Kate DiCamillo author of Mercy Watson
Kate DiCamillo received a Newbery Honor for her first novel, Because of Winn-Dixie, and the 2004 Newbery Medal for The Tale of Despereaux–both were made into major motion pictures. Here she discusses her beginning reader series starring Mercy Watson, a pig who loves “hot toast with a great deal of butter on it”–a passion that often leads Mercy by the nose into adventures–and sometimes trouble.

How did the character of Mercy Watson come to you?

Mercy Watson popped into my head when I was on an airplane. I have a little notebook, and I took it out and drew a pig face and wrote her name underneath. I knew right away that she was a pig that lived with Mr. and Mrs. Watson, who were not pigs. I worked on it for two years.

What about the “hot toast with a great deal of butter on it” that Mercy loves so much?

I was driving Alison McGhee to the airport. She got into my car with a piece of toast, and it was very buttered. I said, “Must you eat that in my car?” She said, “You don’t understand toast,” and she talked the whole car ride about how good it was and how it should be buttered all the way to the edges. On the way home, it clicked in my head as the thing that made it all work with Mercy Watson. So a pig pops into my head with a name attached, and then I had to wait 2 years for toast to show up. After that, it was the easiest writing experience ever, because you think of the experience and put the pig
in it.

Speaking of Alison McGhee, I hear you have a new book coming with her.

We sure do, it’s a book about a tall girl and a short girl. I’m short.

It’s a book about friendship called Bink and Golly. And Bink’s the short one: is your hair curly and do you wear striped socks?

You’re onto me, Jennifer Brown. I am Bink. Bink c’est moi.

Now back to Mercy. Do Mr. & Mrs. Watson think that Mercy is their child?

If we had to psychologically analyze what was going on with those two, we’d say in some dim recess of their brains they know she is a pig, but mostly she is their child and that’s how they treat her. It happens all the time with dogs, and I’ve heard rumors of it happening with a cat. That’s what’s happening with the Watsons. It’s a family.

Is it more challenging to write longer books like Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux than it is to write about Mercy Watson?

Mercy Watson is, I have to say, easier. It’s not because of length, it’s because there’s a rhythm to it and the words fall into that rhythm. It’s also easier because I know the characters, and when I’m writing the novels I’m learning the characters as I go.

Did the artist Chris Van Dusen draw Mercy the way you had pictured her?

The first sketch that Chris did of Mercy was of her looking petite with a bow on her head. And I said, “No no, you must tell him she is a Pig.” Then in the second sketches, there she was: big, self-centered, domineering and kind of loving in her own way.

When we talked with Chris Van Dusen, he said: “The Mercy Watson books were really fun because Kate DiCamillo gave me full range to create these characters…. It was almost like casting a movie.”

He did a great job. The great thing about doing all six of these with Chris, is that what was in my mind was replaced with his world of Deckawoo Drive–his Mercy and his Eugenia and Baby, who are a delight. That made the stories even easier to write. Then I thought, who can I come up with next that Chris is just going to knock out of the park? I couldn’t’ wait to see who he’d come up with. And in that last one [book six], he had to bring everyone back, and he did it!

Visit the Mercy Watson Web site for games, trivia quizzes and more!

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Posted September 2nd, 2010 in Book of the Month, Interviews by Jenny Brown

Laurie Rosenwald Interview

Laurie Rosenwald is a painter, a type designer, a graphic artist and, of course, a writer and illustrator. Because she does so many different things, she works with many different media, or artist’s tools. She says that her love for the artist’s tools led to the book And to Name But Just a Few: Red, Yellow, Green, Blue. If you look on the page with the “Mary Had a Little Lamb” rhyme, you can see some of them: crayons, colored pencils, pastels (which are like chalk) and perhaps her favorite, collage.

Where did you get the idea for And to Name But Just a Few…?

I was in the Blue Apple offices with a manuscript I had done called Bubbling Mud about Iceland, where I lived in the early 1990s. Someone suggested, “Why don’t you do a list book, like numbers or letters or colors?” I love colors. So I wrote what became the text of the book in an hour that day. Then it took more than a year to put it all together, design it and illustrate it. I make 100 collages and throw out 99.

So the artwork took much longer than the rhymes?

The rhymes came pretty quickly to me. There wasn’t a lot of revision the way there was with the artwork. The design is what makes it. If you do a beautiful drawing and it has to fit in a square, it kills the illustration. I like being able to do everything, the art and the design. That’s when things look great, when they work together.

We liked the wordplay, like homonyms (“Lettuce explain” for GREEN) and synonyms (a girl’s name that means the same as PURPLE).

I have to admit that it all came to me in a flurry. I love love love to write. I love it so much that I feel guilty about it. I should be cleaning my room, or going to the gym. But no, I want to write.

And what a great art lesson in the YELLOW pages!

Yellow is very important for that reason. It’s the one you mix with blue to get green, or red to get orange. Caran d’Ache crayons are my favorite crayons. They’re very opaque. I wanted to have some illustrations that were painted, and things that have glue and paper and collage. This is the first book I made using a digital camera. I would take pictures, cut them out, and refine them in Photoshop. I was making collages without gluing them down. I wanted the book to feel the way I do about art supplies. It’s almost romantic.

There’s such a freedom to your artwork. Is that why you like collage?

Almost everything I do involves something organic, something out of control and human. And also something strict, graphic and controlled. It’s like the two sides of the brain – the arty side and the logic side. I start with making very sloppy, very quick drawings. Sometimes I use a squirt bottle, like a ketchup bottle. I always start with black on white paper. Then I take digital pictures of those drawings and bring them into the computer and add color, backgrounds, fonts [or type]. I teach a course called “How to Make Mistakes on Purpose.” I’ve taught it at the School of Visual Arts, and for corporations that want to be more creative. In my own work, I feel like a fraud unless I’m making a discovery.

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Posted August 2nd, 2010 in Book of the Month, Interviews by Jenny Brown

Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Author

Little Pea, the story of a pea who would rather have spinach than candy any day, began as a naptime story that Amy Krouse Rosenthal told to her daughter. Since then, Little Pea has been joined by other unusual friends, such as Little Hoot, an owl who likes to snuggle in bed instead of stay up late, and Little Oink, a pig who takes pride in his tidy room. Here she talks about the creation of Little Pea.

What was the inspiration for Little Pea?

Little Pea started off as a story I made up for my then four-year-old daughter at naptime. [She’s 13 now!] I told Little Pea to her and I thought, “Hmmm, this might make a good book.”

We loved it when Papa Pea comes home and flings Little Pea off of the spoon. That part of the story makes it clear what the artist, Jen Corace, should do. But for the picture of Little Pea “hanging out with his pea pals,” it seems like there’s a lot of room for the artist to imagine a scene. Did you give her any direction for that one (like, “Please create a playground scene here”)?

I often make a mocked-up dummy [a small version of what the book might look like, with the story and the pictures] with my manuscripts. Sometimes I can’t, but with a book like Little Pea where the characters are circles, I could. So there was a blueprint, and Jen was then able to “plus it” a millionfold. I had the spoon picture all drawn out. But for the other scene, I just had Little Pea “hanging out” with his friends. Jen brought the playground to life, with the hopscotch and swings—that’s brilliant.

What about the “yum  / yum / extra yum” series when Little Pea is eating his spinach?

That, along with the Fig. 1, Fig. 2, Fig 3 [short for “Figure 1, Figure 2…, like you might see in an artist’s notebook], were in the dummy.

Did you once say that the idea for your book Duck! Rabbit! resulted from a school visit you made with the artist, Tom Lichtenheld?

Tom and I were at a school presentation for The Okay Book, and we were doing stuff on an easel. We showed the kids that if you turn the word “OK” on its side, it looks like a person. Then Tom drew the Duck/Rabbit image. He started asking the kids, “What does it look like when you look at it this way? What does it look like when you turn it that way?” I asked him about it, and he said, “It’s been in my brain for 30 years. I learned it in college.” I immediately heard in my head two kids debating it. It was the right moment, when we could bring our orientations together, and could hear the voices of the children as the voices of Duck! Rabbit! It was waiting all those years to be given a platform to speak.

Once you had Little Pea in mind, did the ideas for Little Oink and Little Hoot follow quickly?

It never occurred to me that this was going to be a series. Then my editor, Victoria Rock, gently nudged me to think about a sequel, and I thought, “What would a sequel look like? Little Pea Goes to School?” I was really stuck until I hit on the concept that the story line was the “inversion tale” [the idea of turning an ordinary situation upside-down]. Then I thought, “What else could I flip?”  An owl would want to go to sleep, not stay up late. Once I had the question, the answer was obvious. After I wrote Little Hoot, my sister came to me with the idea of a pig that wanted to be neat [which became Little Oink].

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Posted July 1st, 2010 in Book of the Month, Interviews by Jenny Brown

Stephen Savage, Illustrator of The Fathers Are Coming Home

When Stephen Savage was offered the chance to illustrate The Fathers Are Coming Home, by the author of Goodnight Moon, he says, “I couldn’t believe it!” Margaret Wise Brown wrote this story in 1943, and it was discovered after she had passed away. Her hopeful message suggested that families separated by World War II would be coming together again, whether it be a father pig returning to his piglets or a sailor coming home to his child. Now, with American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the message is just as important to children today.

How do you work on your pictures?
They’re linoleum cuts. There are three steps to a linocut illustration:

1. Drawing. Figure out what the drawings are, then transfer the drawing to pieces of linoleum.

2. Cutting. Take a linoleum cutter, and do a relief print. That means you carve out the areas of the block that aren’t going to print ink. The areas that are left standing – that’s the printing part.
The Artist cuts away the linoleum

3. Inking. Next, I ink the blocks with water-based ink on a roller. Quickly, before the ink dries, I lay a piece of paper on top of the block. I use a wooden spoon or my fingers to press the paper down.
Inking the cutout

The trick is you have to figure out which colors will go down first. I do one color at a time on one block at a time. Here Stephen Savage discusses his process:

How do you choose which color to use first?
In the ocean liner spread, I did the lightest colors first, so I started with the turquoise. The very last block is the little tiny red bottoms of the smokestacks.

But the ocean seems to change color beneath the ocean liner.
That gradated light is just done with a roller: you use a dark color on one side of the roller and the lighter one on the other. That’s the way the Japanese woodcutters did it. It’s a way of creating dimension on an otherwise flat piece of art.

The fish babies also change colors as we move further back in their V-shaped formation.
In that spread, the first color that went down was the dark blue. Then I went with lighter colors on top of the blue. When the light colors go on top of the dark colors, they crackle in a nice way. You have to do a bunch of versions to make sure it works. I threw away 5 prints on that one.

You often repeat colors. Why?
I knew I wanted to have aqua at the beginning and the end and then throughout to tie the book together. You don’t want to overwhelm the viewer with too many colors. I do a color script–tiny images of the book that I put all together on one sheet of paper. Readers only see one picture at a time, but a pattern does register.

We liked the way the piglets’ reflection shows in the mud.
I thought the reflection would make the mud look more serene. You don’t want it to look like oil or something. I did a lot of research on pigs. Our little girl is 15 months old, and we went up to the petting zoo in Woodstock, NY. Pigs are like dogs, they’re super friendly. We walked over to the pen, and I thought, “I don’t want to touch the pig,” but their skin is nice! They’re hairy, but it’s like petting a dog.

Stephen Savage in his studio:
Illustrator Stephen Savage in his studio

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Posted June 4th, 2010 in Book of the Month, Interviews by Jenny Brown

Anita Jeram, Author of Bunny My Honey

With Bunny, My Honey, author and artist Anita Jeram introduces Mommy Rabbit and her baby, Bunny, who “looked just like his mommy, only smaller.” (If you look closely, you can see that they even have the same brown ear, and a brown spot around the same eye.) When Bunny gets separated from Mommy, it is not long at all before he hears her call, “Bunny, my Honey.” We asked Anita Jeram where she got the idea for Bunny, My Honey, and how she does her artwork.

Did the idea for Bunny, My Honey, come out of your own experiences, either as a child yourself or with your own children?
I do remember the fright of “losing” a child in a supermarket! Even when it turns out they have just wandered to the next aisle. But the first few lines of this story came to me one night, just as I was dropping off to sleep!

We liked the way that there’s really only one picture where Bunny is completely alone.
It’s usually the case that children are not really that lost, they’ve just lost sight of who they were with. I wanted to reassure the reader by showing where Bunny was in relation to his mommy.

How do you work on your pictures?
Usually I sit at my drawing board with a blank sheet of paper, and gaze out of the window for ages (I got into trouble a lot for this at school), then I draw with a dip pen and ink, and color in with watercolor.

We noticed that you use just a few colors in Bunny, My Honey, mostly earth tones.
I do like brown and green! I guess because I draw a lot of animals, and natural settings, those are the main colors in my paintbox.

Do you plan out the size of the words, too? We liked the way the words “Bunny, my Honey!” got larger as Mommy got closer.
No, that’s down to the brilliant designers at my publisher.

Is it different working on your own story than it is when you’re illustrating, for example, Guess How Much I Love You, with words by Sam McBratney?
A little different, because another author has their own idea of how the pictures should look for their story, so they give their ideas too.

What advice would you give to children who would like to be an artist like you?
If you would like to be an artist, you must already love drawing, so just keep on doing it and enjoying it. Even if you don’t end up earning a living from it, art is great fun to do all through your life.

Posted May 1st, 2010 in Book of the Month, Interviews by Jenny Brown