Seven Impossible Interviews Before Breakfast #20:
Blue Rose Blogger and Author/Illustrator Anna Alter

h1 April 16th, 2007 by Eisha and Jules

Welcome, Dear Readers.  This week we continue our series of interviews with the Blue Rose Girls by talking to the uber-talented, delightful author/illustrator Anna Alter. (Yup, in case you’re wondering, that does indeed seem to be a knitting, flying monkey that she’s drawing there.)

Let’s face it: we’re all fascinated by artists. Especially those of us who have a huge appreciation for art without any actual artistic talent of our own. What’s cool about Anna, besides her lovely illustrations and stories, is the way she shares her process and techniques with the rest of us through her blog posts and outstanding website. It gives us left-brainers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of all the hard, tedious work and meticulous research that goes into creating all those gorgeous picture books we love. For example, check out these two posts that show us the step-by-step creation of an illustration for an upcoming book, from sketch to finished painting. And here, where she experiments with various apparel choices for a character. 

But she’s not just interested in sharing her process with adults who read the BRG blog. Anna is passionate about visiting schools and libraries to interact with kids. She says:

“Coming from such a rich artistic background, I feel a great sense of responsibility and commitment to sharing the creative process with children. When I go into schools to do visits I try to expose kids to every part of the creative life — from getting ideas, to revising and editing my work, to the fun of choosing the colors and techniques I will use in a painting. I try to impress upon them that what I do as an author/illustrator is just like what they do all the time — draw pictures and tell stories! I like to show art that I made when I was their age, so they can really see that being an artist is a continuous process, that we all have something to say and just need to find the right way to express it. For me, that means of expression is writing and painting. When kids make that connection, when they understand that a real person actually made the book they hold in their hands, and that they could do the same thing, it’s a really special thing.”

Anna also speaks about how she enjoys interacting with children in this excellent radio interview for WMPG‘s “Chickens R People 2” show.

And you want to hear something really funny? When asked what the wackiest or funniest or wildest or just generally most memorable thing was that a student ever said to her at a school visit, Anna said: “Once, when I walked into a room full of children I was going to do a school program with, one little boy stood up and said, ‘I can’t believe you’re still alive!’ It was the cutest thing ever. I think what he meant was ‘I thought authors were all old or dead!’ Its so fascinating to me that this idea is so common with children.”

Anna’s first book, which she both wrote and illustrated, was Estelle and Lucy, published by Greenwillow Books in 2001; Booklist called it a “charmer.” This was followed by 2001’s The Three Little Kittens, an abbreviated picture book version of the rhyme. The Purple Ribbon, written by Sharelle Byars Moranville, followed in 2003
(“{f}rom full-page to spot art, Alter’s softly rendered illustrations — in watercolor, pen and ink, and colored pencil — are as charming as the story itself” wrote Booklist, and “a solidly cozy caper,” wrote Publishers Weekly) as well as Francine’s Day (“ultimately proffers the nugget of wisdom that every day, even the most blah, contains something to enjoy,” wrote Kirkus Reviews), authored and illustrated by Anna. Anna has also illustrated five of Patrick Jennings’ Ike and Mem Stories (they — as well as Anna’s other books — are featured here).

Anna’s upcoming illustrated Spring ’08 title (Charlesbridge Books) is Priscilla and the Hollyhocks, written by Anne Broyles. Anna discusses this new title (as well as some other new projects) a bit more below in the interview, and an illustration from it is pictured to the left here.

Without further ado, we at 7-Imp are pleased to introduce the latest Wish-We-Could-Hang-Out-Doesn’t-She-Seem-Cool? interviewee, Anna Alter.

* * * * * * *
7-Imp: What do you do for a living?

Anna: I write and illustrate children’s books, and visit schools to talk about my work. In the past I have taught preschool, college, and run art workshops for kids.

7-Imp: How long have you been blogging?

Anna: Since last July of 2006.

7-Imp: Why did you start blogging? Why do you continue to do it?

Anna: I began blogging, with my fellow Blue Rose Girls, when we launched our group blog in the summer of 2006. We were having dinner at my house in Boston when we brainstormed the idea, a blog that spoke about the publishing industry from each of our different perspectives (authors, illustrators, editors, teachers). So I really entered into blogging as a way to shed light on the book making process for those in the publishing industry, or anyone interested in the field. It has now become such a big part of my daily work day! Most of us authors and illustrators work in relative isolation, so blogging has also become a way to connect to both the kidlit blogging community, as well as fellow artists as we follow our unique paths making and publishing books.

7-Imp: Which blog or site would you take to the prom to show off and you love it so much you could marry it?

Anna: Tough question, there are so many great ones! I have to admit that I most love reading about the creative process, especially if I know the artist. Blue Rose Girl Linda Wingerter’s blog is always fascinating as it really captures the way that an artist’s life experiences weave into her art, both technically and conceptually. Her posts always inspire and fill me with awe.

7-Imp: What are your other favorite things to do, other than reading and blogging?

Anna: I am a yoga fanatic, so I am often found taking a class at my neighborhood studio, and trying (unsuccessfully so far) to get my feet behind my head! I love traveling to new places, and visiting galleries to see what the rest of the artistic community is up to. I am also an organization freak, and have a bit of an obsession with going to IKEA and buying different kinds of boxes to organize my art supplies with (though you wouldn’t be able to tell by the state of my studio right now!)

7-Imp: What’s in heavy rotation on your stereo/ipod lately?

Anna: I am a big NPR fan, sometimes I have it going all day long while I paint. I especially love All Things Considered, On The Media, and This American Life. Music-wise, I adore The Kings of Convenience, Iron and Wine, M. Ward, The Magnetic Fields, Lemongrass, Mirah, Stevie Wonder, I could go on and on . . .

7-Imp: If you could have three (living) authors and/or illustrators over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Anna: Besides the BRGs? I would have to say Peter McCarty, Chris Raschka, and Ora Eitan. Mainly because reading their books leaves me with goosebumps and a chill down my spine.

7-Imp: What’s one thing not many people know about you?

Anna: When I was four years old our house got struck by lightning, which left a giant hole in the wall! I used to think this was a really normal thing to have in your house, but have since learned that this is not so.

7-Imp: Okay, how about a few more questions that are specifically about your work as an author/illustrator!

First, could you tell us all about your upcoming Spring ’08 book, Priscilla and the Hollyhocks, for which you just finished your illustrations?

Anna: Priscilla and the Hollyhocks is an incredible story (I didn’t write it, so I can say that). It is based on the true story of a girl who was sold as a slave by a plantation owner to a Cherokee family. When that family is kicked off their land and sent to march on the Trail of Tears, Priscilla is forced to go along. Eventually, she is sold into freedom. All throughout her journey she carries the hollyhock seeds that were her mother’s favorite, and plants them during her travels. It was an amazing experience illustrating such a touching, poetic book! I did a lot of research into the time period that she lived in (the 1830s); I even got my hands on actual Priscilla’s hollyhock seeds, which I blogged about here. This book will be out next spring!

7-Imp: Can you tell us a bit more about some of your projects-in-development (such as the cavorting bunnies!)? (By the way, your new acrylic paint Japanese-wood-block-and-Gauguin-inspired paintings are lovely).

Anna: Thank you! I have a number of books-in-development. The images of bunnies dancing is from a story I’ve been developing about a character named Greta who misses her Dad. I like to make books about the little moments that, to kids, are momentous. This book is about one of those moments, when Greta and her Dad find a way to make up for time spent apart.

The paintings of birds are from a story I am working on that developed in a sort of roundabout way! Originally I was hired to illustrate a book that an author had written about all the places where birds sleep. When I was nearly done with the paintings, the author pulled the book from publication (which is highly unusual!). So the publisher and I started brainstorming about how we could publish the art, and now I am writing my own story to go along with the paintings. Its been interesting writing for finished art; its kind of like working backwards!

7-Imp: You seem to possess a deep reverence for nature and a responsbility towards taking care of your environment — particularly with your upcoming title, What Can You Do With an Old Red Shoe? Do you hope to instill that love and concern for our natural environment in the children who read your titles?

Anna: Absolutely. I think it is extremely important to impress upon children how much power they have to make change, especially when it comes to the environment. Every child can do something to help, make things better. I think learning this at an early age is a great way to teach responsibility and interconnectedness.

What Can You Do With an Old Red Shoe? is a book that introduces these concepts to kids in a friendly, easy-to-understand way. The book introduces a character on each page, then explains step by step, how they choose to recycle in different, creative ways. Its sort of an environmentally-aware craft activity book . . . each spread will have instructions that kids can follow at home.

7-Imp: Your site says you grew up surrounded by beautiful books and have wanted to create them ever since. Can you tell us more? Did you get read to a lot? Or were you raised by librarians or some such thing? Do tell, if you don’t mind.

Anna: For me, growing up, creativity was a part of daily life. Both my parents are professional artists and really encouraged us to express ourselves by making art. Our giant cardboard sculptures would take up half the living room, but our parents let us keep them on out display for weeks at a time! Our drawings covered the walls from floor to ceiling.

Not only were we encouraged to make art as much as possible, but we were also exposed to a lot of different types of artwork. We spent many Saturday afternoons in museums, and of course, the library. Reading was big, especially my first two years of school, when I was homeschooled. We would go to the library weekly and check out dozens of books; I can remember hungrily perusing the bookshelves, weighing out which ones I wanted to bring home each week . . . I remember so clearly the awe and reverence I felt for the artwork and the stories I took home, how to me that artwork was just as profound as the paintings we saw in museums. I think being exposed to a lot of different kinds of art and books is essential for kids in so many ways . . . it helps them develop their own unique aesthetic tastes and vocabulary.

7-Imp: What are some of your all-time favorite picture books?

Anna: I love books that talk about the quiet moments in a day, the moments in between moments. Little Fur Family by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Garth Williams is an old favorite. I love Higglety Pigglety Pop by Maurice Sendak, Little Bunny on the Move by Peter McCarty and the Frances books by Russell and Lillian Hoban. A more recent title I greatly admire is Zen Shorts by Jon J Muth.

7-Imp: Do you have an absolute favorite title out of all the books you’ve created or illustrated?

Anna: That is a hard question, because each book sort of moves me along in a new direction, so I sort of enjoy them in different ways! My first book, Estelle and Lucy, has a lot of sentimental value to me because it is about my family and takes place in the house I grew up in. The book I just completed, Priscilla, was a huge learning experience in a lot of ways, so right now that book is my favorite. But its always changing . . .

* * * * * * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * * * * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Anna: “Forthright.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Anna: “Pity.”

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Anna: Breathing, laughing ’til you can’t breathe, telling the truth.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Anna: Indifference.

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

Anna: Curse? I never, ahem, do that. Okay, yes I do. I’d have to say “mother trucker.”

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Anna: Crickets on a summer night.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Anna: Car alarms on a summer night.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Anna: I’d love to be paid to walk around Paris and eat crepes. Is that a job?

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

Anna: Pretty much anything that involves cleaning.

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

Anna: “How was your trip?”

8 comments to “Seven Impossible Interviews Before Breakfast #20:
Blue Rose Blogger and Author/Illustrator Anna Alter”

  1. Anna, I love your philosophy: I think it is extremely important to impress upon children how much power they have to make change, especially when it comes to the environment. Every child can do something to help, make things better. I think learning this at an early age is a great way to teach responsibility and interconnectedness.

    That’s a great–and empowering–lesson to teach children. Bravo.

    E & J, another great interview, of course. I’m with you–since I can’t draw for anything, I just love to hear about people who do it so well. A real vicarious thrill. Thanks for showing us Anna!

  2. Robin, I hear ya. I wish I had that kind of talent to share with children. When I used to work with a children’s theatre company and help bring the theatre arts to school children, I felt like it was really important work. Children need their creative outlets, esp. in your modern public school (what with cutting the arts and such). I LOVE reading about folks like Anna who do school visits like this. I mean, she’s talented to begin with, but thank heavens she shares it with children (as well as that environmental message you wrote about).

  3. Yippee, Anna! Such a lovely overview of Anna’s work and personality. Beautiful photos too. Thanks 7 imp!

  4. Thanks for the comments guys! I agree- it is especially important to visit the public school system where some kids have no art program what so ever. I can always tell when kids are art deprived, you can just see their eyes light up when they get that creative outlet…

  5. I want the book about the knitting, flying monkey. Please write that one next, Anna.

    Now I’ve got to go read Estelle and Lucy again.

  6. I can’t believe you mentioned Higglety Pigglety Pop! I love that book!

    Great interview!! Thanks for sharing!!

  7. Great interview!
    I wanted to share with you my website which I just launched this Friday.

  8. […] invited author/illustrator Anna Alter over for some 7-Imp coffee this morning (remember, too, when she stopped by way back in ‘07 when our images were tragically small?) to celebrate Earth Day with some ideas for re-using your […]

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