enough to Eat: A Kid’s Guide to Food and Nutrition. We worked on it for about four years. I did three entirely different book dummies, different texts, different illustrations. Getting a book to the point where it rings true and clear is not easy. But it should look easy.

Plants Feed Me also went through a major overhaul. Shortly before I was to start on finishes, my editor at Holiday House, Grace Maccarone, decided that it would be an even stronger book as a level D easy reader. Simple sentences, phonetic words, and 24 pages instead of 32. This affected nearly every sentence and picture in the dummy. After I wiped away my tears, I set to work, and was able to enjoy the challenge and learn from it.


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Wow, you are killing me with these names. I worked with both Phoebe and Grace at Scholastic, back in the 80’s. I named a character in Jigsaw Jones after Phoebe — Jigsaw’s partner, Mila Yeh. And Grace edited two Hello Readers of mine, quite popular for a time, both now out of print: Wake Me In Spring and Hiccups for Elephant.

I’m sorry, I interrupted. I think you were wiping away tears . . .

Explaining science in as few words as possible brings you to essential truths. It reveals a poetic simplicity to the universe. Science books, and all good children’s books, give readers a way to find clarity, pattern, and some predictability in their world, which can often feel chaotic.

The calm reassurance of the picture book.

Yes. My style of illustration is very direct and literal. I like lines around things, simple backgrounds and white space wherever possible, minute legible details when needed, and clear expressions on faces and in body language. I love early renaissance paintings and children’s art. Both teach me about getting to the essence of a thing.

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How do you even begin, when the topic is something as vast as plants? What’s that process for you? I’d think you’d be in danger of drowning in all that information.

Yes, the research phase of writing and/or illustrating a nonfiction book is delightfully distracting and open-ended. I would happily spend my whole life doing this part, if I could afford to. You read and look at fascinating books, you go fun places like farms, and zoos and museums, you sketch, you let your mind expand.

So deadlines are a good thing. And so are the perimeters of the picture book format: trim size, number of pages, limited word count. Unlike a lot of artists, I’m my most creative when I have limitations.

In this book, you both wrote and illustrated. Are you seeing it first? Or writing it?

With Plants Feed Me, I wanted to write a younger nutrition book recommending an unprocessed, plant-based diet. So I started with this message, but I also knew the botanical art would be fun to paint. When the words came to me, the pictures were implicit.

fe140b_daa93be0b256405991e8f41bddef5082-jpg_srz_493_608_85_22_0-50_1-20_0A Bird Is a Bird started with a desire to make pictures of beautiful birds. But it wasn’t a book, till the line, “A bird is a bird, because a bird has a beak,” floated into my head while I slept. Then I realized it would be a book about animal classification. All these birds look different, but they have these certain traits in common, most definitively, feathers. Noticing alike and different, is an essential skill in early science learning. A book is a fun way to make pretty pictures, but unless it has a point, that is an indulgence.

You seem to have a sense of how the mind of a child works when he or she encounters a book. Or is that an intuitive sense? I mean, okay, let me try to approach this question a different way. It’s become a cliché for many writers to say that they don’t think about audience. They only serve the story and blah, blah, blah. I’ve personally never felt that way. And in your case, you also strike me as an artist who is exceptionally aware of your intended audience.

I think exclusively about my audience. I don’t think that’s a compromise or hindrance to my creativity. I was a child once. That part of me gets to live on through this work. And it’s a profoundly interesting way to continue to look at the world. Childhood is when our brains are at their most agile and expansive. Language emerges, we start to give names to things and feelings, we begin to remember and predict, we start to notice others, we develop theory of mind.

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Your work is marked by sensitivity and inclusiveness. You have always included children of different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. On a personal level, why is that important to you?

Because I do think a lot about my readers, I know that they like to find themselves in a book. And this is the most diverse country in the world. The “school-days” series (Career Day, Presidents’ Day, 100 School Days, etc) I did with my mom, Anne Rockwell, at HarperCollins has a multicultural classroom of kids. There are hints about cultural heritage, but mostly they are just friends at school, where they have shared experiences and a shared culture. This kind of natural diversity is important in books. Books that are about culture and heritage are important, but so are books that simply model the diverse and inclusive world that was Dr. King’s dream. It’s mine too.

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My husband, Ken Alcorn, and I have raised our family (two grown sons, now 24 and 27) in diverse communities. For 11 years we lived in Norwalk, CT. one of the most diverse cities in the country. The schools are filled with kids from all levels of economic status, and a multitude of ethnic backgrounds. Even though I now live in Bridgeport, CT, I am still involved in after-school arts programming in Norwalk, working with kids (mostly young teens) from low income households. Doing this work made the abstractions of injustice and poverty, especially as they manifest along ethnic lines, very real to me and activated me politically. I hope you wouldn’t know it to look at my work, but I am keenly aware of the responsibility I have creating media that may affect how people make assumptions, and behave towards one another.

In a world where the gritty, innovative, and “cutting edge” gets most of the attention, I think you possibly create the least edgy books in children’s publishing. There’s a refreshing innocence to your books.

I am going to take that as a compliment!

Please do. It’s totally a compliment.

fe140b_8e4b7616f5420c93d7ec569d9e084241-png_srz_153_145_85_22_0-50_1-20_0My eyes are wide open about the ills of the world. But I think for the age reader I am reaching, there is a need for books that model social ideals, and books that make knowledge as accessible and inspiring as possible. For a young child facing great hardships in the real world, a book can be the respite that is deeply needed. Books for older children, like you write so well, can and should present a more complex world view.

I believe we first met in a hotel lobby a few years back. And I might have exclaimed something like, “Is Anne Rockwell your mother? I love her books!”

Yes, I get that a lot! I love her books too! Another thing we have in common. And my father, Harlow Rockwell. illustrated many of the books she wrote. Their small studio was off the dining room.

So you are in the family business. Do you ever wake up relieved by the fact your parents weren’t, say, morticians? Or claims adjusters?

Well, it was certainly more fun to look over their shoulder and see what was in the works.

You’ve illustrated quite a few books for your mother. It’s always a huge responsibility to illustrate any writer’s books -– but your own mother. What’s that like?

Yes, we’ve collaborated on 17 books, the most recent are with Simon & Schuster, Library Day (2016) and Zoo Day (January 2017). They are about commonplace real world experiences, edited by Karen Nagel.  But library-day-9781481427319_lgwhen a trip to the library or the zoo, is your first trip to those places as a child, there is nothing commonplace about it.  My mom is great at recognizing how epic every new experience can be for a young child.  They are great fun to illustrate. Of course, illustrating my mom’s texts is humbling, and can even be intimidating. She is the only writer I have worked with who is also an illustrator (and one of my favorites to boot) so in the beginning, I could be hindered if I let myself worry if this is how she would have done it, or how my dad would have done it. But when I read a text of hers, I know the point of it, and understand better than usual how to proceed. I grew up with her books as some of my favorite bedtime stories, and I observed and even participated (doing color separations) in the production of them as a young adult. This has been a huge privilege. I don’t take it lightly.  

Thanks for coming by today, Lizzy. Hopefully I’ll see you again in real life!
 

ABOUT THE “5 Questions” Interview Series: It’s a side project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. 

Coming soon: Bruce Coville, London Ladd,  Jeff Mack, Matt Faulkner, and more. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES, and scroll till your heart’s content. Or use the handy SEARCH option. 

Guest so far:

1) Hudson Talbott, “From Wolf to Woof”

2) Hazel Mitchell, “Toby”

3) Susan Hood, “Ada’s Violin

4) Matthew McElligott, “Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster”

5) Jessica Olien, “The Blobfish Book”

6) Nancy Castaldo, “The Story of Seeds”

7) Aaron Becker, “Journey”

8) Matthew Cordell, “Wish”

9) Jeff Newman, “Can One Balloon Make an Elephant Fly?”

10) Matt Phelan, “Snow White”

 

 

 

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