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June 28, 2010

Interview: Elisha Cooper

A little while back, I posted about Elisha Cooper’s wonderful picture book Farm. As I mentioned then, I’ve been a fan of the author’s work for some time now, so I’m particularly thrilled that I had the chance to ask him a few questions recently for this blog’s very first (of many, I hope!) author interview.

Many, many thanks to Becky Amsel of Scholastic for facilitating everything…and many more to Cooper himself for his frank, well-considered responses. And then even more than that to both of them for providing me with the excerpts from the Cooper’s notebook for Farm shown below.

You Know, for Kids: How did you come to writing and illustrating children’s books? Was it something you always wanted to do, or was there something specific that drew you to them?

Elisha Cooper: Someone suggested it. I wish I could say I always wanted to write children’s books. What I always wanted was to play football for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But I have always loved drawing, and I’ve always loved writing. Children’s books are a nice combination of the two.

After college, I worked at
The New Yorker as a messenger, and when I was delivering manuscripts and art around the city I was sketching, and that became a book called A Year in New York. It was after that that someone suggested I write children’s books.

In any case, carrying a notebook is something I did when I was young, and something I do now. That hasn’t changed. It’s what I did for
Farm, driving out through the farm country of DeKalb County, Illinois, pulling over in my car and sketching barns.

I still play football, too, though not as much as I’d like. And not for the Steelers, except in my dreams.

YKFK: What authors and/or illustrators in the field (past or present) do you consider your biggest influences? And what are your own favorite children’s picture books, if that’s not a redundant question?

EC: I loved Edward Hopper growing up. I loved his watercolors. I went through a Van Gogh phase, too. And I liked Picasso, for that goat.

Mostly I like artists for their sketches. When I see a show—I went to the Picasso exhibit at the Metropolitan with my two daughters a few weeks ago—I’m always drawn to the sketches that were done before the finished painting. They’re better, rougher.

For writers, I loved Ernest Hemingway (embarrassing to admit liking Hemingway, but he could really write a sentence). I think I read a lot of Tintin and Asterix, too.

But wait! Looking above, I realize I’m mentioning artists who aren’t children’s-book artists. (I ducked the question.) I think that says something. I don’t think there has to be a distinction. Good art is good art. Bad art is bad art.

So I remember loving
Ferdinand for the art, along with In the Night Kitchen and Blueberries for Sal, for the same reason. The artists I admire now are ones like Peter Sís, Barbara McClintock, and Kevin Henkes.

YKFK: Farm is the second book of yours I’ve read with my kids (after Beach) that uses momentary or day-to-day details to capture the feel of the big-picture subject. Looking over your past work, I see that theme seems to run through many of your other books as well (Ballpark, Country Fair). Is that how you go about these “big subject” picture books from the start—building the whole out of the details? Or is it more just a technique you use when executing them?

EC: I wish I knew what my technique was! But I don’t. I just go to a location and start sketching, as I did with Farm. I accumulate details, really. Then I choose the ones I like, add them up, and mix them around, edit. Maybe there’s a theme there, or a technique. I don’t know.

I’m just looking for anecdotes, or gestures or images, that amuse me. Or that tell me something. I guess you could say I’m a believer in how little things add up to make something bigger than the thing itself.

YKFK: You started writing children’s books before you had kids yourself. Do you feel that your work on them, or your approach to them, has changed in any significant ways since your kids were born?

EC: No clue! If I had a psychiatrist or a psychologist, they could probably tell me. (I’m actually married to a psychologist, a professor at NYU, but she isn’t talking.) Not to punt on another question, but I don’t think having children has changed my work, though I do like showing my daughters the finished paintings I tape on our apartment walls at the end of the day. And I suppose my girls like the little notes about them that I placed in Farm, or the fact that I dedicated my most recent book, Beaver Is Lost, to them.

Maybe having my daughters has made me proud that I write children’s books.

YKFK: When I look at your illustrations, words like calm and peaceful pop into my head—which is, at the surface level, surprising for an artist who has lived most of his recent years in cities like Chicago and New York. But even your big-city scenes have a certain quietude to them. Do you seek that contrast in your work? Do you not even see it as a contrast, particularly?

EC: Calm and peaceful: two words no one would ever use to describe me! Really, ask my friends. Crude and opinionated, maybe. Or loud and stubborn. Or, well, you get the picture.

But I am also quite aware that my watercolors have a peacefulness to them. Ah, the paradox! And yet, this is not something I control. It’s just what comes out of my pencil and brush. I think it’s especially paradoxical that I paint my books to loud music: Green Day and the Shins and Vampire Weekend.

It’s possible—though this might be a stretch—that my paintings are my attempt to reach a calm, peaceful place. I must have one, deep down. I have my doubts, though, especially this month, as I pace around our apartment, painting my next children’s book, but all the time swearing at the television and the terrible soccer games in this year’s World Cup. Really, the soccer is driving me crazy.

[Author photograph by Shauna B. Peet; notebook images courtesy of Elisha Cooper and Scholastic.]

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