Wordstock Interview: Marla Frazee

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Marla Frazee with a giant pencilMarla Frazee with a giant pencil

Marla Frazee has some fun with the giant pencil at the kids' area of Wordstock. Photo: Jonathan Liu

Marla Frazee is an author-illustrator with a couple of Caldecott Honor Awards and several best-sellers under her belt. She teaches children’s book illustration at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and — despite all appearances — is not from New York. I’ve been a big fan of Frazee’s work for several years now, and I was very excited at the opportunity to interview her at Wordstock.

GeekDad: I think the first time I came across your work was in the book The Seven Silly Eaters. I don’t remember where we found the book, but I just loved the artwork in it. My daughter wanted us to read the story over and over again, but she also loved looking at the pictures, seeing the kids and parents grow up …

Marla Frazee: … and watching the house grow up!

GD: Yes, and the details of the house. After that I started noticing your artwork in other places, like in Clementine, and Walk On, and All the World. Could you briefly describe your latest book, Stars, with Mary Lyn Ray?

MF: The thing that drew me to Stars, the manuscript, was that it reminded me of A Hole Is to Dig by Ruth Krauss. It’s quirky, it’s very poetic and evocative but it also had a childlike language to it. And it was a real puzzle to try to figure out how to illustrate it. That was what also pulled me in: how would anybody illustrate this and it intrigued me enough that I wanted to do it.

Stars by Mary Lyn Ray and Marla FrazeeStars by Mary Lyn Ray and Marla FrazeeBut I think I had it at least a year, and I would read it and put it down, and there was no way to do it. I’d read it and put it down. Finally one day I picked it up and I thought of the Joan Walsh Anglund book A Friend Is Someone Who Likes You, and I thought, it could be a book somehow like that one. It ended up being really nothing like that book, but that’s what kind of got me started, a path into it.

GD: When you take on a project, do you get a lot of manuscripts that you get to choose from, or do they say, “Here, this is your next project”?

MF: Now, I get to choose. In the beginning, I was knocking on doors, saying “Please, I want to be published!” Now I get sent manuscripts and they’ll see if I respond to them, or I just come across something that appeals to me. Sometimes I generate something on my own. I have an editor that I’ve worked with for a long time and she and I will brainstorm sometimes on what my next book will be.

GD: I realize this question is a little bit like “which of your sons is your favorite?” but do you have a favorite book or series that you’ve illustrated?

MF: I think what I have are memories of certain periods in which I’ve worked on certain books. Mrs. Biddlebox was one of my favorite creative periods. I loved working on that book and I loved the time in which I was working on that one. When I think back on that book it just feels like a very good creative time.

GD: Do you have a preference over illustrating your own stories versus taking something that somebody else has written and bringing that to life?

MF: I love doing both things. They’re both different. There’s something very acrobatic, for lack of a better word, in launching off somebody else’s words. I know they’ve written the text, it’s their baby. It’s something that’s done, and has been accepted to be published. I know that if I play around with the illustrations, try different things to play off those words, that I could do a lot of things that may not work. But then I can always return back to the story and it’ll still be there.

Whereas if I’ve written something and I start messing around with the words and the pictures, I can sort of destroy the whole thing. It could all fall apart. So it’s a little bit more stable, I guess, when the manuscript’s there. But also then I can play more. I don’t know how to explain it.

I love doing both, though. I love to alternate back and forth.

GD: With your own stories, do you find that you start with images in your head, or do you start with the text?

MF: Often I start with a character. A character will come to me, and it’s like, that’s a hilarious character. I want to know what that character is all about, and then I’ll try to figure that out.

GD: What were some of your own favorite picture books when you were a kid, and what are some of your favorite picture books now?

MF: Two stick out in my mind from when I was a kid: Where the Wild Things Are, primarily when Max’s room turns into a forest. It just blew me away when I saw that the first time. And Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey, I just love that book. I loved everything about that book, and I still love that book.

I was a huge fan of the Beverly Cleary books, which I feel like I’m definitely channeling a lot of the Louis Darling illustrations when I’m doing the Clementine books, like that story is similar in tone to me to the Beverly Cleary books.

Now, I love Mini Grey. She’s one of my favorite author-illustrators. She did Traction Man, and I love that book. I love the Maira Kalman and Lemony Snicket book, 13 Words. I’m a huge fan of Olof Landstrom, who did the Will books. He’s a Swedish illustrator. Lisbeth Zwerger. She’s so amazing. Chris Riddell — love his draftsmanship — and Simon James, I love his books a lot.

GD: How old are your own kids?

MF: I have three boys. My oldest is 24, my middle son is 21, and my youngest is 17.

GD: Did you use them to bounce ideas off when they were younger?

MF: I did, and I still do that now. They’re really good judges of books I might be interested in. They have good eyes.

Marla Frazee signingMarla Frazee signing

My daughter gets her copy of The Seven Silly Eaters signed. Photo: Jonathan Liu

GD: I’ve always loved picture books, even well before I had kids, even before I was married. I was already collecting picture books. I imagine for your kids, growing up with you as an illustrator, that they were surrounded by picture books. Is that something that your sons still keep with them?

MF: You know what’s really cool about that? Because I taught children’s book illustration, I have the picture books that they grew up with right at our fingertips, in our living room on the shelf. As they’ve grown up, and gone to school, gone to college, they’ll come back and they’ll pull a picture book off the shelf that maybe they haven’t looked at in a long time. And they’ll say to me something like: “This is a really subversive book.” Or “When I was seven, I had no idea that you could read this book on this many levels.”

So if those books had gone away, they wouldn’t have had that experience. I like that. They’ve had this experience of returning to the same book at different phases of their lives, and now as young adults, they definitely know the different levels that a picture book can operate on. They don’t think of them as being just for kids.

And the ones that can resonate with an entire generation, those books you remember for the rest of your life.

For more about Marla Frazee and her books, visit her website www.MarlaFrazee.com.

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