Today I am pleased and honored to welcome one of my favorite children’s book author/illustrators, Diane deGroat, to alphabet soup! I’m pretty sure you know her work. With 120 illustrated books, 200 book covers, and 18 books that she both wrote and illustrated to her credit, she is quite hard to miss.
I first noticed Diane’s art back in the early 80’s, when I had just started writing for children. While reading the first Anastasia Krupnik book, I noted how the main character appeared on the cover — the owly eyeglasses and mousey brown hair. After that, Diane’s unusual name really stuck with me.
I saw her work everywhere — on picture books, chapter books, and middle grade novels, with titles such as Where is Everybody? (Eve Merriam), Itchy Richard (Jamie Gilson), Little Rabbit’s Loose Tooth (Lucy Bate), and Toad Food and Measle Soup (Christine McDonnell). She continued to do the covers for the entire Anastasia Krupnik series, then followed suit with Lowry’s Sam books. She illustrated for many other literary luminaries too: Joan Lowrey Nixon, Ann Tompert, Johanna Hurwitz, Susan Shreve, and Ann Munoz Ryan, to name just a few.
Diane’s work has two distinctive styles: a realistic one, which can be seen on her many chapter book covers, and a more relaxed, whimsical style, that defines the animal characters in her picture books. I love how she humanizes her animal characters with childlike posturing and spot-on facial expressions. For each scene, for even the sublest shifts in feeling, the pictures emote in a truly convincing way.
After about twenty years of illustrating for other authors, Diane began to write her own stories. Her first chapter book, Annie Pitts, Artichoke (Chronicle, 1992), about a third grader who aspires to be an actress, was described by Booklist as “amusing and highly palatable reading fare, with spritely, realistically drawn illustrations that enhance the book’s energy and fun.” A sequel, Annie Pitts, Swamp Monster, was released the following year.
Then Diane created the character of Gilbert and she really struck gold. The first picture book featuring this endearing possum, Roses are Pink, Your Feet Really Stink (Morrow, 1995), was a rousing success, earning her the Arkansas and North Carolina State Children’s Book Awards, and the Children’s Choice Award from the International Reading Association/Children’s Book Council. It was so well received that it even spawned a new series. Now, children can’t seem to get enough of Gilbert and his first grade friends, Patty, Margaret, Lewis, Frank, Philip, and their teacher, Mrs. Byrd. Diane masterfully captures the small hurts, concerns, and social situations experienced by the 4-8 year-old age group, while the buoyant watercolor illustrations fully engage the reader with its charming detail, verve and playfulness. More than anything else she’s done, whether she is conscious of it or not, I think the Gilbert books reveal the child Diane once was.
from BRAND NEW PENCILS, BRAND NEW BOOKS, (HarperCollins, 2005)
(courtesy of R. Michelson Galleries, Northhampton, MA)
Diane’s snowflake this year features the one and only Gilbert, waving to all his fans. Recently I asked Diane all about him, the snowflake, and the next book in the series, Mother, You’re the Best (But Sister, You’re a Pest), due out from HarperCollins in Spring ’08.
Jama: Welcome, Diane! Your snowflake for the 2007 Robert’s Snow auction, “Gilbert Says Hi,” is adorable. He is wearing the signature red and white striped shirt that he wore when we first met him. How did you create it?
Gilbert Says Hi,” by Diane deGroat, will be open to bids in the third Robert’s Snow auction, December 3-7, 2007!
Diane: I drew it onto paper (with an actual pencil, not a computer!), painted it with watercolors, cut it out and pasted it onto the wooden snowflake. If I had known that most of the illustrators were going to do an illustration on the backside, I would have done that too. Next year.
Jama: You’ve said you chose to make him a possum because he’s “the kind of animal things just happen to.” I’ve never seen you in person, but I detect a resemblance between Gilbert and your author photo (he’s a lot hairier, of course)! How close is his personality to your own (how possum-like are you)? Are any of the stories based on real-life incidents?
Diane: I haven’t based the stories on my childhood. I made them up. I think Gilbert is the child I wished I had been. He’s comfortable with who he is. He has friends, a loving family, and realistic expectations. In other words: normal. These may not exactly be possum-like qualities, but they reflect the character that I wanted to represent. He’s reader-friendly. Gilbert similarities? I wear glasses. My hair looks like Gilbert when I get up in the morning. We’re both ambidextrous. Possum similarities? I squint in the sunlight. I work best at night.
Jama: When you wrote the first Gilbert book, Roses are Pink, Your Feet Really Stink, was it meant to be a stand-alone picture book, or did you already have a series in mind? What are the best and hardest things about doing a series?
Diane: It was a stand-alone. I hadn’t thought of making a series, but because it was so successful, my editor encouraged me to do more Gilbert holiday books. The easiest thing about a series is the fact that the characters already exist. I know how they would act in a story. The hardest thing is coming up with the story! And now that I’m locked into having funny titles, they’re hard to think up, too. I’m running out of holidays, so I’m starting a spin-off series. I’ll be writing “I Can Read” books for Gilbert and Friends, starting in 2009.
Jama: What kind of research methods have you used in creating the Gilbert series? Your website lists “taxidermy” both as a form of research and as a personal hobby. Does this mean you hunt and stuff animals yourself (gulp!) for work and pleasure? Do you practice anthropomorphic taxidermy (dressing stuffed animals in clothes and displaying them in scenes)? Is there a taxidermied Gilbert in your studio?
Diane: One word: ebay. (Type in “taxidermy” and you’ll find some pretty interesting stuff . . .) I would never harm an animal, but the reality is that they exist in taxidermy, and someone sells them. There are well known wildlife taxidermists (not me!) and there are collectors watching for their work on the internet.
When people ask, I usually tell them that I collect taxidermy to use in my work, and that seems to satisfy their curiosity. I do occasionally use them as models to draw from, especially the badger and the raccoon. It’s nice to be able to see the backs of their heads for coloring, etc. But the truth is that I simply admire the beauty of the animals and enjoy their presence. Some people see taxidermy as being politically incorrect. (I’ve had 10-year-old girls in tears after showing them slides of my collection during a school presentation.) But I explain that after the animals have died (naturally), someone has had the foresight to preserve them for artists and animal lovers to admire forever. And yes, I’ve found doll hats and clothing that fit, so some of my critters are quite well-dressed. Lewis has a baseball shirt and cap. My possum wears specs. But I don’t set them up in scenes. That’s just plain weird.
Jama: What can you tell us about the newest book in the series, Mother, You’re the Best! (But Sister, You’re a Pest), which is coming out next spring? What did you learn from making this book (the eleventh in the series)?
Diane: I like this story a lot. I usually have an underlying theme in each book, and sibling rivalry works well here. It was hard giving the story just the right balance. It’s not too sappy, it has some humor, and it still feels “real.” It’s “quieter” than the other Gilbert books, and it takes place mostly at home, not in the classroom. I think teachers will enjoy discussing this story with their students.
What did I learn? I learned that coming up with a funny title for a Mother’s Day book is not easy. I wanted to call it “She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not,” which I felt expressed Gilbert’s worry about whether his mother loved his sister more than she loved him. The publisher said it sounded too negative, and asked my editor and me to come up with a sillier title. We pondered long and hard to come up with the final title approved by the marketing people. (But I still like my title better.)
Jama: I do too! Do you use a computer a lot for your illustrations? How has this new technology changed the way you approach and create new projects? What are the pros and cons of using a computer vs. doing everything by hand?
Diane: I use the computer quite a bit for my illustrations. This one is from the new Mother’s Day book:
First I draw on a Wacom tablet, directly into the Photoshop program. This is what I send to my editor for approval.
After the sketch is approved, I change the black line to sepia, so that when I paint it, it has a softer outline.
In the Photoshop program, I start filling in the color.
The computer screen shows how I’m changing Gilbert’s position.
This is the digital image carried as far as I want to take it in the computer (about 80% complete). I print this out onto watercolor paper, Arches 140 lb. hot press.
Then I paint right on top of the print with watercolor paint, adding details and depth. The surface that you see is paint, but underneath is digital. The last 4 books in the series were done this way, and (hopefully!) they match the earlier ones, which were done totally in pencil and paint. I started doing it this way because it’s more fun, more flexible, and after 4 books, it’s finally getting to be faster.
Jama: As a child, you seemed to have been strongly influenced by cartoons. Both your daughter, Amanda, and her husband are animators. Would you like to see Gilbert made into an animated TV series?
Diane: For years I felt that Gilbert should be seen in book form only, as that’s the venue with the most integrity. (I cringe when I see “Arthur” underpants in Walmart.) I can’t imagine what an animated Gilbert would look like, but if the chance arises (the publisher has been working on this), I’d take a serious look at it. No promises. I think a Gilbert plush toy would be nice to snuggle with, but there’s the problem of the glasses and little kids swallowing them.
Jama: Is there something you would like to try artistically that you haven’t already done?
Diane: The artwork in the Gilbert books is mediocre, according to my worst critic, me. I did the first one in a looser style than I usually worked in, and the sequels had to follow suit. Even though other people like the art, I think I could have done them better. Someday I hope to have the time and the creative ability to do a book in a totally different style, one that I could say is my very best work.
Jama: Tell us something surprising about yourself.
Diane: I’m going to become a grandmother in December. I look forward to reading to my first grandkid. I have a huge collection of children’s books by other illustrators.
Jama: I was excited to learn that your sister owns a bakery, especially since this blog is mainly about food and books. Do you like to cook? If so, do you have a specialty? What do you usually eat for breakfast?
Diane: I do not cook. (I live near a Whole Foods Market!) The gas bill for my stovetop is $1.50 per year. I like tea. I have tea for breakfast. My sister LOVES to cook. But she can’t draw.
Jama: If you were banished to a desert island, what one food item would you choose to take along (besides water)? What food seems to inspire your best work?
Diane: A hearty Pinot Noir.
Jama: If you could lunch with any classical painter, whom would you invite? What would you say to him/her?
Diane: If he were alive today, I’d love to see Michelangelo sketching, not eating. I’ve admired his “hand” since I was a kid. It has so much life! I wouldn’t ask him anything. Watching would be enough. But if he wanted lunch, I’d pick up something from Whole Foods.
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For more about Diane, including a full list of all her books, information about school visits, and some great FAQ’s, visit her website.
If you are interested in purchasing Diane’s original art, visit the R. Michelson Galleries.
And don’t forget that you can bid on Diane’s snowflake during Auction 3, which will be held December 3-7, 2007. You can view it online along with all the other snowflakes up for auction at the Robert’s Snow: For Cancer Cure website.
Here are the other wonderful snowflake artists being featured today:
Rick Chrustowski at laurasalas.
Check in with Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast every day between now and November 18 for a complete schedule of Robert’s Snow illustrator features.
See you at the Auction, everybody!!
**All spreads posted by permission, © 2007 Diane deGroat, All rights reserved.