Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Elisha Cooper

h1 September 22nd, 2008 by jules

Elisha Cooper may say below that he’s not so sweet—and doesn’t necessarily believe children’s books should be either—but he was a joy to interview for many reasons, not the least of which being Eisha and I have always been fans of his picture books. To be sure, he’s written books for the non-child set as well (though I think Eisha and I would both argue his picture books are, indeed, for all ages), including his memoir of parenthood, Crawling (Pantheon, 2006), which the Chicago Tribune called “hilarious and beautiful” and The New York Times described as “bravely honest”; 1995’s “Valentine to the city” of New York, A Year in New York (City & Company, 1995) as well as California: A Sketchbook (Chronicle Books, 2000) and 1996’s cross-country road trip, Off the Road (Villard Books/Random House, 1996); and the personal essays he’s written for publications such as The Morning News (“The Dream Vacation” and “The Bear”), Runner’s World (“Running with Purpose”), and Publishers Weekly (his recent “About the Author,” in which he discusses the agonies of writing one’s own back-flap bio).

And, as of recent, there’s also Elisha’s ridiculous/hilarious/
terrible/cool: A Year in an American High School
(Dial, March 2008), in which he documents the year he spent hanging out at Walter Payton High, a magnet high school in Chicago—listening, watching, questioning, and sketching the students. Following eight students on the verge of life-after-high-school, in a book the publisher calls “part documentary, part soap opera, part sketchbook,” Elisha tells their particular stories, while managing to touch upon the universal truths of high school students in today’s world. Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “{t}he school milieu is sharply and wittily evoked in deadpan transcriptions of anonymous conversations and descriptions of ordinary events…the considerable strengths of the work come from Cooper’s genius for observation and confident refusal to dramatize what he finds.” And, as the Chicago Sun-Times put it, this book allows readers to be that fly on the way most of us have wished we could be, “a silent, virtually invisible observer to worlds we normally have no access to. This is the role author Elisha Cooper plays in {this} wonder of a book…”

Illustration from BEACH; Orchard Books; 2006And, since I completely and entirely intended to tack on some additional questions for Elisha about this book yet I completely and entirely FORGOT, I’m going to send you over to the interview Colleen Mondor did with him at Chasing Ray in May, in which he talks all about the creation of this book. Even though I meant to ask him about this book, Colleen, thankfully, covers it all over there anyway.

We can understand, as Elisha describes in the afore-mentioned Publishers Weekly essay, how the bragging about oneself, which is necessary for an author’s note, would be awkward. So, we’ll do it for him. Here’s what we love about his picture books: His lovely, loose, and warm impressionistic watercolors, seemingly carefree yet possessing an understated elegance and an uncluttered sophistication; his observational skills (have you seen 2005’s A Good Night Walk? Ah, perfection) and how they bring to vivid life the particular tone and setting of each of his books; and his inimitable style. Perhaps The New York Times Book Review put it most succinctly in their review of Magic Thinks Big: “Elisha Cooper’s watercolors, like his sentences, are simple and quiet and essentially perfect.”

Spread from A Good Night Walk; Orchard Books; 2005

We thank Elisha for joining us for breakfast this morning to discuss his work over coffee. Or, rather, “an espresso, which ideally I have not burned. And a blueberry scone from the Cheeseboard, in Berkeley, where I no longer live.” Espresso. Excellent. We can so easily do that.

* * * * * * *

7-Imp: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Elisha: Author.

7-Imp: Can you list your books-to-date?


(and yes there are others)

{Ed. Note: For an Elisha Cooper bibliography, see this page of his site.}

7-Imp: What is your usual medium, or -– if you use a variety -– your preferred one?


  • Faber-Castell no. 5B pencil
  • Winsor & Newton watercolors
  • Winsor & Newton sable brush (no. 7., no. 8 if I’m painting sky and clouds)
  • 4-ply plate Strathmore paper

I’m not technically good enough to change my style!

Spread from Beach; Orchard Books; 2006

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Elisha: We moved to New York last year. I spend my time biking around the West Village to the cafés where I write, or bringing my daughters to school and picking them up. But I still like to think of Chicago, and the Bay Area, as my stompin’ grounds…

7-Imp: Can you briefly tell us about your road to publication?

Elisha: My first job was at The New Yorker Magazine, as a messenger. I quit that to write books.

7-Imp: Can you please point us to your web site and/or blog?

Elisha: There’s also a Facebook fan page for my most recent book, an illustrated non-fiction YA book about a year in a Chicago high school, with the ridiculous title, ridiculous/hilarious/terrible/cool: A Year in an American High School:

the prom

The Prom; ridiculous/hilarious/terrible/cool:
A Year in an American High School
; Dial Books; 2008

7-Imp: If you do school visits, tell us what they’re like.

Elisha: School visits vary. Sometimes they’re great. Sometimes they make me humble, and not in a good way. I love to meet children and adults who’ve read my books, though. It’s a beautiful thing.

7-Imp: If you teach illustration, by chance, tell us how that influences your work as an illustrator.

Elisha: I try to teach my daughters how to draw, but they don’t listen, which is probably for the best.

7-Imp: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell us about?

Elisha: I just finished painting a new children’s book about a farm. My walls were covered with watercolors of cornfields and barn cats and Jon Deere tractors (I tape the art up after it’s done and stare at it and stare at it). They’re all at the publisher now (Scholastic), getting scanned. I hope they’re okay.

* * *

Mmm. Espresso.Okay, the table’s set, and we’re ready to sit down and talk more specifics over espressos with Elisha. And then throw that rascally Pivot Questionnaire at him. We can at least pretend we’re at Jack’s Coffee on 10th Street in the Village (see below). Onward and upwards then…

1. 7-Imp: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Elisha: Ah, the process! I hesitate to answer, because I worry that someone could read this, see that my process is goofy and haphazard, and then wonder about their own. But, of course, every artist’s process is unique to them, so here’s what I do.

For me, the key to starting any work is making sure I’m well-caffeinated. Then, hitting the road. My books are non-fiction, so I really have to be there. After settling on a subject (this involves some back-and-forth with my editor: “Book on navel lint?” No! “Book on a farm?” Yes!), I’ll drive there—farmland in Illinois, for instance—pull over when I see something that interests me, and start drawing. A field, cows, a barn. I’ll take notes on sounds, how a barn smells. I’ll talk to farmers (one farmer even let me harvest with him and drive his huge combine). Ask lots of questions. Everything starts from this place.

After a bunch of visits (I drove out to a few Illinois farms around ten times over the course of a year), I’ll have filled a bunch of notebooks, and the book starts to take shape: what happens during the seasons on a farm. And as I go, I’ll realize I want a spread of the tractor driving across a field and planting seed, or a spread with one huge rooster. It’s pretty organic. Then, once I’ve gotten all the images and details I need, I’ll hole up in a café, write out my notes, and start playing with words and design ideas. This leads to the dummy, which I send to my editor.

Finally, the painting and the editing and the finished design. But I thought I’d mention the initial sketching, because, for me, it’s the most raw and exciting part of making a book.

2. 7-Imp: Describe your studio or usual work space for us.

Elisha: I have a small desk in our apartment in New York. It’s two planks of plywood I nailed together ten years ago, resting on top of redwood sawhorses. It’s stained with a patina (is that the right word?) of watercolor and pencil shavings. I love it. On the wall, there are photos of my daughters and designs or drawings that I’ve collected over the years –- a Café Florent pig with the streets of the meatpacking district inside its body, a Picasso ostrich postcard.

Also, my work space is just as much the cafés of the Village. I’m writing this interview at Jack’s Coffee on 10th Street. Great place, strong coffee.

3. 7-Imp: As book lovers, it interests us: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Elisha: Hmm, too many to mention. And the ones I do remember are probably mixed up in my mind with what I’m now reading with my girls. But I remember loving Ferdinand and In the Night Kitchen and David Macaulay’s Castle. When I got older I read Asterix and Tintin. I grew up on a farm, and when I wasn’t walking my goats or shooting my BB gun, I was reading.

4. 7-Imp: If you could have three (living) illustrators or author/illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Elisha: None! There are many I admire, but it’s their work I admire. I’m not sure how much I want to know about them (and yes, I recognize the contradiction of saying this in an interview that’s sharing details about an author’s life). Who I would want to have over for a glass of red wine would be Jon Stewart from “The Daily Show,” Terry Gross from “Fresh Air,” and Frank Rich from The New York Times. Mario Batali could cook! Okay, maybe I’m being too harsh. It would be nice if Kevin Henkes could come (I’ve met him though, and he’s very cool), and maybe Maurice Sendak.


Spread from Ice Cream; GreenWillow; 2002

5. 7-Imp: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Elisha: I crank music when I paint (first the caffeine, then The Times, then the music). For each book, a couple of CDs usually become the book’s soundtrack. For the farm book I just painted it was The Shins’ Wincing the Night Away and Green Day’s American Idiot. I like to play loud and boisterous music (The Beastie Boys have been the foundation to many of my children’s books), because, since my watercolor style can be a little sweet, I like to think that hard music gives it an edge. In other words, I’m not so sweet. And children’s books shouldn’t be either. At least that’s what I think.

6. 7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Elisha {pictured here, painting pandas on a friend’s wall late at night}: Oh, I’m not sure people know enough about me to know what they don’t know about me! Does that make sense?

7. 7-Imp: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.

Elisha: “Should celebrities write children’s books?”

Sure, but if they write the words, it would be good if they also illustrated the book to make clear that they have no talent. In fact, I’d like to take this random opportunity to throw-down and say that if you’re an actor or a celebrity, stay the hell out of our business. It’s a free country, fine. But here’s the deal: you can write children’s books as long as we can star in movies.

The Pivot Questionnaire

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Elisha: “Kayak” (words with “K”s are funny).

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Elisha: “Moist” (nothing funny about moist).

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Elisha: Oh, everything!

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Elisha: Suburban drivers, driving Suburbans, talking on cell phones and almost running me over on my bike.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Elisha: Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Elisha: The roar of a stadium crowd when a touchdown is scored. Or, wind through trees at the edge of a lake.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Elisha: Sarah Palin’s voice.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Elisha: I always wanted to be a wide receiver for the Green Bay Packers (I played football in college), but I’m afraid that won’t happen.

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

Elisha: Anything to do with finance.

7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Elisha: I don’t believe in heaven, or questions like this, but I suppose if I did make it to Heaven and ran into God I’d like to hear her say, “You’re late.”

* * * * * * *

All illustrations courtesy of Elisha Cooper or taken from his web site. Posted with permission. All rights reserved.

19 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Elisha Cooper”

  1. Great interview, y’all!

  2. Fascinating interview. I found myself cheering so many times on kindred thoughts: I hate Suburbans, Sarah Palin’s voice, finance stuff, and celebrity authors, too. And he’s done a book about ice cream? Way cool guy.

    Thanks, 7-Imp (and no, I did not miss mention of that blueberry scone)!

  3. What a nice interview. I’m afraid (so many books, etc.) I’ve never read Elisha Cooper’s work, but it’s on the list now!

    (Miscellaneous aside: a double-take of a name, that. I’d barely gotten over seeing the “l” in his first name and wondering whose typo it was, Jules’s or Eisha’s. And then I realized it wasn’t a mistake… but also misread COOPER as COOK, and wondered how you’d scored an interview with that guy with the supporting role in The Maltese Falcon… Well, it was early.)

    Mr. Cooper has obviously made it to some level, when he can say his first job was with the New Yorker… as a messenger. Most of us with the same credential on our resume would have stopped at the ellipsis and just gobbled up all the resulting glory.

    It may be true that he’s not “technically good enough to change [his] style.” I don’t know; I’m no critic. But he’s absolutely technically good enough to be doing exactly what he’s doing. Very impressionistic/allusive work, all of which I like quite a lot. He can paint pandas on my wall any time he wants.

  4. Hallelujah!!! I am so happy to hear someone with every right to the opinion express it!! I totally agree and have ever since Michael Bolton’s kid’s book showed up on the shelves of the bookstore I work at 10 years ago – celebrities should NOT write kid’s books!!! Thank you, Elisha Cooper for your honesty (and your great work)!!


    I was not aware of that. Ouch.

    Thanks for your comments, all. It was a pleasure to interview Elisha. I’ve been a long-time fan.

  6. I now have this fun mental image of you walking goats while reading to them from Tintin.

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