Paul O. Zelinsky Talks with Roger

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Paul O. ZelinskyWhile Paul O. Zelinsky garnered a Caldecott Medal and three Caldecott Honors for gravely beautiful work in rich oils (well, I suppose Swamp Angel is more like gravely funny), he is equally adept with a lighter touch. With Z Is for Moose, Paul and author Kelly Bingham shake up — literally! — the old alphabet book, beginning demurely enough with Apple but soon knocking the letters about and splattering them with an ample helping of blueberry Pie, all thanks to a desperate-to-be-M Moose.

Roger Sutton: Paul, just how much fun did you have? In your interview for Notes from the Horn Book, you said that you felt lucky to have been asked to do the pictures for Z Is for Moose. What were your initial thoughts after reading Kelly Bingham's manuscript?

Paul O. Zelinsky: My first thought was: Hahaha, this is hilarious. And I have to say that it was a more developed manuscript than anybody suspects when they look at the book. It was part manuscript, part script. There were little notes and details for jokes that probably look like they were my idea, but they weren't.

RS: They’re Kelly's jokes, and you had to bring them to life visually.

PZ: Right. There were a few places where I made some little changes, but Kelly had already done an illustrated dummy (she’s also an artist). We had no contact while I was working on the book, which leads to a funny story. I had just carefully designed a cover with my name and her name — occupying the full width, strategically placed so that the moose's antler was going to poke my middle initial out of place. Well, somewhere between when I started working on the book and when I finished, Kelly changed her name. All I could think when I found out was, "Oh my God, what if her name is now Kelly Li, two letters? I'm going to have to completely redo the cover." Luckily, her new name was about the same length as her old name.

RS: How does she like the book?

PZ: She loves it. We're actually meeting for the first time tonight — she's coming over for dinner.

RS: What did you originally see in the manuscript that made you want to illustrate it?

PZ: I'm not really sure what guides me. A degree of enthusiasm, for one thing. If there's enough enthusiasm, and there isn't a voice saying "You can't do this," that's pretty much what I go on. I was conjuring up the dull alphabet books from my childhood, ones that were sort of big, smooth, round, airbrushed, and dumb. And I was thinking this one would have a feeling of fun, like it would be almost a vacation to spend time working on it.

RS: In reaching the decision to illustrate a manuscript, do you see the pictures in your head before you say yes, or does that come afterward?

PZ: It's been very different from one case to another. I don’t usually see pictures in my head. Sometimes what I see is: "This is what it should not be. This is the opposite of what I'd like it to be." And that's enough to get me going.

RS: It's the warnings that come into your head, and you see the pictures as they emerge from your pencil or brush?

PZ: Pretty much. I didn't have any idea what Moose would look like. I just hoped he wouldn't look like Bullwinkle, because that was what kept coming into my head.

RS: Your website says that the finished art is watercolor and inkjet printout. Can you tell us what that means?

PZ: Sure. There are big areas of pure flat color, and rather than try to paint big areas of pure flat color, I did that on the computer. I had line drawings in pencil, which I scanned, and then in Photoshop I put those line drawings into a color image, and I created the frame for each page. Then I printed all of that out onto watercolor paper. What I had then wasn't complete; there were things I left out so I could finish up in actual pencil. It was like Music Minus One [ed. note: karaoke, for you youngsters] for drawing. The backgrounds were there, the orchestration. But the foregrounds were empty and blank. And then I used watercolor to color those in.

RS: How would you describe your relationship with your digital tools?

PZ: I love gadgets, messing with the computer. I don't necessarily like what I do on it all the time, but I don't have moralistic compunctions about working on the computer.

RS: I wonder if people might think you would, given your Caldecott Medal for Rapunzel and your other really painterly painted books.

PZ: I don't like making fake things. And digital images that look like fake paintings disturb me. But when they don't look fake, I don't really have a problem with it. You're not looking at an original piece of art anyway: when it gets scanned for printing it becomes digital.

RS: The color scheme for Z Is for Moose is interestingly contrapuntal. Each page is framed. That's one color. Then there is a rubric for the letter that's being discussed, and that's another color. And then there's the background, and that's a third color. And then there are the colors of the characters themselves. How do you make it all work together?

PZ: Basically, by feel. But because it's such an orderly book, when making any kind of color decision you don't want to go hog-wild and put in too much. I tried a lot of different combinations of things, and I ended up using five basic colors for the frames and background combinations. For example, A is for Apple — that’s a green border and light-blue background. Five pages later, F is for Fox, you get the same combination except now it’s on the left-hand page because five is an odd number. It was sort of fun having this little math problem.

RS: Did you work from A to Z, as it were, here?

PZ: Actually, I started with D, went on to E and F, and A. I don't work in order because I usually learn how to do what I'm trying to do better as I'm working on a book. And so if I worked in order, the last page might look better than the first page, or different, anyway. In order to mask that, I jump around as much as I can. Also, I like to reward myself sometimes: if I dare to do something really difficult, I'll save a picture I'm looking forward to and do it after the hard one.

RS: Do you have a point in a book where you say, okay, this is out of my hands?

PZ: I try to.

RS: And when does that point usually come?

PZ: About a year after publication.

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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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