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Making Sense of Childhood

An Interview with Holly Keller

by Geri Ceci Cupery

Holly Keller, winner of the 2003 Charlotte Zolotow Award, is the author-illustrator of more than thirty-five books for young children; she has also illustrated over twenty nonfiction titles written by others. She lives in Connecticut with her husband, a pediatrician, and is the mother of two children, now grown. Her books have won recognition from Horn Book, School Library Journal, the Library of Congress, the American Booksellers Association, the National Council for the Social Studies-Children's Book Council, and Reading Rainbow.

GCC: Your picture book stories are noted for having a message as well as being entertaining, two things you've combined successfully time and again. New glasses, adoption, new baby, sibling rivalry, beloved blanket, death of a pet, being the new kid -- these are just some of the childhood issues you've covered, yet without being didactic or judgmental. Would you say that every story contains some kind of message if it is to speak truly about children 's experiences?

HK: Writing a story with a message is not one of my conscious goals, but is often an accidental consequence of an effort to make sense of some common childhood concern. Just as adults often read fiction with an eye to finding out more about where they fit into the universe, children, too, seem to enjoy having some reassurance that their experiences or issues are not unique. Identifying with characters in stories is a way to get a bit of perspective on our lives.

GCC: Farfallina & Marcel is a story about friendship, perseverance - and transformation. How do you think young children identify with the characters, and connect the story with their own lives? It's a little more removed from everyday life than many of your books, more like a fable.

HK: Farfallina is indeed about friendship and change, two things that are particularly important to children. A child doesn't deal with change only in the philosophical manner of adults, but in the very real sense of rapid physical transformation. Children are also concerned with love and loss and continuity and that is very much what Farfallina & Marcel is about. This story seems to hit a tender spot with "older" readers, too, who at the other end of the spectrum must confront the same questions. In that sense this book may have a more universal appeal than some of the others I have written.

GCC: You once said the character of Henry the possum shares a "beleaguered" feeling that your own son had as a small child -- and that Geraldine the piglet is really you! Have other people in your life found their way into your books? And are these more likely to become recurring characters?

HK: Friends and people in my family are to be found in all of my stories. Henry was modeled on my son Jesse, and Geraldine is really a combination of my daughter and me. This all gives me a little perspective too!! But often I will take traits of one and combine them with traits of another, so in the end it's hard to say who is who. And again, I don't think this is a very conscious process.

GCC: The children in your many picture books are sometimes portrayed as people-like animals, sometimes as human characters. What leads you to decide on one or the other?

HK: I never decide ahead of time which characters will be animals and which will be "real" humans; the characters seem to dictate that themselves. Usually when I start to write I get a mental image of my main character, and however he or she appears is what they turn out to be. It's more of an instinct than a choice.

GCC: How have children responded to your longer books -- the short chapter books starring the intrepid Angela? Has anyone tried to send Angela an email?

HK: Children seem to have responded well to the longer books, though not as well as to the shorter ones. I have received quite a few e-mails from fans of Angela's computer club, including several from parents and librarians who want to see if it "works." Some teachers have even used the book as a way of teaching children to write and receive e-mail, and that has been fun.

GCC: You wrote the Angela books in first person. Did you find using a different narrative voice helpful in writing a longer text?

HK: There was never a question about using a first person narrative voice for Angela, because I AM Angela!

GCC: Your illustration style has grown from simple line drawings, often framed, with lots of white space, to a lush use of color that fills entire pages and double-page spreads. Is that an accurate assessment? Could you talk about how you think you've developed as an illustrator since your first book was published in 1982?

HK: My style as an illustrator has changed and grown as my ability as a writer has developed. I think that the two are pretty closely tied together. The early stories and the early drawings were fairly tentative, and over the years both have loosened up. My first experiment with a much more painterly style was a few years ago in a book called Rosata, which was not very successful, and as a result I went back to the older style in subsequent stories. When Farfallina came along I knew it was time to bring out a few more brushes, and I am very delighted that both story and pictures have been so well received. Of course I will go back and forth for a while because change is an uneven process. But I will continue to experiment because that is where the challenge lies.

GCC: In nonfiction, accuracy is an especially crucial element when illustrating science and nature, as you've often done in the Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science Books series. How do you develop the illustrations for these books? Is there much give and take between you and the authors?

HK: I love illustrating the Let's Read and Find Out books because it is such a different challenge. There is almost never any exchange between author and illustrator, but there is a lot of editorial involvement. The process usually begins with the development of the character who carries the story of whatever principle of science is being explained, and then I have to do a lot of research on the subject. The illustrations go through many fact checks by experts in the field and often go through several versions. The trick is to find a way to turn a scientific concept into a readable and understandable book, and I learn a lot too.

GCC: What would you name as your most ambitious book, in terms of the writing, the illustration, or both?

HK: Grandfather's Dream was hard for me, because I had to turn a real series of events into a fictionalized account.

GCC: That book is set in Vietnam, a completely different culture from what you portray in most of your other books. Could you describe how it came about?

HK: I went to Vietnam with the organization Earthwatch, which was involved in a program of wildlife reclamation, and decided it was a story worth telling to children. The question of whether land was to be used for growing rice for people to eat or for a bird sanctuary to honor the cultural heritage was being argued in Vietnam between younger people and older ones. I tried to represent that story by letting the grandfather be the spokesperson for the older citizens, and Nam's mother speak for a younger generation. Nam, a child, became the bridge between the two in my story, as I suspect will be the case in reality. I like stories that give children a sense of their own capabilities and this seemed to work nicely.

GCC: Island Baby is also set in a rather exotic locale -- a Caribbean island. Is there an interesting story behind that book? Are you going to continue exploring other cultures in the future?

HK: Island Baby was a very enjoyable project. My husband and son had gone to a Caribbean island on a scuba diving trip and had seen baby flamingos wafted about in the water. Islanders often tried to rescue them. I decided to write a story about that, and of course I had to make my own island trip to do "research" for the illustrations! I don't have any plans to explore other cultures, but if the right story idea came along, I would definitely jump at the chance.

GCC: Can you tell us about what you are working on currently? What books can we look forward to seeing from you in the next year or two?

HK: I am working on a couple of new stories, but ideas change so much along the way that I don't really want to talk about them yet. There will be a new book in the fall called What A Hat that is about trust and acceptance, and some other things as well.

GCC: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us.

Selected Books by Holly Keller:

Cromwell's Glasses, Greenwillow, 1982.

Ten Sleepy Sheep,Greenwillow, 1983.

Geraldine's Blanket, Greenwillow, 1984.

Henry's Fourth of July, Greenwillow, 1985.

A Bear for Christmas, Greenwillow, 1986.

Goodbye, Max, Greenwillow, 1987.

Geraldine's Big Snow, Greenwillow, 1988.

The Best Present, Greenwillow, 1989.

Horace, Greenwillow, 1991.

The New Boy, Greenwillow, 1991.

Island Baby, Greenwillow, 1992.

Grandfather's Dream, Greenwillow, 1994.

Geraldine's Baby Brother, Greenwillow, 1994.

I Am Angela, Greenwillow, 1997.

Angela's Top-Secret Computer Club, Greenwillow, 1998.

That's Mine, Horace, Greenwillow, 2000.

Cecil's Garden, Greenwillow, 2002.

Farfallina & Marcel, Greenwillow, 2002.

Reprinted from Friends of the CCBC Newsletter 2003, Number 2 with permission of Geri Ceci Cupery and the Friends of the CCBC, Inc. ©2003 Friends of the CCBC, Inc.

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