Molly Bang has won many awards for her picture book illustration over the past forty years. She is also the author of Picture This, a book for adults about how pictures work. In 2009 Molly teamed with MIT ecologist Penny Chisholm on Living Sunlight, a picture book explaining how light interacts with the world around us. Their new book is Ocean Sunlight: How Tiny Plants Feed the Seas, an impressively complete and accessible look at how light collaborates with all the ocean’s systems. I wanted to find out how they collaborate with each other.
1. You share writing credit for Ocean Sunlight. How did you work together on the text?
Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm: Penny decided what she thought were the most important concepts to explain in order to understand how the oceans function as an integrated biological/chemical/physical system. Her goal was to cover topics that are not usually included in children’s books but that she feels are fundamentals for everyone (not just children) to understand. Once we had the key concepts down, we worked together to shape them into a story. This was the most difficult part. Where was the narrative? Where was the suspense? The drama? We were striving for that sense of awe at being part of nature, part of our world. When the language was too scientific, we tried to make sure the ideas could be understood in some other way. That’s where Molly’s pictures come in.
2. Molly, you’re the illustrator, but did Penny have a role in conceptualizing or editing the pictures?
MB and PC: The typical approach to collaborative children’s books is that there is an author and an illustrator and the two do not communicate until the book is finished. This is not that kind of book. Once we had a rough idea of the concepts and the general narrative, Molly made thumbnail sketches that we reworked until we were fairly sure about how the story would “move.” Then we started writing. Molly wrote a first draft, then Penny edited to make it more scientifically accurate. We went back and forth, over and over. Penny found wonderful examples of the ocean plants and critters for Molly to paint, and Molly often painted the same picture several times before we were both satisfied. The good news is that we almost always agreed on what changes were needed.
3. Penny, you usually teach college and graduate students. Was it difficult to distill this information for children?
MB and PC: Extremely difficult! But also very satisfying. There are fundamental scientific truths about how our planet works that most people, even college graduates, do not understand. This book (along with Living Sunlight) is our way of distilling these ideas and making them accessible to everyone. It is our hope that parents and teachers will also gain insights as they read the books to children, and more importantly when they read the extensive end notes.
4. Your book contains many visual representations of abstract ideas (e.g., the yellow outline around plants and animals that’s meant to show the absorption of energy). Tell us about this process.
MB and PC: So glad you noticed. This was one of our goals, and one of the more difficult tasks (not only in the pictures, but in the writing itself). For example, we wanted to show that we understand the sun’s energy both as waves and as individual packets of energy or photons. So we showed the light as waves of separate yellow polka dots. This became a sort of meditative exercise for Molly, as she not only had to paint each dot, but since the background was dark, she had to paint first a white dot and cover that with a yellow one. Or two.
We tried as much as possible to have the illustrations not only elucidate the text but complement it as well, so a more visual learner could look at the picture, go back to the text, and continue back and forth until understanding evolved. We hope that when teachers and parents use the book with children, they will spend a good amount of time just concentrating on what the pictures themselves are saying and have the children describe what’s happening in them as they read the book.
5. Ocean Sunlight and its predecessors Living Sunlight (2009) and My Light (2004, written and illustrated by Molly) present sophisticated science ideas in an inviting picture book format. When you were children, what books illuminated the natural world for you?
MB and PC: Penny’s childhood was not full of books, but it was full of nature. The only children’s book she remembers is Holling Clancy Holling’s Paddle-to-the-Sea. This book had special meaning for children growing up on Lake Superior, as she did. She found the adventures of the little carved wooden Indian in the canoe enchanting. Molly spent summers in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where she went to the Woods Hole Science School and was subjected to many, many books about science. But the only one she remembers with great fondness is…Paddle-to-the-Sea! This shared childhood memory is probably the unconscious road map that is guiding us, making our task easier. In fact, the next book we would like to make — Sunlight Moves the Waters — is inspired in part by Holling’s classic.