After winning the 2011 Caldecott Medal for A Sick Day for Amos McGee, written by her husband, Philip, Erin E. Stead returns with a second picture book, this one about waiting and planning and hope. And Then It’s Spring (5–8 years) grows out of a long friendship; see below.
1. What about Julie Fogliano’s (glorious) text helped you decide to illustrate it?
Erin E. Stead: Julie is a friend of mine who, like me, is quite shy about her work. I met Julie almost ten years ago when we both worked in a bookstore in New York (she was my assistant manager). For the majority of those years, I knew Julie was a writer but never saw a thing she wrote. Since I was the same way, I never put any pressure on her. Then one day, out of the blue, she emailed me a poem. I loved it. I know her, so I knew it was her voice, but I also thought it had the lightness and the seriousness that I (or my six-year-old self) could relate to. She told me she had received some advice to push the text into a more traditional story. I suddenly felt very protective of the original poem. Obviously, the next step was to send it (without telling her) to my editor, Neal Porter.
Neal wrote: “This is lovely. Would you be interested in illustrating?”
So I did. I’ve been able to work with two writers (my husband, Philip, and Julie) with whom I am very close, which has really worked for me. They both give me plenty of say and plenty of space. Julie’s books (I am wrapping up the second book now) are so interesting to work on. The texts are abstract, which allows me to make a lot of decisions about how I’d like to pull the reader through the story. It’s a lot of freedom for an illustrator. Most of the time that is wonderful, but there are always moments where I am lying on the floor of my studio in despair. I want to do her delicate texts justice. It’s a great challenge.
2. What picture book text from the past do you most wish you could have illustrated?
EES: Tough question for an illustrator. There are many books I would love to have illustrated, but I wouldn’t be able to do as good a job as the illustrator whose name is already on the book. James Thurber’s Many Moons is probably one of my top picks, although I am no Louis Slobodkin — let alone Marc Simont.
3. My favorite spring song is “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.” What’s yours?
EES: I haven’t been able to think of anything that tops Mel Brooks’s “Springtime for Hitler.”
4. You’re a signatory to the Picture Book Proclamation. Which of its sixteen “We Believes?” means the most to you?
EES: Tough question #2. I am not positive my answer would be the same every time you asked me. Four out of five times though, I would probably answer: “We should know our history.”
I don’t necessarily mean the books that have become part of the canon (although that is an excellent place to start). A lot of good books can get lost in today’s online-blogging-twitter-algorithm shopping, but it’s nothing a good library, new or used bookstore, or a little Leonard S. Marcus can’t fix. Sometimes I worry that we’ve given up a little of the weird or the dark in picture books, while not realizing that some of the books we still love are entirely weird. I love Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, but as an elevator pitch, that book is strange.
I also think knowing your history means learning about some mistakes. I own some beautifully illustrated books from the 1950s with story morals like: “So he pretended to be like everyone else, and finally everyone liked him. The end.” I’d like to try to avoid stories like that in my career.
Picture books are a restricted art form. Nonetheless illustrations and text can vary wildly from one book to another. I try to read as many as possible. There are times when this makes me a little tired, but I also hope it makes me better at my job.
5. What color could you not live without?
EES: I live in Michigan, where we hear things like “lake effect snow” and “overcast” for months at a time (I’m looking at you, February and March). There are entire weeks where I am convinced that there is no color left in the world. And then the sun comes out, and while my retinas might burn a little at its return, I realize I could not live without blue. And sometimes green.
From the March 2012 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.