Seven Questions Over Breakfast with
Pamela Zagarenski

h1 June 18th, 2009 by jules

Illustrator Pamela Zagarenski is here this morning for a breakfast chat. Together, she and poet Joyce Sidman created one of my favorite picture books thus far this year—if not my very favorite—Red Sings From Treetops, released by Houghton Mifflin in April. You can read a bit more about it here — in a short post I did early this month. Red Sings is a poetry collection that brilliantly, in more ways than one, celebrates colors as you’ve never quite seen them celebrated before.

Pamela’s delicate and inventive mixed-media illustrations have been seen in two previous poetry collections — Maxine Kumin’s Mites to Mastodons: A Book of Animal Poems from 2006, as well as 2007’s This is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness, also by Joyce Sidman (“her skill as a poet accessible to young people is unmatched,” wrote School Library Journal about Sidman), and both released by Houghton Mifflin.

Since Pamela sent over one hundred images for this interview (I never really counted the images in the Dave McKean interview, but this might rival it), I’m going to get right to it, and we can find out what’s next for her and why she talks to her paintings (which I get. I really do.) For breakfast this morning, she’s having lots and lots of tea. “I get up really early (4:30-5:00),” she told me, “to paint, sketch, work on my computer. I have one, two, and sometimes three really big cups of tea, preferably with lots and lots of almond milk. I just love tea — always have! I don’t get hungry until later in the morning, but when I do, I like fruit, nuts, and raisins and brown rice or quinoa.”

Let’s get the basics from Pamela while we wait for our tea to steep, and I thank her for stopping by. And ESPECIALLY for the whole heapin’ ton of beautiful art.

{Note: I’m not going to put titles under each illustration, for different reasons, but The Really Eager and Curious can right-click on the images themselves—and then go to “properties”—to at least see JPEG names, as basically sent to me by Pamela and which are often the illustration titles as well. Also note that some of these images are details of larger illustrations. Most of these illustrations are hyperlinked to larger versions, too, so click the image itself to see in more detail.}

* * * * * * *

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

Pamela: Illustrator. But I am noodling with a few of my own stories.

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


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

Pamela: Mixed media, acrylic, colored pencil, collage, and sometimes computer graphics. My illustrations are a little of everything, usually painted on wood.

7-Imp: If you have illustrated for various age ranges (such as, both picture books and early reader books OR, say, picture books and chapter books), can you briefly discuss the differences, if any, in illustrating for one age group to another?

Pamela: Early reader books tend to be more graphic and bold—bolder colors, bolder images—though in My Big Dictionary (for early readers), there is a lot of detail on the “letter” pages. Picture books lend themselves to more detail, more subtle colors, intricate designs, and characters, but I think children are very sophisticated. They know and can comprehend a lot from very early ages, if given the opportunity. When you give small children a lot of detail, they take in what they can. My nephew is four and he loves the details. He loves finding the “hidden” things in paintings and illustrations. In the end, I think the differences in how one illustrates comes more from the story line and concept behind the book, not so much the age of the child.

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Pamela: I live in Stonington, Connecticut. It is very beautiful here. Lots of moss-covered stones, boulders, stonewalls, fields, trees, and ocean.

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

Pamela: Out of college, I started working at Weekly Reader, doing illustrations for their reader and some magazines. It was with Weekly Reader that I did my first book, Windmill Hill. After that, I got an agent in New York city.

I did a book with Scholastic, and then with Houghton Mifflin I did My Big Dictionary, my first “real” book. After the dictionary, I went through a major life change — a divorce. Out of necessity, I gave up my agent, books, and illustrating for a while, and I got a “real” job. I needed to have a steady income. I started working at this wonderful shop/gallery, Whyevernot, in Mystic, CT. (Eighteen years later, I am still working there.) It is during this time period that I started doing very large paintings, mostly for the windows at the shop — many 16 ft x 6 ft long. I painted nonstop, every free moment I had, painting huge paintings, no longer tight and small. Freeing myself up. Moving on. Changed my life and my illustrations. That is why from my earlier books to my books now, the illustration styles are very different.

A few years later, Houghton Mifflin asked me to do a few more board books and then my first picture book, Mites to Mastodons, with the poet Maxine Kumin. Ann Rider at Houghton became my editor. (She is just amazing to work with!) She gave me two books with the gifted poet Joyce Sidman. It is an illustrator’s dream to have such inspiring words to play with!

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

Pamela: For now, just Facebook, but I am currently working on a web page which {will be}

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

Pamela: I am working on a few stories of my own. We’ll see. This is a new venture for me.

Okay. Our tea’s ready. Nice and strong. Time for our breakfast chat. Thanks to Pamela for sharing her art, and let’s keep at it…

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?

Pamela: This is a hard question. It is hard to put into words to my process. I go on autopilot. Painting and drawing takes place somewhere else.

When doing a book, I obviously read the story, then read it again, again, and again. I read it at night before bed, so it is the last thing I think about before sleep. Like an actor reading his/her lines for a play, I let it become part of me. I rehearse the part. I get to know it. I take it with me everywhere. I tuck it into a small pocket in my brain. I think about it all the time. Ideas then come anytime and anywhere.

I have a journal with me {see two journal pages below} at all times to put ideas in. I do spend days, weeks, months sketching, having ideas, and then committing them to paper. I always do several page layouts first — to see how many pages I will have and how they will fall. After sketching the pages, I paint some of them immediately. I just can’t help it. I want to see how they will feel as finished paintings.

{Ed. Note: Pictured here is one of Pamela’s drawings from age four.}

After tightening up all my sketches, I send them off to be reviewed. Once I get the okay, then onto the painting. I give the illustrations all of their final bits and pieces. Believe it or not, I talk to them, asking the paintings what they would like. I feel the characters and landscapes become real. When I first start painting, I never really know where each one is going to go in the end. Hand in hand, they lead me down the road to a finished page. It sounds a bit strange but, I can’t “think” about it too much. I can’t have too many preconceived notions; the paintings can then just become and evolve freely.

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

Pamela: I have two studios. One is beautiful and spacious, a big barn, open and light. But alas, it does not have any heat. (Yes, I am saving up.) So, in winter—feels half the year—I work in a tiny room in my house. So, I tend to paint big paintings in Summer, late Spring, and Fall, and I do more of my journal, computer, and idea-fishing during the winter months.

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

Pinocchio by Enrico Mazzanti (1852-1910). Image in the public domain.Pamela: The Little Prince (my favorite); Winnie-the-Pooh; Charlotte’s Web; Stuart Little; The Velveteen Rabbit; All of Dr. Seuss’ books; Shel Silverstein (“If you are a dreamer, come in , come in…” I love the The Giving Tree, A Light in the Attic); Maurice Sendak {and} The Nutshell Library (tiny beloved books that they are); Beatrix Potter (I just love her characters. Oh, I love Peter Rabbit); Billy Goats Gruff; I had some old illustrated editions of Pinnochio {pictured here} and Alice in Wonderland that my grandfather gave me, that I adored, even though the illustrations were a bit scary; Little Black Sambo (I absolutely loved how the tigers turned to butter. I found it so magical.) Starting at about four, I was in love with Charles Shulz, Peanuts, Snoopy, and Woodstock. I remember aspiring to be Charles Shulz when I grew up. I drew Snoopy on everything (much to my mother’s dismay).

Oh, there are so many loved books, loved pages. I could go on and on.

{Ed. Note: The second image here is a detail of the first.}

{And the three bottom images here are details of this first one.}

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?

Pamela: Maurice Sendak, Sara Fanelli, and Květa Pacovská.

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?

Pamela: A lot of the time, I just listen to the birds when I work. However, when I do listen to music, my favorite is Bach and/or contemporary singer/songwriter music depending on my mood. I admit, I do have one really quite crazy habit. (By the way, I think this will also answer the next question about something most people do not know about me.) While working on a big painting, series of paintings, or book, I will find a song—or perhaps maybe it is that the song finds me—and I will listen to just that one song over and over. Yes, one song, on repeat for an entire day — ten hours straight. A week and sometimes even an entire month. The whole project. The song becomes a kind of working meditation. The song will even be in my head while I sleep. Sounds crazy, but I do it quite often.

Bottom spread is from Red Sings From Treetops

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

Pamela: Well, besides the song on repeat craziness…On my days off, I sometimes get up in the morning and start painting, never getting out of my pajamas. I will paint straight through until night.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Pamela: “Love.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Pamela: “War.”

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

Pamela: My family and friends; my dog, Basho; being in nature; birds; the woods; fields lined with old stone walls; big old, old oak trees; moss-covered stones and stonewalls; carpets of soft moss under bare feet; moving brooks; the ocean waves crashing and the whales — I love the whales; smooth round beach stones; yellow; Hafez; Rumi; Mira; Kabir; Rabia; having lots and lots of books; poetry; yoga; the quiet hum. Oh, and yes, my very, very favorite — a warm cup of TEA! (and shared with someone I love outside on a warm sunny day is especially nice).

And with all of this said, spiritually and emotionally, I am mostly turned on by drawing and painting. It is all a wonderful circle. I am very fortunate.

Basho and Willa

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Pamela: Close-mindedness.

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

Pamela: Actually, I don’t swear much, but I would have to say when I need to swear, “shit” would be the word of choice.

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

Pamela: The fog horn.

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

Pamela: Shouting.

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

Pamela: Shaman.

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

Pamela: A miner.

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

Pamela: “The tea kettle is always on. Over there are all your paints and brushes. Here are your wings, and you get to be the guardian angel for all your loved ones now.”

{Ed. Note: Pictured first here is one complete illustration from Pamela. Click to enlarge. Under it are twenty-five details from that one image.}

* * * * * * *

All artwork and photos courtesy of Pamela Zagarenski. All rights reserved.

66 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with
Pamela Zagarenski”

  1. Magnificent! Most wonderful. What a beautiful way to start the morning. Thank you for sharing Pamela. Excellent post Jules.

  2. This is another one of those amazing posts that requires extra oxygen! Breathtakingly beautiful, whimsical art. Jules, you must hear me gasping over all the LOVE close-ups, and the hand one, and just every piece with words and letters floating about. This is crack for abecedarians!

    And yay for another tea drinker! Love her studio, too. Thank you so much, Pam and Jules!

  3. Wow! What gorgeous pictures. I wonder if this is the first time that the picture section has been longer than the interview? 🙂 I’d like to recommend The Story of Little Babaji, illustrated by Fred Marcellino, if Pamela hasn’t found it already. It’s one of the few times where I’ve preferred an update to the original.

  4. WOW. I am speechless with delight and awe. Pamela is a color magician, and her art is healing in some mystical way. These images can’t be taken in all at once – I will be returning to them when I need to be reminded of the beauty in us all. Thank you, Pamela and Jules!

  5. I am joining the chorus of admiration here – what beautiful pictures! I just popped by but was sucked into the lovely colours and images. I’ll have to come back and look again soon.

  6. Ooh – so much to love here! It’s quite the visual feast!

  7. This art just makes me ridiculously happy. Thank you, Pamela and Jules.

  8. I was in love with her work before. Now, I’m in deep soul love with it. Thank you so much for these images today. Just what I needed.

  9. Jules,

    Thanks for this interview with Pamela Zagarenski.


    I lovelovelove the illustrations you created for RED SINGS FROM TREETOPS. Joyce Sidman is one of my favorite children’s poets. Her poetry in RED SINGS is outstanding–and your art is a wondeful complement to her text. Poems and pictures work together perfectly in this collection. It’s one of the best children’s books of the year–in my opinion.

    Thanks for sending Jules all these great illustrations to post here. Can’t wait till you have your own website.

  10. I just stared and stared at some of those images. I wish they were on my wall so I could stare some more, while laying on my couch or something.

  11. Thanks, you all. Yeah, beautiful, beautiful stuff. I’m with you, Adrienne, about wanting to put her art on my walls.

    Thanks to everyone for visiting.

  12. Thank you everyone!!! so nice….thank you….

  13. Sigh. So exquisite. Everything I hoped it would be, Jules. Thank you thank you thank you!!! I was on vacation when this posted- how wonderful to have it to read and study when I got back. Her art is simply simply beautiful. There is not a single image here I do not love.

  14. Thank you for this excellent post, Jules and Pamela.

    I love how Pamela drinks so much tea and how several of her images include tea cups. 😀

  15. Wow. I love her work on Joyce’s books, and it’s so odd, because this overall style (which I don’t even know what it’s called, but I see it in paper and fabric art magazines) doesn’t appeal to me that much. But Pamela’s specific style of it has more emotion and feeling to me than what I’m used to seeing. The stylized people feel like real people, with thoughts and cares and worries. And the colors, the boats, the whales, the sailing in the breeze, the stars–oh, wow! She’s one artist who totally rocks this style.

  16. I am so blessed to have been led to this place and these images by whatever creative source out there ensures we connect with inspiration.

    First and from the core of my being, the images feel healing to me in a beautiful way. The set of images for the last book shown – what they are and the way they can all be separate or put together in a “whole” – oddly/wonderfully represents a concept I’ve been pulling together about global sustainability…that it will require at its very core that we address personal sustainability. And, as my knowing unfolds – personal sustainability requires us to go to our “right brain” (where creative source is accessed) – discover love, healing, and then innovate ourselves…because through the experience of love and healing we realize our own access to what we know (that we didn’t know we knew) is all inside of us…and just to add one more layer…once enough of us have done that individually – there will be a tipping point – and collectively we will start to go to our collective right brain – to find love, heal, and speed innovation toward global sustainability with access to what we collectively know (that we collectively didn’t know we knew.)

    Pam’s sketches capture that theory in a profoundly simple, visual feast. Now to discover where I can find that last book?

  17. Lori,
    that last “book” just a painting-not a was 25′ x 25’…25-1 foot squares… i sold each painting separately…idea being exactly what you stated above…we are all one~picture…and all individual stories~existing simultaneously…and the practice of letting go…of each “painting”…knowing that somewhere out in the world the whole painting still exists…
    thanks for your words…Pamela

  18. Red Sings from Treetops is now available in Philippine bookstores. Woohoo!

  19. So incredible to see so much of Pamela’s work together in one place. What a treat!
    Pamela is not only one of the most talented human beings I have ever had the privilege of knowing, but also one of the sweetest and kindest imaginable. I am blessed to have crossed paths with her and to now share her illustrations with my child!

  20. Hola! no se mucho inglés soy de Argentina, así es que voy con mi idioma…Llegué buscando imágenes de Kvetâ, y “apareci” acá y mi fascinación se multiplicó al recorrer toda la nota, que maravillosa Pamela!
    Muchas gracias por estas imágenes que además de un placer enorme me llevan a ese lugar en donde me siento feliz.


  21. Giving myself a little treat while trying not to worry about many things-I can’t believe how beautiful this is .
    Thank you little one
    I love you

  22. I happened upon a little shop in Mystic, CT called Whyevernot today and fell in love with Pamela’s artwork on the walls and illustrated books. Her work just speaks to me in such a happy way. I think it’s even cooler that she works there!

  23. I read Red Sings From Treetops with my granddaughter Sophia (she just turned 6) and she loves it! She kept pointing out details that I had missed and then she started telling me the pages that were her favorites, which were almost all the pages! I would like to buy a copy that is signed by Pamela Zagarenski and send it to Sophia. Does anyone know how that is possible?

  24. Sharon,
    I’d love to sign a book for you and send it to your granddaughter Sophia…
    Call me at WHYEVERNOT in Mystic Connecticut… the phone number is 860-536-6209…we sell my books and art…have a fantastic day…all my best,
    Pamela Zagarenski

  25. Wow! This is a fantastic interview. I have fallen in love with Pamela’s art at first sight. Truly amazing artist.

  26. Love this work. Am wishing for more technique details. Maybe Pamela would add some? I am just at that place in my art where I need to know what glue? which is first, paint or collage papers? Thanks… enjoyed!

  27. […] has drawn my gaze with fondness for weeks, no months.  Written by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Pam Zagarenski, this book is on the top of my “read and savor this book SOON” […]

  28. What else can I say other than a dumbfounded…’WOW’. No really, WOW. Incredible artwork, fantastic interview. ‘Red Sings from Treetops’ jumped into my arms at the bookstore. I will be sure to share her work with my high school art classes during our Caldecott artist lesson.

  29. This is so inspiring!

  30. This work is just amazing. It gives me butterflies 🙂

  31. Pamela,
    I discovered this interview and I felt in love with Your Creatures.I look at your work as a dream, it’s so sweet and delicate…is it possible to have Your books in europe?I’m italian.
    I thak You for your inpiration to me and my paintings.I wish my work reaches somewhen this light and deepness.
    Lots of Love & Thanks

  32. Hello Pamela,
    We bought your “Sunup” a few years ago, and it’s doing great. The colors and detail are so beautiful, we love your work!
    Warm regards,

  33. your illustration/paintings bring me such joy. I want to be able to look at them and be inspired by them daily. They are enchanting and from a special other space….



  34. Happened upon this post and so happy to have found this blog. I love Pamela’s work and so inspired…wow wow WOW! Thanks for sharing the interview and thanks to Pamela for sharing her wonderful work! I’m in love and mesmerized with looking at her beautiful paintings 🙂

  35. […] biggest thing for me was coming across this old article and interview of Pamela Zagarenski and I am totally, utterly in love with her work. I want to be able to create such wonderful imagery […]

  36. There is nothing better than this.

  37. great! great! great!

  38. Pam, your art work is amazing. You are incredibly talented (which I always knew). I enjoyed looking at all your work and reading the interview. I can’t believe you didn’t mention pickles. If you’re ever down DC way, let me know! I’d love to get together for a cup of tea!

  39. Thank you for the post. You and Pamela make my day;)

  40. […] Interview with Pamela Zagarenski at Seven Impossible Things […]

  41. You inspire me, awesome work, awesome mind!!!!!!!

  42. Please send me painting info/pricing.
    Saw some beautiful paintings you did at our friends’ home-Kris and Michael Kaplin

  43. […] a moment, quickly, to squeal over the fact that there’s a new picture book illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski coming out next month, written by Mary Logue (published by Houghton Mifflin). I haven’t read […]

  44. My daughter Isabel came home with Red Sings from Treetops…which led me here and to all other sites ala Pamela Zagarenski. I too want to have yourimages on my walls to contemplate over Tea and Bach!
    My daughter wants to see snow (she is 7) and a trip from Miami to a guarateed snowy scape is in the planning stages. The big C’s have featured most: Colorado, California and Connecticut. To see P.Z.’s studio make the latter more and more enticing.
    thanks for the wonderful morning three years post interview!

  45. […] morning, I’ll have a column about Mary Logue’s Sleep Like a Tiger, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski. That link will be […]

  46. […] week, I wrote about Mary Logue’s Sleep Like a Tiger, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, and that link is […]

  47. […] […]

  48. blown away, literally, i am floating in ecstasy. what a marvelous artist, what imagination, a poetic soul to relish.

  49. […] a while (including loud social media-type places), and collaborating once again with illustrator Pamela Zagarenski. We also talked about her newest poetry collection, What the Heart Knows: Chants, Charms & […]

  50. Wow! I am completely and utterly blown away! Thanks SO much for sharing so much of your work Pamela!!!! 🙂 e

  51. […] From “Sleep Charm”: “This bed is the perfect bed. / Sink into its healing /cloud-softness, / cheek against cool pillow-white. /Forget anything you ever wanted, / hoped, or feared. …”   Last week, I chatted here at Kirkus with author and poet Joyce Sidman about her newest poetry collection, What the Heart Knows: Chants, Charms & Blessings (Houghton Mifflin), to be released in early October. The book is illustrated by two-time Caldecott Honor recipient Pamela Zagarenski. […]

  52. […]  …see my post on Zagarenski’s lovely work over at Children’s Illustration and read an interview with her at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast… […]

  53. Dear Pamela,
    I discovered your cards in a French store in Los Olivos, California (Avec Moir). Many of your cards bring tears to my eyes and healing to my soul.
    Thank you.

  54. I loved these illustrations! I,ve bought the book and and shipped it to my fiancée in US. I will join her next April and read the stories in the bed 🙂

  55. what a wonderful way to spend the afternoon…looking at your images…listening to your words…and savoring your creative juices…a million thank you’s for sharing your world!

  56. […] week I wrote here about Pamela Zagarenski’s The Whisper (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October 2015). Today I’ve got some art from the […]

  57. Excellent paintings , excellent artworks ,I’m very touched and I’m almost 70 years old but still dreaming ….

  58. How can I contact Pamela Zagarenski?
    Does she have an e-mail address?

  59. […] Logue’s Sleep Like a Tiger, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski,Some early Sketches:(Click to […]

  60. […] […]

  61. Dear Pamela, I just found your cards in the Grovewood Gallery in Asheville, NC. I have a best friend in Conn. who just lost her husband and is very despondent and grief stricken. Your art work speaks to her in such a deep way that I believe that she heals a little every time I send her one of your cards. I am looking to purchase more to send to her each and every week. Is there a way for me to buy cards that are not at the Gallery but in your collection.. Thanks so much. Marsha Casey

  62. […] Source : Source : […]

  63. What a gift this post is. To see all of Pamela’s work and some insight into her creative process. Brilliant. Many thanks for doing this.

  64. Found “Red Sings From Treetops” on my shelf in my speech/language pathology office in a public elementary school in Lake Worth, Florida. Shared it will two students who are deaf hard of hearing that grew to many students. Found more information on google about Pamela. Will be calling WHYEVERNOT Mystic, Connecticut to order her complete collection to touch the hearts of all I am able to share with.

  65. So enjoy the comments. Often see Gunilla Norris mentioned. She is superb. Pamela is so imaginative and her illustrations are mesmerizing!

  66. Pamela,
    Thank you kindly for the gift of inspiration.
    You truly make my heart smile.
    You make our world a better place. If everyone could
    experience you..
    we might have world peace by now.

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