Chat with Author/Illustrator Deborah Freedman!
Today I'm thrilled to welcome one of our family's favorite authors and favorite people: the lovely Deborah Freedman (whose books Scribble, Blue Chicken, The Story of Fish and Snail, and By Mouse and Frog are among our family's favorites)! She kindly agreed to answer some interview questions for me; personally, I was really impressed and inspired by the thoughtfulness of her answers, and I think you will be, too.
FH: Hello, Debbie! Congratulations on your recent release of By Mouse and Frog. So while I won’t ask that very overused question of “how did you get this idea?”, I do need to clarify one thing: my girls think you may have been reading their minds, as mice and frogs are among their favorite things, and Lucy especially has been longing for another “mouse book” for a long time. Any telepathy involved? Or just general telepathy with all children who love good animal stories?
DF: If your darling girls — or any other children — think I’ve been reading their minds… well, nothing could make me happier. Animals that are small, like mice and frogs, or vulnerable in some other way, make perfect stand-ins for children as characters in picture books.
I figured that out after my first book, SCRIBBLE, was published in 2007 and I had my first experiences reading a book that I had written to children not my own. Although all kinds of kids seemed to enjoy the story, I personally felt a bit uncomfortable reading the book— with its characters modeled after my own two light-skinned, light-haired, light-eyed girls—to diverse groups. So I decided not to do another book about Emma and Lucie. Animal characters free me from decisions about race or culture, and my last two books are even gender-neutral.
But my shorter answer for your Lucy is: mice are so much fun to draw! Even the tail can be expressive.
FH: The illustrations in all your books stand out as exceptionally well executed, beautiful, and unique to you. Would you mind sharing a little bit about your artistic style and process?
DF: Thanks for your kind words about my art. I have a bit of “impostor syndrome” about it, since I didn’t go to art school. I usually feel like I’m faking my way through each book, figuring things out as I go, learning on the job. My basic process is: drawing and painting things over and over again until time’s up.
The main thing that I want to say about the illustration, though, is that I think of it as just another aspect of writing. The art is an essential part of the story, and the story always comes first. I spend many, many months writing and rewriting with words and pictures, which for me means dozens of storyboards and hundreds of thumbnail sketches when I’m working on a manuscript. While I’m writing, I may also be doing character sketches and thinking about my general concept for final art, playing with color, etc. But in the end, every choice about art comes back to, how can I best express this story?
As for style, it’s not a wholly conscious thing — it’s just what happens in spite of myself, where my aspirations met my actual capabilities!
FH: I remember you saying once that Don Freeman was one of your favorite illustrators. (By the way, I had to check, and your books ARE often shelved next to his, alphabetically. Scribble was sitting right next to Corduroy. :) What other illustrators and authors do you turn to for inspiration--not so much in style itself as in the quality of work that you’d like to achieve?
DF: I like how you asked that question, what qualities inspire, rather than explicit styles. Because stylistically, you might be surprised to know some of the art that inspires me!
It’s hard for me to know where to begin, since I’ve been visiting museums since I was a child and then majored in Art History in college. I have an appreciation for so many different kinds of art — after fiftyish years of looking, my brain is jammed with images! I spend lots of time with art “for grownups”, but each of my books is different and so each has lead me to different sources for inspiration. The children’s illustrators whose work I seem to gaze at most often include Maira Kalman, Stephen Gammell, Maurice Sendak, and so many from abroad like John Burningham, Brian Wildsmith, Lisbeth Zwerger … the list is very long.
And if I have to choose just a few picturebook writers, hmmm… Ruth Krauss, Arnold Lobel, Ezra Jack Keats, William Steig…
FH: Before you became an illustrator, you were actually an architect. How did those years practicing that art/science help you in your career with books?
DF: My experience with architecture is both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, I have a lot of experience with design. I think of a book, like a building, as a complex design problem, and honestly believe that the design of each page is as important to a story as whatever rendering skills an illustrator brings to it.
On the minus side, I naturally draw like an architect—too tightly! This is the main reason I spend so much of my time sketching at the scale of a dime, because at that scale I’m able to stay loose, which is absolutely crucial for writing. The tricky and most difficult thing for me about producing final art is not completely losing the expressiveness of those sketches.
FH: What’s the best piece of art-related advice you ever received?
DF: I like how you ask questions, Faith. I hate getting asked for advice, but am happy to share the advice I’ve received! The best? This is going to seem obvious, but sometimes one hears the “obvious” thing at the right time, and it makes a difference.
As my editor and I were revising my current Viking project, SHY, I slowly developed a very strong sense of what I wanted the book to look like. I was nervous though, because for several reasons what I was picturing felt risky. When I finally admitted my concerns to Kendra, she said — whatever you feel most passionate about doing is what you should do — THAT will be your best work. It seems really duh now, but getting that *permission* from her meant the world to me.
FH: Okay, I’ll end with a random “get to know you” question that I happen to love asking: what’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?
DF: Oh boy, this may be the hardest question you’ve asked. I don’t enjoy picking favorite anythings! So here’s a sampling of what I most often end up eating at a few of my favorite ice cream places:
Ashley’s: Mint Chip
Wentworth’s: Rum Raisin
JP Licks: Coconut
I’ve been known to occasionally eat ice cream for lunch. But maybe don’t reveal that to your children.
FH: Thank you so much, Debbie, for taking the time amidst your busy schedule to chat with me about art and writing! As always, you are an inspiration to me--and in a special way to my girls as well.
The rest of you can find out more about Debbie at these places:
Facebook: Deborah Freedman, Author & Illustrator
Here's an educator's guide to her books: http://www.penguin.com/wp-
content/uploads/2015/07/ Freedman_StudyGuide_4P- nocrops.pdf?Ref=Email_Penguin_ 2014-12-02
And here's a cool key to the book references on the page above: http://www.deborahfreedman.