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Transcript from an interview with Eric Rohmann

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

Eric Rohmann

Meet Eric Rohmann

My name is Eric Rohmann. I am a writer and an illustrator of children's books. I guess what I always say I do is I tell stories with words and pictures and the book form. I write for kids, so I tend to write about things that are a little bit more universal, experiences that we all have.

They don't always start that way, but they usually end that way. I tend to write books that have animals in them, not just because I find it more compelling to make pictures of animals — I worked in a zoo, wanted to be a veterinarian — all that stuff, but also with a hippo you can make him anybody. You can make a hippo an old person, you can make a hippo a Native American, you can make a hippo a little sister or an older sister. It's a more malleable universal figure that you can use in your story telling. And you know what, hippos are funnier than a picture of my brother.

A house without books

I didn't come from a house where there were a lot of books. I always say that you know we had the Sears catalogue and then there was a romance novel that kept the table from wobbling. My mom read some, but we were sort of the TV generation in the 60s and when we weren't watching TV we were probably outside.

I found my way to reading through comic books, pictures, visual storytelling. From there I found my way to books that were like comic books, fantasy novels, pulp fantasy novels, that sort of thing. Then I found my way to reading. But it's a legacy that I deal with today because I read very slowly, sometimes it's difficult to find my way into the book for a while. That's just because I didn't do it a lot when I was a boy.

Honoring visual language

I had a few good teachers who realized that I paid attention better if I had drawing materials in my hand. Certainly you couldn't do that with certain things, math or something like that, but if they were reading to me or if they were talking about history or something I could sit and draw.

Certainly I went to grade school in the 60s and that wasn't accepted very often. But I did have a few teachers who realized that that's how I communicate, that's how I concentrate. When I got into college I even wrote English papers where they let me illustrate part of it because you know they realized this is the way I see the world.

And thank you for that. Even in college when I was taking art classes I took it from a lot of guys who were modernists, people who were in college during abstract expressionism, that sort of thing, and they didn't want narrative art. But I'd have a few professors who said okay, you know, this seems to be who you are and what you do, so go with it.

I was lucky; every level I had one or two teachers who kind of winked at me and said you know just keep up what you're doing.

I'm always amazed when I go to schools. When I go to schools I talk about visual storytelling. It seems the most compelling thing, I can stand up there and tell stories with pictures, and the teachers come up to me and they say "if I could only draw … you obviously got to a point in a minute where it takes me so much longer because …" and my response is always "take a drawing class." I'm not doing, this is Dean Chapel up here, these are pigs on skateboards, you know, there's not a lot going on here, except they're simple enough for you to draw and complete enough for the kids to understand what I'm doing.

I think we forget the visual as we go … our job is to learn how to read. Our job is to … well, let's say you're walking through Grand Central Station and it's crowded and your mother walks through. You would recognize her, right? Now draw me your mother right now, I mean, you'd recognize her among a thousand people, but could you draw her for me so I'd know what she looks like her? Perhaps not.

That's because we learn to see in symbols. We just see quickly. We identify who it is and we move on. Kids don't do that. By using that visual language in the classroom it is another language, another way in. It certainly is another way in with a small group of kids that I belonged to. Some of the other illustrator/authors you talk to when you ask that question will say the same thing, I drew all the time, I was, you know, the paper was being pulled away from me. But that's usually how it works. A good teacher I think finds that.

Time Flies

I taught at a visual and performing arts summer school. I worked at the zoo. I was a waiter. I was unemployed. In fact, when I did Time Flies I was unemployed and had the time to sit down and it took me six or so months to make a dummy and figure it out. But this is what I did, this is the influence of the world on you.

I was working at this place and I was teaching girls and there was a sixth grade girl, brilliant girl, and I showed her the dummy for Time Flies. She said, you know, I think I've seen a book like this. I put it away for two years simply because one kid, my audience, said I think I've seen something like this before.

Maybe so, but that was the influence. I put it away and then I took it out and started sending it around to publishers and I think it was rejected 15 times before you know I actually went to New York City and showed it to somebody and they took it. What I'm finding out is that's a pretty good percentage, you know, because some people are already doing a book that has dinosaurs or they only do books that look like cartoons. You never know why they're going to take it.

But everything I did before that was leading up to it, you know the jobs that I did, all those people that I know are in those books. There's no way … everything you do in your life has a chance of making it into your book, which is why it's always great to have a liberal arts education before you start doing this or like Peter Sís be a filmmaker or Chris Van Allsburg be a sculptor, find your way and live a life and then it's going to make the books better.

Throwing paint on the elephant

It all starts for me with single images. I'll be doodling and I'll make single images. And then words, some words will come up and then I'll make more images. Imagine it this way, for me it's not a line, it's not idea, sketches, art work, outline, writing; it's not a linear thing. It's more like a spider web.

If you imagine the finished book is in the middle and you start somewhere at the top and you move down a little and then you go back and then you're around and then you're back and you go … It's words, picture, words, pictures, and then they start, it starts to form some sort of a story board looking thing. Then I put a story board together, put it up on the wall, look at it from a distance, move the text around, take it in, take it out.

It always begins with more text, because the pictures will eventually say things that you've already said. I shouldn't do this, but I'm guilty of writing something about the sunset, because how can you help it if you're a writer, you want to say what the sunset looks like.

But if it's a picture, take out the sunset. If you're teaching picture books, have the kids write what they write and then take out all the adjectives and adverbs and have them re-write, because that kind of stuff is going to be seen in the pictures. I have this story board. An essential part is putting it into a dummy, into a book form, because a picture book is a unique art form and it's unique because it does something different than other art forms.

What happens is when you go from this page to this page, when you make the page turn, your brain, your mind fills in what happens in between. I always give this example, imagine I'm standing here and there's an elephant next to me, and I'm holding a bucket of green paint. You turn the page, I'm flat as a pancake and the elephant is dripping green paint.

Well, I didn't tell you what happened in between those two pages. But the great wonder of picture books is they allow that reader to go half way. This is something that took me a while to learn because you know you don't want to hold back, you want to give all the information, you want to show them everything.

But the problem with that is that they're not involved then, they need to be, they need to be inside the book with you. When you get it in a dummy form you understand those page turns much more, you understand suspense, you understand a surprise when you put it in that. Once the dummy is set up you can start making more finished drawings.

The meaning of Pumpkinhead

I do have an end in mind, but it doesn't usually end that way because there are things that happen. How do you know what you want until you see what you have, you know? As a visual person I have to have it in front of me, I can't hold that thing in my brain, I can't say okay, I've got this idea.

I mean, My Friend Rabbit, people always say well, it's about the power of friendship. The rabbit gets the mouse in trouble basically. The rabbit causes havoc and the mouse sort of goes along with it. I was thinking that it would be funny for that to happen. I had friends, I was more the mouse and I had friends that were more the rabbit.

So that made some sense. In the end, for me the story was about it doesn't matter if your friends get you in trouble — think about how dull your life would be if they weren't in your life? I don't know if that comes out, but a lot of teachers look at it and say well, we use this as a lesson to say that friendship is really important.

I did this book called Pumpkinhead. It's about a little boy who's born with a pumpkin for a head and I wanted to make a story about a helpless child, because when I was four I felt like I was being pulled back and forth. He's born with a pumpkin head and his family loves him. A bat comes down and takes his head.

He's helpless. He goes here and there, can't … well, in the end he realizes that this is it, I'm home, I'm safe, and I kind of loved the adventure. The thing is about telling a story like that is unlike the My Friend Rabbit story there's, you know, there's not another character like the friendship character that comes into the story.

It is about something else. A woman came up to me at a book signing and said I use your book in my work. I'm thinking what do you do, you know, you've got pumpkins, you've got decapitation. What do you do? She worked at a pediatric burn unit. She said something about the book, something about here's a child who's different, but at the very beginning of the book you say although he's different his family loved him.

Then he becomes helpless and he looks different than everybody else and in the end his family still loves him, even though the world will be more difficult for a boy with a pumpkin for a head. You could not write a book and say this is going to be for children at a pediatric burn unit.

It all depends, you put it out into the world and somebody uses it some way. Once it leaves the studio it's not yours anymore; it's everybody else's and they find their way to it or they don't.

My Friend Rabbit

Here's how the story began. I doodled, I made a doodle of a rabbit holding a paper airplane. Then I asked myself questions. I mean, simple questions, what would a rabbit do with a paper airplane? Well, throw it, probably. What happens? What does a paper airplane do that other things that you throw don't do? Well, they go in a lot of places you don't expect them to go.

There was a series of drawings where they landed in a woman with big hair and in the wool of a sheep that was angry about it. From there you start finding your way to a story. Eventually the plane ends up in a tree. Well, the problem with that of course is now you've got a rabbit and a plane in a tree and you have a problem, which is something you always need in a good story, a way for your main character to grow, a way for your main character to solve something, to move on to the next step.

But he was by himself. I came up with another character, a mouse and then the paper airplane got my idea that well, maybe the mouse can fly the paper airplane. This is how it finds its way. Eventually I made little models, clay models, I did paper cut outs, I did paper cutouts, I painted, I did watercolor. Eventually when I got down to a woodcut, that black active line. Think about how you make a woodcut. You draw like this, you paint like this, you make a woodcut by pushing.

Because it's resistant, the line tends to reproduce the force of the making of the line, and so it is active and chunky and energetic. That seemed perfect for the book. I knew it was going to be brightly colored. The black line also settles it a little bit; it gives it that bright play school color, a skeleton to sit with.

Once I made that, I didn't have to make other stuff because I knew that was going to be the right one. Here's another thing about woodcuts. If I were to draw you a horse with a pencil it's always going to look like an Eric Rohmann horse, that's the way my eye and my hand and my mind work. But if I go to a graphic, a different media, if I draw it and then put it on a plate and then use that pushing it's going to look different than an Eric Roman horse.

It allows me in some ways to be a different artist each time, to try other media. One other thing about trying the other media is it just keeps you fresh. What did Ray Bradbury say that writing is like jumping off a cliff and making wings on the way down? I think that's the only way to write good stuff, draw good stuff, you know, panic a little. Anxiety's a good thing, even for a children's book illustrator.

The cautious cat

I would love to say that I wanted to write a story about how it's good to be adventurous, which is in some way how it ended up. I have four kittens in the story and this is the thing about picture books: you have 18 pictures to tell a story, don't waste your time with what they were wearing and you know what they had for breakfast, go right to it.

Once there were four kittens who had never seen snow….Once there was a boy who planted a carrot seed. Once there was an old man and an old woman who wanted a cat. I mean, get to it right away. I knew the basic premise, once there were four kittens who had never seen snow. They are kittens for a reason because cats tend to be cautious, it's not an armadillo tale because I don't know what they'd roll around in, I don't know what they would do.

Three of them are cautious and one of them says I can't wait the whole time. I heard Richard Peck talk once, the author, Richard Peck, and he said that we never write about who we are, we write about who we wish we were. The adventurous cat is not me. The rabbit in My Friend Rabbit is not me. I'm the little guy in the back who hides behind the whatever, you know, that's who I was when I was a kid.

It starts off with an adventurous cat and then finds its way through all those drafts, through all that thinking about you know who the cats are, how they would react to things. All the time I'm drawing cats. I see how they react to things that they're not sure of. That adds into the story as well.

The inspiration begins with sort of one little idea about an adventurous cat and then by looking at cats, by writing, by making pictures, by observing the subject that started to present itself and find its way. There was millions of directions that you went in that just don't come about.

The Cul-de-Sac Award

Disbelief is always the reaction, because you don't know, you're not nominated. I mean, the publisher sends your book to the committee and they look at it. I had won an honor earlier for a book called Time Flies. I had that experience before. But you just don't, it just doesn't cross your mind.

There's something in the back of your mind that knows that's the time that, you know, late January, early February when they give the awards. But I guess I wasn't thinking about it. Can I tell you a short, story about when I won the award the first time, the Caldecott honor, my family was gathered together, my cousin Paul was about five years older than me, he goes so you won this award, this big deal award in your field, so how much did you get for it?

I said well, actually there's no monetary award at all, I mean, you sell more books, but there's no monetary award. He nodded, and he said well, do you get to like go to London or New York or something. I said well, this year it's actually in Chicago, so I'll probably just take the train down. He nodded, and he said well, what about the trophy, do you get a trophy or anything?

I said well, you get this little certificate. He nodded. After that he referred to it as the Cul-de-Sac Award, because in my family it just really didn't go anywhere. Of course, that's what family does, they keep you grounded, you know. It's so endearing now to me, people say oh, was that insulting to you. In no way because that's what family does is they keep you who you are as opposed to who you might start to believe you are.

"I'm wondering what to read next." — Matilda, Roald Dahl