Seven Questions Over Breakfast
with Deborah Freedman

h1 November 15th, 2011 by jules

Deborah Freedman at home —
(How I wish we were eating an
actual breakfast at her beautiful, colorful house)
(Click to enlarge)

Really devoted 7-Imp readers will note that Alfred, pictured left, is joining me earlier than usual for today’s post. Alfred, who sprung from the mind and paintbrush of Matt Phelan, now lives at 7-Imp and always introduces Bernard Pivot’s famous Pivot Questionnaire, which is how I consistently close my interviews. (As noted elsewhere at the blog, Alfred makes good, strong coffee and tells wicked funny knock-knock jokes in a low voice. I like him.)

He’s at the top of today’s post, because my guest this morning, author/illustrator Deborah Freedman, illustrated her responses to the Pivot Questionnaire, which makes me happy. Yes, illustrated! (There is always Chris Raschka’s set of Pivot responses, answered in photographs, which I also loved, but these illustrated responses are a first for 7-Imp.) Since I blew up Deborah’s Pivot image at the close of this interview to be as large as possible in the blog’s template, Alfred didn’t quite fit down there, so he’s up top with me now to introduce Deborah. Don’t worry. He’s not as surly as he looks.

There aren’t a whole lot of author/illustrators who can say that their second published book got a good deal of Caldecott buzz. But Deborah can. Those who pay attention to picture-book chatter know that her newest title, Blue Chicken, released by Viking in September (and sparked by William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” as Deborah notes here), has been mentioned by many in the same sentence as that prestigious award (all in the name of ALA awards-predictions, which get hot and heavy this time of year). The book tells the story of a painted chicken who lets loose on an artist’s canvas. She just wants to help, yet spills blue paint everywhere. Then, things get very 3-d, as other animals in the painting emerge from the canvas onto the meta-landscape to watch while the chicken tries to “undo the blue” by toppling over the artist’s glass of water.

“But wait. Does one of the chickens want to help?”
(Click to enlarge)

Similar vibes of narrative surprise—and unpredictability on the part of her protagonists—are on display in Freedman’s 2007 title, Scribble (Knopf), her picture book debut. Readers familiar with both books can see that Freedman likes to play with boundaries in her picture books. She turned, as you’ll read below, from the field of architecture to children’s book illustration, so perhaps it’s not too surprising that she likes to spark the imaginations of children by thinking outside the box (so to speak).

Deborah’s here today to talk about her work, share some images and early sketches from both books, and share a bit of other art, as well. “I think today I‘d like a thick slice of nutty whole grain toast with almond butter and apricot jam,” she tells me, “lots of fresh fruit, and as always, a good strong cup of decaf (unless I want my drawings to have a shaky, caffeinated look).”

I’m really good with whole grain toast (mmm) for our breakfast interview today, though I must always put a pot of regular coffee on for myself.

I thank Deborah for visiting. Let’s get to it.

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Deborah: Author/illustrator.

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


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

Deborah: Watercolor and pencil or ink, often with an assist from Photoshop.

Opening endpages for Blue Chicken
(Click to enlarge)

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Deborah: New Haven, CT.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird; read the Wallace Stevens poem here

The Astonishing Flight of the Gump; L. Frank Baum’s The Marvelous Land of Oz
(Click to enlarge)

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

Deborah: I was actually trained to be an architect, but stopped working full-time and started tinkering with children’s books after I had babies – it seemed like the perfect way to bring the different loves of my life (my family, art & design) together. My first books were little, hand-made, personal ones for my girls; it was several years before I got serious about writing and illustrating, and more years again before I was brave enough to send my illustrations around. I eventually sold my first book, Scribble, to an editor at Knopf after she saw my artwork on display at the midwinter SCBWI conference in NY in 2005.


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.

Deborah: I occasionally pretend to be an extrovert and do school visits, sometimes just to read and scribble, and other times for full-blown presentations. Then I take children through my process, draw, and tell stories (like, one about the time my sister made me so angry that I poured ketchup on her head -– if you’ve read Scribble, you might see how that’s relevant!). I love mixing with kids -– they always teach me something. My favorite question of all time is “are you ever afraid to draw?” (Answer: “Yes!”)

Here are some Scribble-inspired drawings that children did after my visit to New Haven Reads:

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

Deborah: I’m working with Viking on a book about a fish. I am torturing a hapless fish.

“Visiting Pooh in NY in 1999, with my daughters, Lucie and Emma”

Mmm. Coffee.The toast is out, not to mention a pot of decaf for Deborah and a pot of regular for me, and the table’s set now for seven questions over breakfast. Let’s get a bit more detailed, and I thank Deborah 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?

Deborah: My “process” involves ridiculous amounts of time staring into space, chasing an awful lot of ideas to nowhere, and falling in and out of love. I sure wish I had something less disorderly and unpredictable to plug into; it would make my writing life a lot easier! For a real look at my messy process, read Blue Chicken -– it’s semi-autobiographical. I’m both the artist and the chicken.

Dummy submitted for Scribble

“Scribble wondered what a princess was, and he wondered what beautiful was,
and Lucie wondered what he was wondering.”

“And so she followed, through acres of one color… into another,
which was the color of EMMA’S PICTURE.

Spreads from Scribble

Once I have an idea that feels promising enough to pursue as a book, I dedicate a sketchbook to it and do tons of doodling and making notes, writing snippets of text, writing with pictures. That’s the fun part, when the book is still mostly in my head and full of potential, absolutely brilliant!

A couple of several Blue Chicken sketchbooks
(Click to enlarge)

Early storyboard, “out of around a gajillion,” for Blue Chicken
(Click to enlarge)

Sample for Blue Chicken submission
(Click to enlarge)

Construction drawing for Blue Chicken

Final for Blue Chicken
(Click to enlarge)

Sculpy white chicken

“A moo wakes the chickens. They’re peevish and blue. They dump the red wheelbarrow, dropping that chicken who just wanted to . . .”
(Click to enlarge)

“Maybe the chicken / can undo the blue?”
(Click to enlarge)

“Except for the sky.”

Rough sketches, followed by final spreads, for Blue Chicken
(Click each to enlarge)

By the time I get to the end of a book, I can hardly stand it anymore, and it can take me a while to get over feeling that it isn’t the most hackneyed, inept piece of @%#! ever created. At this point I really, especially, thank goodness for the traditional publishing process and a super editorial and design team. Turning in a book is a little like sending a difficult teen off to college: I love you! It’s been great! See you when you are all grown up!

Lastly, the one major thing that I have to add about process is that throughout, and always, I read and look at art. Perhaps it’s partly my background in art history and architecture that have given me such huge respect for precedent, but I always begin with the assumption that whatever I’m trying to do has been done before in some way or another and that if I can find the right examples, they will give me some guidance. Then, once my books are out in the world, I like to think of them as small, shy things, trying to enter a conversation with the big kids.

(Click to enlarge spread)

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

Deborah: I’m sort of spread out all over the place, although I do have a tiny, finished-attic, under-a-dormer studio to escape to — with a door that closes, where I do my final drawing and painting.

My favorite writing spot in the summer:

My studio:

(Click to enlarge)

“My other work place”

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

Deborah: My mom used to take my brother and sister and me to the library regularly, where we checked out the same books over and over again, like The Little House, The Snowy Day, The Nutshell Library… but the picture books that meant the most to all of us—and that surely influenced me the most—were those written by our Aunt Mary Ann (Hoberman) and illustrated by Uncle Norman: All My Shoes Come in Twos, Hello and Good-by, How Do I Go?, and our favorite, What Jim Knew. As an independent reader, I was obsessed with the Little House books and their Garth Williams illustrations — and the world within a world of The Doll’s House by Rumer Godden.

Just a few of my books:

4. Jules: If you could have three authors or illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Deborah: Such a small party! Well, if I’m only allowed three, then Maira Kalman, Remy Charlip, and Maurice Sendak for mint juleps—if that’s okay—out in the garden.

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?

Deborah: I need complete silence to overthink. But for cranking out artwork, here’s my Blue Chicken album playlist: Kind of Blue, Miles Davis; Bluebird, Charlie Parker & Miles Davis; “Blue Train,” John Coltrane; “No More Blues,” Antônio Carlos Jobim.

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

Deborah: People who have never been to my very colorful house may not know that my husband, Ben, is my creative partner and first critic, who has inspired me ever since we met in architecture school twenty-nine years ago.

{The image opening this post is} me by our back door — the addition to our 1928 house, designed by Ben.

“Look! No. More. BLUE!
(Click to enlarge)

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

Deborah: Would you like to stay on and book-talk over supper? We are serving beautiful soup, and all nine kinds of dark chocolate that you like best.

Yes, thank you. I would like that very much.

“in Just- / spring when the world is mud- / luscious the little / lame balloonman / whistles far and wee…”; “[in Just-]” by E. E. Cummings

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

With a tip of the hat to the brilliant Shaun Tan, I’m going to let my chicken take these questions:

* * * * * * *

Spreads from BLUE CHICKEN are © 2011 by Deborah Freedman. Published by Viking, New York, NY.

Spreads from SCRIBBLE are © 2007 by Deborah Freedman. Published by Knopf, New York, NY.

All other artwork and images used with permission of Deborah Freedman. All rights reserved.

Alfred is © 2009 Matt Phelan.

29 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast
with Deborah Freedman”

  1. Love the pivot questionnaire. Very fun! Especially the zombie chicken and fairy chicken.

    And that house/work space is AWESOME.

  2. What a delight. This has made my WEEK!

    Big fan of 7 Impossible Things, now a big fan of Deborah Freedman.

    Thank you both.

  3. Oh, okay.
    I know now what I need to do. I need to become this woman’s paintbox. So I can live in that house… WOW. I love that color – no wonder the art … well, I’d say it flows, but she sounds like she and I would be kindred spirits, what with the overthinking and stressing going on.

    I LOVE that Scribble kitty.

    This whole posts – the watercolors! The Sculpey! The colors! – just makes me happy. And that Pivot thing is THE BEST, EVER.


  4. Have been a fan of hers since 2007, when I picked up a copy of Scribble. Thanks to you both for this post!

  5. I LOVE the illustrated answers to the questionnaire! Such an expressive little chicken. These Seven Questions Over Breakfast posts are my favorite posts on this site!

  6. Wow I don’t know if I can wait for my order with the Blue Chicken to arrive. 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast and this Deborah Freedman are definitely one of my 7 best things about this week.

  7. Thanks for a thoughtful, joyful piece! I love the rainbow house and the illustrated answers to the questionnaire!!!

  8. Wow! What a house! And I love the behind the scenes look at her process and workin’ space. THANKS!

  9. So wonderful. I am also a former architect who turned to art and words when my babies came along, and I can very much relate to Deborah’s (fortuitous) career shift! Her work is so joyful and lovely. Thank you for sharing!

  10. Aw, thanks for the lovely comments, all.

    And thanks for breakfast, Jules!

  11. Debbie,

    Thank you so much for sharing the design process for Blue Chicken. Your sketches, thumbnails, and final illustrations are all wonderful!

    I love the fact that you illustrated the answers to the pivot questionnaire!

    I am an architect too, and I couldn’t help noticing the marvelous and playful design in your house.

  12. How very interesting to learn how such a beautiful and wonderful book as “Blue Chicken” came to be! Thank you for this interview, 7 Imp and Deborah Freedman!

  13. Friend of her sister in law, Laurie. Laurie gave my daughter Scribble as a Big Sister gift. Can’t wait to get Blue Chicken.

  14. This interview is pure joy, and Deborah Freedman is flat-out brilliant. How cool, too, to find out she’s related to one of my favorite children’s book writers! Thanks so much for this.

  15. “She had me at the opening end pages…”

    Chicken, that’s my least favorite word too.

  16. Ah! How gratifying and wondrous to feast my eyes on this breathtakingly drawn chicken story, from the very Freedman who lives in the colorful chicken house created by my other favorite bird-invoker, Ben!

    As fetchingly scratching as any orange claw on amber earth!

  17. Oh, her beautiful house! And the Pivot Questionnaire! Loved this intereview.

  18. Oh, my! This interview made me laugh and made me smile and made me think. I LOVE Deborah Freedman and her books, and this captured everything that’s good in the whole world. LOVE the Pivot interview! (The chicken and I definitely agree on our least favorite sound.) This is great. Going right now to link to this on facebook! Everyone should read this.

  19. “Yes, we will honor your connecticut library card here.” I loved the entire article, but this most of all. Here’s to the Blue Chicken, and all the children who will discover her in libraries everywhere. Thanks so much for this great piece!

  20. Why aren’t all interviews like this? I guess some of us still like the pictures as much as the text. All that wonderful color and the cute animals. Who says we have to grow up and be buried in columns of gray letters? Hooray for Debbie and for Ben and the amazing array of talent and generosity they share with the world.

  21. I’ve just discovered both Deborah Freedman and this blog! What jewels (no pun intended) they each are! Thank you so much for doing the interview, Jules. And Debbie, thank YOU for charming the world (and for doing something to engage a poem I’ve always been been skeptically intrigued by)
    I can’t wait to get a copy of Blue Chicken.

  22. Thank you so much for the comments, everyone. This interview was so much fun to do, and just keeps on giving in the most wonderful way!

    And Brandie, Jules surely is a jewel, isn’t she?!

  23. […] An interview with Deborah here […]

  24. […] Deborah Freedman (November 15, 2011): “[T]he one major thing that I have to add about process is that throughout, and always, I […]

  25. This just makes me fall in love with children’s books all over again. Thanks for sharing!

  26. Pure joy! That’s what I have to say to try to sum up how this interview made me feel. Thank you, Deborah and Jules 😀

  27. This book is dear to me in so many ways. My husband is an architect turned filmmaker and it reminds me so much of the way he draws. And we painted our 1926 house with a couple of paintbrushes on a “perfect day for painting the barn”! 🙂 But more than anything, as a teacher, this book inspires my suburban preschoolers a love of painting silliness! And the chicken staring into the paint jar- I need a print of it to hang in my office. It’s the most adorable thing I have ever seen!

  28. I love Blue Chicken!

  29. […] about Elaine Magliaro’s Things to Do, illustrated by Catia Chien (Chronicle, February 2017); Deborah Freedman’s This House, Once (Atheneum, February 2017); and Kevin Henkes’ Egg (Greenwillow, January […]

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