Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Amy Schwartz

h1 June 28th, 2010 by jules

Pictured here is the wee baby version of author/illustrator Amy Schwartz. I’m immensely pleased that the grown-up Amy is visiting 7-Imp today, as I’ve been a long-time fan of her picture books and the understated charm and humor of her stories and illustrations. Last November, I wrote a sort of Amy-Schwartz Appreciation one Sunday here at the blog. I’ve said even before that here at 7-Imp that I love the seeming simplicity of both her writing and illustrations, but there’s really a lot going on, including an undeniably strong child-centeredness that, in my experience, makes her books bonafide Kid Magnets. Amy can perfectly capture the details of a child’s world, what they truly care to pay attention to. The book best exemplifying this would be the wonderful What James Likes Best from 2003, which Amy discusses below, though it’s really hard to pick that “best.” So many of her titles perfectly capture the details to which young children attend.

And, as I’ve also said before here at the blog, one of the many things I love about Schwartz is the seeming artlessness, the naiveté, of her illustrations (and I mean “artlessness,” as in uncontrived — not as in poorly-made). Children spot this candidness in her work right away. There are no walls: Amy’s books are an open door in every way to the youngest of child readers.

So, needless to say, I’m happy she agreed to come have a breakfast chat with me. Her only request? “Coffee with milk and sugar.” Why, I think I can handle that! I’ll put the coffee on, while we first get the basics from Amy, and I thank her for stopping by.

* * * * * * *

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

Amy: I’ve illustrated over 40 picture books and am the author of more than half of these titles.

Spread from How to Catch an Elephant, DK Publishers, 1999: “Then, ask your Uncle Jack to bring you to the place where elephants go. On the way, he’ll tell you three things. ‘Remember, elephants are crazy about raisins,’ he’ll say. ‘And elephants hate cake. And, in a pinch, don’t forget your telescope.'”

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

Amy: {See a comprehensive list of books-published at bottom of post.}

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

Amy: Gouache and pen and ink on Rives BFK paper.

Illustrations from last year’s Tiny & Hercules (Roaring Brook)

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

Amy: From when I was a child, I’ve loved to draw and write. I attended art school in Oakland, CA, and graduated as a drawing major. After graduation, a friend encouraged me to pursue children’s book illustration, and I enrolled in the one class offered in the field in the Bay Area at that time, a four-session course, and then set off for New York with my portfolio. The editors and art directors I saw were very encouraging but didn’t give me any picture book assignments. Some editors encouraged me to try writing, which would enable me to present publishers with a complete work, and I began taking a series of children’s book courses in New York. The first two stories I wrote in classes—Bea and Mr. Jones and Begin at the Beginning—became the first two stories I published, with Bradbury Press, and HarperCollins, respectively. As a result of these books’ publication, I began to receive illustration work, and I’ve been writing and illustrating picture books ever since.

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

Amy: I am included on my agent’s website:

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

Amy: Yes, I enjoy talking to both children and adults. Using slides, original art, and other visuals, I talk personally about my creative process. I hope to impart an understanding of the art of writing and illustrating picture books, and also to encourage and inspire my audience in their own creative thinking.

A Beautiful Girl (covered here at 7-Imp by Yours Truly),
Roaring Brook, 2006

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

Amy: Upcoming title: Babyberry Pie by Heather Frederick (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Fall 2010).

Mmm. Coffee.Our coffee has brewed, and we’re ready to get a bit more detailed. I thank Amy again for 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?

Amy: Sometimes I illustrate works by other authors, and sometimes I illustrate my own texts. When I write, my stories most usually begin with my own life experiences. As I grew up in a family of four daughters, my early stories focused exclusively on little girls.

(Illustration from Annabelle Swift, Kindergartner, Orchard Books, 1988:
“Lucy taped the name tag onto her little sister’s blouse.
‘Annabelle Swift, Kindergartner!’ she read. ‘I remember my first day of kindergarten, Annabelle,’ Lucy said importantly. ‘I didn’t have a big sister to train me.’ Annabelle straightened her name tag. ‘I’m going to teach you the fancy stuff, Annabelle. Tomorrow they’ll know you’re
my sister.'”)

When my son was born, little boys entered the picture.

(From A Glorious Day, Atheneum, 2004: “Henry is the first up. After he’s been up awhile and it’s starting to get light out, he hears Peter and Thomas upstairs.”)

I had my first idea for a story about my son when he was just two months old. It was about two or three in the morning, as I recall, and I had finally wrestled the little one back to sleep. I gratefully crawled back into bed and sleepily contemplated the sweet little cradle in the corner of the room.

I listened to the short, breathy, baby breaths coming from that little cradle, from my tiny, innocent, little baby boy.

And I thought, that tiny, innocent, little baby boy knows exactly how to get anything—and everything—that he wants. I thought about all the ways in which we furiously scrambled to first figure out, and then fulfill, our son’s every whim and desire.

I thought about the twenty or so activities usually required to entertain him for, say, five minutes…

…and about the myriad pieces of equipment which these activities required. The first lines of a story came to me: “I’m a teeny, tiny, baby…

…and I know how to get anything I want.”

I wrote the line down, turned out the light, and went to sleep. The next morning, in my nightgown, I sat down at my typewriter, and in one groggy stretch, wrote A Teeny Tiny Baby.

It’s more often the case that I write my books over long periods of time — over months, if not years. I might begin by making a list of possible themes, of experiences related to my childhood or that of my son that have stuck in my memory. Then I might write out a secondary list of thoughts and events related to these themes. If I’m lucky, I may then have an idea of how to begin to shape a story. The memories by themselves, of course, are not enough for a successful text. I need a unifying idea, a story with a plotline or with some kind of organizing structure and sense of language that will form these memories into a satisfying picture book. I write and revise, write and revise, working with my agent as my first editor.

When my son was about three, one nap time I found myself mulling over our various family outings. As any parent knows, days at home with a toddler or preschooler can be very long days, so in those early years my family was often out and about. In my endless quest to be the ideal mother, I tried to make these expeditions just as educational and enriching as possible. However, as I thought about it, I had to laugh about the way in which I was repeatedly humbled in my endeavors. What I planned for my son to learn, and what he actually took away from these experiences, were two completely different things.

I thought about the day we rented a car and drove to Storm King, a dramatic sculpture garden several hours north of New York City.

On the way home, I wondered, what about Storm King would stick in my son’s memory? Maybe the monumental sculptures by Isamu Noguchi?

Or those by George Rickey? Or by David Smith? No, my son’s favorite moment involved none of the above. What he fondly remembered long afterwards was the fact that silly old Mom had turned on the windshield wipers in the rental car, even though it wasn’t raining.

(From What James Likes Best, Atheneum, 2003:
“Mommy turns on the windshield wipers. On and off, on and off, on and off.
‘Oops,’ Mommy says. Then Mommy drives the car to the County Fair.”)

I thought about a story a friend of mine had told me. She had flown down to San Diego from her home in Northern California so that her young son could experience the world famous San Diego Zoo. But what image seared itself on Geoffrey’s young mind? That of the powerful apes?

Or of the exotic zebras?

Or the orangutan?

No. But the San Diego Zoo’s extensive sprinkler system did impress him greatly.

These outings, and my musings on misguided parental aspirations, became a picture book, What James Likes Best.

Even Starring Miss Darlene {Roaring Brook, 2007}, a story about a young hippopotamus with theatrical aspirations, had its origins with family experiences.

My father didn’t talk much about his childhood, so whenever he did, his words stayed with me. When he was a boy, my father told me, he had been rather shy, but once he had been given a part in the school play. During one scene, my father’s role involved carrying a bucket of water onstage. However, my poor father had such a case of stage fright that somehow or other, upon his entrance, that bucket of water ended up being dumped onto the first row, drenching the audience thoroughly. With the theater critic from The Daily Weekly seated down front…

…the unfortunate Darlene replicates this experience upon taking on the role of The Flood in her theater class’ production of Noah’s Ark.

When we were young, my family attended a series of Family Camps during the summer. One session, my father wrote a set of skits for his four daughters to perform at the Camp Talent Show. The most memorable of these concerned a posse of space aliens exploring a futuristic, decimated, planet earth. Based on the evidence the human race has left behind, the aliens draw some rather misguided conclusions. I was cast as the intellectual, academic alien, Professor Looney. As Professor Looney was too young to memorize any lines, when he was called upon to offer an expert opinion, his consistent response was a silent, puzzled, shrugging of the shoulders. Darlene’s second starring role is that of Professor Looney.

Darlene’s final triumph in her theater class occurs when she is offered the opportunity to direct a play of her own choosing. Just as my buddy, Marleen, had done in the second grade, Darlene chooses to produce Sleeping Beauty. Like Marleen, she had certain ulterior motives. Darlene casts herself as Sleeping Beauty and the class heartthrob, Jonathan, as the Prince, thereby guaranteeing herself a highly prized and desired kiss.

Needless to say, various complications ensue.

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

Amy: I work at a white drafting table in the corner of my bedroom. The windows overlook our neighbors’ backyards. Admiring these gardens is a very pleasant procrastinatory activity.

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

Amy: Growing up, I was quite a bookworm.

I had the notion that the books at the end of the young-readers section in the library were the most advanced. As a result, I became very well acquainted with the children’s book authors W through Z.

I loved the Freddy the Pig books, Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, all of Beverly Cleary, folklore, fool stories, and fairy tales. I admired Garth Williams’ illustrations in the Little House books and thought how wonderful it would be to be able to be an artist like him.

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?

Amy: I would have invited over Wanda Gág, Harriet Fitzhugh, and Margot Tomes. Not living, but very wonderful illustrators.

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?

Amy: Actually, I like quiet while I work.

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

Amy: One night when I was maybe seven or eight, I forgot that I had an invitation to my next door neighbor’s for dinner. Joanie Buchanan came over to fetch me just as my family was finishing our meal. I therefore, dutifully, and happily, followed my host next door, and thoroughly enjoyed my second supper.

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

Amy: My middle name. It’s Margaret.

Spread from Old MacDonald, Scholastic Press, 1999

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Amy: “Phenolphthalein.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Amy: “Licorice.”

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

Amy: Kindness. Warmth. Humor. Family.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Amy: Dishonest politics.

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

Amy: My son’s footsteps. A key in the door.

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

Amy: Hockey crowds.

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

Amy: Independently wealthy philanthropist.

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

Amy: Mount Everest sherpa.

* * * * * * *

All artwork, photos, and images—with the exception of the Little House cover—used with permission of Amy Schwartz. All rights reserved.

Images from Tiny & Hercules re-printed with permission of the publisher, Roaring Brook Press, New York, NY. Copyright © 2009 by Amy Schwartz.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, © 2009 Matt Phelan. Thanks to Matt, Alfred now lives permanently at 7-Imp and is always waiting to throw the Pivot Questionnaire at folks.

* * * * * * *

Books written and illustrated by Amy Schwartz:

Junior Library Guild Selection

Junior Library Guild Premiere Selection


with Leonard Marcus
Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Best Book Award

Reading Rainbow Review Book

The Charlotte Zolotow Award
The Horn Book Fanfare Book
ABC Children’s Booksellers Choice
Booklist Editors’ Choice
Nick. Jr. Family Magazine Best Books Of the Year
Riverbank Review Books of Distinction Finalist

CCBC Choices
Capitol Choices List
NYPL 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing

A New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the Year
ALA Notable Book
Booklist Editors’ Choice
Reading Rainbow Review Book
News York Times Book Review Notable Books of the Year
American Bookseller Pick of the Lists
Bank Street Children’s Books of the Year
NYPL 100 Best Children’s Books of the Year

National Jewish Book Award
Association of Jewish Libraries Sydney Taylor Award
Jewish Welfare Book Council Award

School Library Journal Best Books of the Year
Parents Magazine Best Books of the Year
Parenting Magazine Reading Magic Award/Outstanding Picture Book
Publishers Weekly The Year’s Best Books
Parents’ Choice Children’s Books Awards
The Horn Book Fanfare Book
ALA Notable Book

Reading Rainbow Featured Selection
School Library Journal Best Books of the Year
A New York Times Best Children’s Book of the Year
Parents Choice Remarkable Book
Booksense Children’s Picks
NYPL 100 Best Children’s Books of the Year
Publisher’s Weekly Cuffie Award

ALA Notable Book
School Library Journal Best Books of the Year
Child Study Association Children’s Books of the Year

Charlotte Zolotow Award Highly Commended Title

IRA-CBC Children’s Choice

NYPL 100 Best Children’s Books of the Year








* * *

Books Illustrated by Amy Schwartz:

BABYBERRY PIE by Heather Frederick (Fall 2010)

A LITTLE KITTY by Jane Feder

A LITTLE PUPPY by Jane Feder

Christopher Award
Reading Rainbow Featured Selection
ALA Notable Book
Booklist Best of 80’s
Booklist Editors’ Choice
IRA Teachers’ Choices
CBC/NCSS Notable Children’s Book

BLOW ME A KISS MISS LILLY by Nancy White Carlstrom
IRA/CBC Choice

IRA/CBC Children’s Choice
Parents Choice Award
NYPL 100 Best Children’s Books of the Year 100 Best Books of the 20th Century

School Library Journal Best Books of the Year

MAGGIE DOESN’T WANT TO MOVE by Elizabeth O’Donnell
American Bookseller Pick of the Lists
Booklist Editors Choice

IRA/CBC Children’s Choice

American Bookseller Pick of the Lists
IRA/CBC Favorite Paperbacks of the Year


THE NIGHT FLIGHT by Joanne Ryder

Parents Choice Honor
NYPL 100 Best Children’s Books of the Year

Parents Choice Award
American Bookseller Pick of the Lists

MAGIC CARPET by Pat Brisson
Parents Choice Award

A Boston Herald Best Book for Young Readers

Booklist Editors’ Choice
NYPL 100 Best Children’s Books of the Year

WANTED: WARM FURRY FRIEND by Stephanie Calmensen
ABA Pick of the Lists


WISH YOU WERE HERE by Kathleen Krull

MY ISLAND GRANDMA by Katherine Lasky


FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK edited by David Gale

21 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Amy Schwartz”

  1. Another classic 7-Imp interview. (Actually, they all seem to be classics. If I were a teacher I guess it’d be time to tinker with the grading scale.)

    I may have just fallen in love with Amy Schwartz. Not just for her thorough answers to the questions, but for the way she answered them. E.g., mixing in family and other photos en route to “the answer,” and the ways in which her private life fed into her various books. (LOVE the story of her father’s stage debut!)

    The photo of her little son in the foreground and the giant orange pipe sculpture in the background looks like a still from a Hayao Miyazaki film.

  2. This is such a fun interview, Jules! I loved hearing the specifics of how Amy gets her ideas and develops them into books (especially What James Likes Best). Thanks for this thorough and enlightening piece.

  3. Thank you so much for a great interview. I’m going to the library to get as may Amy Schwartz books as I can. Those drawing from A Teeny Tiny Baby are just wonderful.

  4. I’ve loved Bea and Mr. Jones for a l – o – n – g time. Thanks so much for this interesting interview. Loved learning about the genesis of some of her books, and I want some lemonade with Tiny and Hercules.

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed this interview!

  6. Can I just say I am so so so glad that I found your website? One of the best parts about reading it is that I do so at work, and I work at a library! So I can always promptly look up whoever you have just interviewed and then devour their books. I am just starting to get know more picture books, and this has been helping me greatly.

    Loved this interview with Amy. Her style is just right, and I enjoyed all she had to tell about where particular ideas came from. Thank you!

  7. Nice interview! I’ll go to the children’s library today and lose myself in Amy Schwartz’s books. Thanks!

  8. Bea and Mr. Jones is a big favorite of mine as well, but I love so much of Amy’s work–Thanks!!

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