Little slips of cut paper. Newspapers. Buttons. Old books. Ticket stubs. Graph paper. These are things that author-illustrator Carin Berger is always on the lookout for. In her new book, Finding Spring, she assembles such bits and pieces into the enchanting story of a young bear named Maurice.
Maurice is eager to see spring, even though his mother gently reminds him it will soon be time to hibernate. Impatient and curious, he sets out to find it, but what he discovers instead are bare branches, dry leaves, frozen streams, and—ultimately—snowflakes. Thinking he’s succeeded in finding spring, he heads home with a souvenir, and when he wakes after a long sleep, he is met with a happy surprise—the “bright green buds” and “blooming branches” of the real thing. It’s spring, the actual spring. In all its glory.
Berger’s beautifully designed, textured collages pop off the page. The story itself is the subtle and magical tale of a child’s wonder in discovery. I talked with her via email to ask her about the book and its creation.
Was there any particular inspiration for Maurice, the name of your protagonist?
Maurice is an homage to the illustrator of Little Bear. [Little Bear] was Maurice's name until I realized that it couldn't be, since there already was a much more famous Little Bear.
Can you talk about creating the art? I know you visited my site in 2013 to do so in a very early sneak-peek, but for those who didn't read that, can you describe this shadow box art?
In Finding Spring, a little bear named Maurice strikes off on his own in search of spring, instead of hibernating. It is a story about seeking and about the magic of discovery. It is about those empowering childhood adventures that I remember so vividly—those moments of exploration without an adult supervising. It is also about the elusiveness of that which we seek and the happy accidental discoveries along the way.
I wanted the art to have an intimacy and to give the reader a sense of peeking into Maurice's world. To achieve this, I knew that I wanted to make the illustrations like little toy theaters, with shadows and dimension, and then to photograph them with my friend, Porter Gillespie, who shot the art for another book that I illustrated, Stardines Swim High Across the Sky, written by Jack Prelutsky.
I started by making each character from every page of the book. This is necessary to do to keep the characters consistent throughout the book, because I create the art with found ephemera. In the case of the characters, that means finding perfect bits of color in magazines and catalogs. Soon, I had a whole menagerie of bears and bunnies and birds and squirrels frolicking on my desk.
Once all of the animals were made, I went back and created final art for each page, building up depth by using foam core and balsa wood—and sometimes even tiny pins. I was aiming to create a feeling of make-believe, like a doll house or a holiday shop window. Snowflakes were attached with pins, and shadows were painted that didn't necessarily correspond with the cast shadows in the photographs. I liked that little extra bit of artifice.
Creating the photographs and final art with Porter was another important step of the process. We shot the art making sure that the shadows captured the dimensionality of the art, and we added digital vignettes to some of the images to enhance the feeling of looking into the illustrations. Kind of like peeking into a stereoscope or a Victorian raree show.
Where do you tend to get your "ephemera" that you use for your illustrations?
I am always on the prowl for good ephemera. Flea markets, used bookstores, barn sales, and friends have all been great sources. I love that the paper comes with built-in stories. A dear friend got me started long ago by giving me a big box of papers found in an old Californian barn. In it was a lifetime's worth of letters, photos, and old receipts, which together told the story of a family's life from the turn of the 20th century till the early 1990s. There were letters that the patriarch wrote when he was a boy and ran away to Oregon to become a logger and then decades’ worth of letters, bills, and gas and water and feed receipts from when he returned to run the family farm. I treasure these stories and feel like they somehow add a depth to the artwork, even if the histories of the papers that I am working with remain secret.
What’s next for you?
I am currently wrestling with the illustrations for a manuscript that I wrote called Goodnight, Goodnight for Greenwillow Books, and I have just agreed to illustrate a manuscript for Neal Porter, written by Miranda Paul, called Are We Pears Yet?
FINDING SPRING. Copyright © 2015 by Carin Berger. Published by Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, New York. Illustration reproduced by permission of Carin Berger.
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.