Creating Picture Books:
What Amy (Schwartz) Likes Best
An Interview by Geri Ceci Cupery
Amy Schwartz has written and illustrated many well-received books for children during her career, including Bea and Mr. Jones, A Teeny Tiny Baby, and What James Likes Best, winner of the 2004 Charlotte Zolotow Award. Her work has received the National Jewish Book Award, the Parents' Choice Award, and the Christopher Award, and has been included on numerous recommended booklists for children. She lives in New York with her husband, Leonard S. Marcus, and their son, Jacob. GCC: You've been publishing steadily for over twenty years. Your first book, Bea and Mr. Jones, which you both wrote and illustrated, came out in 1982. It was cited as a Best Children's Book by School Library Journal and named one of the year's 100 Best Children's Books by the New York Public Library. The following year it was featured on PBS-TV's Reading Rainbow series. Could you describe your reaction to such widespread acclaim at the very start of your career? AS: It was very exciting for me when Bea and Mr. Jones was published. I was quite star struck by the world of picture books and it was amazing to me that I had had a book published. At the time, Bradbury Press, which published BEA, was a small independent children's book publisher based in Scarsdale, NY. The day the first copies of BEA arrived, Bob Verrone, my editor, sent his assistant to my apartment with a book and a bottle of champagne. It was great. As for the attention BEA received, it was, of course, very enjoyable. At the time I think I rather took it for granted, as I had no other publishing experience to compare it to. GCC: I see your own success mirrored in the triumphs of your determined picture book heroines. Do you agree that might be the case, at least in part? AS: My picture book heroines are determined, and I guess, so am I. When I was first getting started in the field, working on Bea and Mr. Jones and Begin at the Beginning, any rejections I got were painful, but I kept on going. For one thing, creating picture books was the only profession I wanted to be a part of, and could imagine myself joining. I think my stick-to-it-tiveness was a major factor in my success in getting published. My father was a writer and had incredible discipline. I'm not as disciplined as he was, but I think I inherited some of his ability to persist. I am lucky that I have an agent, Jane Feder, who not only is an extremely talented editor, but who will also stick with me through repeated revisions and attempts over long periods to get a story to work. GCC: Early in your career, you told an interviewer that you preferred illustration over writing. A few years later, you said, "I really started writing so that I would have something to illustrate. Now writing seems like a natural part of me." Do you have a preference for one or the other today? AS: I started out with a background in fine art, and no idea of myself as a writer. While with illustration I'm starting with a text to illustrate, story ideas have to emerge from thin air, or at least that's how it feels. But once I do have a story idea, I ultimately feel like I have more control over my writing than over my illustrating. When I have finished a book, there is often some aspect of the art that I wish I could have done differently, while I tend to feel more at peace with my text. GCC: Do you keep both a journal and a sketchpad readily at hand? AS: Well, I used to keep both. My book Begin at the Beginning grew out of a journal entry about the difficulties of starting a project. Now when I have a story idea I try to write it down in one of many little notebooks I have. I no longer keep a sketchbook but go through numerous sketches as I develop my characters and lay out my book. I got the idea for A Teeny Tiny Baby and its first lines about two o'clock in the morning after feeding my baby son, and I wrote them down right then. The next day I was able to write the narrative. GCC: Do you still enjoy illustrating other authors' books? Is that process dramatically different than when you are creating both the words and the pictures? AS: I enjoy both ways of working. When I illustrate other author's texts, I'm given the opportunity to work with a story I never would have come up with myself, such as my dad' s dinosaur stories, or a fantasy like Joanne Ryder's Night Flight. But there is also something extremely satisfying about having created a whole world myself, both story and pictures. And I get a tremendous kick out of being able to portray my own family and friends. When I was a kid I made my own birthday and Hanukkah cards for my family, painting affectionate and maybe slightly teasing portraits. I loved the process, anticipating my family's reactions. I get that same enjoyment from creating my own books today. GCC: You've collaborated numerous times with author Amy Hest, resulting in some very fine picture books. You also created several delightful children's books with your father, Henry Schwartz. Could you reflect on these successful partnerships? AS: It was wonderful working with my dad. He got such a thrill out of having his picture books published. My father, of course, had always been the one in the relationship to give the advice and guidance. I found it touching to have the roles reversed, as in this situation I was the one with the experience in children's books. My father had a kooky sense of humor, and I enjoyed having that made public. I also found my collaboration with Amy Hest rewarding. We were matched up by Meredith Charpentier at Four Winds Press. It was interesting researching Amy's stories of 1940's and 1950's New York, finding an old tailor shop for The Purple Coat, and calling train and bus archivists for information about period modes of transportation. She's an excellent writer and I was honored to illustrate her books. GCC: Are there other people in the world of children's books - authors, illustrators, editors, etc. - who you feel have had a particular impact on your work? AS: I've learned from each and every editor and art director I've worked with. I wrote Bea and Mr. Jones in a class with Alan Benjamin at the School of Visual Arts, and studied the basics of picture book creation with him. As I previously mentioned, my agent Jane Feder is the preliminary editor of my stories and I 've learned a tremendous amount from her. I've published ten books with Dick Jackson, and benefited greatly from his gentle and understated guidance. It's hard to quantify how I've been influenced by other illustrators. There are many I greatly admire, Petra Mathers, Kimberley Bulcken Root, Margot Tomes, Garth Williams, to name a few. I know some role models for me were the great authors I enjoyed as a child, such as Beverly Cleary and Robert McCloskey. GCC: In your earlier books, the more personal stories - those not based on folklore, rhymes or song - consistently featured plucky female characters. That seems to have changed a bit with A Teeny Tiny Baby, published in 1994, shortly after the birth of your son. More recently, a reviewer of The Boys Team (Atheneum, 2001) described your "perfect pitch when it comes to the real-life world of boys." Has your experience as a parent opened up new perspectives for you? AS: I grew up in a family of four girls. I felt the world of boys was very foreign to me, and, being a female myself, I wrote about girls from personal experience. When I first learned I was to the mother of a boy, I didn't think I'd know what to do! But, of course, you do know. My books since the birth of my son have been based on his experiences, and it's seemed the most natural thing to have boy protagonists. I don't know if boys are any different from girls on the inside. Contrary to popular wisdom, I find boys just as "complicated," in terms of their social and emotional lives. But I have seen with Jacob that he was born with a predilection for trucks, trains, dinosaurs and team sports. He has guided me in these interests rather than vice versa. GCC: Not only have your more recent books featured boys, they are frequently told from a younger child's point of view. What James Likes Best is a wonderful case in point. Is the writing process different for this type of story? Do you still start with a list of associations, and go through many revisions, as you once described in an autobiographical essay? (Ref: Something About the Author Autobiography Series, 1994.) AS: I didn't consciously decide to write books for younger kids, in a different style. That simply developed out of my experiences with Jacob. I wrote each of my Jacob stories when he was the actual age of the protagonist, and the style for each book grew out of the story. For each story, the writing process is a little different. The Boys Team began with short verses I wrote on separate pieces of paper about Jacob's kindergarten experiences. He had a rather bossy best friend at the time, and I wanted to have Jacob profess, and feel, his equality. I also wanted to show the different aspects of his relationships. I then played with the verses in different orders, receiving help from Dick Jackson, until they formed a narrative. What James Likes Best began as four little stories about family outings, my intent being to describe the outings and to play with the idea that what means the most to a child in a given experience may be quite different than what an adult expects. The stories started entirely in the third person and gradually evolved to their final form in which the narrator directly questions the reader or listener about what he or she thinks James liked best. GCC: Finally, I'd like to ask you about the new books that we can look forward to in 2004: A Glorious Day (Atheneum/Richard Jackson), and Things I Learned in Second Grade (HarperCollins/ Katherine Tegen). Could you tell us a little bit about them - or anything else that's on the horizon? AS: Jacob had an eventful second grade year. He had a strong teacher and made many new friends. I wrote Things I Learned in Second Grade in the evening of his last day of second grade. I was feeling sad the year was over, and thinking about the very measurable progress he had made. I wanted to somehow memorialize it. A Glorious Day is about a day in the life of our apartment building when Jacob was small. There are only eight units in the building, but at one time there were fourteen kids under the age of seven living there, twelve of whom were boys. The families hung out on the stoop on summer evenings. One night a neighbor walking by asked if we were a school, an anecdote I use in the book. It was great for me, as a new mother, to have these families as neighbors, providing a real sense of camaraderie and companionship. When Jacob took his evening bath, we could hear the boys upstairs taking their bath. I'm presently illustrating a story I wrote with my husband, Leonard. It 's about a little sock monkey, Otto, who has an adventure in the big city. The model for Otto is a sock doll we found in a local craft shop a number of years ago, and brought home because we liked the look on his face.
GCC: Thank you, Amy, for sharing your thoughts with me and with our
newsletter readers. We truly appreciate being given such generous insight
into your life as a children's book creator.
Selected Books by Amy Schwartz:
Author and illustrator:
Bea and Mr. Jones, Bradbury, 1982.
Begin at the Beginning, Harper, 1983.
Mrs. Moskowitz and the Sabbath Candlesticks, Jewish Publication Society, 1983.
Annabelle Swift, Kindergartner, Orchard, 1988.
Camper of the Week, Orchard, 1991.
A Teeny Tiny Baby, Orchard, 1994.
How to Catch an Elephant, Dorling Kindersley, 1999.
The Boys Team, Atheneum, 2001.
What James Likes Best, Atheneum, 2003.
A Glorious Day, Atheneum, 2004.
Things I Learned in Second Grade, HarperCollins, July 2004.
The Crack-of-Dawn Walkers by Amy Hest, Macmillan, 1984.
The Night Flight by Joanne Ryder, Four Winds, 1985.
The Purple Coat by Amy Hest, Four Winds, 1986.
How I Captured a Dinosaur by Henry Schwartz, Orchard, 1989.
Blow Me a Kiss, Miss Lilly by Nancy White Carlstrom, HarperCollins, 1990.
Albert Goes Hollywood by Henry Schwartz, Orchard, 1992.
My Island Grandma by Kathryn Lasky, Morrow, 1993.
Wish You Were Here: Emily’s Emerson’s Guide to the Fifty States by Kathleen Krull, Doubleday, 1997.
Gabby Growing Up by Amy Hest, Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Read More About Amy Schwartz:
“Amy Schwartz, 1954-.” Children’s Lite rature Review, volume 25. Gale, 1991, pp. 183-192.
Marcus, Leonard. An Interview with Amy Schwartz,” Horn Book, January-February 1990, pp. 36-45.
O’Brien, Maureen J. “PW Interviews : Amy Schwartz,” Publishers Weekly, February 26, 1988, pp. 176-177.
Roginski, Jim. “Interview with the Artist,” Parents Choice, volume 12, number 1, 1989, p. 1.
Schwartz, Amy. “Amy Schwartz, 1954-.” Something About the Author Autobiography Series, volume 131. Gale, c2002, pp. 196-201.
“Schwartz, Amy, 1954-.” Something About the Author, volume
18. Gale, c1994, pp. 277-289.
Reprinted from Friends of the CCBC Newsletter 2004, Number 2 with permission of Geri Ceci Cupery and the Friends of the CCBC, Inc. ©2004 Friends of the CCBC, Inc