Molly Idle began her career as an Animator at DreamWorks, and her cinematic style is evident on every exuberant page of the acclaimed (★”Seamless and dynamic visual storytelling” – Publishers Weekly; “Irresistible.” – San Francisco Chronicle) Flora and the Flamingo! Here she shares her inspiration, typical workday, and a peek inside her studio.
Where did you get the idea for Flora and the Flamingo?
The idea was the culmination of a series of “a-ha” moments. A few years ago my youngest son was calling fire extinguishers “fire stinking shirts.” It made me laugh, and it also made me think back to words that I mixed up when I was little (there were lots of them!) and one that leapt to mind was that (for years) I thought flamenco dancing was pronounced “flamingo dancing.”
Remembering how puzzled I used to be that there were no actual flamingos involved in “flamingo dancing,” I drew a dancing flamingo, but he needed a partner… Enter Flora, whose design is based on my sweet, sweet, nieces—Sarah and Katie.
It was around this same time that my oldest son was starting kindergarten and figuring out the process of making friends. Watching his efforts, I started thinking how much the back and forth nature of developing a friendship is like the choreography of a dance.
What’s your routine when you’re working on a book?
My routine varies depending on what stage of the bookmaking process I’m in. When I’m working on developing the idea for a book, my workday doesn’t look much like work. It looks a lot more like me sipping coffee and staring into space with my pencil poised (but unmoving) over my sketchbook while I mutter to myself.
When I’m working on sketches for a book, I like to start first thing in the morning. I wake up before the rest of the house, and rough out ideas for the spreads I want to work on that day. Then, after I drop my boys off at school, I head into the studio and start to flesh out my early morning roughs till lunchtime.
In the afternoons I take care of business stuff like emails, etc. In the evening I’ll polish up the sketches I worked on in the morning. I like to break up the process so that I can revisit each sketch with fresh eyes.
Once I start in to work on the final art for a book, my days become all topsy-turvy and start to melt together. I’ll work all day, seven days a week. Even when I’m not physically working on a piece, my mind is still working on it… I’ll wake up in the middle of the night thinking things like, “Lavender! That’s the color I need to layer over the tree branches!”
Show us your space!
Here’s my space…
I’ve tried to balance functionality with organization and inspiration. So you’ll find everything from shelving and layout space to Kermit the Frog and a rubber chicken here.
I converted my old animation desk into an enormous light table so I can transfer larger sketches by hand. And I have art clips attached to boards around my desk and over the windows so that I can hang up multiple pieces at a time as I check for continuity from piece to piece.
I keep a large stash of extra pencils handy.
Do you have favorite art supplies?
Oh my, yes! I couldn’t do without my handy dandy mechanical pencil for sketching and line work. And for color I love my Prismacolor pencils (see the photo of my desk!). I’ve experimented with a plethora of pencils but, for me, these offer the best range of colors, blendability (is that a word?) and control.
Did you do any research for Flora and the Flamingo?
As a matter of fact I did. I spent quite a bit of time collecting reference photos of flamingos in action, as I wanted the choreography of the Flamingo in the beginning of the book to be based on the habits of real flamingos. Then, I watched a lot of ballet performances to gather ideas for the balletic poses that happen when Flora and the Flamingo begin to dance together, still keeping in mind that they I wanted them to be poses that would be physically possible for a real flamingo (and a real little girl too)! Pliés are tricky for flamingos.
What influences your art?
I suppose my artistic influences fall into two categories: Art and Life.
Art: If I could describe my art in terms of my artistic influences I would say it’s… Degas meets Disney’s Nine Old Men in a Technicolor musical.
Life: My boys. The way they tackle life is absolutely fearless, hearts and minds open and full of wonder. That inspires me to tackle my work in the same way.
What was it like when you first held a finished copy of Flora and the Flamingo?
I smile just thinking about it. Holding the culmination of so many hours of drawing and dreaming, the months of collaboration with the incredible creative team at Chronicle… It felt good. Really good! The kind of feeling that fills you up, and you float a little way above the ground kind of good.
What were your favorite books as a child?
I’m glad you said “books” and not “book” because I couldn’t choose just one!
I loved Seuss (still do)! My dad used to read me the Sleep Book every night. To this day I have the whole thing memorized… and so does he!
I have also lost count of the times I’ve reread Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, after my Mom read it to me when I was six.
And I have great memories of taking turns reading Daniel Pinkwater’s books aloud on camping trips. The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death was our family favorite.
As I look back on all of my favorites as a child, they are inextricably linked to the memories of who I was with when reading them, or having them read to me. I think that speaks volumes about the power of reading aloud to children.
You started your career as an artist at DreamWorks, working on movies like Spirit. How is working on animation different from picture books?
They are really surprisingly similar. Both animation and picture books are methods of visual storytelling, both are collaborative artistic efforts, and both mediums are designed to be reproduced and shared with many, many people. The biggest difference between animation and picture books for me as an artist lies in the actual production.
In traditional animation, every second of film is made up of 24 frames, (24 individual drawings), per character. So, say a scene is 10 seconds long—that means I would need to create 240 drawings! That’s why there are hundreds of artists involved in the creation of an animated film. The work is divided amongst so many artists because the sheer number of images that need to be produced is enormous.
In a picture book on the other hand, the limited number of images telling the story is such that I can create each and every one myself. That allows for more personal artistic expression. But while I don’t have to make nearly as many drawings as I would in a film, I also don’t get to use as many drawings to communicate a feeling, action, or scene.
Each single drawing that I create in a picture book needs to convey all that is happening at that point in the story, the characters’ feelings, their relationship, the setting, as well as leading the reader to turn to the next page… it’s a wonderful challenge!
What advice do you have for aspiring illustrators?
Draw! Draw! Draw!
Learning to draw well means, quite simply, spending a lot of time drawing.
Whatever you think is a lot of time… add a bit more to it. Then add some more… and more…
You have to keep challenging yourself to become better and better. And just when you think you’re the best you can possibly be…
Debut Author Jesse Klausmeier and award-winning illustrator Suzy Lee (Wave, Shadow) share how they collaborated on the innovative and already-acclaimed (“A delightful and timely homage to reading and, more, to books themselves.” – Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review), Open This Little Book.
Where did you get the idea for Open This Little Book?
Jesse: I first had the idea when I was around 5 years old. I always wanted to read as many books as possible before going to bed, so when it came time for my last book, I would stuff other books inside a bigger one. One day, while at my grandparents’ house, I decided that I should write a book that had other books inside of it. Twenty years later I wrote the full manuscript, and five years after that, here it is!
How did you develop the concept for illustrating Open This Little Book?
Suzy: The ideas of dream-within-a-dream, mirror-within-a-mirror and book-within-a-book always fascinate me! We discussed what characters would fit, how they would interact with each other, which colors would match, which stories each page would have, and how much smaller the next page should be and… it was fun to discuss (as always) but it was not so easy to figure out how to realize it (as always).
The text seems to be simple, but the story itself is not that simple. It was a real team effort between me, Jess, our editor, Victoria, and the designer, Sara. I enjoyed the whole process and learned a lot while working on this project.
Show us your space!
Jesse: My writing area is generally well organized and pretty sparse. When I’m in the middle of research or doing inspiration boards (collages that capture the spirit of the story I’m working on) it can get messy. But when I’m focused on writing or editing, my desk is clear.
The few items that are displayed on my desk are beloved books and mementoes that inspire me. Writing is a solo activity, and surrounding myself with reminders of friends, colleagues, and the authors/illustrators that I love reminds me that I’m part of a larger creative community.
Suzy: I finished Open This Little Book just before I left Singapore—now our family has moved back to Korea. So there are many boxes around my workroom in the photo. I printed all of the double-spread pages and stuck them on the closet so that I could see how they flow.
The pencil drawing of the ladybug’s world.
This is my messy little workroom—my kids want to be next to me all the time. I worked and they did what they wanted (and, in this photo, my husband as well!). It’s a small workroom but everybody was here all the time!
What’s your routine when you’re working on a book?
Jesse: It’s a constant balance between structure and freedom. I like to take field trips for inspiration during the drafting and research stages, but then, as the story becomes more and more solid, I need more structure and fewer distractions. I also let each polished draft rest for two weeks (time permitting) before looking at it again, to keep my eyes fresh.
Did you do any research for Open This Little Book?
Jesse: I studied as many conceptual books as I could in preparation for Open This Little Book. The balance between the text and the illustrations is crucial, and most of the books I studied were authored and illustrated by the same person. As an author who is lacking in the drawing department, I knew that my text needed to be strong enough to stand alone.
Suzy: This project instantly reminded me of three of my favorite books that are “books about books.”
I loved the idea that the main character of Das Buch Im Buch actually enters into the book. That is a real reading experience: we fall into a book and when we come out of the book, our world has been changed. You may notice how colorful the ladybug’s world is in Open This Little Book after all the adventures she goes through!
This was made by my son, when he was 4 years old. He simply piled up the colored papers and bound them together and named it Rainbow Book. I don’t know if it was his intention that the papers folded unevenly so that it gave a more dynamic feeling and a great color combination. My son’s little rainbow book reminded of me Bruno Munari’s Libro illeggibile. Surely they started from the same idea!
I loved the pile of sheets of flat color that Munari and my son’s books created. The book gives you an illusion that there’s a world inside it, but in reality, it is just a pile of flat paper!
Bruno Munari’s Libro illeggibile.
What was it like when you first saw Suzy’s illustrations for Open This Little Book?
When I first saw them, they moved me to tears. I absolutely adore the characters, and the last page is one of my favorite illustrations of all time.
What was it like when you first held a finished copy of Open This Little Book?
Jesse: For the first five minutes, I just stared at the cover and stroked the embossing as I waited for my heart to stop slamming in my chest. The first time I read the book, my eyes were blurred with tears. I am just so proud of this book, and I still can’t believe it exists.
Suzy: I was thrilled to see the finished copy. Since we changed the format, design, and even story a lot, somehow nobody could really imagine what the final form would be. It was a surprise to see all the ideas actually came true, like magic!
Publicity, Children and Teens
Subscribe to our monthly Chronicle Kids Newsletter.
U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis’ latest book for Chronicle, When Thunder Comes, celebrates the lives of 17 civil rights leaders, from those history celebrates (Coretta Scott King and Mohandas “Mahatma” Ghandi) to those whose stories and struggles are lesser-known (Josh Gibson and Helen Zia).
As we look forward to celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Black History Month, we asked Pat to share his inspiration, writing process and the funny things he hears from kids.
How did you research the civil rights leaders profiled?
Painstakingly! Through biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs.
And the Internet was a terrific source for articles on these individuals that I would otherwise have missed.
How did you make the final selection for When Thunder Comes?
With a mixture of delight and melancholy (because I had to leave out so many worthies). Obviously, any book could be written on the subject of civil rights leaders and not include even one of the illustrious men and women who appear in When Thunder Comes.
So it was a challenge to meld famous leaders (Gandhi, Nelson Mandela) with the less well-known, at least in the U.S. And yet the details in the lives of Aung San Suu Kyi, Sylvia Mendez, and others proved no less fascinating, despite their obscurity to American readers.
Illustration by Tonya Engel
Sylvia pushed into the wind,
Septembering the trees,
and hurdled over a railroad track
to a two-room shack
that never read “Browns Only.”
It did not have to.
Under the billion-acre sky,
she wondered, Did white girls
at 17th Street Elementary really
wear rainbow necklaces?
Aunt Sally took her there once.
Eyes sharp as icepicks pierced
the windowpanes as if seeing
a Mexican for the first time.
Every door was locked with a
secret combination of frowns.
How can anyone ever get in?
Sylvia asked. Someone must know
who has the right key . . .
She looked up at her mother.
What did you learn that you didn’t know about well-known leaders like Nelson Mandela and Harvey Milk?
Mandela’s nobility—the presence of the man—and that he was treated with the greatest respect by his captors throughout twenty-seven years in prison still astonishes me. And Harvey Milk’s steadfastness and courage in the face of rampant homophobia I hope is a lesson to all of us.
Illustration by Meilo So
I knew my rights meant nothing.
I kept them out of sight.
Seen and heard when the sun went down,
hidden in harsh daylight.
Then Liberation called one day
and asked would I consent
to tell the world that I was proud
of being different.
I took the fight to the city fathers.
They scolded me for that:
We don’t approve of boys who wear
an unconventional hat.
So I became a city father
to break the laws that kept
boys and girls from living lives
that Life would not accept.
They say I came before my time
but who else would redress
unmitigated suffering due
to such small-mindedness?
How important was it to include lesser-known leaders and less publicized movements?
That was the most compelling motivation for me: to shed even the tiniest light on the bravery of people overcoming overwhelming odds, people who are virtually unknown in the West, especially here in America, whose inhabitants are the most insular on the planet.
Did writing When Thunder Comes influence your own level of political or social activism?
The short answer is No, not very much. Since the Vietnam War, I have always been politically active. In fact, When Thunder Comes is a sequel of sorts to another title of mine: Freedom Like Sunlight: Praisesongs for Black Americans. And I am now co-authoring a book of poems with George Ella Lyon, tentatively entitled Voices from the March, 1963.
When did you first decide to write poems for children?
Absent that magical teacher who turned my synapses to poetry, I became a professor of economics. But that door finally closed and the window of poetry opened for me, serendipitously, when I was nearly forty. So good things do indeed come to those who wait.
Why is it important for children to read poems?
As others have said, poetry is: beautiful speech; a momentary stay against confusion; real toads in imaginary gardens; the best words in the best order. Or, as I’ve said, it’s frosted fire. All parents and teachers should want to surround their children with the English language at its best. Poetry, after all, is kindling for the imagination.
What does your typical writing day look like?
Happily, it’s long. I’m usually up and at it at 4 a.m., quitting at 3-4 p.m., asleep by 9 p.m. When I am not making school visits or attending conferences, I am in the chair where I now sit. Thinking, thinking, writing, reading, rewriting, thinking, rewriting, reading, rewriting—in short, I’m engaged in a labor of love.
What do you say to kids who claim they can’t write poetry?
It may be shocking to relate but it’s quite true: Not everyone is—or should be—a poet. If you are unwilling to rewrite, as so many are, it’s likely that you will never become a poet. But so what? I’m much more interested in children who tell me that the most enjoyable part of their day is taken up with reading.
What’s the funniest thing a kid has asked you at a school visit?
A 4th grader—a 4-H’er—in Champaign, Illinois, asked me if I owned lambs. “No,” I said. “Well,” she replied, “I have two lambs and they both won blue ribbons at the Country Fair last month!” After I duly congratulated her, she said, “Do you know their names? Patrick and Lewis.”
I was so charmed I think my heart did a little flutter. But in the next breath, she said, “We had Lewis for dinner last night.”
Here’s a fun idea for the Thanksgiving kids’ table—all our favorite, traditional foods served in cute little single-sized servings.
Bake It in a Cup includes dozens of recipes for delectable dishes and 6 colorful, reusable silicone cups.
Make a perfectly portioned meal for your littlest dinner guests!
Ingredients for 6 cups:
6 boneless skinless thinly sliced turkey cutlets
6 ounces cream cheese
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1 teaspoon finely chopped orange zest
1 teaspoon chopped parsley
Pinch of salt
Pinch of pepper
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
Preheat the oven to 325°F.
1. In a medium bowl, add the cream cheese, cranberries, parsley, and zest to and blend until the ingredients are well combined.
2. Take one piece of turkey and spread 2 tablespoons of the cream cheese down the middle. Do the same with the other 5 turkey pieces.
3. Then roll up each chicken piece to look like a snail.
4. Place one roll in each cup.
5. Sprinkle salt and pepper on top each rolled turkey. Top off each roll with a pat (1/2 tablespoon) of butter.
6. Place the cups on a baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes, or until the top is lightly golden. Let cool for 5 minutes, then remove the roulades from the cups and serve.
Ingredients for 6 cups:
1/4 cup water
1 pound red garnet yams, peeled and chopped into bite-sized pieces
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup mini marshmallows
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
1. Pour an equal amount of water into the bottom of each cup.
2. In a medium bowl, place the yams and sprinkle in the nutmeg. Toss lightly to cover the yams with the nutmeg.
3. Spoon the yam mixture into each cup.
4. Place a pat (1/2 tablespoon) of butter on top of each cup.
5. Sprinkle the marshmallows on top.
6. Place the cups on a baking sheet and cover each with a piece of aluminum foil. Bake for 40 minutes and then, with adult help, remove the sheet from the oven and take the foil off of the cups.
7. Return the baking sheet and the cups to the oven for 20 minutes more, or until the marshmallows look golden. Let cool for 10 minutes before serving.
Ingredients for 6 pies:
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
1 cup dark corn syrup
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon butter, melted
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/4 cup chocolate chips
To make the crust:
1. Using a food processor (with adult help), combine the butter, powdered sugar, and flour and process on medium high until large crumbs form.
2. Add the cream and process for 2 more minutes, or just until the dough comes together in a rough ball.
3. Place 2 tablespoons of the dough into each cup. Press the dough evenly into the bottom and up the sides of each cup to form a crust.
4. Place the cups in the freezer to chill for 10 minutes. This helps firm up the dough so it will keep its shape better when you bake it.
To make the filling:
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
2. In a medium bowl, combine the corn syrup, granulated sugar, eggs, and vanilla until well mixed.
3. Add the melted butter and salt and continue to whisk until combined.
4. Divide the pecans and chocolate chips among the crustfilled cups. Pour an equal amount of the syrup mixture into each cup.
5. Place the cups on a baking sheet and bake for 25 minutes, or until the filling has set. Cool for 10 minutes before serving.
Silicon cups are also a great way to serve Thanksgiving leftovers. Fill them with mashed potatoes, turkey and a dollop of gravy or cranberry sauce, heat and eat!
A forum for our authors, all of us here at Chronicle, and you, our
readers, to share our thoughts on more than just books. It's about
the images, the people, and the experiences that inspire us all,
every day, to do what we love. So post a comment, send us a link,
and join the conversation.