Lois Ehlert Talks with Roger

Lois Ehlert Talks with Roger

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lois ehlertThe first book Lois Ehlert wrote, Growing Vegetable Soup, published in 1987, was about a garden, and so is her latest, Holey Moley. It shows readers the life to be found both below and above the ground as one inquisitive — and hungry! — mole makes her rounds. I last saw Lois when she won the 2006 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for her picture book Leaf Man, and it was a pleasure to talk to her again.

Roger Sutton: How are you today?

Lois Ehlert: I'm good. It's a very pleasant day here in Wisconsin.

RS: Do you have a garden there?

LE: I have an indoor garden in which I grow flowers. I've always wanted a real garden, but I had to give it up because the tomatoes would always ripen when I had a job due, and I would be torn between working out there and being at my dryboard.

RS: We all have choices to make.

LE: Yeah. I go to the farmers' market.

RS: It's hard to find a good tomato.

LE: Especially this year.

RS: They're not abundant, and they don't seem to have much flavor.

LE: No. I don't know why that is. We've had a lot of rain, but we haven't had as much sun as they might like. I haven't talked to a tomato, so I don't know that for sure.

RS: Well, as we learn from your book, they need moles.

LE: Absolutely. I think any gardener who prides him or herself on having a pest-free garden probably doesn't know that a mole has been working.

RS: Your mole, she's quite a heroine.

LE: I think so. On the last page before the endpaper it says, "Things unseen don't mean that we're not here." One thing I'm trying to emphasize is that no matter how small you are, you make a difference. But I don't like to get preachy about it.

RS: Oh, I don't think you do. One of the great things about this book is seeing that contrast and connection between what's going on aboveground and what's going on belowground.

LE: A lot of people, both children and adults, have never seen a vegetable growing. They see it in the grocery store. Even if they see it at the farmers' market, it's already been yanked out of the dirt.

RS: I remember asking my mother what kind of tree eggs grew on.

LE: That's pretty logical, don't you think?

RS: Yeah, you'd think.

LE: Like you'd see Brussels sprouts in a little container and you would never know that they grew on a stalk.

RS: As children we do understand plants, and plucking things from a plant, but you don't even see the carrot in your garden because it's underground.

LE: While working on this book I bought growing plants from the farmers in the market, then lugged them home and yanked them out of the dirt myself. I felt kind of bad about it, but then I drew the roots from the real thing. It's such a marvel.

RS: I was thinking how, in your pictures here, the roots below look like the trees above. It's almost like a mirror world that you've depicted. When you compare this book with Growing Vegetable Soup, which was your first book, how do you see yourself changing as an artist?

LE: It's hard to say, because with each of my books I try to make the art style pertinent to the subject matter. And yet, there's a certain look to my books that identifies me. I think that thread among them might be color. You know, Growing Vegetable Soup was not universally well received because it was so stark.

ehlert_holey moleyRS: There's certainly a lot more color in this book, and darker colors.

LE: I try to let the subject matter set the mood. Dirt is dirt, you know?

RS: Dirt is dirt.

LE: Sometimes I look at the older books and think maybe I would do a certain leaf a different way, but you've just got to keep moving.

RS: I recently interviewed Ashley Bryan for this series and we talked about collage. I asked him: when you pick up a piece of paper and your scissors, how much do you know about what you're going to do? And he told me: nothing. How does that work with you?

LE: It's the same. In my book Boo to You, the cat's ears are made of fragments of marbleized paper, which I bought years ago on a trip to Florence. Wherever I go I just pick up paper that I like. I don't know what I'm going to do with it. But I always do something.

RS: How do you keep the paper?

LE: It goes in folders.

RS: So, not a system?

LE: Well, it is a loose system, in that I separate the cool colors from the warm colors, but I just have drawers and drawers of these. Sometimes accidental mating can turn up something unexpected in a color sequence. Or if I'm doing something on my dryboard and the paper falls on the floor at a diagonal, I look at it and think maybe it would look better at this angle. It's kind of intuitive. I don't know if it's explainable.

RS: But there are no accidents.

LE: I don't think so.

RS: Have you ever had a book start from a piece of paper?

LE: I don't think so, but for Eating the Alphabet I made those papers — the watercolor, the texturizing. I did a lot of that before I even got to the illustrations. And quite honestly, I didn't know what would turn out well and what wouldn't. You have to allow a lot of extra time. Somebody once said to me, "You know, you could get some of those textures on a computer." My answer was, "Why would I want to do that?" Because to me part of the pleasure of being an artist is that you see and you touch. I don't want to hurry it.

RS: So you don't use computers at all in your work?

LE: I don't. But of course I have a publisher that does the production. I'm not saying that I'm bare-bones in that regard.

RS: I don't think that would be possible.

LE: No. Since my previous career was as a graphic designer, I know about typefaces and styles and sizes and all that. So when I do my dummy books, those are all really nailed down. I know what size type is going to fit on the page, and how it's going to work with the next spread.

RS: That's also something that identifies your work. If I just look at a block of spare text against the color, I'll guess that it's a book by you.

LE: Some people would say, "Well, the text is so simple. I could do that." And maybe they can. But I start out with more than I need of everything, and then begin paring it down so that it works, so that as soon as you turn the cover you're in the book. That's my plan.

RS: Your books are generally for very young children. You've been at this longer than I have. Picture books have really expanded to older children in that time. Sometimes I worry that the younger kids are getting left behind as an audience.

LE: I do too. And I also worry that they don't go outside as much. It is something to be concerned with, but again, like the mole, you just have to do your thing. I put a lot of information in the back of my books — like in this one all the stuff about worms — and while I know that a three-year-old is not going to be reading that, I figure that the adult who's reading the book to a kid could have a little more information to share.

RS: Right. We don't know all of that, most of us.

LE: After I've spent all the time doing the research or having the experiences, why not share that too? But I don't like to include in the text only words that a child might know, because sometimes a new word is delicious on the tongue.

RS: And how else do you learn new words? If books only included what we already knew, why read them?

LE: That's right. I love music, and reading aloud is like music to the ear, if it's done well.

RS: Do you always have the text set before you start designing and illustrating?

LE: No, I hardly ever do. I usually start with a visual idea. Maybe a feeling, or something to do with the art. I know that's contrary to what most people would do.

RS: What did you see here? What was the first image that became this book?

LE: The first thing I did was to figure out a map of where a mole might go. That's now in the back of the book. I tried to figure out how I could span three seasons and different locations.

RS: Even before that did you say to yourself, "I want to do a book about a mole"?

LE: Yes. And this is not the first book about a mole that I've done [Mole's Hill: A Woodland Tale, for example]. I think a little kid can relate to a small creature sometimes.

RS: I think you're right. And moles are good because they look like aliens. Like an animal from another planet.

LE: The other thing, going back to community gardens and so forth, is that there's a movement in Milwaukee, started by Will Allen who was the adviser to Michelle Obama for the White House garden. His organization in Milwaukee, Growing Power, Inc., works with schoolchildren, and they also sell worms. My brother and I went on a tour to see them. I'm not real fond of worms, although I understand their importance — they are used in composting and all sorts of things. And so I decided I would spell out words in my book with worms.

RS: Yes, Horn Book creative director Lolly Robinson and I were trying to figure out all the worms.

LE: Sometimes the way an idea comes about is almost unexplainable. Except that when you do get the idea, you just say thank you.

RS: That sounds like what Ashley was saying, that the process is as much a mystery to him as it was to me.

LE: You're just thankful to be doing something that you love.

RS: Pretty lucky, aren't we?

LE: I think so.

More on Lois Ehlert from The Horn Book

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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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