SCBWI Bologna 2008 Author-Illustrator Interview: Paul O. Zelinsky

Paul O. Zelinsky received the 1998 Caldecott Medal for his illustrated retelling of Rapunzel, as well as three Caldecott Honors for: Hansel and Gretel (1985), Rumpelstiltskin (1987), and Swamp Angel (1995). He has been described as “one of the most inventive and critically successful artists in the field.” Anita Loughrey interviewed him in November 2007, as one of the speakers at the SCBWI Bologna Conference 2008 (scheduled for March 29 and March 30 in Bologna, Italy).

Are you a writer as well as an illustrator and, if so, which comes first, the images or the words?

PZ: My writing has mostly been adaptation, as of fairy tales, but whether or not that qualifies me as a writer, the words always come first for me. That is, a good story will provide me with everything I need to know to come up with its illustrations.

Do you have favorite medium you work in? If so, did the medium choose you or did you choose it? Can you elaborate?

PZ: To continue this theme, the story will begin by telling me what medium to work in. Some mediums give me an easier time than others, but I try not to let my wish to make it easier for myself get in the way of illustrating the particular text. I’ve done more books in oil paints than any one other medium, but I like to think that I play the field.

What is the hardest thing about being an author-illustrator for you?

PZ: Realizing that I have no legitimate basis for any sort of complaint. I’ve been extremely lucky. Come to me privately if you really need to hear me bemoan things, and I’ll be happy to comply.

What made you decide to be a children’s book illustrator?

PZ: I went to Yale, where the academic ethos looked very disapprovingly at courses with physical application–art just squeaked by as a defensible subject because of its claims to intellectual rigor–and, in the midst of this, I saw one day a seminar to be offered on the subject of picture books, making them as well as learning their history. It was going to be team taught, one teacher being Maurice Sendak. I got into this course and felt tremendously at home with the subject, because in fact I’d never lost my interest in picture books, even though I had never even considered them as a career choice.

I collaborated with another student on several picture book projects, which we mailed to various publishers, and a couple of which almost got picked up. But my already-set plan was to major in art and then become a painter supporting myself by college teaching (it was the example in front of me). So I went ahead and got my MFA in painting at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia (with one of my two years in Rome), and briefly taught college art, in San Diego, but realized at this point that I was not meant to be a teacher, and probably was meant to illustrate children’s books. So I moved to New York and started up with my portfolio.

What were your other career choices, if any?

PZ: Different possibilities at different ages: architect, painter; at one point in college, I was even considering physicist, because I was so fascinated by the way physics explains the world.

Do you have a favorite children’s book that you wish you had written and/or illustrated? Why?

PZ: I have huge admiration for a lot of children’s books, and I wish I could do many of the things that other illustrators do, but I’m not sure I wish to have been the one to make any particular book that I love. Examples: many of the books by William Steig, Sendak’s books, Margaret Wise Brown and several of her illustrators.

How far ahead do you work? Six months, a year? Longer?

PZ: I work by the seat of my pants. Trying to work long in advance, but often failing.

What does your workspace look like?

PZ: At the moment it’s in pretty good shape–there are some empty surfaces, and the couch is available for sitting. My studio is a studio apartment in Brooklyn, a five-minute walk from the apartment where I live with my wife, and it’s also our guest room if I don’t need to be there late at night or early in the morning.

Besides the bed and the couch, I have one large drawing table (which I got from Lane Smith when he was moving out of New York City) and tables along one wall filled with equipment—copier, large printer, scanner, computer, light table–and a lot of things on shelves.

What’s on your wall over your desk or drawing table?

PZ: The window. I look out on a beautiful churchyard, where children play in good weather. Off to the side of my drawing table, the one wall that isn’t covered with shelves has tools hanging from hooks, a bulletin board that I rarely look at, and a long stretch of wall where I’ve set up a system of poles hanging from the picture moulding with pegs sticking out of them. This is a system I set up two books ago. I mount the paper that will become my finished art on pieces of cardboard with holes that fit on the pegs, so I can fill the wall with the art, in the order of the book, and easily take pieces down to work on them and put them back up. Right now, the poles are there, but no art is on them yet.

How has your childhood influenced your illustrations and writing?

PZ: I was a big one for drawing when I was little; undoubtedly, I inherited it from my mother, who was a medical illustrator. I got plenty of encouragement for my creative endeavors, both at home and at school, where being able to draw was at least a little of a social boon, at least up until adolescence. More than that, I still remember pretty well the feelings of my childhood, which are what I draw on when I’m fleshing out the images for books.

What was your favorite book as a child or adolescent?

PZ: There were many, but to make a choice (generally a problem for me): as a child, maybe The Color Kittens by Margaret Wise Brown with pictures by the Provensens, and as an older child William Pène du Bois’ fantasies like The Twenty-One Balloons, and later, the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Do you work with the television, radio, or stereo on? In cafés, nursing a half-cup of lukewarm tea, or in isolation?

PZ: I don’t work much outside of my studio (when I do, it’s at the dining table). I can’t work with music playing, but I can with talk radio, which I used to have going always.

When I first started illustrating, there were about four radio stations in New York that had interesting enough talk to listen to, but now there is only the National Public Radio station. I still listen to that sometimes, and even though I could probably listen on my computer to stations all over the world, I haven’t really tried to figure that out.

I often work in silence now. I thought the difficulty with music was a weirdness of my own, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that many other illustrators and painters share this quality.

Do you have a blog or website to showcase your work, and if so, how often do you blog? Do you get lots of feedback from readers? Has it proved to be useful?

PZ: I have a website, with one page for each of my recent books, but I haven’t gone back and created pages for all of them. There’s a lot more than that on my site, but I don’t blog or even include in my website a way to contact me. Maybe this is a mistake, but I’m too afraid of what I get some of anyway: messages from kids in school, or even in graduate education programs, who have an assignment relating to me, and are basically asking me to do it for them. I have a hard enough time with my actual work.

Is it difficult to illustrate somebody else’s writing? Has it ever caused any problems?

PZ: It’s not difficult at all. I’ve been lucky enough to be presented with stories by some amazing writers. This means that the worlds they’ve created are wonderful, enticing, and very clearly delineated–you can tell what the pictures should look and feel like. Who wrote the story is immaterial. I feel the same whether it was me or someone else. My charge is to be faithful to the story.

Could you talk us through the process of how, after you are presented with a book a publisher would like you to illustrate, you generate your ideas for illustrating that book?

PZ: If I like the manuscript enough, it will tell me what to do with it. A picture book story may not appear to me in imaginary pictures–most often it doesn’t–but it may start by feeling right only with a particular size and shape as a trim size. Some mediums would be patently wrong, and probably one seems best. Tight and realistic pictures, or loose and cartoonish? A deep space or a flat space?

I go looking through the history of art if I need inspiration. Mrs. Lovewright, for example, took me to Max Beckmann‘s early paintings as a touchstone. Clearly my fairy tales took me to Renaissance art.

Another key source for the drawings comes in the act of dividing a text into pages. This form of editing establishes the pacing of the book—its rhythm, its high and low points, the emotional impact of the page turns, and it sets a choice of subject matter for each spread.

What I do, though, is really very intuitive. I do most of my thinking about it later.

I love The Wheels on the Bus pop-up book [scroll and click for animated version]. Do you have to go through a different process to produce novelty books? If so, would you describe the differences? For example, how was the dummy different from a straight-illustration book?

PZ: Thanks for that. The process of making a pop-up book is somewhat different from making what the pop-up world calls a “flat book.” It has more stages: between the planning, sketching stage and the finished-art-making stage comes a stage of mechanical development.

For Wheels, and much more so for Knick-Knack Paddywhack! I worked with a paper engineer and had a great time fiddling with pull-tabs and paper machinery, and at the end of that process we had the book broken into all its component pieces, which had to be painted separately so they could be printed as a mass of parts, which will get punched out and assembled by hand. Most of a movable book’s art (in the word’s industrial definition as anything that gets scanned for printing—my art training still makes me recoil at using the word art so freely) doesn’t look like the pictures in the book, as it does for a flat book.

This makes the act of illustrating a pop-up book a bit less artistically rewarding, but it does keep you in mind of the fact that the painting you may be making isn’t what really counts–the finished art (in the other sense of “art”) is actually the book.

What are you currently working on?

PZ: Illustrations for two sequels: to Toys Go Out, a chapter book by Emily Jenkins–the new book is called Toy Dance Party, and to Swamp Angel by Anne Isaacs–the new picture book is called Dust Devil, with some sort of subtitle explaining that Dust Devil is Swamp Angel’s horse. Respectively, pencil drawings, and oil on wood.

If you were to illustrate yourself, what would you look like? (please feel free to draw yourself–animal, plant, mineral!)

PZ: Ay! Even though they say that everything you draw is in some respect a self-portrait, and even though I admit that more than a few of the characters I’ve come up with (such as the guitar player in Wheels on the Bus) may look like me, what I really like about illustrating is that it’s like acting: you get out of yourself and into something else. At least you can think you’re doing that.

If you could be a character from one of your illustrations who would you like to be and why?

PZ: I could choose any number of characters, most of whom are not skinny and seem to be very content. In The Story of Mrs. Lovewright and Purrless, her Cat, I’d like to be the minor character Dylan, for whom the cat will purr. In Knick-Knack Paddywhack!, I’d choose to be Old Man 4. But in another sense, I become every character that I draw.

Cynsational Notes

Anita Loughrey writes teacher resources and children’s non-fiction. Her books have been published by A&C Black, Hopscotch and Brilliant Publications. She also writes regular features for Writers’ Forum in the U.K. about authors and the writing industry. She recently interviewed all 31 speakers for 2008’s Bologna Conference.

The SCBWI Bologna 2008 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations.

To register for the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2008, please visit and click on SCBWI@Bologna. Queries?