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Transcript from an interview with Marla Frazee

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Marla Frazee. The transcript is divided into the following clips:

Marla Frazee

Meet Marla Frazee

My name is Marla Frazee. I've wanted to be a children's book illustrator since I was a little kid. I've illustrated The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman, Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers, the lullaby Hush, Little Baby and some of my own — Roller Coaster; Santa Claus: The World's Number One Toy Expert; Walk On! A Guide For Babies of All Ages; A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever; and Sara Pennypacker's Clementine series.

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The friendship circle

I love to draw. The first drawing that was saved that I drew was done when I was about two-and-a-half years old and, "It's a cat," I said. It looks like a spider or a ghost or something. I like to show it to kids just because they don't think it looks like a cat for one, and it's just an example of how much I must have loved to draw because my mom saved it and then I just kept drawing. There's a series of early drawings like that.

As soon as I could read and write, I was making little tiny books and stapling them together. When I was about in third grade my best friend, Lisa, was in second grade. She said to me, "I know you want to be a children's book illustrator when you grow up so I'm going to write a story for you and you can illustrate it because that's how it's done in the world." She wrote this story called The Friendship Circle.

She said, "Okay. Now you do the pictures." I did the pictures and we showed it to our teachers and they sent it to the California State Fair. We kind of forgot about it and then maybe a couple months later, we heard that this book won some sort of an award. Our school said, "Would you make another copy?" Because this was before you could just Xerox it. We had no other copy of this thing. She tried to remember what the words were. I tried to remember the pictures. We did the whole thing again — put it all together.

Then it was in our school library and I'd go in for library time and there it was on the shelf. I felt as if I had become a children's book illustrator in third grade. I never really deviated. I always wanted to do this from that point on.

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Where the pages turn

I loved reading and I loved things like puzzles and coloring and didn't really speak until I was fairly old. I was real shy, and I just would get lost in books. I do remember when I was about eight years old seeing Where the Wild Things Are for the first time. I was already a reader of words, but what floored me about that book was the three page turns where Max' room turns into a forest, and I just was blown away by that. I mean, I felt like it was a miracle. I could not believe that somebody could make this common child's bedroom turn into a forest with just three page turns. I just wanted to grow up and figure out how he did that and learn how to do it myself.

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The long road to publishing

It took me a long time to break into publishing. Even though I wanted to do children's books, I left the school I went to, which is Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. I had majored in illustration. I left with a portfolio — I was able to get work with this portfolio in all kinds of places.

I was working in advertising, educational publishing, toys and games, magazines. I just could not break into publishing for about twelve years after I graduated. It took a long, long time. I'd take my portfolio and people would say, "It's kind of commercial, you should go to advertising agencies." Then I'd go to an advertising agency and they'd say, "This is a children's book portfolio. You should go to a children's publisher." I was in this weird in-between place. I kept sending my work out, getting rejected. That went on for about twelve years.

Finally, my first book was published, and I thought, "Okay. My foot's in the door. From here on out, it's…" And then it took five years between that first book and the second book, and that was the hardest period of time. I thought, "Why is this taking so long?" In retrospect, I wasn't telling stories with my pictures. I was doing something else with illustration, and in other areas of illustration that's appropriate. If you're doing advertising, you might have to communicate a message that somebody else has with your pictures.

In educational publishing, it's teaching something with your illustrations. In toys and games, it might be a decorative thing that you're trying to do. With children's books, it's storytelling. I didn't have that component really developed. I teach now at Art Center, and I'm trying to shorten that experience so that my students don't take fifteen years, but maybe fourteen weeks to kind of get that message across.

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Creating Clementine

It took a while for me to come up with what Clementine looked like. I mean, in the manuscript, she's of course described as having unruly red hair. I kind of knew from the manuscript that — I'm trying to think back to what I knew at that time — that she didn't play it by the rules. And that she had an artist mother and a father, who is the manager of an apartment building. Her parents didn't go to traditional jobs, and I figured because of that she's kind of got a quirky home life. There are kind of clues that way as to what she would look like.

I also looked very carefully at Lewis Darling's illustrations in the Beverly Cleary books because I wanted the book to hearken back to that era, and I wanted the design of the book and the font and all the elements of page layout to look as if that book had come from that time. They're sort of this combination of wanting it to look fresh as paint as well as something that had been around long enough to be a classic. That was a line I was trying to follow. I was trying to be in that area.

I did kind of aim for that with most of my work I think. Now that I say that I think that's probably true. I did a whole lot of drawings of her. Some of which were too cartooned and then others were too realistic. Finally arrived at what she looks like — just trial and era. Just took a long time. I think it's a process of drawing until I recognize her. I feel like she's there. I just know that's not her yet. No, that's not her yet. There's a lot of erasing.

With her, I had this one image and I thought, "Okay. That looks sort of like her," and then I started using that character and put her into a narrative sequence, and actually she was sitting outside of Principal Rice's office in the chair in her various positions in this chair, and it was in drawing her doing all that that I kind of got to know her. It was, "Okay. I get you. Now I know who you are."

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Santa Claus: The World's Number One Toy Expert

The book about Santa came about because of a Christmas card our family sent out. Every year, we send out these Christmas cards and we all draw something inside the Christmas card. I think it was 1998 we all drew Santa, and I sent it to my editor, Ellen Johnston. At the time she was with Harcourt. She saw the little doodle that was next to my name of my Santa, and he was wearing sort of suspenders and he had a yo-yo. She said, "You really need to do a book about this Santa," and I'm looking at this little inch-high doodle. I thought, "What is she seeing in this Santa?"

She kept saying it over the course of many years. I'd look at that little Santa and eventually started to think of Santa Claus. The thing that struck me about Santa was that he would be a toy expert. He had this yo-yo. I drew him with a yo-yo, and I thought he certainly knows his yo-yo tricks. I mean he would need to know a lot about toys in order to decide who wanted what. I started to think about him as a toy tester, a toy expert and that that would be kind of an amusing theme on which to do the book.

For years, I was kind of exploring that in my mind. It wasn't quite enough. It was almost seven years after this Christmas card came out that the light bulb was — he doesn't only need to know toys. Santa needs to know kids and then he heeds to know toys, and then he can put the kids and the toys together and that is what makes a gift from Santa so special.

That was the trilogy. Once I centered on that it was like okay this is a book about gift giving. It's not only about Santa. It's about how a gift works. In a similar way to the roller coaster book being about fear, that was the beating heart of what the book was. Once I had that that was the structure that the book was built on.

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The Best Week Ever

The book that just came out is A Couple Of Boys Have The Best Week Ever, and it actually began as a thank you note that I wrote to my editor's parents because my youngest son and her son spent a week at her parent's house — my editor's patent's house going to this nature camp. The boys were invited to come stay at their house on the beach and attend a nature camp for a week.

My son and her son went to this beach house at this — actually it's not their beach house. It is their house and it's right on the sand in Malibu. It's this beautiful place, and they went to this nature camp every day. My editor's dad would drive the boys to nature camp in the morning and pick them up and drive them home. Then the boys would just hang out at my editor's son's grandparents' house for the rest of the day.

When this week was over, I brought the boys back to my house to kind of hang out with my older sons. During that time my editor, called me and she's like, "What would be really great is if you could write my folks a thank you note in the form of a book. Maybe do some drawings and maybe the boys can help you." I thought, "Of course I'm gonna write her folks a thank you note, but in the form of a book? This is kind of a lot to ask." I'm like, "Okay. Sure!"

I sat down and I wrote a very quick thank you note in the form of a book. The boys drew some pictures and we sort of slapped it all together and I sent it to her folks. They thought it was hilarious and they made a copy and sent it to my editor down in the publishing house in San Diego. She passed it around to all her colleagues and then she called me and she said, "There's something here. This little book that you made for my folks. There's something here that you should maybe think about doing a book."

I thought, "How could there be something in this very specific thank you note that, you know, of a very specific week and these experiences that do not have a universal ring to them? I just can't imagine that there's anything here." The back story of that is that I had been trying to write another story for probably six months and sending her these drafts and she'd say, "It's just not in your voice." I'd say, "Well, what's my voice?" and she said, "Your voice is kind of… it plays straight man to your illustrations."

When she got this thank you note, she said, "This is in your voice. This is exactly what I was talking about." I had this little Xerox thank you note on the floor of my car from August until after Christmas. I'm driving my oldest son back to the airport to go back to college and he picks it up off the floor of the car and he's reading it and he's cracking up. He's like, "What is this?" I told him and he took it in the airport and he's checking in with his e-ticket. He's at the security gate and he's still reading it and I'm kind of close to tears because he's going back to college.

He was just cracking up and he handed it back and said, "That's hilarious! You should do something with that." I think it was at that point I started to think about it as a real book. It went through twenty-five revisions of text and probably ten dummies of just trying to get this very particular experience of this week to work as a picture book that would be more universal. What has resulted in this book called A Couple Of Boys Have The Best Week Ever.

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Keeping it interesting

I try and make sure that each book is different because it takes a long time for me to do a book. It takes a minimum a year and I'm living in that book for that whole entire year. I feel it would not be interesting to me to repeat myself, and I don't think it would be interesting for anybody else for me to repeat myself. I do try and keep myself challenged.

When I look for a manuscript that maybe I'm going to illustrate that I didn't write I usually recognize it as something that is so exciting and something I don't understand and it's almost a puzzle that I want to be confronted with for that year. That is what pulls me in. If I'm reading something and I know what it's gonna look like a year later that's not that compelling to me.

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Studio, sweet studio

My art studio… it's in the backyard. It's underneath an avocado tree. It's twelve by twelve by twelve. It's kind of a little cube. It's just my oasis, I love it. Up until the time I had the studio, I had one of the bedrooms of our home as my studio and I had our three sons in one bedroom and my studio in one bedroom, and that worked until it didn't work and it really didn't work when they got to the teenage years. So we built this thing in the backyard. It's a great commute. I walk outside with my coffee cup and I'm out there all day.

I love to work. I mean, sometimes people say to me, "I don't know how you do it to be self-disciplined enough to get into the studio and work all the time." I mean, it's what keeps me sane. Being out of my studio, it's sort of I get frantic. It's getting in there and actually sitting down and doing the work that calms me down. I try and work as much as I can. Other things make that complicated, but I am dying to get back in my studio. When I'm not there that's where I want to be.

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"Oh, magic hour, when a child first knows she can read printed words!" — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1943