Today I get to interview author-illustrator Elizabeth Rose Stanton about her latest picture book “Cowie” (despite us both being housebound for different reasons!
I met Elizabeth Rose Stanton two years ago at Highlights (in 2018). She was positive in her praise and support, generous in talking about the details of her craft, and full of laughter. I was delighted to find out that she lived in the Seattle area at the time (close to Alaska!) and came to picture books by way of being an architect (WOW!). She has visited my blog before. You can learn more about her at her website, her book’s web page or on one of the following social media sites:
Her latest picture book, “Cowie,” is a quiet story of a donkey who loves cows. In fact, he loves them SO much that he wishes he was one because to him, cows are perfect. But he has a problem. Besides the fact that he’s a donkey, he can’t say “moo.” This leads to some unexpectedly hilarious antics with his barnyard friends that must be seen to be believed. The book surprised me in many ways. You have to read it to believe it.
Welcome back to my blog Elizabeth!
Me: This is your third picture book with a farm animal. Is it safe to say that you love farm animals? If yes, why? What draws you to them?
Elizabeth: I think farm animals are wonderful vehicles for relating stories to small children. Farms are familiar, ready-made environments with a built-in diverse population of creatures . . . what could be better?
I am drawn to them because they are fun to draw, and I do love all animals!
Me: This story is very subtle in its subversive illustrations. You have Cowie facing left in the majority of the book! Most illustrators would catch this right away, as it’s considered a bit of a no-no because it doesn’t make the reader want to turn the page naturally. Did you have any push back on this artistic decision in the publishing process? Or since it works as part of the story, was it just accepted as is?
Elizabeth: Ha! I like that you call the illustrations, “subversive!” Well put!
Cowie’s facing left is key to the story and was accepted as such; there was no pushback at all. Cowie’s identity crisis manifests in the actual interplay between the words and the book . . . so I suppose it’s even a bit meta. The fun was building this story using direction, word play, and the interplay with the book itself.
Me: Cowie is actually a donkey, but he longs to be something he isn’t (i.e., a cow). Is this story of acceptance one that you felt compelled to tell? Or was it simply a matter of playing with two unlike things?
Elizabeth: The “playing with two unlike things” is definitely an approach I like to take in my picture books. Henny is probably the best example of this, and I think these “high concept” story ideas not only attract the interest of kids but also gets them thinking about situations in different ways.
When I write, I don’t intentionally set out to convey any kind of message. At the very least, Cowie is simply a character who is struggling and gets some help from his friends.
That said, there are a couple of bits of “code” in one of the illustrations toward the end of the book, and if anyone were to pick up on it, it could be interpreted as a message or a key, if you will, to an interpretation of the book.
Me: Of all the animals you could’ve chosen for Cowie to be, what drew you to a little donkey? Why not another animal that might be more common on a farm, like a horse?
Elizabeth: My editor did suggest a horse or a sheep and, truth be told, Cowie was originally a cow! When I started to play around with various animals, a donkey just seemed to fit; they certainly are earnest, sweet, hardworking creatures. I think, too, because of characters like A. A. Milne’s Eeyore, they have a reputation for being long-suffering, and in need of friends. Who doesn’t love a donkey?
Me: As you both wrote and illustrated this book, were there unique challenges you weren’t expecting? What was your favorite part of the process: writing or drawing?
Elizabeth: The biggest challenges had to do with the illustrations in that, as you alluded to in your earlier question, Cowie has to face left in order for the story to work. I had to be mindful of the page turns and had to be careful to position the illustrations in ways that wouldn’t slow down the story and would encourage (or, at least, not discourage) those page turns! Also, drawing a donkey in unusual positions— like standing on its head or looking between its legs in fun and convincing ways—was probably one of the harder things to pull off (especially since I don’t work digitally); I spent hours and hours looking at photos of donkeys and horses and sketching them in various poses to get it “right” (pun intended).
Regarding writing or drawing preference (great question!) . . . I always think I like writing better when I’m drawing . . . and drawing better when I’m writing! Truth be told though, I do think of myself as more of a writer first, then an illustrator.
Me: Now that you have published your fourth book, any advice for new picture book writers and/or illustrators?
Elizabeth: I think that, going into it, being aware that this is a tough, competitive (mostly in a good way) business might help. It requires persistence and a great deal of patience. But all the kidlit people I know have a drive and fire in their bellies to keep pushing on and creating.
You have to be committed, and in it for the long haul. There are plenty of ups and downs, but you just have to stick with it.
Me: Any other projects we can look forward to from you in the future?
Elizabeth: I’ve been a bit slowed down lately by a hamstring injury, but thankfully am on the mend. I’ve got a couple of projects that are in the works with my agent. They’re a little different from my “usual” (no farm animals involved 😉 ) Stay tuned!
I’m so sorry that you’re injured Elizabeth, but glad you’re on the mend. I hope you’ll be back on your feet soon!
Dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance yet to read this book, you should track it down. It’s worth a read!