A Q&A with Steve Jenkins

Eisha here. Around here we’ve started referring to Steve Jenkins as "Mr. Cybils." His name crops up on three of our shortlisted titles: as illustrator of Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre (Non-fiction Picture Book) and of Animal Poems by Valerie Worth (Poetry), and as author/illustrator of Living Color (Non-fiction Picture Book).

But Mr. Jenkins is no stranger to accolades. Since he leapt onto the children’s book scene in 1995 with Biggest, Strongest, Fastest, he’s garnered just about every award an illustrator and children’s book author can get. His books frequently turn up on Best-Of lists; and he was the recipient of a Caldecott Honor in 2004 for What Do You Do with a Tail Like This?, authored by his wife and frequent collaborator Robin Page.

His distinctive cut-paper collage illustrations are the perfect medium for his child-friendly texts, which often depict animals and other aspects of the natural world.

We asked Jules, our Picture Books Organizer, to act as our virtual ambassador and ask him a few questions about his uber-talented self. Below are excerpts from their interview:

Children’s book author Jon Scieszka talks through his Guys Read effort about how teachers and librarians can sometimes be dismissive of non-fiction. Do you have any thoughts on that?

In my experience teachers and librarians have not been dismissive of non-fiction, though that may be because I’m usually interacting with a self-selected group of non-fiction fans. In fact, that’s so obvious I don’t know why I never thought of it before …

I agree with Jon. I think there are several things going on. Many early education professionals come from a language arts or ‘soft’ science background, such as sociology (I’m not using ‘soft’ in a negative way), rather than from a ‘hard’ science (physics, chemistry, biology) curriculum. Reading and analyzing fiction is an integral part of most teachers’ education.

I also think fiction and non-fiction elicit different kinds of passion in readers. The themes of fiction — love, fear, adventure, triumph over adversity — are universal. Read aloud, the exploits of Lily or Despereaux can’t fail to captivate a room full of kids.

The pleasures of non-fiction are more subtle. Few readers laugh out loud or cry as they learn about the extraordinary abilities of the jumping spider or how the continents have drifted about.

And not all children are interested in the same non-fiction subjects. Some are fascinated by astronomy, others by geology or zoology. Unless a child has expressed interest in a specific subject, I think it’s much harder for a librarian to suggest a sure-fire non-fiction book.

More: there’s a canon of great children’s fiction. Awards, best-of lists, reviews, and blogs focus disproportionately on fiction. And there’s the shelf-life problem. Charlotte’s Web and My Father’s Dragon (two of our family’s favorites) have lost none of their appeal after more than 50 years. Almost any geology, astronomy, or biology book of that age will be hopelessly out of date in many important respects. Finally (whew), though I hate to say it, I think the bar is higher for children’s fiction. Too many non-fiction books are just collections of facts presented without context or passion.

But we shouldn’t let a few little things like that stand in the way of turning kids on to the world of non-fiction books. I’m serious. But I understand why it’s not always easy.

Vulture View
by April Pulley Sayre was nominated for the Cybils in the same category as Living Color. Tell us briefly the pros and cons, if any, of illustrating someone else’s text as opposed to writing your own or working with Robin. What is the collaboration process like when working with other authors?

I did correspond a few times with April as I worked on Vulture View, but that was really more the exception than the rule. Typically I get a manuscript that’s already been through at least a first edit. Editors control the process pretty tightly. Not that an editor has ever suggested that I don’t speak to an author, but in my experience it’s been clear that the editor (and art director) are the people who must be pleased.

They may show an author work in progress, but I’ve never had an author contact me directly with a request to change anything. Occasionally, I’ve asked for a small change in the text that allows me to solve a design or illustration problem. It’s curious, really.

I understand why the system is set up this way, but coming from the world of design, which is a very collaborative discipline, it has always seemed like a bit of a lost opportunity. I think that’s one reason I enjoy the books that Robin and I do together so much.

It is easier, in a way, to illustrate another author’s book, because I don’t have to keep questioning whether the text is okay or the concept presented clearly enough. Or if the whole idea even makes sense. I don’t think, however, that I’d illustrate a book by another author unless I thought it worked. Ultimately, the most satisfying books are the ones I write (or write with Robin) and illustrate.

Have you ever, by chance, wanted to break away from paper collages and try something like, say, oil paints?

I did a lot of drawing, painting, printmaking, and photography before I got to collage. I would like to draw more — maybe even paint — but just for myself, not for publication. I honestly don’t think I have much to offer the world in those media. There are so many people who do it so well…

Anne (at Book Buds), Cybils Co-Founder and Editor, has this to contribute: “Okay, this is process porn: how do you put one of your sublime illustrations together? Do you start with a sketch or photograph? How do you choose which papers to use, how to get the right shapes and effects … walk me through the whole thing. I like to live vicariously.”

Sure… let’s assume we’re talking about a portrait of an animal. I begin with a very rough ‘thumbnail’ sketch – usually a lot of them — exploring the reader’s point of view, how the subject will fit on a page, and where text might go. If it’s a book I’m doing with Robin, she often does these early studies. The next step is to find reference images. I collect photos and illustrations of my animal in books (we have a pretty big library of natural history books, and we’re always adding to it), on the internet, or in photos that I’ve taken at zoos or museums. Robin does most of this if the book is a collaboration.

From these reference images (typically a dozen or so) I’ll make my own composite sketch. I find it’s important not to trace, but to draw freehand. The little (or not so little) distortions that creep in give the drawing a kind of energy that a tracing never seems to achieve. Once I have a sketch I like, I redraw it (it’s OK to trace my own sketch), making decisions about where the edges of different sheets of paper will be.

Shading doesn’t work—-I have to commit to a definite line, since I’ll be cutting a sheet of paper. As I work on this drawing, I’m looking at my papers (organized by color in a big flat file) and deciding what colors and patterns I want to use. There is often an element of surprise at this point.

I rarely know ahead of time what paper I’m going to use for a particular creature, and I may find a paper works in some unexpected way to evoke fur, feathers, skin, or whatever. When my outline drawing is complete and I’ve picked out the papers with which I want to work, I photocopy the drawing a number of times. These copies will be my patterns for cutting out each individual piece of paper for the illustration.

I use a two-sided adhesive film, removing a protective covering from one side and adhering it to the back of my color paper. Cutting through the Xerox and the color paper at the same time with an exacto knife gives me a color-paper shape that I’ll stick down on a board or color background. Of course, I have to work from the bottom up.

Some small, simple shapes-–eyeballs and the like—-can be cut freehand, without a guide. The adhesive is not repositionable, so I have to be confident about what I’m sticking down and where it’s going. Some illustrations come together beautifully. Others I may do several times before I get them right.

Here’s Kelly’s interview question: "How do you manage the translucent effect with the jellyfish (vellum?) and the furry effect in other places? Do you make your own papers? How does the printmaking/photographing process work to so effectively make an object dimensional (unless, of course, they’re digital all the way and just that convincing?”

The translucency comes from the papers themselves. I have many beautiful Japanese rice papers (that jellyfish is made of one). The furry effect comes from tearing rather than cutting, and produces different effects with different papers. Tearing is a trial and error process, not always easy to control.

I don’t make my own papers, though recently Robin taught me how to make paste papers and I’ve been experimenting with that. It’s about painting the surface rather than actually working with pulp to make a sheet of paper. The birds’ wings in Vulture View are done with some of the paste papers we made.

Little Willow (at Bildungsroman), the Cybils ’08 YA Coordinator wants to know: What intrigues you personally that you’ve yet to make a book topic?

I’ve got a list. Some could easily be children’s books, others would present quite a challenge:

The relationship of scale and form in the natural world. For example, strength increases as the square (cross-sectional area) of linear dimension, but volume (weight) increases as the cube. This has all kinds of implications for animals and the way they live.

Parasites. They’ve evolved extraordinary ways of manipulating their hosts (including humans) to get what they want.

Microfauna. There is an incredible, savage world in our backyards, filled with terrifying predators, venomous creatures, gentle herbivores, and more. Most are too small to see with the naked eye.

Prehistoric mammalian megafauna, those neglected creatures that came after the dinosaurs and before recorded human history. I just read about one just today—-a ‘guinea pig’ the size of a bull. It lived in South America.

The nature of consciousness.

How the world might end.

Can you tell us about any new titles/projects you might be working on now?

A book about the ocean—-mostly the deep ocean.

A book about time. Not timekeeping, but our subjective sense of time.

A book about dangerous animals that, at first blush, don’t seem so scary.

What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

I loved a book called All About Strange Beasts of the Past, by Roy Chapman Andrews. It’s about the author’s search for fossils in Mongolia. I liked Kipling — The Jungle Book was one of my favorites. I went through a tall tales phase (maybe the 5th grade?): Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, those guys. In middle school I was a science fiction fan — Ray Bradbury, Andre Norton, Robert Heinlein. Around this time I also read everything I could find about the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Armenian genocide and various other sad chapters in human history. I’m not sure why — I was a happy child.

Illustration from Living Color thanks to Jules. Check out more beautiful stuff here, and read the full interview at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast this coming Monday.