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Transcript from an interview with Lois Ehlert

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Lois Ehlert. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Lois Ehlert

A creative family

I grew up in a house with a younger brother and a sister, a mom and a dad, and everybody seemed to be making things. I thought everybody in the world lived that way. It wasn't until I got to be an adult that I realized that this was rather unusual because my mother and my dad had other jobs to do. And so they would make things in their spare time.

And they understood that I was interested in art and so they made a bargain with me. They said they would put up a folding table for me to work on. As long as I kept working I could keep my mess on this table and I wouldn't have to clean up every time I wanted to make something. So I grew up getting art supplies from both of them. My dad was a woodworker. My mom was a seamstress. So I had the most beautiful fabric, wonderful colors, and a lot of textural things from my dad like nails and wire and wood.

And so I think I started out doing collage without even realizing it or knowing how to spell the word, in fact. But I realized later on that this was not your average family.

But when I speak to children, I always say, "If you are interested in art or writing — any of the creative arts — please find a spot for yourself where you can leave your supplies and you can go there when you have an idea, because if you don't you will waste time finding paper, pencil, and other art supplies. By the time you get to do it your idea probably will vanish." I furthered this idea in the book called Hands. And so that book really is about me growing up in a creative family.

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Nothing more sensible

I asked my mother one time if, indeed, she knew what she had done for me. She said, "No. I just thought you were interested and so I just decided to let you do it." And I think it's interesting because they never said to me when I got out of high school and I wanted to go to art school, "Oh, don't do that because you won't be able to earn a living. Why don't you do something more sensible?" They never said any discouraging words to me.

That, I think, also is important — for parents or teachers to encourage children because sometimes that's the most natural way for some children to express themselves — through art or writing.

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Still working its magic

This folding table is very interesting because, first of all, it's an old card table. My dad made a new wooden top for it. And when I went away to art school after I graduated from high school, I took that table with me. And I used it in my room after school to do my art projects. I had a little, portable drawing board — which really is like a breadboard size — that I would prop up on top of it with a tin can or something so it would be diagonal. And I could use my t-square on it.

When I got out of art school, I got a job in an advertising art studio and I folded that table up and it became my first dining table when I got my first apartment. But, of course, then during the day I had a bigger drawing board at work.

Later on, when I left the studio and began freelancing, I bought a big drawing table. I still kept that card table folded up in my closet and I would use it for cutting mats and wrapping packages. Sometimes when I do books with watercolor, where I want to work flat, I work on that table. So it's still with me.

At the moment, I have lent it to the Milwaukee Art Museum because there's a retrospective exhibit of art from my children's books. So I said, "Let's put the folding table in there with some chairs and put some colored pencils there and a pad of paper and see what happens." And every time I go to the art museum, there are kids sitting there drawing. Sometimes they leave the drawings for me. Sometimes they take them home. But it's still working its magic!

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The flow of art and text

As a graphic designer, I like to think of the book as a total unit, with the typography, the text and the art flowing together hand in hand. And this was something that I couldn't do if the writing was already done. I couldn't say to someone — especially someone that I didn't know personally — "Can you change that word to something else because I'd rather illustrate this than that?"

So, I started experimenting with making my books. And if you've seen my books, you know that the pictures talk, too. I would start with the idea of what is it that I want to tell somebody and then make even the shape and the size of the book part of this whole project. For instance, if you look at Fish Eyes you will see it's a long, narrow book — fish-size. And then what I've done is to cut holes for the eyes of the fish — because it's a counting book — so that a person could learn to count either by looking at the fish and counting them, or at the number for number "1" or the word for "one," or simply they could put their finger in the eye of the fish and learn to count that way. These are more concept books. These are things that all these elements have to work in tandem. And so once I began doing that, there was no looking back.

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Not satisfied with sequels

I don't want to be bored with doing things over and over, although I think many people would be quite satisfied if I did a lot of sequels. But as an artist, I love to experiment, and I find that each book really has its own personality. And the way for me to convey that is to make the size and the shape of the book different for each one.

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Oddball skills

Well, I think that some of those skills in producing my art or "building" my art, as I sometimes say, not only come from things that I've learned from my mother but from my dad, too. I used to help him when he would construct cabinets for me. I would do the drawings so I knew the dimensions and how I wanted them. And so I think maybe through osmosis I've learned skills from both of them that I use in the books. I know it's rather oddball but I always figure, "If it works, use it."

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You're the person in the book

Sometimes people will say to me, "Well, why don't you ever put people in your books?" My answer to that is, "You're the person in the book." The reader is the actor or the actress in the book. I always like to get some participation in the book. I don't like to tell everything that I know about a certain subject; but rather, use that book as a jumping-off point for a parent reading to their child, or a teacher.

For instance, with Growing Vegetable Soup, I have a recipe for making vegetable soup at the end of the book, thinking that that would be an activity that big people and little people could do together. That's another thing that's often asked: "Well, you know, a little girl or a boy would not be planting a garden." And I agree. They wouldn't be planting flower bulbs by themselves, either. But isn't it wonderful if you do find a big person that reads that book and then says, "Well, we could do that. We could make a garden," or, "We could plant flowers." So that's the reason for my approach in all the books. I tried to tuck in a lot of extra things, which, at first reading, may not be apparent to anyone. But maybe the second or the third time, they might notice that.

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The next generation

I have done a lot of art workshops for children and, as I said, I like to participate with the kids when I do this. And I've noticed when they come in — and I usually do these at the Milwaukee Art Museum with their staff — they see the art supplies laid out on the tables and they just go, "Ahhhhh!" And it's the same excitement that I have had all my life when I see color and art objects and texture and so forth. So that's the usual start.

And then I explain the project to them, and it's so interesting to me to see, as I do in my own work, each one is so individual and so happy to be doing it. It just amazes me. I talk to them a little bit about, "No, you don't always have to use store-bought materials. You can find things in your house." And sometimes, what we tell the children is they have to bring some things from home for their project. Like if we're making handmade books, which I have done, then a big person and a little person come together as partners. But they have to bring some things from home that they're going to use in their book.

And so you really never know where these things are going to lead, how many of these children are going to end up being artists as adults, or writers. But at least you've opened the door to that aspect of it. So that's why I like to include some things in my books for projects they can do. And, you know, you can always hope. As I always say to them, "There'll be some day when I won't be able to do artwork anymore and you're the one that's going to have to do the next books in the next generation."

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"There is no substitute for books in the life of a child." — May Ellen Chase