Transcript from an interview with Audrey and Don Woods

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Audrey and Don Wood. The transcript is divided into the following clips:

Meet Audrey and Don Wood

Hi, I’m Audrey Wood, author and illustrator of children’s books.

And I’m Don Wood. I have been her creative partner for about 35 years. I usually illustrate but occasionally I have co-written books with her.

Well, I grew up in an artistic family. I’m actually a fourth generation artist and I grew up in the studios of my grandfather and my father who are my master teachers and we had a lot of — I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. We had a lot of artists and writers and I was able to meet Charlie May Simon who was an author of children’s books, so that’s my background as far as artists go.

I didn’t have any choice. I just grew up naturally drawing. And how about you?

Well, I grew up in a non-artistic family. I was born and raised on a small farm in the Central Valley which is a part of California that none of you know anything about. It’s the part of California that is not really California. I don’t think there was a bookstore or an artist within 100 miles, but in the sixth grade I decided to my parent’s dismay to be an artist and I drew constantly. I drew on whatever I could find which turned out to be laundry paper spread out on the living room table.

A creative partnership

Audrey has decided a very young age, right, that you wanted to write and illustrate children’s picture books.  

I did. I started reading when I was three years old. I was one of these children who just — I have no memory of being taught how to read. I just began to read words everywhere and so I think my biggest influences were right off because I could read that early were Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss and others but then when I was in the fourth grade I really fell in love with Dr. Seuss because here was someone who was doing what I really loved the most which was writing and drawing because I was already writing stories when I was in the second grade.

And this was the only artist/writer that I ran across that could combine both arts so that was exciting to me.

We need to argue about who’s the best artist. It’ll sound like a hopeless case of mutual admiration but that of course is the key to a long and productive relationship. So, of course, when it comes to representational art, I am in a different category than Audrey but her art is so expressive. I am after her on almost a daily basis to do more of it. I find her art to be — she leaves little notes around for telephone calls that I save in a file because they’re masterpieces, so there’s expressive and there’s representational.

And sometimes of course in some of our books she draws the pictures and I color them in which makes for a very interesting artist indeed because you get the expressiveness and the love of form which creates a totally new art form, a new artist.

A narrative artist

My background, my influences, always a narrative artist from the very start, always storytelling artist. Then in higher education, six years of higher education I was purged of the narrative in my art because that was very much out of style in the mid to late 60s and for six years I forgot my direction and had to find it again for which I thank my relationship with Audrey who said that’s nonsense, that narrative belongs in art.

It’s hard to remember now how monolithic art was in those days. There was one movement after another and each one was the final moment in art. This was it. This is where we’ve all been going for, you know, 500 years. So I found my way again and I thank Audrey’s attitude and direction on that. Early influences, believe it or not, will be as gauche as you can possibly imagine, Carl Barks, Uncle Scrooge comics, that’s what you could get where I was. No bookstores.

And then I saw Bambi so that was a mind altering experience if you’re living in a small town and you haven’t seen animation except Tom and Jerry at the local theater and also then came Mad Magazine, very, very important to me and there was even an artist named Wallace Wood that I loved and I like to think he was a relative. So then we went -

Although all of your art looks like it’s masters, old masters work with -

It depends on what you write, my dear.

I’m very flexible.

Yeah, I basically got down on my knees and begged him to do my book, the first book that we did together. I said please would you do this.

So once again, we’ve been given permission to disagree. I rode her coattails in this profession. If you speak with any editor frankly and perhaps we’re revealing inside secrets that you’ll need to edit out, but editors will tell you that they have 100 great artists waiting for one good manuscript. So how lucky was I?

The Napping House

I’m going to show you my second moon book, The Full Moon at the Napping House and yeah, when I was a child I — whenever the moon would get large I had difficulty sleeping at night. It would be so bright and everything so the first moon that we did, moon book that we did was Moonflute and this particular book, Full Moon at the Napping House is the second book. What is this, companion book, we like to call her a best friend.

Best friend to The Napping House and what is interesting about The Napping House is that after it was published many children and teachers began to write us and ask us continually can you please write another Napping House and they even sent us wonderful suggestions. They sent me wonderful suggestions, drawings, suggestions for stories and they were inspiring, but they weren’t just right for me.

They didn’t work out because the first book, The Napping House had such a — to me it was perfect. It didn’t need another book to go with it.

So anyway, 30 years later the second book came out and the way that that happened is that we moved into our second house that we have lived together in in all of our many years. The first house, that’s where The Napping House came out of and that was in a coastal city in California and it was there that — I couldn’t see the moon because of the fog at night, but when we moved to our second home which was in Hawaii, everything changed.

The skies were clear. You could see at nighttime. I would watch the moon move and we had fairly dark — we had a dark property.

No lights.

No lights and they would move from — the moon would change all of its phases -

No electricity.

And by the time it was full I couldn’t sleep. I was back to that point and so I began to wonder well what would it be like if there was a full moon because I was restless. I would go outside and take all these walks with my dog at night and there were lots of different animals out there like our goats and our chickens and our geese and -

They all thought it was day.

They did. They were running around.

The chickens would be out of the coop. The goats would be butting heads. The moon is so bright.

Yes, and so I did wonder. I thought wow, what would it be like to write a story about the full moon shining down on The Napping House? And so that’s where the idea came from. Wasn’t the whole story blown up in a second, but it piqued my curiosity. Yes, it piqued my curiosity.

Drawing Full Moon at the Napping House

One book begins with everyone sleepy and they wake up and the second book begins with everyone restless and unable to relax and they soothe out and you’re obviously going to sleep at the end. So they do this.

Right, and with The Napping House you illustrated the book of course during — it was all the pictures are illustrated during the day whereas -

True. A gray day, but a day.

Full Moon at The Napping House it’s all night paintings and that was hard for you even though you’re a great artist.

Which was the challenge because it’s an interior night and it has to look like night and yet obviously the characters have to be legible.

Yeah, I’ll give you a night picture. Yeah.

So that was an extreme challenge, that and going back to my 32 year old self to, you know, match this guy who was pretty good to my surprise.

Basically what — I’ll tell you what happened. In The Napping House, everyone was asleep and they had to awaken so there was a flea that that woke everybody up but in The Full Moon at the Napping House everyone is restless so I needed a character that would calm them down, not wake them up but calm them down because every single character was just awake because of the moon just like I was and that was a challenge finding the right character.

Mutual support and creative disagreements

Absolutely. She is my art director. Of course I have another second art director which turns out often to be crucial at the publisher but Audrey and I are in fact partners although we have distinct responsibilities and in order to keep peace in the home we have veto. I mean, you know, I am the guy that says illustrator, that’s my name. She’s the author, I can say, you know, that word’s wrong and if we disagree finally after months, she makes that decision. I make the illustration decisions, but she is extremely helpful.

We do dummy after dummy. She goes through them all, we read them out loud to each other and she helps with that. I enjoy telling stories within stories but not too much because occasionally you can get to the point where the story within the story is distracting and fighting with the text so we just touch that and thank you for noticing.  

Yes, while we both function as each other’s editors, as a writer, a writer often does not see everything clearly because it’s all in the author’s mind and you just assume that everyone understands what you’re talking about but if I can hand my manuscript to Don, which I do, and he’ll make suggestions or he’ll point out things or he’ll be confused and oops, got to go back to work, back to the work, you know? Well once our son had a friend visiting over and the friend said do your parents always argue like this and he said no, only when they’re writing.
Well, we’re very — as we’ve matured, let’s put it this way, we’re not quite as dramatic. You know, I can remember running from the room crying because I brought him a manuscript and he didn’t like it.

That does hurt. Yeah, it’s still painful.

But now we really do agree to disagree. In fact, if we’re not disagreeing then we feel that the other person is not giving enough, is not critiquing enough so we’ll just come on, come on, come on.

Give me the truth stuff.

Animal stories

I’m an animal person. I confess it. I love dogs and cats and birds. I’ve rescued a lot of wild animals.

How many birds do you think we had at one time?

Gee, well we had five aviaries and they were all rescued birds and I fed by hand eagles, owls, all the raptors.

Pelican.

Hummingbirds, every kind of bird you can imagine because I belong to a group, a rescue group for animals. And right now we have two goats and we have 21 chickens.

In Hawaii.

In Hawaii and some are fancy chickens, big plump chickens and little chickens and they all have so much character.

Of course we can’t forget the two pugs.

Oh, we had our two pugs.

Which were famous because, you know, they periodically appear in the books

Yes. We have to be careful what kind of animals are around us because they tend to whisper in my ear and create stories. We’ve also had two mastiffs. We had an English Mastiff. Those were my dogs, English Mastiff and Bull Mastiff and so I’m careful on naming them, careful on choosing them. Their colors have to look just nice in case we have to illustrate them. We never know.

Yeah, the animal motif is strong.

Winning the Caldecott

Did the Caldecott honor have an impact on my work? No.

I don’t think so. I mean it was a magnificent honor to stand up in front of those people and to see your book with a shiny medal, but I had a commitment to excellence before being awarded that and it didn’t seem to change that. I don’t think I became even less fanatical. I just stayed right on track. Heckedy Peg followed and that was equally detailed and ambitious.

We pretty much put the book that we just finished behind us because there’s always a new project that’s coming on that’s all exciting, you know, and so we just — we don’t — I mean I can go years without reading the books, you know, my books back there because something new is coming up that’s causing us to pay attention to and to fall in love with and to give it our most, so that’s what we do.

Idea hungry

When I wake up in the morning I try to make myself idea hungry. I tell myself to watch. Idea hungry means that all around you there’s something that’s happening. In my external world there’s interesting things happening. Being here in this chair with Don, being here is an interesting — it’s something that’s an idea. So later on I’ll write it down on a little piece of paper. It could be a napkin. I usually travel with a notebook, a little tiny notebook and a little tiny sketchbook.

So at the end of the day — well I also pay attention to what’s going on internally because it’s not all just external. It’s also internal, internal meaning whatever it is that makes me feel something like happy or sad or interested, I know that those are seeds for ideas or seeds for stories and so I’ll just take a quick note, you know? I won’t write a long journal about it but I’ll take a quick note.

And then when I get home I tear out my little notes and my drawings and I throw them in the idea box.

And then how does the idea box work?

Okay, well first of all, it’s really important for you to know that these are not full grown, blown stories. They’re just bits and pieces of information and so what I do, I believe in playing, playing, you know, just letting my imagination run so I’ll take out all these pieces of paper. I like to work — I don’t have a desk. I work in a bed. I love to lie down in a bed with my feet up and just put all the little pieces of paper around me and I have my little things, you know?

Usually there’s a dog at the end or a bird. You know, I have little friends that are with me and then I just relax and I just forget about what I’m picking up. I’ll look at it and there will be something on there like the napping house. That was — I wrote that down one time because it was what I called my mother’s house when I took our son over to take a nap there so I had just thrown that in.

You know, that is interesting. I’m going to keep that and so I’ll be cross referencing all these things and I’m not saying that right then and there a story comes up but what it does, it shows me what interests me and I begin the think and contemplate that, you know? And then as the days go by and the weeks and the months and the years, you know, the stories come. They come.

And I do suggest that children do this because, you know, there’s so much structure. You’ve got to do your grammar correctly and you have to be able to spell and by the way, write a story and so I’m always telling children forget about the spelling and grammar right now. Just get the story down first and you can come back and — that’s where your teachers really help you, you know, to help you get to the mechanics of writing.

Revision, revision

Yes. The role of revision in our work is very time consuming. These books are 300 words long. You only have 300 words. It makes a telegram seem like an essay. You have to be — it’s a poem is what it is. It’s absolutely condensed and so how many versions do you think you went through with the new book?

Oh, you mean the writing?

Yeah, 20?

Oh, easily.

How many had been? How many dummies?

And different -

Five, six, seven and then sketches and then after you finish the sketches you start painting and everything changes from drawing to fully formed paintings and you revise again and then you do some of the paintings over. A year and a half.

And for me, the revisions are very important and I love revisions. I have more fun with revising than anything else I think. I like to take a story or sometimes my stories are longer than 300 words, but -

That’s true. There have been a few.

The ones that we’ve done together are usually 300 words, 350 words, but I like to see all the different ways that I can take a story, particularly the ending. It’s very important to me that it has a strong beginning and the middle just keeps — very exciting and then the end is powerful so I’ll maybe write 15 different endings before I’m finished.

Two audiences

I think one of your most interesting observations you haven’t mentioned is the dual level of your books.

Oh, of course. Well it’s very important to me to always remember the person that I’m writing to, the people that I’m writing to and I’m writing for two people and I see an audience in front of me when I’m writing. I see it in my mind, you know, I have chosen them. But they’re basically two types of people. They’re adults and they’re children, so the books need for me to — for the children to read they need to appeal to the child but they also need to appeal to the adult who’s going to read to the child.

So they’re very multi-layered and there’s a high and a low concept. Sometimes the jokes the adults will get but the child doesn’t really understand and it doesn’t matter because the child, he or she, understands what’s going on in the story.

And oftentimes I approach the art the same way.

Yeah, you do. You really do.

We can make it as sophisticated as we want.

Right.

Emotion and empathy

Emotion is my specialty as an artist. I teach children how to display emotion in their characters because it is often neglected. Children will have a single character that they draw with a neutral, aggressive, happy expression over and over and over and if you vary that emotion you create empathy. Your reader or your viewer suddenly becomes intrigued by what’s going on, so I emphasize that in my art. I have books and books on human expressions and the hundreds of muscles involved and the evolution of recognizing expressions instantly so that you know if the person you meet around the corner on that path on the cliff is aggressive or friendly or even someone that you should be hanging out with.

So yes, the emotions are very important.  I tend to exaggerate them slightly. I have a little bit of the cartoonist but I like to mix that in with the oil painting and the sort of classical approach and create empathy in my people and the emotion is the key.

For me the emotion is very important too. I’m one of these people who has what’s called a global memory. My first memories were in the Ringling Brothers circus where my parents — my parents were going to art school and so they lived in a little trailer in Sarasota, Florida and so I guess that’s why I remember my entire childhood. It was very exciting. I mean in the winter you had aerialists that were — a tight wire — tight wire?

High wire.

High wire artists that were performing without anything below them. They had no safety whatsoever because they weren’t on tour, right? And then, you know, I was taking care of by little people and the largest woman in the world was my babysitter so it was just that all these people were very good friends of ours and I have this memory that goes back for every single age that, you know, that I can go back, I can remember, so therefore, I feel what it’s like to be a child.

Books as entertainment

You know, children — I am not a teacher. I don’t look at my work as being teaching anything. I look at it as entertainment, however there may be a message.

There’s always a message whether you want there to be or not.

There may be a message, right, but that’s not what I go after. I go after the fun and the — and for children to love reading books and to have a passion for them.
You used a keyword. Let’s speak for a minute —

What is it?

Just entertainment. Those two words often go together but we consider entertainment holy. Entertainment is how children learn to get larger than themselves. We once had a child misbehaving at our house while the parents visit and we handed him one of our books to keep the kid quiet so we could talk and he took the book and he spread it out in front of him and running around the living room bouncing off the walls and he literally made a motion that I’ll never forget because we were young and it was early in our career. He went like that. Immersed.

He didn’t make another sound. In fact, we noticed how quiet he was and we talked to him and called his name and he didn’t hear a word. He had gone out of himself and empathized with a world that we created and this is when we realized that the number one didactic value of what we were doing is the fact that you lose yourself to become part of a different world that somebody else has created so entertainment, we put a capital E on it and we’re very proud of our role as entertainers.

Is the bear real?

Okay. So we’re discussing The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear, the longest title we ever put on one of our books.
That’s true.

And we’re wondering about the voice. Is the bear real? Who’s reading this book and that was an interesting breakthrough that you create

Well, I think we did that one together as I recall.

That could have been. I had a hand in that.

That was a long time ago. You did. And the way I look at it is that the bear is just what the reader believes it is. The reader can choose what the bear is. Is there a bear? Isn’t there a bear? Who is the bear? Who’s doing this, you know? And that’s what I believe.

Audrey’s always on the child’s side and this was a child scared. Somebody had spooked this kid maybe because of a real bear, maybe because of just, you know, the things that hide under your bed but she wrote a story about overcoming fear and then overcoming it by sharing with whatever this entity was out there whether it be a con job or a real bear.

Just maybe it’s inside of the child or the person, you know, right? Your subconscious, I mean, from a higher level.

Yeah, very good. Very good. Nonetheless, it’s a marvelous theme that has been repeated many, many times in children’s literature and she hit a good one.

Story first

Which comes first, the word or the picture?

Well the story always comes first at least with us. I know there are other people who have different ways about going about it, but we have to be thrilled with the story, both of us as illustrators, so that we will want to take the time to illustrate it, you know? And the story is what creates the whole world, you know, really even though the art is a marriage between, you know, the story and the — yeah, the pictures, you still couldn’t -

There are books that will tell a story just using pictures and I appreciate those.

But the story probably still came first.

But the story — exactly. It was in someone’s mind. It was a progression of events, you know, that happened otherwise it’s just a bunch of pretty pictures that are right next to each other.

The art follows.

The art follows, yes.

Simply stated, the art follows.

Yes, the art follows for us.

Every book has a secret

Oh my goodness. There are so many secrets.

We have deep, deep secrets.

We have so many secrets about our book and we have — books and we have so many secrets that we eventually put them on our website and then we put in little things that says secret. It’s a link to the secret.

Every book has a secret.

Well, The Napping House was named after the house where our son went to take a nap because he wouldn’t nap in ours and King Bidgood is a friend of mine who looks just like that and is named Bidgood and in Heckedy Peg — well I was very interested in children’s fairytales and I studied them and that — what’s the secret there? I don’t remember.

I’m the witch.

Oh, this is a funny secret.

I thought she would jump on that one.

I forgot the secret.

And I’m the witch and who is the lovely mother?

But why were you the witch?

Because I was afraid to ask anybody else to be one.

Here’s the way it happened. He had drawn the entire book in pencil, right, and leaving out on every single page the witch and I kept saying we’ve got to find a witch.

Which is an artistic error. You never ever, you know, a drawing is supposed to come up together and this was a hole in those drawings. It was very, very bad art.

Yes. So I thought and thought what can we do to find a witch. Don is not going to want to ask anyone and I can’t find anyone because when we do — when he does his books we have camera, action, makeup, costumes, I design the costumes and people, we give them scripts so it becomes more like a little play.

Well that’s what a children’s picture book is, a play.

Because he likes to sketch for the picture books, sketch in life and so it’s very interesting.

Other secrets would be Elbert’s Bad Word was created — our sole didactic effort when our son came home from a very nice preschool cussing like a sailor and let’s see Duffy Time is based on our little pug Duffy and -

Silly Sally.

Silly Sally was because Audrey liked to walk upside down as a child on her hands. She was very good at it and had fond memories of that. Every book — oh, there’s so many. There’s a secret in every one.

Yes. Many secrets.

Gratitude

I think a point not yet covered would be our gratitude for what we’ve been able to experience. It’s truly astounding that we’ve had this opportunity and continue to have this opportunity because we’ve got many books left to do. It’s been — the children’s picture book industry is remarkably clean to use a term — I’d prefer another word but the people that are in it are in it because they love it.

Usually when you talk to editors you’ll find that someone with similar responsibilities across the board in publishing, an adult or some other field with the same number of people under them will earn significantly more and the people in children’s books usually take a cut in pay to be where they love and that creates an atmosphere in our field that is wonderful, the librarians the teachers. Teachers spend hundreds of dollars a year from their salaries which are, you know, not abundant to begin to buy our books.

And you go into the classroom and there are all of our books laid there. The school didn’t pay for those; the teachers did. This is the feeling or the ambience that saturates our field and we’re very, very lucky to be a part of it.

Read aloud memories

So the impact of the digital world on our profession is a huge question mark to us. I have no idea. I would like to know.

I feel from talking to parents and teachers, you know, at first it was like oh my goodness, what’s going to happen to picture books, but with picture books there’s just something about holding a child on your lap and opening a book and reading this story. I mean we have adults who have grown up on our books and they’ll come in — there’s this one guy who always comes to mind. He was six foot tall and he was standing there holding a — clutching a book and he said would you sign my book and all of a sudden he became like a seven year old, you know?

I said it’s your book? He says yeah, I’ve had this book since I was a kid, you know? And so then I go wow, well certainly what’s your name. Johnny. Okay, Johnny, I’ll sign — Johnny was probably 40 years old, you know? And so I think that that makes a huge difference.

Well of course. The book is tangible. You can smell it. You can feel it. It’s, as I mentioned once before, a cinemascopic experience. However, you have to access it. Librarians become very important now that there’s so many fewer bookstores. We all have to adapt to that but the book is irreplaceable and it will always be around especially for children.

I think there’s room for both digital but there has been a balancing act on that and some of the parents that are coming up now are starting to realize that and that’s one of the reasons personally I wanted to go on tour was to inspire not only children but parents to the idea that, you know, that don’t lose out on this because we’ve had children that have grown up come back to us as adults and say I can remember the motes when my dad was reading to me.

I can remember the motes, the dust motes that were drifting around in the room. I mean they can — it just puts a stamp on people’s memories to share that warm bond with another human being.

It was my best time with our child to be able to settle down and read, so it’s always going to be around.

Dueling read alouds!

Okay, so this is going to be a simultaneous reading of two books in one since we don’t have one of the books. I of course after 30 years more or less have it memorized. I will be reading the original Napping House in my mind and Audrey will be reading The Full Moon at the Napping House, kind of like a dueling banjo, you know?

So the reason we do this is to show that the two books are absolutely parallel in structure but the themes are inverted. One book wakes up. The other books goes to sleep. So I’ll begin.

There is a house, a napping house where everyone is sleeping.
There is a house, a full moon house where everyone is restless.
And in that house there is a bed, a cozy bed in a napping house where everyone is sleeping.
And in that house there is a bed, a wide awake bed in a full moon house where everyone is sleeping — restless.
I’ve put you to sleep.
You did.

And on that bed there is a granny, a snoring granny on a cozy bed in a napping house where everyone is sleeping.
And in that bed there is a granny, a sleepless granny in a wide awake bed in a full moon house where everyone is restless.
And on that granny there is a child, a dreaming child on a snoring granny on a cozy bed in a napping house where everyone is sleeping.
And with that granny there is a child, a fidgety child with a sleepless granny in a wide awake bed in a full moon house where everyone is restless.
One more time. And on that child there is a dog, a dozing dog and a dreaming child on a snoring granny on a cozy bed in a napping house where everyone is sleeping.
And with that child there is a dog, a playful dog with a fidgety child with a sleepless granny in a wide awake bed in a full moon house where everyone is restless.
There it goes.
There it goes.

For the first time, the death defying simultaneous reading. Two books in one. Talk about new media!

"When I say to a parent, "read to a child", I don't want it to sound like medicine. I want it to sound like chocolate. " — Mem Fox