Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Carin Berger

h1 February 2nd, 2009 by jules

This is probably my very favorite picture book illustration from all of 2008:

Yeah, I have a thing for sun images, but even with that affinity aside, isn’t that just stunning? I wish I could make it even bigger for you so that you could see the detailed collage work.

That would be the handiwork of award-winning designer, illustrator, and author Carin Berger, who joins me this morning for seven questions over breakfast. “I am a bit of a breakfast-skipper,” she told me. “But on a fine, leisurely late morning (say, a birthday or Mother’s Day), crepes with lemon and powdered sugar are a fave. And a swig or two of my husband’s very strong, but milky, coffee.” Let’s consider this a fine, leisurely late morning, I say, and we’ll have those crepes and coffee. It’s also a special morning, since I’m a huge fan of her collage work. And the very way her mind works, bringing us books like 2008’s The Little Yellow Leaf (Greenwillow Books), the book from which the opening illustration and the below illustrations come and which was named a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book of 2008. And one of my top-five favorite books from last year. Seriously, did you guys see the thing of beauty this book is?

The patterns. The details. The expert composition. The textures. The truly beautiful story of taking courage from a friend. It’s all there. And it’s all almost breathtaking, or at least I found it to be so. (And I’m not alone; Kirkus Reviews called the collage illustrations “showstoppers.”) Berger uses yellows, greens, blues, and beige–as well as paper clippings, graph paper, magazine cuttings, paint, and more—to bring to life this fable of sorts about an anthropomorphized leaf, refusing to let go of his branch as winter approaches. At her site, she cites “scraps of ephemera” as the source of her collages: “used clothing catalogues, and old ticket stubs. Basically, any odds and ends that she can find.”

Here—from David Barringer of the New York Times—is what I find to be the best description of the book and its charms: “Carin Berger…allows the raw materials of her collages to show through, including the lines of graph paper and the type of newspapers and old books. Notebook paper brings schoolwork to mind, but with scissors Berger transforms the stuff of homework into art. Adults will note with satisfaction the snipping-up of receipts and water-meter readings. The creases and stains and faded edges suggest a nice parallel between aging paper and aging leaves. Berger’s technique is a great relief compared with the glossy slickness of computer illustration: Readers will understand that it’s O.K. to let imperfections show. The visibly hand-crafted look should inspire kids to race to the art room and say, ‘I can do this.'”

And this isn’t the first time Carin’s wow’ed us with her children’s books. Both Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal referred to her collage work in Jack Prelutsky’s Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant: And Other Poems (Greenwillow Books; 2006) as a “visual treat.” Kirkus wrote about 2004’s Not So True Stories and Unreasonable Rhymes (Chronicle Books), “{c}hanneling Hieronymus Bosch, but with a smile, newcomer Berger services her collection of urbane nonsense verse with cut-paper collages featuring cone-nosed, stick-limbed creatures, most resembling insects in wildly variegated garb, all strewn across the pages with postmodern abandon.” Her work has also been featured in some of the most prestigious trade publications, including CA Magazine, Print Magazine, How Magazine, and 3 x 3 Magazine, and it has been included in shows for the Society of Illustrators and American Illustration.

Let’s get the basics from Carin while we set the table for our crepes and coffee. I thank her kindly for stopping by to chat and share her art work.

* * * * * * *

Carin Berger, as a wee child7-Imp: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Carin {pictured here, as a child}: Author/illustrator.

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

Carin: * Not So True Stories and Unreasonable Rhymes, Chronicle Books, 2004.

* All Mixed Up, Chronicle Books, 2006.

* Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant, Greenwillow Books, 2006 (written by Jack Prelutsky).

* The Little Yellow Leaf, Greenwillow Books, 2008.

* OK Go!, Greenwillow Books, upcoming, March 2009.

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

Carin: Collage.

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Carin: New York City and Point Reyes, California — and, occasionally, Kyoto, Japan.

Spread from Not So True Stories and Unreasonable Rhymes
(Chronicle Books; 2004)

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

Carin: The ingredients were: a sleepless daughter, the bliss of ignorance, and a lot of very, very, good luck. I wrote the poems for Not So True Stories in the long hours, waiting for my daughter to fall asleep; I handed my sample illustrations and manuscript to a friend-of-a-friend who agreed to rep it; and she, amazingly, ushered it into the world. So, so lucky.

Two spreads from All Mixed Up (Chronicle Books; 2006)

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


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

Carin: Well, they can be the closest that I’ll ever get to feeling like a rock star, or they can be like being the dancing clown at a kid’s birthday party. When they are good, they are tremendously rewarding. I get to come out from the cave of my work and be reminded that my books actually go out into the world and touch people. Wow!

Spread from Jack Prelutsky’s Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant
(Greenwillow Books; 2006)

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

Carin: Ohhh…top secret, that! I do have a new book coming out in a March or April called OK Go! It’s a playful environmental book. Like a green Go, Dog, Go!

{Ed. Note: You can see the cover of OK Go!, as well as a few spreads from it, at Carin’s site.}

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, the table’s set for our seven questions over breakfast, and now we’re ready to talk more specifics. Once again, I thank Carin for cyber-stopping by.

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?

(Cover sketch for Little Yellow Leaf)

Carin: I almost always start with the words. Sometimes it’s one of those glorious eureka moments where the idea seems crystal clear (and then needs endless re-working), and sometimes it’s ever elusive, like chasing dust particles down dark dead-end alleys. But once I have the idea and have tinkered with it forever, I make scribble-y little thumbnail sketches on the backs of New Yorker magazines and receipts from my pocket.

(Thumbnail sketches for Little Yellow Leaf)

Eventually, these get refined and made into tiny little dummy books, which I then show to my publisher along with a manuscript. They look very different than the final art…they are just tight black-and-white line drawings. I blow these up, do tight tight vellum “maps,” which I follow very exactly, cutting the pieces with an x-acto knife from my stash of old magazines and books, ephemera scrounged from flea markets, and scraps of color from old J.Crew catalogues (a great source for buttons, polka dots and plaids!), and the like. It’s very very low-tech and hand-made.

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

Carin: Studio . . . alas . . . I wish. This being New York City, and space being what it is, I have a tiny closet of a studio . . .

. . . but mostly I work on our big long dining room table. (It used to be my office table back when we lived in San Francisco.)

This means I clear all the bits and pieces off at the end of the day. It also means that, when I am heavy into a project, you can find tiny little cut-out shoes or noses floating down our hallway or stuck on the bottom of your sock.

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

Carin: Oh. Now that’s a long list. I loved Eloise. I loved The Lonely Doll. I loved the word play in Dr. Seuss (especially loved Yertle the Turtle), and more obscurely, but very passionately (I still have these books), I loved Hubert’s Hair-Raising Adventure by Bill Peet and Pickle Chiffon Pie by Jolly Roger Bradfield. Amazing books.

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

Carin: Wow. That could be intimidating. I can be shy, but let me see. Sara Fanelli. Maira Kalman. Calef Brown. Oh. Do I have to stop there? Chris Raschka. Maurice Sendack. Lane Smith….And, if I could pick a dead one, it would have to be Saul Steinberg.

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?

Carin: I listen to NPR a lot (I was an absolute junky around the election). I love This American Life and Terry Gross. But then I find I get surly if I listen to talk radio for too long, and I need to switch over to music. I am currently listening to Bettye LaVette, Ralph Stanley, Serge Gainsbourg, Solomon Burke, Johnny Cash {pictured here}, Jorge Ben, Gillian Welch, and Paolo Conte.

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

Carin: I don’t know. I am a passionate mushroom-hunter. There is nothing that gives me greater pleasure than discovering a secret, beautiful stash of morels, hiding among the moss in the springtime. Okay. And, that I am a master dumpster-diver.

. . . and, Jules is adding, that she has a severely cute bunny, named Pearly.

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

Carin: Nope.

One of Carin’s unpublished illustrations, Pet People

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Carin: “Hope.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Carin: “No.”

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

Carin: Flea markets. Being with my daughter. Old textiles. Bird’s nests. Being around other people who love to make things. Films. Beautiful spaces. Quirky collections. Humor. Big, open outdoor spaces. Striving. Quiet corners. Old science things (glass beakers and the like). Cooking. Beautiful food. Hand-made things.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Carin: Closed-mindedness and injustice.

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

Carin: Somehow, lately, I find myself saying “Rats!” a lot. I am not sure where that came from….though I guess it doesn’t really qualify as a curse word.

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

Carin: Waves. My daughter laughing.

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

Carin: The growl of truck engines and the honking horns outside my window. Oh. And jack hammers.

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

Carin: Treasure hunter.

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

Carin: Toll booth agent.

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

Carin: Not really my thing, but maybe something like, “your table is not ready yet.”

* * * * * * *

Opening spreads: Illustrations from THE LITTLE YELLOW LEAF © 2008 by Carin Berger. Published by Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. New York, NY. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

“Foxy Fox” spread: Illustration from NOT SO TRUE STORIES AND UNREASONABLE RHYMES © 2004 by Carin Berger. Published by Chronicle Books. San Francisco, CA. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

Two spiral-bound book spreads: Illustrations from ALL MIXED UP: A MIX-AND-MATCH BOOK © 2006 by Carin Berger. Published by Chronicle Books. San Francisco, CA. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

Penguin spread: Illustration from BEHOLD THE BOLD UMBRELLAPHANT: AND OTHER POEMS © 2006 by Jack Prelutsky. Illustration © 2006 Carin Berger. Published by Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. New York, NY. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

Photos of the wee Carin, her work spaces, her lovely inspirational objects, Pearly, sketches, and all other art work courtesy of Carin Berger. All rights reserved and all that good stuff.

23 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Carin Berger”

  1. Sun images are not so much my thing as autumnal/seasonal images, so DEFINITELY this one hits all the buttons for me. LOVE that big teasing sun! Love the circular drawings, and the crazy-floaty path of the leaves. What a great book!!

    It makes me laugh that an illustrator gains inspiration from The Lonely Doll. That’s excellent.

  2. *googly-eyed with wonder and astonishment*

    What a delicious feast of an interview. The illos from Little Yellow Leaf are SO beautiful, wonderful, innovative, everything.

    Add that to the mention of Eloise, Maira Kalman, Paolo Conte, Calef Brown, flea markets and one adorable bunny? *Swoon*

    And I have to say, Carin was a beautiful child!

  3. You both would LOVE this book. Go find a copy immediately, by hook or by crook! If I owned a copy, I’d send you mine!

    P.S. Something about the objects that inspire her—maybe it’s those little doll hands—makes me wonder if she’d like some of Sophie Blackall’s wonderfully bizarre dolls.

  4. I’ve been putting off ordering this book for a long time (couldn’t seem to justify it, being childless and in my twenties) but now I MUST! Justification: I recently started collaging with J. Crew catalogs, no joke. CLEARLY I am destined to own this book.

    Thanks, Jules!

  5. Oooh, I hope she does something with the old science stuff—that would be so interesting.

    What beautiful mixes of words and images. I just love collage; it’s like beauty from trash, total transformation of the mundane. Now I want each and every book.

  6. So radiant, full of life , and intriguing! Thanks!

  7. Oi, what a week… can’t believe I missed commenting on this already.

    Carin Berger’s work is mind-expanding, isn’t it? I mean, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at the back cover of a New Yorker issue again without seeing someone assembling cutup scraps into something amazing. I think my single most favorite (although God knows I love autumn, and yellow leaves especially) is the one from Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant — what look like fountain pens atop penguins’ bodies.

    …[slapping forehead] Oh. DUUUUHH. Penguins. Like umbrellaphant, maybe?

    So happy you mentioned the “wonderfully bizarre dolls,” Jules — gave me an excuse to go back and salivate over them (and read the rest of Sophie Blackall’s own interview).

  8. Bravo Carin! You and your work are LOVELY!

  9. I am a card carrying Carin Berger fan, so this was a lovely treat! But I’m afraid I can’t be friends with her any more because her studio is way, way too neat. It puts another, slightly less neat person to shame.

  10. Jules,

    I love, love, love THE LITTLE YELLOW LEAF. It was one of my favorite picture books of 2008. The illustrations are spectacular. Carin was so inventive in the way she used different materials for the collage. I love the changing perspectives she used in her compositions. I think it’s a standout book. Her illustrations for BEHOLD THE BOLD UMBRELLAPHANT were topnotch, too.

    I’m looking forward to seeing Carin’s next book.

  11. carin,
    what a beautiful compilation of your favorite is the leaf story.your work is wonderful and I’m looking forward to your new book.My thanks to you for creating another new dimension for the world of storyhour children—–my favborite group of children!

  12. Great interview – The Little Yellow Leaf is utterly charming — I am definitely a Carin Berger groupie.

  13. Great textures and style! I really like seeing the progression from sketch to final – thanks for sharing those.

    That bunny is adorable, as is the cat in the childhood picture! 🙂

  14. Thank you so much for this!!! I saw that image at the Society of Illustrators and fell in love with it. Of course I read the book immediately after and fell ever more deeply in love. Amazing work!

  15. Thank you for this wonderful interview! As proud as I already am of her, I just learned a whole bunch of fascinating things about my own step-sister, Carin, that I’d never known before.

    She may not know this about me, but I love to collect beautifully illustrated children’s books so I feel truly spoiled to be in the same family with the illustrator/author of such beautiful and delightful books.

    I think THE LITTLE YELLOW LEAF is my favorite so far, and as I too have a special attraction to sun images as well as leaf motifs, that introductory illustration was just perfect to me! Much love and congratulations Carin. I am so looking forward to OK GO!

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