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Reading Rockets’ children's literature expert, Maria Salvadore, brings you into her world as she explores the best ways to use kids’ books both inside — and outside — of the classroom.
Stripes of All Types: An Interview with Susan Stockdale
Perhaps growing up in Southwest Florida inspired Susan Stockdale’s love of nature. Perhaps it was being the youngest of five that encouraged her to look closely at the world all around. In any case, Susan now lives near Washington, D.C. where she both illustrates and writes lyrical nonfiction for children, sharing her appreciation and unique perspective on nature familiar and extraordinary.
Susan, tell us a bit about your background and how it has influenced your current work.
I had a wonderful childhood playing outside with my friends, surrounded by the lush and colorful vegetation of Miami (Florida). I also spent a few childhood years in Ireland, where my father worked as a diplomat. The Irish landscape was a patchwork of sparkly greens, filled with cows, sheep and other animals I'd never seen in Miami.
These two very different environments — the sunny tropics of Miami and the verdant surroundings of Ireland — really influenced my love of nature and my development as an artist. When I create book illustrations today, I still draw on these vivid childhood memories for inspiration.
I developed a love of language from my mother, a published poet. When I was little, she strung rhyming words together throughout the day in a playful way. This taught me that words could be fun! My mother’s strong influence is reflected in the way I write my picture books today - entirely in rhyme.
Which comes first for you, words or pictures?
The manuscript always comes first, but imagery swirls around inside my head as I write each word.
You use an economy of language but it reads aloud (or alone) with grace and rhythm. What is your writing process?
I begin by jotting down the first words that come to mind. As I keep writing and playing with word combinations, a rhythm emerges. Once I have the rhythm, I have the structure for my rhyming manuscript. Then I focus on selecting the most vivid adjectives and verbs, using alliteration as much as possible.
I spend a lot of time selecting each word. As a visual artist, I regard words as works of art. I think that’s why I choose to feature just a few on a page. I like having a lot of air around them, literally providing space for them to be savored.
I often research and write simultaneously. For example, while writing the rhyming lines “fish that hitch a ride” and “fish that ride the tide” for Fabulous Fishes, I researched whether fish really do these things. They do! Remoras attach themselves to whale sharks, hitching a ride for miles. California grunions swim up on shore during high tide and bury their eggs on the beach, then they “ride the tide” back to sea. I was glad I could retain those two lines because I thought they would be amusing for kids to read.
Your art is distinctive; bold shapes, rich colors, but representational. How do you achieve this? In other words, what is your process of illustration?
When possible, I travel to the site of my subjects to see them. For example, I traveled to the Galapagos Islands to observe some of the birds featured in Bring On the Birds.
Next, I select photographs that serve as visual references for the flora and fauna subjects I intend to paint. My reference photos help me determine which characteristics I want to emphasize in my subjects. I interpret their unique qualities in my own style while staying true to their anatomy — an approach I consider stylized realism. Having worked as a textile designer for the clothing industry, it has become instinctive for me to find patterns in everything I paint. I work as a visual choreographer, choosing carefully where to place even the tiniest blade of grass.
I create many sketches — sometimes as many as 20 — before arriving at the image I want to illustrate. Once I select a final image, I revise its sketch into a detailed drawing and then trace it onto paper. Then the painting begins. For each color, I apply three or more layers of acrylic paint, giving the images a flat, almost silkscreen-like appearance. To produce such fine detail in my work I use small brushes and a very steady hand.
A recent book is Fantastic Flowers. In it, each bloom has a distinct personality but they’re all real — and you proved it by the back matter! How did this book come about?
While visiting the U.S. Botanic Garden, I was charmed by an orchid that looked just like a monkey’s face. The idea for the book came to me in a flash: a book about flowers that look like other things! It struck me as such a playful and fun theme — but one that could have real educational heft, too.
You’ve written about various animals on land, in the air, and in water. How do you choose your topics?
Kids are naturally curious, and I relish coming up with themes I think they will enjoy. Why do animals have spots? Stripes? How do flowers resemble other things? I relish the challenge of conveying scientific information to children in a way that I hope engages them.
How do you verify the accuracy of the information you provide in each of these books?
I consult closely with at least three scientists on each book. I submit my text and illustrations to them to ensure that both are factually accurate, and I pepper them with questions as my book evolves.
Several of your books have been translated into Spanish. How did this come about?
The committee that selected Stripes of All Types for its 2014 “Pennsylvania One Book, Every Young Child” early literacy program asked Peachtree Publishers to reprint the book in both English and Spanish. The program ordered 70,000 copies of the book for distribution to Pennsylvania Head Start programs and preschools, so it had serious sway! My next book, Spectacular Spots, was a companion to Stripes of All Types, so Peachtree felt it natural to publish it in an English/Spanish bilingual format, as well.
What do you want your readers — young and experienced — to get from your books?
I hope to introduce children to the joy of language through my rhythmic, rhyming text; to open their eyes to the splendor and importance of our natural world; and to encourage them to play outside.
Each of Susan Stockdale’s books provides an extra something at the end. It lets readers learn a bit more about the subject and to further engage with the information. Though the books intrigue a broad range of readers, they are accessible to children as young as 3 years old. Find a list of books written and illustrated by Susan Stockdale.