Transcript from an interview with Gail Gibbons

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

Gail Gibbons

Mom, Dad, how does this work?

One of my very first books was a nonfiction book called Clocks and How They Go. What's bizarre is when I was around seven years old, I tore an entire clock apart and tried to put it back together again. So, I think it's sort of strange that all of those years went by, and all of a sudden I found myself tearing another clock apart, trying to figure out how it went back together.

So, I was always asking my parents questions. In fact, I probably drove them crazy, because I was always saying, "Why?" "What?" "What?" You know, that was just the way I was.

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Unicorns, grizzly bears, and quilts

My books are very diverse. A lot of children's book authors will go into one area. One reason why I work with so many different publishers and have worked with quite a few different editors is because the last thing I want to do is to be peg-holed into a certain area. I do books about animals, but I will also do books about unicorns. I will also do books about how movies are made. I will do books about grizzly bears. I have a book coming out next January called The Quilting Bee that's all about quilts. So, I like to go into many different directions.

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Making nonfiction interesting

My biggest concern with nonfiction for children is that I don't write down to children. I don't think I should use baby words. If they have any questions, they can ask their teachers or parents.

I want to make nonfiction visually exciting, but it's sort of natural for me to do that. I mean I love bright colors, and I love doing my artwork. But when I'm plotting out a book, because of my graphic background and because of the television background, I can sort of visualize while I'm writing what is going to be on each page. Mentally, I can sort of see an image in my head of what is going to be on each page. And I don't want it to be boring. I want it to be visually exciting. I will never do a topic that I think is dull or uninteresting. It has to really be something that I want to dig into and be curious about.

Sometimes publishers will call up with ideas, and I say, "Are you crazy? I don't want to do that." And then I'll talk at schools, and some of the kids will come up with great ideas. So, my ideas come from a lot of different places – from publishers, from my husband, from my kids, from school kids. And sometimes I actually come up with an idea myself. So, my ideas come from a lot of different places, and it has to be something that is exciting to me. And if it's exciting to me, it comes out in the book. It just merges into the book.

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But aren't dragons fiction?

Some people have said to me, "Why did you do a book on dragons, Behold… the Dragons?" "Why did you do a book on unicorns? That's not nonfiction."

What happened was I did a book called Knights in Shining Armor for Little, Brown a few years ago. I was talking at a school, and a little boy came up to me and said, "When are you going to do a book about dragons?"

I said, "Did you see a dragon on your way to school today?"

He said, "No." And he said, "Will you do a book on dragons? I love dragons."

And I said, "Well, I'm not sure if I'll do a book on dragons, because are dragons real?"

And he said, "No."

Well, I started looking into reference material on the history of dragons, and thousands of years ago all around the world, all these different civilizations were telling stories and writing stories, and legends were handed down from generation to generation about dragons. Then I thought, "This is really curious. This is more than fiction. This is a sociological thing going on here."

So, I started learning all these different stories about dragons… then, all of a sudden, I was doing a book on unicorns. And I'll be doing a book on fairies, because for thousands of years, all these different cultures have been talking about these little creatures, these little fairies. So, it's like a little series that has developed. So, that's why, like I said, I split off into many different directions.

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Now, how am I going to explain this?

The reason I do nonfiction books for children is because when you look at an adult book, you're not going to get a lot of artwork. My background is in art, and I really enjoy talking and being around kids. So, it just lent itself for me to be going into the children's book direction.

I'm a very visually oriented person. One of the hardest parts of doing a nonfiction book, though, is to try to explain in only 32 pages something as complicated as building a skyscraper. And that's a challenge to me, and I like challenges. Most of my books start out with either a title page, and then it goes to copyrights, which means I have 30 pages left to explain something. Sometimes I'll do an intro to title, double-page spread, copyright page; and that means I only have 28 pages to explain an entire thing, like how a movie is made. Not easy.

So, my first draft usually is a disaster, because I over-write, because I've over-researched. And I'm terrified the first time I go ahead and put the words down on paper. I don't know how I'm going to write something so complicated in only three sentences per page. But, what's wonderful about a picture book with kids is a lot of times the picture carries a tremendous amount of information. So, it's a marriage of text and illustration. That's what it is. A lot of times a person thinks you have to have a lot of words, but the picture can carry a lot of information.

But there's a battle in my head every single time, the first time I start a book, on "How am I going to explain this?" Something that's complicated in 28 pages with three sentences per page.

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Conducive living

I live in the middle of 300 acres in Vermont. One of the things that's very important to me personally is when I'm working on a book I really need to focus. I remember actually when I did my first book, I was living in New York City. I actually worked through the night, because I couldn't focus, because New York City is so busy. I lived down in the Village, and it was so noisy during the day that I couldn't focus on artwork. I couldn't focus. So, I would sleep during the day and work on the book at night.

So, to live in Vermont in this very rural area, on this back road, which is a dead end road… we're in a very small town. There are only 1200 people in our town. So, it's very conducive to focusing. And it's very important for me to be able to work and then step away from the work and get outside and just go for a walk in the woods, and to just hang out for a while and clear my mind.

We also live on an island off the coast of Maine, which is 30 miles offshore. It's the furthest inhabited island off the coast of Maine. There's a state ferry that runs once a month, so for us to get out to the island, we usually hop a boat with a fisherman who lives on the island. There's only 80 people who live on the island. Or, we hire a five-seater Cessna to take us out to the island. There's a little gravel runway. It's a very isolated island. In fact, when we first moved out there, the fishermen wondered what the hell we were doing there. "What are you doing out here? We're just a bunch of fishermen. And who are you people?"

I've had a tremendous amount of experiences on that island that have given me ideas for books. I did a book called The Puffins Are Back, because six miles away is an island called Matinicus Rock, where puffins live. There's a fellow named Stephen Kress who's in charge of the puffin project. When I decided to do the puffins book, I was researching a book on lighthouses. And I was out at Matinicus Rock, and I ran into Stephen Kress, who was banding the little sea puffins, because they were trying to rebuild the puffin population on Matinicus Rock. So, some of these ideas merge into one another.

But, again, that island in particular is extremely isolated and very quiet. And that's what I need a lot when I'm working.

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Do you have a dog?

Like I said, so many of my ideas come from things that are going on in my life. And a lot of the times when I go out and talk to kids at schools, they're really curious about who you are and where you live and, "Do you have a dog?" "Do you have a cat?" They're very curious – they want to know that you're a person and they want to know who you are.

Whenever I do a presentation to kids, I always bring slides along showing the house; showing the dog; showing the cat; showing the husband; showing, you know, where I live, how I do a book. I go through that, because that's what they're really curious about. They want to know who you are.

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Write what interests you

Children who are interested in either writing or illustrating – the parents should tell their child that they should draw or write what really interests them. It has to be something that they're excited about. It's the same for them as it is for me. And that's what I always tell the parents. I always tell them, and I tell teachers this, too, because a lot of times when I'm at schools, teachers sometimes will actually tell a group of kids over here to write about such and such a topic. "And then these four kids will write about such and such a topic." They'll assign topics. And I keep on telling them, "Never do that." Tell the child to write what they find exciting and interesting in their lives, or something that they're really curious about themselves. If they don't follow that route, they're going to write a very boring thing. If they write about something that is very exciting and means a lot to them, they are going to write something interesting and exciting to others. So, that's what I always stress.

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Reading with enthusiasm

If they're wanting to promote enjoyment in reading in a child, they should enjoy reading with a child. If the parent is really excited about reading, the kid picks up on that.

I just became a grandmother! My granddaughter is three and-a-half months old right now. What was really great was around two weeks ago, my son-in-law was sitting on a couch with little Greta, reading my Chicks and Chickens book. Now, this little three and-a-half month-old obviously is not a literary giant at this point in time, but Roger was very enthusiastic, and so was Greta's mother about reading. So, because of that enthusiasm from the parents, the kids pick up on it.

And it's the same way with teachers. If the teachers are really enthusiastic – and same way with public librarians – if they are really enthusiastic when they're reading with kids, the kids pick up on it; and then they will be excited. It works that way.

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"Writing is thinking on paper. " — William Zinsser