Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Erin Stead

h1 February 21st, 2012 by jules

This isn’t the first time illustrator Erin Stead has visited 7-Imp. About a year prior to the release of her Caldecott-winning A Sick Day for Amos McGree, written by Philip C. Stead (who happens to be her husband), she visited to share some early art and the tools she used to make the illustrations for the book. I have to say, when it won the 2011 Caldecott, you would have heard me screaming, had you been standing outside my home (yeah, I screamed that loudly in happiness and enthusiasm, but wait … why are you standing outside my home?), because back then, in 2009, my smart readers (who possess such good taste) and I all recognized it as the special picture book that it is. (To boot, she visited again in 2010, the year the book was actually released, to share even more.)


“or maybe it was the bears and all that stomping, / because bears can’t read signs / that say things like / ‘please do not stomp here— /
there are seeds / and they are trying’ “

(Click to enlarge)

and a wish for rainThis month saw the release of Erin’s second illustrated title, written with tremendous grace by author and poet Julie Fogliano. It’s called and then it’s spring (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook), and it’s Fogliano’s debut book. Trying to summarize it doesn’t really do it justice, I find, since it’s a poem of a picture book. But, if I must, I’ll say it’s about a young boy and his dog, who simply plant a garden. But the heart of the story is about the wait—and even the worry—that comes along with such endeavors in life. “A tender story of anticipation” is how the publisher likes to put it, but … well, yes. That nails it. Pictured above is, arguably (it’s hard to pick), my favorite spread from the book. (The spread itself, as pictured there, is sans text.)

“In an understated and intimate partnership,” writes Publishers Weekly, “Fogliano and Stead conjure late winter doldrums and the relief of spring’s arrival, well worth the wait.” Kirkus’ starred review (well-worth reading, so I link to it there) notes, “Many treasures lie buried within this endearing story, in which humor and anxious anticipation sprout alongside one another.” Indeed, it’s wonderful to see more artwork from Erin, and I also really look forward to what Julie brings readers next.


“and then it rains”
(Click to enlarge)

So, since I really adore this book, I’m happy that Erin is having breakfast with me so that you can get a peek inside. However, the other reason I’m pleased she’s visiting is because she gives readers a glimpse at her career thus far (not just a glimpse at one title) and also gives us a sneak-peek into what’s next. (That general overview is something I try my best anyway to get out of interviewees in these “breakfast” interviews.) And what’s next looks really good, too.

I could tell you the many things I like about Erin’s illustrations, but I’ll let her artwork speak for itself. She shares great images today, and for that I thank her. I’ll add quickly here that, when the 2011 Caldecott Medal Committee described Amos, they used the word “endearing,” which probably hits on my favorite thing about her illustrations. In particular, they meant the “endearing, expressive characterization” in Amos. How someone can get such delicacy out of woodblock prints still amazes and impresses me.

As for breakfast, well … lucky me. I’ve been invited to Michigan! “Anything served at the Northside in Ann Arbor” is on the menu today, according to Erin. See up above at the very top of the post? She’s pictured there, and we’re all chowin’ down. “If you ask the locals,” she told me, “most will have a very firm opinion about which breakfast place to frequent in this college town, but my heart belongs to the Northside. On this very morning, we are all sitting together in a booth. Phil and I went a year after Mr. McGee’s Caldecott was announced.”

Excellent. I’ve ordered my coffee, and we’re ready to go. I thank Erin for visiting. Let’s get the basics before our seven questions over breakfast …

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Erin: Illustrator.

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

Erin: A Sick Day for Amos McGee By Philip C. Stead, and then it’s spring by Julie Fogliano. To be released in the near future — Bear Has a Story to Tell by Philip C. Stead (September 4th, 2012) and if you want to see a whale by Julie Fogliano (Spring 2013).


(Click to enlarge)


(Click to enlarge)

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

Erin: My first two books are illustrated with woodblock printing and pencil. Bear Has a Story to Tell was illustrated with crushed dry pastels and pencil. If you want to see a whale is illustrated with linoleum printing and pencil.

The moral of the story is that I think I am a pencil drawer, who fools around with applying color.


(Click to enlarge)


“Every day Amos waited for the number five bus. ‘Next stop, City Zoo,’
the bus driver would call. ’6 a.m. Right on time,’ he’d reply.”

(Click to enlarge)


“then there are seeds”
(Click to enlarge)

Jules: 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?

Erin: Obviously, I don’t have a lot of books under my belt just yet, so I can’t say I’ve illustrated early readers vs. picture books. However, I can tell you that I think picture books can span such an age range that my approach to illustration can shift from one book to another. Julie Fogliano is a poet, so her texts can have an abstractness that I can try to clarify in the pictures, like in and then it’s spring. In her book that I am working on now, however, I see the audience as being slightly older and a little more independent. In that case, I’ve tried to keep some of the abstract, imaginary quality in the pictures.

I have no idea if that makes any sense.


(Click to enlarge)

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Erin: I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in a barn that happens to be downtown somehow.


(Photo credit: Nicole Haley; click to enlarge)

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

Erin: Briefly. I moved to New York to study illustration and painting. I got a part-time job at Books of Wonder on 18th Street. I worked with (amongst other very talented people who love books)…

Nick Bruel, who (a few years after I got that part time job) was first published with Roaring Brook Press. He then suggested his editor, Neal Porter, meet Jason Chin and George O’Connor. George passed along someone’s artwork to Neal. That person’s artwork was Philip C. Stead’s. (By this time, he was my husband.) Then George and Phil and Neal all conspired to get me to muster up the courage to illustrate a book. Then, after illustrating a book, I told Neal about my former assistant manager, Julie Fogliano, who was a writer, but, much like me, lacked some courage. Julie wrote my second book, and then it’s spring.

I have good friends.


From Philip C. Stead’s Bear Has a Story to Tell:
“Bear dug a frog-sized hole between two evergreens. Then he tucked Frog in under a blanket of leaves and pine needles. ‘Thank you, Bear,’ said Frog. ‘I will see you in the spring.’ Bear leaned against the old oak tree. He stretched, and yawned, and scratched at his belly. ‘I wonder if Mole is awake?’ he thought.”

(Click to enlarge)

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

Erin: erinstead.com.

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

Erin: Oh, shoot — I’ve already answered that. Please see above.

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, the coffee’s on the table, and it’s time to get a bit more detailed with seven questions over breakfast. I thank Erin 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?

Erin: I’ve worked with two writers, both of whom I know very well and I am free to share my opinions or ideas with. I know this is not the way it works most of the time. People are often surprised when they hear that authors and illustrators rarely, if ever, communicate or meet. I think there is merit to that process, so I am definitely not saying my way is better.



“an is that a little green?
(Click to enlarge)

When I work with Philip, I usually get a very vague “I have a story idea for you” and then he disappears for a while. I try not to ask him any questions during this time, because I know a lot of ideas can lead to nothing, and the ones that stick around are often hard to describe until you’ve properly found them. Eventually, I see a first draft handwritten on a legal pad. At that point, I stick my nose in his business and we talk through the idea. (For example, “checkers would be hard for an elephant to pick up, and I would do a bad job illustrating that. Can he play chess?” Notice I have only demonstrated a good idea from myself, not the eight billion bad ideas I have.) Then, I leave him alone again.

At this point, though, I have been introduced to the characters, so I start thinking about who they are, and how they move, and where they live. I do not sketch that much. I think a lot. It seems silly to type that, but that is the honest answer. I walk the dog, I bake, I don’t do a lot of talking. I take my time with this part, and I think it makes Phil worry I will never draw again.

Eventually, I do draw the characters and I get a tighter manuscript from Phil. At that point I lay out the book, Phil and I talk about format and design, and we pay very close attention to page turns and pacing. The manuscript changes again. I make a hand-made dummy. This can be tight or loose, depending on how I am making the book or what I think the story needs from me. Then I’m off. I’ll make my first “final illustration,” which almost 100% of the time does not end up in the book. Phil is usually working on his own story and art at this point, so we start into our routine of working at our desks, but peeking at what the other one is working on often.


(Click to enlarge)

When I work on Julie’s books, I get her poem in an email. Once again, I don’t run straight to my drawing table. I read her poem over and over again and pay close attention to its rhythm. Eventually, I memorize it and, once again, do most of my prep work on walks with the dog. For an illustrator, her work is a beautiful, difficult problem. Her manuscripts offer so much freedom. They don’t traditionally offer up characters or setting. I recently told my editor that I feel like I have to go off into a dark wood and find her books.


“Notice I am sketching on throw-away prints from Amos…”
(Click to enlarge)


(Click to enlarge)


(Click to enlarge)

Every story I’ve been able to illustrate so far (from Philip or Julie) has brought with it its own needs. Mostly, my process tries to do the text justice. Format, illustration technique, pacing all comes from trying to respect the text and characters.

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

Erin: Phil and I live and work in a renovated barn. We live upstairs and work on the ground floor. It is a large open room that faces the train station, so we get to see people come and go all day.


(Click to enlarge)


(Click to enlarge)


(Click to enlarge)


(Click to enlarge)


(Click to enlarge)


“…a new rug in the studio that our friend, illustrator Ian Nagy, designed.”
(Click to enlarge)

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

Erin: My mom was really good at picking out picture books, and she never really took the good ones off the shelf, no matter how old I got. (Thanks, Mom.) She still has the special Christmas ones in her basement. This response could get very long, so I will try to be concise and I will also try to stay within picture books, but will fail. James Thurber (Many Moons, The 13 Clocks), Marc Simont, Tomi dePaola (Strega Nona and The Clown of God), Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (Often “I think I’ll move to Australia” crosses my mind), Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are was the first book I read aloud to my classmates, which I still have a vivid memory of as a 5-year-old), Shel Silverstein, Roald Dahl.

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? (If they’re deceased, I won’t tell.)

Erin: I have been very lucky, because when I worked in a children’s bookstore, I was able to meet a great deal of authors and illustrators. I’m still surprised that I was lucky enough to meet William Steig. (Sidenote — he wrote the best Caldecott speech ever written. Jules herself sent it to me.) After the year I just had, I was able to meet even more people I admire.

The other problematic thing about this question is that I get very nervous meeting people. I’d be happy just drinking coffee quietly in the same room with Marc Simont, Carll Cneut, Quentin Blake, Alice Provensen, Shaun Tan. I cheated. That is more than three.




“no, it’s just brown sort of brown
(Click to enlarge)

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?

Erin: Well! I share a studio. This is a topic that is often discussed. I listen to music when I draw, but depending on what part of the book I am making, that music can vary wildly. If I am in the very tenuous beginnings of a book, I often can only listen to very specific things, usually wordless, often on repeat, and through noise-cancelling headphones, so Phil doesn’t go bonkers. In the summer, we work almost exclusively to Detroit Tigers baseball on the radio.

Lately, though, I have been listening to a lot of Sufjan Stevens, The Penguin Café Orchestra, Otis Redding, and Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears. I am a week away from a tough deadline and a few events. Professionally and personally, it has been a pretty high stress environment in the Stead house. If we’re going to be totally honest with you, we have been playing a lot of sitcoms in the studio lately to keep the stress levels down. It’s a wacky method that has worked for us during the immensely busy times. This week, it’s been Frasier. Don’t tell anyone about this. I think we want to seem smart.


“and the brown, / still brown, / has a greenish hum / that you can only hear /
if you put your ear to the ground / and close your eyes”

(Click to enlarge)

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

Erin: I am a huge college basketball fan. I am a season-ticket holder to the University of Michigan men’s basketball games. It started as something that I enjoyed and now has really grown into true love. My friends all think this is really funny.

Spring, summer, and fall are dedicated to Tigers baseball. That is an older love of mine.


(Click to enlarge)

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

Erin: This interview and your blog actually negate the point I am about to make, but here goes. I’ve been asked about books that I liked as a kid or illustrators from the past that have inspired me, but I am rarely asked about books, writers, or illustrators that are new on the scene or currently awe-inspiring. I think that’s one of the reasons Phil and I keep a Phildecott and Steadbery list going all year. Currently, I think Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett is such a well-written story (and I don’t think writing in picture books is discussed nearly enough). I’ve also left Matthew Cordell’s Another Brother on my coffee table to cheer me up in the last few weeks. That book is well-crafted.


* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Erin: “Wednesday.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Erin: “E-book.”

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

Erin: Walking in the woods, quiet, the Great Lakes, big cities, old buildings.



(Click each image to enlarge)

Jules: What turns you off?

Erin: Parties.

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

Erin: “Bullshit.” “Hot damn.” (Phil used to say that a lot when we first started dating, so I’ve always had some affection for it.)

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Erin: Train whistle, horse nickering, birds, Tigers baseball on the radio.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Erin: Adult cocktail-party laughing.

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

Erin: If we’re speaking in fantasy terms here, I’d like to own an animal rescue farm with horses and dogs.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Erin: Newt Gingrich’s secretary.

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

Erin: “Your dogs are around the corner. Go sit down and turn on the radio—it’s a doubleheader. Here’s your coffee.”


(Click to enlarge)

* * * * * * *

All artwork and images used with permission of Erin Stead. Some are courtesy of Nicole Haley. All rights reserved.

AND THEN IT’S SPRING. Copyright © 2012 by Julie Fogliano. Illustrations © 2012 by Erin Stead. Published by Neal Porter/Roaring Brook Press, New York.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman—who normally introduces the Pivot Questionnaire but didn’t quite fit up there this morning, on account of the obscenely adorable Wednesday, so I’ll put him right here instead—is Alfred, © 2009 Matt Phelan.

NOTE: I would be remiss if I didn’t share the trailer here for and then it’s spring, since Phil Stead composed and performed the music on it. Enjoy.

One final note: If you missed this December 2011 interview with Erin and Jerry Pinkney over at the always-wonderful 100 Scope Notes, why then, shoo … Go read! It’s well-worth your time.

Share!Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on Tumblr




35 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Erin Stead”

  1. Those cups o’ colors made me so incredibly happy.


  2. Oh, the perfection of that book trailer, too. EVERYTHING was perfect, down to the tweety birds. Lovely.

    And I think the barn in downtown is hilarious!

    The best line? “I have got good friends.” Indeed.


  3. very inspiring interview!


  4. What a glorious way to begin a day! This interview is wonderful. Erin Stead’s books–treasures every one.


  5. So….great. This is a really charming interview.


  6. Erin Stead’s art is so gentle and inviting. I just picked up and then it’s spring the other day because of the illustrations and Amos McGee did not leave my son’s side for weeks after we bought it last year. A great interview this morning!


  7. Erin Stead’s personality, from this interview, is so much like her lovely illustrations. Soft, animal lover, somewhat introverted. . What a joy to take a peek into her life. Thank you Jules…and thank you Erin.
    And especially thank you for the peek into how Erin works. Such a wonderful treat to see.


  8. Lovely interview! Hooray for Marc Simont, James Thurber, Louis Slobodkin (whom I met when I was four, and have a signed book to prove it, now mostly in tatters). Hooray for Erin and Philip Stead! Hooray for dogs, and boo to cocktail parties and Newt. Thanks!


  9. I’m a huge fan of Erin Stead’s artwork. I can’t wait to see And Then It’s Spring. I may have to go to the bookstore today- it’s available already right? Thanks for another great interview Jules!


  10. It was released on Valentine’s Day, Jill.


  11. Comprehensive and so many good quotes. Thanks, Jules.
    Also, those post of pastels make me want to create something.


  12. Wonderful interview and insights into the brilliance of Stead Inc. Congrats on another beautiful book, Erin!


  13. 1. Now I want breakfast.

    2. I totally predicted A Sick Day for Amos McGee winning the Caldecott.

    3. Crushed dry pastels? Linoleum printing? Can this illustrator get even more mind-blowing?!

    4. What the – Can I work at Books of Wonder too?

    5. Thank you so much for all of this new information and insight into the creative process, Jules and Erin!


  14. I love this one! Erin’s illustrations are very charming, and I am super jealous of her house! (She basically has my dream house) Thanks for sharing all of the photos and details!


  15. Such a wonderful interview. Also, that rug is pretty much the greatest thing. Ever.


  16. Ahhh, Ann Arbor. I hope you had lunch at Zingerman’s. I love Amos McGee and can’t wait to see her latest book.


  17. I thought she had me at Amos but it’s possible I’ve fallen more deeply in love! What a fabulous interview and the illustrations are just to die for! Thanks as always for sharing such wonderful stuff….


  18. Well, that was just about perfect. I knew a lot about Erin, but knowing that she loves baseball was the frosting on the cake.
    When I was a little girl, we lived in Missouri as my father trained for his tour in VietNam. It was 1968 and everyone in the area, except my sister’s teacher and our family, was for the Cardinals. We were for the Tigers. When they won, we had a cookout with that teacher. I have loved baseball ever since, especially hearing baseball on the radio.
    I am particularly excited to hear about the new Philip and Erin book!
    I hope that French toast was yummy.
    Excellent interview, Jules.


  19. Great interview,! I like her process, especially the walks in the woods and letting things sink in part of it. What a beautiful home they have – that studio space is terrific!

    I adore the earnestness of the sympathteic animals in the illustrations in “and then its spring.” That ones next up on my “To Buy” list, for sure!


  20. PS – Wednesday – what a face!!!


  21. Thanks for this special treat. I so look forward to “And then it’s Spring” . Hugs all around.


  22. Can’t wait to own all of these books (except Amos, already got that one!) Thanks for a great interview.


  23. Awesome, awesome, awesome. And awesome too.


  24. That was an amazing, awesome, informative interview. Go Wolverines! (UofM alumni)
    Just read “and then it’s Spring”, beautiful book in text and pictures. Will have to read the other books now.
    Thanks for sharing Erin!


  25. We just got our for-real copy of And Then It’s Spring in at the library yesterday, and Jason and I read it through and then spent a lot of time going back through the illustrations. Lovely. Already on my Favorites of the Year list.


  26. finally able to take time to read this…Such a great interview, Jules and Erin!! And seeing your work space reeeally makes me want to move out of nyc! What a gorgeous space you and Philip have! Loving your new book, and the sneak peaks of Bear Has a Story to Tell look FANTASTIC. Thanks for sharing :)


  27. [...] Bear Has a Story to Tell (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook), written by Philip C. Stead and illustrated by Erin E. Stead, I couldn’t resist the urge to go ahead and post about it today. It will be released [...]


  28. [...] trees. Bits and bops of crushed dry pastels and pencil (read more about her artistic techniques here) let the reader know the seasons are changing. Bear’s huge (but not scary) form, all hunched [...]


  29. [...] Erin E. Stead (February 21, 2012), pictured [...]


  30. [...] (Bonus: Don’t miss the conversation Travis Jonker hosted between Caldecott winners Chris Raschka and Erin E. Stead.) [...]


  31. [...] release the latest picture book from Julie Fogliano, if you want to see a whale, illustrated by Erin E. Stead. I’ve got a review over at BookPage, if you’re so inclined to read my thoughts. That is [...]


  32. [...] Julie Fogliano’s if you want to see a whale (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook Press), illustrated by Erin E. Stead, that took my breath away when I turned the page and first saw it. You should do yourself a favor [...]


  33. […] Mama Squirrel by David Ezra Stein; if you want to see a whale by Julie Fogliano and illustrated by Erin Stead; Bink & Gollie: Best Friends Forever by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee and illustrated by […]


  34. […] are the times when it’s helpful to have another bookmaker in the house. I turned to my wife, Erin, and said something like: I think my story is […]


  35. […] it in an all-new light. Here in Nashville, we celebrated the Southern Festival of Books. Philip and Erin Stead gave a great talk on Saturday, and Philip spoke lovingly at one point about this very page. And he […]


Leave a Comment