The Marla Frazee interview

DR2A0076.jpegJust last night my son requested a book that I don't particularly enjoy reading to him (I won't name names but let's say it involves a simian whose rampant "curious" behavior always seems to be rewarded even though he causes all sorts of problems). Having kids' books you actually enjoy reading to your children is so important, which is why I'm excited to speak to today's interviewee. She's the author and/or illustrator of 20 or so books, including some of our favorite books at home like Everywhere Babies and The Boss Baby. She's won two Caldecott Honors, for A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever and All the World. You can learn a lot more about her here, but if you have a second I also encourage you to go here to read more about her illustrating process as well as how her book The Seven Silly Eaters was inspired by her grandma and great aunt, who were named Fudgie and Fatty. How could that not inspire a book?

You did product design before you became a children's book illustrator: which projects that you worked on in that realm were you proudest of?
I've never told this story in any kind of public way, but I'm going to now. When I was in my last term at Art Center College of Design, my teacher (who was also the art director for the National Football League) hired me to design a series of child-friendly characters based on each NFL team. They were calling them the NFL Huddles. Pretty cute, right? I was stoked. I mean, I was just a student and it was a national job. My teacher told me they were going to use my drawings to make t-shirts and small stuffed animals.

I drove to a huge building in Westwood, rode the elevator up to a fancy conference room with an LA view I'd never seen before, and signed the contract they put in front of me. It was a work-for-hire contract, which at the time meant nothing to me. My teacher ushered me back to the elevator. I was excited.  

I worked on a few teams at a time. I'd deliver each batch of sketches to the NFL offices, and soon, I began to notice that the conference room was filling up with licensed Huddles products based on my drawings. Yes, there were T-shirts and small stuffed animals. But there were also stickers, buttons, posters, wastepaper baskets, shower curtains, bedspreads, drapes, pajamas, soap-on-a-rope, and stuffed animals the size of sofas. Outside of the confines of the corporate offices,  I began seeing Huddles coloring books, Huddles Macy Day parade floats, Huddles life-sized characters on the field during games -- and a Huddles Saturday morning cartoon.File1495.jpeg

I may have been a student when I started this project, but even I knew this was rotten. I hired a lawyer who explained to me what a work-for-hire contract meant. He tried to get the NFL to play fair. But they didn't. I am very proud of the fact that I never have signed another work-for-hire contract. And I tell all beginning illustrators that they shouldn't either.

Check out Huddles on eBay. They are collectibles!

What is the process like when it comes to illustrating a book that you did not write? How much input does the author have, or is it out of his/her hands once it's on to you?
First I've got to fall in love with the manuscript. Then I think about whether or not I am the right person to illustrate it. This usually means that I am intrigued, haven't illustrated anything like this particular manuscript before, and am infinitely curious about how I will pull it off. Once I commit to it, I worry and ruminate and second guess myself until it is time to roll up my sleeves and get started. Then I begin with character sketches and thumbnail sketches and lots of dummies, running it by my editor at various points. Typically the author is not involved in any of this, except at some point, completely at the discretion of my editor, my work may be shared with the author. I honestly don't feel as if I am collaborating with the author. It is more that I am trying to make my illustrations collaborate successfully with the author's words.

There are lots and lots of kids' books written by celebrities: are there any that you're actually fans of?
I love Eloise, by Kay Thompson. And she was a big shot celebrity.

What was last thing you drew? Doodles count.
I just drew a map to show my neighbor where the farmer's market stall is that sells heirloom tomatoes.

 My dad would always complain about how much he didn't like Amelia Bedelia and the way she always screwed things up, and how Fudge was such a brat. Were there any popular children's book characters that you just never took to?
I do not like that selfish boy/man in The Giving Tree. I also don't much care for the tree. But there is something to that book that must work on a subliminal level because it sure has had lasting power.

What are some of the more intensive, unusual ways you've investigated or gotten to know the characters you would eventually draw?
Besides drawing them over and over again until they hopefully look less generic and stereotypical and more genuine and alive, I will think of particular people I know. In rare cases I have asked certain people to model for me. But more often than not, the characters come to me first, and it is through the characters that I figure out their story. This definitely happened with Boot & Shoe, Boss Baby, and The Farmer and the Clown. Often I just need to spend quality time with them.

One of the many things I like about Everywhere Babies is that it features babies that aren't very cute. Was that a conscious decision? And how did you come up with that many different babies to draw?
Oh no! They aren't? I thought they were ALL cute! Now I am flummoxed. I guess it wasn't a conscious decision! As for how I came up with so many different babies, I spent a full day at the Los Angeles County Fair just soaking up the variety of people, and a whole other day at Disneyland doing the same. I also looked through all the photos I'd taken of my own boys when they were babies and their friends. I gathered baby catalogs, books, parenting magazines. . . it was a process. My goal was that any child living in this country would find an approximation of their own world reflected in that book. I made a conscious decision to not attempt a global perspective.

What was a book (not written or illustrated by you) that both you and your boys enjoyed reading when they were little?
We loved loved loved Peek-a-Boo by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. I have three sons and they each devoured (destroyed) that book to the point that we needed a new copy when the next kid was ready for it. I bought that book four times! One for each kid, and the fourth one for posterity.

We also all loved the four Will books by Olaf and Lena Landstrom: Will Gets a Haircut, Will's New Cap, Will Goes to the Post Office, and Will Goes to the Beach. They are so dry, in the best way.

And even though my boys are in their 20's now, I just bought A House in the Woods by Inga Moore. I first read it out loud to my 20 year old college junior, while we were both sitting in the wee chairs in the Berkeley bookstore where I got it. After I brought it home, I sat on the couch with my 27 year old son who was visiting from his place in Santa Monica and I read it out loud to him. They both loved it. I am looking forward to reading it to my 24 year old, too. They haven't outgrown the picture book experience at all -- do any of us, really? But they all have very discerning taste. So when they respond to a picture book now, there is always something very special about it.

As an author of children's books, do you feel a type of pressure to be a certain way (entertaining, magical not cranky) when you meet your audience, and if so, how do you get ready for events?
Oh god. This question brings up a whole lot of feelings. I am completely undone by the idea of public speaking. I can't believe I do so much of it now. But I do. It doesn't energize me, however. It depletes me. Afterward I often put on sunglasses and push a grocery cart around the market, slowly, as if I have just recently been let out of the asylum for this one shopping excursion.

What does the inside of your studio look like? Are you tidy? Creatively cluttered?
It ranges. After I've finished a project, I clean from top to bottom and that gets me ready for what's next. It's a small space, so a lot of the cleaning is really about throwing away all that's accumulated during the weeks I've been working.

I have a mostly adorable baby son whose transformation into a young man I look forward to and fear. Do you have any words of wisdom for mothers of sons?
Try and keep your sense of humor. Even when you are mad, scared, or confused. It is a great way to reach them -- and they will love and appreciate you for making the effort. And they may actually listen to what you need to tell them.

Who are you talking to in your author photo on your website?
That photo was taken at Art Center for their faculty catalog. During the shoot my phone rang. I took the call because it was one of my sons and the photographer kept clicking. I was talking on a flip phone! Which seems like forever ago.

How does it feel to be the 394th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
That is a lot of interviews! Are you joking? I'm just glad I snuck in before the 400th because that's when things are really gonna get wild at Zulkey.com

Thank you for interviewing me!