June 28, 2019
By Tara Lazar
At the risk of dating myself, I’ll mention an old commercial tag line from the 1970’s—“when E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”
Well, when Holiday House contacts you and asks if you’d like to chat with two-time Caldecott and Geisel Honor book winner Laura Vaccaro Seeger, you also stop everything and LISTEN!
Laura’s latest book is a charmer, snuggle-worthy for the littlest ones. It’s titled, simply, WHY?
I met Laura last year at the Irma S. Black Award ceremony where she served as keynote speaker. She showed us her newest book at the time, BLUE, about a boy and his best friend. (Notice how the die cut on each page forms a new part of the image with each turn.)
Laura, you must know you are the only PB creator to make my husband tear up, as you read BLUE. And he’s never even had a dog! He was incredibly moved. How do you inject so much heart into your stories?
With every book, I try to distill the story down to its essence and I always draw upon strong feelings and beliefs while writing and illustrating.
With BULLY, for example, I’ve always felt a deep sense of empathy for anyone who was bullied or feeling left out, so it was important to me that above all else, empathy is the most important aspect of that book.
BLUE is probably the most difficult book I’ve ever created. It really comes from a deeply personal place. As a young child, I’d experienced the sudden loss of a family member—my brother—and that very complicated trauma was never really worked through. Consequently, I’ve always had an overwhelming fear and dread of loss. BLUE is a kind of therapeutic, cathartic personal exercise, but more importantly, it’s an attempt to offer comfort, as well as a starting point for deeper discussion with young children, (or anyone, really).
Your husband’s reaction truly means a lot to me!
So with your new book WHY?, what did you distill its essence down to?
WHY is a about curiosity, patience, and understanding. The little rabbit is having a bit of an existential crisis, and at one point in the book, the apparently all-knowing bear is faced with a similar crisis as he realizes that he can’t explain everything after all. Ultimately, their loving and enduring friendship is more important than anything, even when there are unanswerable questions. (I’ve always been fascinated with unanswered questions…)
Why do you think WHY? is a child’s most pressing (and frequent) question?
Well, given that children are witnessing everything pretty much for the first time, I think it makes sense that they would seek to have a deeper understanding of what they’re seeing and hearing.
I think adults often take for granted their surroundings, even if those deeper meanings were never fully explored or questioned.
Why are the characters in the book a bear and a bunny—instead of a bear and cub (or rabbit and bunny)? Why is the relationship shown as one of friendship instead of parent-child?
Ah, I thought long and hard about that.
With this book, as with many, I had an immediate vision that I wanted to stay true to. I knew that I wanted one of the characters to be very large, and one super small, which in many ways ended up dictating the decision about whether or not they’re related to one another. I also wanted them to be friends rather than relatives because friendship is a voluntary relationship, which I felt made the story more interesting in many ways.
Also, from the beginning. I’d envisioned a bear and a rabbit, but I did explore a substitute for the bear because I was worried that there might be confusion between the bear in WHY, and the bear in my DOG AND BEAR series. In the end, I felt the bear was undeniably perfect, and I was confident that the character would be distinctive in its own right.
He is distinctive! And so lumpy in a furry-cuddly way. Plus, it’s more visually interesting to showcase contrasting characters!
Speaking of your art, it’s gorgeous, full of depth and texture. Can you tell us a little about your illustration process for WHY?
Sure! With each book, I try to envision an art style that will match the text I’ve written. Hence the multiple, various art styles over the years.
With WHY, I envisioned a softer style, unlike any of my other books. It’s been years since I’ve worked with watercolors, and I had such a great time painting the art for this book!
So, I began each painting with a pencil drawing, and then I painted over the drawings with watercolor paint. I repeated this process lightly, many times, which gave the art depth and a layered feel, without any thick paint or brushstrokes. This way, the softness was retained and the pencil lines showed through.
Once all of that was done, I still felt it needed something – a bit of grittiness and a little more depth. I wanted it to feel more organic.
So, I finally broke out a fabulous gigantic Japanese brush I’d bought a few years ago in Singapore and I soaked it full of water so that it was completely saturated. Then, I brought it into my backyard where I dipped the sopping wet brush into India ink and flung it at watercolor papers. When I was finished, I had a huge stack of paper, each sheet full of splotches, spots, drips, etc. I created so many sheets because I didn’t want to repeat any of the elements.
Then, I scanned my original watercolor paintings and all of the “splotch” art sheets. For each painting, I overlaid several different “splotch” art sheets, I isolated the splotches, and I either lightened or darkened those areas on the original paintings.
Your process is fascinating! I love the thick and chunky Japanese brush!
What’s so lovely about the illustrations is that they feel soft and safe for a young child who is asking WHY, who is questioning the world around them. What do you hope that young reader will take away from your story?
I think with WHY, I’d love to encourage curiosity and the freedom and “permission” to question absolutely everything, which ultimately I believe, would encourage independent thought and informed decision-making. I also hope WHY is an example of patience and understanding, for sure. And lastly, I hope that young readers understand that not all questions have immediate answers, and that’s okay.
What a wonderful take-off point for a meaningful discussion between adult and child.
Thank you, Laura, for giving us a glimpse into your creative process!
WHY? is available from Holiday House on August 13…