Today I am thrilled and honored to have multiple award-winning picture book writer and illustrator Marla Frazee as my special guest here at alphabet soup!
You probably know Marla from such well-loved classics as The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman, Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers, and Mrs. Biddlebox by Linda Smith, by her masterful pen-and-ink drawings in the Clementine books by Sara Pennypacker, or by any (or all!) of her highly acclaimed self-illustrated titles: Roller Coaster, Santa Claus the World’s Number One Toy Expert, and Walk On! A Guide for Babies of All Ages.
This past March, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever — an engaging, rollicking real-life Nature Camp experience that lovingly captures the essence of summer and friendship. It has already received many starred reviews, and just two weeks ago, A Couple of Boys earned a 2008 Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award.
Marla is visiting us today from Pasadena, where she lives with her husband, three sons, and dog, Rocket. She creates all her picture book magic in a charming backyard studio nestled beneath an avocado tree, and teaches children’s book illustration at the Art Center College of Design.
Welcome to alphabet soup, Marla, and congratulations on winning the Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award! Please tell us about the interesting genesis of A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever. What did you find most challenging about transforming a real-life event into an emotionally satisfying picture book?
A Couple of Boys came out of an experience that my youngest son, James, and his friend, Eamon, had a few summers ago. James and Eamon were invited to attend a week of Nature Camp in the Santa Monica Mountains and stay with Eamon’s grandparents, Bill and Pam, who live at the beach in Malibu. Eamon’s mom is Allyn Johnston, my editor, and Bill and Pam are Allyn’s parents.
That part of the story is undisputed.
I picked the boys up from Bill and Pam’s when Nature Camp was over and brought them back to our house to hang with my two older boys. It was over 100 degrees in Pasadena and the four guys and I were lying around in the house, wilting. It was on one of those sweltering afternoons when Allyn (who at that time was the Editor-in-Chief of Harcourt Children’s Books in San Diego) called from her air conditioned corporate office.
Allyn denies what happened next.
She asked if I would maybe write her folks a thank-you note for the Nature Camp week.
Sure, I said, while secretly thinking that I don’t need to be told to write a thank-you note. Of course I was going to write her folks a thank-you note.
Then she suggested that the note be in the form of a book. You know, with PICTURES, she said.
I didn’t respond.
Filling the silence, she had yet another suggestion — James and Eamon could help me with it and draw some pictures of their own!
We all know that when our editors tell us to do something, we eventually do it, right? So that very evening, I sat down with James and Eamon at my side, and we made a goofy little thank-you-note book — with pictures. I sent it to Bill and Pam the next day.
They loved it, and Pam sent a copy to Harcourt where Allyn showed it around the office, and then she made a copy for me. She said there was something to it. That I was finally writing in my own voice again — unlike the totally self-conscious picture book texts I’d been fiddling around with for the past year. She said that maybe I should consider working on this.
I thought she was crazy.
An early sketch idea with a different title
The little thank-you-note book then languished for months on the floor of my car, where I would occasionally pick it up, read it, and then toss it back down. It seemed too personal, too odd, and too specific to work in any way as a picture book. Then, six months later, when I was driving my oldest son to the airport to send him back to college after his first Christmas break, he picked it up and started reading. There I was, close to tears because he was leaving, and there he was, sitting next to me, laughing his head off. It was his reaction that finally made me take it seriously as a possible project.
I called Allyn on the way out of the airport parking lot and told her I was ready to get cracking.
Then she freaked out about whether her colleagues would think she was nuts to be editing a book that featured her son as a main character. And she wasn’t wrong. Many people both in and out of the publishing house thought we had both lost our minds and were caught up in some vanity project. But others believed in it, and that kept us going.
It was a complicated process, one in which we were each vulnerable. The most challenging part was for both of us to keep working on it, even though we were both wracked with doubt at various points — although thankfully not often at the same time.
A Couple of Boys is part scrapbook, part chronicle, and part comic book. The words and pictures work together like a seasoned comedy team, the words providing the setup, and the pictures delivering the punch lines. Did you write the text beforehand, or did words and pictures come simultaneously? This is your first book using cartoon bubbles. Did this come from the thank-you note? If not, how and why did you decide to incorporate this element? Which is harder for you, words or pictures?
I worked hard on the text to this book. And I learned a lot. The words and the pictures are very intertwined, so it’s impossible to say which was harder. The whole thing was like trying to braid an unruly head of hair. I’d get one strand controlled and another would start to unravel.
The word/picture relationship in the original thank-you note evolved quickly, organically, and without a lot of effort — something that is useful for me to keep in mind. As I said, I’d been working on some not-so-happening picture book texts. It was only when I didn’t think I was working on a picture book (it was a silly thank-you note, remember!) that my picture book voice emerged again. The revision process was all about retaining that relationship between text and pictures, but making it work in a larger, more universal context.
Regarding the comic book elements in the book, I have often used speech bubbles to annotate cards, photos, etc., so this wasn’t an unusual thing for me to do in the thank-you note. Keeping that in the picture book allowed the boys to have their own say in the story. Allyn also wanted me to retain the goofy, cartooned, stylized drawings that were in the original note. The book continued to move even more in this direction as it evolved.
Did you receive ongoing input (solicited or unsolicited) from James and Eamon during the process? What do each of them like most about the way they are depicted? How do they, along with Bill and Pam, feel about being immortalized in your book?
Well, the boys were not shy about letting us know what they thought at every turn. In the beginning, their comments were in the category of “That’s not what happened!” But they quickly caught on to the idea that this was a work of fiction and began to evaluate it as to whether or not it made any sense. By the time they saw the finished book, I think they felt deservedly proud of the result from being asked to weigh in so often with their astute opinions.
Eamon and James now
I don’t remember James and Eamon making a single comment about how they were depicted visually (except, maybe, that they liked their hair). But they did actually look like the boys in the book before they both got so tall and started wearing cool, arty glasses.
Bill and Pam, being grownups, never objected (at least to me) about the fact that I made them look completey unlike the way they really look. Both of them are tall, slender, stylish, and erudite. But when I drew them that way, it was so not a funny book.
Did you use the computer for your illustrations, or was everything done by hand? Why did you feel the felt-like surface of the recycled French paper you chose would be appropriate for this story? Overall, what is your favorite medium?
I don’t use a computer to do my pictures. I liked the felt-like paper because it took the black pencil so well. I guess my favorite medium is, um, a black pencil. Oh, God, I hate talking about technique.
Your drawings for the Clementine series by Sara Pennypacker are totally brilliant — they complete the character and deepen the narrative to a degree that harkens back to a previous era in children’s publishing. Are these illustrations easier or harder to do than those that are in color? Aside from using clues from the text, did you model Clementine after anyone you know?
I thought line drawings in the Clementine books were going to be easier than illustrating a full-color picture book. But they are hard! I’m doing them in pen-and-ink, which I like to compare to walking a tightrope — something I have absolutely no personal experience doing, by the way. But somehow it feels that scary to me. One little mistake and it is bad, bad, bad. When I flub up — and sometimes it’s right about when I am almost finished with a drawing that has taken many hours — I have to start over again on a new piece of paper. You can’t erase with pen-and-ink.
I wanted the Clementine books to reflect the same period of time when Louis Darling was illustrating the Beverly Cleary books. I have been very inspired by his work and the work of other great pen-and-ink illustrators, too, like Robert Lawson, Ernest Shepard, Doris Burns, and Chris Riddell.
As for the character of Clementine, I have long been infatuated with Little Sal, the protagonist in Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal, and, it goes without saying, Cleary’s Ramona. Clementine is certainly a similar type of quirky little girl. Early on, I took pictures of an 8-year-old friend named Kate along with all her stuff (shoes, clothes, toys, knick-knacks) to help me get a handle on The Girl Thing. As a mom of three boys, I felt like I was dealing with a whole other species. But as soon as I really started drawing, Clementine became Clementine. I feel as if I know her pretty well now.
How do you decide which parts of the story to draw?
Deciding which parts of the story to draw takes some time. First I just read the text. I don’t take notes, underline anything, or think too much. I just read it. The second time through, knowing what the major threads are and what moments are important, I have a pencil in hand and take copious notes. I look for the spaces in the text where I can add detail, give weight to some event, reinforce humor, wink obliquely, allow for a visual pause, and most importantly, deepen the emotional moments.
Sara Pennypacker’s writing allows this to happen. I have never felt that I needed to compensate for something that wasn’t in the text. It is all there. Sara’s writing is so tight, so funny, and so perfectly attuned, that it is just a matter of choosing what I want to accentuate.
(Evolution of the first Clementine Cover):
Some of my first sketches incorporated some orange crate elements in the design, playing off her fruit name.
In one exploratory sketch, I drew her doing a handstand in Principal Rice’s doorway.
I reduced the elements down to where it was simply Clementine, framed by the edges of the book. This was getting somewhere, but her expression was too exaggerated.
Here’s the final painting,
and the book!
I read that you encourage your children’s book illustration students to find their own voice and style, and that it is important to you for artists to move beyond commercial, generic depictions that merely echo the text. You’ve also said that it took at least 10 years for you to find your own voice. Can you share any light bulb moments during this period that facilitated this breakthrough?
I spent many years working as a commercial illustrator, doing things like Kellogg’s cereal boxes, children’s clothing ads, McDonald’s Happy Meals containers, Mattel toy packaging, etc. Meanwhile I was peddling my portfolio to children’s publishers. One of my main targets during those years was Linda Zuckerman who was then an editor with Harper and Row, working out of her Southern California office.
I’m not sure why Linda agreed to see me as often as she did, but every six months or so I would make an appointment to show her new samples in my portfolio. Every single time, I was such a wreck that I’d get off the road a few miles from her place and hyperventilate for awhile. Then I’d go sit across from her desk once again, waiting for her to tell me what she thought. And she would.
Patiently, kindly, firmly, she told me everything I needed to know but wasn’t always able to understand. My characters were generic and stereotypical; my work wasn’t expanding on the text but instead was saying the same thing; the entire portfolio wasn’t narrative enough; it was all too slick. I would nod my head. I would thank her. And then I’d drive back home feeling more disoriented than ever.
Eventually Linda gave me some YA jacket illustrations to do and then at last, my first picture books. I learned a whole hell of a lot from Linda. The Seven Silly Eaters was our third book together and remains one of the books I am most proud of. I am so lucky that she was my first editor, and that she saw enough of a tiny glimmer in my work all those years ago to take a chance with me. I am thoroughly indebted to her. And the best part of this story is that Linda is a close friend and colleague of mine today.
What general advice can you offer about making illustrations more “narrative” rather than just mirror reflections of the text?
Well, this is the basis of the class I teach. It is essentially the same advice you would give with writing. Get to know your characters, inside and out. Do not be afraid to dig deep, because that is where you are going to find the beating heart of what you are trying to do. Revise, revise, revise. Each revision brings you closer to your true intention. Stay open to surprises. Feel it. If you aren’t communicating in an emotional way, then you aren’t communicating.
Stuff like that.
from Santa Claus The World’s Number One Toy Expert
What are you working on now?
Right now I am finishing up the paintings on a picture book called All the World, written by Liz Garton Scanlon. It is a gorgeous, brief-yet-expansive text and I am trying to do it justice.
What inspires you?
Walking, hiking, driving. I LOVE to be alone and moving. It is a potent combination.
In your 2007 Cynsations interview, you mentioned how you first turned down the opportunity to illustrate Mrs. Biddlebox, written by Linda Smith, and then changed your mind. What makes you say yes to a project?
Saying yes to a manuscript is, for me, like deciding to move into a house. There are a lot of homes I think are gorgeous and I might even love, but very, very few I would actually want to uproot myself and move into. When I say yes to a story it is because the manuscript has me by the throat,and I can’t say no. When I read a manuscript, I want not to like it. In all honesty, I want to say no. If I end up liking it, I want not to like it enough. If I love it, then it starts to get complicated. If I can walk away from it without feeling regret, I will. I have to love it so intensely that I will be bereft, insane, crazed if I can’t make it mine.
Only once I’ve walked away and regretted it — and that was with Mrs. Biddlebox — and then, lucky me, I was given a second chance. But for all the other manuscripts I’ve said yes to, I knew immediately upon reading them that I was a goner.
My personal favorite of the books you illustrated but didn’t write is The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman. The pictures create a fully-realized, detailed world that perfectly complements the escalating tension and frenzy of the story, with your own added storylines (mother with cello, presence of father). Of course, food and food preparation play a huge role in this book. Do you like to cook? If so, please describe a favorite food-related memory from your childhood.
Food was and still is at the center of everything my extended Lebanese family does together. When I was growing up, my Sito (“Sit-u” is grandmother in Arabic) and her sister lived in side-by-side houses in the middle of downtown Los Angeles. Many people called my grandmother “Fudgie” because she made great fudge. Her sister (who was a bit heavy long before I was born, but for the rest of her life was a tiny little wisp of a woman), was called “Fatty.”
Fudgie and Fatty’s side-by-side houses in downtown Los Angeles
For every family gathering, Fudgie and Fatty orchestrated enormous and delicious Arabic feasts on three gorgeous old stoves. One stove was in Sito’s kitchen, one was in her sister’s kitchen, and one was between the two houses on the outside patio. My little sister and I ran food back and forth between the three stoves. All the women in the family were aproned, laughing, and busy doing things like rolling grape leaves, stuffing zucchini, rendering butter, chopping parsley, browning pine nuts . . .
Fudgie and Fatty cooking with grandchildren
After the meal was served and cleaned up — and I was helping from the time I was born, I believe — Sito would wipe down her 1939 six-burner Wedgewood, close the enamel cover, and turn on the little nightlight on the top near the clock. To me it was always as if she put that stove to bed.
Once when Sito and I were tucking the stove in for the night, I told her how very, very much I loved it. She said, “Well, then it will be yours one day.”
And, amazingly, it is.
Fudgie’s stove now lives in Marla’s kitchen
Could you share a recipe, either something you make yourself, or something you simply love to eat?
If there is a ripe avocado sitting around, I will probably cut it in half, sprinkle it with salt, and eat it with a spoon.
For more about Marla:
Her lovely website features all of her books, along with a fascinating “Studio” section discussing tools and techniques, characterization, thumbnail sketches, portfolio preparation and color studies.
Cynsations 2007 Interview with Marla, focusing on Mrs. Biddlebox by Linda Smith (Harcourt, 2007).
March 2008 Publisher’s Weekly article about A Couple of Boys.
Fabulous podcast at Just One More Book focusing on Walk On! A Guide for Babies of All Ages (Harcourt, 2006).
Interior spreads from A Couple of Boys, Mrs. Biddlebox, and Santa Claus posted by permission, Copyright © 2008 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, All rights reserved.
All other artwork posted by permission, Copyright © 2008 Marla Frazee, All rights reserved.