Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Lauren Stringer

h1 March 19th, 2013 by jules

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I love it. The above sketch, that is.

It’s one of author/illustrator Lauren Stringer’s early sketches from her newest picture book, which she both wrote and illustrated, When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky: Two Artists, Their Ballet and One Extraordinary Riot, released by Harcourt in early March.

Have you seen this book? I recommend it, particularly for those who love the arts. It tells the true story of two early-20th century artists—the composer Igor Stravinsky and the danseur and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky—who both yearn to make “something different and new” and who eventually collaborate on a ballet (The Rite of Spring), which revolutionizes music and dance. And causes a riot, no less, as the book’s delicious sub-title tells you. Stringer’s writing teems with reverence for the artists and tells a well-paced story with tension and exuberance. The brightly-colored illustrations swirl, swoop, and dip and, as Publishers Weekly writes, make music and dance “entertaining and joyous,” bringing this momentous meeting of minds to life for young readers.

Lauren’s certainly not new to picture books and I’ve read and enjoyed many of her books over the years (and those she’s illustrated for others), so I invited her over—on the occasion of this book release—to have breakfast with me and discuss her work. “I love oatmeal and fruit for breakfast,” she told me. “Just a little bit of oats mixed with a cup of blueberries and usually a whole pear chopped up with a few walnut pieces broken over the top. A splash of vanilla almond milk — and I am ready for the day. Oh! And a cup of black coffee. Still need that.” As you can see pictured above, she’s all ready to go.

Let’s get the basics before our seven questions over breakfast, and I thank her for visiting.

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Lauren: I illustrate the stories of others and some of my own.

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


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

Lauren: Acrylic on 140 lb. hot press watercolor paper.

Art from Cynthia Rylant’s Snow (Harcourt, 2008)
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Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Lauren: I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but I was born in Montana and lived my formative years in Northern California and New York City — with a brief year as an au pair in Paris.

Final art from Cynthia Rylant’s Scarecrow (Harcourt, 1998)
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Jules: Can you tell me about your road to publication?

Lauren: I was busy minding my own business, which at that time in 1994 was parenting a two-year-old and building sculptures out of wood, then painting them. When I gave birth to my daughter, my sculptures went from very large-standing sculptures to very small boxes, about the size of a picture book. The wooden boxes had doors on them that opened and closed, a bit like turning the page of a picture book.

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My friend, author/illustrator Debra Frasier, came to see an exhibition of my sculptures at a gallery and thought I should try illustrating a picture book. She asked if she could take pictures of my work to her editor, Allyn Johnston of Harcourt Brace, and I thought, “why not?” Allyn Johnston, being an adventurous editor, was willing to try out an artist who had never studied illustration; an artist who had ambitions to get into the Whitney Biennial; an artist who had no idea what a Caldecott Medal was.

Early sketches and art from Mary Lynn Ray’s Mud (Harcourt, 1996)
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Allyn sent me the manuscript for the picture book Mud, written by Mary Lyn Ray. I was immediately taken with Mary Lyn’s poetic story and the images it brought to mind. I had no idea what I was doing and couldn’t understand why my new editor would not let me talk with the author about the story. At first I sent my editor every idea — not one or two, but hundreds of drawings and painted studies. I learned after the book was published that usually the author is kept abreast of how the book is coming, but Mary Lyn Ray never saw a thing until the proofs! Allyn told her it was just too confusing but reassured her everything would turn out fine.

More from Mud
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And it did. And, as it turned out, I loved painting picture books and my editor loved working with me, so we have been working together for nearly twenty years.

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

Lauren: and

I am also part of a group blog:

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

Lauren: When I visit schools, I present an interactive slide show that tells the story of a visit to my studio through the eyes of my cat Buster. I live with three cats, and Buster is the only one who can visit my studio without getting into the paint and pawing at the brushes.

I have created several “movies” of my books with recordings of the author reading. My husband is a composer, and he made music to go with the different readings. When I present at a school, I usually play one of the readings at the end or the beginning. And I always end with folding a simple origami animal in celebration of Fold Me a Poem, written by Kristine O’Connell George.

You can listen to some of the readings with music on my website:

Lisa Westberg Peters reading Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story here.

Me reading Winter Is the Warmest Season here.

Cynthia Rylant reading Scarecrow here.

Mary Lyn Ray reading Red Rubber Boot Day here.

Paper-folding in India

7-Imp: If you teach illustration, by chance, tell us how that influences your work as an illustrator.

Lauren: I don’t teach regularly, but once I taught a three-day workshop in picture book illustration. During those three days, my students and I shared so much, we felt like family.

When I set up the classroom, I filled all of the large window wells with picture books — hundreds of picture books. I began the class by telling my students to please feel free to stop and look through picture books any time. Seeing them curled up in corners or hunched over their drafting tables, paging through picture books, reminded me how important it is to read and read and read both words and pictures in picture books all of the time. I am still in touch with most of the students from those intensive three days. I think it was the magic of the picture books.

Split Rock illustration workshop

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

Lauren: I am currently illustrating a book titled Deer Dancer, written by Mary Lyn Ray. It will be my third book by her that I have illustrated. I love her voice, her way with words. She leaves so many openings for pictures to expand the story. My studio is glowing with the green of summer grass and leaves, which is a very wonderful place to be through this long Minnesota winter. It is like being on vacation while I work.

Wall of sketches and research for Deer Dancer
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I have a new book, called When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky: Two Artists, Their Ballet and One Extraordinary Riot. It is a book I had started to write eight years ago after going to a concert at Symphony Hall in Minneapolis. As I leafed through the program, I saw a photo of the composer Igor Stravinsky and the dancer/choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. They were both so young and expressive, one in coat and tails, the other with the costume and make-up of a sad puppet. I remember saying out loud: “I wonder what it was like when Stravinsky met Nijinsky,” and then I laughed and both my husband Matthew and I agreed that “When Stravinsky met Nijinsky” would be a great title for a picture book.

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The next morning I clipped the photo out and began to write. When I realized how much research was necessary, I set my pen down and did not return to the story for a year. But despite other deadlines and raising children, I kept returning to the story. I checked out library books on The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, the Ballets Russes.

First notes
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Research journal with images
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As more words came together to make a story, I did not think I could possibly illustrate it. I imagined Marjorie Priceman or Maira Kalman doing a beautiful job. But the more I looked at photos of Stravinsky and Nijinsky, the more I fell in love with them and the Ballets Russes. I knew I had to illustrate the book myself, if it ever found a publisher.

Early sketch of Stravinsky
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Early study
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Color sketches
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Fast forward to 2010. My husband suggests collaborating on a story together. Since he is a composer, I thought, why not begin with When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky, a book about a profound and creative collaboration for our new collaborative efforts. We took turns working on the story, emailing it back and forth to one another. The collaborative process was exhilarating. When we got the story to a place we felt quite excited about, I sent it to my editor, but she needed back matter with more specific information to even consider it. That meant more time and research, and the story went back into the file while Matthew and I went on to other projects.

Early sketch
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Book dummy images
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Another year passed before pulling the story out of the file, dusting it off and deciding to make it my own again. I re-wrote lines [and] back matter and began making a book dummy of illustrations to go with the text. I decided to submit it to the McKnight Fellowship for Children’s Literature, which comes around every two years in Minnesota.

At 3 a.m. the morning before the McKnight deadline, I awoke, realizing for the first time that May 29, 2013, was the centennial of the premiere of The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s ballet with the Ballets Russes, which caused a legendary riot to break out at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris. I realized right then in the wee hours of the morning: I must publish this book on time for the centennial! I submitted the manuscript for the McKnight in October of 2011, had a contract for the manuscript by November 2011, and was painting the final illustrations by February 2012. I finished the illustrations in record time: 2 months and 8 days. Most of my books take nearly eight months to paint!

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I think my favorite illustrations to paint were the meeting of Stravinsky and Nijinsky and the riot. When I was in college at the University of Santa Cruz, I majored in art and art history. My favorite period was the beginning of the 20th century. After studying slides of Picasso’s Cubist paintings, including the ground-breaking Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Matisse’s The Red Studio and La Danse, I nearly swooned the first time I visited MoMA in New York City and saw them in real life. When I realized that Stravinsky and Nijinsky met in the year 1911, the very same year Matisse painted The Red Studio, I could not resist painting the background red behind the two men meeting one another for the first time.

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“The crowd poured into the street when the curtain went down, rioting and bellowing, buzzing and hurdling, wild with the night that brought something brand-new!”
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I also enjoyed painting tiny paintings, inspired by Picasso’s early Cubist paintings, referencing the influence of Cubism on both the music and dance for The Rite of Spring. I loved writing and painting this book, a celebration of the spirit of shock and the surprise of Modernism in the 20th Century — and a celebration of the power of art and artists.

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

Lauren: When I receive a manuscript that I love or write a story that I love, a story that is sure to inspire me for a year at least, the first thing I do is write it very large on sheets of paper and hang them on a wall in my studio. The process of hand-writing the words of the story very large helps me become familiar with the story, one letter at a time. When it is so big on the wall, there is no chance of losing the story in the piles of papers that seem to grow in my studio all by themselves.

Manuscript for Winter Is the Warmest Season (Harcourt, 2006)
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I like to visit an art store at this point to choose just the right sketchbook to fit the new story. Once found, I staple the manuscript onto the first page so I never lose it, and I begin sketching out my initial responses to the story; it might be just a few images that come to mind [after] the first few read-throughs. Then I go into my “hunting and gathering” phase where I gather images from magazines and postcards I have collected and put them up all over my studio for ideas. I visit my “friends” — that is, artists I have come to love and admire over the years. My studio is filled with art books and monographs of many of my favorite artists. When I page through them, it is like visiting old friends.

Art books
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Journal for Snow
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Journal for Scarecrow
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I then create a sort of “nest” in my studio, surrounded by books, files filled with images and postcards I have gathered over the years, and my sketchbook. Here the story begins to come to life in hundreds of small sketches, quick storyboards, small dummy books — whatever is necessary to get the right visual and dramatic flow for the story.

This gestation period usually lasts anywhere from two to four months. When I illustrated Fold Me a Poem, this period lasted six months, as I had to teach myself to fold 48 origami animals.

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And it was nearly a year of intensive research at libraries and anthropology labs before I felt comfortable enough to paint the illustrations for Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story. At one point, all of the research and information became so overwhelming and profound that I had to break out of the confines of the picture book format. I stretched an eight-foot by eight-foot sheet of paper on my studio wall and used charcoal to draw the family tree. It was a cathartic experience to work so large and enabled me to return to illustrating the book with new confidence.

Charcoal drawing for Our Family Tree (Harcourt, 2003)
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Finding characters is like holding auditions for a play. For Cynthia Rylant’s story Snow, one of my favorite lines was:

And the snow, while it is here,
reminds us that nothing lasts forever
except memories.

I thought a lot about memories and how we hold onto them. I decided to paint a grandmother in the book, based on my own mother, who was a wonderful grandmother to my children when she was alive. Grandparents are great vessels of memories. When I found pictures of my mother as a little girl, I decided to cast her as the little girl in the story. So the Grandma and the little girl in the story are actually the same person, which I love.

Sketch and final art from Snow
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I have been accused of creating book dummies that are barely legible, but I do not like to be too exact early in the process. For me the magic of making art lies in the painting of the final illustrations. I want to leave room for change, experimenting, and even mistakes, because mistakes all too often ignite some image I could not have foreseen. Sometimes there are color studies inside the book dummy, but more often than not my editor, who has learned to read my chicken scratches, will say go ahead — and the transformation from sketch to final painting is exhilarating.

Early sketches from Cynthia Rylant’s Scarecrow
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2. Jules: Describe your studio or usual work space.

Lauren: I live with my family in a large, old Victorian house in Minneapolis. The front two rooms of the second floor I have turned into my studio. The light pours in my windows, and I look out on the branches of an old Burr Oak. It is a good working space for me, conducive to painting and making a mess.

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My studio becomes a sort of shrine for each book, as the story is written very large on one of the walls and surrounded by images I have found that might feed ideas for the illustrations.

When I worked on Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story, my studio was not big enough for all of the images I collected from researching 4½ billion years of earth’s history, so I made a timeline in the hallway outside my studio that began at my bedroom and ran down the front stairs.


When I painted the illustrations for The Princess and Her Panther, I hung a red tent to paint from.


(Click to enlarge art from the book)

I paint on a wall, and as the illustrations are finished, they fill the wall. This way I can always refer to them to keep characters and colors consistent. When the book is done, I strip the walls of everything, and it feels quite naked and vulnerable, which is a good place to be before embarking on the next creative project.

Studio wall for Kristine O’Connell George’s
Fold Me a Poem (Harcourt, 2005)

Studio wall for Cynthia Rylant’s Snow
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Studio wall for When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky
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Naked studio

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

Lauren: I loved The Cat in the Hat Comes Back by Dr. Suess. The pink spot that takes over the house and, eventually, the snow fascinated me.

Another favorite was Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág. Again, the sheer number of cats that took over the landscape and drank up the lake caught my attention again and again.

Little Bear, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, was my favorite series of books to read, but mostly [to] look at the pictures. I have always loved looking at pictures. We had a book of illustrated poems and nursery rhymes that I loved, especially the poem of “Little Orphant Annie” by James Whitcomb Riley. The illustrations for it were so dark and spooky, yet I could not stop reading it and looking at the pictures.

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.)

Lauren: Angela Barrett, John Burningham, and Wolf Erlbruch.

Can I invite more? (If these three cannot make it, then I want to invite Peter Sís, Lizbeth Zwerger, and Paul O. Zelinsky, and if they cannot make it, then I want to invite Beatrice Alemagna, Shaun Tan, and Oliver Jeffers, but in truth I would like to have them all at the same time. I live in a big old house. They would all be welcome.)

Early sketch and final art from Mem Fox’s
Tell Me About Your Day Today (Beach Lane, 2012)
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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?

Lauren: Each book seems to beg for a different soundtrack. Of course, When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky consisted of hundreds of listenings to The Rite of Spring and Petrushka. While working on the illustrations for Deer Dancer, I have been listening to Zoë Keating. Her music seems to capture the yearning I sense in my main character and the magic of the deer dance in Mary Lyn Ray’s manuscript.

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

Lauren: When my son began taking Circus classes at Circus Juventas [pictured above] ten years ago, I too ran away with the circus. I am the script writer, set designer, and set painter for Circus Juventas, the largest youth circus school in the US.

Every summer the advanced students perform in a brilliant show with a theme, a narrative, full costumes, and interactive sets. Go here to view excerpts from last summer’s show, Showdown or here to see Grimm from two summers ago. Every fall I begin a new script and begin designing sets simultaneously.

Someday it is sure to inspire a circus book!

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

Lauren: “What is the best piece of advice someone gave you?”

Follow your heart. No matter what you do in life, follow your heart.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Lauren: “Whimsical.” I also like “whim” and “whimsy.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Lauren: I can never remember my least favorite words. I suppose that is a good thing?

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

Lauren: The arts: Dance, Music, Theatre, Opera, Paintings, Sculpture, Literature.

And the ocean. Mountains. Tall forests.

Jules: What turns you off?

Lauren: The Tea Party. Polluters. Extremists.

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

Lauren: A good friend of mine with a lingering Texan accent always says, “Mother of Guaaaad.” I find myself saying it in times of stress and dismay, but you really need the accent to pull it off.

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Lauren: Ocean waves.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Lauren: Sirens.

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

Lauren: I have always wanted to be a violinist in an orchestra.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Lauren: Anything where I had to commute to work 9 to 5 in a suit.

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

Lauren: “Remember all of those books you never got to read during your lifetime? And all of the places you never got to visit? Well, step right up. You have all the time in the world to read and travel to your heart’s desire. Enjoy!”

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* * * * * * *

All artwork and images are used with permission of Lauren Stringer.

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

12 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Lauren Stringer”

  1. I wonder if listening extensively to The Rites of Spring while writing When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky began to feel tiresome, or did each new bit of research bring the music alive again? I think, since I’m an aspiring writer, I’ll try watching a video over and over again and try to make a story or poem out of it. Should be interesting.

    Thanks to Lauren for being such a wonderful interviewee!

  2. Wonderful interview! I learned so much about my good friend from college who I’ve not seen in years. What an amazing body of work she’s produced, I’m so proud and impressed. Thanks for sharing her story.

  3. I loved reading this, and looking at the pics. I hope we get to meet one day, Lauren.

  4. This is a wonderful interview and such a great resource for the teachers! Lauren has visited our schools and she is such a joy to work with! You’ve captured her spirit and vitality beautifully in this interview.

  5. I love “Fold Me a Poem” and often used it with my student writers. This is a lovely post for the vernal equinox!

  6. Another fantastic interview! It’s a treat to read them and to view the amazing artwork.

  7. What a wonderful, wonderful interview with my incredibly talented friend Lauren. I loved reading about her process and seeing her studio. Thanks to you both!

  8. What a wonderful interview with one of my favorite author/illustrators and fellow spud! I love learning new things about your life, Lauren!

  9. Great questions, great answers, and great pictures.
    What a delight Lauren to learn more about your process.

  10. […] How did author Lauren Stringer come up with the idea for When Stravinsky met Nijinsky? It is a book I had started to write eight years ago after going to a concert at Symphony Hall in Minneapolis. As I leafed through the program, I saw a photo of the composer Igor Stravinsky and the dancer/choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. They were both so young and expressive, one in coat and tails, the other with the costume and make-up of a sad puppet. I remember saying out loud: “I wonder what it was like when Stravinsky met Nijinsky,” and then I laughed and both my husband Matthew and I agreed that “When Stravinsky met Nijinsky” would be a great title for a picture book. […]

  11. […] week, I wrote here about Lauren Stringer’s Yellow Time (Beach Lane, September 2016) and Philip Stead’s Samson in the Snow (Neal […]

  12. […] Read a 2013 interview with Stringer […]

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