Kooky Crumbs is the ideal introduction to poetry, full of poems in praise of dizzy days and silly celebrations! Written by former children’s poet laureate J. Patrick Lewis, and illustrated brilliantly by Mary Uhles, this collection will ease young readers into the wondrous world of poetry, in style.
Mary Uhles answers our questions and treats us to some early sketches for the book!
Kane Miller: As a child, what role did books play in your home?
Mary Uhles: Books were a HUGE part of my childhood. Both my parents read and encouraged reading. My mom was the librarian at my elementary school and I pretty much treated the library as my own private collection of books. The building was built in the early 1900s and the library had tall ceilings, old clanging radiators and wood shelves that smelled like years of books. One of my earliest memories is actually being scrunched up inside one of the lower shelves paging through a huge stack of books. My mom also attended the ALA (American Library Association) conferences every year. When she came home her suitcases would be full of treasures – young Paul O. Zelinsky's early books, posters for brand new (at the time) author-illustrator, David Wiesner, signed copies of Leo and Diane Dillon's books.
Books also led to a significant amount of getting trouble as a child: I was often busted for reading under the covers with a flashlight or daydreaming about a book in class.
KM: When did you first become aware that "illustrator" was an occupation?
MU: I was 16 when the thought crystalized “that's what I want to do.” I was reading Marguerite Henry's biography, Dear Readers and Riders. The stories of her travels around the world, making books with her illustrator Wesley Dennis, sounded like the best job. I walked into the kitchen and said to my parents, “I know what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be an illustrator.”
KM: Did you encounter any barriers while pursuing your interest?
MU: The challenge at that point became how to get an education that would prepare me for this career. I'm from a small town in rural Tennessee. Outside of my family few grown-ups even knew what an illustrator was. My high school guidance counselor had no idea what to do with me. By a stroke of good fortune my parents had found a private art teacher who had attended Ringling College of Art and Design, which had a very highly regarded Illustration Department. That teacher, Tim Carothers, helped me prepare my work for the application process. I proudly graduated from Ringling four years later. I dedicated Kooky Crumbs to Tim in honor of the role he played at the beginning of my career.
KM: What are the challenges you face as an illustrator for children, and what have those taught you?
MU: I work on several projects at once so time management is always a high priority and not just so that I can get work done, but so that I can get it done WELL. Now when I talk to students interested in art I explain that you always want to make time to work at your MOST-inspired, LEAST-distracted point. For me that meant Kooky Crumbs was painted in the first two hours of every day.
As an artist I'm also always looking to grow and improve, and as a children's illustrator I have to remain aware of the child's voice. For me this means staying close to the source, either sketching my own children's foibles or dredging up childhood memories of embarrassment, excitement, fear, triumph. It's important to keep the intended audience in mind. I once heard a saying: “You know it's the right job for you if you even love the problems.” This is true for me. Even when I'm struggling to come up with just the right expression for a character, or just the right composition to complement the tone of a story, I still love doing it.
KM: You were once an animator for a children’s game company. In Kooky Crumbs, the side-by-side pages operate as panels. What did your experience as a game animator teach you about story and scene?
MU: Wow, this is a great question. Probably the most important thing I learned from being an animator was setting a mood through composition and point of view. As a game animator there's always a character in every scene that you don't see – the player. So a lot of moving through a game is about how close you bring them in and how you push them back.
KM: Ahh, so the player in a book is the reader. Could you demonstrate this by sharing some thumbnail sketches from Kooky Crumbs?
MU: "The Longhouse of Words" and "A Kite" for Ride the Wind Day: I wanted the viewer to feel like they were using the pencils and that what they were creating was coming alive on the page. As we go across the page, left to right, we see the art come “alive” from just pencil sketches to full color.
MU: It was a challenge, but a fun one. That was surprisingly freeing from an artistic standpoint because I didn't have to “copy edit” the illustrations to make sure little details or colors were the same over all the pages. But I did want to have a loose cohesiveness throughout the book. I repeated a few of the same characters over a handful of poems, but I also realized that this was a book that would be opened up and read from any page. Because of that I wanted each illustration to work on it's own, yet still “fit” into its page turn. I studied a lot of other poetry books as I worked, a lot of looking at all the sketches, then all the illustrations, together, laid out on the floor of my studio so I could see the whole book like a storyboard. I wanted the end visual result to feel like a journey, through a year, while meeting all these different characters.
KM: What practical steps would you suggest to a child who also has an interest in become a illustrator or visual storyteller?
MU: Tell stories! Draw all the time! Don't worry about doing it “right.” Don't worry about whether your dog/horse/castle/alien spaceship looks like a “real” one. It's OK to erase every now and then, but don't listen to people – kids or grown-ups – who say you can't do it or that it's time to stop drawing and be serious. It's never time to do that. I've noticed a trend where fiction is referred to as “fake” and nonfiction is “real.” The emotions conjured up by good fiction are just as real as anything in the physical world. I would encourage children to believe that if their stories are real to them then that gives them power in the world.
KM: To you, what is the power of literacy and early reading?
MU: Oh, I completely believe it's what will save civilization as we know it. A child who reads, and who is read to, can experience a world beyond their typical surroundings. A child who is read to learns that books bring comfort. If they go on to love reading, and read independently, they will always be curious and will always ask “why.” In my opinion early reading and fostering a love of reading is not just about being able to pass tests and get into the right schools, it's about being able to empathize with others and ask questions that lead society to a better place.
KM: Absolutely! Thanks so much for the chat, Mary!
Visit Mary Uhles at www.maryuhles.com.
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