Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Olivier Dunrea

h1 February 18th, 2013 by jules

There are certain children’s books I hold dear as a parent, ones that are closely associated with my own daughters’ preschool years. Olivier Dunrea’s children’s books are among them, particularly his international bestselling series of books for very young children, the Gossie & Friends series, books which have been translated into more than twenty-five languages. My children delighted in these stories, which began in 2002, and I never tired of reading them as a parent. The series is very near completion. When finished, “there will be a gaggle of thirteen diverse and spirited goslings,” says Olivier, who has been making children’s books since 1982 and who is pictured here with Gabe. These small, square books are full of stories sweet, but never saccharine, unassuming, and pleasingly offbeat. “Dunrea’s tales are simply wrought and rendered,” Kirkus has written, “with the ink and watercolor illustrations capturing the quaint, whimsical charm of the stories. Situated against stark white backgrounds, the bright-hued vignettes communicate an abundance of expression in a few deft strokes.”

And that right there nails it for me: the simplicity of these tales, which get right to the humor and spunk of preschoolers, all laid out with such grace and with what looks like such little effort. (Undoubtedly, it takes a great deal of work.) The clean, uncluttered artwork, the bright primary hues, the assured lines, and the engaging, entertaining story lines appeal directly to very young children. “Gossie’s rural world is reassuringly child-sized, clear, and contained,” writes School Library Journal. Dunrea’s work in these books, both the writing and the artwork, could be a case study, I dare say, for those illustrators setting out to successfully create books for preschool-aged children. Or, as Publishers Weekly once wrote, “With diminutive heroes who assert a budding independence, these tales demonstrate once again how well their creator knows his audience.” Next month will see the release of the latest in the series, Jasper & Joop (Houghton Mifflin), though pictured above is the oh-so playful and reluctant napper, Gideon.

Dunrea—who once said he doesn’t write books for children but, instead, makes them for himself (“it just so happens that children like what I do as much as I do!”)—says that his picture books are folk tales or fairy tales from his larger mythology, The Lay of Moel Eyris. (More on that and his love of mythology and fantasy below.) Olivier’s also illustrated for other authors, as well as created picture books outside of the Gossie & Friends series. There’s more below on his work as a whole, and I thank him for visiting me this morning. He’s not a big breakfast-eater, but he’s opting for some coffee, some grapefruit juice, and a bagel with butter. I can handle that. I’ve got the cyber-coffee brewing, while I set the table and get the basics from him first.

Let’s get to it.

* * * * * * *

“Me, Scout on my lap, and Fergus — waking up with coffee …”

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Olivier: I am both a writer and illustrator. (I’ve always hated the term “author” — I don’t auth anything, but I write lots of things.)

I am a writer who illustrates; not an illustrator who writes. Writing comes fairly easily and quickly for me, but it’s the artwork that I agonize over and never seem to get just right. I have very little color sense; that’s why my books tend to be somewhat subdued in color. Browns, greys, and small splashes of red is my usual colour palette. Winter settings are my preferred time of year for my stories.

I love the earth tone colors of the autumn and late autumn, as well as winter.

Color study for Old Bear and His Cub (Philomel, 2010)

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

Olivier: [Ed. Note: A comprehensive list is included at the bottom of the interview.]

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

Olivier: Pencil and gouache or pen-and-ink and gouache. When The Lay of Moel Eyris: The Saga of the Bear’s Son is published, the illustrations will be pen-and-ink (black and white). The Lay of Moel Eyris is a five-volume epic heroic saga/mythology; a detailed, full-colour map will be included (Book One: The Secret Book of Moolstery; Book Two: The Secret of the Mool Dykes; Book Three: The Secret of Morag’s Too’er; Book Four: The Secret of the Myvyrrian Map; Book Five: The Secret of the Dragon Eggs).

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?

Olivier: I do write and illustrate for different age groups. My style does not really change. Example: See Hanne’s Quest, a chapter book.

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Olivier: I live in a tiny, remote mountain village, called Narrowsburg, in the southern tier of upstate New York. If I see five to ten cars a day, that’s a lot.

Olivier with his husband, photographer and videographer John Riffey;
Olivier and John share their home with many dogs, including rescue dogs

“Hiking in the woods with the pups”

“Working on the terrace on a large map (antiquing the paper)”

The Lower Gardens and woods of Olivier’s and John’s home, named Henwoodie
(“It looks like a large, stately henhouse,” says Dunrea)

“Henwoodie is surrounded by an acre of lawns, gardens and terrace.”

“Our terrace in the Fall, looking misty and mysterious”

“I do quite a bit of my writing on the terrace under the red umbrella.
We built the 1,000 square foot terrace ourselves,
with my younger brother and his son doing the lion’s share of the work.”

“Our Protective Goose Goddess!”

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

Olivier: Four publishers offered me seven contracts in 1982, when I first went to New York City to show my portfolio. I’ve been one of the lucky writers and illustrators who has done nothing but write and illustrate most of my adult life.

“Joop is a small, gray gosling who likes to be messy.”
— From Jasper & Joop (Houghton Mifflin, March 2013)

Final colors and outfits for Jasper and Joop


“Jasper and Joop scurry to the piggery. ‘Come play!’ squeal the piglets.
Jasper shakes his head. Joop gleefully leaps into the mud.”

(Click to enlarge)

“Jasper and Joop run to the pond. SPLASH!
Jasper and Joop jump into the pond.”

“Jasper laughs and flaps his wings. Joop stands on a rock and honks.
They are best friends.”

(Click to enlarge)

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


I am always way behind in keeping this website up-to-date!

Early art and character story boards for Gemma & Gus,
scheduled to be released in 2014 (Houghton Mifflin)

7-Imp: If you do school visits, tell me what they’re like.

Olivier: I started out as an Artist-in-Residence through the National Endowment for the Arts and Artists in Schools programs, funded by various state art councils in 1980. I did school visits from 1980-1995. I haven’t done any public appearances for a number of years. Most folks say I am fairly reclusive and elusive.

Some sketches for Old Bear and His Cub (Philomel, 2010)
(Click to enlarge)

Sketch for Old Bear’s cottage

Sketch for front cover of Old Bear and His Cub

Sketch for title page of Little Cub (Philomel, 2012)

Pencil sketch for Little Cub

Finished illustration for Little Cub

Olivier: “This is one of my favorite illustrations from Little Cub…”

“…And this is a portrait of me as Old Bear!”

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

Olivier: The Gossie & Friends series is nearing completion. There will be a total of thirteen different goslings in the gaggle (a baker’s dozen): Gossie, Gertie, Ollie, Peedie, BooBoo, Gideon, Jasper, Joop, Gemma, Gus, Gabby, Gabe, and Pearl.

Each gosling’s personality is based on one of our pups. The goslings represent a wide-ranging spectrum of personality types: from outgoing to very shy and quiet.

Once all thirteen goslings have been introduced, the series will continue with new adventures, mixing and matching various goslings to tell the story. Examples: Pearl’s Lost Pearls; Gossie’s Farm; Gus, Go to Sleep!; Peedie & Pete; Goslings in the Barn; The Great Eggscape; etc.

Here is a rough sketch for a poster design for Gossie & Friends:


Sketch for another poster design for Gossie & Friends:



Here’s the finished artwork for the poster:



Here are some fun paper dolls that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt produced as a free give-away to booksellers to promote the Gossie & Friends series:



The first volume of The Lay of Moel Eyris: The Saga of the Bear’s Son was completed in the Fall of 2012.

Here are several other projects in the hands of my editors: Essie and Myles; Old Mrs. Grundy; Me and Annie McPhee; Schmoopy; Itchy and Inga; Bisou and Calin; A Bed for Little Cub; Little Cub and the Fireflies.

“I often use either Little Cub or Gossie on my letterhead and business card design.”

I am now working on a screenplay adaptation for two short stories. (Actually, one is the Prologue to my epic heroic saga/mythology—you can read the Prologue with annotations at my website — The Lay of Moel Eyris.) A Hollywood agent asked me if I would try my hand at the screenplay. Over the past twelve years, Hollywood has had a lively interest in my work.

I only have five last Gossie & Friends to wrap up by the end of April, and then I am a free man! I will be caught up with all outstanding picture book contracts and will concentrate on my more ambitious, more serious writing, The Lay of Moel Eyris: The Saga of the Bear’s Son (five volumes). The first book is titled The Secret Book of Moolstery, and I am determined to have the final draft finished by September! And the screenplay for Islands on the Edge (or The Kidnapping of the Boy with Red Hair).

My publishers will start publishing manuscripts that I have written but will not illustrate. Writing comes so much easier to me than doing the artwork!

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, the coffee’s brewed, and it’s time to get a bit more detailed with six questions over breakfast. I thank Olivier 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?

Olivier: This is always a tough question, since I have several projects in the works at any given time.

Basically, I begin in one of two ways: 1) I have a story idea and write it down and then do sketches of the character(s), or 2) I sketch an idea and then create/write the story around the character(s).

Note: Nearly all my books/stories take place in the mythical world of Moel Eyris (Mole Island). I keep the detailed master map (the Myvyrrian Map) pinned to the bulletin board above my drawing board. I know this mythical world so well that it’s fairly easy to create new characters and move them around in this archipelago environment. Most of my picture books are “folk tales” from the larger Lay of Moel Eyris mythology. Clues can be seen in any given book as to where the story is set, based on architectural styles, beehive design, and type of character (bear, trow, maol, gosling, etc).

For each book, I do a detailed map of the farm, buildings, cottage, and environs. A detailed aerial map and medieval perspective map of Gossie’s Farm (24”x30”) makes it possible to know exactly where any given farm building is in relation to any other farm building, pond, pumpkin patch, scarecrow, haystacks, creek, Big House, Old Cottage, etc.

Here is the map of Gossie’s Farm:

(Click to enlarge slightly)


Here is the rough sketch for the map of Gossie’s Farm:


(Click to enlarge slightly)

Quite often, I do detailed architectural plans, sections, and elevations of each building that appears in a book so that I know exactly how to move the character(s) through their immediate surroundings and geographical setting.

I do not outline a story before I write. I simply start at the beginning, consult my maps, and let the storyline progress in a natural and spontaneous and consistent manner. Neither I nor my editors do very much editing. At this point, because I know my characters and settings so well, only fine-tuning and a bit of tweaking is necessary.

I work with three of the best editors in the publishing industry, who know my world and characters as well as I do!

When I develop the characters for my books, I work on tracing vellum or tissue paper, very much like an animator might work, so that I can quickly and easily change the character’s position and keep the character consistent.

Then, I photocopy the tissue sketches and begin to create the finished layouts for the book:

A short (just under one minute) video peek at Olivier’s drawing board

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

Olivier: My studio at Henwoodie in upstate New York is a light-filled room right off the master bedroom. There are three walls of windows! Bald eagles soar right past, while I’m working.

“My studio is the upstairs room that is lit…”

I also maintain a second studio at our home in Dearborn, Michigan, Torwoodie. It is larger, has more space to lay things out, etc. In addition, I have a separate Writing Office at Henwoodie that is just large enough to house a custom-made writing desk that is a room unto itself that I inherited when my best friend died. This room has two good-sized windows and the writing desk, which has more shelves, doors, cubby holes, etc. than you can imagine and holds all my writing reference books and dictionaries.

I have two printers; each has its own email address. I can email manuscripts to Michigan from New York and vice versa. I love these printers! They also photocopy, reduce and enlarge, and do a number of other things that I haven’t even tried yet.

“Here is a photo of my drawing board at Henwoodie.
You can see the map of Gossie’s Farm to the right of my drawing board.”

“The Myvyrrian Map on the drawing board with various sketches”

“Sketches and my paint palette”

More sketches and studies

“My drawing board at the other end of the studio”

Sketches and small dummy on drawing board

Olivier at the drawing board

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

Olivier: Primarily, I study medieval art and artists, especially the 16th c. Flemish painters. But Beatrix Potter, Howard Pyle, Edward Gorey, Graham Oakley, A. B. Frost, Lisbeth Zwerger, et al. have been strong influences, as well as painters such as Edward Hopper.

The writers who have impressed and influenced me the most are: Gertrude Stein, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the like.

Color study for A Christmas Tree for Pyn (Philomel, 2011),
which I love so much and wrote about here at
Kirkus in December of the same year

“‘Good evening, Papa,’ said Pyn. ‘My name is Oother,’ said Oother. ‘Good evening, Oother,’ said Pyn. ‘Umphf,’ said Oother. And with a grunt he began to eat the hot soup. Pyn watched him eat in silence. ‘Oother,’ said Pyn, ‘Christmas is coming. Do you think we could have a Christmas tree this year?’ ‘No Christmas tree,’ said Oother.
He continued to eat. …”

“…Pyn jumped up from her stool and quickly pulled on her fur boots. She became tangled in her fur coat and scarf as she scrambled to put them on. Her fur hat slid down over her eyes. In her rush to get ready she fell over and sat hard on the floor. ‘I’ll surprise Oother,’ Pyn said to herself. ‘I’ll find the perfect Christmas tree and
will cut it down myself and bring it home….'”

“Together they trudged into the dark woods. ‘Papa,’ said Pyn. ‘My name’s Oother,’ said Oother. ‘Oother,’ said Pyn. ‘Where will we find a Christmas tree?’ ‘You’ll see,’ said Oother. They came to an open meadow at the edge of the woods….”

“…Oother silently watched as Pyn bustled about the tree, carefully placing the nests so that the eggs could be seen. She tied bits of string to the tops of the hornets’ nests and hung them from the ends of the branches. She tucked the wasps’ nests so that they shone pale against the dark green of the fir tree. Pyn hung the acorns all over the tree. She sat on the floor and, with needle in hand, strung the berries
onto a long piece of sturdy thread.”

“Oother held her high so that she could hang her ornaments on the topmost branches. He helped her wrap the berry garland around the Christmas tree, starting at the top and carefully working their way down to the bottom. ‘Now the feathers!’ Pyn said. Together they placed the brightly colored feathers among the branches until the fir tree glistened with color. ‘It’s beautiful!’ she said. ‘A real Christmas tree.'”

“…Oother set her back on the floor and the two of them gazed in wonder at the Christmas tree. In the firelight the feathers of the bird glistened and shimmered. ‘A real Christmas tree,’ said Pyn. ‘A real Christmas tree,’ said Oother. ‘Thank you, Oother!’ said Pyn. ‘My name’s Papa,’ Oother said. ‘Thank you, Papa!’ cried Pyn, throwing her arms around his neck.”

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? (Some people cheat and list deceased authors/illustrators. I won’t tell.)

Olivier: The three writers or illustrators I most would like to meet are: George R. R. Martin, Lisbeth Zwerger, and Jill Barklem.

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?

Olivier: I don’t have a great deal of music on my iPod or iPhone. I tend to listen to the same 24 songs over and over and over for years and years and years. Most of my music is quiet medieval ballads, Scots and Irish, and, of course, Adele.

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

Olivier: Most people do not know that I was diagnosed with colon cancer on 4 October 2006. I underwent twelve weeks of horrendous chemo and radiation. It was an interesting experience.

After having been told that I might have six months to live, I decided that I no longer had time to waste on people or projects that do not interest me. I am now cancer-free and routinely get screened with blood tests and colonoscopies. I urge everyone 45 and older to have a colonoscopy. Early detection really can save your life with the proper treatment.

Here are two photos of me at the beginning of my chemo and radiation:

“I was putting on a ‘sad’ face.”

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Olivier: “Terrific!”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Olivier: “like” (as in, “like, you know what I mean, like, I wasn’t even there, like, I …”).

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

Olivier: Favorite passages from my favorite books. Words are my addiction, you might say. I re-read favorite chapters or books or just a paragraph to reassure myself. Gertrude Stein’s writings are my touchstone, I must admit: “Let me listen to me and not to them.”

Jules: What turns you off?

Olivier: Litter, cruelty to animals or small children, plastic bags, fracking!

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

Olivier: “Rats!”

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Olivier: I love the sound of spring peepers at night in the springtime.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Olivier: I hate any kind of loud, mechanical noise: ATVs, trucks, motor boats on a quiet lake, etc.

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

Olivier: Archaeology.

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

Olivier: I’m Proto-Celtic Animist in my belief. I don’t really believe in heaven or hell. I do believe in holding patterns until we are re-born into another form, another lifetime. And I strongly believe in making the most of the life I have in every possible way!

* * * * * * *

Dunrea’s Books

Picture Books

Eddy B, Pigboy, Atheneum, Margaret K. McElderry (New York, NY), 1983.
Ravena, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1984.
Fergus and Bridey, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1985.
Mogwogs on the March!, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1985.
Skara Brae: The Story of a Prehistoric Village, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1986.
Deep down Underground, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1989.
Eppie M. Says …, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1990.
The Broody Hen, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1992.
Noggin and Bobbin in the Garden, Little Celebrations Press (ScottForesman, a division of HarperCollins Publishers), Glenview, IL, 1993
Noggin and Bobbin by the Sea, Little Celebrations Press (ScottForesman, a division of HarperCollins Publishers), Glenview, IL, 1994
Noggin and Bobbin in the Snow, Little Celebrations Press (ScottForesman, a division of HarperCollins Publishers), Glenview, IL, 1994
The Painter Who Loved Chickens, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1995.
The Tale of Hilda Louise, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1996.
The Trow-Wife’s Treasure, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1998.
Appearing Tonight! Mary Heather Elizabeth Livingstone, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1999.
Bear Noel, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2000.
It’s Snowing!, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2002.
Gossie, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2002.
Gossie and Gertie, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2002.
Ollie, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2003.
Ollie the Stomper, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2003.
Peedie, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2004.
BooBoo, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2004.
Hanne’s Quest, Philomel (New York, NY), 2006.
Gossie & Friends: A First Flap Book, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2006.
Gossie’s Busy Day: A First Tab Book, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2007.
Merry Christmas, Ollie!, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Boston, MA), 2008.
Gossie Plays Hide and Seek, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Boston, MA), 2009.
Ollie’s Halloween, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Boston, MA), 2010.
Ollie’s Easter Eggs, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Boston, MA), 2010 NY Times Bestseller List April 2010.
Old Bear and His Cub, Philomel (New York, NY), 2010.
A Christmas Tree for Pyn, Philomel (New York, NY), 2011.
Gideon, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Boston, MA), Jan. 2012.
Gideon & Otto, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Boston, MA), Jan. 2012.
Gossie & Friends Sticker Book Fun and Activities, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Boston, MA), March 2012.
Gossie Big Book, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Boston, MA), March 2012.
Little Cub, Philomel (New York, NY), November 2012.
Jasper & Joop, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Boston, MA), January 2013.
Gemma & Gus, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Boston, MA), January 2013.


The Star of Melvin, written by Nathan Zimelman, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1987.
The Boy Who Loved to Draw, written by Barbara Brenner, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1998.
The Rusty, Trusty Tractor, written by Joy Cowley, Boyds Mills Press, (Honesdale, PA), 1999.
Hop! Plop!, written by Corey Rosen Schwartz & Tali Klein, Walker & Company (New York, NY), 2006.


The Writing Process: One Writer’s Approach to Writing with Children, Stonetrow Studio, Philadelphia, PA, 1990.

* * * * * * *

All artwork and images used with permission of Olivier Dunrea.

A CHRISTMAS TREE FOR PYN. © 2011 by Olivier Dunrea. Published by Philomel Books, New York, NY. Images reproduced by permission of the publisher and are taken from this previous 7-Imp post.

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

11 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Olivier Dunrea”

  1. This is one of the best ‘seven impossible things’ thus far
    ( and that is praise indeed!).

  2. OH HAPPY DAY! Thank you for this. I ADORE Gossie and Gertie. What wonderful, beautiful art, what an interesting person – thank you, thank you! I had a similar experience with my son with these books.

    Happy Sunday.

  3. What an amazing interview! I literally kept looking over my shoulder to see if I was being watched- I so felt like I was catching glimpses of images meant only for Oliver’s friends. How lucky we are to have access to these amazing words and pictures. Thank you Oliver for being so forthcoming and thank you Jules as always for the amazing work you do!

  4. What an interesting and beautiful interview .

  5. Wonderful interview! Fantastic photos!

  6. What a chock-ful treat. Thank you so much for sharing.

  7. One of my favorite authors/artists as an editor (admiring from afar), and especially as a parent. This is so rich — thank you, thank you!

  8. The feathered friends are just too cute! After seeing the images of the cubs and company in the woods, I’d love to see his take on foxes. (Do foxes appear in that book?) Your environment looks so comfortable and full of love and calm. Terrific is a terrific word! I love it!

  9. […] posted an in-depth feature story about Olivier Dunrea last week, complete with intimate pictures of Dunrea’s home and workspace. Over here at […]

  10. […] […]

  11. Such beautiful illustrations…my heart is warm and fuzzy!

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