Transcript from an interview with Laura Vaccaro Seeger

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Laura Vaccaro Seeger. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Making children's books

I came to book making at a very young age, actually. As a child, I made my own books all the time — I've still got quite a few of them. And, had a little shelf full of books. And, I have always been an artist. So, I went to art school and got my degree in fine arts and graphic design, which might not be a surprise based on how much design is actually in my books.

But right after art school I got an opportunity for a job at ABC television in New York. And from there I went to NBC and ended up spending quite a career there, creating show openings, producing and animating television show openings for many years — for probably about ten or more years. And then I had to leave because I had my first child and working ninety hours a week at a television studio was not really conducive to watching my children grow up. So, it was very difficult at that time to 'cause I loved my job.

But throughout all those years I kept journals and I wrote ideas for picture books. I had decided that I wanted to stop working in television and create picture books. And, so I left a kind of lucrative position with ABC — I was making their animations for 20/20 — and everybody thought I was kind of crazy, 'cause I said to my husband, "I quit this job and probably do something where I'll never make any money." And he said, "Go for it!"

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An animator's eye

My work in television has greatly influenced my book-making. I mean, looking at everything with an animator's eye. I look at everything as if it's a set or a scene and there are cameras, and then, you know, you're going to zoom in…

In other words, I look at a picture book actually as a storyboard, as an animation with fewer frames. So when I would make an animation, I would make a storyboard and I would have to pick out key pictures from the overall animation to try to show what the animation would like. That's what a picture book is for me. So it's a very, very natural progression for me to go from being an animator to creating picture books. And I think, also, all the design experience that I've got is very, very apparent in my books.

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Through a child's eyes

When, when I was about seven years old, my little sister was born and, you know, for a seven year-old girl — I have an older brother and a younger brother also — but for a seven year-old to get a little baby sister… I was just like, "Oh my gosh, I have a little doll to play with!"

So, we were always very close. And when she was about three, she used to invite all her friends over. And, so when she was three, I was ten.

I'd bring them all in and we'd have school. But I was a little kid too so, you know, it was fun for everybody. And, and I would try to come up with things that would be fun, so I'd make up songs, I'd make up games. Not even realizing that, you know, they were actually learning stuff kinda early. And so, I did it for years, years and years, I did it for about five years, I did it until I was about fifteen and they were about eight. But, you know, my mother would get phone calls from the other mothers saying, "Why is little three or four year-old Molly, you know, subtracting and multiplying?"

You know? I know I'm an adult, but I just kind of see things through a child's eyes. I always have. And so, and, and that experience has also made me realize, you know, this kind of stuff can be fun, and incorporating fun one way or another into a book is fun for me.

And so, and I do respect, I respect all readers — not just children, children and adults. And I respect their intelligence, you know? We try very hard to never be didactic or anything like that.

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An unusual creative partnership

I've always said that for any author, finding an editor and a publisher is kind of like finding a spouse, you know? If you enjoy ballroom dancing, but you keep going to the boxing match to look for your husband, you know… It has to be a good match because editors and publishers have very specific things that they like in a book and they have taste in a book.

And Neal is certainly no exception. He's got certain kinds of books that he likes and it just so happens that he likes the same kinds of books that I like. And that's why I feel so fortunate to have met him so quickly in, in this process of getting into publishing.

Then what had happened, besides that, is, is that we just really, we're just very very fond of one another. And so, little bit over ten years since I met him and twelve books later, we've gotten to know each other very very well and we're friends.

I think that the books are so much better for it.

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Lemons Are Not Red

I have always been fascinated with concepts. I've always been a very, very conceptual thinker. Maybe that comes from being a designer as well as an artist? And so, often times I, I've been told that I see the world differently than those around me.

And, I've, I suppose, you know, for a while there I kind of felt out of place, for a very long time, because I felt like I, you know, would look at something and everybody would kinda go, "Your nuts," or, you know, "What are you talking about?," you know? And, and so I guess I kind of figured out a way to make a career of that. But, what I do is, I typically latch on to a concept that I think is interesting, like with Lemons Are Not Red. The concept of "not" is what I thought was interesting.

You know, when you try to think about what's "not" something. You know, anybody — adults, children, alike — anybody would have to really stop and think about it? What's not red, what is never ever red?

So colors in Lemons Are Not Red was really just my vehicle for taking a concept I was fascinated with and making a whole book around it. Pretty much all my books — well all the concept books, anyway — came about that way. There'd be a concept that I thought was interesting and then I'd find something to help me build an entire book around that. Like with One Boy, I thought, I'm fascinated that you could — well two things with One Boy — that you can find, smaller things, smaller words in larger words.

And I worked very hard to figure out, well how will I illustrate this, how will this not be a list of words within words? Because I never wanna make a list. So, that's how the numbers part of that book came about. It's just kind of an excuse to, to make it about words within words. And then, ultimately, also, about loneliness and creativity and what this one boy did with his time. He painted all the pictures in the book, which there's also that element of surprise.

I guess I work with surprise in my books. You know, and a kind of now-you-see-it, now-you-don't. You thought you were looking at something, but you're really looking at something else. Or you, or you thought this book was about this, but it's really about that. Like with Hidden Alphabet, for instance. You think you're looking at balloons, but that's really the negative space in, in the letter B.

And here's another example, I'm fascinated with negative space. People, you know, all of my life people would look at something and say, "Ok, that's, you know, that's a table," and I would see the negative space and I'd say, "No, no, no, that's not a table, that's whatever it is."

And so, the alphabet was just my vehicle for making a book about negative space.

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My editor Neal Porter and I were on a train to Washington, as a matter of fact. And as we so often do, when we are kinda hanging out together — which we also so often do, we just peruse my journals. We just kind of flip through the pages and he was like, he goes shopping in my journal and he looks for ideas that he likes or things I'm developing or even sometimes it's just single word or sentence. And, and he'll say, "I like that," and then we'll talk about.

And, so, we were on the train… Actually three books came out of that train trip, that he found in my journal. One of them is What If?, the other one is a Dog and Bear book and, and First the Egg.

He was looking through this journal and there was this one page that I had actually cut out a rectangle in the middle of the page. But on that page with the cutout I wrote the word "seed" in pencil. But when you turn the page and through that hole you see a seed. When you turn the page you see an entire flower.

So, it was seed a flower and he said, "I like this, I want you to make a book about transformations."

So, I set out to make a book about transformations and I, you know, first made a list of all the things that transform from one to another and, and tried to, you know, pick out the ones that I thought would lend themselves well to paintings, illustration.

And, I began to make the book. And so I was making, you know, the, the chicken and the egg, and the seed and the flower, and the tadpole and the frog, and, and caterpillar and the butterfly, and… I think if I didn't live near the ocean, I would probably not have made a single book, because every single book is born while I'm walking at the ocean.

So, I was there as I am, just about every day, and, and I was a little bothered — this happens sometimes, I'm in the middle of a book and, and something will be nagging at me and I will be a little bit bothered — because I was feeling as though the book was a list. I'm always looking for something cohesive to, to incorporate so that it isn't a list. Even if it is a cool idea, I still don't want it to just be a cool idea.

So, I started thinking about it and I'm thinking, "okay, well, what else transforms?" And I realized that creativity transforms someone's life to another or one's thing to another thing. So, I called Neal up right there from the jetty and I said, you know, "I'm, I'm bothered, I don't want this book to be a list and I love another concept, which is that creativity transforms." And he loved that, too.

And then, right there while we were talking it occurred to me that, that the "O-R" is in the word "word" and in the word "story." And with this, I said, "Well, ok. If I'm making a field of letters and I've got to have the word "then," what if I hid all kinds of words?"

I thought, you know, so I've started off with "who," "what," "when," "where," and "why," but then I went on to "boy," "girl," "if," you know, every word I could fit in there without them being very obvious.

I'm fascinated with, with the notion that people tend to not see their environment once they're used to it. And so, what I find myself doing in, in a lot of my books, is, is to kind of force you to see. And that's where the diecuts really come in. They are that vehicle to say, "Hey, look! Look through this hole! And then turn the page." Oh, my goodness ???that's not what I thought it was! It's something completely different.

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Know your characters

I never really think about the intended audience, or how many words, or which words I'm using. It, it's more important to me to just be authentic and true to whatever the book is. And then, I leave it to my publisher to figure out who it's for. If they're saying I wanna publish your book, I trust that they have audience for it.

So, with Dog and Bear in particular, once I figured out who Dog and Bear are, then I knew what they would say. And since they are, you know, at least young at heart — I'm not sure what their ages are, exactly, but they're certainly children at heart — then the vocabulary just, it was just natural. And, and there were times when I changed what I had written because I'd think, or Neal would think, or we both think, "No, no, no. Bear would never say that." Or, "Dog would never say that. That's too, that's too formal for Dog. He's much more happy-go-lucky," you know?

So, the important part in a book about recurring characters in particular, or even characters in just one story, is to really know those characters. That is the key.

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Cause and effect

Dog and Bear is about friendship and that's conceptual to me. You know, even though it, you know, you might think it's a bit of a diversion from the concept books, it kinda isn't to me because, you know, the concept of friendship and love and understanding and bravery and all those things that Dog and Bear, you know, deal with in their stories… That's all conceptual to me.

Out of all the concepts, that, the concept of friendship is the one that I've always studied, really, or studied people and how they interact and my own relationships and, of course, you know, since I've had children — their relationships. Now again, the concept — besides the concept of friendship — the concept that I latched on to with What If? was cause and effect. That was the concept that I thought, "I'm gonna build a book around this."

I also thought it would be really really cool to show two stories happening at the same time, but going off in different directions so that they had different endings. And that was originally what I thought I was going to do with the book and then, you know, being a designer and an artist, was like, ok, I was working and I was thinking, "This is confusing." You know, if I'm showing two different stories… If I took a page and divided it like this — it's kind of confusing 'cause you wanna read the whole page. I mean, maybe you could, maybe another artist would do a good job, but I was feeling like it wasn't, it wasn't right.

And then the other thing that was bothering me about it was that, that that was only giving me two stories. What I really wanted to say was, well, "What if you do this?", and, or, "What if you do that?", or "What if you do that?" And so, I needed three. And so, that's how I ended up making it a linear progression.

So, at first the book contained quite a lengthy narrative for me, because I'm such a "less is more" writer and artist that it was somewhat lengthy. And then I started to illustrate. I started to make the paintings and I realized that, you know, as I always do, I realized, "Oh, I don't need that word. I'll show that with a picture," or "I don't need that word, I'll…" And before I knew it, I had a thrown away all but six words from the book.

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Beach colors

I painted the whole book in the winter, last winter, which was a very cold winter in New York. Often I'll go to the beach in the winter, but this particular winter I didn't really get there and also I was busy in my studio, so… I handed the book in on a March day and the very next day was one of those beautiful March days. Went to the beach, I thought, "Oh great, I finished my book, I handed it in, I'm gonna go to the beach." And I got there and two seconds I walked onto the sand, and in two seconds it hit me like a ton of bricks, I just thought, "Oh my god, the whole book is wrong. It's the, the whole book, it's not the beach!"

And so I called Neal from the beach and I said, "I have to paint the whole book over," and he said, "What are you talking about?" And I, I said, "It's just, it doesn't feel like the beach. It feels too…." I had painted all the pictures on canvas. And, just the way the canvas is, typically I paint with lots of brush strokes and stuff and it just felt heavy. It didn't feel like the beach.

This is the thing about Neal and I, that we trust each other and he said, you know, "Ok, you know, just go ahead." And so, I worked it out and figured out that, you know, just changing the paper to a very bumpy watercolor paper and watering down my paints a little bit and using a bit of a dry brush created an effect that really suggested movement and motion.

And since the sand is always moving around and the ocean is moving and the sky is moving — everything's moving at the beach. That worked, and so that was the first moment of trust for that book. There have been so many along the way with Neal.

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Zooming into green

The book I'm working on now is called Green. And, unlike any of the other books, which were all things that I went to Neal with or he found in my journal, this one he said to me one day, "I want you to write a book called Green."

And I said, "Well, what d'you mean, do you mean like the environment?" And he said, "I don't know, I just want you to write a book called Green." I set out to write the book — and I did, I wrote, I don't know, maybe three or four or five different, you know, things that we both agreed, "Yeah, ok. Go with that."

You know, at one point I think, well I was gonna even make it about the history of the earth, somehow and incorporate it. But everything I did felt like it wasn't my voice, you know? I mean, I, I believe in all the environmental good habits — I recycle and all that stuff, but it wasn't my voice. And it also felt too large for me. As I said before, I, I zoom in. I love to just zoom all the way in to something nobody's paying attention to — negative space, the concept of "not" — just zoom in.

And so this was too big for me, I think. Or at least that's how I felt. And so at, at one point we shelved the idea and then, one evening, at 2:30 in the morning, I was, I was working on another book and all of a sudden it, it came back in, you know, to my head and I just set out to the computer and I started looking up the word "green," looking in the dictionary to see, like, well, how does the dictionary define this word? And, and how does Wikipedia define this word. And, and I started zooming in, you know? I started thinking, "Ok, green. All these different kinds of green. I'm gonna zoom in there."

What I did at that point was I jotted down a little four-line poem, "Dark green, light green, dull green, bright green." And, and I emailed Neal at 2:30 in the morning, and I said, "Are you up?" And he wrote back, "Yup." And we had this meeting at 2:30, 3 o'clock in the morning. Which is also not so unusual, for us, I mean. Very unusual for most author/editors, teams, but…

I read this to him and I said, "I know you don't like, you know, rhyming texts and it doesn't have to rhyme, but what I'm gonna read to you does rhyme for the moment, for the time being." And he said, "You know, funny, funny you're saying that, I was actually thinking maybe you should write something that rhymes," which he, you know, he usually doesn't go for that.

And, so the book has become a poem about the color green. Or, on the surface it appears to be about the color green, but of course, it, like, like many of my books, it, it's not. It's about more than that. And I, I guess I can tell you, too, that there are diecut holes in this book, as well, but they're on every page, which, from a design point of view, is extremely complicated, because every single page is a part of the page before it and a part of the page after it.

So, it's gotta work on these levels and all these different environments and ways and it's, it's quite complicated, but it's a lot of fun. And I'm a little bit more than halfway through. But there's another example of trust, because I, for the first time ever in my entire career — in television and publishing — I missed a deadline, and he just, you know, he says, "It's gonna take as long as it's gonna take."

So, it's wonderful. It's a wonderful relationship. I treasure it, really.

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An excerpt from Dog and Bear

My name is Laura Vaccaro Seeger and this is Dog and Bear, the first of three Dog and Bear books. And each of the three books contains three stories about these two friends, a Daschund and a stuffed bear. So I'm going to read the first story, which is called, "Bear in the Chair."

"Is that you, Bear?"

"Yes, Dog."

"It's a beautiful day," said Dog. "Come outside with me."

"I can't get down," said Bear.

"Just jump!"

"But I am scared!"

"Not to worry, Bear, I will help you. Come closer, you can slide down my back. You can do it!" said Dog. Bear was more frightened than ever.

Dog said, "Take one step. One little, tiny step. Now, take one more." With each step Bear became braver. Finally, Bear reached dog.

"Whee, that was fun!"

"Good, now we can go out," said Dog. "Where's your scarf?"

"Uh-oh," said Bear.

"Maybe we should just stay inside," said Dog.

And there's his scarf, of course.

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"So please, oh PLEASE, we beg, we pray, go throw your TV set away. And in its place you can install, a lovely bookshelf on the wall." — Roald Dahl