An interview with Sylvia Long

Our apologies to Kris Bordessa, who conducted this interview with Sylvia Long several weeks ago. It fell through the cracks, for which we’re mortally ashamed.

Egg An Egg is Quiet, written by Dianna Aston and illustrated by Sylvia Long took top honors for the children’s non-fiction book. The Cybil judges showered praise ("lovely!" "breathtaking!") on this title. With gentle text that flows seamlessly through images of eggs and their various hatchlings, the author and illustrator share the miracle of different kinds of eggs. The book truly is a work of art and reminiscent of a 19th century field guide. In addition to birds’ eggs, readers get a glimpse of eggs that will eventually hatch into salmon, butterflies, crickets, and sharks.

This is a picture book worthy of a snuggly nighttime read, but it could also conceivably be a young child’s first guidebook.

Illustrator Sylvia Long was kind enough to answer some questions about her life as an artist and the book itself:

Kris: Quick! Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Sylvia: I’m one of five children. I was a shy kid and since I was little, loved to draw and paint. I went to Maryland Institute of Art in Baltimore on a four-year scholarship. I have two boys, Matthew and John, and recently a grand-daughter, Sophie Grace Long.

Kris: Most people don’t know that in the publishing world, the story often comes before the illustrations, and the illustrator is usually assigned by the publisher. Tell us how you came to be the illustrator for An Egg is Quiet. Did you collaborate with Diana, or was this project the result of book publishing serendipity?

Sylvia: My editor at Chronicle Books in San Francisco, Victoria Rock, knew I’m very interested in all things in nature, but particularly birds. When Dianna Aston sent her manuscript, An Egg is Quiet, to Chronicle, Victoria liked it and knew immediately that I’d like it, too.

Kris: Why do you think it is important for today’s children to be exposed to the beauty of nature through books such as this?

Sylvia: More and more, it seems that children’s education takes place only in the classroom, online, or on TV.  To get excited about nature, they have to be out In it — with someone who has passion for it, and knowledge about it.  Once they start to look, they’ll see how amazing it is.

Kris: The artwork in An Egg is Quiet (and in the newly released A Seed is Sleepy) is gorgeous. What inspires you to create your artwork?

Sylvia: Doing the research about all the kinds of eggs and seeds. I love taking walks in all sorts of places, picking up seeds, rocks, feathers, bleached animal bones, snake sheds, shells, etc. I take lots of pictures, too.

Kris: The illustrations in both books were rendered in ink and watercolor. Can you explain that process? Which comes first?

Sylvia: I start with a simple pencil sketch, then enlarge it to full size, add more detail and make sure there’s room for text. Then I transfer the sketch to good watercolor paper (in light pencil), prior to doing the ink drawing. Watercolor is the last step.

Kris: In An Egg is Quiet, you have a double-page spread that shows various eggs. I’m curious. Is that a single painting, or was each egg rendered on a separate piece of paper and then combined during layout?

Sylvia: All those eggs are on one painting, but we decided on a different placement, so the book page is different than the original art.

Kris: Who had the idea to include the ruler at the top of the "different sizes" page in An Egg is Quiet?

Sylvia: The very fine art director at Chronicle Books — Sara Gillingham.

Kris: Do you make many mistakes as you are painting? Eggs are pretty symmetrical; how do you get them to look just right?

Sylvia: Luckily, I make almost all my mistakes during the early stages. I erase A Lot when doing the pencil sketches. Once I put the drawing on good paper, erasing ruins the surface, making watercolor look nasty.

Kris: Do you ever feel frustrated and just have to take a break?

Sylvia: Only when I’m stressed because of a deadline. Most of the time, I love what I’m doing and it’s a pleasure.

Kris: How long did it take you to create all of the artwork for this book? From the time your artwork was complete, how long did you have to wait for the finished book?

Sylvia:  It took close to a year to complete all the research, and then the paintings for each book.  Generally it takes a publisher a year beyond that to do their part, but I think Chronicle Books managed it in less time, since the Art Director was able to start designing prior to completion of all the artwork.

Kris: Will you be doing another book in this wonderful series?

Sylvia: Yes! Hopefully many.

Kris: Do you have any other children’s books in the works? Can you tell us anything about them?

Sylvia: I have a book coming out Spring of ’08 with Northland Publishing’s Rising Moon called Because you are my Baby, by Jennifer Ward.  I’m also working on two long books with Chronicle Books.

Kris: What do you want readers to come away with after reading these books?

Sylvia: I hope they’ll be excited and curious to learn more about eggs and seeds, but mostly I want them to Pay Attention when they’re out in nature. Once they focus, they’ll see that it’s So Amazing. You can see from all the capitalization that I’m very passionate about discovering new things in the natural world, and enjoying the things I already know.

Kris: Where did you learn how to draw and paint?

Sylvia: I’ve done it since I was little, but my formal education was Maryland Institute of Art in Baltimore where I earned a B.F.A.

Kris: When did you decide that you wanted to write/illustrate children’s books?

Sylvia: I did my first book with a friend, just for fun. When it was published by Chronicle Books, they were so pleased that they asked me what I wanted to illustrate Next.  That’s how it all started.      

It didn’t hurt that that first book — Ten Little Rabbits — got best picture book of the year in 1991 from the International Reading Association.

Kris: What advice do you have for kids who would like to learn to illustrate items from nature?

Sylvia: Do what you love. Spend time outdoors. Sketch A Lot! It does take practice.

Kris: What has been the most memorable experience in your illustrating career?

Sylvia: Getting the letter from Chronicle Books that they wanted to publish Ten Little Rabbits. I went hollering and leaping down the street to tell a friend. That was a real high point for me.

Kris: What was the book you most loved as a child?

Sylvia: I loved all of A.A. Milne’s books — Winnie the Pooh, House at Pooh Corner, When We Were Very Young.  Also Wind in the Willows, Charlotte’s Web and Anne of Green Gables a bit later on.

Kris: What would you say is the most fulfilling part about being a children’s book illustrator?

Sylvia: The thought that somewhere ‘out there’ a child will go to their bookshelf and pull out one of ‘my’ books, crawl up in their parent’s or grandparent’s lap and settle in for that close, comforting time, sharing a story.  I get letters from moms who say they sing my version of Hush Little Baby to their children … and even better when the child learns the words, too. That’s the good stuff.

Kris: Tell us about your first published book and the path to publication.

Sylvia: I got lucky.