A Visit with Author Ellen Weiss
(with Some Art from Jerry Smath and Marsha Winborn)

h1 July 20th, 2010 by jules

Almost exactly one year ago, when Mac Barnett and Adam Rex visited the blog, Mac mentioned a book published in 1979, I believe it was—But No Elephants, written and illustrated by Jerry Smath—which Mac said he’d “probably read 4,000 times.” I noticed in the comments that, almost one year later, Smath himself stopped by the post to type:


Thanks for your kind words … now please see some of my other books, and my new illustrations in Lola: A Shrew Story.


Jerry Smath”

Well, it’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally got some of those illustrations to show today, and that’s because the author of that picture book, Ellen Weiss—who has written over 150 children’s titles—is here this morning to talk a bit about not only that book, but another of her new titles, also released this Spring, as well as to discuss what’s next for her.

The Taming of Lola: A Shrew Story (Abrams, March 2010) tells the story (in five acts) of a small shrew with a huge temper. Lola is used to getting her way: “Shrews are not known for being nice, but Lola really took the cake. She was so stubborn and bad-tempered that all her brothers and sisters stayed away from her as often as possible.” Lola is, in fact, famous for her conniptions, and everyone pretty much just lets her have her way. It’s not until her cousin Lester from the East Meadow visits that she is put in her place (in a roundabout way), as he has an even worse temper. The story is framed in the present tense, with the elderly Lola telling her grandshrew all about her temper tantrums. “Smath’s busy, impish illustrations—in watercolor accented with pen-and-ink—are a good match for Weiss’s substantial narrative, told mostly in dialogue,” writes Kirkus. “There are chuckles on every page—particularly in the grandmother’s narrative asides, which hint at her identity (‘Screaming is relaxing’)—and readers won’t need to know Shakespeare to enjoy this yarn.”

The other book Ellen’s here to discuss this morning is the wonderful new beginning-reader title Porky and Bess, written with her husband Mel Friedman, illustrated by Marsha Winborn, and released by Random House in February. Divided into short chapters, it tells the story of two very different friends. (Porky is messy, and Bess is just about perfect.) I mentioned this book back in March at this post, calling it “perfectly charming,” which it still is.

Here’s Ellen to tell us a bit about each title, and I thank her for stopping by…

* * * * * * *

Ellen: I’m very excited to have these two new books out at the same time, because they’re both books that mean a lot to me. Each of them, in its own way, is the product of years of gestation.

In the case of The Taming of Lola, the book was written quite a long time ago, but poor little Lola had been in a sort of cryogenic state at Abrams for years, because they couldn’t find the right illustrator. Then I happened to meet Jerry Smath socially, and when he told me he had a book that had just come out from Abrams, I told him Lola’s tragic tale. He said, “Send it to me, and I’ll see what I think.” About a week later, he called me up and said that he’d loved it and had done sketches for the whole book, and did I want to see them. (Nah…) I totally adored them, as any sane person would. He really ran amok with the details — tons of funny business, like the Chicago Grubs shirt, the argument that goes around and around the page, the grub doll with the head that comes off, and bugs, bugs everywhere. Abrams loved what he’d done too, and here’s bad little Lola at last, very much alive and kicking hard.

“Act I: Lola was a shrew. She lived with her family in a burrow under a big spruce tree, at the edge of the West Meadow. They led a very busy life, eating bugs and worms and whatnot all day long.”
(Click to enlarge.)

Porky and Bess followed a more normal path. What took a long time with that book was figuring out what it should be. The title had come to me years ago, but nothing else. My husband and I kicked around a lot of ideas, but nothing was working right. Then I woke up one morning and it was crystal clear: It should be an early reader in the Frog and Toad vein. (Duh. Seems so obvious now.) Random House had Marsha Winborn do the art, and as the editor kept sending me PDFs of sketches and finished art, I got more and more excited. I think she did an incredible job. I love the palette she used. And she, too, went to town on the details. I especially love the cloven-hoof-shaped socks that litter Porky’s floor. I hadn’t been familiar with Marsha’s work before, but now I’m a BIG fan.

{Ed. Note: FYI — The colors in these images from Porky and Bess, sent from the publisher, are a bit off — a touch rosier than they appear in the book. Hey, these things happen sometimes when images are sent via cyberspace.}

“Sometimes Bess would come to visit Porky. ‘Porky, Porky, Porky,’ she would say. ‘Your house is so messy. You should keep it neater.’ But Porky liked his house the way it was. He liked bread that was three days old. He liked to keep it
on the kitchen chair…”

“Bess’s house was perfect. When he went there, Porky was afraid to touch anything. The cups and plates were all lined up, littlest to biggest. There was not a speck of dust on the floor. All the kittens’ toys were put away neatly. ‘Bess,’ Porky would say, ‘does everything have to be so perfect?’ ‘I like things perfect,’ Bess said. ‘The perfecter, the better.’ ‘I just don’t get it,’ said Porky to himself.”

“One day, Porky woke up early. He looked out the window. It had snowed a lot during the night. The tree branches were still covered in snow. The big yellow sun made the snow glitter. It made a warm puddle of sunlight on Porky’s blanket. But outside, the snow wasn’t melting. It was a good day to stay in bed.”

“Soon there was a knock on the door. It was Bess and the kittens. ‘We’re going ice-skating,’ said Bess. ‘You should come with us.'”

What I’m working on right now is all over the map. Which is a good thing. A couple of board books with Simon and Schuster, a proposal for a YA book I’m working on with my husband (YA is the one age level we’ve never done, so it’s a really interesting challenge), and maybe a couple of early readers. I’m feeling more energized right now than I have in a long time . It’s all a big mystery to me, the creativity thing.

* * * * * * *

THE TAMING OF LOLA: A SHREW STORY. Copyright © 2010 by Ellen Weiss. Illustration copyright © 2010 by Jerry Smath. Published by Abrams, New York, NY.

PORKY AND BESS. Copyright © 2010 by Ellen Weiss and Mel Friedman. Illustration copyright © 2010 by Marsha Winborn. Published by Random House, New York, NY.

10 comments to “A Visit with Author Ellen Weiss
(with Some Art from Jerry Smath and Marsha Winborn)”

  1. How about a Jerry Smath interview? But No Elephants was a favorite of mine as a child and probably lots of others in their late 20s as it seemed that every doctor’s and dentist’s waiting room in the 80s had a copy. Now I read it probably 10 times over the course of each school year. The book is so popular in my 2nd grade classroom it never makes it onto the shelves. It’s also my go to example when I model oral retelling. Simple, and memorable story with wonderfully endearing illustrations. Growing up in central new york, I thought Grandma Tildy’s hatred of winter was perfectly normal. Didn’t realize Smath was still illustrating. I’m excited to look at some of his newer stuff!

  2. Squeeing over all these spreads!
    Thanks for featuring these, Jules. Nice to hear Ellen’s comments. Will definitely check out both books. Can’t resist kitchen/table scenes :).

  3. But No Elephants! Now THAT’S a blast from the past. Apparently this book was published the year I was born. I can’t say it was one of my favourites when I was a kid, but I definitely do remember it. It bothered me that the elephant had to be excluded, but it also bothered me that he ended up wrecking everything. Talk about five-year-old angst.

  4. But No Elephants!!!! You just took me back about 15 years with that book cover. It was one of the only children’s books at my grandparent’s house, and I must’ve read it a thousand times. Thanks for the flashback!

  5. Yup, a blast from the past for me too…and the present, as I picked up a copy a few years ago to read to my kids. Ahh, the nostalgia.

  6. Ellen Weiss is one of my favorite children’s authors of all time! She rocks!

  7. Jerry Smath is a favorite among us who collect vintage midcentury children’s books at The Retro Kid (on Flickr)- my pal Glen has collected many of Jerry’s illustrations he’d done for various publications and such: http://www.flickr.com/search/groups/?q=jerry%20smath&w=83979980%40N00&m=pool

  8. I have also read But No Elephants! about 4,000 times! One of my favorites growing up, and now I read it at least once a week to the child I nanny and my niece and nephew. I’ve never seen the book listed or talked about anywhere, so I’m thrilled to see it on here along with Jerry Smath’s other illustrations. Would love to read an interview with him- thanks for this post! 🙂

  9. […] Ellen Weiss on The Taming of Lola: A Shrew Story (July 20, 2010): “{T}he book was written quite a long time ago, but poor little Lola had been in a sort of […]

  10. I can remember when Jerry first wrote the book but no Elephants. I think he dedicated this book to his mother. My granddaughter had the book and loved it.

Leave a Comment

Should you have trouble posting, please contact sevenimp_blaine@blaine.org. Thanks.