Interview: Melissa Iwai and Anne Rockwell on Truck Stop

By Melissa Iwai and Anne Rockwell

Melissa Iwai and Anne Rockwell interview each other about their new release, Truck Stop, written by Anne and illustrated by Melissa (Viking, 2013). From the promotional copy:

Early each morning, before the sun is even up, the truck stop opens for breakfast, and the trucks start pulling in. Eighteen wheeler, milk tank, moving van, and flatbed! 

Their drivers order eggs and bacon, pancakes with syrup, and a blueberry muffin. 

For the boy who helps his parents at the counter, there is nothing better than seeing all the trucks roll in.

Melissa: Anne, it was very exciting to read your manuscript for Truck Stop (Viking, 2013) when it was first presented to me. My family and I have long been a big fan of your books, and I was so thrilled to be chosen to illustrate one of your stories! You’ve been so prolific and written so many wonderful stories throughout the years.

You’ve written books for early readers, such as Boats (Puffin, 1993), At the Supermarket (Henry Holt, 2010), First Day of School (HarperCollins, 2011). Also stories relating to history, mythology, and science. . . .

I wonder—what keeps you curious about the world and inspires you to write?

Photo of Anne by Oliver Rockwell, copyright 2013.

Anne: I think that for some reason I remain as curious as I was as a child about how our world works, whether it’s the stories we tell of people and events that live on from our past, or the endless fascination of the patterns to be found in nature, or simply the everyday (which for young children, a new world).

I can’t think of any child who divides the world into “fiction” vs “nonfiction” but adults do, which is sad, because children bring a joy and beauty to everything they learn, and no matter what we think, young children enjoy learning.

Sullivan Wong Rockwell reading his first book not yet knowing that his NaiNai (Mandarin Chinese for “paternal grandmother”) wrote and illustrated it many years ago for another little boy who grew up to be Sullivan’s BaBa. Photo by Oliver Rockwell, copyright 2013.

Melissa: Where do you get your voice?

Anne: I’m afraid I don’t get it. It owns me; it gets me, and I’m lucky when it comes my way. I’ve learned ways to summon it.

I find that it seeks me out when I’m in a foreign country. Fortunately I love to travel, and the voice seems to find me more readily when speaking, and sort of functioning in a foreign language.

A few years ago I was alone for an extended sketching visit to the south of France. Café au lait and fresh baked bread goes well with the song of pinball machines, I find, and ancient Roman ruins.

My sketchbook seems to want to turn into a journal—no, I mean a picture book. A picture book comes, and the language is that of my childhood. I wish I could summon that voice, but it has a mind of its own.

Melissa: Do you remember what the seed was for the story of Truck Stop?

Anne: Not specifically but it goes back to the same place, that I love to travel. I’m fascinated by the places we claim as our own when we’re on the road. My son and his family, including my littlest grandson, live in China, so I’ve been there twice for extended stays. Even in a village unchanged from the Ming Dynasty (14th through 17th century) at the base of the Great Wall, travelers may reach out in friendship. I guess I’m just fascinated by food culture around the world.

And Melissa, you’re a foodie, as we can see from your blog, The Hungry Artist, and your picture book Soup Day (Henry Holt, 2010). I guess that assured you having the right emotional take on Truck Stop.

Melissa: Thanks, Anne. I do love that in the story, each trucker has his/her own particular truck as well as a particular breakfast dish. It was so fun to create the diner scenes and their breakfasts. I wanted to communicate the camaraderie and sense of community between the characters. They have a connection with the narrator and his family, and breakfast brings them together.

Anne, did you have any people in mind when you created the characters for Truck Stop?

Anne: No, they chose me. I’m sure, however, that they were lurking in my memory.

Melissa: By the way, where do you write?

Anne: On my laptop in my living room, before the sun is up, just like the truckers whose days begin at dawn.

Melissa: These days, at least to me, it seems harder and harder to sell picture book manuscripts. What advice you have for aspiring picture book authors?

Anne: None, really. There’s a lot of chatter regarding budget cuts and picture books are expensive to produce, whether e-books, and warehouses full of unsold celebrity books. It’s discouraging, but I guess all you can ask for is patience, and don’t let discouragement stop you from working on things you love. Change is often painful, and our market is certainly changing!

Melissa, your work manages to be so powerfully designed, bright colored, and your people manage to be both eternal and also newborn. I’d love to know more about how you work.

Melissa: I knew I wanted to use collage for the illustrations of Truck Stop. I like painting, but I feel that collage forces me to keep the shapes simpler and that’s what I wanted. So the artwork is a sort of combination of both. Parts of it are painted (the skies and a lot of the paper used in the collages). But I glued everything together to make a whole, much like a collage.

Then I scanned the finished collage into the computer and made adjustments, added things, and cleaned up the images in Photoshop.

If you look closely, you can see the same textures which I colored in Photoshop and placed in Priscilla and Maisie’s hair:

I also wanted to incorporate white space into my artwork to give it some lightness. The structure of having each truck driver introduced along with their breakfast item lent itself well to that approach.

Anne: Your artwork is so fresh, yet I know there’s a lot of technical know-how there. I was fascinated by your saying the wheels on all the little endsheet trucks were added by your computer. Could you expand on that?

Melissa: Sure. I made all the vehicles individually by gluing pieces of paper together. Except the wheels:

It’s difficult to cut 20 or so wheels the same size neatly. I would paint a swatch of black by hand, scan that in, and then put it into a shape of a wheel that I made in the computer. That way, the wheels are uniform, but the texture is varied. I think it is cleaner and less distracting this way. The final endpaper with text and wheels:

Anne: My own take is completely different as you can see from my workplace on the most recent book I illustrated, At the Supermarket (Henry Holt, 2010). It’s a redo from a title I’d written and my husband illustrated, in three colors! My granddaughter, Julianna Brion, helped me with the coloring in this new edition. She’s amazing!

Not a computer in sight, as you can see! I do all my writing on the computer however, and find word processing a wonderful tool. You can revise and revise some more (as I do) without filling wastebaskets.

Melissa: Yes, you’ve illustrated many of your books. How do you decide which ones you will illustrate and which ones will be illustrated by someone else?

Anne: When it comes to the biographies, I write them knowing they will be illustrated by someone else.

My own style is right for young children, but I feel that something else is needed for books whose story is for older children.

It’s difficult for such picture books to reach their audience, since too many teachers and parents don’t want to see their child absorbed in a book that’s easy to read, which is sad.

For instance, I love the pictures R. Gregory Christie did for Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth (Knopf, 2000).

I find it’s very important when I’m writing a picture book that I’m not illustrating, that I know each passage is visual. So I set up a word document, and number the pages. I don’t make a dummy from there, but I need to know it’s possible.

A picture book is more like a poem, a work in a tight format. That determines its structure. Some illustrators get this, while others don’t. It’s a scary process!

Melissa Iwai

I feel comfortable spiritually when illustrating for the very young, but it has become more and more difficult. I’ve had a number of health problems which I’ve snapped back from well, but taking on a picture book is just more of a commitment than I can make.

That’s why I was so thrilled when I saw what you’d done in Truck Stop and hope we can do more! I hope you’ll take it in the spirit meant when I say the pictures look like what I would have done.

Melissa: Of course! I’m so happy you feel that way. When I illustrate other people’s stories, I always wonder what they think with of end result. Usually I don’t meet them—if at all – until all the work is handed in and the book is printed.

I would love to work with you again, and this time, it would be a process of collaboration from the beginning!

Cynsational Notes

Anne Rockwell began writing and illustrating children’s books in the 1950s and is well known and loved by generations of children. Her work has won many awards and accolades. She lives in Connecticut.

Melissa Iwai has illustrated over twenty picture books, and has both written and illustrated Soup Day. A California native, Melissa now lives in Brooklyn, not far from the Brooklyn Bridge, with her husband and son.

3 thoughts on “Interview: Melissa Iwai and Anne Rockwell on Truck Stop

  1. What a beautiful interview of Anne and Melissa! As a former teacher, I've seen many of Anne's books, and it's neat to see her interviewed here.

  2. What a perfectly lovely interview! What talented and unique creative people Anne and Melissa are. They have combined to make a wonderful and original book.ciescyb

  3. I really enjoyed reading this conversation between author and artist! I loved learning about how Melissa creatd those symetrical wheels and added them to the handmade truck forms. TRUCK STOP is a beautiful collaboration. Congratulations Annie and Melissa!

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