Prolific author/illustrator Lisa Campbell Ernst has been nationally recognized for her picture books and stories for young people. Her many honors include the Show Me Readers Award, a Parent’s Choice Award, Booklists’s “Pick of the List” and a Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor. Here she talks about her newest picture book, which explores How Things Work in the Yard.
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Please tell me about how you came up with the concept for this new book. You’ve said that you like to mull things over.
My goal…was to celebrate the coolness of simple things outside. An ant, a water sprinkler, a rock…what makes those things unique? I purposely chose “humble” items to explore because of course they aren’t really humble at all—they are incredibly amazing if you take the time to wrap your brain around it!
The concept of How Things Work in the Yard began over the years when my daughters were working on their science homework in the kitchen. I realized I must not have been paying attention in school during science class, because what they were learning amazed me. Meteorology, entomology, geology, wow! They got very tired of me saying, “that’s really incredible.”
Amazingness is going on around us every nanosecond of the day, but how often do we marvel at the astounding way the world works? I ended up dedicating How Things Work to my daughter’s middle school science teacher, Mrs. Twyman.
Tell me about your illustrations. Is creating them as exacting as it looks? Are these illustrations a departure for you?
In the past most of my illustrations have been created with pastels, using ink and a quill pen for the line work. The combination of those media suits my visual voice very well, with deep shadows and shimmery highlights. But when I started mulling over the possibility of a book about how simple things work, I felt the imagery needed to be more direct.
A few years ago I discovered the paper cuts of Hans Christian Anderson—apparently, when a guest in friend’s homes, he would make paper cuts to entertain the children. The grace and playfulness of his paper creations amazed me and caused me to begin to play with the medium to see if I could find a voice that would be my own. To me, cut paper feels simple and honest, fresh and straightforward.
The illustrations in How Things Work are made of paper, cut mostly with scissors but sometimes an Exacto knife, and Elmer’s glue. It’s about as low-tech as it can possibly be! It drives my husband, a designer who works on a computer, crazy because he knows easier ways to achieve the same look.
Is this process expressive of who you are as an artist in some way?
Somehow…“building” these little images with pieces of paper is incredibly satisfying to me, a vital part of the creative process. Unfortunately it’s also extremely time consuming—but I’ve always been a marathoner, not a sprinter, when it comes to making books.
Have you had a chance to share your book with children yet? Any reactions that particularly pleased you?
Yes, totally. From the very beginning, when I was telling myself this was quite possibly the most ridiculous idea in the world—who in their right mind wants to explain how a rock works—I can't tell you how many stunned adult faces I saw when I’d tell friends what I had in the works.
But when I talked to young kids about my project, they had a totally different reaction. Sharing how squirrels use their tails like umbrellas in the rain made them laugh. Talking about ants, who I think are freaky cool, who have skeletons on the outside, and who divide up their family's jobs so that some ants gather food, and some ants stay home and take care of baby ants, and some ants take out the garbage, made their eyebrows go up; they'd turn back to look at the little ant hill in front of us.
So often young children are far more interested in the minutiae of the world than the rushing adults around them. I think on some level this book is like a meandering walk around a back yard.
I'm currently working on an inside version of How Things Work. Because the world needs to know how a sock works, how soap works, how a banana works...it's scheduled to come out spring 2012.