A Conversation with
Kate Messner & Christopher Silas Neal
KATE: So...it’s confession time here. I love the art in all of the books in this series, Chris. I was enchanted by the wintry world you painted in Over and Under the Snow and adored the coziness of all the garden residents in Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt. But there’s something about Over and Under the Pond that makes it my unofficial favorite when it comes to your art.
I love the palette and the perspectives in this one so much, so I’d love to hear a bit about how you approached creating the art for this book when you first received the finished manuscript.
CHRIS: Hearing this makes me so happy. Thank you. It’s my favorite of the series, too. Over and Under the Snow was my first experience making a picture book, and it will forever hold a cozy corner in my heart. I made a lot of growth as an artist and picture book maker with the following Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt. But Over and Under the Pond just came together seamlessly. I had been wanting to work with a water-based environment for a while and when I first heard you were writing about a pond, I immediately conjured up colors and textures that I thought would fit the mood and setting. What excites me most are very specific details like drawing reeds and pebbles and wavy lines. I let those initial thoughts sit in my subconscious until I received your final manuscript many months later. With those bits of tiny details and inspiration in mind, I worked outward into the narrative. Since the basic design and pace had already been established, the first round of sketches for this book were just about trying to block out the basic story and pagination.
From there, I try to reach beyond what’s expected. I definitely felt more comfortable working with dimension and visual perspective than I did nearly 10 years ago working on Over and Under the Snow. Though the art in this book is still deceptively flat; I try to squeeze a lot out of the one or two visual tricks that I know.
How was it for you working on the third book in this series? All three books have a similar pace and in each story, we find similar moments, yet each book feels unique. The mood and words in Over and Under the Snow are so perfectly snowy and poetic. Over and Under the Pond feels connected to the other books, but with its own distinct character and rhythm. Was it a challenge to stay fresh and not force the story into the existing framework of the other books?
KATE: I love hearing about your process, especially since one of the things I love most about the art in this book is the sense of movement and stillness - the ripple of the waves and the sense of the wind, compared with that quiet at the end of the story. I felt that way about SNOW and GARDEN, too - that the colors created such strong but quiet feelings in the story.
I’ve loved working on this series. For me, the joy of a series is that young readers come with an expectation of meeting an old friend - not in the characters, in this case, since each book features a different family - but in the structure and sense of discovery. I began my work on this book with a list of the animals that live in the ecosystem we’d chosen to explore. I wrote their names & behaviors on two different colored Post-It Notes - one color for those that inhabit the world OVER the pond and another for those we’d find UNDER the pond. From there, I thought about the experience of exploring a pond - all the parts of taking a rowboat out for the day, from pushing off, to paddling, to those quiet moments where you sit, stare up at the sky, and wonder. Our editor at Chronicle, Melissa Manlove, has always pushed me to look for the connections between the child’s experience and the more hidden natural world, so that’s something I look for as well. One of my favorite spreads shows the boy in this story pausing to watch a gentle dragonfly that’s landed on his knee, while below the surface, a dragonfly larva attacks its prey. Same creature - different stage - and I love the way your art captures both the quiet of that moment over the pond and the excitement of the hunt down below.
Some of my other favorite illustrations in this book are the ones that shift perspective - where we see a view from the bottom of the pond, looking up at the boat from below, and also the one from the treetops, looking down.
Chris, I’m curious as to whether you have favorite spreads, too? Or maybe a favorite animal?
CHRIS: Using a chart is such a great way to start a project. There are so many neat creatures in this book and I imagine there are many other fascinating animals that didn’t make it to the final draft. I have this image of you moving around Post-It notes on your wall and making connections between wildlife above and below—sort of like a detective solving a crime.
One of my favorite spreads is the loon near the end of the book. Despite the many animals we visit and facts we learn, you make space in the narrative to let the setting, creatures, and human characters just exist and be still. I like to think readers learn through feeling and mood as well as facts. When I look at this spread, I sense the damp air, and hushed wind, croaking frogs and chirping crickets—mosquitoes and moths swarming around a porch light. It reminds me of the many times I’ve stayed at a lake house or near a pond upstate. My initial sketch for this spread was from the point of view of the boy getting out of his boat and looking back at the pond. It was a way to connect with the human characters, but it didn’t give us anything new. By switching the perspective, we get a rare glimpse at the hidden assortment of noisy critters who perform the pond’s evening soundtrack.
Your opening words when read aloud seem to invoke the sound of paddling through water. “Over the pond we slide, splashing through lily pads, sweeping through reeds.” And in other places, the writing is playful and poetic. I’d love to hear more about how you go from charts and notes to poetry.
KATE: I love that final spread, too, especially the sense of quiet.
You’re absolutely right about the Post-It Notes! I do end up moving things around, looking for those connections and trying out different ways of letting the story unfold. Once that’s finished, I sit down to write, and while I do pay attention to language and word choice the first time around, most of the poetry happens later, during the revision process. I spend a lot of time reading aloud to see if the music of the story sounds right and playing around with different possibilities. Picture books are so short that the language needs to be super-charged. For me, it takes a lot of read-alouds and rewrites to make a story like this sing.
One last question for you, Chris… I know that our Over and Under the Snow was your first picture book, and I’ve loved seeing your other books in the world since then. What are you working on now?
CHRIS: Thanks for asking, Kate. I’m lucky to have many projects in the works. In Fall 2017, I will release another self-authored book from Candlewick titled, I Won’t Eat That, about a hungry cat who refuses to eat his dry, drab cat food and instead asks an assortment of wild animals including a turtle, a lion, and a chimp what they eat. The cat finds their food weird, gross and completely disgusting but eventually discovers a meal worthy of the pickiest and finickiest feline. In Spring 2018, I will debut two self-authored board books with Little Bee. One is a mash-up of shapes and animals called Animals Shapes, the other is a mashup of colors and animals called Animals Colors. Beyond that, I’m working with Jennifer Adams and Balzer/Bray on an adaptation of the poem “How Do I Love, Thee?” a bio picture book of Frank Lloyd Wright with Barbara Rosenstock, and a book with author Shelley Moore Thomas which I think will publish in Spring 2019.
And I’ll ask you the same thing. What projects do you have in the works?
KATE: Wow, that’s a full plate! We’re kindred spirits in that we tend to juggle multiple projects. I’m working on the latest title in my Ranger in Time series with Scholastic - this one’s set in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina - as well as a middle grade novel called Breakout, with Bloomsbury. It’s about what happens in a small town when two inmates break out of the maximum security prison, launching a manhunt that brings out both the best and worst in the community and changes the way three kids see their neighbors and the place they call home. And of course, I’m hoping that before long, we might be able to collaborate on another Over/Under nature book, too!
e: Thank you both and I wish you much continued success (and more Over and Under books)!