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Five questions for Antoinette Portis

AntoinettePortisAntoinette Portis won a Geisel Honor in 2007 for her picture book Not a Box (Harper, 3–6 years), a celebration of child’s imaginative vision over the skepticism that tends to creep in later in life. Her latest picture book Wait (Roaring Brook/Porter, 3–6 years) likewise encourages children — and their parents — to stop and smell the roses.

1. Several of your picture books explore the push-and-pull — literally, in Wait — between a child’s perspective and that of a grownup. Where does this interest come from?

AP: Though I understand both sides of the child/parent perspective divide, clearly my heart is on the side of the child.

Wait was inspired by a tiny child/mom drama I saw play out while sitting in a café. A mother and toddler walked by. He broke away to run back and peer at a ladybug sitting on the window ledge in front of me. His mom came over, grabbed his hand, and tugged him down the street. He staggered along on his tiptoes trying to keep up, craning his neck to keep the bug in sight. This little moment resonated with me. It takes some effort to avoid getting your spirit squashed in the process of growing up. The creative person’s determination to hang onto his or her own imaginings in spite of that intruding skeptical voice — that’s at the heart of many of my books, and maybe at the heart of my life.

2. The characters in Wait have a range of subtly different skin tones. Why did you make this choice for the art?

AP: The human family comes in such a lovely breadth of colors — I wanted to reflect that. And if the mom and child were of indeterminate ethnic origin, more children could identify with them.

What the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement has made clearer than ever before is that the world of publishing needs to be more inclusive. I’ve heard so many anecdotes from now-grownups who searched for faces of color in their childhood picture books and never found them. So the varied skin tones in Wait are a tiny step in the right direction.

portis_wait3. The book’s smaller trim size and horizontal shape are perfect for pulling readers along with the characters. Was this how you originally envisioned it?

AP: I always pictured the horizontal landscape format, since I could place the characters on the far left to emphasize all the footsteps that lay ahead of them on their forward rush. It’s exciting when the very shape of the book helps tell your story!

Wait talks in a quiet voice. A small format tells you the book is intimate. I imagine a parent and child sitting together and the child pointing out little details. There are predictive elements in the illustrations that work their way up to conscious observation if you’re really looking. Children read pictures with a level of attention that adults usually don’t. Before kids can read words, they read pictures. They notice everything! In Wait, I wanted to give them things to notice. Since, after all, that’s what the book is about — stopping to notice.

4. What’s the most valuable thing you learned from being a Sendak fellow (in 2010)?

AP: Maurice was all about emotional honesty, digging deep, not shying away from the dark side of human feelings. He thought children’s books should address the way things really are. He knew from his own childhood that children see and understand more than the adults around them acknowledge. His watchwords were “Tell children the truth.”

He told us we had to be like secret agents and sneak depth into our work. Children will get it, he said, even if adults don’t.

Everyone who is striving to do what Maurice did does it in his or her own way — depth can be hidden under infinite varieties of camouflage. Depth doesn’t seem so much in demand these days — we are so enticed by glossy appearances, it’s hard to take the time to look beneath. But when someone takes you down below the surface, entertaining you all the while, it’s a joyful miracle.

5. Do you have an idea about where that mother and son are going?

AP: I left it open, even in my own mind. The most important thing is that the mother clearly has a schedule and is determined to stay on it. Mom sets the pace. Every child is familiar with this scenario — even helicopter parents have appointments to keep! Although the two characters are together, they have completely different agendas.

Childhood is such a great time of life, when humans are gifted the innocent joy of experiencing ordinary things as extraordinary. And sometimes, unexpectedly, children drag adults back to that state and there is a moment of perfect harmony.

From the July 2015 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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Comments

  1. “Before kids can read words, they read pictures.” and “Tell children the truth.”
    <3 those! Thanks for this article. A win for visual literacy.

  2. Yeah Antoinette for telling the truth and showing a bit of real life!!! Bravo

  3. Oh, there are SO many things I love about this interview! Antoinette, you have that wonderful ability to see the world from a child’s perspective, and offer it up as a wonderful reminder to adults who’ve forgotten how. 🙂 I was going to share my favorite quote of yours, but there are too many – I’d end up reposting the whole interview. LOL

    Thank you, Antoinette, for your fresh ideas. I’m inspired by you!

    Susie Sawyer

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