Interviewer Tanya Boudreau: I read on your website that you drew compulsively from an early age. What did you like to draw when you were young?
Paul Zelinsky: Of course it depends on how young we’re talking about. Early on, I specialized in squiggly and straight lines, in crayon. Later: animals, imaginary creatures, monkeys. I rarely drew from life before college.
Is there anything you find difficult to draw then or now?
Then: my cats always came out looking like dogs. (We had a dog). Now: I’m not too confident with likenesses, though I think I do all right with them when I’m not worrying about it.
You have won many awards and prizes including the 1998 Caldecott Medal for Rapunzel. Do you remember the day you won your first award or prize?
Hmmm… maybe that depends on the definition of “award.” A star for cleaning up my room? I remember getting a picture of a rocket ship pinned over my name on the class bulletin board when I was the first one to finish a multiplication tables exercise in third grade. As an actual illustrator, I received some certificates for having art in competitive shows; probably the awardiest first I remember would be the New York Times Best Illustrated award going to The Maid and the Mouse and the Odd-shaped House, my third picture book, and my first real colored one. I think I remember finding out about it from my editor. Very exciting.
You illustrated Beverly Cleary’s books Ralph S. Mouse, Dear Mr. Henshaw and Strider. Did you ever meet her? Is there anyone you would like to work with that you haven’t had the opportunity to do so with yet?
Yes, I’ve met Beverly Cleary quite a few times, which I’ve enjoyed very much. I feel very lucky to have been paired with some fantastic writers, not all of whom I’ve met: I would have loved to meet Carl Sandburg (I illustrated his More Rootabagas, but posthumously). I don’t have my sights set on any particular writer. I came close to illustrating fairy tales collected by Italo Calvino, but the rights couldn’t be worked out and it didn’t happen.
Who did you draw first: StingRay, Lumphy, or Plastic? Were there many revisions of each? If so, did they differ quite a bit from the final illustrations?
I think I first looked online for inspiration, searching for pictures of toy buffaloes and stingrays (would you believe it: I actually found almost a dozen different plush stingrays?) and I made little drawings to figure out what I’d like the characters to look like. It wasn’t long before I zeroed in on a nice (invented) Lumphy. Shortly after that I got a package in the mail: an actual plush buffalo, courtesy of Emily Jenkins (whom I hadn’t met at that point). I liked its textures, but I preferred my drawing. The shape of Stingray, if I recall correctly, was what it was so that the first drawing in the book, showing the three characters crammed into a backpack, could have the composition that I gave it. Plastic’s midline stripe originated in the same way; her top and bottom star decorations also came about in order to dress up one or another of the book’s illustrations. Plastic was far and away the easiest character I’ve ever had to draw, although my assignment for the first chapter’s drawing was to avoid giving away what she was.
The drawings in Toys Go Out and Toy Dance Party are in black and white. Was there ever talk of doing the illustrations in color?
No, the idea that Anne Schwartz and Lee Wade, the publishers, first presented to me was that Toys Go Out would be like one of those old-fashioned, elegant books that just feel nice to look at and to hold. There would be limited illustrations in black and white. I actually think that color would take something away from the experience. Although Schwartz & Wade waited for quite a while from the time I first saw the manuscript until I delivered the art, I actually snuck the book into my schedule ahead of “the order in which it was received,” because I loved it so much. I believe that Anne knew I would be less able to take it on if it were going to be a much more ambitious project for me.
I would have loved to see even more illustrations for the Toys books! Were you given a set number to draw? Is there a particular scene you would have liked to have included if you could have added one more drawing?
The arrangement was for one illustration per chapter. I think that in Toys Go Out I actually drew one more than that, and in Toy Dance Party, two more, I believe. There were some scenes I was sorry not to draw, and lack of time wasn’t the only reason: one odd feature of chapter book illustration is that spacing the drawings out evenly is a major reason (I think) for choosing what to illustrate: if two scenes are too close together, I wouldn’t want to illustrate them both. For Toy Dance Party I was tempted to draw the violent fight between Lumphy and Stingray. But I enjoyed the drawing I did do, from a nearby part of the same chapter, in which StingRay emerges from under the bed dressed as Princess DaisySparkle, sporting a tiara accessorized with a sock.
Who are some of your favorite illustrators?
John Tenniel, Maurice Sendak, Marjorie Priceman,, Gustave Tenggren, Albrecht Dürer, Ana Juan, Garth Williams, Winsor McCay, Arnold Lobel, Wanda Gag, Robert Lawson, Robert McCloskey, Ed Young, Vera B. Williams, Maurice Boutet de Monvel, Giotto, and a lot more I can’t think of right now.
Are you hoping Lumphy will get a new tail? What kind would you design for him?
I think there is something beautiful in Lumphy’s continuing with only a stump. I’m sure he has –what do you call that neurological phenomenon where you can still feel a severed limb?—oh, yes: a phantom limb—Lumphy has a phantom tail. I wouldn’t disturb it.
Are there any books you are currently working on?
I’m working on Anne Isaac’s sequel to Swamp Angel. It’s called Dust Devil, and it takes place in Montana.
Paul O. Zelinsky’s retelling of the classic fairy tale Rapunzel received the 1998 Caldecott Medal. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Contributing reviewer Tanya Boudreau interviewed picture book illustrator Paul Zelinsky in conjunction with her reviews of Toy Dance Party
and Toys Go Out
about his books via email for curledupkids.com.