Carin Berger never deliberately set out to become an author/illustrator, but she found her true calling in picture books. She was awarded the Society of Illustrators Founder’s Award in 2006, the NY Times named The Little Yellow Leaf one of the top ten picture books of 2008, and Publishers Weekly called her “one to watch.”
And now’s a great time to watch.
Her latest title OK Go, a playful book about making greener choices, releases in bookstores today.
I had the opportunity to talk with Carin about her journey to publication (somewhat serendipitous) and her plans for the future (deliberately delightful). I shall follow PW’s lead and not only watch her, but predict the Caldecott will soon be calling.
Carin, how did you start on the path to becoming a children’s book illustrator?
I’ve always loved reading, writing, old paper stuff, children’s books, type and making things. I studied graphic design and spent almost 20 years working in the field. I worked my way down the (pay) food chain towards what I really loved: from very high-end annual reports and brochures to eventually designing book jackets for all the major publishers. I did jackets for poetry, fiction and non-fiction. I still do this and love it. I get to read manuscripts and can often use my own illustration or photography.
Anyhow, I had a daughter, and it turned out she was a sleepless wonder. (When she was little. Now she sleeps like a baby!) I spent much of most evenings hanging with her, waiting for her to fall asleep. I wrote the poems for Not So True Stories and Unreasonable Rhymes in those long hours, mostly to amuse myself.
How did you first get involved in collage?
As for collage, that was kind of serendipity. I thought I would do paintings and was experimenting with different painting styles, some which included collage, and then my friend gave me a magic box full of old letters and documents and ephemera that she picked up at a flea market, knowing I had a thing for that kind of stuff. And that was the beginning.
Once I had pulled together some sample illustrations and manuscript, a friend-of-a-friend agreed to rep it; and she, amazingly, ushered it into the world.
And was Not So True Stories and Unreasonable Rhymes your first manuscript?
Yes, it was my first manuscript, though I’d written a bit, for myself, before.
Wow. That’s a rare accomplishment and speaks volumes about your talent. Where did you go from that first success?
Not So True Stories was a quirky little book that got good reviews but sold…well, like a quirky little book. Chronicle Books graciously published my second book, All Mixed Up, another quirky and very little book. (It can fit in your pocket.)
I was then called by Greenwillow Books and asked to illustrate Jack Prelutsky’s book. A real honor. And, because it was the amazing Master Jack’s book, it received lots of nice attention. He was named the first ever Children’s Poet Laureate right when the book came out which meant that there was a shiny golden sticker that went on the front of the book, too. I’ve been working with Greenwillow Books for the last couple of projects.
How has your illustration style evolved from one book to the next?
As for the collage style, it has sort of evolved in a few directions.
All Mixed Up, a mix and match book where the heads, middles and legs (as well as the alliterative poems) combine in various ways to make new characters, was born out of the idea of collaging the collaged illustration. I had originally conceived it as a game, but Chronicle preferred to do it as a book. The illustrations are similar, yet somewhat simpler than Not so True Stories, so that the mixing worked.
For Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant, I wanted to do a slightly different style than the books that I had authored, and also, because the poems are about a conglomeration of animals and objects (such as Ballpoint Penguins), I thought it would be fun to play that up and make it really obvious.
I collect old dictionaries and army/navy catalogues that have engraved images, and so I used those images and integrated them into the collage. To do this I actually scanned engravings from the book, played with them in Photoshop, printed out pieces and used them to cut and paste with.
The Little Yellow Leaf felt like a really simple, nostalgic story and I ended up introducing a bit of paint (stenciling) to the collage to add another layer and also, at times, to age the paper.
Ok Go has a zillion funny little characters carousing throughout the book and feels much more like the art in the end papers of Not so True Stories and also in All Mixed Up. It was fun to change things up a bit and to do such playful art.
My next book, due out late next winter, is called Forever Friends and the art is much more similar to the art in The Little Yellow Leaf. I see it as a companion book to The Little Yellow Leaf because the bunny on the front cover and the bird on the back cover of Leaf are the characters in Forever Friends.
Your newest picture book OK Go is a playful book for the wee set, all about making greener choices. How did the concept for this book come together?
As best I can recall, it all sort of came as a whole piece. I liked the idea of introducing taking care of the environment to really young kids. I remember growing up in the 70s when “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute” was around and feeling very empowered to help make the world a better place. Here are some early sketches:
One of the biggest things I needed to figure out was how to emphasize the message in a powerful yet playful way. The gatefold came about because I wanted it to feel like a huge gathering or movement.
How do you choose which paper to cut for certain images? Does the paper speak to you?
I have files of papers sorted by color—yellows/oranges, reds/pinks, blues/purples—and I also have files for some of my passions: polka dots, plaids, wood grain, buttons…
I actually cut a vellum stencil of the shape I need and hold it over the paper to find a good section. Something with good gradations for example, that help the piece, say a car, look more dimensional. Clothing catalogs are great for plaids and buttons. And then I use a variety of old stuff, both really old ephemera like letters and receipts with great calligraphy on them and also bits and pieces that I find around: ticket stubs, laundry tags, etc.
Do the words on the paper hold any significance?
I do think about the paper I use, where it comes from and what it says. Not in a huge way, but in a quiet, just-to-amuse-myself sort of way. And in almost every book I make sure to include, somewhere, my daughter’s name, Thea. In The Little Yellow Leaf it appears on the page with the giant sun, and in OK Go I use her name and the names and initials of lots of friends to decorate the cars.
Speaking of the glorious sun in The Little Yellow Leaf, do you have any idea how many pieces of paper you used? Or how long it took to create that page?
I always knew what I wanted to do with that illustration, but it took a little longer (well, w-a-y longer) than I thought it would. I spent probably close to a week on it. Actually, part of the reason it took so long is that I started from the outside and was working my way towards the center and I got pretty far before I realized that, because the sun is asymmetrical, it wasn’t going to work. I had to add another layer working from the center out. Ugh!
I have absolutely no idea how many pieces there are, and I can’t imagine anyone who would be nuts enough to count (though I’d be curious to know that)!
Circling back to your newest book, what kind of impact do you hope OK Go will have on green thinking among parents and young children?
There are some very simple things that kids can do to be more green and they are listed in the back of the book.
I think if you plant the idea early, children will live more careful, aware lives, and remind their parents to do so as well. Plus, what is more motivating than our kids to get us to take care of this planet and the environment?
But mostly I want kids to have fun with the book, and to be introduced these ideas in a playful, engaging way.
One last thought: all of my art is made with found and recycled materials, so maybe this will prove inspiring and enabling, too.
Indeed it is, Carin! So let’s use that inspiration for a contest!
Kids age 10 and under, create a collage with a green theme–reduce, reuse, recycle or whatever you can dream up! Email your illustration to tarawrites at yahoo (you know the rest, dot com) and include child’s first name and age.
With the help of Random.org, we’ll randomly select three winners.
The grand prize winner gets an autographed copy of OK Go. The second and third winners will receive an All Mixed Up promotional mini-book. And all three illustrations will be featured on Carin Berger’s website and/or blog.
In your email, be sure to grant your permission for sharing the illustration and the child’s first name/age online.
One illustration per child. Enter now through midnight E.S.T., Tuesday, May 12.
Carin, thank you for giving us a glimpse into your beautiful world! I bet everyone is going to GO! GO! GO! get your book today!
OK Go by Carin Berger