Flora’s Back!
A Visit with Author-Illustrator Molly Idle

h1 September 4th, 2014 by jules

Early sketch and final spread
(Click second image to enlarge)


Just the other day author-illustrator Aaron Becker visited to talk about his new picture book (Quest), which is a follow-up to one that won a Caldecott Honor early this year (Journey).

So then it occurred to me (I swear I don’t plan these things, as in I’m not that organized) that I’d love to invite author-illustrator Molly Idle to do the same. Molly also received a Caldecott Honor early this year for Flora and the Flamingo, and she sees the release at the end of this month of a follow-up picture book about the same character (Flora, that is), Flora and the Penguin (Chronicle Books).

And I had this idea just yesterday, I think it was, so I’m glad Molly was able to roll with this and send me images and interview responses so quickly. I figured I’d ask her the same things I asked Aaron (with the exception of questions that pertain specifically to their books, of course).

Flora and the Penguin is (like Aaron’s book) another wordless tale. This one is entertaining, too — the charm and cheer and grace that was on every page of Flora and the Flamingo is here again. This time, Flora is dancing partners with a penguin. At least she tries to skate with him on the ice, though he’s mighty distracted by some fish. And the color palette! O! The palette! You’ll see what I mean in some of the final spreads pictured below.

Let’s get right to it, and I thank Molly for visiting. (For those of you who want even more, remember that Molly visited 7-Imp here in 2013.)

Jules: You’ve probably already discussed elsewhere what it was like to get the Caldecott call, so I apologize if this is redundant, but hey, what was it like to get the Caldecott call?

“My scribbly sketchbook with the first notes for Flora and the Penguin”
(Click to enlarge)

Molly: Are you kidding?! It was AWESOME! I knew that somebody was going to be getting a call that morning, but when it was my phone that rang at 4:30 a.m., you coulda knocked me over with a feather! I remember stammering my thanks to a roomful of happy, laughing, cheering people on the other end of the line, while standing in my kitchen in my jammies. When I hung up the phone and put it down, I just stood there for a moment. Then, I picked up the phone again and thumbed through to “recent calls” — just to be sure I hadn’t imagined the whole thing. I turned around, still holding the phone, and there was my husband standing there in the kitchen, grinning at me and saying, “Well?” I just nodded, grinning back, and finally I said, “I won.” And he laughed and said, “Phew! Well that’s good, because I hate to think they’d call and wake you up just to tell you you hadn’t!”

Then, all was happy pandemonium at our house.

Early sketch: Flora with her skates
(Click to enlarge)

Sketch: “Thinking about the ‘sit spin’ and how a penguin would manage it …”
(Click to enlarge)

Sketch: “Playing with opposites — x’s and o’s …”
(Click to enlarge)

Sample sketches: “Playing with poses for flaps that would have worked
like the ones in
Flamingo (up and down) …”

Sketch: “… but I wanted to be able to move these two far apart and then back together. The ‘flamingo flaps’ wouldn’t do that.”
(Click to enlarge)

Jules: How’d you deal with the pressure of creating a sequel when the success of Flora’s debut was so huge? This is assuming you felt stress. Perhaps you did not.

Molly: Did I feel stress? Yes! Absolutely, but not on this book. I had already finished the artwork for Flora and the Penguin by this time last year, so for me there was only the pressure that my art director and editor and I were applying to ourselves to make this book a good book. And that was plenty.

“This scribble is what I jotted down when I got the idea
to use double-sided, horizontal flaps.”

After Flora and the Flamingo won the Caldecott Honor, though, I felt a huge sense of outside expectation, which of course was totally only in my own mind. It’s not as if I started receiving emails saying, “Dear Ms. Idle: Your next book better measure up … or else.” But I felt a weird sort of weight of uncertainty. Could I measure up against myself? And what did that even mean? And I sort of seized up creatively. I just froze. So, it was really lucky that I had a huge pile of work waiting to be done. Seriously. Because the only way to get work done is to do it. Sitting frozen wouldn’t make my deadlines disappear. And through working, that paralyzing fear of expectation slowly started to diminish.

I have a fortune cookie fortune on my desk that says “Action is worry’s worst enemy.” That’s not really a fortune, is it? But I think it’s a truism. The best way to deal with it—whatever “it” is—is to work through it.

” … So I tried it out. And it worked! With the flap anchored toward the center of the book and images printed on both sides,
they could skate back and forth across the page.”
(Click each to enlarge)

Jules: Do you want to talk a bit about working with the designers and such at Chronicle? How much input do you have on the book’s overall design?

Molly: Do I want to talk about working with the folks at Chronicle? “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

I love the folks at Chronicle. They are dedicated to making wonderful, beautiful, different books. And to do that, they pay attention to the smallest details. I’m a believer that the smallest details often make the biggest differences. I’ve been so fortunate to work with art directors, editors, and designers that believe that too. We share a love of simple, elegant design. We also share a love of ego-less collaboration. Whoever has the best idea, it doesn’t matter who thinks of it — that should be the path taken. So there aren’t really rigidly defined boundaries in how we divvy up design. My art director will make editorial notes; I’ll design a different way to engineer a gatefold or flap; my editor will make color palette suggestions. There’s a lot of overlap. There’s a lot of trust. I like that.

“Now that I knew how the movement would work,
I started sketching/choreographing their story …”
(Click to enlarge)

“Even on the pages that don’t involve movement of flaps, I like to make sure that the movement flows between one pose and the next,
so I take them apart and overlay them.”
(Click to enlarge)

“Then I use the old-school, traditional animation technique of flipping between drawings to make sure they move smoothly.”
(Click the play button)

“Then I lay them back out in the dummy.”
(Click to enlarge)

Jules: Are there specific experiences that formed the essential bases, the fundamental building blocks, of your artistic vision? Books, movies, artists, events, images, anything else, etc.?

Molly: I grew up in a theatrical family with an eye to making movies, so films and plays play a major role in my book-making process. My favorite movies have always been the old Technicolor films of the ’40s and ’50s. These days, most films are shot on location, but in those days most everything was filmed in the controlled environment of a sound stage. A sort of handcrafted, hyper-real, bright and shiny reality. I like that sort of perfectly staged feeling.

I also like blackbox theatre. Plays in a blackbox use minimal sets and props. They rely on the actors to convey the story and the imagination of the audience to fill in the surroundings.

When I’m laying out a book, I think of it as if I’m staging a play or a film. Scene by scene, shot by shot.

“We were searching for just the right blue—not too icy, not too warm—in Pantone …”



“… and in Prismacolor.”


“Once we figure out the palette, I make myself a cheat sheet
so that I remember what colors I layered and in what order.”
(Click to enlarge)

Jules: What do you, as an artist, find most challenging and satisfying in the creative processes you employ?

Molly I think the thing I find most challenging and most satisfying in my creative process is the initial uncovering of the entire story. There’s nothing for it but to sit down and start working it out on paper. Page by page. And, for me, it is hard work. The easiest thing for me to do is to sit down and make nice lines and connect those nice lines to make nice drawings. I’ve been at it long enough now to know that anytime I sit down at my drawing board, I can turn out a pretty nice drawing. Muscle memory –like riding a bike.

But to make those lines into drawings that connect in a new and meaningful way, to make a story worth telling — that’s a whole other thing. And I feel as though I am just learning to ride without my training wheels.

Two pieces in progress
(Click each to enlarge)

Jules: Okay, I’ve gotten lately to where I simply love to ask people: What are you reading now?

Molly Okay, this is going to sound awful, but I am not reading anything for myself right now. I can’t pick up a book and read a chapter and then put it down and come back to it later. I’m a binge reader. I like to sit down and devour a book in one sitting.

That said, I’ve been so busy with work and family that I haven’t had time to take a day off to read in a few months, so my TBR stack is reaching to tottering heights! But I do read with my boys every night, and we’re working our way through Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (one of my personal faves). We also just finished rereading Jedi Academy (one of their personal faves).

Some final spreads
(Click each to enlarge)

Jules: On that note, what picture books have you loved lately? Or whose work have you seen that you think deserves some love and attention?

Molly Oh my, there have been a lot of good picture books out lately, and a bunch more coming out soon! But I shall confine my list to a few that are already out and that made me feel ridiculously happy. The kind of book you finish, hug to your chest, and open and read again.

Hooray for Hat by Brian Won. This book had me grinning from the moment I opened it.

Sparky! by Jenny Offill and Chris Appelhans. There is so much to love about this book. There’s a raw sort of openness to the text and the sincere yet deadpan expressions. And don’t even get me started on the gorgeous limited color palette. Love it!

The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers. I bet everyone mentions this one, right? And for good reason! I could read it over and over. Which is good, because it is one of the most requested, “just one more!” bedtime reads in our house.

Number One Sam by Greg Pizzoli. This is just one of those stories that is just perfect. Simple. And perfect.

The Mermaid and the Shoe by K. G. Campbell. Keith’s art is so beautiful that it makes my heart hurt. *wistful sigh*

Jules: What’s next for you? Anything in the works that you can talk about now?

Molly: Right now I am working on the third Flora book, Flora and the Peacocks. Yes, peacocks. Plural. All the Flora books are about exploring different aspects of friendship. The first was about making a friend. The second is about what happens when two friends want different things. The third is about groups of three. Three can be tricky. So often someone ends up feeling left out. I’m looking forward to exploring that dynamic — and all those fabulous feathers!

* * * * * * *

FLORA AND THE PENGUIN. Copyright © 2014 by Molly Idle. Published by Chronicle Books, San Francisco. All images here (with the exception of book covers) used by permission of Molly Idle.

4 comments to “Flora’s Back!
A Visit with Author-Illustrator Molly Idle”

  1. I love (and appreciate) everything about this post from the photo of the first penguin sketches in Idle’s notebook to her book recommendations. And most of all her descriptions of getting to work to figure things out: “The best way to deal with it—whatever “it” is—is to work through it.”
    Thanks Julie for another terrific interview!

  2. I love that part (in particular), too, Katy.

    Thanks to Molly, this is a great read for picture book fans!

  3. Really lovely to see Molly Idle’s process. Flipping pages, so exciting and not seen too often anymore. Thanks for this.

  4. Well, I’m late to reading this interview but oh I loved it so! Thanks to Molly for all the lovely thoughts and inspiration. I teared up reading about her Caldecott call and all that joy. And the new Flora book is gorgeous! Hooray for Molly!

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