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Between the Lines

Interview with Lois Ehlert
In My World
Lois Ehlert
Lois Ehlert is the creator of many award-winning picture books about nature, including Growing Vegetable Soup; Planting a Rainbow; Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf; and the recent bestseller, Waiting for Wings. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Q: Over the years, you have written and illustrated many marvelous books about nature, including the extraordinarily successful Waiting for Wings and your new release, In My World. What is it about Mother Nature that inspires you to create such beautiful and imaginative stories?
A: I'm continually amazed by the diversity and order of the natural world. I write and illustrate stories about common things that most people encounter in their daily lives. I am especially drawn to color, like a butterfly is attracted to bright, fragrant flowers. Red and yellow maple leaves, a blue jay feather, a cluster of red tulips, the soft black stripes of a tiger cat, green grass sprinkled with golden dandelions, turquoise blurry spots on a yellow fish-all have inspired me. Take time to look around you.

Q: The design you developed for In My World inolves a series of cutouts that have a symbiotic color relationship of sorts with one another. How did you decide to do this for the book, and what materials and processes did you use to develop the design?
A: Look through the cutout of a child's hand on the cover of In My World. You can see the world in the hand. Turn each page and see the cutout of a bug turn into a worm; the worm turns into a leaping frog; the frog design is part of the seashells...followed by a new image on each page. As you continue, you will see more objects a child might see close at hand-each object is part of every other object, like pieces of a puzzle. They all form the world. In My World was designed for a young person, a child that might not yet know how to read. The book can be read visually as well as verbally-two different experiences intertwined in a "first" book.

Q: How was your design adapted for purposes of printing and did you encounter any printing or other publishing challenges to create the die-cut pages and cover?
A: It was first necessary for me to design each object in the book as a cutout shape, like a stencil. I started out by making designs out of old typing paper, adding the color later after the overlaps were perfects. (I have a three-inch-high stack of rejected designs in my studio.) I think my background and training as a graphic designer helps me think of a book in its entirety: the size and shape, the art style, the size and position of the type, the text and the flow of the story line. The production of my books is very intricate; Harcourt certainly does a fine job.

Q: Hands was also unique and included die-cut pages, too. Do you consider the shape, texture, and page shapes as you are designing your books-is it an integral part of your art or does it come later, to enhance the look?
A: I grew up in a home where everyone seemed to be making something with his or her hands. As far back as I can remember, I was always putting things together-cutting, stitching, pasting, or pounding. The feel of the object I made was as important as the look. My mother was a good seamstress, and she shared her fabric scraps with me. My dad had a basement workshop, which supplied me with scrap lumber and nails. So, I always had a ready supply of art materials, but not necessarily traditional ones like paper and paint. In fact, colored construction paper was pale in tone compared to my bright cloth scraps. (To this day I prefer to paint my own papers to create just the right color or texture.)

If you look closely at my books, you will see that I still use simple art materials-and that I'm still cutting and pasting. It's an art technique called collage: cut pieces of paper, fabric, or objects glued to a backing.

Hands was originally designed as an artist's book (one-of-a-kind) as a memorial to my dad after he died. I used a pair of his leather gloves for covers, and bound the book using nuts and bolts. I placed the book in an old cigar box I found in his basement workshop and lined the box with his blue work handkerchief. Much later-twelve years to be exact-my editor at Harcourt saw this handmade book and encouraged me to make a new version of the story-a children's book about growing up creatively.

Watching both my mom and dad make things while I was growing up has had a lasting influence on me. If you know a creative child, please find a spot for her or him to work in. Who knows? She or he might grow up to be an artist or writer like me!

Q: The colors you use are vibrant, rich, and cover the entire visual spectrum. And in Snowballs, for example, you make generous use of textured materials-knitted pieces, vegetables, fruits, seeds, ropes and other interesting things. What process do you use to create your illustrations? Do you start with a theme-for example, "fish swimming in a river" (Fish Eyes)-and then draw to that subject? Or do you create your art and then develop a book from the results?
A: Lois: When I begin an idea for a book, which may be a concept book about flowers and color (Planting a Rainbow) or a fruit and vegetable alphabet (Eating the Alphabet), I make a "dummy" book to figure out what I want to say and illustrate on each page. For Waiting for Wings, I also altered the standard book format. In the first part of the book, the pages are half-sized, nestled in a background illustrated in the muted spring colors of a wild habitat. (I call it the nursery.) As you turn the pages, four different butterflies develop from egg to caterpillar, form a chrysalis, and finally emerge, each as a perfectly formed butterfly.

The second part of the book, full-sized pages, follows the butterflies in their search for flower nectar. My color palette brightens to luscious flower and butterfly colors.

I enjoy doing research for the nature books and generally add a glossary of information at the end of the book. For books such as Snowballs and Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf, I actually attached real objects to the painted art. I collect folk art and textiles, and the objects added in Snowballs are from my collection. You can find more folk art in my book, Market Day.

Q: In addition to your brilliant art and interesting story lines, each of your books includes information that helps children to learn about butterflies, gardens, flowers, and other aspects of the natural world. Your books also include engaging educational elements-counting activities, reading, definitions, and even recipes. Which aspect do you think first draws children (and adults) to your books? And which parts do you think keep them enthralled and inspire them to return to a book again and again?
A: I make books about things that interest me, and I hope that these subjects might also be interesting to a young reader. I create a book on many different levels-sometimes a beginning reader will be able to read the story printed in big type, where perhaps an older brother or sister may also read the smaller labels (Feathers for Lunch) or a secondary story (Fish Eyes). Or maybe actually making vegetable soup will complete the story (Growing Vegetable Soup). I'm going to keep my eyes open, and my mind and heart, too, to new ideas for books.

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Lois Ehlert

Lois Ehlert
photo credit:
Lillian Schultz

In My World

In My World