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”

 

 

 

New Stamps Honor Ezra Jack Keats and “The Snowy Day”

 

I’m going to need these stamps . . .

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Ezra Jack Keats, the creator of the groundbreaking children’s book, The Snowy Day, was born on March 11, 1916, nearly 100 years ago. To commemorate his achievement, the U.S. Postal Service will issue stamps featuring Keats’s artwork.

I think it’s a wonderful idea and a much deserved honor.

To me, the beautiful thing about this book is not that it was about a black boy in the snow in an urban setting, though that was (amazingly) a revolutionary thought at the time, published in 1962. Rather, Keats captured a universal expression of joy and wonder in this book — of a child, any child, every child, playing in the snow.

Transcendent and unifying.



———

Just an aside, but anybody see the connection in Matthew Cordell’s widely-acclaimed new book, Wolf in the Snow?

I wonder if that’s intentional.

I’ll have to ask him.

EDIT: My pal Matt replied via Facebook, but I’ll post it here.

“The red coat was probably a subconscious hat tip to The Snowy Day, but not overly intentional. Just something about red on white snow that feels very bold and iconic. I used a red coat on my first pic book too (Toby and the Snowflakes, by Julie and me). Worth repeating! Then, of course, there’s the red riding hood throwback… who else did I steal from?”

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FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #238: Jasmina Has a Scary Idea

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Here we go . . .

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I replied:

Dear Jasmina,

It’s a mystery: Your letter is dated 9/30/16 but the envelope is postmarked 28 NOV 2016.

Did it take you that long to find a stamp?

Thanks for your letter. I’m always glad to hear from a “Scary Tales” fan.

YIKES!

YIKES!

I think you are right about clowns. There’s something inherently frightening about clowns. It’s the creepy makeup, right? The big feet? Just the insanity of anyone who’d dress up like that? The famous horror writer, Stephen King, famously conjured a truly scary clown character in his classic book for adults, It. Maybe there’s room for one for somewhat younger readers. I’ll think about it. Thanks for the (free) tip. Btw, if I do write the book, I’m not sharing the money, Jasmina!

To date, I’ve written six books in the “Scary Tales” series. I don’t know if there will be more or not; it’s up to the book-buying public, to be honest with you. I am planning a new thriller/scary story for middle grade readers, where I take the fear to a new level. With “Scary Tales,” I always had to hold back. With this one, I’m hoping to raise it a couple of notches. Tentative title: Blood Mountain.

Can you handle it?

Have a great holiday and a happy new year!

James Preller

 

 

Star of Stars, Wonder of Wonders

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When we write, sometimes we reach for something we can’t quite express. In this case, a sense of wonder in the great big world.

It’s the trying that counts.

This illustration is by R.W. Alley from the upcoming “Jigsaw Jones” book, The Case from Outer Space. It’s the concluding image from the book, placed on second-to-last page.

I had the opportunity to review the sketches before R.W. went to finals. He does such an exceptional job, full of care and warmth, I don’t ever say too much. In this instance, I had only one change to suggest.

Here’s the initial sketch for that final scene:

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I asked Bob if he’d consider making them smaller. Pulling way back. I wanted to see Jigsaw, his father and grandmother, together under the stars, small in the great wide world.

More sky.

The book concludes:

After a while, we headed to the car.

My father led the way. He took the flashlight. 

I walked with Grams.

She held my elbow.

We went slowly.

“Careful,” I said.

And together we headed back.

Home.

 

I don’t think I ever did that before, stringing together so many one-line paragraphs. It seemed to fit the mood I was searching for.

I don’t know if I completely hit what I was reaching for in this scene, but I do know that Bob’s illustration will help bring readers a long way toward that goal. It’s nice for an author to have someone to lean on.

One other note. My mother is 90 years old. There’s a bit of her and me in that scene, when Grams takes him by the elbow, fearful of falling.

Today I’m grateful for this book, for Bob Alley, for my mother, and for our smallness in this great big world.

It’s a good thing, right? Just to be reminded of that fact. Our smallness.

This site, featuring images from the Hubble Space Telescope, does that for me. A place to visit every now and then. A reminder of our smallness, yes, but also our connection to the deepest, greatest mysteries.

Merry Christmas, folks. Or happy holidays. Or however you wish to express your wonder, your joy, your sense of beauty, your love.

CHEERS,

KIND READERS,

AND THANKS

AS ALWAYS

FOR STOPPING BY.

 

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #237: A Video Blast from Nadia!

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This lively letter concluded with a bar code that I could scan, complete with password, in order to see a video by the letter writer. In this case, the lovely Nadia. I’ve only included an except of her letter, which went two pages, in addition to my response.

Here’s Nadia:

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I replied:

Dear Nadia,

I love the video attachment you included in your letter. I’ve only received a couple of those in the past, so it was a real treat to see your face and get a blast of your personality. And it did come through in blasts, loud and clear. Pleased to meet you!

I’d make one for you but that would require for me to know what I’m actually doing and, ummmm, that’s not happening. I think I’m most comfortable with my fingers on the keyboard. Point a camera at me and I tighten up.

You favorite place is Hawaii? I’ll try not to be too jealous. I’m a fan of Poughkeepsie, New York. Sigh.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from THE ONE-EYED DOLL.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from THE ONE-EYED DOLL.

Thank you for the kind words about my “Scary Tales” series. It’s a funny thing about scary books. They seem to attract the sweetest readers. People I’d never expect, bright and lively and full of joy, will come up and tell me how much they looooove creepy stories. Well, I’m doing my best. I’ve written six “Scary Tales” books so far. At the end of 2017, I’ll have a midde-grade book coming out, Better Off Undead. It features a seventh-grade zombie, Adrian, as the main character. It’s a wild story that touches upon climate change, spy drones, colony collapse disorder, forest fires, beekeeping, evil billionaires, makeovers, water shortages, and more. As someone with a keen interest in the health of the planet, I guess that’s what I personally find scary: the future!

img_2054In addition, I’ve got a new “Jigsaw Jones” coming out, The Case from Outer Space (August, 2017, Macmillan). My dog Daisy is fine, thanks for asking. She needs a walk right now and it’s super cold outside. I don’t want to do it. But I love her, and I suppose that true love involves doing things you don’t always want to do. Better put on my extra-thick socks!

Keep reading, happy holidays, and let’s hope for a better year in 2017!

James Preller