Interview with Susan Middleton Elya and Steven Salerno, creators of Bebé Goes Shopping
Interview with Susan Middleton Elya
Q: You’ve chosen to use a lively combination of English and Spanish words and phrases in Bebé’s grocery shopping adventure. The book is a great learning tool for English and Spanish speakers. Why did you choose this approach rather than writing the story in Spanish?
A: I tried a truly bilingual book once, and the editors all said no to it.
They wanted more English and less Spanish. Each New York editor I work with can only tolerate so many Spanish words per story, depending on his or her own language background. Some houses publish bilingual books, but they usually prefer native speakers as authors.
Q:Before turning to writing, you taught Spanish. What are your thoughts about using picture books to teach a language—are they more helpful than traditional methods?
A:I think traditional methods can't be replaced for things such as verb conjugation and grammar rules. But my books can spark an interest and get a student wanting to know more Spanish. I taught the language for ten years, and the kids always preferred the vocabulary lists to the grammar rules.
Concrete nouns rule!
Q:You picked a very common activity—grocery shopping—to create a learning experience. Do you think that writing about day-to-day activities appeals to parents who seek books for their children? Why?
A:Yes, I do think day-to-day activities appeal to parents. Grocery shopping is a universal experience. Shopping with a baby in the cart is a near-universal experience. Until you've done it, you don't realize how much a baby can slow you down. But you can still get it done, even if some been-there, done-that moms want to give you unsolicited advice when all you want to do is buy the stuff and get out of there.
Q:In your book, Mamá finally distracts Bebé with a caja of animal crackers. How do you explain the fascination that children have with animal crackers—and especially the joy of biting off the heads of their favorite creatures?
A:Children identify with the animals. They love the zoo; they love the sounds that animals make. How satisfying to eat a lion's head! What power that gives a kid. Kids can let their imaginations run wild when they have a box of animal crackers. The cookies have texture to them. Spend some time with a box and you'll see what I mean. That's what I did when I wrote the story. And I've always eaten the head first.
Q:Your personal web site has information about your books and appearances, but it also features Spanish-language word games—crossword puzzles, riddles, etc. In addition to creating fun for visitors, the activities also inspire learning. Have you ever considered expanding your talents into the popular gaming world?
A:I would love to expand into the gaming world but wouldn't have a clue how to get started.
Interview with Steven Salerno
Q:Your illustration style has been influenced by many well-known artists and illustrators, including Henri deToulouse-Lautrec, Windsor McKay, and Spanish painter Francisco Goya. Was the work of these artists used as reference in creating the illustrations for Bebé Goes Shopping?
A:The direct answer is no. Influences from favorite great artists—whether from the fine arts (i.e., Lautrec) or popular graphic arts (i.e., Ludwig Bemelmans)—over a long career like mine do not really have a visible imprint on the illustrations I create for a book project. . . all the artists I studied from the past became multiple blended elements integrated into my own personal style. And the only "reference" I use when creating images for a picture book are the author’s words and my own imagination.
Q:Movement highlights your illustrations. Turning the pages of Bebé Goes Shopping, the reader is propelled through the aisles of the grocery store along with Mamá and Bebé. What techniques did you use to create this effort?
A:My ability to create characters which suggest movement is certainly not unique... many illustrators can do this. . . And with Bebé Goes Shopping, I did not particularly exaggerate the feeling of motion, because the story itself did not warrant it, say, the way a story about a cheetah or a sailboat would. Creating the suggestion of motion is attained by posing characters in heightened positions the way an animator would; using line work to delineate the characters in a calligraphic manner also enhances a feeling of movement, as does designing the overall composition to manipulate the implied direction of the motion.
Q:You’ve created works not only for children’s books but also for product packaging and advertising campaigns. Which has provided you with the most flexibility for creativity—And which, of all your projects, has been your favorite?
A:Every aspect of the graphics industry—whether in advertising, packaging, editorial magazines, or children’s picture books—offer projects that allow me to be very creative and inventive with my images. . . . However, all these graphic vehicles also can offer projects that I have to be wary of because they come with negative built-in client requirement constraints or, in the case of picture books, a story simply not suited for my tastes . . .so the answer is that if I choose my assignments carefully, they all turn out quite well. . .but my favorite option is picture books, because I get to develop characters, choose how and where to assist in telling the story with my images, and become the "director" of the storymaking decisions on every aspect of what the reader sees. Plus, a picture book has the magical role of introducing children to the world of literature and art at the same time, which is a thrill and honor to be involved with.
Q:In addition to illustrating children’s books, you have written two of your own: Little Tumbo and Coco the Carrot. How is illustrating you own text different from creating artwork for another authors work?
A:When I write my own story and illustrate my own words, the advantage is that I am writing about characters and subject matter I enjoy, so creating the accompanying illustrations has an integrated flow—which makes the entire project less stressful for me. When I illustrate the words of another author, I begin making my doodles and sketches based on their final text. However, when I write and illustrate my own story, I can simultaneously develop sketches of the characters, or scenes, as I write them. . . So with my own author/illustrator books, obviously I am more deeply connected to the story but also with who the characters are, what they look like, and their feelings.
Q:In Bebé Goes Shopping, you used a combination of gouache, watercolors, colored inks, and colored pencils. How does gouache differ from watercolor and how does this particular medium enhance your illustrations.
A:Watercolor is transparent and gouache is opaque, but gouache can be used in a transparent manner, too—and watercolor can be used in an opaque manner as well! (Confusing!?) I think I used more gouache than watercolor when creating the images for Bebé Goes Shopping. Watercolor and gouache are both flexible and easy to work with. I doubt if my materials combination is at all unique.
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