Kane Miller Books invited Melanie to share some insight into life as an illustrator, the challenge of painting some of the United States' most iconic sites and scenery and—as always—the power of early reading and books in the home.
Melanie Hope Greenberg: I grew up in a lower middle class neighborhood in the South Bronx. My parents were first generation Americans. My father owned a luncheonette and my mother was a homemaker. We had books on our shelves but not a lot of them. I can remember Disney books, Little Golden Books, a Bumper Book of nursery rhymes and Nancy Drew Mystery Stories. My father was an avid book reader. My two older sisters taught me to read before I started kindergarten. My exposure to the creative arts at home were through TV, movies and lots of music. Reading became more prolific once I started school. I also loved to borrow books from the local Clason's Point Library.
KMB: When did you first become aware that "illustrator" was an occupation?
MHG: My oldest sister became a professional clothing designer which convinced me that one can earn a living through their talents. My first professional job was with UNICEF Greeting Cards, in 1981. I also became a member of the Graphic Artist Guild where I learned about the National Stationery Show held in New York City. After attending the show with my art portfolio I started to earn part of my livelihood as a greeting card illustrator. Many people said my colorful whimsical art style was perfect for picture books. I was already a professional illustrator by time I entered the children’s book publishing world. A book agent saw my client list and understood that I ran an art business. From there, I learned the craft of picture book creation and it was a natural fit.
KMB: Did you encounter any barriers while pursuing your interest?
MHG: All. The. Time. I’ve been in children’s publishing since 1985. The publishing world has gone through drastic changes with never-ending new technologies. Many of the skills from my early career are completely different from the skills I need today. To survive, I surf the waves of changes and trends while maintaining artistic truth. With so much information overload, I need to stay quiet during the day for balance, for trusting the muse and my instincts.
KMB: What are the challenges you face as an illustrator for children, and what have those taught you?
MHG: I’ve learned how to perceive my art challenges as fun. With painting fiction picture books the challenge is to figure out the book’s continuity or the invisible glue that binds the story from beginning to end. Illustrating for children allows multi-layered portrayals of silent stories, moods and actions that the text may not describe. Once an informed message or the theme of a book is realized, illustrating that vision becomes fun. For instance, I’ve illustrated Mother Nature as a Caribbean Islands lady on the New York City subway, and gardens with curved lines because nature has no straight lines. However, certain books are not esoteric, they are straightforward, such as Americanly.
The challenge with painting Americanly, a non-fiction picture book, was to create accurate yet stylized depictions of iconic architecture, natural landmarks and parks. — Melanie Hope Greenberg
MHG: I tried to be as creative as possible with each composition. There were 44 illustrations and I did not want looking them looking alike. I used boxes, art popping out of boxes and vignettes. Working to Lynn Parrish Sutton’s text, I experimented with layouts in a book dummy or a fake book. I cut paper to the size of the book, then played with shapes to create the compositions for each spread. Because the text rhymes I had to be sensitive to the pacing, working with the poem’s rhythm for every page and page turn.
MHG: Find love and joy in the practice. Become excellent at your craft through practice until creativity becomes a way of life and perhaps your livelihood. Read, read, read.
KMB: Finally, to you, what is the power of literacy and early reading?
Reading opens our minds and hearts to the world. Reading moves humanity forward in evolutionary progress. Literacy brings diverse communities together to understand our unity as well as our individual places in the world. A bird flies with two wings, inspiration and self-effort: to read is to fly. — Melanie Hope Greenberg