SCBWI Bologna 2012 Author-Illustrator Interview: Paul O. Zelinsky

Paul with Spirit Kitten, photo by Deborah Hallen

By Sarah Blake Johnson
for SCBWI Bologna 2012
at Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Paul O. Zelinsky‘s illustrations have won wide acclaim and many awards, including the Caldecott Medal for his retelling of Rapunzel.

He also received three Caldecott Honors: for Hansel and Gretel; Rumpelstiltskin; and Swamp Angel (its 2010 sequel Dust Devil was a New York Times Notable Book).

Zelinsky is known for the variety of genres and styles in his books, which range from his classical fairy tales to the much-loved movable book The Wheels on the Bus, to illustrations for children’s novels such as Beverly Cleary‘s Newbery-winning Dear Mr. Henshaw.

Just out in 2012 are Earwig and the Witch by the late Diana Wynne Jones, and Kelly Bingham‘s Z is for Moose, which has garnered a starred review from every one of the major American reviewing services that awards stars.

Paul Zelinsky and his wife live in Brooklyn , New York, without their two grown daughters.

Who has influenced your art? In what ways have they influenced you?

This is hard and easy to answer. Different texts make me want to draw different ways, and in each case I’ll probably go somewhere for an influence, but does that count as an influence in the way I think you’re asking?

I love many kinds of art and artists, but I’m not sure what effect any of them have had on me in the larger sense.

I can name three artists who, as teachers, definitely influenced my process or my thinking.

In high school it was Robert Kuennen, who showed by example that you don’t have to dress, look or act in any special way to be an artist; it’s what is inside your head.

In college, William Bailey exposed me to a completely formal, abstract way of looking at images, even though his own work was figurative.

And Maurice Sendak provided ways of thinking about books and illustrations that allowed me to channel those formal discoveries into the body of a book.

For some of your picture books, you are both the writer and illustrator. Do you write the text first or do you sketch first or work on both at the same time?

For me, the words come first, regardless of whether they originated with me or with someone else.

You have said, “I want the pictures to speak in the same voice as the words.” I’ve never heard pictures described as having a voice before. Can you talk about a couple examples from your work that demonstrate different voices?

Well, even for texts, “voice” is really a metaphor, isn’t it? I may not have chosen the best term; talking about the characteristics of a story’s voice in comparison to aspects of my pictures seems more sensible than comparing the voice of my pictures in one book to the voice in another, but I’ll try to answer with some recent texts.

Diana Wynne Jones’ Earwig and the Witch is narrated in a very matter-of-fact voice, kindly and not high-flown, which makes for an ironic contrast with some of the classic witch and demon elements of the story. I thought there was a fair amount of dignity in the voice.

My black and white drawings aim for that dignity with hard-edged lines that refer to traditional art forms such as engravings or etchings. The lines are a bit off of perfect, the perspectives are not accurate, and in various other ways, I think I was bringing out the latent irony and humor.

Another recent chapter book with black and white illustrations is Toys Come Home, (or either of the other Toy books) by Emily Jenkins. The voice here is quite different. Although the book is very funny, there is none of the irony of Earwig. There is instead an amazingly winning youngness. And it’s in the present tense. So the images had to feel present. That, and as emotionally seductive as possible, so I made them soft and realistic. Black pencil smoothly applied, an emphasis on simple, round shapes, and the presence of an accurately depicted interaction of lights and shadows, I think, helped to mirror in pictures what I felt from the text.

This may sound weird or arcane. In practice, it’s not. It’s just tricky to find words for phenomena that are basically non-verbal.

Your work includes a wide range of styles and many mediums. How do you determine the best illustration style and medium for your books?

Usually it’s pretty obvious. And intuitive; it all has to do with feelings and associations. But sometimes I come to a style by trying things and finding out I was wrong. 

On your website, it says, “Colors don’t stay put.” and “How can I choose one favorite color when one color is always many colors?” How does your view of color enter your illustrations and the way you convey colors?

In my early stages of illustrating, there is no color. I sketch in pencil until quite late in the game, when I’m ready or near ready for the finishes. I used to wing it at that point, hoping that things would work out, and I painted myself into corners.

This might look good, and that might look good, but this and that on adjacent spreads could be disastrous.

Then I discovered that it helps to have an idea of what you’re doing coloristically, and now I tend to hold one chord of three or four colors in my head as the color basis of a book.

Often it’s only in my head, and I don’t stick to those colors, but just as an idea to deviate from, it works. Ideally, the sense of color can change along with the arc of the text, contributing subliminally to the storytelling. Individual colors are, as I say on my website, much less defined than people think, but color chords and harmonies are not so fluid.

You speak of a picture having a flavor or taste. (“Not how a pickle looks, certainly, but how I think the taste of a pickle would look.” And the “flavor” of the Wheels on the Bus song is that of bubblegum.) Do you know what the “taste” of an illustration will be when you first read the words? Have you ever changed the “flavor” of the way a picture appears?

(Do you think that Voice has flavor? Maybe I should stop fishing for metaphors. My lines are getting tangled.) It’s usually pretty clear from the start what feelings I’m getting from the text, and those are what I should be aiming for; at minimum I know what feelings I’m aiming away from.

I  don’t think I’ve significantly changed this wished-for “flavor,” even when I try out different techniques to illustrate a story.

Your book, Knick-Knack Paddywhack! won the Meggendorfer Award from the Movable Book Society. Designing a mechanical book (a book with moving parts) appears complicated. 

Can you give an example of how you chose which part of the book to move and the challenges of engineering it?

Things suggest themselves. Mostly, what to make move is pretty obvious: wheels on buses going round, say. Other, less obvious, movements (mothers on the bus casting their eyes anxiously left and right as their babies howl) are a matter of having fun while sketching.

I’ve loved making moving pictures of this sort, especially when I was collaborating closely with Andrew Baron on Knick-Knack Paddywhack!. We both did some choosing of moving parts, but Andy was more interested in my giving him a challenge, so most of the choosing what to move was mine, and the figuring out how to make it move was his.

I spent a lot of time trying to think of ways that Old Man 2 could play Knick-knack on my shoe. It had to involve some kind of bopping or hitting.

Also, I wanted the movement to stay in the plane of the paper (I’m not that much of a pop-up person. I like my pictures flat).

After a lot of trial and error, I figured out that if I cut the man into an upper and lower half and each one swiveled out from the edge of a stripe in the boy protagonist’s sneaker, it could look like OM2 (as we called him) was sprouting from nothing, holding a big 2 with which he could smack the top of the boy protagonist’s shoe.

I made a mock-up where you could swivel the pieces by hand, and sent it to Andy who figured out how to produce that swiveling by pulling on a tab.

Separately, in the background, there was going to be another image of the old man, rolling by outside the window on his scooter, holding a bone and pursued by a poodle. I thought this man would go on his own tab, but Andy suggested that he could tie the two mechanics to a single tab, so that when you pulled it out, OM2 would emerge from the shoe stripe, and when you pushed it back in, he’d return into the shoe but, also go zipping across the backyard.

What Andy hadn’t figured was that this tying-together of movements meant that as you pulled the tab and OM2 grew to his full size, you’d also see him zipping backwards across the yard. Andy’s challenge was to fix this problem, and his solution is pure genius, much too complicated to describe, but the main thing is that it works. It’s a back-and-forth movement in which you only see the forth. I learned a lot about paper engineering from working on this book, and I hope to be able to do more.

Designing and preparing a book like this certainly was complicated, but it’s a kind of complication that comes naturally to me. Short and simple—that takes work!

Cynsational Notes

SLJ Summit 2010: Paul O. Zelinsky from School Library Journal on Vimeo.

Source: Paul Zelinsky’s biography, Paul O. Zelinsky from, and Paul O. Zelinsky: Angels to Ogres from Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum.

Sarah Blake Johnson writes novels, picture books, and nonfiction. She received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2011.
Her writing is influenced by her real life adventures as an expat. She has stepped in quicksand in Brazil, walked on the frozen Baltic Ocean in Finland, cooked dinner in a geyser in Iceland, learned to play an ancient Chinese instrument in southern China, and explored abandoned castles ruins in Germany, all countries where she has lived.
When she isn’t writing or spending time with her family, she can be found roaming with her camera.

The SCBWI Bologna 2012 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Showcase in conjunction with Cynsations. To find out more, visit the SCBWI Bologna Showcase Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.

4 thoughts on “SCBWI Bologna 2012 Author-Illustrator Interview: Paul O. Zelinsky

  1. Oh my goodness! I love Paul Zelinsky's work! I have Rapunzel and I was telling my co-worker the other day how his work is like one of the old master's–so incredibly detailed!

  2. One of the joys my young students had when reading Dr. Mr. Henshaw was saying, "illustrations by Paul… O… Zel…In…Ski." They always asked me about him, because he clearly had a cool name, and I never knew very much. And now I do. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for this informative piece, especially on making moving books. Also for confirming that an artist doesn't have to dress like an 'artist' to be an artist.

  4. LW, I'm likewise a Paul fan–yes, just gorgeous!

    Sweet, Tanita! I'm happy to serve up some info.

    My pleasure, Hazel! And I think dress code across the arts is really optional.

Comments are closed.