When I am asked how I chose to be an illustrator and then an author, I think back to my early childhood. I must have been four or five years old. My family lived in an old house in the middle of the French countryside. My parents loved books and read to us all the time. Sometimes we lit a fire in one of the old fireplaces, especially in the wintertime when it was bitter cold. My mother would read my brothers and I bedtime stories. Often these were Grimm’s fairy tales. Imagine hearing Grimm’s fairy tales by firelight in an old house in the middle of winter in France! I was doomed to become an illustrator and author!
I’m a very nostalgic person. Whenever I illustrate a book, there is something about it that appeals to some part of my past. I spent lots of time outdoors as a child and so nature plays a strong part in everything. I’m drawn to light, shadow, water, and trees. I have a strong sense of mystery. (I spent more time in castles than I did on the playground.)
Books have always been important to me. And libraries. Living in a military family, I moved a lot. Every two or three years we were off to a different part of the country or the world. This was exciting, but left me yearning for familiar things. Whenever we moved to a new place, my mother took us to the library. Do you know that every library in the world smells the same? When I went to the library I could find familiar books, like old friends and discover new ones. Other than my family, books became the constant familiar things I could rely upon.
Art is an escape for me. There was an art teacher who came to my second-grade class, but only once a month, or so it seemed to me! I remember one day she drew a mushroom with a man sitting under it. I was so excited to think that I had permission to draw something straight from my imagination! I loved anything three-dimensional. Clay sculpture was my favorite. I think my sense of depth and form came as a result of modeling heads out of clay.
If a story idea is like building a house, then more often than not I begin with a doorknob. I start with something small, a snippet of conversation or a random object or a particular image that persists in coming to mind and I ask myself “ What sort of door would go with this knob?” When I get the answer to that question I ask, “ What sort of room would go with this door?” and so on until somehow I get a house. It’s a very random way of working, but I find that if I’m thinking of the right questions, then the answers show up at the oddest times.
When I was illustrating a book a few years ago about an obnoxious family of musicians who move next door, there was a baby that kept cropping up in the paintings. Some times he popped out of a tuba or danced on the tip of a Rhinoceros horn.
The art director asked me “ What’s with this baby?”
“He’s from Maine,” I replied. “He’s a Toddlah. A wicked big Toddlah! “ That’s how The Wicked Big Toddlah began.
I think every book should have a slightly different style unique to that particular story. This allows me to experiment with different ways of drawing and storytelling. That keeps me wondering what I’ll be doing next, and that’s a good thing.