Barbara McClintock on THE FIVE FORMS

Sometimes I come across a book that stops me in my tracks. Such was the case with Barbara McClintock's THE FIVE FORMS. It's mysterious, fun, spiritual, kick-butt, and multi-cultural all at the same time. Happily, Barbara is here to tell us more about it...

e: I love how this story came to you - can you tell us a bit about the journey from your son and through you?
My son Larson has been practicing martial arts since he was 13. He and I share an interest in doing sports that aren’t team activities. I walk, run, & do yoga. Even as a child, I’d choose riding my bike or my horse by myself to playing baseball. Martial arts are collaborative; you spar with a partner, train with teachers and in the company of other students, and compete as a team group at events. But it is an activity that you can easily do on your own.

Here's Larson sharing books of ancient Chinese calligraphy with Barbara.
I’m very interested in the imaginative aspect of martial arts. There’s a mystical narrative to the practice of kung fu, tai chi, hapkido, karate, and other forms of wushu, or martial arts. Many of the series of physical movements that make up the various forms in martial arts are based on the movements of animals, with the idea of releasing the power of the animals that the forms represent. There are many different animals represented in forms - tiger, monkey, eagle, mantis, bear, and others - as well as the ones I chose to depict in my story. There are also many combinations of animals that make up a series of forms. I chose leopard instead of tiger, because leopard is not as powerful as tiger, and leopard worked better in the power line up of animals in my book.
I loved playacting characters from stories when I was little. It was easy to imagine how I would have become the animals represented in wushu forms if I’d been exposed to martial arts as a child.
But what if things got out of control? What if the power of the animal forms wasn’t just strength, or grace, or endurance? What if the animals became - just animals - acting like a typical cat, or over-sized bird. or fast moving snake? And what if putting them in the same room would result in the crazy chaos that would happen with three overly-active kids who’s had a bit too much chocolate ice-cream? Much like the jumping on the bed, wild pillow fights that could erupt when my then 8 year old son had friends over?
      Martial arts is not just about fighting. It’s also very much to do with learning to control the forceful, or external, power of various fighting forms. In martial arts, the internal, controlling forms are deeply revered and taught, and are felt to be as important as the external expressions. The calligraphy on the title pages of THE FIVE FORMS is found on ancient bronzes. The calligraphy names the animal it appears next to. The calligraphy next to the cloud image is the written term for ‘origin' or 'source’ - in this case, bringing the girl back to her original state, or the way things were before she began. In Qigong, there are movements or forms, breathing and meditative practices used to calm, clear, empty, and make still. It’s very spiritual, and is about taking control of chaos. I wanted the little girl to take control of her situation, through an internal form of martial arts. In the last form, she is doing what is called a ‘tree hugging’ pose, that centers and returns energy to a calm state. In many martial arts styles, there’s a closing group of movements to bring energy back to the way it was before the practice began.
I thought about Max in WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE as I worked on THE FIVE FORMS. Max travels into a land of beasts, which he ultimately takes control of. My little girl does that through the power of Qigong and martial arts!
      The story of THE FIVE FORMS was also inspired by the story of THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE, with a pinch of THE CAT IN THE HAT thrown in for good measure.

e: What is your creative process and medium, can you walk us through it?
The story determines what drawing style and technique I’ll use for the art. Many of my books have been set in the late 19th and early 20th century. I’ve turned to illustrators and artists from the time period of the narrative to establish the illustration style. For ADELE & SIMON, I looked closely at the work of Daumier, Delacroix, Gustave Dore, and of course, my hero Grandville. CINDERELLA found it’s artistic inspiration in the drawings of Watteau and Fragonard. Art for TWELVE KINDS OF ICE was inspired by the engravings of Rockwell Kent. The art in my early books was drawn in pen and ink and watercolor, with the idea that the art should look like engravings you might find in old books.
THE FIVE FORMS, with it’s roots in East Asian martial arts forms, lead me to explore Japanese and Chinese brush painting and prints. My experiments with brush and ink drawing led to disastrous results. I discovered brush tip markers, and found my medium. I can press down on the marker tip and get a thick, chunky line, lift up and get a line that’s ethereal and delicate. All without dripping ink everywhere. I wanted to use bold colors, much like the Japanese prints I was studying, and much like the colors I favored back in my childhood comic book/Top Cat cartoon days.

The cat's name is Viola.
I want to give big credit to Simon Boughton, my editor on THE FIVE FORMS. He encouraged me to use a chunky, broad line in creating the art, and was enormously helpful working with me to simplify the pacing and flow of the book. More about him in a following question!

e: What do you think makes an illustration magical, what I call "Heart Art” - the sort that makes a reader want to come back to look again and again?
I believe ‘HEART ART’ happens when the charm, playfulness, whimsy, and mischievousness of the author/illustrator’s personality comes through their work, straight to the reader.

e: In the book you mention that you worked closely with your son to get the details right. Did any funny stories come about as a result?
My son Larson and I just got off the phone, trying to recall the funny parts of our working together. Our talking about martial arts forms, and martial arts in general inevitable turned into long talks about life, cats, family, cats, food, cats, Eastern philosophy, cats, future plans, cats, and… you get the idea.
     We both like cats.
I think he’s really been supportive of, and bemused by, my attempts to actually do the martial arts forms he’s shown me. I have terrible recall of sequential physical movements - I’d have made a really bad dancer. He just smiles, and moves on. He’s quite Zen in that way.

e: What was THE FIVE FORMS' path to publication?
  After my beloved editor Frances Foster had a stroke, and was no longer able to work, Simon Boughton stepped in as my new editor at FSG. Simon came to my home to visit me, and spent the day in my studio, looking at drawings and scraps of doodles taped to my walls, talking about books that inspire me, stories about my family, and ideas for potential books. Simon saw creative abilities in me that were different than those Frances saw. He recognized the energy of those very early stories and inspirations from my childhood, and helped me work whatever creativity is - magic? - to get those inspired thoughts and memories out onto paper.
      While we were in the studio, Simon thought of my doing a book about martial arts and a little girl. In the days that followed his visit, I began writing a story line, initially in long hand. As I wrote, I doodled characters and settings… the first story was very long, very heavy, all too epic. I had an appointment to meet Simon and my agent, Jennie Dunham, for lunch in NYC. As I rode the train from New Haven, Ct to Grand Central station, I drew out the dummy and story for THE FIVE FORMS. Trains and airplanes are the best places to work on the initial phase of a book!
Simon liked the rough sketches and idea. I went home and began making a tight dummy and writing out the text. I’d scan and send the dummy sketches to Simon. Then I’d get a call from Simon… he’d just been cutting up my printed out dummy and taping it together in a new sequence, and wanted to talk through it with me. Now, ten years ago this would have totally freaked me out. But - and this goes to the last question, sorry to jump around - after a long time in my career, I have been so ready to try new approaches to my work. I was curious to see where things would go, and trusted Simon’s instincts. He is a master at understanding the elegance and vitality of simplicity in pacing and structure of picture books. And that trust was well placed - I’m extremely happy with the way THE FIVE FOMS turned out.
      Having a good editor is everything in making a book. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have great editors - Dianne Hess at Scholastic is a genius and a joy to work with. Deirdre Jones at LittleBrown is absolutely super. Every editor sees and draws out a different aspect of who you are as a writer/illustrator.

e: What is your favorite or most challenging part of being a creator, and with THE FIVE FORMS in particular?
Trusting your intuition. Going with your gut. Not allowing fear into the studio. Writing and creating art is all about risk taking, creating accidents and resolving them. Because THE FIVE FORMS was done in an entirely new style for me, I had to put aside all those little nagging thoughts - would people like this? Was it any good? It was a bit like being in free-fall - it was fun for me, but I can be plagued by self doubt, and had to really keep those feelings at bay.
I didn’t go to art school, and I don’t have a set of rules and structure to fall back on that formal training allows. My process is intuitive. I work from the memory of artwork I’ve seen and admire, and try to incorporate hundreds of little pieces of the art I like into my work.
My partner David Johnson is a wonderful illustrator in his own right. He acts as my ‘second set of eyes’. I call him into the studio to ask his opinion about a color, or if he thinks what I’m doing makes sense, if the pacing of the images flows well, if the character I’m drawing actually looks like a crane. He is a very wise man, and usually just says “It all looks great! Keep going!“
Otherwise I’d probably kick him out of the studio. Maybe all I really want is a little moral support?
e: Is there something in particular about this story you hope readers will take away with them, perhaps something that isn’t immediately obvious? (I love the book - when she finds it, and when she puts it back!)
Books are powerful things! The information they hold can be terrifying, comforting, amusing, instructive, challenging - but always irresistible. And - in the case of the little girl in THE FIVE FORMS - books can be put away when you’ve had enough, although they will forever change you, even when returned from wherever they came from.
And… GIRL POWER! There are so many books about boys getting into—and out of—trouble. Boys who are full of over the top energy. But not as many picture books about energetic, acting out of bounds girls. The PIPPY LONGSTOCKINGS are few and far between. I was a real tom boy growing up. The books I identified with when I was little primarily featured boys. So—here’s a girl who I hope all children who are full of bumptious energy and curiosity can relate to.

e: This book seems to represent a journey that could potentially change how you approach the rest of your work. As such, what are you working on next or what would be your dream project? 
My next project is about a little girl and her sports car. Full disclosure - I have an Audi TT, and have driven it over 70,000 miles in 5 years. So—yea, it’s biographical, with an 8 year old me as the protagonist.
      Again, the artwork will be done with a thick, spontaneous brush line. Bold, Bright. Simple. Contemporary. A little girl. Lots of power.
Recently, I’ve become interested in going back to stories and images that I loved as a child. I was a huge Top Cat fan, and of cartoons in general. I want to write simple stories, and use drawing materials that I would have gravitated to when I was 5, 6, and 7 years old.
My future dream project is more than one book. It’s making many books, all of them pieces of a pathway exploring what it is to be a child, a writer, an illustrator, a person living in a world with a lot of change and drama that doesn’t necessarily make sense. That’s a life-long journey, and one that will be filled with new approaches to narrate in text and art what I witness along the way. Strap yourselves in! Major road trip ahead!

e: Great—I can't wait to see and read more!

About Barbara: Barbara's books have won 5 New York Times Best Books awards, a New York Times Notable Book citation, a Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor award, and numerous other awards, recommended/best book lists, and starred reviews. Go to to learn more.


Fran Manushkin said...

Barbara McClintock is vastly talented! This interview revealed how thoughtful she is about her work. Her fearlessness about trying new techniques and subjects is inspiring. Thank you so much for this interview.

Shadra Strickland said...

I love this! I've always been a fan of Barbara's work. It's great to get such and in depth behind the scenes look at her process.

Nate Evans said...

This post is an inspirational revelation!

Elizabeth O Dulemba said...

See Barbara! This book is striking a nerve! I think you've created something really special in THE FIVE FORMS!! :) e