Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann Talk with Roger

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It’s a simple enough tale: one apple hanging temptingly from a tree, five hungry animals waiting for the drop. Life- and artistic partners, Sibert Medalist Candace Fleming and Caldecott Medalist Eric Rohmann here tell me the story of how that story came to be Mine!, their ninth collaboration.

Roger Sutton: Which came first, your relationship or your collaboration?

Candace Fleming: Our relationship.

Eric Rohmann: We had been living together for five years before we collaborated for the first time on a book called Oh, No!

RS: Candy, do you give Eric first refusal? Is that how it works?

CF: Usually I would come up with a story and show it to him. He’s my first eyes and ears anyway, before even writers groups see it. But only with Oh, No! did he say, “I would like to do that.” Other times we’ll just be walking the dog, and we have conversations about ideas. We’ll talk about those ideas and come up with a book together.

RS: And when does your editor Anne Schwartz, vice-president and publisher of Anne Schwartz Books, jump in?

CF: She likes to jump in early, as soon as I think the manuscript is done. I’ll send it to her, and then, being Anne, she always has things that I can improve. I love working with her because she’s such a good editor. Authors play this game a lot, where we say, “My editor’s the best because he or she doesn’t make me do anything,” or “My editor only asks for a few revisions.”  I always say, “My editor is the best because she does not let anything go. If she has a thought or suggestion, she’ll toss it to you. She will boldly ask questions that you never think anybody would ask, and I love that.” So she jumps in pretty early, and then once the manuscript is hammered out to her liking, then I turn it over to the illustrator — who was Eric, in the case of Mine!

RS: Eric, was that your first look? Or had you already started cogitating?

ER: Yes. And not to confuse you, Mine! is one of those we came up with together. While Candy was writing, I was making pictures that made some sense with her manuscript. But they didn’t look anything like the illustrations in the book now! They were done on pages from a one-hundred-year-old children’s magazine that I drew on. This is the process of creating; you try something, it doesn’t work, so you try again and again. Eventually I came around to discovering a different medium I hadn’t used before, relief printing on stained paper, and that seemed perfect for this story. The process is a collaboration between Candy and me but also between knowledgeable, thoughtful, intelligent children’s book people at Anne Schwartz Books as well.

RS: And the dog.

CF: And the dog. What would we do without the dog to force us out of the house to walk and actually talk to each other? He requires long walks.

RS: We also walk together every morning, Richard and Brownie and I, but everybody has a different rate. We start out together. We have a mile loop that we all do. And we end up together. And we might all meet at some point along the way, but it’s not guaranteed.

ER: And Brownie doesn’t have a problem with the separation?

RS: No, Brownie’s in his own little world.

ER: Oxford needs the pack to remain together.

CF: We conform to his rule, so we all stay together.

ER: But you know what it’s like. It takes you out of the house. There’s a contemplative part to it. You’re in an environment you know, so there’s not a whole lot of surprises. You’re walking together, but there’s a sense that you’re separate. I would encourage people to take a dog for a walk if they want to work something out, aesthetically speaking.

CF: And we don’t see each other during the day, even though we’re here in the same house. Eric’s in his studio. I’m in my office, and we go to work every single day. We come out about 4 pm.

ER: I do printmaking right below her office, in the basement, and if it’s not going well — 

CF: I always know.

ER: There are expletives that float up.

CF: We have an old house. It comes right up out of the floor.

ER: And if you’ve ever made prints, you know that something bad is going to happen that you have to solve. Candy hears it.

RS: What if you’re working on the same book? Or are your timelines so completely different? Like with Mine!, you’re done first, Candy, right? 

CF: Well, I am done...and yet. Eric gets the manuscript, and he’ll start doing his magic. He starts to see things that might enhance the text, or text that we can cut. For example, one of the things that he added in Mine! was those sequences where each animal imagines what it’s going to do once that apple is in their little paws. I just had each animal hiding and then saying, “Mine!” I saw that his idea made their motivation even stronger. When I saw it in page form, where I could actually turn the page, it also adds a really nice beat between the two scenes. We stop, as readers, and we think, What’s next? Rather than, Here’s what’s next. It adds a really nice pause.

RS: The rhythm of the book is so beautiful.

CF: Thank you. I think so too. Eric also added the part where the apple goes away and bounces off by itself. You turn the page, and it bounces to the little possum.

ER: I probably say this every time I have a conversation about books: of course, the singular characteristic of a picture book is the page-turn. 

RS: Amen, brother.

ER: That’s the thing a picture book does that nothing else does. If you believe the page-turn is the confluence of anticipation and surprise, then use it. Use it to throw off the reader slightly, and then when they turn the page, there’s a surprise, but it’s also inevitable. How can you use those page-turns within a forty-page picture book to move the reader through the emotions of the story? I’m of the belief that just about every great picture book understands this. There are really good picture books that are just “double-page spread and double-page spread and double-page spread.”

RS: I think of artists who have done really beautiful work in picture books, but there’s nothing going on from page to page. It’s beautiful, but there’s nothing that’s making the connection both, as you say, surprising yet inevitable. Mine!, to me, is an ideal picture book in the way you have a poem of a story, a poem of pictures, and a poem of a design, all intertwined together.

ER: That’s the triad right there. The story, the images, and the book form. That’s what makes a picture book a picture book, compared to a film or something. I think a lot of times people see a picture book as a gallery, or a box that holds — 

CF: Pictures and words.

ER: It’s not that. It’s more akin to film.

RS: Back in the eighties, there was a market for picture-book art as fine art, but I don’t think it really did a whole lot for us as a genre. If you’re designing your paintings to look good on the wall, chances are they’re not going to look great as narrative art.

ER: If you’re making a film, there has to be an emotional, an intellectual, and a visual ebb and flow. If you have a Broadway show, they can’t all be showstoppers. There has to be something in there that leads to that moment. There are pictures in the book that in some ways are essential, but they’re hardly great visual images. They just move the story. That’s why I remember a person whose name I won’t mention, a famous children’s book artist, who said, every picture is just as important as the others. I agree with him, but what he meant was that each one has to be as beautiful, as artful. In our form, the only thing that needs to be beautiful and artful is the finished book. The rest of it is just elements that add up to the finished book.

RS: One thing I’d like to add about Mine! is that I really appreciated the substantial paper. It makes it very page-turnable.

CF: This is going to sound goofy, but I always think about the sound of the page-turn when I write picture-book text. I love that sound. And the paper for Mine! makes the page-turn sound so beautiful.

ER: And the binding isn’t too tight. It stays open on your lap. I laugh back at the days, twenty years ago, when there were some who were saying digital picture books were going to supplant physical picture books. It’s the same concern as in the sixties when people said that eventually we won’t have to eat meals; we’ll just take a pill. Completely ignoring the visual, the tactile.

CF: I also think the book is a lovely size, especially for storytime. We tried it out with some preschoolers, who I think have become the forgotten readers in picture books that are being published. Especially those rollicky, bouncy-jouncy, fun, delightful stories that are upmarket, so that the design is beautiful, the paper’s beautiful, and the artwork is glorious. I kind of feel like they’re the lost market right now. My favorite from our test audience was a little boy who leaped up and said, paraphrasing Fox, “My eyes do not deceive!” He had to repeat it because it sounded so good. I thought, there, our work is done. The musicality of language. He’s got it.

RS: Something that really scares me, to go back to Eric’s point about a digital picture book, is so much of what we as reviewers see now is digital. I am so glad Random House sent me a finished, bound book. When I was at ALA, I was seeing a lot of finished copies of books I’d done interviews about, which I’d only ever seen digitally. The difference is amazing. If I were to look at this as a PDF, I’m missing so many of the elements that need to be evaluated.

ER: Imagine a photo of a Rodin sculpture and then a Rodin sculpture in a room. It takes up space. It’s physical. You move around it. You understand its tactile qualities. Although that sounds hifalutin perhaps for a picture book, it isn’t for our audience. That object is a real-life, living thing.

RS: Oh, I think that’s everything in a picture book, as an object.

ER: Our dog’s making noise, speaking of real-life things.

RS: Can I see him?

CF: Hey, Oxford! Look up here.

RS: He looks like Buster, my previous dog. Hello, gorgeous.

ER: He’s our old guy, our twelve-year-old.

CF: But he’s still walking, three miles a day. So are we. We’re old too.

ER: Candy wrote a book called Strongheart, which was about a dog. Oxford influenced the way I illustrated that book. You want animal movements to be relatively realistic, but you want it to also have some energy that may be slightly more hyperbolic. That’s pretty much a description of Oxford.

RS: I imagine that’s a big challenge always. You have such a kinetic story here in mind. How do you make a still image look like something is moving?

ER: I wish I had the answer to it. I mean, I could give you art answers like you use contrapposto, which means two arcs that go in different directions. Have some of it go off the page. Have it moving through verticals or horizontals. But the actual thing is you keep working on it till it gives a sense of that. You try something and it doesn’t work and you get rid of it. Some are easy. A bear spitting out an apple core is a pretty easy one to do. But the action of a fox sniffing at the apple high up required a lot more tries.

CF: I like how the book has different viewpoints too. Sometimes we look down on the deer, and we look up with the mouse.

RS: So we’re moving as a viewer.

ER: Candy builds consistent movement into Mine!, that structure from one animal to another animal to another animal. What I so admire about the writing is within that structure, she goes nuts with making up sounds that suggest movement. In some ways the question you asked me — “How do you make it look dynamic?” — it’s built into the language. When you glue that language to a still image, the two meld together and become more active.

RS: So it starts with the text.

ER: Mine! did, yes.

RS: As Marcia Brown said in one of her million Caldecott acceptance speeches, “In the beginning was the word.”

ER: That’s hilarious. I guess it’s mostly been that way for us, except for Giant Squid, for which the pictures came first. But with the books I’ve written, it’s the other way around. Which makes perfect sense, because Candy engages with the world through words first — 

CF: And Eric sees things visually.

RS: You both do so many different kinds of books, even together. Fiction picture books, nonfiction picture books. Candy, you’ve got novels and picture books and nonfiction. Is that how you keep your love alive?

CF: Our love of each other, or our love of children’s books?

RS: I’m just thinking about the variety of the work you do together, in that house, independently, seems like it must be incredibly rich and not get boring.

CF: Yeah, we’re not bored. I still like him. He’s not boring at all.

ER: But here’s the thing. Candy’s a magpie. She’ll see some small thing. Let’s say she’s at a class, and they’re talking about Anastasia Romanov. Candy gets an idea to write a small book about Anastasia Romanov. Well, what she discovers is the real Anastasia Romanov isn’t very interesting. So already she’s moving away from that initial idea, and suddenly she writes this 200-some-page book about the Russian Revolution, which has hardly anything to do with the original idea. I think that’s what keeps it fresh.

CF: But it is interesting here. We have a lot of conversations about a lot of really interesting things. I wish we kept a list. Yesterday we talked about cognitive dissonance, and we talked about — all of it sort of related to the work that we’re doing. And we have a lot of interests. I know I’ve said this before, but I can’t control anything that happens with my work beyond my office, so it better be interesting and challenging and satisfying in there. I always like trying something new, and I know that you like to try new things, new media that you haven’t used before.

ER: There’s two things. There’s what best serves the story. That’s ninety-five percent. And then there’s the five percent of me that — what’s that quote? Something about the anxiety killing me; I hope it lasts forever. I need that anxiety.

CF: It never ends.

ER: When Ray Bradbury said that writing is like jumping off a cliff and building wings on the way down — if it’s not that way, then you’re probably making a book you’ve seen before, or a book you’ve made before. There has to be that anxiety.

CF: It could be facile, and then it gets pretty boring.

ER: I think we’ve been doing it long enough that when that anxiety, that need to stop because it’s too stressful, comes, we know to just go through it and it’ll be fine and you’ll find the way.

CF: We’ve said this before: every time you write a book, or every time you draw a book, you have to figure out how to do that book.

ER: That particular book.


Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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