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There’s no doubt that Steve Jenkins can do things with paper collage that are impressive and beautiful; perhaps less obvious to the eye is the scientific thinking behind every picture. From dinosaurs to deep-sea creatures, dogs to cats, and even a stopover on Mount Everest, which won him a Boston–Globe Horn Book Award in 1999 (The Top of the World: Climbing Mount Everest, Houghton), Jenkins’s books encourage us to look at the natural world around us in new and frequently startling ways. The Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest — and Most Surprising — Animals on Earth, is more than a gorgeous compendium. While pictures and information are packed into each topical spread, the book is carefully organized to provide a structured understanding of the animal kingdom, its origins and breadth, and the myriad behaviors and relationships it contains.
Roger Sutton: Where do you get your paper?
Steve Jenkins: Multiple places. The single largest source is a funky little art supply store in Manhattan, in the East Village, called New York Central. Anytime I travel, I look for stores that have paper. I’ve ordered some from Asia on the internet. Sometimes I just use things like wrapping paper or butcher paper.
RS: Do you ever find paper that suggests a subject for a book?
SJ: Yes. For example, bark paper — I believe it was made in Mexico and dyed a variety of colors. It has this sort of fiber-y texture, which has suggested any number of furry creatures. Or one time my son ordered a pizza, and the wax paper in the box was burned in this kind of interesting pattern.
RS: I guess people in your house know better than to throw things away.
SJ: Unless it’s a shiny silver paper, something that I could never use.
RS: I was trying to think if there was a color that you couldn’t use, but I’m guessing there isn’t.
SJ: I don’t think there’s a color I can’t use, no, because if you start doing coral reef creatures—
RS: Right. Go crazy.
SJ: The limitation is anything reflective. I’ve found some nice papers with gold streaks in them, like a marbled paper with a metallic component, but there’s no way to predict how that’s going to photograph. It depends on how the light is reflected. So those are pretty much unusable, which is a shame.
RS: You reused some art for this book. When you went to reuse a picture, or a part of a picture, are you going back to the original art? Or do you scan the pieces when you create them and save them electronically for possible use later on?
SJ: In this case, both. About seven or eight years ago the production process changed. Now I make the collage, then I do a desktop scan to put it in place, just to see how it’s going to work on the page. Then I send the actual art off to the publisher who has it professionally scanned and photographed. I get that digital file back and do any little touch-ups, like if there’s a torn place or a shadow that doesn’t look right. At the end I have a copy of the digital file that was used to print the book. But some of the older images had to be rescanned for The Animal Book, and I had to go back to the original art.
RS: How did The Animal Book come about?
SJ: My publisher originally approached me and said, “We want to package four or five of your books in one volume.” And I thought, well, that sounds interesting, but then I realized it really wouldn’t work. The books are in different formats…
RS: The scales are different.
SJ: And they have different reading levels. The subjects didn’t necessarily make sense put together. But I was intrigued by the idea of this large volume, so I said, “Let me use some of the existing art, but basically create a new book.” It was a long, kind of convoluted process. For a long time I wasn’t sure what the unifying theme was.
RS: To me, the unifying theme is one of our great contemporary bugaboos, which is evolution.
SJ: Well, of course. That sort of underlies all of it. It would have to underlie any book about survival.
RS: You think that and I think that, but what do we do with the large proportion of people that don’t agree with us?
SJ: That’s quite a dilemma. I don’t know. There was a point in time — you were there, actually, one of the times when I did a fairly aggressive presentation.
RS: Yes, we published an essay based on that speech.
SJ: I really was never dismissive of religion. That wasn’t the point. I did say something implying that it was foolish to believe the earth was only six thousand years old. I was kind of surprised at the reaction. I do use the e-word in this book. But I realized I could talk to children, and to adults too, and describe “descent with modification.” For anything living, the next generation varies, and some of its members survive better than others, and those traits are passed on. You can describe the process of evolution and nobody gets upset. It makes perfect sense.
RS: Right. It’s the word that sets them off. But I would imagine that there are a lot of people out there who wish you would do an animal book that was just gorgeous pictures of animals. We see series like that all the time here at the Horn Book. Library sets of mammals of the world. But because each one is treated discretely, there doesn’t have to be a discussion of how they got to be the way they are.
SJ: It’s just as easy to imagine that they were created on the spot.
RS: I don’t really know how we’re going to win this battle.
SJ: I’m focusing my hopes on the children, because I think the adults are too fixed in their worldviews.
RS: As you point out in the book, a huge percentage of the animal kingdom is bugs. How can we get people as interested in bugs as they are in those animals that are more like ourselves?
SJ: Yes, the charismatic megafauna. I think just showing them is one way. Interestingly, I don’t think that too many adults who aren’t entomologists are particularly interested in bugs, but I think a lot of children are. Maybe because they’re experiencing life more at that scale, at that level. They’re the ones who are sitting in the dirt and noticing the things crawling around. But it’s not just bugs. In the oceans, for instance, there are millions of fascinating little creatures that are really extraordinary if you look at them, if you enlarge them. Hopefully if children become interested in reading about the natural world, about one kind of creature, then that opens their eyes to the possibility of thinking about other kinds of creatures. Some that aren’t as immediately obvious as pandas and great white sharks.
RS: That’s a neat thing that this book does, because it does bring them all together, and it shows how one either leads to another, feeds from another, or is in some way related. They — we — are all related to each other.
SJ: Yes, which I think is one of the single most extraordinary concepts. Trees and bacteria and beetles — we are all related.
RS: Which part of the natural world secretly bores you the most?
SJ: We’re talking about living?
RS: Yeah, let’s say plants and animals. Like, “If I ever have to make another picture of a…”
SJ: I would probably say molds and algae. Single-celled plants. I’m sure they’re incredibly fascinating if you study them — the whole world depends on oxygen produced by algae — but I can’t really express that visually with my technique.
RS: How have you found your technique to have evolved over the years?
SJ: It’s gotten more detailed and more accurate. Originally one of the things that drew me to collage was a personality flaw of mine, which is that when I was working with, say, pencil, which I used to do when I was in art school, I would spend more and more time on a smaller and smaller piece of an illustration. It was really hard for me to step back and do the whole gesture and the whole form. Cut-paper collage makes that really hard to do, because you can only cut pieces of paper so small. If you look at some of my earlier books, you’ll see that the illustrations are much simpler. As I’ve gotten more adept at cutting out pieces of paper, I’ve succumbed to that tendency to try to become more and more detailed. But there’s still a limit. I can’t do individual hairs on a creature’s coat.
RS: Has the technology improved? Have knives gotten smaller, or sharper?
SJ: No, they’re pretty much the same. The only big difference is that I used to use rubber cement, but after a few years I realized that all the pieces of paper eventually fall off the board. I started working with an adhesive film that’s archival, which makes them permanent. But other than that, no. X-acto knives are still X-acto knives.
RS: They scare me. They’re so damn sharp.
SJ: I know. Inevitably, even after the hours I’ve spent using them, I end up stabbing myself. Never seriously, but enough to hurt.
RS: How did you ever get a grip on such a large topic?
SJ: I realized it made sense to make the book into kind of an encyclopedia, to cover things like reproduction and predation. But the landscape of those books is pretty intimidating. There are a lot of really comprehensive animal encyclopedias that have hundreds of people working on them. This couldn’t be that kind of book. It couldn’t be comprehensive. So that’s where the introduction came from. I wanted to explain that this book is idiosyncratic and eclectic and it’s just based on my personal interest in a lot of these creatures.
RS: I think it does a really good job of giving the reader a through-line, so that it does make a particular kind of sense if you go page by page. But at the same time it’s extremely browsable. You can open up to a spread and then go back or forward or just skip around. It really hangs together in both ways.
SJ: I never imagined anybody would go from beginning to end. I just assumed it would get opened up somewhere in the middle.
RS: Often I think reading starts that way, but then if the material is good enough, someone will say, “Okay, I want to see how this whole thing works.” A lot of the questions I had while reading the book, and I read it through, were about your organization and about your technique, and you take those on in the appended material. I thought that was pretty brilliant.
SJ: Thanks. That means there’s at least one other person besides myself and my editor that read it all.
RS: Oh, there’ll be more.
More on Steve Jenkins from The Horn Book
- “The Importance of Being Wrong”
- “What Would Steve Read?”
- Steve Jenkins’s 1999 Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction Award Speech
- Cover of the Spring 2003 Horn Book Guide