Having illustrated more than thirty books, Paul O. Zelinsky is a master of just about every artistic medium. He won the Caldecott Medal in 1998 for Rapunzel, a dark story illustrated with lush, realistic oil paintings. But most recently, he collaborated with Kelly Bingham on the side-splittingly funny Z Is for Moose, in which the exuberant (and impatient) main character barges in on every letter of the alphabet. (2–5 years).
1. Many years ago you wrote a piece for the Horn Book Magazine that told why your favorite medium was oils. Has that changed?
Paul O. Zelinsky: Not really. I wrote about the ways one medium after another tried to trip me up, drying into different colors or textures from those I’d laid down, or lightening overnight from the values that I worked so hard to get; and how oils are not only sensually pleasing to use, but have been a reliable and forgiving medium. I’ve always had an easier time fixing my mistakes in oils than in anything else.
I also wrote that I dabbled in Computer but couldn’t draw on it. This has changed. Now I am a Photoshop fiend, though I still use it not so much for original creation as for manipulation. While Photoshop doesn’t have a lovely smell — you don’t engage in a sort of physical dance with a material in the way you do with actual paint and paper — it takes forgiveness to a whole new level.
2. Z Is for Moose is so silly. Is there a secret to getting in the mood to create funny drawings?
PZ: Kelly Bingham’s manuscript was all I needed; it was hilarious, and almost everything you see in the book was already there. But I don’t think I giggled while I worked. In fact, if you could have watched me the whole time on a studiocam, I doubt you’d have been able to tell that I was making funny pictures. Getting a composition to look right, figuring out what’s wrong and what could be better — these things are engaging but not lighthearted. It’s not actually amusing to spend your time speculating about whether a picture would be funnier if Moose’s head were tilted differently and then find the right tilt; or to draw Zebra’s eyes again and again until the expression looks like what worked in a first rough sketch. Drawing funny actually feels pretty much the same as drawing exquisite or jaunty or soporific or tender or heroic or you-name-it.
3. There’s no shortage of alphabet books, and part of what makes yours stand out is the meta-aspect. Do you think a straightforward ABC book still offers possibilities for illustrators? Or is the fun in the winking?
PZ: I imagine there will always be fresh takes on the form that don’t step back a level and refer to the making of the book itself. Anyway, from the point of view of very young children, nothing is old or hackneyed. Isn’t it important for them to be exposed to the most basic forms of things? Variations should come second. And winking third.
I want to say again that I can’t take credit for the meta-aspect of Z Is for Moose, or indeed for almost any of its aspects. That is all Kelly Bingham. I feel lucky to have been asked to make the pictures.
That said, stepping back and up a level is something I’ve always liked doing — before I gradually ceased my own painting in favor of illustration only, the still lifes I made were all self-referential in their own way, and I’m not sure if that was a good thing. Sometimes I feel there may be too much winking meta-stuff going on in general: after a point, self-reference can become tiresome and lose its cleverness. I think Z Is for Moose gets away with any and all winks because behind the meta–picture book (and behind the alphabet book), there is a story about frustration and friendship that feels warm and true.
4. E. L. Konigsburg once spoke about how important it is for book creators to spend time “doing nothing.” Do you too find that your time away from the drawing board helps your work?
PZ: I am capable, actually, of doing nothing without getting up from my drawing table. My studio windows look out on a lovely churchyard where preschool children play in the mornings and afternoons. Right now it’s early evening. Dogwoods are in full bloom, and the flowering cherries have just finished; pink petals lie in drifts on the brick paths. The grass is intensely green and rain clouds are looming…
I hope nobody is watching me on a studiocam.
I like to tell myself that the time I spend not working magically contributes to the quality of the work I will eventually get to. But I don’t really believe it.
5. What was it like growing up at the end of the alphabet?
PZ: How good of you to ask. I grew up as both a Z and the shortest kid in my class, and it was a double whammy of coming last. Always being put at the end of the line in every school event did not feel good. At times I have tried to make a campaign of it. All I’d want is to reorder the alphabet. I wouldn’t insist on Z coming first; I’d be happy in the middle, around where N is now. What is an N anyway but a Z turned sideways?
My first illustrated book was by Avi, whose secret last name also comes very late in the alphabet. He threw it over for A and seems to have done quite well. The second book I illustrated was by the early-twentieth-century Russian writer Boris Zhitkov. I will never forget walking into the glamorous Scribner’s bookstore on Fifth Avenue to see if they were carrying that book, How I Hunted the Little Fellows. I looked and looked and finally saw a copy near the floor, way off to the right, in a shadowy corner under a counter shelf.
Even if Z Is for Moose hadn’t been a wonderful manuscript, I would have had to take it, with a title like that. (Moose also happens to be the nickname my wife’s siblings gave her as a child.) What’s more, when I received it, the author’s name on the manuscript was Kelly Wightman. An alphabetical colleague, I thought. But what did Kelly do between submitting her manuscript and getting published? She went and married a Bingham, changed her name, and jumped from number twenty-three to number two. I can’t really blame her, though.