Today I get to interview an author-illustrator I’ve been looking forward to sharing with you. And TODAY is her birthday! NOT her book birthday, but her actual birthday!
Barbara McClintock is a very talented author illustrator who is also very warm and giving. I had the pleasure of meeting her last summer on a work trip to Connecticut. I loved hearing her talk about her work on her picture book “Vroom!” I was even more astonished to hear about her phone call to Maurice Sendak (he was in the phone book!) for advice on how to become an illustrator when she was just starting out. She has written and illustrated MANY award winning books since then. You can learn more about her at her website.
Her latest book “Three Little Kittens” is a revision of the Mother Goose rhyme most of us have heard before. BUT there are a few modern twists (in text AND in illustrations) that I absolutely loved. These are three kittens that you will absolutely love!
Welcome to my blog Barbara and HAPPY birthday!
Me: Can you tell us a little bit about your artistic journey? When did you start drawing and/or painting? How did that lead to where you are now as an illustrator?
Barbara: I’ve been drawing ever since I was little. My very first memory is of lying on my stomach on the kitchen floor, a crayon in each hand, drawing big loopy circles, like a long slinky on a piece of paper. And if there wasn’t paper, I still drew – on walls, floors, the inside of kitchen cabinet doors, even on the bottoms of pots and pans!
Mom gave me stacks of paper and crayons to use while I watched cartoons on Saturday mornings. I loved to draw along as the characters from my favorite tv shows acted out their parts. That gave me great groundwork for pacing out storyboards and dummies for my books later in life.
Even as a very young child, I made narrative drawings – everything danced and moved and had a personality – even musical instruments! I was a natural born illustrator. My first books that I created were comic books, the perfect combination of my two favorite things – drawing and making up stories!
When I was seven, I asked my older sister what kind of artist I should be when I grew up. She said “A children’s book illustrator, of course!” I followed her excellent advice!
Me: From what I remember you saying last summer at your Confratute appearance, I understand your illustration methods have changed a little bit in recent years. Can you tell us about that? What does your illustration process look like now?
Barbara: I really love the artwork of 18th and 19th century artists and illustrators. My earlier work is very inspired by those long ago artists, and the steel engravings techniques that were used to reproduce their artwork. I used a dip pen and bottled ink to create the lines in my drawings, and watercolors on watercolor paper, much as someone would have created drawings 150 years ago.
But about 5 years ago, my editor Simon Boughton at Farrar, Straus, & Giroux encouraged me to try using a bold line and brighter color. I studied Japanese and Chinese brush paintings and prints, and was very excited about the quality of the fluid linework and bright clean colors in the artwork from those sources.
I’m not very comfortable handling a brush. But I discovered that I love working with brush tip markers. When I created the artwork for THE FIVE FORMS, I used markers and watercolors. I love the bold broad line and bright colors in that book!
Me: You seem quite able to adapt and change mediums or styles as needed for each book. Your “Adèle and Simon” series is very different from “The Five Forms” or “Vroom!” Your style in “Three Little Kittens” feels new to me as well. Why did you choose the illustration approach that you did for this latest book? Do you find it necessary to change with each story?
Barbara: I used the same style for the first three decades of my career. But over the last ten years, I’ve been inching towards trying new things.
MARY AND THE MOUSE, THE MOUSE AND MARY was a story set in modern times, and I used a bit less cross hatch in the illustrations for that book, in keeping with what more contemporary illustrators were doing in their work. The sequel WHERE’S MOMMY was set in today, and I used even less cross hatch. THE FIVE FORMS was the first book where I moved into using a truly different style and mediums.
One of the privileges of getting older is that I’m more at ease with myself, more confident, and more willing to take risks and try new things. Maurice Sendak felt that using the same style for every book was in effect making the same book over and over again. I’ve been going back to my very early childhood drawings and the cartoons and comics that inspired me long ago. I’m tapping into that early energy and vibrancy.
Each manuscript has a different tone and voice that needs to be honored and given a visual translation that best reflects and supports the writing.. It’s really fun finding the right stylistic approach to each new manuscript, and moving out of my comfort zone.
Me: I love that! I hope I can be more at ease with myself one day too! I love this modernization of “Three Little Kittens.” You have several retellings or re-envisionings in your oeuvre: Cinderella, Aesop, The Gingerbread Man, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, etc.. Are they something you’re drawn to? Why did you want to revisit this particular poem?
Barbara: THE THREE LITTLE KITTENS was a nursery rhyme I loved as a child. I loved anything with kittens and cats! And who can resist anything to do with eating pie?
Me: Ha! I love cats too! What is one thing that surprised you in writing and/or illustrating this story?
Barbara: I’ve always been puzzled by the sudden appearance of the rat or mouse at the end of the traditional Three Little Kittens nursery rhyme. That dangling character entrance is totally open to interpretation. We can assume the kitties chase after the rat/mouse in normal kitty fashion. But what if something else happened? I played around with ideas about the ending by turning the typical cat response on it’s ear – could the cat/mouse confrontation be turned into a response of compassion for someone who is not like yourself? My editor Dianne Hess and I were talking about how to make the transition from initial cat/mouse encounter to their all sitting around the table eating pie. Dianne suddenly pointed to the mouse, and said “ The mouse should just say the obvious thing -‘I’m hungry’.” And that simple truth turns everything around.
Me: What a wonderful way to approach that character! Any advice for other aspiring picture book writers and/or illustrators?
Barbara: Yes! Write or draw every day! Don’t get hung up on whether what you draw and or write is good or bad. Just do it.
The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is an amazing resource for people interested in how to write and illustrate everything from picture books to graphic and YA novels. There’s helpful advice for getting started with a project, how to get something published, find an agent, all kinds of good stuff.
Go directly to the scbwi.org website and join!
Me: I wholeheartedly agree! Speaking of retellings, I have to ask: do you have a favorite fairy tale that you’re drawn to over and over as a reader or when you were a child? Is there one that you haven’t already retold but would love the opportunity to do so at some point in the future?
Barbara: I loved The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson. The brave little girl who faced great dangers to rescue her friend was an inspiration to me – I didn’t have a friend who needed rescuing from a sinister queen, but that girl’s courage driven by love is a theme that is still deeply appealing to me. Maybe someday, when the time is right, I’d like to illustrate that story.
Wow! I’ve never thought of that story quite like that before. I’d LOVE to see you write and illustrate that version of the story.
Dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance to read this book yet, I highly recommend that you track down a copy and read it. Even Barbara’s cats love it!