Rx for Writers


September 15, 2005:  "The Power of Books Upon Kids"

with Uri Shulevitz

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Uri Shulevitz is the illustrator of The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, which won the coveted Caldecott Medal in 1969 for the best illustrated children’s book. Uri Shulevitz’s first book was The Moon in My Room, published in 1963 by the legendary Harper & Row Publishers. In working with Harper & Row, Uri Shulevitz’s book was edited by the equally legendary editors, Susan Hirschmann and Ursula Nordstrom. In the years following Harper & Row, Uri Shulevitz found a happy publishing home with his current publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He has published a book for adults about writing picture books, Writing With Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children’s Books.

Mel is Mel Boring, moderator of this interview with Uri Shulevitz, and Web Editor of the ICL Web Site.

Interviews are held every other Thursday evening for two hours, beginning at 9 CANADA/ Atlantic Time, 8 Eastern Time, 7 Central Time, 6 Mountain Time, and 5 Pacific Time.

Mel: I am pleased to present an interview with Uri Shulevitz on this regular Guest Chat Thursday evening. Since this is a prearranged interview, there won’t be the usual chance for you to ask questions here. Uri Shulevitz is a children’s author as well as illustrator. He is most widely known for his illustrations in The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, the 1969 winner of the coveted Caldecott Medal, given annually for the best illustrated book of the year. But Uri Shulevitz has been no one-book wonder. The wonders of his children’s writing and illustrating both predated and postdated his Caldecott winner. His first book, The Moon in My Room, was published in 1963 by Harper & Row, with whom he did his first six books. After that, Uri Shulevitz published books with many other publishers, eventually finding a publishing home with his current publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Mel: A WARM WELCOME to the Chat Room of the Institute of Children’s Literature, Uri Shulevitz! Uri, I know from hearing you speak that your childhood was unique. Could you tell us about your childhood, and if and how at that time you started on your way toward illustrating and writing?

Uri: I was four years old when World War II broke out. We spent the war years in Russia. There I experienced severe hunger. One day my mom managed to find and give me my first book—it was Tyl Ulenspiegel by Charles de Coster, in Russian. As I got lost in the book, I forgot the hunger and misery of the war. That is how I discovered the power a book can have on a kid.

Mel: In your schooling, both as a child and in later education, did you concentrate more on studying writing or studying illustration—or both? Or a different field of study?

Uri: Neither. I changed schools and languages frequently because of the war years. The only constant in my life was my drawing, which I kept up through it all. My orientation was strictly the desire to be a painter some day.

Mel: Was there ever for you "a defining moment," the moment when you decided "I am going to be a children’s writer and illustrator"? And WHY did you want/decide to write and illustrate children’s books for a living?

Uri: I had no idea that my destiny was to do children’s books. It was rather a happy accident. Sometimes life is wiser than we are. When at 24 I saw my first picture book, it was a revelation. I discovered a genre into which I could channel my love of story and drawing, as well as to hopefully make a living.

Mel: What were your earliest experiences with books that you remember?

Uri: As a kid I had no books. The earliest book I saw was Tyl Ulenspiegel when I was well over the picture book age. The second book I saw was a book a friend had—The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in Russian.

Mel: Did you have a favorite children’s illustrator, and a favorite writer, as you were growing up?

Uri: No. In my teens I was an avid reader of French comic books. There was one comic book story I loved: Le Capitaine Fantome, illustrated by Raymond Cazanave. My favorite writer in those days was Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers, whose books I read in French.

Mel: Who are some of your favorite authors and illustrators now?

Uri: I’m a great admirer of the picture books of Ruth Kraus, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, of Arnold Lobel and M.B. Goffstein. Among my favorite illustrators are Grandville Doré, Tenkiel, Frazer, Doyle, Cruikshank, and others.

Mel: How long did it take between the time you started writing and illustrating for children, and the time you were first published? Give us a brief overview of your career please, Uri, your startout, how you progressed through the years; and how many years has your career covered?

Uri: My first book, The Moon in My Room, was published in 1963 by Harper & Row, with whom I did my first six books. I worked these with Susan Hirschmann and Ursula Nordstrom. In the succeeding years I did books for many other publishers, eventually finding a happy home with my current publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Mel: When you write a picture book manuscript now, do you also plan to illustrate it? Of might you sometimes prefer for some other illustrator to illustrate it?

Uri: Yes, I do plan to illustrate it myself.

Mel: If we are successful in selling our FIRST picture book, how much input can we expect to have with the publisher in choosing the illustrator?

Uri: Generally the editor chooses the illustrator, unless you are an author who does both writing and illustrating.

Mel: Have you written books for children in other genres than picture books?

Uri: Yes, I have. My book The Strange and Exciting Adventures of Jeremiah Husk, and my latest book The Travels of Benjamin of Tudela is as well, although my last book is in the picture book format, profusely illustrated, it is not a picture book, and it is for older kids and for adults.

Mel: What do you feel is the toughest part of writing and publishing?

Uri: The toughest part of writing is developing an idea for a book into a finished book with a truly good story.

Mel: Did you write and publish magazine stories or articles when you were getting started?

Uri: I never did magazine stories or articles, except for a couple of short essays. But I did pictures and caricatures for a number of publications.

Mel: If you WROTE a picture book, and another illustrator illustrated it, how worried would you be that the illustrator might not interpret it as you do?

Uri: I don’t know. I’ve never had this experience, because I’ve always illustrated my own stories.

Mel: How do you tell the visual story in a picture book, as well as creating the narrative? How do the two link together?

Uri: My definition of a true picture book in a nutshell is the following: a true picture book separates between the seen and the heard. What you see is in the picture. What you hear is in the words. Therefore, you cannot fully understand a picture book when it is read over the radio, because you only get half the story, whereas the other half is in the pictures.

Mel: What can writers and illustrators do in a picture book to keep kids turning the pages?

Uri: Write good, moving stories. Write from the heart to the heart, not from the brain to the brain.

Mel: Does a writer/illustrator have an edge over "just a writer" in submitting a picture book?

Uri: Not necessarily, if a writer writes great, compelling stories with a personal vision. An editor once told me how hard it is to find good stories, and that editors are always on the lookout for such stories.

Mel: Is it really that much more difficult to break in as an author/illustrator? It's what you always hear, yet there are so many successful examples. Did you meet with extra resistance, or is this nothing more than a myth?

Uri: These days it isn’t easy to break into the field, so I hear. I consider myself lucky that I began my career years ago.

Mel: How can a person who wants to be a children’s illustrator get started?

Uri: I believe by doing great work, the very best you possibly can.

Mel: What would you recommend as the best art school for us to go to if we could move anywhere and afford any school?

Uri: I would go to an art school that has an excellent course in life drawing. One never draws too well, especially the human figure. For illustration one can study great illustrations on one’s own after acquiring a sound foundation in life drawing, or with a book by yours truly, Writing with Pictures, as a supplement, not substitute for the above.

Mel: What is the definition of a storybook, Uri, as compared with a picture book?

Uri: A storybook expresses what is seen and what is heard in words. Therefore, it can be fully understood when read over the radio. Although a picture book and a storybook use a similar format, the pictures in a storybook enhance but don’t necessarily clarify the words. A good example of a storybook is The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which can be understood without the pictures. A good example of a picture book is Where the Wild Things Are or my own One Monday Morning.

Mel: Can you give us the specifics about the STRUCTURE of a picture book, please?

Uri: It would take much more than a short, simple answer to give a satisfactory explanation of the structure of a picture book. It took me an entire book, Writing with Pictures, to answer it adequately.

Mel: Is it more difficult to WRITE a picture book or to ILLUSTRATE it?

Uri: Neither is easy. But illustration may take much longer and requires studio conditions and many art tools that the writing doesn’t require, which can be done anywhere with paper and pencil.

Mel: Do you have a favorite medium or favorite media to use in your illustration?

Uri: In my recent books I’ve used mixed mediums and a mixture of techniques. I combined colored pencils, pen and ink, watercolors, acrylics, etc.

Mel: Do you keep either a writing journal or an idea notebook, or a sketchbook for ideas that come up?

Uri: I keep an idea notebook.

Mel: What do you do of RESEARCH for your children’s books, and how/where do you do it?

Uri: I do a great deal of pictorial research. Some I do at the picture collection of the New York Public Library. The rest, at my own picture file and books.

Mel: Does a story idea trigger the illustrations for you, or do you think illustrations which trigger a story?

Uri: With me, so far, the story has come first.

Mel: Wasn’t there once a very complicated color-separation process used in publishing children’s picture books? Have computers today changed that process?

Uri: Color pre-separation is no longer done, with exceptions. Modern reproduction techniques have replaced that. Now, an artist can make pictures using full colors.

Mel: When you take on someone else’s manuscript (as you did The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship), how do you proceed diferently from your own, from start to finish in illustrating it?

Uri: I don’t differentiate between the two. I don’t illustrate someone else’s story unless I love it and I agree with its implied philosophy—and if so, I treat it as if it were my own story.

Mel: Should we WRITERS submit a dummy with our picture book manuscripts, Uri? What would an ILLUSTRATOR submit with the manuscript of a picture book?

Uri: If a writer writes a picture book directly into a dummy instead of the standard way onto a single sheet, then it would be a good idea to submit it in dummy form. A beginner illustrator should submit a dummy with a manuscript of a picture book.

Mel: Should we children’s writers try to find an illustrator for our picture book manuscripts before submitting them?

Uri: No, let the editor do that.

Mel: Do children’s illustrators simply submit samples of their work to publishers they admire, to be kept on file for possible future assignments?

Uri: Yes, it’s a good idea.

Mel: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, according to some people, "revolutionized" children’s picture books. Do YOU feel that book did, and if so how?

Uri: Where the Wild Things Are is a wonderful, true picture book I greatly admire. I’d leave to picture book historians to decide if and how it revolutionized the genre.

Mel: How did you come to writing your book for adults, Writing With Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children’s Books?

Uri: Writing with Pictures is the kind of book I wished I had when I was starting out and desperately looking for help. But there was no such book. My book was the outgrowth of that desire and the extensive teaching I did, and the need for such a book in my workshops. I also felt there was a need to clarify the difference between a picture book and a storybook. Because there was a need to delve more deeply into the conceptual difference between the two, rather than classifying them both as picture books because of the format resemblance. That distinction has practical implications for creators of picture books.

Mel: Should a picture book have a "message," Uri?

Uri: No, not a message. But one should always be aware of its implied philosophy.

Mel: How can a children’s writer keep from "writing down" to children?

Uri: By writing to your "child within." Write as equal to equal, but in a simple way.

Mel: Does a children’s writer or illustrator need to have children of their own in order to write or illustrate for children?

Uri: No. But your "child within" must be alive.

Mel: Tell us if you will, how it was you were notified about The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship being the winner of the 1969 Caldecott Medal, and what were your FEELINGS upon winning the Caldecott?

Uri: I was notified by an unexpected phone call one morning. My first reaction was disbelief, which lasted for some time, followed by delight mixed with disbelief.

Mel: Go back to the time you won the Caldecott Medal in 1969 and describe for us how the picture book market has changed since then?

Uri: When I began, children’s books wasn’t the big business it has become. Then, books were at times somewhat awkward technically, but they had feeling. Now, they’re more skillful but often slick, clever, lacking feeling. Then, books were a bit shy. Now, they’re shouting: Look at me! Buy me!

Mel: If you could only use ONE word, what would be your most important advice to a children’s writer?

Uri: Write from the heart.

Mel: What are your thoughts and feelings about anthropomorphism in picture books? Is using animal characters a good idea for a first-time writer?

Uri: It all depends on how good the story is.

Mel: THANK YOU so MUCH for the interview, Uri Shulevitz! Our chatsters really appreciate it. Goodnight, everyCHILDREN'Swriter!


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