Interview by Matt Forrest Esenwine
Award-winning children’s poet and artist Douglas Florian has written and/or illustrated more than 40 books of children’s poetry, including Dinothesaurus, which received starred reviews in four major publications; Comet, Stars, The Moon and Mars, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year and Horn Book Fanfare List selection; Bow Wow Meow Meow, winner of the Gryphon Award and a Parents Magazine Best Book of the Year; and Lizards, Frogs and Polliwogs, a Bulletin Blue Ribbon Book.
Born and raised in New York City, Florian attended Queens College and the School of Visual Art. In the past, Florian worked as a cartoonist for The New Yorker and also created more than 300 drawings for The New York Times, many on the Op-Ed page. He says the only “9-5” job he ever had was working one summer as a messenger for Artone Associates, 342 Madison Avenue, a retouching and design firm when he was 15 years old. Florian’s paintings are represented by Bravin Lee Gallery in New York City and have been shown in more than 30 solo and group exhibitions.
After reading William Cole’s anthology, Oh, That’s Ridiculous (1977), Florian decided to begin writing and illustrating children’s poetry. His latest collection, Shiver Me Timbers!: Pirate Poems & Paintings (2012, Beach Lane Books), in which he teams up with illustrator Robert Neubecker, indicates he is still enjoying it!
You credit William Cole’s anthology of nonsense verse, Oh, That’s Ridiculous, as spurring you to enter the world of children’s literature. Was that the original version, illustrated by Tomi Ungerer, or the 1977 edition illustrated by Shel Silverstein, in which “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout” first appeared? What was it about that book in particular that got your creative juices flowing?
Many years ago, I purchased the original Tomi Ungerer version in a flea market for a pittance, and have always felt that his drawings greatly contributed to the irreverent quality of the book. I’ve yet to get rid of those fleas, though. And I don’t often carry a pittance around with me anymore.
Your abstract paintings are created for an adult audience, yet your writing is geared toward a much younger demographic. What is it about writing for children that is so satisfying, and do you have plans to write in any other genres?
When writing for children I can exercise my basic juvenile mentality and draw in an uninhibited childish fashion. I do have to be careful to not paint too abstractly, as I find young people don’t often appreciate it, and will often get an abstract look on their curious little faces. There is, however, a cross-fertilization between my so-called fine art and my illustrations.
So are you an artist who writes poetry for children, or a children’s poet who is also an artist? Or is it preposterous to even make a distinction?
I consider myself an authorstrator. That is: I think of pictures while I write and occasionally words while I paint.
But if you could only do one – write or illustrate – which would it be, and why?
If I could only do one, I would illustwrite. Then again, maybe authorstrate.
An interview with Harcourt Trade Publishers said that your children’s illustrations use “watercolor, gouache, colored pencils, inks, tin foil, candy wrappers, shredded papers, stencils, rubber stamps, and much collage on primed brown paper bags.” If so many mediums are up for grabs, how do you decide what an illustration should look like and how to create it?
I usually grab whatever is on my desk, my child’s desk, or my neighbor’s desk. I let the subject dictate what medium I use or abuse. In mammalabilia I wanted a crude simple look, so I created very simple naïve gouache paintings much like folk art. In insectlopedia I used a barrage of delicate detailed collage to match the catch. And in Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars I used die-cut holes to show that space is a continuum.
Which of your books or poems are you most proud of? What books by other authors or illustrators have you been especially impressed with?
I rather like the detailed illustrations and witty poems for Zoo’s Who, although it didn’t get much attention from the journals and such. Perhaps my favorite thus far is Dinothesaurus, which is quite lively and playful. My editor, Andrea Welch, helped me a great deal on that one, especially on the Glossarysaurus in the back.
I’m currently working on two chapter books that I’m fond of, a new chapter in my life. I enjoy a wide range of authors and artists, many from Europe such as Sara Fanelli and Emily Gravett. I also favor the work of Rokuro Taniuchi of Japan and Etienne Delessert, now in America. I grew up loving Susan Perl’s wonderful illustrations and Saul Steinberg’s witty line drawings.
How difficult is it to know what children will like or not like – in your poetry or your illustrations? Do you lean on your kids for their feedback, or your own child within?
Yes, I do lean on my own kids for feedback, but they often lean back on me. I don’t think it’s very difficult to know what children will like, but it’s awfully tricky to know what adults will enjoy. Having a great editor is vital.
Some people look to their muse for inspiration, others look everywhere they can…and some, like Jane Yolen and J. Patrick Lewis, are firm believers in the BIC rule (Butt In Chair!). Which of these works best for you, and why?
I’m always jotting down ideas and drawings on tiny scraps of paper whilst sitting on a train, plane, or Lunar Excursion Module. But for writing a chapter book I do like the BIC Trick, although I try not to sit on a BIC pen, if possible.
Scenario: You’ve been struggling with a book or poem for an excruciatingly long time. Do you (a) keep at it until something pops; (b) put it away and come back to it later; or (c) shelve it in a heat of disgust and go get some ice cream?
Answer: (d) Shred it into tiny bits and feed it to my pet piranha. Actually, I’ll try anything that works, but the solution usually just comes to me, like the flu or measles.
Looking back over the years, what was the worst idea you ever had for a children’s poem or illustration? Did you toss it, or rework it?
I’ve never had a worst idea, although The City, a wordless book I created sold very poorly. Perhaps the worst is yet to come. Sometimes the best poems come after bad starts.
Finally, what advice would you offer children’s writers and illustrators who have yet to be published? Is there anything that really surprised you when you began writing children’s literature – or anything that still surprises you about the industry?
I would offer this advice: Work hard but work smart. Keep your eyes open, your ears open, and your mind open. But close your mouth. Talking too much about a book before you finish it is a mistake. What surprises me is how I’m still able to do this without getting bored or relying on formulas. The industry itself has become too industrious and not nearly illustrious enough.
Well, thanks for taking the time for this interview, Douglas – and best wishes for a successful and creative 2013!
My pleasure, and best wishes to you!