Seven Questions Over Afternoon Tea with Ashley Wolff

h1 August 2nd, 2012 by jules

“Baby Bear sees red.”
(Click to enlarge)

I have already posted this year (back in March) about Ashley Wolff’s beautiful Baby Bear Sees Blue, pictured above, which was released in February by Beach Lane Books and is a book you’ll see on several folks’ Caldecott prediction lists already.

Ashley, pictured left, is visiting today for what was supposed to be a breakfast interview, but I’ve changed it to afternoon tea, given that I’m posting later in the day. Her breakfast-of-choice had been tea with milk. (Then, after a daily dog walk on the hill, she has coffee around 10:00 a.m., some plain yogurt, almonds, and Kashi Go Lean, all mashed up together.) But I still say this can be our afternoon snack. All of it. Mmm. I’ll just sip some coffee, while she has her tea.

Ashley, as you can see below, has illustrated or both written and illustrated many titles in her career—she’s best-known for her illustrations for Joseph Slate’s Miss Bindergarten titles—and she’s worked in a variety of media. Publishers Weekly once described her illustrations as “sturdy” and “genially observed.” No matter what medium she’s using, her colorful spreads provide many details for little eyes; much like Baby Bear’s world in her latest title, there is much to explore and see in her artwork.

And, speaking of artwork, since she shares quite a bit of it below, let’s get right to it. I thank her for visiting today.

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Ashley: Illustrator/Author, in order of preference.

Photo credit: David Brooks
Photo credit: David Brooks

Ashley: “I walked 200 miles in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya to raise money for the Makindu Children’s Center, a care center for children orphaned by AIDS. We stopped at a marketplace in a small village, and I asked this elder in the orange cloak if I could draw his portrait. Negotiations were completed, and some cash changed hands. I provided entertainment for a great many for about 45 minutes, while I drew!
I was working in colored pencil.”

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


Books written and illustrated:

  • A Year of Birds (Dodd Mead), 1984
  • Only the Cat Saw (Dodd Mead), 1985
  • A Year of Beasts (E. P. Dutton), 1986
  • Come With Me (E. P. Dutton), 1990
  • Stella and Roy (E. P. Dutton), 1993
  • Stella and Roy Go Camping (Yosemite Association), 1999
  • Me Baby You Baby (E. P. Dutton), 2005
  • When Lucy Goes Out Walking (Henry Holt), 2009
  • I Call My Grandma Nana and I Call My Grandpa Papa (Tricycle Press), 2009
  • Baby Bear Sees Blue (Beach Lane Books), 2012

[Books illustrated]:

  • The Bells of London — Traditional rhyme (Dodd Mead), 1984
  • Block City by Robert Louis Stevenson (E. P. Dutton), 1988
  • Who is Coming to Our House? by Joseph Slate (Putnam), 1988
  • Baby Beluga by Raffi (Crown), 1990
  • I Love My Mommy Because and I Love My Daddy Because by Laurel Porter Gaylord (E. P. Dutton), 1991
  • A Garden Alphabet by Isabel Wilner (E. P. Dutton), 1991
  • Goody O’Grumpity by Carol Ryrie Brink (North South), 1994
  • How Chipmunk Got Tiny Feet by Gerald Hausman (HarperCollins), 1995
  • Little Donkey Close Your Eyes by Margaret Wise Brown (HarperCollins), 1995
  • Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten by Joseph Slate (E. P. Dutton), 1996
  • A String of Beads by Marguerette Reid (E. P. Dutton), 1997
  • Home Sweet Home by Jean Marzollo (HarperCollins), 1997
  • Miss Bindergarten Celebrates the 100th Day of Kindergarten by Joseph Slate (E. P. Dutton), 1998
  • Doctor Bird by Gerald Hausman (Philomel), 1998
  • Splish Splash by Sarah Weeks (HarperCollins), 1999
  • Some Things Go Together by Charlotte Zolotow (HarperCollins), 1999
  • Miss Bindergarten Stays Home From Kindergarten by Joseph Slate (E. P. Dutton), 2000
  • Each Living Thing by Joanne Ryder (Gulliver Books/Harcourt), 2000
  • Who Took the Cookies from the Cookie Jar? by Philemon Sturges/Bonnie Lass (Little Brown), 2000
  • Miss Bindergarten Takes a Field Trip with Kindergarten by Joseph Slate (E. P. Dutton), 2001
  • Old MacDonald Had a Woodshop by Lisa Shulman (Putnam), 2002
  • My Somebody Special by Sarah Weeks (Harcourt), 2002
  • Miss Bindergarten Plans a Circus with Kindergarten by Joseph Slate (E. P. Dutton), 2002
  • De Colores — Traditional (Little Brown), 2003
  • She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain by Philemon Sturges (Little Brown), 2004
  • Los Pollitos Dicen — Traditional (Little Brown), 2005
  • Home to Me, Home to You by Jennifer Ericsson (Little Brown), 2005
  • Miss Bindergarten Has a Wild Day in Kindergarten by Joseph Slate (E. P. Dutton), 2005
  • The Wild Little Horse by Rita Gray (E. P. Dutton), 2005
  • Miss Bindergarten Celebrates the Last Day of Kindergarten by Joseph Slate (E. P. Dutton), 2006
  • Mama’s Milk by Michael Ross (Tricycle Press), 2007
  • The Pen That Pa Built by David Edwards (Tricycle Press), 2007
  • The 12 Days of Christmas/A Pinata for the Pinon Tree by Philemon Sturges (Little Brown), 2007
  • Compost Stew by Mary McKenna Siddals (Tricycle/Random House), 2010

My most recent books are:



(Linoleum block print and watercolor)

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

Ashley: I have worked in linocut print with watercolor, straight-up watercolor, watercolor with pen and ink, pencil, brush line, as well as acrylic, gouache, and—most recently—collage. All, and none of them, are my favorite.

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?

Ashley: Almost all of my books have been for the youngest readers and, boy, do they have sharp eyes! I recall what I loved as a child and pay a great deal of attention to detail, because I know they are noticing everything. I try not to overload. I like quiet space, too.

I revel most in the details of nature but loved making a kindergarten classroom as true-to-life as I could.

For my books for older readers—like Doctor Bird and How Chipmunk Got Tiny Feet, both by Gerald Hausman—I found it a challenge to decide the most important moment(s) in the multi-page story to illustrate.

From “How Possum Found His Tail”; linocut and watercolor

From “How Horse Got Winged Feet”; linocut and watercolor

Illustrations from “How Doctor Bird Taught Mongoose a Lesson
That Mongoose Never Remembered”

From “How Doctor Bird Taught Mouse to Look Up When He Was Feeling Down”

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Ashley: In the winter, I can be found stompin’ around Bernal Heights (Hill), a southeastern hill neighborhood in San Francisco. I live on the west slope, so I can see Twin Peaks from my studio skylight.

Bernal Heights has one of the few open space parks on its upper slopes — with lots of hawks and gophers, dog walkers, and the occasional kite flyer.

[Pictured left is] my dog, Tula, on Bernal Hill, looking towards downtown San Francisco and the Bay Bridge.

“Bernal Hill in the spring, when all the native grasses start growing and
the wildflowers blossom…”

“This is a STEEP hill! When you stand on the north slope, as I am here,
you better not lose your balance.”

“Bernal Heights…my house is just offscreen to the right.”

In the early part of each summer, I teach a class called Picture Book Media at Hollins University’s Summer Certificate in Children’s Book Illustration.

The Hollins campus, near Roanoke, Virginia, is like a literary summer camp, with six weeks of classes and lectures and everybody talking children’s lit all day and night.

The red brick and white trim buildings are Southern grace personified, and beyond the acres of lawns the Appalachians rise up in all directions. I love taking pictures there, and while I have few of the campus proper, these capture the vibe:

“Easels in the art building where I teach”

“There are dozens of horses on campus, all penned by these crisp, white fences…”

“The spire of the Hollins chapel”

“A Hollins sunrise”

I grew up in Middlebury, Vermont, and my mom still lives there. This scene [below] of Jeannie’s Woods is quite close to my cabin on Lake Dunmore. It is a summer-only place that I rent out for most of the summer.

“Lake Dunmore at sunset”

“I have time for more work ‘for pleasure’ while in Vermont.
Jeannie’s Woods is done with gouache on paper.”

Fish and a Loon, gouache on wood, 2011

“On my rickety dock at Lake Dunmore, with my dog Lucy”

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

Ashley: Long, long ago, in a different publishing universe altogether, I met an editor at now defunct Dodd Mead. She suggested I write a story to go with her favorite portfolio sample. The scene was of a little girl kneeling in the snow, feeding handfuls of seed to a circle of birds. That book came to be called A Year of Birds (1984). It was my 1st and only ALA Notable book, but it opened the publishing door to me. I walked happily through and never looked back.

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.

Ashley: They are what keep me happy and in the business. Fresh faces, a darkened room, my own projector with keynote slideshow, finishing with an interactive story of multiple pages, starring the students as human/animals or “humanals.” I leave time for a brief Q & A, hugs, a few last questions — and then I get to go home. Their heroic teachers have to come back the next day and the next.

“Drawing for students in El Rito, New Mexico. Obviously, someone wanted to be a hammerhead shark, and I think I am trying to draw a lionfish
— but not sure what they look like!”

Students are always interested in who that black and white dog in my books is. I am able to tell them the back story about my dog Pumpkin, who became my alter ego long ago. Here she is in a variety of cards I made for my mother, made long before she became a character named Miss Bindergarten in 1996.

“I’m kind of obsessed with my border collies: first, Pumpkin; then, Lucy; now, Tula.”

I am always taken aback by the reaction of students when I show this photo [above] of my sons when they were little and posing for me. There are always a lot of gasps. I guess because they MIGHT be naked! They are, in fact, the models for Stella and Roy. I used artistic license and made Brennan into a girl, named Stella, and Rowan into a boy, named Roy.

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

Ashley: I do, and it does. The students I encounter bring me all the news from the country of Digital. I don’t want to move there, but I enjoy learning about the exotic customs practiced there. Students are usually so polite, but they can shine a light on my own ruts and faded habits just by being themselves!

(Click to enlarge)

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

Ashley: I am in dummy stage for a sequel to Baby Bear Sees Blue with Andrea Welch and Lauren Rille of Beach Lane Books. It’s called Baby Bear Counts One.

Above is a glimpse of the inked blocks laid out to dry on the floor after printing. The one with frogs has the text “Baby Bear counts 8.”

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

Ashley: I need to cook the story in my mind for quite a while — not really paying attention to it, but having it in the back of my mind. Then I can start noticing things that relate to it and thinking about it as I fall asleep.

I enjoy early thumbnails, playing with all sorts of approaches and ideas, but the dummy stage make me anxious. I hate the process of gradually closing doors, choosing directions, making final decisions — yuck!

Trout spread as work-in-progress from Baby Bear Sees Blue
(Click each to enlarge)

“Very early thumbnails” from Baby Bear Sees Blue
(Click each image to enlarge)

Once all that has been settled, no matter how unhappy I’ve been, I feel much better. Once a style has been chosen, the characters defined, a page design arrived at and all parties seem happy, the fun can begin.

While I’m working on finished art, I relax and submerge into the process. I have worked in many different mediums and styles throughout my career, so there are always some new challenges and techniques to try. I can listen to books on CD and hours pass without me noticing.

“Baby Bear sees brown.”
(Click to enlarge)

“Baby Bear sees red.”
(Click to enlarge)

“Baby Bear sees orange.”
(Click to enlarge)

“Mama and Baby Bear curl together. Baby Bear yawns. ‘Good night, Baby Bear,’
Mama says. ‘Good night, Mama,’ says Baby Bear.”

(Click to enlarge)

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

Ashley: I work up upstairs in a small bedroom. I have two drawing tables, 20 flat file drawers, 8 hanging file drawers, at least 1000 books, toys, and a dog bed for Tula. It is a tight squeeze. I usually have stacks of things leaning here and there and the usual (I hope I am not alone in this) pile of things I cannot throw away or decide to keep.

“Some of my books. I file by illustrator.”

“My bulletin board”

“Looking west through my skylight in the rain”

“Some of my toys — the rabbit and bears are from my childhood. The camel is in honor of a 200-mile walk I took in Kenya with 23 camels carrying our gear.”

“Tula in her bed”

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

Ashley: Top of the list is Harold and the Purple Crayon. I bet that is a fave with many artists my age — the ability to create your own world with nothing but a crayon. Wow!

For the story and art together, I can’t beat Robert McCloskey’s amazing line work, color, humor, and appreciation of nature.

I adored a book called [The Story of] Ophelia, illustrated by Evaline Ness. The heroine, a non-conformist lamb, has a life-threatening encounter with a fox and survives. This book is way scarier than anything published these days.

I loved the scary parts of Beatrix Potter’s books, like when Mr. Jeremy Fisher is eaten by a fish.

“My childhood copy. I have about 20 books like this, very well-loved.”

Barbara Cooney, Bill Peet, Peter Spier, Marc Simont, and Ludwig Bemelmans are great heroes.

When I was a child, my mom collected all the Bemelmans-books. She was a huge fan of his art and won a large gouache and oil painting called The Gold of Naples by creating a contest-winning window display for the Vermont Bookshop in Middlebury, VT. It hangs over her mantel today.

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

Ashley: What? Only three?

This is so hard, but after much mulling: Roxie Munro, who has such an extraordinary eye for detail and is from NYC; Reg Cartright, who paints the most moody, evocative, yet solidly-rounded people and animals and is from Leicestershire, UK; and Jane Ray, who is also from England and whose every picture makes me happy.

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?

Ashley: When I am drawing and painting, I really prefer to listen to NPR or books on CD while I work. I love music when I am cooking or cleaning, and I favor women with gorgeous, tough voices, like Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and Paula West.

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

Ashley: I lost both of my front teeth in childhood accidents — the left one was badly chipped when I hit the bottom of a swimming pool, diving in, and the right one was knocked out when the baseball thrown to me flew right between my hands and into my mouth. I am still friends with the boy who threw the ball. I now have two lovely porcelain caps, and I smile all the time!

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Ashley: “Cuddle.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Ashley: “Fundamentalism.”

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

Ashley: Variety, fun, sunlight.

Jules: What turns you off?

Ashley: Discord and monotony.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Ashley: “Jeezum Crow!”

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Ashley: Rain on the roof at night.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Ashley: Motorcycles without mufflers.

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

Ashley: Theatre director.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Ashley: Meter maid.

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

Ashley: “Did you bring your paints? The light is perfect!”

* * * * * * *

Photos of Ashley in Kenya are by David Brooks.

BABY BEAR SEES BLUE. Copyright © 2012 by Ashley Wolff. Published by Beach Lane Books, New York. All images from Baby Bear Sees Blue are re-posted here from this March 2012 7-Imp post.

All artwork and images used with permission of Ashley Wolff.

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

17 comments to “Seven Questions Over Afternoon Tea with Ashley Wolff”

  1. This is a trip through wonderland…true passion for life and all things living is on every page. Thanks, Ashley. You’re the best!!!

  2. Wonderful post! I love BABY BEAR SEES BLUE!

  3. Wonderful interview, thanks! Ashley’s work is a knockout.

  4. I love Baby Bear, of course, and have been using it in storytimes, but Old MacDonald Had a Woodshop is a longtime favorite of mine–great illustrations, and it’s so fun to make all those tool noises.

  5. Great interview, and such gorgeous work! Yay for Ashley!

  6. Adrienne: One of my favorites, too. The girls and I read it repeatedly when they were young, they loved it, and how often do you see *good* picture books about tools?

  7. What a great interview! Loved all your photos, Ashley! It’s been great getting to know you better. Enjoy the rest of your summer!

  8. I’m a huge admirer of Ashley Wolff. Her work is so full of warmth and vitality. Her pictures always make me feel glad to be alive. As this interview shows, she’s a person who knows who she is and who has stayed true to herself. Thanks for all the wonderful books and for the many more that I’m sure are to come.

  9. GREAT post, Jules! I love it. I wish, so much, I’d been able to be at Hollins this summer when Ashley was there! I was breathing green envy all summer (Nancy Willard and Paul Zelinsky also made appearances this summer… be still my beating heart). But that description of Hollins as a literary summer camp is perfect. Can’t wait to check out more of AW’s books!

  10. This is an amazing interview, Jules. The depth of art shown and the little details of Ashely’s work and life, well I am smitten. I’ve added some to my list. Thanks so much.

  11. Thank you so much for inviting me to tea, Jules. It was a delightful date and you are a charmingly skilled conversationalist. Next time, we’ll have coffee at Martha Brothers in Bernal Heights, okay?

  12. Ashley: Deal!

    Thanks for visiting, everyone.

  13. Jeezum Crow!!! Loved this whole interview. Especially the dog lying about, the life to art connections, the vintage books, the view of Bernal Heights, the everything. Wow.
    Thanks from one who once lived in the shadow of Twin Peaks.

  14. Thanks for the shout-out, Ashley! What a great and enlightening interview. And what great work. I remember so well when Donna Brooks bought your first book, and how stunning, cool, strong, and different it was.

  15. Fabulous interview of an unbelievably talented illustrator. I have loved Ashley’s work since I first saw it in “Block City.” Just great!!

  16. What fun to see this interview!! Ashley illustrated my two books back in 1991 and they’re still selling! (I Love My Daddy Because and I Love My Mommy Because.)

    We’ve never met, but now I feel I know her a little more.
    A wonderful interview of a wonderful illustrator and human being 🙂

    Laurel Porter-Gaylord

  17. […] Ashley Wolff (August 2, 2012), pictured left, on teaching: “The students I encounter bring me all the news from the […]

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