Where did you grow up?
I’m still growing up, but I started in Salem, Oregon on the edge of town on a street called Lost Lane…appropriate for the way I felt while growing up! We were in the middle of farmland in the Willamette Valley and I spent my summers daydreaming while picking crops. When my husband and I moved to Yup’ik villages in Alaska to teach, I kept growing up under the watchful eyes of Yup’ik elders as we started our family.
What is your earliest memory of writing/drawing?
Most of my generation of illustrators remembers copying Walt Disney cartoons, esp. the contest drawings in magazines. I traced Bambi, Thumper and Snow White endlessly. Then I moved on to cow paintings for the State Fair. I took a year of art lessons from Margie Grabel who taught me how to use pastels and paints when I was nine. I remember the smell of turpentine in her studio and feeling like I was “home” when I went in to see what a “real” artist’s studio looked like.
I always was drawing, but Mom was a secretary in the school. She would let me use her typewriter if I would write her a complete story. She didn’t care how long it was but it had to have a beginning, middle and an ending that “made sense”. We often sat in her office after the school closed while I finished my story.
What inspired you to write/illustrate your first book?
I always loved book art as a child, but when I started teaching, I became infatuated with the way an author and illustrator could hold a child’s attention, even when they could not understand the language thoroughly. I started separating books out that were just fun to roll off the tongue. Then I saw a move about Ezra Keats with my class one day. We watched how he made his books, marbleized paper and I made my first “dummy” book. It was called The Big Noise…a story about my nephew being scared by a bullfrog while crawdad hunting. I loved the idea that you could use color and texture to keep the reader in a world you created from cover to cover.
I also went to a reading conference at which Gail Gibbons held up a press sheet with an entire book on it. I went back to the village and started making more practice books.
And during the summers when we would come back from the bush to take classes in school, I asked for two independent study classes…one on Caldecott winners and one on Newbery winners. What an inspiration!
Do you use your childhood as inspiration?
Of course, especially those wonderful childlike reactions we all have, a sense of wonder, frustration, fear, etc.. In There was an Old Man Who Painted the Sky, I wanted to capture the feeling of a child discovering something. Most of us as children discover more things before we are 12 than we will in the rest of our lives. And in the case of Maria Marcelino, who discovered the oxen on the ceilings of the caves in Altamira, the part of the story I love the most is that her father listened to her. I was always discovering things that interested no one else, watching National Geographic shows that teenage friends didn’t want to hear about, but my mom always listened.
My dad’s side of the family had a wicked sense of humor, so I have written two joke books…published, I mean, and “written” many more than that. And they are the side of the family that laugh the hardest at the Farmer Brown stories, which are really about my husband and our small farm here in Sebastopol,. Patty in Patty’s Pumpkin Patch is my cousin who weeded the family garden with me and thought I was ridiculous for showing her all the ants and bugs I found (we are great friends now, and she ended up raising pigs for part of her life, wouldn’t you know. The Hungry Giant of the Tundra was rewritten to be about not only the giant, but the “littlest one” that no one listened to, which is how I often felt.
What books from your childhood have most influenced your work? What about adult titles?
The Color Kittens, which has been reprinted again, Mary Poppins…the real version, not the Disney version (which I still like), The Good Earth by Pearl Buck,
King of the Wind, The Pokey Puppy. I grew up with Golden Books, but every Christmas morning I would find a book waiting for me that was a nature book or an art book that was in my mind quite adult.
What are your hobbies and interests besides reading and books?
Well, soccer is out after the last surgery. My epitaph was going to read that I died on the soccer field at 87, but my knees, at 60, say no. So I will have to keep writing and doing my art work. I belong to a group of plein air painters. We go out once a week to paint the landscape of Sonoma County, which is beautiful and take retreats to state parks to paint the Tetons, the rocks of Utah, the wetlands of California,etc. I like to hike, fish with my family, float down the river in the boat my husband built. When it is cold and miserable outside, and I’m not on a deadline, I go to my studio and create something from my mind that doesn’t belong in a book, an image from imagination. I am starting to sell them in galleries. But my latest hobby is my grandson, who is inspiring that childlike wonder inside of me again, and a growing family of people that I can get to know. And oh, did I mention movies?
Who are a couple of your favorite author/illustrators? What is it about their work that inspires and interests you?
This could take pages, so I will limit it.
Arnold and Anita Lobel, the fact that they worked together. My husband and I worked together on two books and he went back to contracting and fine art, and I stayed with the books. They could make a story out of anything. My favorite books which I use in schools doing workshops are Pigericks and Fables, by Arnold Lobel, and On Market Street by the two of them.
Maurice Sendak, for his illustration but also his sense of the surreal. My favorite was In The Night Kitchen.
Patricia and Fred McKissak, both for the folklore of Patricia and for the clarity of Christmas in the Big House, which we read each Christmas.
Leo and Diane Dillon, both for the beautifully mastered art, their ability to work together and their willingness to work with new folklore as well with old. My favorite, from life in the north is The Girl who Dreamed Only Geese, but I first noticed them with Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears.
The Arguelo’s. I have never read one of their books without discovering something about myself. One of the first books I kept re-reading was Whose Mouse Are You?
Reynold Ruffins has changed my use of color and shapes. I watch the kids respond to his illustrations.
Stefano Vitale for his use of medium and the energy he adds to book…a soul layer.
Rojanofsky’s illustratons are beautiful and David Milgrim is a master at editing out anything unnecessary.
What one or two words of advice would you give for young authors/illustrators?
Don’t try to write for the market…write for yourself.
Follow your weirdness…a quote from Emma Dryden. A lot of writers, beginning and experienced tend to quit at midtone..meaning there is a political correctness to their writing that detracts from their story.
Nothing is ever wasted, from Laura Godwin at Holt. All you ideas fold into something important.
Read A Single Shard. Fictional or not, it shows the importance of learning a craft from the bottom up.