In Memoriam: To Tweeter from Curly: Thirty-Five Years of Making Picture Books with Lois Ehlert

Lois Ehlert (1934–2021) and I first met when I was twenty-four and an editorial assistant at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (HBJ) in San Diego. We went on to work together for thirty-five years, and we made twenty-nine books.

Lois had a fondness for nicknames, and while we were working on one of our earliest picture books, Feathers for Lunch, she learned that I had been a birder since I was a girl, so she started calling me Tweeter. (She had been called Curly since her student days at the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee because of her naturally curly hair.)

Every book Lois made grew out of her love of folk art, nature, and, most importantly, color. In 1986, HBJ bought Growing Vegetable Soup, the first book she had both written and illustrated. One of the things Lois liked most about it was how she had achieved such bright colors with her Pantone-paper collages, and she especially loved how there was a vibration on many pages because of the way she had carefully chosen and placed certain colors next to each other. We were all thrilled with the simplicity and directness of both the text and the art and by how much fun it was to read aloud. Then the first review said the book had “…psychedelically bright illustrations…painfully vivid, jumping around on the page to the point of diverting any pattern or information conveyed…A plausible notion for a book, shouted down by garish illustrations.” But Lois was undeterred. In fact, she actually thought it was amusing, and thirty-seven years later Growing Vegetable Soup is still in print.

From Growing Vegetable Soup.

After that, Lois’s books, of course, received love and acclaim and awards and many fantastic reviews. But the very few times she received a zinger, like this one about Market Day, a story illustrated with collages made from photos of her extensive folk art collection, Lois’s sense of humor and confidence in her vision were inspiring. “While this is an interesting idea,” the review stated, “the execution is ­muddied, the compositions are crowded and hard to see, and it is difficult to extract meaning from the visuals.”

From Market Day.

That was not a fun one to mail to Lois, but her calm and wisdom prevailed: “Found the review disconcerting, Tweeter, but upon reflection I always hope to learn from comments. I consider Market Day an art book. Not everyone loves art, and certainly not folk art. Thanks for allowing me the freedom to experiment — ‘crowded compositions’ and all!”

* * *

Everything Lois did in her books, she did by hand. She never used a computer to make her illustrations, and she could tell immediately when someone had altered her images electronically, even in the tiniest way. She had a seemingly endless willingness to revise and would make complete full-color dummies over and over as she retooled and refined her concept until she got it just right.

Handmade dummies for Pie in the Sky, "revise[d]...retooled and refined."

She once said, “I think sometimes people think that people who do stylized art don’t know how to draw.” But that was most definitely not the case with Lois Ehlert! She was also a highly trained and skilled graphic designer. Century Schoolbook was most often her typeface of choice because she felt it was particularly friendly for young children learning to read.

Once Lois’s book dummies came into focus, if anything needed further revision, it was the text, not the illustrations. Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf, the story of a young maple tree growing up throughout the seasons, was an exception. It was the first time Lois had tried dimensional collage, using real objects such as tree roots, garden gloves, a handmade kite, bread and seeds for a bird treat, burlap, etc. When the final art came in (carefully packed in five giant boxes!), we were thrilled by her unique approach. But when the test proofs came back, the amazing three-dimensional collage elements we had loved so much looked cold and static against the white backgrounds. It was unnerving because the originals had not looked that way at all. So I had to get up my courage to tell Lois. Thank God she understood immediately. She took all of her finished art apart, added gorgeous handmade watercolor background washes, put it back together, and voilà — another classic natural history book filled with information and details for children of many ages to pore over. Plus, once again, a terrific read-aloud!

Collage art for Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf.

* * *

In 2008, I moved to Simon & Schuster to start Beach Lane Books, and Lois made the decision to come with me. I received this letter from her: “Dear Tweeter, I have to smile when I think of all the good times we’ve had working on the books. Hope it will continue when we swim with the big guys. Twenty years, twenty books. Not a bad average. With profound thanks, I remain, Curly.”

We started with Boo to You! at Beach Lane, and six books followed­ in rapid succession, as well as a ­twentieth-anniversary edition of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, written by Bill Martin Jr and John Archambault, with the illustrations restored to their original first-edition glory under Lois’s keen eye — and helpful Pantone-color cheat sheet!

Lois's Pantone–color cheat sheet.

Then one day Lois sent a new dummy with this note: “I would like to do something that would be ­encouraging to a young person, to the child in the back of the room who might not be the biggest talker. And maybe use my life as an example? But not an ‘I love me book,’ as my mother would have said.” And so we embarked on R T — get it? Art-y. And it unexpectedly turned out to be our most complicated editorial-development adventure of all, which included having to postpone the book twice. But Lois never lost her enthusiasm for the process. “I would want to dedicate this book to you,” she said, “but I don’t want to if it’s not good enough. So push me all you want.” And three years later, when we finally and joyfully published Lois’s picture-book memoir The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life, she sent this: “Heard an interview with Joseph Heller yesterday. Someone asked him why he didn’t write more books, because he’s so popular. He simply said he couldn’t go any faster. Amen to that, babe.”

Variations on The Scraps Book.

* * *

Lois was truly a naturalist, and what she most wanted to do was inspire children to pay attention to the beauty of our world, to make things of their own, and to have fun while doing it. She says it best near the end of Scraps: “You might ask: why did I choose to become an artist? I think maybe it’s the other way around. Art chose me. If you feel that way too, I hope you’ll find a spot to work, and begin.”

Lois loved hearts. (She had one on her stationery, mailing labels, and business cards, and she included them in all of her books — some hidden and some in plain sight.) So it’s fitting that what turned out to be the last book we made together, Heart to Heart, inspired by her love of puns and of the classic silly valentines from her childhood, was literally a valentine to the world. When Lois became ill, and it was clear that she might not be able to make art anymore, she said to me, “Tweeter, if that has to be my last book, it’s not a bad one to go out on, right?”

Postscript: After Lois’s death, her family discovered a dummy she had been secretly working on — and Red & Green was published last year.

Photos courtesy of Allyn Johnston. Illustrations by Lois Ehlert.

From the January/February 2024 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Allyn Johnston

Allyn Johnston is vice president and publisher of Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

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Julien Chung

Loved this review of your work with Lois Ehlert, one of my all-time favourite book creators. I hope one day to see the original book dummies!

Posted : Feb 16, 2024 08:51



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