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The Caldecott Honor Book winner gives a glimpse into her writing and illustrative processes and the benefit of dynamic reading experiences.
The artwork of Carson Ellis has graced the pages of picture books by the likes of Deborah Hopkinson (Stagecoach Sal, 2009) and Lemony Snicket (The Composer Is Dead, 2009), as well as middle-grade novels, including The Mysterious Benedict Society (2007), by Trenton Lee Stewart, and the Wildwood Chronicles, by her husband, Colin Meloy, for whose band, The Decemberists, she’s also lent her considerable illustrative talents. Her recognizable folk art–style and fondness for hand-lettering are rendered through a combination of pencil, pen, ink, and gouache—and always imbued with an abundance of charming detail, sly humor, and a keen sense of wonder.
Ellis is also the author and illustrator of two picture books, both of which are deceptively simple, offering young readers and prereaders rich concepts to ponder and get their imaginations firing. In Home (2015), a Booklist Editor’s Choice title, readers are encouraged to think about what home means by examining the dwellings of people around the world and in fictional settings, before being asked to describe their own homes.
Her newest book, Du Iz Tak? (2016), was named a Caldecott Honor Book, and its creative use of language and whimsical illustrations are guaranteed to delight audiences of any age. In this story, a few bugs discover a green shoot sprouting from the ground and express their excitement and curiosity through their own invented language. Her detailed artwork invites close inspection and reveals the gradual changing of the seasons and marvels contained in nature, while demonstrating the mechanics of language.
Both Home and Du Iz Tak? work across disciplines, offering opportunities to engage in creative storytelling, reflect on where words get their meanings, and foster awareness of the world, whether in nature or different cultures. We recently caught up with Ellis, who shared insight into her work and artistic process.
You’ve worked with a number of authors on picture books and chapter books. Is your process during a collaboration very different fromwhen you are a book’s sole creator?
ELLIS: Yes, it is. All the books I’ve worked on have been so different. In terms of the books I wrote myself, the art felt like it was part of the writing process;the words and the imagery were inseparable from conception. Whereas when I’ve illustrated a book that someone else has written, it feels like a different job. I’m figuring out ways to expand on and enhance
There is a strong folk art influence in your illustrations. What draws you to this style?
the story with art. Sometimes the illustrations and the words become interdependent, but not always, and never in the case of novels I’ve illustrated, which tell basically the same story with or without the pictures. There are so many more things to take into account when you’re illustrating a picture book, because the art plays a bigger role. It can be like a puzzle to make it all work together.
ELLIS: I love folk art, especially when it’s made by people who have developed their own way of working through hours and hours of practice without instruction and somewhat in cultural isolation: art that’s made by skilled people who are amazing at a form of expression that they invented. There’s something mystical about that—just how pure that self-expression is. It feels closely related to the art we make when we’re little. Kids draw with abandon but also often with intense focus. Most grown-ups wouldn’t allow themselves to focus that intensely on anything creative unless they were certain they were pretty good at it. But kids don’t care and that’s magical. I’m not a kid anymore, and technically, I’ll never be a folk artist. I grew up in a family that knows a lot about art, and I went to college, so I understand the context that I’m making art in, and I know what I’m referencing when I make it. But I do try to push that knowledge to the back of my mind when I’m drawing so I can stay in touch with whatever impulse drew me to art from the beginning.
is a beautiful book that revolves around such a simple concept, yet it invites children to think broadly and creatively with its questions of who? and why? Was this a deliberate choice on your part
ELLIS: Yes! I want to encourage kids to use their imaginations when they’re looking at a book, whenever I can. And I want to encourage reading experiences that are social and create dialogues. I want reading with kids to be a dynamic experience.
Du Iz Tak?
, did you always plan to have the bugs speak in their own language?
ELLIS: The invented language came after the initial idea, but right after. I conceived the story and the mechanics of the book while I was lying in bed with my son, waiting for him to fall asleep. I liked the idea a lot, but it felt kind of static. Then I remembered my two kids watching Pingu together earlier that day (a show about a penguin who also speaks in an invented language) and how, despite a seven-year age difference, they both loved it. The funny gibberish penguin language makes it feel like everyone is in on the joke and nobody is left out, which is a nice feeling. I realized that’s what the book was missing and leapt out of bed to type up the manuscript.
Was the bugs’ language difficult to create?
ELLIS: The language wasn’t hard to develop. I wanted it to be somewhat translatable, so I spent a lot of time figuring out how to repeat words and pair them with imagery to make their meanings intuitive—that was the hard part. But coming up with the words and forming them into sentences was pretty easy. They follow a very simple sentence structure based on the English language.
An amazing amount of storytelling happens within the book’s illustrations. What do you hope readers will observe?
ELLIS: I really wanted to make a book that could be read in lots of different ways by lots of different people. I hope that readers who love language will try to translate the dialogue. I hope that readers who are more visually minded will pore over the illustrations, tracing the subplots of lesser characters or speculating about the home in the log and what else might be in there. I hope very little readers will love to pick out the things they recognize from the world around them. I hope gardening readers will see that this is an ode to plants, from a fellow gardener.
Similarly, a surprising number of lessons can be drawn from this story, from the power of curiosity and teamwork to the meaning of language and words to the cycle of the seasons and wonder of nature. Did you set out to tackle these topics, or did you follow the characters’ lead?
ELLIS: I didn’t really set out to tackle any of these; the book just unfolded that way. The one thing I did have in mind—maybe not consciously from the get-go, but all the while I was working on it—was that I wanted the book to be a little like the experience of going outside and looking around you. All my life, I’ve loved to sit in a quiet place in the woods or in a garden and wait for the natural world to come alive around me. The more quiet and patient you are and the closer you look, the more you’ll see and hear: birds singing, beetles scrambling around, a spider spinning a web. I wanted this book to feel a little bit like that and to, in turn, encourage kids to go outside and seek out the microcosmic worlds that can be found in any yard or park.
Du Iz Tak?
have an interactive quality to them. Do you think this is an important part of storytelling? Is this something you’ve appreciated in other books you’ve read?
ELLIS: Yes, absolutely! I love picture books that create dynamic reading experiences. Richard Scarry was a master of this, of course, with books like Cars and Trucks and Things That Go (1976) that asked specific questions of the reader. Julie Morstad’s book Today (2016) also does this beautifully, as does A World of Your Own (2014), by Laura Carlin. I also love Ruth Krauss’ collaborations with Maurice Sendak (e.g., A Hole Is to Dig, 1952), because they’re so weird and open to interpretation that kids tend to get really involved in the reading of them.
The Composer Is Dead. By Lemony Snicket. 2009. Harper, $17.99 (9780061236273). K–Gr. 3.
Du Iz Tak? 2016. Candlewick, $16.99 (9780763665302). PreS–Gr. 2.
Home. 2015. Candlewick, $16.99 (9780763665296). PreS–Gr. 2.
The Mysterious Benedict Society. By Trenton Lee Stewart. 2007. Little, Brown/Megan Tingley, $16.99 (9780316057776). Gr. 4–7.
Stagecoach Sal. By Deborah Hopkinson. 2009. Hyperion, o.p. PreS–K.
Wildwood. By Colin Meloy. 2011. HarperCollins/Balzer+Bray, $16.99 (9780062024688). Gr. 4–8.
Julia Smith is a Books for Youth Associate Editor at Booklist.
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