Seven Questions Over Breakfast
with Kady MacDonald Denton

h1 July 5th, 2011 by jules

I was asked a while ago to speak to parents at a children’s festival of reading in Knoxville, Tennessee. I had free reign to talk about picture books in any way I wanted. I was this close to just taking Bonny Becker’s A Visitor for Bear (Candlewick), illustrated by today’s visitor, Canadian illustrator Kady MacDonald Denton, and using it as a model for pretty much How Perfect a Picture Book Can Be.

Or, more precisely (and without my usual hyperbole), letting it serve as an example for the long list of ways in which picture books can delight and why we read them with children: To summarize here—impossibly and before breakfast—it is funny (particularly, Bear’s melodramatic stances and impressive vocabulary), entertaining, and a terrific read-aloud; it has very real, very memorable characters that not only stay with you a long time, but that you also want to visit and re-visit; it is moving without being syrupy-sweet about it, and readers establish a real emotional connection with Bear and Mouse (pictured left), the book’s only two characters; there is a so-brilliant-it-could-be-a-picture-book-case-study extension of Becker’s well-crafted story by Kady’s endearing illustrations, yet both author and illustrator leave a gap between pictures and text, thereby giving mental and visual breathing space to the child reader; and, well, I could go on…. It’s one of my favorite picture books, and in the year of its release, 2008, this book most assuredly fell into the Oh-How-We-Wish-She-Were-an-American category. With all respect to Canada, there was much gnashing of teeth as we American picture book aficionados (*cough*, nerds) realized that Kady MacDonald Denton was not eligible for the Caldecott. To be clear, however, it was a New York Times bestseller, received the 2009 Golden Kite Award for Picture Book Text and the 2009 E.B. White Read Aloud Award for Picture Books, was a Wanda Gág Book Award Honor Book, and much more.

That was certainly one of 2008’s stand-out titles, in my humble but enthusiastic opinion. And I am generally drawn to Kady’s work, watercolors a reviewer previously described as “breezy, often impish,” noting they owe a debt to Sendak’s early work. I definitely get that early-Sendak vibe from her illustrations, yet she also manages to have a singular style, all Kady.

And, as many fans of Bear and Mouse know, there have been other titles to follow, noted below in my interview today. Also—joy!—to be released in a few months from Candlewick is this:

You can color me happy about that. I should probably add I’ve wanted to chat with Kady for years now, so I’m extra glad she’s visiting today for her second breakfast. Yes, second. “I usually have two,” she told me. “My day begins with a hot cup of tea and something light. Closer to mid-morning, I have oatmeal porridge with fruit, or eggs and toast and marmalade. That’s when I really enjoy a cup of coffee! I grind the beans and heat the milk. With two breakfasts I can push morning into the mid-afternoon and have a nice chunk of time in the studio.”

You see, I am ALL FOR THAT. Not only am I thrilled about oatmeal porridge and toast, but you know I love my coffee. I’m pleased to share breakfast with Kady and thank her for visiting.

Oh, and have you seen her latest illustrated title? It’s the first picture book from librarian Tim Wadham, and here’s a spread:

“‘Perfect,’ said Rose.”

That’s the very imaginative role-player, Rose—or, er, The Queen of France—from The Queen of France (released by Candlewick in March of this year). Publishers Weekly writes about this one,

Wadham makes a terrific debut; his rhythmic prose and comic pacing feel elegant and effortless, and he handles his diminutive fantasist and her parents with the kind of unaffected empathy that can elude more experienced authors. He’s also fortunate in his collaborator—Denton…wonderfully conveys the story’s impishness, emotional subtleties, and familial affections. Just watching the queen strut her regal stuff is worth the price alone.

Pick up a copy of this one, dear readers. It is, in every respect, utterly charming. (It has glitter on the cover, yes, but thank heavens it’s used modestly, tastefully, and conservatively.)

Thanks again to Kady, and let’s get right to it… (IMPORTANT NOTE for anyone who has made it this far: Most of the images in this post can be clicked on to super-size and see closer and in more detail. In fact, you will really want to do so for some of the sketches, harder to see within the restrictions of the blog’s template, but much easier on the eyes if you click on them and enlarge them. When in doubt or especially if squinting, CLICK.)

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Kady: Illustrator/author sums it up. Most of my work is illustration, but I have written several books.

Jules: Can you list your books-to-date?

Kady: Here are some of my recent books. A full list can be found at my website.

“Some of my books”

Kady with Frieda Wishinsky, author of You’re Mean, Lily Jean
(Albert Whitman, 2011)

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

Kady: I use pen and ink with watercolours on hot-pressed watercolour paper. As the painting develops, I bring in gouache, oil sticks, perhaps a bit of chalk. I used collage in one book.

Sometimes an illustration slips away, and then I’ll grab anything at hand to fight to get it back. If the struggle shows, I’ll start again.

I’m in that quickly-shrinking group of illustrators who doesn’t use a computer at any stage in the illustration process.

Jules: If you have illustrated for various age ranges (such as both early readers and picture books) can you briefly discuss the differences in illustrating for one age group to another?

Kady: Book artists spend a lot of time on composition, pacing, page breaks, overall design and such. All this is absolutely crucial, of course, but in a sense it’s behind-the-scenes work. When a child opens a story picture book—when that first page is turned—it’s the characters and their settings that matter. Some characters from my childhood are still with me: E. H. Shepard’s Mr. Toad {pictured right}, Garth Williams’s Stuart Little, N. C. Wyeth’s pirates. I still know the great forest of Babar and Madeline’s old house in Paris that was covered with vines.

An early reader usually has more text than pictures, so what illustrations there are need to be precise — not necessarily detailed, but having good reason to be there. Reading a simple chapter book is a big step for a child! I’ll leave good sections of white space so that the text is pleasant to read.

Most readers of picture books don’t read. I try to make it clear as to what’s going on. The artwork dominates the page, so it must serve the story as well as delight a child. It helps me to think of a picture book as a little operetta in frozen form—two languages together telling one story—because both pictures and words deliver the story.

I remember once sitting on a book panel with some distinguished novelists. None of them thought picture-book illustration had any part of the literary prizes we were attempting to award. It was very funny. I knew every one of them had been brought to a love of books through narrative illustration.

Early sketches from Bonny Becker’s The Sniffles for Bear
(to be released in September of this year from Candlewick)

{Here is a stop-motion video—no audio involved—that Kady created for this interview
in which she’s showing the progression of one Bear sketch;
this is also from the forthcoming
Sniffles for Bear.}

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Kady: Sometimes I just stomp in my studio, and up and down the fourteen steps to my studio.

On those days a walk helps. We have a lovely half-hour walk just down the street from our house that goes through a park and twice over bridges that cross the Ottonabee River. This part of the world gets four seasons, three months each. Things always change.

Peterborough is a small city in southern Ontario. We live in the old downtown area, so we walk to shops, the bank, to see a movie. For big-city events, I take the Greyhound bus to Toronto, about an hour-and-a-half away.

Jules: Can you briefly tell me about your road to publication?

Early years: Kady MacDonald Denton, stage designer

Kady: I was lucky. My husband took a sabbatical leave in London. I enrolled in several classes at the Chelsea School of Art. One class was book illustration taught by Carolyn Dinan. There I met another young mother who also had a daughter learning to read. We became friends and worked up a few early readers. We charged ahead and felt pretty pleased with the results, although now I can see how embarrassingly slight the books were. However, the series was bought by Walker Books who, just at that very time (this was the early 1980s) was looking for lots of new work. I continued to work for Walker Books. The editors were very patient, and I slowly learned the basics, each time giving my best but knowing things could be better. Gina Pollinger was my agent; she is retired now. Her encouragement kept me going. Gina would telephone out of the blue just to say I was marvellous.

Jules: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?


Jules: If you do school visits, tell me what they’re like.

Kady: I’ve done hundreds of school visits and travelled on book tours. I do less of that now. School visits are terrific fun. Only once have I been in a school so awful that I wanted to open the gym doors and shout, “run, and never come back.”

A book is quite a small thing and often not everyone can see the pictures, so I’ve found it works best for me to draw for the children on as big a sheet of paper as the school can rustle up. I usually draw one of the kids and then we’ll play with the picture, giving the child elephant’s ears or putting in a zoo of odd creatures — whatever they want.

I muck about on paper and often tear up a picture, pretending I don’t like it. That tells the kids that artists don’t always get the results they want, and it’s okay to toss out work. I get the children to act out the parts of how a book is made.

I don’t think it matters what one does. Reading aloud, drawing, talking about how books are made: it’s all entertaining. The real point is that children see that books are created by ordinary people.

Jules: If you teach illustration, tell me how that influences your work as an illustrator.

Kady: I taught children’s art classes for years at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba. I learned so much!

Now I volunteer at a school, giving a weekly art class to a group of children from various grades but with one thing in common — they love to draw. Since I love to draw, we all have a good time.

I’ve never taught illustration as such. I never felt I knew what to say.

“A nest is too small, said Anna. I want a cave. A big cave, a bear’s cave.
I’ll be a bear.”

“Anna dreamed she was a bird. But when she woke up, she wasn’t.”

Three images above: First ideas from Kady’s Would They Love a Lion?
(1995, Kingfisher); Bottom two images: Cover and interior spreads

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

Kady: I’m beginning work on another Bear and Mouse story, written by Bonny Becker, something to look forward to, indeed.

Mmm. Coffee.Coffee’s ready, and the table’s set now. Let’s get a bit more detailed, and I thank Kady again for visiting 7-Imp.

1. Jules: 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?

Kady: I used to jump right to laying out first ideas, but I’ve gotten a bit smarter over the years. Now I hold back on particulars and take time to think about the overall visual shape of the story, reading and re-reading the text, seeing how the story turns, builds, jumps, moves in and out, up, down, or circles back on itself. I try various abstract patterns to see which will best serve the story. It’s only then that I begin sketches of the characters and their setting.

These two parts—the story shape and the character/setting sketches—fit together and are the beginnings of the book. This stage takes time, as any good puzzle does. It’s a favourite time for me.

First ideas and a pencil rough from Bonny Becker’s A Birthday for Bear (Candlewick, 2009)

I may make a tiny book, perhaps several, or lay out little sketches on a story board to test the ideas. Then it’s on to first pencil roughs, which get sent to the editor for comment. Then second pencil roughs. When everything is checked to everyone’s satisfaction, I begin the final artwork, redrawing the illustrations on watercolour paper.

Model of Bear’s house

Rough color sketches of Mouse

Everything always goes wrong at the start of the painting stage. I don’t know why. This can go on for several weeks. I start early and work late. It seems impossible that me, the characters, the paper, the colours, are ever going to all agree and get along. But eventually we do (although not usually before breakfast!) and the fun begins.

2. Jules: Describe your studio or usual work space.

Kady: When we moved east a few years ago, we bought a house with an attic and fixed it up as a proper studio for me. For years, I worked in a very small spare bedroom. Now I have an open airy space with windows and a skylight and a sink.

One end of the studio is for various projects and the business side of things. The other end, the bigger part, is for creating the artwork for books. I have several drawing tables and two old wooden ironing boards to lay out work in progress.

Kady’s life drawing portfolio

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

Kady: Going to the library was something my family did every week when I was growing up. No one told me how to look for books, so I would pick ones by the colour of the spine and the picture on the cover. Oddly enough, I was seldom disappointed, even when I picked illustrated adult books.

Any pictures interested me, and many had an influence. I remember one in a school history book, an ink sketch of a tiny Earth encircled by the path of a giant airplane. The caption read: “The world is getting smaller all the time.” This worried me for years.

“One morning Sammy got out of bed and saw thick snow falling. The snow covered the trees and grass. It blew against windows and doors.”

“Sammy put on his jacket and boots, went outside and climbed the highest mountain, which happened to be the roof of his house. When he reached the top, he looked down. Around him were other mountains, smoke curling skyward from a few.
Sammy imagined what was beneath the snow.”

“He imagined a huge black bear and her cubs inside a snow cave.
Whales and seals swimming in arctic pools.”

Interior spreads from Joan Clark’s Snow
(2005, Groundwood)

4. Jules: 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?

Kady: It would be such a treat to meet Shirley Hughes. Then I’d invite Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin and just sit back and listen.

“…Amber can paint pretty flowers. She’s fearless on the swings. She can slide without falling when puddles are icy. She ties her own shoes. She’s learning to read.
Where’s her dad?”

“All this time her dad will be on the moon, watching the stars rush home and
the sun come up with no hands on its face.”

“Amber reaches out. ‘Carry me, Dad?’ ‘I sure will.’ He gives her a kiss on the way up. Then swings her onto his shoulders. Rides her high home.”

Interior spreads from Nan Gregory’s Amber Waiting
(2006, Red Deer Press)

5. Jules: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Kady: I usually listen to music as I work. The radio is set to CBC Radio Two, a classical music station. Beside the CD player right now is an eclectic mix: Leahy: Lakefield; Philip Glass: Of Beauty & Light; the Gershwins’ Oh Kay!; and Masters of the Boogie Piano. I like early jazz. Wilbur de Paris has helped me out of a lot of sticky spots. I have some of the Feynman Lectures on Physics on tape. I have no idea what is being said, but I love to listen to them.

Life sketches
(Click to enlarge)

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

Kady: I’m not fond of exercise, but I really enjoy work, like building a woodpile or digging a drainage ditch, doing things that have results and leave me feeling nicely exhausted.

Rough sketches and final spreads from Robert Heidbreder’s A Sea-Wishing Day
(2007, Kids Can Press)

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

Kady: Few people ask about publishers, something like “have you enjoyed some publishers more than others?” I would answer yes, but also that I have been very lucky with all my publishers and certainly with my editors. They all have been marvellous, generous with ideas and somehow able to make my work look better on the printed page than it is in the original, or so it seems to me.

Some of Kady’s December family greeting cards

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Kady: Any word that pops colour to the mind -– “brick,” “mud,” “grape,” “honey,” “slate,” “grass.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Kady: I don’t dislike any one word—each has its place and time—but I get annoyed by buzz words and sloppy talking that hide the real facts of the matter. That’s just guffle. I like things clear. Instructions to build a bookcase come to mind, a recent attempt in our house.

Jules: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Kady: Light. Any pool of warm light -– sunshine, the lights over my drawing board, a fire in a wood stove.

Jules: What turns you off?

Kady: Probably quite a lot of things, but I try to avoid them or change them if I can.

Jules: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Kady: “Rats.”

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Kady: I love the cries of geese as they fly overhead on their way south in the autumn and when they return in the spring, the long lines of them passing on messages.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Kady: I can’t stand the whine of a power lawnmower. Where we live now the yards are so small no neighbour has one. Our house has no grass. In front are flowers; in back are vegetables.

Jules: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Kady: I would love to be an astronomer, but it’s a little late for that, to say nothing about the math skills that would be needed.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Kady: I’m not good at repetitive work. An assembly line would fall apart after a half hour of me being there.

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

Kady: Let me tell you about one afternoon when I was visiting with my Mother, and her younger sister came to say hello. It was a glorious summer afternoon, perfect, filled with sunlight and bird song. We sat outside near a lake. My aunt was younger than my Mother but already into senility. The two old sisters chatted on about past friends when suddenly my aunt said: “They say Heaven is a nice place to live.” My Mother thought this was hilarious. She laughed, just roaring away until tears rolled down. My aunt laughed also, and so did I, all of us laughing together. I remember thinking: This is heaven – such a day with such beauty, with loved ones and a cheering drink, at the meeting place between tears and laughter.

* * * * * * *

All artwork and images used with permission of Kady MacDonald Denton. All rights reserved.

Photo credits: Sandor Ajzenstat.

THE QUEEN OF FRANCE. Text copyright (c) 2011 by Tim Wadham. Illustrations copyright © 2011 by Kady MacDonald Denton. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

THE SNIFFLES FOR BEAR. Images copyright © 2011 by Kady MacDonald Denton. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

A BIRTHDAY FOR FOR BEAR. Images copyright © 2009 by Kady MacDonald Denton. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, © 2009 Matt Phelan.

29 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast
with Kady MacDonald Denton”

  1. What a delightful interview with an amazing artist! I can not wait for The Sniffles for Bear.

  2. Process is just so fascinating!

  3. I love her work, loved hearing about the process, and that moment in her heaven. Joy.

  4. Thanks, all. Somehow, I think the melodramatic Bear would approve of the notion of a picture book as “a little operetta in frozen form.”

    P.S. Jeannine, I’m with you on that answer. It blew me away. Best Pearly-Gates Pivot response EVER (or maybe tied with Jack Gantos’s)…

  5. “Guffle” may be *my* new favorite word.

    That stop-motion animation of Kady sketching is fantastic, and YES about heaven, indeed.

  6. Loved loved this interview. Can’t get enough of BEAR :). And having two breakfasts is perfect!

  7. Great posting, thanks for all the photos and process-details, it’s so much fun to see how others work. RE: computer illustration, I was recently looking at the site of an illustrator who’s successfully made the transition from brushes to pixels and–even though his pixel-paintings are impressively painterly–my first thought at looking at his older work was “wow, that looks like he had a lot more fun creating it.”

  8. Great interview! Really lovely.

  9. That IS the loveliest pearly gates answer!

  10. Love the art and stories!!!

  11. Last year I did a wonderful year long project with my older daughter’s class where we studied illustrators as part of our elementary school’s art docent project. I used your site for as many as could (Marla Frazee comes immediately to mind!) as the children could never get enough of seeing the early sketches and the illustrators work spaces. My youngest daughter will be starting kindergarten in the fall and I think it is now safe to say that Kady will be the first illustrator I will study with her class!

  12. Stacey, it makes me happy to hear the blog is being used that way.

  13. What a lovely and enlightening interview with Kady! Here in Brandon we count her as one of our own…and her friends miss her terribly. She is a gentle, warm woman and you so aptly captured all of that in your interview with her. Thanks so much!

  14. Absolutely delightful! I’ve order another copy to give to my most imaginative friend.

    We were fortunate to have Kady create the store images for our bookmarks, gift certificates and business cards. Everyone loved them.

  15. Jules, what a delight to see this interview with Kady. Even I didn’t know she did actual models of Bear’s house! I’m so privileged to have her as the illustrator of Mouse and Bear. In my presentations, I always show a lovely black and white portrait of Kady I took from her website. And say, “Don’t you think she just looks like the kind of person who would draw the way she does?” Lovely, gentle, wry.

    Can I just publicly say “Thanks, Kady!”

  16. And Bonny: You’re still welcome any time! We can revive the interview idea any ‘ol day you want, whenever works best for you, if you’re at all still interested!

    How about those models, huh? I want to move in with Bear.

    Yes, lucky you to have Kady on your books, but lucky Kady, too, to have such excellent writing to make art for…

  17. […] Seven Questions Over Breakfastwith Kady MacDonald Denton July 5th, 2011 &nbsp&nbsp by jules […]

  18. […] A fantastic, in-depth interview by Jules from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast~as she visits with Canadian illustrator Geneviève Côté. Also from Seven Imp, the great Kady MacDonald Denton. […]

  19. […] illustrations as we have, please take a minute to check out her interview on Jules’ blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. You’ll be able to see a sneak preview of the new Bear book along with Denton at work in her […]

  20. I’ve been lucky to share YOU’RE MEAN LILY JEAN with Kady as the book’s illustrator (and me as the writer). She’s a delightful illustrator and a wonderful friend.
    Insightful interview. The photos are terrific and Kady sounds like–Kady!

  21. Hi Katy, my dad has a picture on his wall you may have drawn back in 1964 ? When you were at a company called Proctor & Redfern Ltd. I can send you an e-mail with the picture.

    Mark Holmes son of Tony Holmes

  22. This was a wonderful interview. I recently did a review/book activity post on The Sniffles for Bear. I love the bear books. While looking for information on the illustrator I found your interview and included it in the post. Lots a great information. Sometimes it’s hard to find things about the illustrators to share with kids and parents.

    You did a great interview. Thanks.

  23. As a budding writer I loved this interview and wish I lived next door to Ms. Denton. I know her work well and have read “A Visitor…” so many times to kdgn kids and my grandaughter. Such talent, such a gentle voice and such magnificent connections to children. Bravo to you!
    Sandy B Tomlinson, 71 Mayrant Bluff Lane, Georgetown, SC 29440

  24. Lovely! Thank you for sharing.
    My daughters never tire of hearing me read A Visitor For Bear.

  25. Thank you for the information on how you create you illustrations and the medium that you use. As a retired teacher I am working with a teacher to help integrate art into the reading of the story A Visitor for Bear. It is one of the Patricia Gallagher nominees for the Emerald Empire Reading Council in Oregon for the coming school year. Again, thanks.

  26. Oh I loved this – my grandaughter and I just spent a few days reading and rereading A Visitor for Bear while she visited, and for fun I googled Cady Macdonald Denton. What a treat to read this wonderful interview and to discover “7 impossible things”! I feel like I’ve tumbled joyfully down the rabbit hole – ready to come back. What a generous and well-done blog! Thank you!

  27. […] books all about moving — Liz Garton Scanlon’s The Good-Pie Party, illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton, and Rosemary Wells’s Stella’s Starliner. This is something my family needs to […]

  28. […] of Kady MacDonald Denton’s early sketches forLiz Garton Scanlon’s The Good-Pie […]

  29. […] Pierre Pratt’s quirky vision of the world. I was enthralled by the lovely energy and vivacity of Katy MacDonald Denton’s children and animal […]

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