Thursday, January 2, 2014

Q&A with children's author and illustrator Susan Stockdale

Susan Stockdale is the author and illustrator of nature-focused picture books for children, including Stripes of All Types, Bring on the Birds, and Fabulous Fishes. She lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your most recent book, Stripes of All Types?

A: I’ve always been very fascinated by patterns. I’ve worked as a freelance textile designer. The idea for Stripes of All Types was born at an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. It was an exhibit of frogs. [The striped frogs’] stripes had a purpose: to warn other creatures. A poison frog’s poison benefits humans—it’s extracted to make a painkiller. There are probably myriad ways animals benefit from stripes. I came back from the exhibit inspired.

Q: How did you end up as a writer and illustrator of picture books relating to nature and animals?

A: There were two things. Growing up in Coral Gables, Miami, and spending a couple of years when I was young in Dublin, Ireland. Florida is so sunny and bright, and I spent my entire childhood outside. There were skittery lizards, beautiful birds, subtropical vegetation. The colors of Miami really influenced me. I really love vivid, bright, saturated color.

In Ireland, I was around really different animals—horses, cows, sheep. The coloration of Ireland is so incredible—verdant green. Some of my illustrations include six different kinds of green. Those two environments got me interested in nature. We had a couple of cats, and we would go to the Parrot Jungle [in Florida]. It really blew my mind. I was very grateful for that.

Q: How does your previous work affect your work as an author and illustrator?

A: I had two lives—I had day jobs as a PR director for a number of years. As an author, I do some of my own marketing. I enjoy creating opportunities. I majored in art in college. I spent many years creating fantasy landscapes; it’s interesting that now I’m doing nonfiction. They often involved animals. I segued into doing textile designs, with detailed patterning.

I had married and had children of my own, and we would go to the library, and were picking picture books. [I decided] I would love to create picture books. My mother, a poet, was a wonderful role model. She was always typing away, and had projects. She instilled in me a love of words, and an appreciation for disciplined work. I had a lot of painting experience but not a lot of writing experience—I went on blind faith that I could figure it out!

Q: Do you think of your text first or your illustrations, or do they evolve together?

A: I always think of the words first, but as images in words. The imagery is floating around in my head. I always have a thesaurus and a rhyming dictionary next to me. I went to Belize, and when I came back, I was inspired to create a book about fish. I knew I wanted to write in rhymes. I had a rhythm right from the get-go; it was an anchor for me. I had some sort of musical rhythm, and I started putting down adjectives in a page.

I put all my words down, and then I do research. Is there a striped fish? A spiked fish? Then I start looking for candidates for each line. “A fish that leaps and glides”—there’s a flying fish. I actually saw them in Costa Rica. One of the things I love about the nonfiction picture book world for kids is that I get everything down, see if the things exist, and they usually do because nature is spectacular. If it doesn’t, I refine my manuscript.

I have a cadre of scientists—I have worked with bird experts, [experts in] ichthyology, at an aquarium. If possible, I work with a couple of scientists from different institutions. A third person might find a little correction.

In Fabulous Fishes, I had a lionfish. I always have an addendum where I identify the animals and explain the rhyme scheme. I said about the lionfish that it turns its poisonous spines toward its enemies. The third scientist [who checked the manuscript] said it should be “venomous” spines. I’m really glad we caught that! I really enjoy teaching kids.

Q: What do you discuss with students when you visit schools and libraries?

A: When I go in, I do an overview of what goes into writing, researching, and illustrating a nonfiction picture book. Kids are confused by the difference between fiction and nonfiction, even up to third or fourth grade. I [explain that I] might have misinformation corrected by scientists.

The dummy is a 32-page facsimile of what the book will look like, to submit to the publisher, the art director. I show kids via power point what the original sketches look like—they’re often uninspired. I might do 20 different sketches before I find one compelling, and then I make sure it’s accurate. I send a sketch of a jaguar to an expert, who will say the jaguar’s head needs to be larger.

My animals are anatomically correct, but there’s a lot of whimsy. I check with scientists to see that the environment is correct, that the berries behind a toucan are the kind a toucan would eat. But I do use my own style. What am I going to dramatize? The pink stripe on a rainbow trout that I’m really going to punch up.

I give an overview of how I create books, and all the manuscript revisions. It’s a spare text, but it takes me weeks. I take them through. I went them to feel they can write and illustrate, and making mistakes is part of the creative process.

 Q: Your work is also featured on calendars, puzzles, and cards. How did that come about?

A: It’s testament to a really good promotional piece. I had a full-color card made [describing my work] for when I go to conferences. In my spare time at conferences, I look at [publishers’] catalog of books, and I look at their sidelines—products other than books. If their work is in a similar spirit to mine, I give them my card.

Some years ago I went to the Pomegranate booth, and handed my card over, and sure enough I got an e-mail from the president a couple of months later saying we really like your work. They select the images they like. It’s been a lot of fun; it’s a nice way to extend my artwork.

Q: Are those images all from your books?

A: Everything is from my books.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Spectacular Spots, with 19 spotted animals. It’s a companion to Stripes of All Types. It will be published in the spring of 2015 by Peachtree. It’s been such a joy. I’m painting guinea hens right now. I have butterflies, jaguars, fabulous animals that have spots.

For this book I think I consulted with eight different scientists. With the flamingo tongue snail, I wasn’t sure where to place the tentacles. I went to a flamingo tongue snail expert at the Natural History Museum. I’m always tweaking things. So far, I’ve never had a mistake yet. 

On this book, and at the back of Stripes of All Types, [there’s a section that says,] Can you find the animal that belongs to those stripes? It’s an enlargement of a striped pattern. I’ve had so much fun going to schools. It’s tricky—they have to be really astute in recognizing the patterns. I’m doing that in Spectacular Spots as well.

For the addendum, I rely on scientists to make sure it’s correct. It’s very low-tech. I’m kind of into old-fashioned hardcover books—you don’t have to turn a screen on. You engage children to go back into the book.

People will say, what’s the hardest part? Coming up with the conceit [for the book]. With Stripes of All Types, I considered three or four different approaches, and settled on each animal in action in its habitat. The habitats rhyme and are alliterative. Rivers, reeds. I really backed myself into a corner—there aren’t that many habitats that rhyme, and is there a striped animal [there]? It has to be fun and engaging for me, too—I’m with the book for a year and a half! And will there be animals that are interesting to kids—not too many that are exotic, some that are in their back yards.

With the world of nonfiction, you can just find endless ideas. I want kids to pay attention to the world around them. I go on Audubon Naturalist Society walks, and it’s mostly grandparents there with kids, their grandchildren, and they said [the kids] are afraid of walking in the woods. I couldn’t believe it. I’m trying to turn the spotlight back outside.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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