Monday, January 25, 2010

Author Interviews @ Pickle Me This: Patricia Storms (for Family Literacy Week!)

I first encountered Patricia Storms through her blog Booklust, and I think I've only ever met her two or three times in person, but I feel as though I know her much better than two or three times would allow. She is a generous spirit who radiates such warmth and energy, she has a delightful sense of humour, and she's a talented illustrator (of books including The 13 Ghosts of Halloween, Edward and the Eureka Lucky Wish Company, and Good Granny Bad Granny) and now author/ illustrator (of her latest book The Pirate and the Penguin). I love her books, I think she's fabulous, and I'm so pleased that she's answered some of my questions about writing and illustrating picture books, and also about family literacy.

I: Funny, we call them “picture books”, but then the pictures themselves are so often regarded as secondary (that an illustrator might not receive the same credit as an author of the text, for example). What role do you think illustrations play in children’s books? And why do the illustrations get less respect?

PS: In my Utopian world, the writer and the artist would get equal-billing, since they are both so dependent on each other. Ideally, the artist (I would hope) would be more than just a hired hand doing grunt work and translating literal images onto the page from the words provided. In a good picture book, I see the illustrator as someone who takes the story to another level of delight, imagination and entertainment. The illustrator should be just as much of a story-teller as the author. But they should not be competing with each other. It makes me think of a couple in love, walking in the forest holding hands, each pointing to the different things they both see on their travels. Each person has a unique perspective, but they are still connected, and are grounded in the same environment (the story).

Perhaps 'get less respect' is a tad dramatic. (I know, I know ­ I'm the one who used this phrase in a previous email conversation. Heaven knows, I can be a tad dramatic at times). That being said, I have on occasion encountered a certain lack of appreciation for what illustrators (and might I add, especially cartoonists) do for picture books. It can be small annoying things like every time I illustrate a book I have to send a special request to Amazon so that they will add my name at the top of the book entry, following the author. Or really shocking situations like when Madonna 'wrote' all those kid's books, and the illustrators didn't have their names on the cover of the book at all (of course that is a unique and hopefully never-to-be-repeated situation by any other author). Usually it just seems to me that in terms of promotion, the writer's name gets more coverage than that of the illustrator. And yet it is called a 'picture' book. But I have to be fair, here. It's the writer who comes up with the idea for the story, and yes, the words are usually crafted long before any pictures appear. As much as I would like equal billing, I must concede that the writer is steering the ship (am I using too much cheesy imagery here? This is the wannabe hack writer coming out in me). So perhaps it is assumed that since the writer is the one who has thought of the original idea and the story, then the illustrator will never be as 'creative' as the author, and is simply following the author's lead. I would rather not see the relationship of author and illustrator in this manner. And I am starting to ramble. Next question.

I: Over the course of your career, what have you learned about the art of illustrating children’s books that would have surprised you in the beginning?

PS: I had always assumed that when an illustrator was hired to draw the pictures for a picture book manuscript, that the story was completely polished and finished at this point. But this is not always the case, and the artist may go off in some interesting directions, while editors are still actually doing last-minute edits on the story. Sometimes art can change at the last minute because of this.

I was also very surprised to find out how much control the Marketing Department (in some publishing houses) has in terms of which artist is chosen for specific projects. But I do have to remind myself that as much as I may just want to create silly, adorable pictures for kids, it is, in the end, a commercial product, and well, publishers do appreciate making money (as do I).

One aspect of this industry which really surprised me was when I was told that some big box bookstores even have editorial control over potential manuscripts and art. They are consulted by publishers and can say yea nor nay on a project, if they think it will or will not sell. They can also recommend creative changes on book covers. Frightening.

I: You’ve recently made the leap from illustrator to author too, of your most recent book The Pirate and the Penguin. Would this be a natural extension for any illustrator? Was it a natural extension for you, and why?

PS: I don't think making the leap from illustrator to author is for every artist. Not every illustrator has a gift of the written word. Some just have no interest in doing it at all (and really, why would one willingly enter into another career that has the potential to do more serious damage to one's already delicate ego?)

Becoming a picture book author was a natural extension for me, though. I have always loved words just as much as art, and I think this has a lot to do with my enduring love of cartoons and comics. In fact, that's how I learned to read ­ through cartoons, comic strips and comic books, in conjunction with picture books, of course. As a kid I wrote and drew countless comic strips, and as I got older, I enjoyed writing stories and poems and my own one-panel gag cartoons. Any chance I could get to not write a standard dull essay in high school English, and instead do something creative, I took it. (For example, in my grade 13 Canadian English course, I opted to write a musical based on Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz).

As much as I enjoy illustrating the words of others, I do have my own ideas that I would love to see come alive in a book. I sometimes have to pinch myself when I look at The Pirate and the Penguin, ­ I can't believe I've managed to get this far with my dreams. I hope I may be allowed to write and illustrate more stories in the future. But I gotta be truthful ­ for me, it's very hard, writing picture book stories. The writing is much harder to do than the art. So really, just ignore everything I was kvetching about in question one. What the hell do I know?

I: What were your favourite books as a child? What contemporary children’s books would you recommend now? And what about graphic novels?

PS: Favourite picture books as a child...hmmmmm....Dr. Suess, of course, and Harry The Dirty Dog, Curious George, Madeleine, and I adored the Nutshell Library books by Maurice Sendak. Oh, and everything by Ezra Jack Keats. I was also a big fan of Harriet The Spy, and devoured all the Freddy The Pig books. And there's a big place in my heart for Charlotte's Web, one of the most beautiful children's books ever written, I would say. I always associate the Paddington The Bear books with warmth, comfort and security. Roald Dahl, of course. And I read all the work of L.M. Montgomery many, many times when I was young. As much as I adore the Anne books, A Tangled Web and The Blue Castle are my favourites.

Books I would recommend now? I really enjoy picture books by Oliver Jeffers and Mo Willems, and Sara O'Leary's When You Were Small and Where You Came From are so lovely (and illustrated by award-winning artist Julie Morstad!). If you haven't read Carin Berger's The Little Yellow Leaf, then you must! The art and the story are so astoundingly beautiful, I nearly wept with envy when I read it. And I've been reading Rabbit & Squirrel: A Tale of War & Peas over and over again lately (written by Kara LaReau, art by Scott Magoon); I laugh every time. I'm not a fan of fantasy fiction (I've yet to crack open any Harry Potter); I tend to be drawn to more 'whimsical' books, things like The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall, The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry, and The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart. Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane are definite must-reads.

I'd love to one day create a graphic novel, but I must confess, I need to read more of them ­ I don't feel I know enough about them. I'm a big fan of the work of Posy Simmonds, but her graphic novels aren't really for kids. Heh.

I: What do you think are the best things that families can do to promote a love of reading?

PS: The best thing a family could do to promote a love of reading? Blow up the damn TV. Seriously, (and I know I'm going to sound like a pompous grumpy old lady) if you want to encourage your kids to read, then you've got to set a good example, and read in front of them, not just to them. Have plenty of books in the house. That's the kind of environment I grew up in. Books were everywhere. I always saw my mother reading at home (it helps of course, that she's a librarian). If parents do not place great value on books and reading, why should the kids? A child should have a library card at a very early age, and going to the library should be a family ritual, as should reading stories at home, and discussing books and authors. Video games, television and computer time should be limited. I know that's an old-fashioned attitude, but too bad. It takes discipline, care and effort, end of story.

I: And on a somewhat unrelated note, but because I always want to know, what are you reading right now?

PS: Right now I am struggling with A.S.Byatt's The Children's Book, of all things. It's a long novel, and there are so many characters, and the writing is at times a tad dull and plodding, as if I am learning a history lesson. But there are lovely and rich moments, too, and I am still very intrigued and curious, and I have been assured that it will get better, so I shall soldier on. I just finished Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, and I can't stop thinking about it. I found her discussions on writing and reading so clear and concise, and so very helpful. I highly recommend it. I also recently read Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and I can't stop thinking about that book either, but not in a good way. I'm so mad that I wasted time on such overrated pretentious pap, but part of me is also thankful for reading this mess, if for no other reason than to remind myself of what never, ever, ever to do when writing anything. And in the past few months, I have fallen in love with Philip Roth (his work, of course, not the man). I've also been enjoying a collection of old Punch cartoons, and I've always got a New Yorker issue on the go-- ­ it's a must in my house!