Today, my friends, is a very special day: dogs are barking, bears are growling, and eggs are rolling, because today, Caldecott and Geisel Silver Award winning, New York Times bestselling children’s author/illustrator, Laura Vaccaro Seeger, is right here in the kitchen!
Laura is certainly no stranger to major awards, having received an Emmy for her work in television animation, and numerous accolades for every one of her ingeniously crafted concept books (The Hidden Alphabet, Lemons are Not Red, Walter Was Worried, Black? White! Day? Night!). Her first emergent reader, Dog and Bear: Two Friends, Three Stories, was named Boston Globe-Horn Book Best Picture Book for 2007. And then there’s First the Egg, Laura’s crowning glory.
This past January, First the Egg, a die-cut concept book about transformations, earned Caldecott and Geisel Honor Awards. It’s also a 2008 ALA Notable Book and 2007 New York Times Best Illustrated Book. Turn the page, and an egg becomes a chick. Turn another, and a seed becomes a flower; the next, and a tadpole becomes a frog. This organic process is ultimately transferred to the concept of creativity — “first the word, then the story; first the paint, then the picture,” which features a chicken, who then becomes an egg, bringing the cycle full circle. There is movement in the textured brushstrokes, and before you know it, the words and pictures have grown into an entire book. Beautiful, engaging, clever!
Recently, Laura, who lives on Long Island with her husband and two sons, very generously took time from her busy schedule to talk about her amazing books, her childhood, and what it feels like to get “the call” every children’s book creator dreams of. Oh, and she’s sharing a favorite recipe, of course!
Welcome to alphabet soup, Laura, and two big congratulatory hugs for winning Caldecott and Geisel Honor Awards for First the Egg! January 14th must have been a HUGE day for you. How did you find out that you had won both awards? Did you do anything special to celebrate?
Well, it is really very difficult to describe how it felt to receive those two phone calls. It’s something I’ve dreamed about every year since The Hidden Alphabet was published, never imagining that the dream could actually become a reality. In fact, a few years ago on the morning of the big announcements, I had a dream that I “got the call.” The dream was so real that even 20 minutes after I woke up, I wasn’t sure if it had actually happened or not. And, of course, when I finally realized that the call was truly just a dream, I spent the rest of that day moping around in despair. Now this year, more than a month after the actual calls, I am still pinching myself, worried that I am about to wake up any minute.
The Geisel call came on the evening of January 13th. When I saw that the caller ID read “Pennsylvania Convention Center,” I thought it was my editor, Neal Porter, calling from the conference, so I was shocked and thrilled to hear the Geisel committee on the line, telling me that First the Egg had won a Silver Award. That night, of course, it was so difficult to sleep. I tossed and turned all night, knowing that the Caldecott awards would be announced in the morning. Finally, at about 5 a.m., I fell asleep.
At 6:45 the phone rang. I jumped up, ran to the phone and looked at the caller ID. Again, it read “Pennsylvania Convention Center!” I screamed to my husband, Chris, “What should I do?” He said, “Answer the phone!”, but I just couldn’t! I stood paralyzed. Finally, he screamed, “ANSWER THE PHONE!” When I finally did, Karen Breen introduced herself and apologized for waking me. All I remember at that point is that I kept repeating, “That’s okay, that’s okay!” I could hear the entire Caldecott committee shouting and applauding on the speakerphone. It was one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had in my whole entire life.
Since First the Egg is all about transformations, has winning these two major awards transformed your life in any way so far?
First the Egg has become a New York Times Bestseller, and there are quite a few more interviews and requests for appearances than there were before. I can’t believe that my books will have those beautiful silver stickers on them forever and ever and most importantly, it thrills me that because of these awards, there will be a significant increase in the number of children who will read and, hopefully, enjoy my books!
Please tell us how First the Egg evolved. How long from idea to completion? What was the easiest part about making this book? The hardest?
I first had the idea to make a book about transformations while walking at the beach (as I do for so many of my books). I opened my journal and drew a picture of a flower. Then, in the page just before the one with the drawing, I cut a rectangular hole so that only the oval center of the flower showed through. On that page I jotted the word, “seed.” On the page with the flower, of course, I jotted the word “flower.”
While on a long train ride from New York to Washington, my editor, Neal, and I discussed which books I should work on next. We leafed through my journal and I showed him the “seed/flower” pages. He loved the idea and I proceeded to spend the next few months visualizing the book while finishing work on Dog and Bear: Two Friends, Three Stories. I was enjoying the process, but felt that the book was missing an opportunity for deeper exploration of its subject.
One day, again at the beach, I realized that the addition of the words “first” and “then” would be a perfect way to build a story about transformation and creativity. The painting process took about one month, but it’s difficult to quantify how long the entire process was (or ever is) because I’m always working on the next two or three books while creating art for the one that’s due! As with most of my books, the easiest part of the process is coming up with the idea and the hardest part is making the book cohesive and unforced.
I love your very first children’s book, I Had a Rooster, which is actually an illustrated folk song, complete with an audio CD and forward by Pete Seeger, who is your husband, Chris’, uncle. How did this project come about?
After leaving a staff position as an animator/producer at NBC, I continued to create animations for NBC, ABC, and Fox-TV. My husband, Chris, is part of an incredibly talented family of musicians including his father, Mike Seeger, and his uncle, Pete Seeger. One day, I called Mike and Pete and asked them what they thought about my making children’s books from some of the folk songs that the Seegers had made famous. They told me about a little pamphlet that their mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, had made some forty five years earlier. She thought that the cumulative song, Bought Me a Cat, would make a wonderful children’s book with stepped pages formatted to be read from back to front.
I loved the idea, not only because I wanted to make a picture book, but also because there was such rich family history involved. I began work on the book, substituting the very similar and well-known song, I Had a Rooster. One thing led to another, and the book idea somehow turned into an entire children’s video that Chris and I produced called PETE SEEGER’S FAMILY SING-ALONG. Once the video was completed, I was ready to try to get the picture book published. Neal Porter was the second person that I’d met in the publishing business, and of the box full of picture books that I’d shown him on our first meeting, he offered to publish I Had a Rooster. I am currently working with Neal on our eleventh book together, so I was extremely lucky to have met him so quickly.
Except for Walter Was Worried, all of your concept books feature die-cut pages. Why did you decide on this format? What are some of the special challenges an artist faces creating this particular genre of children’s books?
Die-cuts are a way for me to share with others my take on the world by showing at first a subject from one perspective and then, when the die-cut page is turned, from another perspective. I suppose my background in animation may have something to do with it as well, because the die-cuts are a way for me to ensure that the reader will keep turning pages! With animation, the motion unfolds before one’s eyes, but books are interactive. They require that the reader take part in the motion!
One of my most important rules regarding die-cuts, though, is that they must be absolutely necessary for the book and are included only if the book would not work without them. They must never be gratuitous in any way. I think concept books are a huge challenge as it is so easy for them to become nothing more than a “list” or gimmicky or contrived. The biggest challenge is to turn the concept into a cohesive, well-designed package with a simple story woven subtly throughout.
Tell us about your Emmy. Which aspects of your television and video work figure most strongly in your creation of children’s books?
I won the Emmy for an animated show opening that I did for an NBC special. I find that my animation experience plays a huge part in the way I approach the creation of picture books. I see everything as if I were looking through a camera lens. When I am planning the order and content for the pages of a picture book, I use storyboard paper just as I did when I planned an animation. To me, a picture book is an animation with fewer frames.
What kind of child were you? Any other artists in the family? Who or what influenced you the most?
As a child, I was always drawing and painting and snipping and gluing! I’ve had “visions” as far back as I can remember. Much to my parents’ dismay at times, I would often make collages out of things that really were not meant to be cut up into little bits!
I had a wonderful childhood and I’m from a large family. I’ve got an older brother, a younger brother, and a younger sister. Also, my two grandmothers lived with us, so in our home there was a great deal of fun and love, not to mention amazing cooking! I am the only artist of the bunch; however, my father was very creative and extremely talented. He could fix just about anything and could play countless musical instruments. We had a music room in our house which had a piano, two organs, two guitars, an accordian, and a basket full of percussion instruments. Some of my fondest memories include sing-and-play-alongs where each of us would play an instrument and sing. Usually, I played the piano and my mom was the lead singer.
Your second Dog and Bear book, Two’s Company, will be coming out next month. Is there a real dog and bear? What inspired these gentle stories about friendship? What was different about how you approached these books vs. your concept books?
Yes, these books were originally based on a real dog and a real stuffed bear, both of which reside in my home. My pet dachshund, Copper, is Dog, and a multicolored old thrift store bear is Bear. Neal wanted me to write a narrative book and one day while he was visiting, he happened upon the stuffed bear and said, “Write a story about this!” A few days later, the first story was ready to be edited. The two characters’ personalities actually began to resemble Neal’s and mine, but at this point, I see a great deal of myself in both Dog and Bear.
It’s funny because with all my other books, there reaches a point where my brain hurts due to the challenges and design obstacles that need to be worked out. With Dog and Bear, writing the stories seems completely effortless. I think it’s because I know the characters so well. I understand how they think and feel and react to any given situation. The stories, however, are still conceptual to me as they are about the concepts of friendship, understanding, bravery, thoughtfulness, and love.
Did you write the Dog and Bear texts beforehand, or did the stories evolve simultaneously with your picture ideas?
This is a wonderful question because with all my books except Dog and Bear, the words and pictures evolve simultaneously. With Dog and Bear, though, the stories always come first and they seem to come rather easily. Once the stories are written and edited, I make a pencil-sketched dummy and then it’s on to the final paintings.
Besides Dog and Bear: Two’s Company, you have another concept book coming out this fall, called One Boy. What can you tell us about it?
I am very excited about One Boy. It’s a concept book about counting and words within words, using die-cuts to propel the story and keep the reader turning pages. In a very subtle way, it’s also about loneliness and creativity.
What are you currently working on? Any other formats/genres you’d like to try?
I am currently working on the final art for Dog and Bear: Three to Get Ready. This is the third Dog and Bear book, and I am enjoying every minute of the process. (The Dog and Bear books are somewhat autobiographical at this point, so they have become sort of therapeutic to write and illustrate!) I am also working on a few other books, as well. One of them is called Green. I’m still not sure what I want to do with that one, but at least I’m set on the title! I think that the picture book is the perfect genre for me as I am able to combine writing, painting, and design all in the same book. I do have a romance novel kicking around in my head, but I’m not sure I’d ever actually show that one to anybody!
Do you like to cook? What is your fondest childhood food-related memory?
I do like to cook, very much. My favorite thing to do is just start cooking and see what happens. I love to be creative in the kitchen and I usually don’t bother with cookbooks unless I am making something really special. I like to see what I’ve got in the refrigerator and in the pantry and then I start imagining and creating.
I’ve got many fond food-related childhood memories as I grew up with three Italian master chefs (my mother and both my grandmothers)! One thing that was always very special was that on our birthday, we got to choose our favorite meal. I always chose stuffed artichokes!
Describe yourself in 5 words.
Childish, inquisitive, passionate, loyal, fun-loving.
5 highlights of your career so far.
(Wow! And they’re all in the past 4 months!)
1. The Caldecott Honor
2. The Geisel Honor
3. The Boston Globe-Horn Book Award
4. The New York Times Best Illustrated Award
5. Being a New York Times Bestselling Author
I just adore Simms Taback and James Marshall. My favorite artists are Paul Klee, Amedeo Modigliani, Joan Miro and Henri Matisse.
Other passions besides making children’s books.
I love the beach and anything to do with the ocean. I love scuba diving, surfing, and spending long and lazy days on my boat with my family.
Sushi and candy!
What can you tell us about the recipe you’re sharing with us today?
Here is a recipe from my dear friend, Judes. We were college roommates and, after graduation, we shared an apartment in New York City for many years. We remain the closest of friends and her pumpkin cookie recipe brings back wonderful, silly memories.
JUDE’S PUMPKIN COOKIES
2 cups flour
1 cup oats, uncooked
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup butter, softened
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup pumpkin
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
Set oven to 350. Combine flour, oats, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt.
Cream butter, gradually add sugars, beating until light and fluffy.
Add egg and vanilla, mix well.
Alternate addition of dry ingredients and pumpkin, mixing well after each addition.
Stir in chips.
Drop tablespoons of dough onto lightly greased cookie sheet.
Bake 20-25 minutes until cookies are firm and lightly browned. Judes likes them nearly burnt on the bottom . . .
Let cook on racks.
Be sure to check out Laura’s website for more about all her books.
Five of her books, including Dog and Bear: Two Friends, Three Stories, are also featured at Lookybook.com. A great opportunity to “click” through the pages!
Hear Laura read stories from the first Dog and Bear book here.
Thanks, Laura! We love you and your books!
**All spreads posted by permission, © 2008 Laura Vaccaro Seeger, All Rights Reserved.