This year marks Caldecott Honoree Denise Fleming’s 25th year of making picture books. Parents, teachers, and librarians all over the country—indeed, anyone who works with young children—will recognize her signature paper-pulp illustrations, visually-appealing spreads with palettes that pop. Her inviting, child-centered texts, stories that often celebrate the natural world, are geared at small readers (and listeners sitting in laps), making them go-to standards for the preschool set.
Fleming’s newest book, Maggie and Michael Get Dressed, tells the entertaining story of a young boy, his dog, and rambunctious attempts to get dressed for the day. “The joyful celebration of common activity,” notes the Kirkus review, “radiates from every page.” And Fleming is as busy as ever: Coming this Fall will be a counting book, 5 Little Ducks.
I talked with her via email to ask her about the new book and her passion for creating stories and art for the youngest of readers.
I love this new book. How many drafts did you go through? The text flows so well and is perfect for very young readers/listeners, but it's never easy to write something that seemingly simple, right?
Gosh, I don't count drafts. But every text I write is written and re-written. Some texts spawn another idea, and the original text is dropped altogether. I found that writing Maggie and Michael Get Dressed as dialogue worked best. We all have conversations with our animal companions, where we talk and they respond with body language or facial expressions.
I think the hardest part of writing is not to overwrite.
Can you talk about your pulp painting technique and how it works?
Pulp painting is a paper-making technique. I pour recycled cotton fiber that has been beaten to a fine pulp and floating in water onto a frame covered with screen. The water drains through the screen, and the fiber stays on top of the screen. The beaten cotton fiber comes to me white. I dye the fiber with colorfast pigments. To create images, I cut stencils and pour the colored fiber inside the stencil shapes. I also use very finely-beaten colored fiber and water in squeeze bottles [to] draw images.
Once the painting is finished, I flip it off the screen onto a damp cloth. I put another damp cloth on top of the pulp painting and then, using a large damp sponge, I press down on the paper and remove as much water as possible. From there, I transfer it to a vacuum table that removes even more water from the paper. Then it goes into a drying press where it is sandwiched between blotter paper and Homasote board where it dries flat. The more pressure applied, the stronger the paper becomes. The image and sheet of paper are one.
Your first picture book was published about 25 years ago, yes? Can you talk about changes in publishing over the past two decades that have pleased you? What about some challenges/frustrations?
In The, Tall, Tall Grass, my first book that I wrote and illustrated, celebrates its 25th birthday this year. I am so pleased that it is still out there sharing nature with children.
Publishing was much more personal when I started in the book world. I used to know everyone at my first publisher, Henry Holt and Co., and a lot of the other publishers. Now, not so much. Everyone is busier, and things are set up differently.
The Internet has changed the way everyone operates. I miss phone calls and handwritten notes.
I am not a big fan of change. The computer and I are acquaintances, not friends, says Dinosaur Denise.
I am lucky to have two publishers, Holt (Macmillan) and Beach Lane (Simon & Schuster) that do such a great job of printing my books.
You've consistently made engaging, child-friendly books over the years—not to mention bright and beautiful ones. What keeps you inspired?
Thank you for that lovely compliment. Child-friendly is the best compliment I can receive.
Children, nature, and life in general keep me inspired, along with some pretty talented book-making friends.
I can spend a whole day happily watching bees gather nectar, birds building nests, the wind blowing the tall stalks of bamboo outside my studio, and eavesdropping on conversations. Doesn't take much for my endorphins to flow and, with those endorphins, come ideas.
I also like to experiment with different art processes and materials. The book after 5 Little Ducks, which will be released in November, will be illustrated with collage and a variety of printmaking techniques. I am quite excited about that new technique and several others that will be debuting in the future.
What is it about creating books for very young readers that you love?
Well, I am pretty much the same person I was at age 4 or 5. I like the same things. I am still bossy and messy. Animals were my best friends then –and now. Still like to make things using bright colors. Abhor bedtime. Peanut butter, pickles, chocolate, and cheese and chips are my favorite foods. Have added iced tea. Want to touch things I am told not to. Not fond of combing my hair.
See, the younger ones are my peeps. I know them through and through. Those older ones are more complicated.
What's next for you?
I am working on the art for a book now in a new style. It is about a bird nest. I have a collection of bird nests that were blown out of trees and one that was in a live-cut Christmas tree.
I have been interested in nest-building forever. But it took me years to work out a text that I liked. I think the first nest manuscript is from at least ten years ago. I keep drawers full of lousy stuff, because you never know when you have a spark of inspiration that will make that idea come alive.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.