I may have grown up in the South – where snow is rare, where just a few flakes can close down schools and send everyone scrambling at the grocery stores, and where I’ve only seen approximately one-point-five kinds of ice – but I can still appreciate the beauty of Ellen Bryan Obed’s Twelve Kinds of Ice, illustrated by Barbara McClintock.
In this soft-spoken yet vigorous tribute to winter, illustrated via pen and ink by the brilliant Barbara McClintock, Obed chronicles in a detailed series of lovingly-crafted vignettes one farm family’s memory of the launch of winter and the joys ice brings about. It all culminates in a jubilant ice skating party, though the family is left with their “Dream Ice,” the ice that comes in their sleep, where they could “skate anywhere we wanted – down roads, in and out of yards, and over the tops of trees.”
When Barbara wasn’t working on her artwork for Obed’s ode to ice, she was busy with her illustrations for Leave Your Sleep, a selection of classic children’s poetry first adapted to music by Natalie Merchant in 2010. Natalie’s CD project inspired this new collection from Frances Foster Books.
I interrupted Barbara’s busy schedule to ask her a bit about each project.
What was it like to first read Ellen Bryan Obed's eloquent words in Twelve Kinds of Ice and what was your first response as an illustrator?
Whenever my agent Jennie Dunham sends a manuscript for me to consider, there's a small moment of tension before I begin reading the first word, like a tiny pause before tearing into the wrapping paper on a Christmas present. Will I be charmed by this manuscript? Will I see images as I read? And will my style and approach be a comfortable fit with the text?
Twelve Kinds of Ice was charming from the start. The writing was simple, direct, and lyrical, natural and warm. I loved the way the manuscript worked like a set of nesting dolls, categorizing the stages of ice as worlds full of texture and mood, but also as pages in a journal written to explore the passions and enthusiasms of a family of skaters in Maine.
The rural setting of the story was instantly comfortable for me. It evoked memories of my grandfather's farm in North Dakota – and of ice in all its varieties. I knew I could bring an authentic visual presence to the story and that I would deeply enjoy exploring the texture of trees; the hidden world on the bottom of lakes, suddenly crystallized under the lens of hard, clear ice; and the excitement and imagination of a family who lived for skating season.
I was also thrilled to illustrate a book in black and white. I'm a cross-hatching fool, and love building tones and texture with pen and ink lines.
Tell me about creating the wonderful "Dream Ice" spread. Did you know right away it would be as it is in the final book, or did it go through different variations?
Just before Jennie sent Twelve Kinds of Ice to me, I'd seen an exhibit of Lisbeth Zwerger's work at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. One of the pieces of art in the exhibit was a lovely watercolor painting of a large yellow house with white trim, illuminated from the ground. The drama created by the angle of lighting fascinated me. It created the illusion of making an ordinary, familiar place into something absolutely mysterious and dream-like. I thought about that piece of art as I read the “Dream Ice” sequence and wanted to create a similar mood in my drawing.
I usually do little pencil sketches in the margins of manuscripts on first reading to capture the initial spontaneous images that come to mind. My first little pencil sketch idea was two buildings with a skater jumping from one roof to the other. Kate O'Sullivan, my editor, and Scott Magoon, my art director, felt the image was out of context, because the setting looked too urban.
I revised the sketch to show a house on a rural road and used clouds and telephone wires as the spring board for all that wonderful dream skating activity.
Did you collaborate closely with Natalie Merchant on Leave Your Sleep?
Frances Foster was our fearless leader/editor par excellence. Natalie and I worked very closely with Frances, and Frances relayed comments, thoughts, ideas, and an on-going enthusiasm between Natalie and me. We three were well-matched in our vision and stylistic sensibilities for the book. Not only do we have a beautiful book to show for our year of hard work, but as the book grew, so did a friendship between Natalie and me. I'm extremely fond of Natalie and Frances. It was an honor to work with them both.
What's next for you?
I'm just finishing Where’s Mommy?, a sequel to Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary, written by Beverly Donofrio and published by Schwartz & Wade.
I'm also working on My Grandfather’s Coat, written by Jim Aylesworth, for Scholastic. The story is a version of the Yiddish tale “Something from Nothing,” and I'm setting the story in my area of rural northeastern Connecticut – in homage to the Eastern European Jewish tailors and farmers who immigrated to rural areas of America.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion 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.
TWELVE KINDS OF ICE. Copyright © 2012 by Ellen Bryan Obed. Illustrations copyright © 2012 by Barbara McClintock. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston. Spread here reproduced by permission of Barbara McClintock.