Q & A

To celebrate the release of my newest book, On Bird Hill written by Jane Yolen, blogs across the web recently featured posts from Jane, Brian Sockin (CEO and Publisher of Cornell Lab Publishing Group) and me. Here’s my Q&A post from one of the featured blogs:

What inspired your interest in art? Did you always want to be an artist?

My mother always encouraged me, in her own way, about my interest in art (no one else in the family was interested). The first drawing on my “doodles” page was done by 5-yr.-old Bobby, according to the note she wrote on it. She showed real promise as an artist when she was in her late teens and early twenties, before she married my father, had seven kids and stopped drawing for almost fifty years. To her credit, in her seventies she began painting in oils and spent many years happily copying her favorite Impressionists.

In elementary and high school, I was always sort of the unofficial “class artist”, and I majored in art in college. So yes, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve always wanted to be an artist – even though I’m still figuring out what that means, exactly.

How do you approach doing the illustrations when you receive the text for a picture book?

The first thing that I always do, after reading the text carefully and trying to mentally visualize the book as a whole, is to create thumbnails for the entire book. These little sketches are literally the size of my thumb, and the best ones are usually the ones that happen quickly, without much thought. More often than not, the finished art is a refined echo of that first visceral impulse.

FYI: In my next blog, I’ll show a series of drawings from OBH, from thumbnail through sketches to finished art, with running commentary

What was the hardest thing to draw for On Bird Hill?

For me, the act of drawing anything is almost always pleasurable. The single hardest thing about working on this book was my struggle to break free from my career-long “nonfiction” approach, which is primarily about observation and accuracy, and allow myself to “let go” and fully make the transition into a “fiction” mode, a state of mind where the impossible can easily happen and nothing is “wrong” – it only has to somehow work within its own context.

For me, doodles have always been one-offs, odd little things that somehow fell out of my head (or my gut) when I wasn’t paying much attention. I see them now as conduits to parts of myself that I couldn’t access otherwise.

Once Jane took my egg/bird/landscape drawing and sent me the text for OBH (see last blog entry), though, it became obvious that I had to create an entirely-new little world in which that particular doodle could exist. From the start, we thought of it (with color) as the jacket, and I began to visualize landscapes for the interior as if I were zooming in closely on the hills beyond the field on the bird’s back.

What is your favorite bird?

I’ve been an avid birder for over forty years, long before I even thought about illustrating children’s books, so picking a “favorite” bird among the hundreds of species I’ve observed all over the world (including McMurdo Station in Antarctica, Turkey, Germany, France, UK and all over Japan and the US) is a daunting task.

That said, if I have to pick one, I do have a particular fondness for the Carolina Wren. Over thirty years ago I reported the only individual sighted in Massachusetts during the annual Christmas bird count – now they are common throughout the region in all seasons (though their numbers dwindle in the north during particularly bad winters). I hear their cheerful “teakettle, teakettle!” everywhere around where I live in the Pioneer Valley, and it always makes me smile.

*check out my nonfiction book about crows, for Boyds Mills Press, from 2002 – and still in print.

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