Transcript from an interview with Henry Cole

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

Draw, draw, draw

I've always loved to draw. I remember that was one of the first things I can actually remember doing. I had a little flat top footstool that was only about this high, but I would sit with paper and draw, draw, draw, all the time. I loved to draw. My mom had been an illustrator — a fashion illustrator in New York — and she I guess passed on some gene of drawing to me, because I've always really loved it.

I was also lucky enough to have several wonderful, wonderful elementary teachers who recognized my interest in drawing and encouraged that a lot. One in particular is Dorothy Patterson, wonderful, wonderful third grade teacher. And I remember that she would pass out big sheets of paper and she'd also give us an assignment which I really liked. She didn't just say draw anything, she'd say draw a picture that illustrates chapter 13 of the book that we're reading in class. She'd give us an assignment, which I really appreciated. I liked that too.

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All of the ology's

I went into teaching later on in life. Miss Patterson didn't have anything to do with that. That was a decision probably prompted by my mom, who had told me years and years and years ago, she said be a plumber or a teacher and you'll always have something to do. So I went into teaching and I had gotten a degree in the sciences, in forestry, so I became a science teacher.

I was lucky that with a science background, studying all of the ology's; there was ornithology and dendrology and biology and aquatic entomology and ichthyology. I covered them all in college and so I had a lot of science background. In fact, one of my favorite assignments I remember in college was an aquatic entomology class where we had to, during the spring we made an aquatic insect collection.

We had to go out with dip nets and little vials, clear vials with alcohol and collect samples of different things and draw them and study them and identify them. And being anatomically correct was very important when identifying species.

I had a basic or a good basic education in the sciences. Well, when it came to illustrating a book about bats it was very easy for me to use my science background to illustrate that. Or Jack's Garden, a gardening book, seeds to plants to flowers, that was easy for me because of my science background and I knew where to find information that I didn't know.

When I was in the classroom and boy, you got a classroom of kids and you're trying to get across some subject matter and right behind you is this great big dry erase board and all these markers. It was fun to be able to draw stuff and get the kids' interest and keep them interested in the subject by drawing crazy things on the board, everything from dinosaurs up to, I remember once there was a unit on bridges and we did the curved … anyway, drawing things made it very easy to get points across. It helped me a lot.

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I remember a very, very early book, I'm going to say it was my very first book was a book called "Birds of Our Farm" that my sister and I did together. And I was probably five and she was seven. And she sat at the typewriter and she wrote out all the words to the story, which was like a field guide to the birds of our front yard and our backyard and I drew the pictures.

I remember then being very, very patient with making sure that the blue jay had all the dots in the right place and the crest was right. And knowing how something looks in real life and then knowing that it's not right on your paper can be very frustrating. So you just improve it and make it better and make it better until it looks like the real thing and that was very satisfying to me.

So there was a lot of observation, but also observing what's on your paper and figuring out what's wrong that was huge too.

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What do you see?

Well, I remember… and, yes, absolutely the preliminary sketches are very important to me. I spend a whole lot of time on them. I make very detailed preliminary sketches and preliminary dummies for the book. It's where I spend most of my time on a particular project. I remember when I was teaching I would give, this made me crazy by the way, I would give an assignment.

Well, here's an example. I remember in second grade we did a wonderful water unit, aquatic animal adaptations to water, environment, wetlands. Well, I would get this giant fish from the supermarket and we'd all talk about, the class would gather around, we'd all talk about the fish, the external anatomy of the fish, the gills, the lateral line, the fins and dorsal and this and all that. Then we'd dissect the fish and talk about the swim bladder and the gills on the inside, all the things.

Then I would have them draw the fish. It's a great assignment. To really learn about something try drawing it. Try drawing someone's face and you'll have a really great appreciation for their face. But this was draw this fish. It was a blue fish. Well, after a long, long discussion of what I wanted in the picture and all the things we needed to include in the picture, inevitably by the time I got over to my desk and sat down, some second grader would bring up their paper and say I finished, Mr. Cole, I finished.

They would have drawn a big old lateral figure eight with a big smiley face in it and eyelashes coming out. I would say, I didn't see any figure eight fish. There were no eyelashes on that fish. The fish was not smiling when we dissected it. What are you talking about? And they would be so sad. But I'd take that paper back to their desk, they would erase everything and they'd start over and something in their head was the fish is always this figure eight shape.

Uh-uh, it was this torpedo shape. And then they started drawing things, and the scales, they'd start putting in the details and really thinking abut what they were drawing. Then the magic would happen and then don't touch my fish. And they were very oh, wow, this is the best fish that ever was, putting in all the anatomy and the details and labeling each part.

A light switch clicked on that fish or an assignment, any assignment, isn't just like that, it takes thought and time and energy. It's not something you do in seconds. It's thoughtful. So to create a sketch for a page of a book, you don't just do it and it's finished, it's got to be thoughtful. You got to lay it out. You got to leave room for the words of the story maybe.

You've got to leave space around the margins if you need to. You got to think about the expression on the character there and the placement and what's going on. It doesn't happen instantly. And I think once you learn that in a process, even from second grade where you're drawing the anatomy of a fish. It doesn't happen immediately. You've got to put some thought and energy in it.

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Drawing what you feel

When I read a manuscript for the first time, the second time, the 16th time, I'll read it many, many times. And while you're reading something if you're reading it over and over you'll get images in your head and I don't care what it is, if you're reading it, pictures happen. And I try to put those pictures down on paper in sketch form. I try to do it quickly and I try to make it part of that story somehow. And if I'm reading something and I get real emotional about it I'll try to get that emotion down on the paper.

If it's something joyful and crazy and funny then I'll try to help that happen in a picture. If it's something sort of sad and sensitive and sweet then I'll try to make that happen. And just it's like just turning up the volume maybe a little bit because you're reading it, but it's also great to see it happening too on the paper. That's what I try to do.

What can pictures do that words can't? Well, the great thing about a picture in a picture book is that you can make up your own words if you need to, you can make up your own feelings and they can touch you a certain way. Sometimes you don't even have to read anything, but just to look at the picture will give you a feeling or thoughts or memories, you don't even have to read a word. How great is that?

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Sunny Slope Farm

Kiss Box. Sweet story, I love the story so much. The author and editor wanted the main characters to be bears, mama bear, and baby bear. I wanted the setting to be a woodland setting. And so because it's such a sweet story I decided to make the setting someplace that was very sweet to me, from my past, from my childhood.

I grew up in a farm in Loudon County, Virginia, and my uncle's farm was about three miles away and his farm was called Sunny Slope Farm. And it was the perfect place in the whole wide world. It was so beautiful. There was a winding creek that went through the woods and then through the fields. And the creek was dotted with Sycamore trees. So I thought okay, I'm just going to have to put a Sycamore tree in the story, because they're beautiful to look at.

And so that's where the Sycamore tree comes from. And of course, we had swings on the farm and that's where the swing tree came from. So this is a very nostalgic book for me. And it takes place, I like to think that it takes place on my Sunny Slope Farm beneath the Sycamore tree.

Well, a book like the Kiss Box which is such a sweet little tender story, it's just crying out for sweet little tender pictures. And so I wanted to make, I wanted to understate the emotion and I wanted to make it soft and tender and not scream soft, sweet story yea! I had to really turn it down a little bit and make the colors muted and soft, make the scenes sweet and loving. That's what the story asked for.

Another book may not ask for that. And I think it's odd sometimes to see books that visually look alike but they've got really different content in them. And so I try to change my illustrations to fit the text a little bit, make it more appropriate for that story.

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I'm just finishing up work on a wordless picture book. And I'm crazy wild about the story because there are no words. So if you share the story in the pictures, then you can go back and say well, gosh, now you can write your own story, use your own words, pick your own adjectives to describe what's going on on the page.

I just think it's a great thought that the words aren't written to the story. It's just pictures. And you share the pictures, you share the story. And then at the end, after you have a little discussion maybe about the book, then you can go back and say, okay. I've chosen this particular spread or this particular page in a book, now I'd like you class, I would like you to write a paragraph that goes with this page and the paragraph has to have two adverbs and three adjectives.

And then you close it up. You got 45 minutes to do it. And then to share each other's paragraphs with each other and how people interpreted the page differently and came up with their own way of describing that scene. You've written your own book. I love that idea. You're the creator. You're the creative person that's making the words juicy and yummy.

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A little short of perfect

It's very difficult to figure out when something's finished, when something's complete, because there's an infinite number of ways of drawing a picture for a page in a book. A good friend of mine once told me, you try too hard to make it too perfect, too much of the time, stop. Just do it, it looks great, now just leave it there, don't try to add anymore, because if you can change it, make yourself crazy by working on it forever and ever, because there's an infinite number of ways of making a picture.

So I have to really kind of stop and say, okay, this one's done, I can move on now. I like it. However, when the book comes out, and you're looking through the finished book the first time, the advanced copy comes, you're looking at it, oh, my gosh, I could have made, I could have changed that, oops, I should have made this different, because there's no end to the number of changes that you can make to a picture.

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Animal faces

I love putting expression and different emotions onto the face of an animal character. That's really fun for me. I love doing that. Or people. But animals are really fun. And I'll have to tell you I have a hand mirror next to my drawing table and if I'm sketching something and I'm doing a doodle for a preliminary sketch and I'm trying to get an emotion just right, sometimes I'll pick up the mirror, look in it, make a stupid expression and I'll try to get some of that from the mirror onto the paper.

That's why I think some of my characters look a little bit like me, particular the chicken characters. I love chickens. I love lots of fowl, but particularly chickens. We had chickens on the farm growing up, and they weren't your ordinary sort of chickens, they were to me very beautiful, personality filled chickens, and I would follow them around and sketch their pictures, follow them around the farm, making little pen and ink sketches of them, which I still have.

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The painter's apprentice

There's always been a fascination with me with this American figure in history, John James Audubon. I think he's just one of the most charismatic unusual and talented people in American history, always been fascinated with him and loved his pictures. And then years and years ago I did some research. I was reading about him for some reason or another and I read that he had an apprentice, a helper for two years who followed him around and helped him carry stuff.

Well, this helper did a lot, a large number of the backgrounds in Audubon's bird portraits. Audubon would do the bird, but these beautiful leafy and flowery backgrounds would be this apprentice who had done them. I was like wow, that guy's really talented. Then I found out that he was 13 years old. And I thought there is a story there. For one thing that's like my fantasy job to be Audubon's apprentice and float down rivers in 1830 with Audubon. Oh, my gosh. It would have been like the fantasy job for me.

So I thought that would be a great, great story. And I've always liked animal characters. I like animal characters, particularly mice, because mice they seem to be able to do things, they can manipulate their little hands and they can sit up right or scamper this way. It would be hard to have say a deer trying to draw something or weave a basket. So mice are just so perfect that way. And the way they're sort of compact and they've got these big beautiful eyes. I thought a mouse character would be super for that.

I thought pretty long and hard about the shooting, the hunting, the skinning, the pinning of Audubon specimens as he painted them, as he did their bird portraits. It was difficult to write an accurate historical book that was about Audubon and Joseph and how they worked and not include that part of the information. I think it was important that kids got that. It's important that kids get that 100 years ago there were no laws protecting most of our wildlife.

You could go out and hunt what you wanted, when you wanted. And lots of things suffered for that. We have lots of extinct species because of that. It's important that kids get oh, this is why we need rules and regulations about our environment or else we won't have it.

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Magic with a Number 2 pencil

I loved, I loved doing the pictures for this book. In fact, Nest for Celeste was a joyful project from start to finish. I had a wonderful editor and a wonderful designer working, the three of us working together on it was so much fun for me. And one thing I really loved about it was it's just paper and a pencil and the paper was just Xerox paper, it was just copy paper from the, it wasn't on some special paper with a smooth surface; it was just regular old copy paper and a regular old number two pencil.

And I love just putting that carbon, little teeny carbon bits on the paper to make a picture happen. And the neat thing about that is oh, gosh, you can do it anywhere. I could draw in my back patio. I did some of those drawings for the book sitting in an airplane. I remember I had the flu at one point and I was drawing the book watching old movies laying in bed, because I had the flu with Kleenex boxes all around me.

It was really wonderful to have just paper and pencil and be able to draw all those pictures anywhere. I could be sitting on the back patio and draw pictures. I could be laying in bed with the flu drawing them. I could be on an airplane drawing. And I could take it anywhere with me. I didn't have to have jars of water and paint brushes and tubes of paint everywhere, it was just me, a piece of paper and a pencil.

I have thoughts in my head for another chapter book. And I want it to be just a teensy bit different. So this one I'm planning on making scary. It's going to be scary. And I think instead of pencil I might have it pen and ink, black ink on white paper. Scary pictures.

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Funny is memorable

I really like funny things. But I'm very particular about what I think is funny. I wish things were funnier than they are in the world. But when something's funny I love to laugh. And I think kids are like that. And I remember that when I was teaching I could go blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, pointing at the board, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But if something funny happened people would pay attention.

You could give the same information but if there was some funny twist to it or something funny happening they'd remember it better, they'd love coming to class and they'd race home and tell everybody they knew this important fact. So I think humor is really, really important, especially for kids. We need to laugh more.

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Happy endings

This is a book that's coming out soon, The Littlest Evergreen. I'll have to tell you that one of my favorite people that ever roamed the earth was my Aunt Marian who died not too long ago. After she died I found in her papers and things there was a little type written, I guess it was maybe three or four sentences typed, that hinted at the story actually.

It was a few sentences told from the point of view of a Christmas tree. I love point of view stories. I think if everybody kind of got where other people and other things were, how they saw the world, I think we'd be better off. This is a story of a Christmas tree told from the point of view of a Christmas tree. And so I took my aunt's few sentences and added to it, turned it into a picture book.

Well, it covers the time when the tree is just a little germinated thing and is transported at Christmas time to a family. And it's actually a living Chirstmas tree. It's not a cut off Christmas tree to the last page where it lives a long and healthy life, which I think is a happy ending. I like happy endings in stories, especially Christmas tree stories.

It's January 3rd and you're walking down the street and you see this poor little tree that's been cut and then just put out on the curb and it's got like a few remaining strands of tinsel blowing in the wind. That's tragedy for me. I like living Christmas trees. Sorry all you Christmas tree growers out there.

Children's books should have happy endings and sad endings and all kinds of endings, but I really like the ones that have happy endings.

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Connecting with kids

I go to lots of schools. I think I just counted, I've been to 35 states, giving school presentations. It's one of my favorite things to do. It keeps me connected with the clientele who are the kids. So I get to go to lots and lots of schools and give lots of presentations. I love that. And my presentations are generally PowerPoint presentations where I go through the process of what it's like to create a book and some funny stories and sometimes I'll end up drawing something to music.

If I'm in my studio and I'm working I like to listen to music, so I'll play a favorite piece of my music and draw to that. But it's mainly about the process of creating a book, the joys and the sorrows of creating a book.

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Editors and editing

Yes, work closely with editor and the art director. Boy, I've made some real blunders on pictures for a book. And I'll finish the art and I'll send the art to New York and I'll get pages and pages back because oh, my god, look what I did, I gave this character a blue shirt on this page and you turn the page and now it's a red checked shirt. Well, he's in the same scene so how could he have different colored shirts on?

So there's editing like that in the picture where you've got to make sure that everything's has continuity and it's uniform where it should be. And then there's, as Katherine my editor would know there's editing like tone it down, Henry, tone it down. Boy I wrote some things for Celeste that were just so off the charts. Goopy is the only word I can think of. They were just, it was like I dipped my pencil in sugar water and honey and wrote them out.

They were just really, really sweet. And she'd say you know you don't have to go so far in that direction. She'd help me tone that down a little bit and helped me so much, fabulous editor.

I found that to be true when I was teaching actually that kids would want to finish things. It seemed like the goal was to finish it, not to finish it well or to even not finish it, but be proud of it. It was just to get it done. And I don't think that was the greatest thing. I think teaching kids to edit themselves was part of the job. Hey, you left out something on this. I'm not going to tell you what it is; you got to figure it out. But you left out something very important and I give their work back to them. So I think editing is very important.

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2002 interview

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' 2002 interview with Henry Cole. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Henry Cole

Teaching science with art

"I really loved teaching. I taught for about 16 or 17 years in Virginia. When I graduated from college, I had a degree in forestry, which of course has tons of science background. I did all the 'ologies' – ornithology and ichthyology and entomology and dendrology. So, I had a big background in science, and I had spent my summers working with kids at summer camp. So, I loved teaching, loved kids, and had a science degree. I ended up teaching science to elementary students, grades one through five."

"And I really enjoyed using my artwork in the classroom as well. I found that being able to draw something quickly on the board to demonstrate an idea or a concept in science was really terrific, and the kids seemed to like that, too."

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Growing up on the farm

"I had the great, good fortune of growing up on a dairy farm, and also the great, good fortune of being the youngest of five children. And having four older siblings was wonderful, because they were these very unusual, terrific people; and we spent most of our time in the woods, or down at the pond, or at the creek, or exploring the fields with jars. And we'd collect things and had the whole tadpole farm and the insect collection and tree houses in the woods. And I think I developed such a great fondness for being outside and for exploring nature and for identifying things – which was wonderful. Knowing what kind of tree that was, or what kind of bird, or what kind of wildflower, or what form of this or that was wonderful."

"And I like to think that a lot of that respect and love for nature comes out in some of my books. Having animals as characters in my books and having woodland settings for some of my books has been really deeply satisfying to me."

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A page from Clara Caterpillar

"Typically, I think it takes several days to do one illustration for a typical illustrated book. For one thing, I've got to come up with characters for the book. The main characters have to look a certain way, and everybody's got to be happy with them. I've got to be happy with them. The author should like what the characters look like. The art director, the editor, the publisher – they should all like these characters that I come up with."

"So, my first stage is to read the story a bunch of times and then develop pictures in my head about what the characters should look like. And then I take pencils and paper and sketch a lot, coming up with drawings of the characters."

"For example, here's a sketch for a page from Clara Caterpillar. I had arranged the characters on the page, making sure there was plenty of space for the text to go. And then I would send this picture to the editor and to the art director, to see what they think – and also maybe to the author, to see what the author thinks of this. And if everybody approves of it, then I can go on to the final art."

"Here's the final art from that same picture, and I did this with acrylic paints and colored pencil. And I'd say between starting out with sketches and ending up with a final picture, it was probably three or four days on one spread of one book."

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"Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift." — Kate DiCamillo