By Lois Ehlert
I was hoping to fly out here with Leaf Man. But yesterday a strong wind blew Leaf Man away. He left no travel plans. Maybe he’s here. Could be in the park. Or floating on the river. If you see Leaf Man, please pick him up and take him home with you.
I’m often asked why I chose to become an artist. I think it’s the other way around: art chose me. If you’re creative, you know what I mean. No one has to make you go to work. If you are an artist or a writer, it’s often difficult to explain where ideas come from. It’s a question that people ask me all the time. I’m inspired to write and illustrate stories about common things most people encounter in their daily lives. I’m continually amazed by the diversity and order of the natural world. I am especially drawn to color, as a butterfly is attracted to bright, fragrant flowers. I love colored leaves; blue jay feathers; a cluster of red tulips; the soft black stripes of a tiger cat; green grass sprinkled with golden dandelions; the blurry, turquoise spots on a yellow fish. All have inspired me. So walk slowly. Take time to look.
Observing nature was natural for our family. Both of my parents were gardeners, and we children were expected to help. My job was to knock off bugs from the potato plants with a stick. Organic farming, indeed. When our chores were finished, we could wander and explore. We lived in a small town. It’s not so easy to wander now. A child’s life is more structured. But it’s necessary for a child to have some place for unstructured free time — time to dream, or to create a Leaf Man. I try to encourage these activities in all my books.
I think of my books as little love notes, records of things I care about. The words and pictures move from page to page, hand in hand. I hope to convey to young readers the same sense of excitement, wonder, and surprise I still have about the world around me. I create a book on many different levels. Learning to read is not easy. Sometimes a child will only be able to read the story told in the pictures; or maybe the main text printed in big type. Perhaps an older brother or sister may also read the little labels. People have a hard time putting my books into a category. Are they fiction? Yes. Are they nonfiction? Yes. And sometimes people ask: how can a young child plant bulbs, tend a garden, make a pie, or plant a tree? Ah, but that’s where big people come in. A big hand can take a small hand and be a guide. We can read to them, take walks, sing songs; we can be life’s guide, whatever our skills may be.
How did Leaf Man come about?
One summer, I took a driving trip out East with two of my friends, Jane and Pat, both retired librarians. I already had the beginning of an idea for a book about leaves in my head. While on the trip, I saw so many varied landscapes — each more beautiful than the last. America is beautiful. I wondered: how could Leaf Man fly? What would the landscape look like if he were flying above it? And how could I illustrate it for the reader?
I returned from my trip with a bag of leaves, eager to begin making a dummy for the book. I cut the tops of the pages to look like the landscapes I had seen, showing from page to page what Leaf Man would see, including the distant landscapes. Technically, Leaf Man was difficult to produce, because of the die-cuts, but Harcourt did it with great skill.
I had the name. I had the structure of the book, the subject, but no art. Leaves fall all over, in the city, in the smallest towns. But here’s the clincher! You have to go outside to pick up leaves. And so I began. Every city I visited, I would pick up leaves and put them in a plastic bag. After I returned home, I’d get up early and take my bag of leaves to Kinko’s, arrange the leaves on the glass, put the cover down, and press the start button. I soon had a thick stack of color-xeroxed leaves that would never fade or crumble. Eventually this is what I used to construct the art for Leaf Man.
Some of the most beautiful art supplies in the world were falling at my feet — and, as I tell children, they’re free! My family and friends started picking up more leaves and mailing them to me. My editor at Harcourt, Allyn Johnston, sent me leaves from San Francisco. They turned into bird wings in the book. The bird necks are leaves from San Diego. The cabbages are fig leaves, found by my brother two blocks from the White House. Leaf Man’s nose is a sweet gum fruit found in Kansas City. My agent, Lila, sent me some beautiful Japanese maple leaves. You see them as fish tails in the book. My sister’s friends have a linden tree; those leaves are duck bodies. Butterfly wings are Wisconsin maple leaves, and the turkey’s wing is an oak leaf from the woods in New York State.
I’m sure I’m not the first person to illustrate a book about leaves or trees, but I bet I am the first artist who turned a catalpa leaf into a spotted cow! I thank you for honoring me and Leaf Man. I’d like to thank Allyn Johnston for guiding and encouraging me, and thanks to Harcourt for believing in my ideas and producing them with fidelity. And last, but not least, thanks to Mother Nature for providing me with art supplies. A little boy once wrote and told me he wanted to grow up to be like me, and make nothing out of something. I knew what he meant.
From the January/February 2007 Horn Book Magazine.