Tuesday, May 12, 2009


What if, rather than composing an original blog, an author simply took the text of a recent (this morning) on-line interview — the interviewer's questions and their answers — and posted them? One might suspect this blogger of being lazy. Or (full disclosure) of being way behind schedule on a few projects.

That being said, however, I thought this particular interview might be of interest. It's interesting to me, of course, because it's all about me. There might be one or two other people out there who also find it fascinating for this reason. But probably not. The other reason that it might be of interest is that the questions come from a magazine in Korea — Mom & Enfant — and the cultural and language differences have resulted in questions that are sometimes charmingly disingenuous. They are, in many ways, more like the quetions that kids ask during school visits that those that come from people in the U.S. who write about children's books. I hope the folks at Mom & Enfant do not mind me posting this. If so, I apologize.

What is the most important thing when you make a picture book?

The idea. If it’s a good one, the text and art seem to come together in a natural way (not necessarily easily, but in a way that seems to make sense as it happens).

Where do you get the idea and inspiration for your works?
From your childhood, life, family, friends?

I used to get many of my ideas from questions my own children asked. But now even my youngest child (he’s almost 11) is getting a little old to ask some of the really simple questions that used to lead to book concepts. So my wife (and co-author) Robin Page have become sounding boards for each other – we frequently bounce book ideas back and forth, and in the process sometimes hit upon something we both like. Ideas also come from books, films about nature, and just looking around.

I think you enjoy painting animals. Why? Why crocodile?

Illustrations of animals seem to have more energy than illustrations of many other subjects. I also find that the distortions and inaccuracies that always creep into my pictures have the effect of giving the animals a bit of personality. Those same distortions would probably make an illustration of a human downright creepy. And, of course, animals are frequent subjects because kids are fascinated by them. Animals can be used to introduce lots of concepts other than biology – geological time scales, the qualities of different habitats, the relationship between size, strength and weight, and so on. Crocodiles are a favorite subject because their wrinkled skin and the well-defined seams where different parts of their bodies meet lend themselves well to translation into cut-paper. Insects and fish are also good subjects.

What kind of influence do you want to give people? What kind of feeling and emotion do you expect to give people?

Ideally a reader would look at the world from a slightly different perspective — and maybe look a little more closely — and experience a greater appreciation of the complexity and beauty of nature. It’s easy to take something absolutely extraordinary – a tree, say – for granted, because it’s so familiar.

I think all of you works are precious. But please choose the best. What is the reason?

I guess I’d choose ‘Life on Earth’, because it was the most difficult book to write. I wasn’t sure if I could explain the Theory of Evolution to a seven-year-old, but I think that perhaps I succeeded. And, as you know, there is a lot of controversy in this country about teaching evolution to children, which is a real shame. So I hope that this book helped a few children see past the politics to the clarity and elegance of Darwin’s ideas.

Did you enjoy reading a picture book during your childhood? Which one was your favorite? Why?

I read lots of picture books – mostly fiction. There were not that many non-fiction picture books around when I was a child. My favorite – it was illustrated, but not really a picture book – was “All About Strange Beasts of the Past” by Roy Chapman Andrews. It was about his search for fossils in Mongolia in the 1930s.

What kind of a boy were you? Did you enjoy painting? How about your family? Were they interested in painting?

I was a bookish boy, but I enjoyed sports. I had a microscope, a chemistry set, and kept lots of bugs, frogs, turtles, etc. that I captured in nearby fields and ponds. My father was a scientist – a physicist – but he painted as a hobby.

Did your parents have an influence on your job and painting?

My Father encouraged my interest in science and art.

If not, which environment and education make what you are?

I attended design school in college and have worked for many years as a graphic designer. I’m sure this helped me become an illustrator.

What activities do you think could help to improve children’s creativity and imagination?

Reading, being read to, travel, reading, going to museums, reading, watching some of the amazing films about nature that are now available (e.g., David Attenborough’s BBC films on the ocean, birds, mammals, etc.). Being listened to and taken seriously by adults when a child asks a question. Looking up the answer with a child if you don’t know it. Reading and being read to. And providing simple tools like a magnifying glass or butterfly net will often lead to an exploration of some aspect of the natural world.

What did you do when you were a kid?

Read a lot, drew pictures, explored the fields and woods around my house, played basketball, thought about girls, made dangerous concoctions with my chemistry set.

What kind of book do you think is a good picture book? What kind of illustration is the best? Why?

A good picture book has words that wouldn’t work without the pictures and (usually) pictures that wouldn’t work without the words. They don’t restate each other, but each adds something essential. A good picture book respects the intelligence of the child and doesn’t try to preach or teach an overt moral lesson.

There is no ‘best’ illustration. Illustration that is an honest expression of the way an artist sees the world will have a truth and power that children intuitively recognize.

There are various cultures all over the world. What do you think the reason lots of people from foreign countries like your works regardless of culture difference?

I think a child’s interest in nature and animals is universal. I’d speculate (without any real scientific data to support my speculation) that it’s part of our shared cultural memory. For most of human history an awareness of animals – as food, danger, or as a source of information about weather, water, and so on – was essential to our survival as a species.

In the world, there are so many countries, so many customs. Did you recognize the characteristics and differences of illustration and picture books each country? What kind of difference did you recognize?

I do see some differences in, for instance, Asian illustration and European illustration. Artists are naturally influenced by and refer to the visual arts traditions and popular culture of the places they live. But one can’t apply this sort of generalization to an individual illustrator. There might be an American illustrator who references Japanese prints and a Korean illustrator who is influenced by American comic books.

What do you think is the characteristic of picture book or illustration of USA?

Children's book illustration is amazingly diverse, so I don't think I can characterize US illustration in any overall way. The US is also a very young country and doesn’t have the centuries of art heritage that an illustrator working in China or Italy might refer to.

What kind of efforts have you made to read children’s mind and understand their world?

I don’t try to read children’s minds. I do try to keep in perspective their language skills and what I imagine is their general knowledge of the world, so I don’t write text that is too difficult for them to understand. I’m referring here to vocabulary, grammar, and metaphors or comparisons rather than concepts. I think even young children can grasp most of the ideas I’m writing about in as easily as an adult – they just need them explained in words they understand and in a context they can relate to. Other than that, I write about things that I find interesting myself. If I’m truly interested, I think that comes through in a book’s word’s and images.

1 comment:

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I agree with his intentions of him being a writer, to show my readers the world in a different perspective.