With Step Gently Out, the stunning first-time collaboration between poet Helen Frost and nature photographer Rick Lieder, proponents of the odd separation of author from illustrator in children’s publishing are hereby put on notice.
The marriage between word and image in this gorgeous picture book melds one poem encouraging young readers to explore insect wonders of the natural world with breathtakingly intimate photographs captured only with the aid of natural light. Its success is both organic and the result of Frost and Lieder’s creative union from their project’s inception. We had the privilege of speaking with these gifted artists together as they discussed the genesis of their lyric venture centered on bugs.
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What came first, the poem or the images?
Rick Lieder: I think probably the images. Helen and I met at a book signing and talked about some of the work I’d been doing. I’d been focusing on nature photography, and I ended up sending her quite a few images, and she wrote a poem based on them. I took that and made a book dummy of it.
It was a true collaboration, and we went back and forth figuring what was going to go with what. It was great to work with someone who really understood what I was doing, and Helen’s poetry is so great. Eventually we came up with something where the words and pictures really came together, and you couldn’t think of one without the other.
Helen Frost: Usually when the images come first, the illustrator illustrates them and the text serves like captions of the images. It wasn’t like that here. We worked closely together to ensure that one half of the book would enhance the other. Editors usually separate authors and illustrators, but we worked together from the beginning, and then our editor came into the process and was very respectful of that.
Another part of the collaboration was I didn’t write from the photographs exactly. I looked at the photographs, and that sort of awakened in me the sense of an experience that I used to have. There may be a couple of exceptions, but I tried not to write about something I hadn’t experienced myself. So I would look for the insects and really observe closely what was in my backyard. Because Michigan and Indiana are relatively close, there are fairly similar insects here, and I would write from my own experience with Rick’s photographs kind of in the back of my mind, but it wasn’t like I was writing for each photograph. Almost always if I wanted to write something, Rick had something to go with the text.
Are kids particularly well- or ill-suited to relate to insects?
HF: Well, I loved insects as a child. I got all kinds of props in my family because I was brave enough to pick up a spider or something. I collected insects when I was little, and I remember when I was 3 years old going to a museum—it must have been an entomologist’s lab. I remember this huge room with cases and cases of insects, and I just loved that. I loved the word entomologist, and I would tell people that was what I was going to be when I grew up. That’s hilarious because I probably loved the word as much as the insects. I don’t know. What do you think, Rick?
RL: I have always been interested in this. I think that if you just leave them alone, all children are drawn to this. When you’re young, everything is new. I really think that more children, if we just let them be children, would be fascinated with all this new, incredible life. Insects in particular are, in some cases, so different from us, but they’re also so fascinating in all their different forms that I think a child just left on his or her own would find the wonder there and be fascinated by the variety and the colors, the beauty of these small creatures. I think there’s a curiosity there that, for whatever reason, we lose as we get older. If we spark it in kids early, it will just get them more interested in what the world really is like.
Now Rick, do you choose your bugs, or do your bugs choose you?
RL: I would say they choose me. One of the things I was trying to do was go out without any preconceived notions of what I was going to do. I never know what I’m going to find—what insect, what creature. I’d say the same about photographing birds. So the fun part is just to go out, see what happens, and see what I can do with that once it presents itself. I might find an ant, a bee, a praying mantis…
HF: I live in Indiana, and Rick and his wife live near Detroit, and when we got the contracts for the book we were excited, so we met halfway between at a place on a lake. After dinner, we were walking around, and to me it was OK, this is a pretty sunset, and all of a sudden, I saw Rick zeroing in on a leaf, and there was a grasshopper. And then he just took a picture. It was fun to see him in action.
RL: In fact, I use that image when I do presentations with groups because the only thing I had with me was a little point ’n’ shoot. While the sunset was beautiful, the area around the restaurant wasn’t especially pretty, but I noticed this grasshopper on a plant and took a picture of it with a camera everybody has and got an interesting photo out of it.
The equipment doesn’t matter. It’s what you see. Just look at the light around you, see what you can do with it, and you can come up with some really amazing images. We all have the ability and the tools. We just have to take the time to look—that’s the biggest hurdle to get over.
HF: Right. What we hope is that children will read this book and then go out in their own backyards and find whatever is there. So it won’t just be looking for a praying mantis necessarily, it might be a scorpion or something where they are, but they’ll have experienced one way of seeing the world, and then they can see what it is where they are. Even in cities, kids can go out on the sidewalk and watch the ants, or see a bee flying by that they might not otherwise have seen.
RL: Anywhere there’s plant life, you’re going to find these creatures. If you just look carefully and step out, you’ll see. Mostly we ignore nature these days, but if you do pay attention, you’ll be amazed at what you find. A child anywhere in the world can find something just as interesting and just as beautiful.
Erika Rohrbach spends her days helping international students at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and her nights and weekends in northern New Jersey.