David Ezra Stein's BECAUSE AMELIA SMILED
Today I have the great pleasure of talking to David Ezra Stein about his newest title BECAUSE AMELIA SMILED. David's name may sound familiar because of his picture book INTERRUPTING CHICKEN, which won a 2011 Caldecott Honor and was a New York Times best-seller - woosie! Or maybe you're a fan of David's debut picture book - the awesome COWBOY NED & ANDY - or his many books since then. Let's get a peek into his brilliance...
Q. It's hard to believe you've only been in this business since 2006 with the release of COWBOY NED & ANDY. Obviously this was the right career choice for you! Do you mind sharing your path into children's books?
A. Sure! I was always a bookish kid, and adored picture books. I’ve written for myself and drawn for fun my whole life. I ended up going to art school for college. I was essentially training to be an editorial illustrator (magazines, posters, etc.). By sheer chance, in senior year, I chose an elective in children’s book illustration. I brought in a story that I had written that summer. You may have heard of it: It was called Because Amelia Smiled!
My teacher, Pat Cummings, pulled me aside and said she loved the story and did I want her to try to sell it to an editor. I said yes. A few days later an editor emailed me. I met with her and it all went great. Except, when I presented the collages I had created in class to illustrate the story, she said they weren’t really working. I went home and tried, and tried, and tried, to find a new way of working. But it wasn’t to be. I was still finding my voice as an artist, and that could not be rushed. After 5 or 6 visits to the publisher, the deal fell through.
I put the story aside. But for the next 4 years or so, I kept at it. I wrote stories every day. I drew every day. I painted. I got other illustration work. I did puppetry in Central Park. I did set-design illustration. Finally in 2005, I sold my first book, Cowboy Ned & Andy, to Simon & Schuster. I sat down with an old brush and a pot of ink and went to town drawing the pictures, freehand and without a sketch underneath. It was loose and gestural. It was fun! I had found a voice for my artwork. In the next 6 years, I’ve come out with 8 other books. They all have my “hand” in them, but they each use a style that suits the story. To me, story is still king. And my latest book, my ninth, is Because Amelia Smiled. After all those years, I was finally ready to tell such a huge story!
Q. Rather than ask you where your ideas come from, I wonder if you have the same problem I do - that you have more stories in your head than you could ever get on paper? Do they start as seeds or come in as full-blown ideas?
A. Oh, I have all sorts of stories and ideas in my notebooks and sketchbooks. Every day brings new ideas. I try to live in a river of life, so that ideas will practically wash up onto my feet. Some ideas are just a tiny spark. Some are a pretty good fire. Sometimes it all comes at once. Sometimes I just have a character waiting for a story to be in.
Q. Which comes first for you, the writing or the illustrations? A. Usually the idea—the situation that I think is funny or interesting—comes first. Then I find out who the best character is to “star” in the story. Sometimes the image comes first, as with my book Monster Hug! (which basically started as a picture of Godzilla hugging King Kong), but usually the writing does.
Q. BECAUSE AMELIA SMILED is so densely beautiful - with tons of details to keep young readers glued for hours. What is your medium and how do you attack a spread with so much going on? (And how long does it take you?)
A. Thank you! I love the way it came out. (After all that time, it should be nice, right?) I invented a technique I call Stein-lining to create the art in the book. You can watch videos of it on youtube or other places online. Just search for Stein-lining. I apply crayon to special, smooth paper and then press on the back with a pen to make colored lines. This creates a very interesting, crackly line that looks like an etching. I used this technique over patches of soft color that I created with blurred crayon.
I tried many, many approaches before I discovered this one. I was playing with art techniques for about a month and a half before I began to illustrate the book. Each spread took about a week to paint. I started with thumbnail sketches, then larger ones. I did color sketches using marker, too. Then I went ahead with my watercolor paper and crayons. There are 40 pages in the book, plus covers and jacket flaps. It all took about 5 or 6 months to complete. My next book, Ol’ Mama Squirrel, coming in the spring, is a lot simpler, believe me!
Q. One of my favorite things about BECAUSE AMELIA SMILED is all the different countries and cultures you include in the story. Did you have a driving reason for this?
A. Definitely. I wanted to show how we are connected to so many people we’ll never even meet. What each of us does, really does matter. Believe it or not I had even more places in the story originally. Alas I had to cut some out. But that doesn’t mean your smile won’t go there.
I loved drawing the people, architecture, and fashions of the different places. And when you read it, it’s like taking a vacation without leaving the library! A lot of these places are places I’ve been. Some are places I’d like to visit someday.
Q. The characters in your stories are so vivid. Are they adaptations of people in your life?
A. Thank you! I bet they are, although I don’t consciously mean them to be. They are all partly me, and partly people I know best. Everyday life is what feeds an author.
Q. It seems ironic that your middle name is Ezra - especially considering your recent Ezra Jack Keats Award for LEAVES! Is it pure coincidence?
A. Just a coincidence. I wasn’t named after Ezra Jack Keats. I wish I had been. I love his work!
Q. I wonder what a regular day in the children's book biz looks like for you, and are you booked up for a long time to come? (Hope so - we can't wait to see more of your work!)
A. Every day, I do some writing, some drawing, some doodling, some scheming, some dreaming. Sometimes I write haikus. I’ve been working on three books in a row this year, so every day I do some character design, painting, or whatever I need to do for the books.
I also make sure to spend time with my family (I have a son who’s three). And I go running in the woods. That’s where I get lots of great ideas.
And yes, I am “booked” for a good while. Look for Ol’ Mama Squirrel and Dinosaur Kisses next year! They are both really funny.
Thanks for stopping by! e
Check out this adorable book trailer:
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