Author Emily Jenkins seems equally at home in picture books and intermediate fiction (and even — shh! — in YA, under nom de plume E. Lockhart). Like several of Emily’s previous books, her latest, Water in the Park: A Book About Water & the Times of the Day (illus. by Stephanie Graegin; Schwartz & Wade/Random; 4–7 years), offers an intimate glimpse of Emily’s New York City haunts. Here readers visit a neighborhood park on a “very hot day,” as babies, big kids, grown-ups, and animals all find relief from the heat in the park’s sprinklers, pond, and puddles.
1. Water in the Park is all about observation. What’s your favorite place to people- and animal-watch?
EJ: I live in Brooklyn and am fascinated by the huge variety of people in the city — people from all over the world — and by the texture and rhythms of the street life in my neighborhood. I wrote about it in Lemonade in Winter: A Book About Two Kids Counting Money (Schwartz & Wade/Random, 4–7 years) and the Invisible Inkling series (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, 5–8 years) as well as in Water in the Park. The feeling of the neighborhood is very fundamentally American in that it’s the proverbial melting pot in action. People are mixed, racially and culturally and economically and spiritually, but we all go to the same park and the same corner shop, you know? It’s thrilling.
My own stoop is my favorite place to people- and animal-watch. There’s a woman who shelters all these rescue dogs down the block, and an aged greyhound with a perpetually bandaged hind leg. Also an enormous fluffy dog with a brown head that looks transplanted onto its white body. There’s a veteran who sweeps his walk in a haze of illegal-smelling smoke, a noisy French-speaking family, and an old lady who puts her Agatha Christie novels out on the street for people to take when she’s done with them.
2. How closely do you work with your illustrators? Did anything about Stephanie Graegin’s pictures for Water in the Park surprise you?
EJ: Sometimes I get to see sketches and dummies before a project goes to final art, and sometimes I don’t. As I’ve gotten to know certain illustrators, projects have come from a desire to work together. Small, Medium, Large: A Book About Relative Sizes (Star Bright, 3–5 years) was a book Tomek Bogacki and I put together ourselves. Paul O. Zelinsky and I are doing a Toys Go Out picture book that originated in some conversations we had while on tour.
With Stephanie Graegin, I didn’t see the work until it was completely finished, but I was freaking ecstatic with everything she did, especially the way she threaded characters and little narratives through a story that hardly identifies anyone but the dogs by name. There are so many personalities and little dramas on her pages. And she draws awesome babies.
3. Your book What Happens on Wednesdays, illustrated by Lauren Castillo (Farrar, 4–7 years), also deals with time and the progression of the day. Do you have daily routines or rituals?
EJ: I love community rituals that involve large meals and a million kids running around like lunatics, jacked up on sugar. Hanukkah parties, birthdays, Sunday dinners, I’’m your person. Then I declare myself exhausted and want to see nobody for weeks. As for daily rituals, I think I am more of an observer of how those rituals are important to children, and what they mean in the fabric of a family or neighborhood.
4. The pets in your books, such as Mr. Fluffynut and Little Nonny from Water in the Park and FudgeFudge and Marshmallow from That New Animal (Foster/Farrar, 4–7 years), have fantastic names. What’s the best pet name you haven’t used yet?
EJ: Thank you. The nefarious kitten Pumpkinfacehead in Toys Come Home (Schwartz & Wade/Random, 5–8 years) was just a typo that made me laugh, but the others I chose quite deliberately. Perhaps I should now push my imagination in another direction. I love that the tiger in Life of Pi is called Richard Parker. So: maybe a guinea pig called Louisa May Alcott. That makes me smile.
5. You’ve written picture book reviews for various publications. How does reviewing other people’s work inform your own creative process?
EJ: It forces me to think carefully about what I value in picture books, and about the relation of text and image. It helps me remember to leave room for an artist to fully illustrate my books. I don’t want the text to do all the work. Or even most of it. There needs to be room for pictures.
From the May 2013 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.