Random Illustrator Feature: Janet Stein

h1 May 5th, 2009 by jules

“A dessert should smell as good as it tastes.”

I know this spread, from Janet Stein’s This Little Bunny Can Bake (Schwartz & Wade, March 2009), appears tiny, but click on it to see it up close and personal. You know I like my weird picture books (that’s a compliment, coming from me), and there was something about the art in this book that drew my eye: Perhaps it’s the whiff of retro? Perhaps it’s the use of brush-and-ink to bring the tale to life? The predominance of gray so that, when our rabbit protagonist appears in her shade of light pink, our eye is drawn to her? The absurdity in the characters’ actions and the humor therein? The dessert recipes on the endpages? (Helloooooo, C.G.’s Divine Chocolate Meringue Cookies and Crazy Coconut Lime Macaroons. Nice to meet you. Man, I love a good macaroon, but I digress.) The notion of a SCHOOL OF DESSERTOLOGY. O! Sign me up. I think it’s all of the above, but first I have to tell you a bit about the book. And its creator, Janet Stein, has stopped by for one of my in-her-own-words type of features. (And can I just say that I LOVE what she says about cooking below? Well, there. I just said it.)

Chef George’s School of Dessertology is a world-famous dessert school. Class is about to begin, and here come the eager students, ready to study under the master pastry chef, Chef George himself. After introducing himself to the students, he announces that their lessons will be very simple, yet proceeds to point to some terribly complicated cooking instructions on the blackboard, only to have mouse mutter to his classmate, “what’s an ingredient?” So, Chef George starts at the very beginning (“This is a pot. This is a spoon. This is an egg…”) The students learn to train their nose — er, well, they try their best, and then they take a stab at baking their first concoctions. This is where the almost slapstick humor comes in: See the spread that opens this post, for instance. The series of spreads in which the students are baking might just very well have the wee’est of listeners/readers giggling very, very loudly. Only one student, our pink protagonist, is interested in following the rules, which leads to some tasty results.

Janet Stein—author/illustrator of this, her first children’s book—studied fine art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Chicago Art Institute, but she also studied in Barcelona at a cooking school with, you guessed it, an award-winning pastry chef. She currently lives in Barcelona. I asked her to stop by and talk a bit about the book, her art, in what ways cooking school inspired this title (other than the obvious), and more. She also shared a few other pieces of her art work. Many thanks to Janet for visiting 7-Imp this morning…

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On This Little Bunny Can Bake:

My family moved to Barcelona almost eight years ago. I was enchanted with Barcelona from the start and wanted to learn something of the culture. Once I noticed that chocolate was an integral part of the diet and elaborate chocolate sculptures adorned the pastry shop windows at Easter time, I knew what I wanted to study. Someone recommended the dessert school Espai Sucre (translates to “Sugar Space”). I looked at their website and decided I wanted to study there.

When I called the school to ask about enrolling, I realized I didn’t speak the language so well. I had studied Spanish years earlier, and I thought I had a good base in the language. I was quite nervous. I met the principal Maestro, Jordi Butrón; we had a very awkward interview; and I was accepted as a student. From the first day, I realized my Spanish was not up to par. I had to keep on my toes at every moment to understand Jordi. I wrote every word he spoke and asked him to repeat and explain things often. He was very gracious. This book grew out of setting the goal of learning another language, as much as it grew out of learning to create and cook desserts. Determination, love of food, and learning new techniques, words, and definitions kept me enthusiastic throughout the course.

During the course of study, we had to learn to use machines and tools that we’d never used before, and we had to work in pairs and constantly change partners. Some students were timid, some bold, some over-confident. It was very amusing. Pots were burned, dishes and things piled up, materials wasted. We had to taste and smell everything that everyone made.

Everyone had different preferences and tastes. There isn’t a single standard of taste. Taste is personal. The Bunny in my story serves as a standard that we, as humans, can relate to, but really every animal (and person) has its preferences. There isn’t really one right way to do things. A recipe is like a roadmap — you can change it to suit your tastes; it’s a guide. When my kids want to cook or help in the kitchen, they end up playing with the tools and materials. Who doesn’t love the feeling of sticking their hand in a bowl of flour, cutting, squishing and rolling dough, or watching doughnuts sizzle in hot oil? Cooking is dangerous, magical, and sensual, and it’s essential to know your materials — playing is an important part of learning the properties of the materials and developing techniques. Recipes keep us on a defined trajectory, but the process of cooking is often more inspiring and memorable than the end product.

On Choice-of-Medium:

I started sketching the characters for my book in ink. I liked the way they came out with all these washy effects, layers, and transparencies. Because ink is so difficult to control, I enjoy it. Surprises occured that led me in unexpected directions. I tried to draw funny things that happened during the cooking class, including puzzled moments of misinterpretation, being under pressure to cook within a specific time frame, the intensity of concentration, the precision and attention to details, the choices of ingredients, the indolence and chaos.

I love to paint with acrylics, gouache, and oils, too.

On Favorite Artists:

Art work from cover of William Steig's WHEN EVERYBODY WORE A HATMy current favorite picture book artist is Petra Mathers. I love her characters, Lottie and Herbie. Her stories are so tenderly written and illustrated. Other favorites are Rainy Dohaney, who wrote and illustrated Tinka; William Steig’s When Everybody Wore a Hat {cover image pictured left}; Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel; and the stories of Leo Leonni. Some of the books that inspired me as a child include Harold’s Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson; Ferdinand by Munro Leaf {and} illustrated by Robert Lawson; any of the Golden Books illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren; Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, illustrated by Garth Williams; the black and white cartoons of Charles Addams had a big impact, and so did Dick Tracy, Li’l Abner, and Betty Boop cartoons. I liked anything painted, drawn, or illustrated, and not only illustrations meant for children.

What’s Next:

I’m currently working on the Hebrew translation of This Little Bunny Can Bake for the Israeli publisher, Am Oved. I’m also working on two new ideas. One is about being a shy kid. I’ve attached a sketch below.

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THIS LITTLE BUNNY CAN BAKE © 2009 Janet Stein. Published by Schwartz & Wade Books (an imprint of Random House), New York. Images used with permission of publisher. All rights reserved.

All other art work from Janet Stein posted with her permission. All rights reserved on those images, too, dear readers.

8 comments to “Random Illustrator Feature: Janet Stein”

  1. I love the little pink bunny! Isn’t the cover adorable with those alphabet cutters? I’ve been wanting to see this book for awhile now. Thanks for the peek and introducing us to Janet!

  2. “There isn’t really one right way to do things. A recipe is like a roadmap — you can change it to suit your tastes…” how much do I love teaching kids that early, so they don’t say, “Eeeeeeeeeeeeew!” at other people’s lunches!? What a great idea for a book, and such dreamy illustrations for her upcoming work. Lovely, all.

    That cat looks kind of like a shyster, though. I’m sure that’s catnip going into that Kitchen Aid…

  3. Man, that looks like a great story, and the sample illustrations only heighten the expectations for the rest of it! (Really liked the way she made the different aromas look in that opening spread, especially the lemony pop-pop-pop thing as the rabbit is zesting it.) And I love the way she adapted her own experience with not knowing a language well enough to suit the premise of the dessert book.

    I’m with tanita: that is one sneaky cat!

    Quite a range of styles on display here, too. The excerpt from the shy-kid book does a nice job of showing how a kid like that can get 100% focused and un-shy when doing something creative. But the architectural renderings — especially the “door detail” one — WOW!

  4. That shyster cat reminds me of my Benny (who tried to “help” me cook dinner last night and wound up breaking a casserole dish-SIGH), and I LOVE what Janet has to say about cooking. My feelings exactly.

  5. I love this one too. The illustrations are a total throw back, like a book from the 60’s.

  6. Not only can I proudly say I know this woman….. Her book is geniusly done for children. It is a multipurpose book in many ways. You learn about a lot, the pages invite you to do your on coloring….. And the paper front with a different texture on the letters for feeling….. Brilliant!!
    I am really looking forward to her next book.

  7. I love Janet’s book! On top of being an excellent artist, with pictures that I could look at all day long, Janet has an awsome sense of humor that equally kept me laughing. As a child psychologist, I loved what I saw as the “humble nature” of bunny. The color that was used with bunny, in the face of black-and-white around, seemed to communicate that a quiet little “annybunny” can make a big mark, and be very successful indeed; even in the face of big lions, beautiful poodles, and hungry kitties, bunny’s motives and her brainpower, and ultimately her final outcome, win out over the rest.

  8. I am looking of a illustrator for a ice cream carton

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