Erin Stead’s artwork is just beautiful. You can frame pages from any children’s book she has illustrated and you are looking at a piece of strong stand-alone art. Even zooming in on minor images does not detract from the effect. Take a look for yourself:
The large images are gorgeous:And close-ups of the details from the same book are equally excellent:After seeing those pictures, it should come as absolutely no shock that her first foray into publishing with A Sick Day for Amos McGee landed her a Caldecott Medal.
Erin Stead and her husband Philip Stead have combined their writing and artistic talents to bring us instant children’s classics, including A Sick Day for Amos McGee and Bear Has a Story to Tell. She has also worked with writer Julie Fogliano to create And Then It’s Spring and if you want to see a whale. The husband and wife duo are hard at work on their next project but she was kind enough to do an interview with me.
The first book I ever read out loud to my kindergarten class peers was Where the Wild Things Are. I’m lucky to have good memories of that book. I can still hear my mom reading it to me. That being said, I had access to a lot of picture book as a kid through some careful selections from my mom, the fact that I was the youngest child so I had a lot of hand-me-downs, and a lot of trips to the library. It’s very hard to pick my favorites. That is still true today. I try to keep an eye on what is new and my favorites. I know this sounds like a cop-out answer, but there you are. Right now I really love A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz and Catia Chien, and I try to keep an eye on anything Groundwood Books publishes. The book I am really excited about is El Deafo by CeCe Bell. It’ll be out in the fall. Everyone should read it.
Oh, brother. Well. I don’t know. I can tell you who I love, but I am not entirely confident they have influenced my work because I’m just not as good as them. I love William Kentridge, Bill Watterson, Evaline Ness, Kenneth Grahame, Lizbeth Zwerger, Tara Donovan, Chris Ware, David Small, Mark Rothko, Turner, oh I don’t know. I like art.
I’ve been lucky to have an influential figure right in my studio. I share space with my friend, Phil, and that is extremely helpful.
I do listen to music while working, but it really depends on what stage of bookmaking I am in, and what time of the year it is. In the summer, I listen to baseball on the radio. If I am in the beginning stages of a book, I can’t listen to music with words. Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Tin Hat Trio and, subsequently, the score from the movie Nebraska, Philip Glass all make appearances. Other times I listen to a lot of different types of music — Andrew Bird, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Paul Simon, Jack White, M. Ward, Elliot Smith, and Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears are on very often.
Ann Arbor is a very literary community. It’s common to see people carrying books with them wherever they go. Is this city-wide bookishness part of why the area is conducive to your work?
Oh, Ann Arbor. What a good town. I do love the city-wide bookishness of this place, but I think that bookishness also points to a something broader that gives this town a lot of appeal. Everyone here is doing something different. It’s one of the nice things about living in a community so influenced by the University. I know chefs, bakers, bookstore owners, classics PHD candidates, biomedical engineers, carpenters, barkeeps, computer engineers, experts on dark matter, and experts on cheese (just to name a few). I’m an artsy glasses wearing lady who proudly has season tickets to U of M basketball, and probably can tell you more about the recruiting class every year than most people you know. I think this town (and actually this state) can allow for a life that has hobbies and interests and time in parks. And that’s why it’s conducive to my work. In this town I can find quiet places by the river and louder places by the farmer’s market. I’ve lived and tried to live in a lot of different cities, and that’s never quite been replicated anywhere else for me.
My heart skipped a beat when I saw an original piece of your work framed and hung in the Traverwood branch of the Ann Arbor District Library. What do you see as the role of libraries in a community?
I think libraries, and the very fact that they exist at all, are so important and so easily written off today because the internet has made us forget some things. Free access to books and music and events in your community, driven by only goodwill and the idea that their very presence will make for a better community, should not be taken for granted. Libraries also fuel the possibility of discovery. I could go on and on.
What are your thoughts on artwork as a gateway to literacy?
This is a very difficult question to answer without really talking you and your readers’ ears off. But I’ll try to be concise. I mentioned Bill Watterson in a previous question and I’ll use him as an example again. When I was was a kid, my mom dedicated a large drawer in the kitchen to housing comic strip collections. We weren’t allowed to watch tv while we ate meals but we were allowed to read (with the exception being family dinners if we could wrangle everyone up). I was the youngest kid by a few years, so I would pore over these books and newspaper comics before I was able to read or able to comprehend them. Calvin and Hobbes was a comic that, when I first started reading it, I didn’t always understand the jokes. I was little, and Mr. Watterson brought the thunder pretty quickly after he began that comic. But, boy, did I love staring at those pictures. I was able to follow the plot points, just not the nuance. And then one day, just like that, I got it. I was able to read with enough proficiency to understand Calvin when he said “My likely historical significance is a terrible burden.” Not only that, I understood that it was funny. It was the pictures that allowed me to bridge that gap.
Beyond that, the truth is that kids are much better at looking at pictures than adults are. As we get older, the majority of us lose a good part of the visual literacy skill. It’s a shame, really, because I think we’d all be better off if we retained a little bit more of it. Instead, we’re so quick to grow up and grow out of pictures— to take picture books off kids shelves or to think that comics are easy reads. But if we were able to blur the lines a little by reading traditional novels while looking at comic books out of a drawer in the kitchen while eating cereal, we might be better looking at the world around us. It might make our presence in the world a little gentler.
A Sick Day for Amos McGee was an instant classic. Every single page is beautiful; I even have prints framed on my daughter’s walls. What was your main inspiration in creating Amos and his animal friends?
Well, thanks. Amos and his friends was written for me from Phil. Phil and I have known one another for a long time, and he was very well-acquainted with the drawings and paintings I would make for myself. They were often animals and people sitting quietly together in one way or another. So, he sat down and wrote me a story he thought I should illustrate. The rest is history. Surprising history, but I have been told that the last few years did, in fact, happen.
So far, each of the books you have illustrated include animal characters. Do you find that people generally have an easier time connecting to art through animals?
Not exactly. I think the presence of animals can make a person be a better person. But really, I just like drawing them. I like that they can make a quiet, solitary world a little less solitary, but just as quiet.
When you and Philip collaborate on a project, do you work together to develop the text and the artwork or do you create your parts independently?
Yes. We do both. We spend too much time together to really be able to properly differentiate our roles. For the most part, though, we do create our parts independently. But we look to one another for ideas or advice daily as well. In the beginning stages of his writing or drawing or my drawing, we try to leave on another alone.
One of the most wonderful parts of And Then It’s Spring is how the illustrations capture the transition from late winter to early spring. Did you draw upon your own childhood in Michigan for inspiration?
I had moved back to Michigan by the time I started working on spring, so I didn’t have to draw on my childhood full of gray Februarys. I was living through them again. It’s hard to know how much I draw on my childhood vs. my everyday adult life. I’m still the same person with the same eyes. I’m just slightly better at knowing that whatever uncomfortable situation I am currently in will have an endpoint.
What is your artistic process like?
Phew. I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure out my process. I am just beginning a new book right now and every time I do it seems insurmountable. The process usually involves being a hermit for a bit, avoidance, research, lots of dog walks, and being quiet. Every book is different and requires a different type of picture to be true to the text. I read the story over and over again and try to figure out the best way to tell it. Nothing ever really comes out the way I want it to, but if I can get it close then that’s about all I can do. I just want to keep getting better.
I wouldn’t say the medal has altered my work, although I do suppose it has changed my work life a bit. I’ve traveled more than I would have without it, and have been able to visit a lot of bookstores and libraries. I really love being able to do that, although I am quite shy so there is some recovery time back home involved before I am able to feel very creative again. I think I am supposed to feel more secure in my job, but I am not sure I do. I have a lot of work to do.
What can you tell us about your upcoming work?
Well, it takes me about a year to make a book and then about a year for the book to hit the shelf. I just turned in a book Phil wrote called Lenny and Lucy. It’s about moving and imaginary, protective friends. I’m about to start a book about a man whose job is to collect message bottles from the ocean and deliver the messages to their rightful owners. I just can’t figure out what that guy looks like yet…
I’d like to illustrate a novel for adults. I don’t know what that novel is, but it’s always something I’ve wanted to do. Otherwise, if I can keep pulling this job off and people still want to look at my drawings, I really can’t hope for much more than that.