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Running all the way back to Neandernardo, Cleonardo’s ancestors have always created great things. But what can she do? Her town’s upcoming Grand Festival of Inventions just might allow Cleonardo her chance to shine in Cleonardo: The Little Inventor.
Roger Sutton: One thing that struck me about Cleonardo was in the second spread, where it says “Cleonardo Wren wanted to be an inventor too, and she had great ideas.” She’s invented this sticky bug vine with things she found in the forest, and Dad is standing there all butch at his work table, and he says, “Oh, I don’t think so, little bird.” Should we start with a discussion of girls and STEM? Should we start with a discussion of sexism? You pick.
Mary GrandPré: Well, I don’t think of it as sexism. My dad was a lot like Geonardo. He was a carpenter, and he built lots of things — he could just about make anything. And he could fix anything. He built houses, fixed cars, made machines that would fix cars. I was amazed by that, and I was always down in his workshop with him. So for me, that scene is really natural. That’s just how it was.
RS: Well, you have to have conflict, or you don’t have a book, right?
RS: On the opening spread, there’s a funny picture of a wall in their house. There are portraits on it of Neandernardo, Sapphonardo, Magellanardo, and Leonardo. How did you pick which “ancestors” you were going to put there?
MG: That’s a good question. I mean, I knew Leonardo was going to be in the story, and the thing just kind of grew with the -nardos. The main character wasn’t even named Cleonardo until I was done writing it. But Geonardo was always Geonardo.
RS: Is your Leonardo the Leonardo in some way?
MG: Yes. So then I thought, let’s make a -nardo family. I went back through the ages and tried to find people that would be good ambassadors of the -nardo family. I had Columbonardo, for Columbus, but that came with some questions.
RS: Oy. I think if you did do something like that, you would bring a perspective that would distract from what this book is about. So, you have a happy memory — your father inventing and tinkering and all that, and you were encouraged to join in as much as you wanted to — is that where the story began?
MG: Yes, I think so. I was very close to my dad. I wasn’t intentionally thinking I want to write a story about Dad. It was just kind of in me. As I was writing, I started to realize, oh, this is like when I was downstairs working with Dad. Oh, that’s right, he had a bunch of rusty tools. I was gaining a lot of visual reference and inspiration from my experience with my dad as I was envisioning the story. I have to tell you, the story took a long, long time to write. The plot changed. The whole idea changed. The conflict was different.
RS: What was the core of the story that remained through your revisions and changes?
MG: Originally Cleonardo was an inventor and a creative, curious girl who needed to do things her own way, and she was validated — her work was validated — by something that happens in the story. In the beginning, her father wasn’t a different kind of inventor, necessarily. He was supportive, and she was inspired by him. He wasn’t shooing her away or anything like that as he is now.
MG: As the story developed, I got some help from Arthur [editor Arthur Levine] trying to define what the conflict was. I started to think maybe Cleo is a new kind of inventor in a family that’s traditionally been bent on doing things one way. Dad’s one kind of inventor, and Cleo needs to prove something to him by doing things differently. I have a child too. She takes no advice from me. She’s got her own way of doing things, so she’s a bit like Cleonardo. I realized that it’s an important thing to talk about, parents encouraging kids to find their own way.
RS: Do you think of yourself as having been a creative child?
MG: Yes, I do.
RS: And how was that exhibited?
MG: Well, I was brought up in a very strict Catholic family.
RS: Oh, me too!
MG: I’m sorry. I’m recovering. Whatever. I’m fine now. Anyway. At school, the nuns tried to make me right-handed. And we had to sit in church every day — and I mean every day.
RS: I remember parochial school kids had to go to Mass every single freaking day.
MG: Yes. You had to go funerals of people that you didn’t know, all kinds of stuff. But the church was beautiful, huge stained-glass windows and wonderful statues, larger than life.
RS: Where was it?
MG: It was in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was gorgeous. But I was quite nauseous every day at school—I had some real stomach problems. The thing that saved me was sitting in church and trying to get into these statues and windows and colors. Truly, it transported me. And I can see it now in my own work—my pictures have kind of that look.
RS: That’s really interesting.
MG: It was my saving grace. It really was. And I loved to draw. I always did. I started when I was about five years old. My parents built me my first easel. I worked down in the basement on the other side from my dad’s workshop. It sounds corny, but we really did have our two little workshops. So I grew up as this little Catholic girl who just wanted to make beautiful things. I expressed myself with paint.
RS: And now you’ve illustrated the first American editions of the Harry Potter books and you have a Caldecott Honor Award [for The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art by Barb Rosenstock]. What does success like that do to an artist, or to you as an artist? I guess it’s different for everybody.
MG: Well, it certainly is two-sided. It’s mostly good. It allows me to meet lots of people who are interested in art and books. I meet kids who say the only reason they learned to read was because of the Harry Potter books. Of course, I only take a tiny bit of credit for that. I get lots of feedback from kids, and we have conversations about the art, which is great. But I guess for me personally it also can become a label. I’m the Harry Potter artist, mostly, to most people.
RS: I wonder if the Caldecott Honor changes that, though.
MG: I don’t know. I’ve been an illustrator for thirty years. Awards are great, but they’re not who you are, and pop culture isn’t who you are. I kind of just fell into the Potter thing. I guess we all did.
RS: The first book came out when I started at the Horn Book, so my whole career has been sort of in tandem with Harry Potter. It really changed publishing.
MG: That used to be a real personal struggle for me. I think I’ve just let go. And actually, part of the reason I’ve been able to let go is because I’ve become even more of a painter. When I’m not working on a children’s book, I’m painting abstract paintings. That’s probably the most joyous thing for me as an artist. But I do love children’s books. The books that I’m working on lately, about creativity — Cleonardo is one of these — or highlighting artists like Kandinsky [in Noisy Paint Box], are rewarding to do. I’ve enjoyed it. And I think kids need to be allowed to be more creative and learn more about artists these days, so I’m all about that.
RS: There’s a lot of worry that all of that is being left behind in our rush for test scores and things.
MG: That’s right. My daughter — I’m an older mother; we adopted a little girl from China about ten years ago; she’s almost twelve now — she’s a little art director. She comes in and directs me in the studio. She’s right most of the time. I feel really fortunate to be able to share art-making with her, and the importance of creating something that you thought up. She’s more interested in creative writing, but the idea is still the same. When I was working on Cleonardo, we’d talk about the story. Once she said, “Mom, why does she have to go out to the forest to work? Why can’t you have her in the workshop with her dad?” And I said, “Well, because she’s really doing things her own way.” My daughter is very independent, and it led to a discussion about how when she wanted to do something on her own, she would go up into her room to do it instead of sticking around with me. I hope that discussion can be had by a family reading Cleonardo together, with kids encouraged to do their own thing.
RS: Well, you’re replicating what your dad did with you.
MG: Yes. Comes from an honest place.
RS: I think you’re very lucky.
MG: Thank you. I think I am too.