Lois Ehlert started illustrating books in the 1960s and hit the big-time in 1989 with the now-classic Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (Simon, 2–5 years), written by Bill Martin Jr and John Archambault, and Color Zoo (Lippincott, 2–5 years), which was given a Caldecott Honor. In 2006 she received the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Leaf Man (Harcourt, 4–7 years). When we spoke on the phone, the entire country was experiencing a polar vortex and Milwaukee, where she lives a few blocks from windy Lake Michigan, was expecting a high of -2°F.
1. The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life (Beach Lane/Simon, 4–7 years) is your third book about growing up to become an artist. In what ways is it different from Under My Nose (Richard C. Owen, 6–9 years) and Hands (Harcourt, 5–8 years)?
LE: Well, the format is different. It’s more of a collage, scraps of my life (and scraps of paper). This book is directed at slightly younger readers, especially those who know they want to be an artist, even when they’re six years old!
2. All of your books use collage of some kind — solid-colored paper in Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, painted paper in Feathers for Lunch (Harcourt, 4–7 years), found objects in Snowballs (Harcourt, 4–7 years). Why do you think collage is the right medium for you?
LE: Throughout my life I have also been a seamstress and created a lot of fiber pieces so I have a natural tendency to touch things. It was very easy for me to transition from fabric to handmade paper, which is also just really detailed fiber. The other part of it, I think, is my eye toward recycling and revisiting and reusing things.
Some people think of collage as just pieces of paper. Sometimes I use handmade paper and sometimes I paint watercolor on the paper and then cut it out. Other books, like Snowballs, use real three-dimensional objects. For Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf (Harcourt, 4–7 years), I literally had to wire a tree branch onto the paper and then over-paint it. I don’t think I would ever do that again.
3. Do you ever get paper cuts?
LE: Oh, gosh, yes. I’m dealing with one on my right thumb now. It’s really hard to work when you have paper cuts.
4. What does your work area look like right now?
LE: I usually tell kids that I make a lot of mistakes, so I have a very full and overflowing wastebasket. I’m working on a new book called Holy Moly and it has a lot of worms in it. There are worm-shaped pieces of paper all over the floor. Last night I found a paper worm stuck to the bottom of my shoe.
On my table there are six pairs of scissors. I like large scissors like the Fiskars shown on the cover of Mice (written by Rose Fyleman; Beach Lane, 4–7 years). I don’t use small pointy scissors, even for tiny pieces of cut-outs. I’m making a collage out of smaller collages as a thank-you note. I’ve got leftover color xeroxes, too. I never throw them away because I can use them to make postcards. Recycling the recycled pieces. My parents lived during the Great Depression when reusing was a necessity, so some of that rubbed off on me.
5. So many of your books are about being outdoors — Planting a Rainbow (Harcourt, 4–7 years), Leaf Man, Feathers for Lunch, to name a few. But your collages have to be created indoors away from the wind. Do you go outside for recess every day?
LE: Almost every day, but not if it’s really icy. Most days I do go out — even today — because it’s where I find a lot of my art supplies.
From the March 2014 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.