Conversation started 9 June 2014, 3:45 p.m.
PHIL: Hi Sergio, thanks so much for joining us.
So, I hate to start a conversation here with some sad news, but I think by doing so we can actually make something positive out of it. I learned from you this afternoon that your first editor, Frances Foster, has just passed away. Frances was a true legend in the world of children’s literature. Before we really get going I’d love to hear about what your experience was like working with Frances. What kind of impact did she have on your work? On your life?
SERGIO: When I started showing my drawings to children’s book editors and art directors, most of the reactions were not positive, to put it mildly. One of my favorite rejections among the many I received is “I don’t think that your work is suitable for children. It is powerful material, no question about that. But there is a violent, disturbing quality to it that precludes children’s books, in my opinion.” To be fair, I should mention that I would usually show them anything I thought was good, regardless of the subject. I thought it was okay to show them a heart-wrenching drawing of a dead baby, for example, or a bleak landscape scattered with sickly birds. I didn’t have any intention of using these kinds of themes in a children’s book illustration, of course. I am not a sociopath. I was hoping they could just appreciate my line, my color palette, or my composition sense. But I guess most people didn’t share my optimistic view on the potential of my work, and so they would dismiss it as “too European” or “too sophisticated.” Anyway, for a while I stopped trying, concentrating instead on my editorial illustration work.
(Example of editorial illustration for Worth magazine.)
Since I admired greatly Peter Sís’ drawings and books, one day I called him up, finding his number in a phone book. He was more than kind and welcoming when we met in his studio. I remember he was working on the Galileo book, which was being published by Frances Foster at FSG. He thought Frances wouldn’t be scared off by my work, and sent me to see her. That was the single most important encounter in my career: Frances was so smart, kind, funny, warm, interesting, curious, open-minded… I could go on and on. She did see the potential in my work, and helped me develop my first ideas, while finding good texts for me to illustrate.
I fondly remember the first spontaneous “lesson” Frances taught me: She had just given me a manuscript I was going to illustrate. With the paper already in my hands, she noticed that the author had added some “notes for the illustrator.” She immediately took the manuscript off my hands, and erased those words, so that I couldn’t read them. She had chosen me as the illustrator for that book because she trusted my vision, and she didn’t want it to be altered by the author’s suggestions.
I doubt I could have had a more fortunate experience as a beginning illustrator and author.
I kept in touch with Frances even after she stopped being my editor. We would have lunch and chat, and it was always a pleasure and a privilege to be with her.
(Some examples of drawings Sergio was scaring children’s book editors with.)
PHIL: When I was first starting out and desperate to get published I was all forward motion. I just wanted any editor or any art director to see me and hire me. Of course every rejection was unique in its own way, but I noticed after a while that there were a few adjectives that would get tossed around more than others. I would need all my fingers and all my toes to count the number of times I was told my illustrations were “too sophisticated” for children. This drove me bananas, not just because it was dismissive of my work, but also because it was dismissive to children. I’ve developed a really strong dislike for that word—sophisticated— ever since, even though the word itself it usually offered as a compliment. It makes me cringe.
I realize now though how lucky I am that I was rejected again and again and again. It is so, SO valuable to land with the right people at the right time. People who will understand your work and give you breathing room, especially at the start.
Your story about Peter Sîs made us smile, and then made us wonder: How many people have found Peter Sîs in the phone book? A few years before our first books were published Erin heard through the grapevine that Peter was possibly in need of an assistant. At the time one of our good friends was working as Sendak’s assistant and it seemed like a pretty good gig. So we looked up Peter’s address in the phone book and sent him a letter. He wrote back and for the next couple months he and Erin corresponded. She never became his assistant but we did get a beautiful set of one-of-a-kind hand-illustrated envelopes which more than made it all worthwhile. If nothing else it made the illustration world seem less distant, and looking back, that was really important to us at the time.
You mentioned that folks would say your work was “too European”. I wonder, how do you see yourself? As a European artist working in the States? As an American illustrator with European roots? Do you even make these distinctions? One of the many reasons I like your work is because it seems both foreign and familiar at the same time.
SERGIO: Yes, I do feel some people use the word sophisticated as an insult, which is interesting. But what still baffles me even more is European. I honestly never understood what they mean with that. In Europe, nobody would use that word to describe a way of drawing, or an artistic sensibility. It’s a mystery to me. My sources of inspiration, through the years, were, and still are, early Italian Renaissance paintings, folk prints, Hieronymus Bosch, Alfred Kubin; but also, at the same time, George Herriman, E.C. Segar, Charles Schulz, Maurice Sendak. So, even when I was still in Italy, my way of drawing was influenced by a mix of European and American art. It’s impossible for me to say if I am an American or an Italian illustrator. I like what you say about my work seeming both familiar and foreign.
Generally, I have a good time working with my American editors, but once in a while some cultural issues come up. Recently, I was told that some mountains I had drawn looked unfriendly. I didn’t ask to elaborate, but I think it’s because they were not smooth and rounded, but kind of jagged and sharp. Is that what they mean with European? I don’t know. Does this kind of thing ever happen to you? Are you an American illustrator? Is Erin an American illustrator? What makes an American illustrator? Do we really need to know?
It was very surprising to read a review of my books, about a year ago, that said: “Sergio Ruzzier’s illustrations always manage to be soft and fluffy and kind toward children — without slipping into saccharine gauziness.” These are very nice words, but they made me wonder if my work has started to change, adapting to certain expectations, or if people are just starting to accept my ways more easily.
(Drawing Sergio did last year as part of a traveling exhibition in honor of Italian illustrator, and friend, Franco Mattichio.)
(Drawing Sergio recently did for a book-related exhibition in Milan—Nuages Gallery)
PHIL: I suppose it’s probably silly to try and generalize Americaness and Europeaness when it comes bookmaking. There does seem to be something though, other than an ocean, that separates the two worlds. If I had to be extremely general about it I guess I’d say that American illustration for children is preoccupied with approachability and European illustration for children is not. European books, as a group, seem more comfortable with mystery and unanswered questions. I think this can be a good thing or a bad thing. It’s good when it encourages curiosity, and bad when it seems standoffish and mean-spirited.
Your books have always straddled that line between approachability and mystery in the best kind of way for me. Your character designs are always lovable in the ways that, say, porcupines or skunks are lovable—with a sort of non-hostile menace. It’s your landscapes that I particularly love though. I’d really like to hear about what those landscapes mean to you, if anything. They are often simple (see: approachability), but at the same time imply infinity (see: mystery).
And to answer your question I think, yes, Erin and I are both American illustrators. Our books have done pretty well in foreign markets, but I’m always surprised to learn that a French, Italian, or German publisher is interested in our books. Like most Americans I’m intimidated by Europe, culturally. I feel sometimes like a child sitting at the grown-ups’ table.
SERGIO: You shouldn’t be intimidated by Europe. Think of the many horrible designs that have been coming out of there in the past few decades. Think of the Euro banknotes, for example, and how dull and soulless they are.
Or look at this logo from a few years ago, commissioned and enthusiastically approved by the Italian government, as a tool to promote Italian culture. Feel better?
I do wish there were more mystery and unanswered questions in children’s books. Sometimes, potentially good books end up being predictable and boring because they play it safe. Everything is overexplained and no risks are taken. Is this because adults, in general, are afraid that children will ask them difficult questions? I fear that’s the main reason, which worries me very much. Many adults forget that if they don’t know an answer, they can just say “I don’t know.”
When I was working on the dummy for Eve Bunting’s Have You Seen My New Blue Socks?, I had drawn the duck, who’s looking for his new blue socks, in front of a bunch of rocks.
Scattered on and around the rocks, there are a dozen or so of old purple socks, clearly not what the duck is looking for. A few people who were giving me feedback on my sketches were unhappy with my choice. They thought that scene didn’t make sense. They told me: Who do these socks belong to? Why are they all different? Who brought them there? Why don’t you draw, instead, only two purple socks, and maybe a shirt, a pair of pants, and a character swimming in the lake in the background? They wanted my drawing to be self-explanatory, with any enigmatic content removed. I am very glad I insisted in keeping it in the book, and it’s my favorite spread.
But I have had many similar disputes, sometimes as productive conversations, sometimes as sterile clashes.
I always have a good time working on my landscapes. I know where they come from, like most of my work: a mix of early American comic strips and fourteenth century Italian (especially Sienese) paintings. Krazy Kat and Simone Martini. Popeye and Sassetta. It’s very satisfying to design the world where your characters live. You choose the shapes, the colors, the proportions. You arrange each element so it works well with the rest of the composition. The backgrounds, indoors or out, help tremendously in setting the mood of a drawing, sometimes even more so than the characters’ expressions.
PHIL: Wow, that logo is really bad! That does make me feel better, thanks.
And I’m so glad you fought the good fight for those socks—partly because I love that image, and partly because it’s nice to hear of someone standing up for their idea. Erin and I talk a lot about how lonely it is to have to explain why you chose to make an image a certain way. It feels like as soon as the question is asked—Why’d you do that?—that you’ve already lost. Even if you win the argument it feels like a hollow victory. It can feel less like you’re being told—You’re right—and more like you’re being told—If you have it your way will you maybe stop whining?.
I was just on your website and I see that you’re offering for free download a PDF of your out-of-print book, The Birds (Gli Uccelli), first printed in Italy. For anyone reading this that has an interest in children’s books that really push the form, I highly recommend that you head over to www.ruzzier.com and take a look. It’s not often that a book really, truly surprises, but this one does. It feels like it came from another planet! I love it. I’m really curious, was this book a hard sell in Italy? It’s hard to imagine it being published in the States. Which is, of course, a tragedy.
SERGIO: Thank you for your kind words on The Birds. I am particularly fond of that book. It was published by a tiny—and now defunct—Milanese publishing house, Despina, in an edition of 400 copies, plus another 400 later. It was the first book they published, and it fit their plan: to do unusual picture books for all audiences. Even in Italy it is normally not that easy to get an odd project like that published. I would love to make it available here, as a real book. Maybe one day I’ll find the right place, but before that I should probably remove that dowloadable PDF from my site. Actually, I’m going to do that soon, now that I think of it!
(EDITOR’S NOTE FROM PHIL: NOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!! PLEEEEEEEASE, DON’T!!!!!!!!!!)
I guess it’s just too unsettling for a contemporary publishing house to have to deal with a picture book with no specific intended audience, as they call it. I wonder if anyone would publish Edward Gorey, were he starting out today. And yet comic books, which had normally been seen as culturally worthless kids’ stuff, have recently found a market that didn’t exist just twenty years ago. They had to use a different name, calling themselves graphic novels, but still.
Have you ever had a book project with no specific intended audience, or do you always work with a child reader in mind?
(Image from The Birds.)
PHIL: Hey Sergio, sorry for the delayed response. Erin and I both had two dentist appointments yesterday. The upside there is that we’ve now got a kick-ass new author photo:
The truth is that we never really consider the audience much while we’re in the act of making. Not because we don’t care necessarily, but more because it feels like trying to hit a moving target. Trying to make something that all kids will like seems about as foolish as trying to make something that all adults will like. I know plenty of adults that don’t share my tastes. There is a spectrum of taste for children too, and as long as we land somewhere on that spectrum then I feel like we’ve done our job.
We learned really early on to avoid trying to intuit what will be popular. When we turned in Amos McGee everyone (including us) was confident that it would be a dud, commercially at least. We knew the book was quiet and a bit old-fashioned, and we expected it to just disappear. The lack of any child character in the book added to this notion that the book would only be for a niche audience. But the book took off in ways we never expected, even before the Caldecott. I think it’s now been translated in about 20 languages around the world. It’s weird, but because we never expected it to succeed we end up feeling proud of the book, but not necessarily of ourselves. Since we don’t know how it happened we can’t ever hope to recreate it.
What do you think, Erin?
ERIN: I do think Edward Gorey would be published today, but the bigger problem would be that no one would know where to shelve him, so he might become a gimmick or get lost. Book categories have gotten so specific for the bigger stores and the internet retailers. Smaller, independent stores tend to display a little more leeway. I understand how we got this way, and an unorganized store can be incredibly frustrating. But I do worry that we have trouble these days stumbling upon something that doesn’t quite fit in a certain category. I think we need stores, and librarians, and humans to tell you what you might like to read or see. I know people disagree with me on this front. I’m sure people discover all kinds of things on the internet. But the sense of discovery is fleeting because there’s just too many other things out there to click on.
As far as publishing companies (or anything run by adults with what are probably good intentions) go, and the idea of what an intended audience is, oh boy. I feel like as soon as you have said who the intended audience is for a book, you’re sunk. This is how books about Martin Luther King, Jr. are only pulled out in February. It’s also how beautiful books about loss, or about differences, or about boys, or about girls, don’t find the right audience at the right time. I don’t know how to fix it. It just feels like we aren’t thinking creatively enough.
Off topic. Sergio, what type of paint do you use? Paper? What kind of story makes you decide to use digital color? Bear and Bee is one of my favorites, and it is digital color. I also love Amandina, which is watercolor. Is there something about the story that makes you decide the way you’re going to make the pictures?
SERGIO: I agree with what both of you say: too often one hears things like “children will like this,” or “children will not like that,” as if all children shared the same tastes. I am also annoyed by the suggested reading levels, or recommendations for specific ages. I remember when I was maybe six or seven, wanting to buy a book, and the bookseller saying: “it’s actually for younger children.” My mother still bought that book for me, because I really wanted it, but to this day I still feel the shame and embarrassment I felt that day, forty years ago. A thing like that is such a subtle violence, if you think about it.
In elementary schools, at least here in NYC, they have all the books clearly marked with colorful letters that claim how easy or difficult that book is, with A the easiest and Z the most difficult. If you are a third grader you are expected to read books marked, say, H to M, and they discourage you from reading books marked G and below or N and above. There must be a reason for this, but I think this kind of practice can be dangerous and frustrating for the children. Let them read what they want!
Nobody would dream of telling an adult: “you are 47? Then you should like this book.” Even though, if I think about it, the suggestions that one gets when shopping online come very close to this kind of reasoning.
I guess we are doomed, so let’s talk about techniques instead, as Erin suggested.
My preferred way of working is pen & ink and watercolors on paper, so that is what I do by default. I use one of those dip pens with a metal nib, and I keep the inks (black and a mix of sepia, black, and water) in a very nice old inkwell stand that my girlfriend Karen gave me. The watercolors are Schmincke, and the paper Arches, of the rough quality.
(Sergio and his inkwell stand—photo by Brian Floca.)
(Illustration from Amandina.)
When I created the characters of Bear and Bee, which didn’t have a story yet, I was just trying flat colors with Photoshop, just to see how they would look with a thick black line, still done with pen & ink on paper, and then scanned. When I showed around those tryouts, an editor at Hyperion liked how they looked and so they stayed that way. I do like the result myself, because the simplicity of the story works well with the simplicity of the drawings, I think.
PHIL: “Subtle violence”, that’s such a perfect way to put it. I still remember the beginning of first grade when we were sorted into Reading Groups A, B, and C. I shocked and embarrassed when I was put in B (thankfully not C!). I read every single day, sometimes for hours, so I couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t be put in A. I suppose now it was because I read slowly, something that I still do. I have some interest in writing Early Readers, but my biggest fear (other than my own sense of inadequacy) is that my books would have big “Level 2” or “Level 1” stickers on the front. I would never want to make a book that would make a child feel stupid.
Also, to move backwards for a second, I think I’d throw an amendment on something Erin said earlier. I also think that Gorey would be published today, but not necessarily all of his books. The violence in a book like The Gashlycrumb Tinies is so over the top as to be completely non-threatening. Some publisher would recognize its capacity as a gag gift, publish it, and probably sell a zillion copies. However, a book like The Object Lesson, which for my money is Gorey’s greatest and most emotionally complex book, would probably be rejected out of hand. A book like that can’t survive in the internet market. It has too much nuance. It has to be handed from one person to another.
On a lighter note…
I may have told you this already, Sergio, I can’t remember, but Bear and Bee has, in my opinion, the single funniest spread from 2013:
“Have you ever seen a bee?” says Bee.
“No!” says Bear. “I hope I never see a bee!”
I laughed out loud when I read that. And then immediately thereafter I felt a sort of regret that it wasn’t me who’d thought to write it.
This year you’ve got A Letter for Leo coming out. In the last episode I asked Julie Danielson what one thing she was most excited about this year and she chose this book. We really love this book too. It has such a big heart. I’m also partial to the surprise ending which is a little bit like the surprise ending in A Home for Bird. I don’t really have a coherent question to ask you about this book, but I’d love to have you just talk about it a little. This book is special to read. Was it special to make? What kind of joys/frustrations/triumphs/defeats did you encounter along the way?
SERGIO: I began working on this book while I was at the Sendak Fellowship, in 2011.
(Maurice Sendak, Sergio, and his daughter Viola—photo by Dona Ann McAdams/Sendak Fellowship 2011.)
Maurice urged me to always be honest and courageous in my stories and pictures, and this book is one of the first results of that welcome pressure. I wish I could now ask him what he thought of it. If one cares to look for it, there is a tiny homage to him in the book.
It was a nice surprise to see that Julie chose it, and I am very happy you like it too. It was an old idea that slowly, through the years, took this final shape, which I’m very satisfied with. It’s a simple story, like most of my books. It’s about hope, disappointment, kindness, and friendship. And letter writing. I think I write simple stories so that, through the drawings, I can create a more complex and, hopefully, interesting whole. I guess that’s the idea with any picture book.
When I was doing the drawings for A Letter for Leo I was completely and comfortably immersed in it. I feels so nice when it happens. The same thing is luckily happening again now, as I’m coloring the drawings for my next book, Two Mice. It’s kind of a counting book, but only up to 3. Talking about simple books.
(Sketch from Two Mice.)
PHIL: “Hope, disappointment, kindness, and friendship”. Those are pretty much the exact words I’d use to describe the major themes that preoccupy the work that Erin and I make. Maybe that’s why Erin and I have always been so drawn to your books. For us those preoccupations have been more accident and surprise than choice, but that’s a topic for a whole other conversation.
Well, Sergio, we’ll let you get back to your real life now. Thanks so much, and best of luck with Leo, Mice, and all books beyond. We really are honored to be making picture books in the same generation as Sergio Ruzzier.
Conversation ended 24 June 2014, 12:12 p.m.
Thank you for reading. We leave you today with a moment of unexpected kindness. In Episode 4 with Julie Danielson we talked a little bit about one of our favorite musicians, Andrew Bird. Someone out there, a fan of what we’re doing here, read that and sent us (anonymously) two tickets to Andrew Bird’s upcoming show here in Ann Arbor.
Whoever you are, thank you! Your gift is very much appreciated.
Until next time…