Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Douglas Florian

h1 April 6th, 2009 by jules

Here’s Douglas Florian, who is pictured outside his studio on West 52nd Street in Manhattan (“also known as Swing Street,” he told me, “because the jazz musicians used to record there”) and whom I’m happy to welcome to 7-Imp this morning for a breakfast chat.

Douglas is the acclaimed author and illustrator and poet-painter of over thirty children’s books and also the recipient of the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award. He is one of my favorite children’s poets, an inventor of words and often a blithe disregarder of grammar and spelling rules in his imaginative verses. All this creative wordplay he refers to as his “poetic license….Poetry is not black and white,” he says. “It is more like the gray and purple area that connects all the things we live in.” He has released so many beloved titles over the years—for children, their parents, and the teachers and librarians who use and love the books—that it’s difficult to pick favorites. His mixed-media art is one to pore over, a real delight for readers’ eyes — full of detail, textures, and playful patterns and humor. School Library Journal once wrote, “{t}he pleasing blend of faded shades and brilliant colors, of old-fashioned prints and fanciful sketches, makes the illustrations seem both antique and high-tech.”

In his latest offering, from which he sent several spreads this morning, things are no different. DINOTHESAURUS: Prehistoric Poems and Paintings, released last month from Atheneum Books for Young Readers, is a “free-flowing, witty collection of poems and collages about dinosaurs…a giganotosaurus delight–perhaps his best work ever.” Those are some strong words from Publishers Weekly. In this title, Douglas brings us poems about eighteen carnivores and herbivores, book-ended between two entries about the age of and end of the dinosaurs. I’ve seen a copy, and fellow illustration junkies will not want to race quickly through this one: It’s a visual delight. Julie Just in the New York Times wrote, “Florian’s art—in gouache, collage, colored pencil, stencils, etc.—is gorgeous and fun.”

Let’s get to our seven-questions-over-breakfast with Douglas (who, by the way, starting blogging—“poetry commotion”—last September over at his Florian Cafe, fans will be happy to know). “First I’d like to thank Jules and Eisha for inviting me to be a part of their incredible blog, my favorite kids-lit blog, actually,” he said. “My choice of breakfast would have to be French Toast, crisply cooked, with real maple syrup and a small pat of butter on top. A large cup of coffee—a little milk and one sugar, please—would wed that well. A small glass of freshly-squeezed OJ is cool. And, since it’s French Toast, we’d all have to eat it in a cafe on the French Riviera.”

Twist twist my arm. We’ll head to the French Riviera then. Color us getting into our jet now. Let’s get the basics from Douglas, while we head there for our deliciable (as my five-year-old would say) breakfast. I thank him for stopping by to chat, for sharing his art work, and for the kind words about 7-Imp.

Note: Each of Douglas’ DINOTHESAURUS spreads has been re-sized to fit within the blog’s template, but each image is linked to the original file. Click on each spread to see it larger and in more detail. In fact, I highly recommend that. Also, I’ve peppered the interview with some of Douglas’ fine art pieces, what he calls “abstract regressionist. They are old but behave like little children.” In fact, for more of his thoughts on his art, visit this most intriguing artist’s statement.

* * * * * * *

7-Imp: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Douglas: I’m an Authorstrator, since I do both. If I mess up the illustrations, I can only blame myself. I also do fine art and not-so-fine-art.

7-Imp: Can you list your books-to-date?

Douglas: Most recent…

  • DINOTHESAURUS (March 10, 2009), a Beach Lane Book, part of Simon & Schuster
  • Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars (Harcourt)
  • zoo’s who (Harcourt)
  • bow wow meow meow (Harcourt)
  • lizards, frogs, and polliwogs (Harcourt)
  • Handsprings (Greenwillow)
  • OMNIBEASTS (Harcourt)
  • Laugh-eteria (Harcourt)
  • insectlopedia (Harcourt)
  • Autumnblings (Greenwillow)
  • in the swim (Harcourt)
  • on the wing (Harcourt)
  • Summersaults (Greenwillow)
  • A Pig is Big (Greenwillow)
  • Bing Bang Boing (Harcourt)
  • Turtle Day (Harper Collins)
  • 7-Imp: What is your usual medium, or -– if you use a variety -– your preferred one?

    Douglas: My usual medium is gouache watercolor paint, but I occasionaly use colored pencils, stencils, newspaper clippings, rubber stamps, shredded papers, tin foil, inks, candy wrappers, and—in DINOTHESAURUS—dinosaur dust (I’ve got an Iguanodon bone buried in my back yard).

    “The dinosaurs / First lived outdoors / During the time Triassic. / While most died out, / Some came about / Later in the Jurassic. / Then they evolved, / As Earth revolved, / In times known as Cretaceous. / But now indoors / Great dinosaurs /
    Fill museum halls, spacious.”

    7-Imp: 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?

    Douglas: All my books are designed for all ages, or at least 6 and up.

    7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

    Douglas: I was born on an island called Manhattan, and now live on another island called Long Island, where I root for a hockey team called the Islanders.

    “He had a huge and heavy claw / And crocodile-like skull. / A lashing, slashing dino-saw— / A sharpie, never dull. / His claws and jaws and pointed teeth / Were fashioned to attack. / If Bary you should ever meet— / Ask him to scratch your back.”

    7-Imp: Can you briefly tell us about your road to publication?

    Douglas: While going to Queens College, where I studied with the amazing man Marvin Bileck (Rain Makes Applesauce), I started to do drawings for the New York Times. That, along with cartoons and covers for The New Yorker magazine, was my entre into the door of Greenwillow Books, where—under the guidance of Susan Hirshman, Libby Sub, and Ava Weiss—I learned what makes a book work and why. Now Virginia Duncan does a splendid job there. I’ve also been fortunate to have worked with the ingenious Barbara Fenton at Crowell, and I’m now in cohoots with Allyn Johnston and Andrea Welch of the brand new Beach Lane Books, part of Simon & Schuster, thanks to Rubin Pfeffer.

    {Ed. Note: Pictured above is Light of My After Afterlife (II-575). Douglas’ fine art is with the BravinLee gallery.}

    7-Imp: Can you please point us to your web site and/or blog?

    Douglas: (fine art), (kids’ blog)

    “Some forty feet long. / Some fourteen feet tall. / Its back limbs were strong. / Its front limbs were small. / Its eyesight was keen. / Its hunger voracious. / This creature was seen / In times called Cretaceous. / Its jaws were horrific. / Its profile distinct. /
    I find it terrific / That it’s T-rex-tinct.”

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

    Douglas: I’ve done many, many schools visits in almost all parts of the country, and usually they’re splendid. I find out what kids like, don’t like, and want to see, and I’m often inspired by students. For example, Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars came about after walking throughout the halls of a school in Long Island and admiring the art on planets by first graders.

    Last fall, at a school in Cincinnati I saw some marvelous student art in a gym. When I asked the kids what medium they used, they told me oil pastels with watercolors. I’m now using oil pastels and watercolor with some collage in the book on trees I’m working on. I hope to impart my love of poetry and painting to the many children I see, and it’s most rewarding to hear kids laugh at my poems. I also love the questions such as “Have you ever had a real job?” My answer: “No, this is too much fun.”

    Douglas doing his impression of a seagull on a school visit in Ohio

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

    Douglas: I’m always amazed how kids can see things so freshly and originally. If a kid draws his hand which was hit by a hammer yesterday, he makes it huge. Picasso said all children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up. First we grow up, then we grow down.

    7-Imp: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell us about?

    Douglas: I’m almost finished with a book of poems and paintings about trees. It has a few surprises in it, but you’ll have to wait until next Spring to see it!

    Okay, the 7-Imp jet has landed, and the table’s set for our seven questions over breakfast. Now we’re ready to talk more specifics. Once again, I thank Douglas for cyber-stopping by.

    1. 7-Imp: 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?

    Douglas: When starting a book, I search for the mood or concept of the book. In DINOTHESAURUS, I wanted a metaphorical feeling in the art that reflected the text. So, I have a crane-like Brachiosaurus, a high-tech Giganotosaurus, and a lake-like Seismosaurus, to name a few. The research was done at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, with primary source books written by paleontologists, and with the dinosaurs moping around my back yard.

    {Pictured here is Bluesome (II-534).}

    I never really know where an illustration will go. I let the art have a life of its own. That’s why I hate to do rough sketches or a dummy. I want spontaneity and happy accidents.

    2. 7-Imp: Describe your studio or usual work space for us.

    Douglas: My work space is a big mess. That’s the way I like: I get lots of crosscurrents and jokes-tapositions flowing from one thing to the next. I work in a neighborhood called Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, in a building that used to be a piano factory. The heat pipes bang and the elevator gets stuck, but I love it and when I look out my window at noon I see the kids romping around the cement yard of Public School 111.

    3. 7-Imp: As book lovers, it interests us: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

    Douglas: As an early reader, I loved books with pictures of knights: hundreds, thousands, millions of knights in vast panoramas engaged in wars with their horses, armor, shields, spears, cannons, flags, and pennants. A tiny bit of that snuck into my insectlopedia. Later, between fifth and sixth grade, I grew to love the witty poetry of Ogden Nash.

    “I’m higher than five elephants. / I’m longer than most whales. / My giant neck is balanced by / My forty-three-foot tail. / A tail that is my weapon. / It swings from side to side. / From nose to tail I’m ninety feet— / Hey kid, ya wanna ride?”

    4. 7-Imp: If you could have three (living) illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

    Douglas: I’ve already met so many great artists, but I’m a fan of Sara Fanelli, Henrik Drescher, and Maira Kalman, to name a few. {Ed. Note: Kalman’s self-portrait is pictured here, taken from her site.}

    5. 7-Imp: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

    Douglas: I am currently listening to Them (Van Morrison’s take on Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”), Crowded House (“Don’t Dream It’s Over”), and Fred Neil’s “The Dolphins,” all on YouTube.

    “What’s Minmi’s BIGGEST claim to fame? /
    It has the smallest dinosaur name.”

    6. 7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

    Douglas: I would climb to the tops of sycamore trees when I was eight.

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

    Douglas: Who is your favorite artist?

    Paul Klee, hands down and hands up.

    Florian’s Seventeen shapes with a place of their own (I-522)

    * * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

    7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

    Douglas: “Yes.” Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, yes, Yes, Yes. Did I say Yes? Yes!

    7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

    Douglas: “But,” especially when it follows “Yes.”

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

    Douglas: Nature, of course. But also the way other people perceive nature, and the way other people perceive other people, hopefully with an open mind and heart.

    7-Imp: What turns you off?

    Douglas: Hatred, intolerance, and spiders.

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

    Douglas: Silence. Silence can be the cruelest curse.

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

    Douglas: I love the sound of someone saying, “I love you.” As the poet Dante said, “Love that moves the sun and other stars.”

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

    Douglas: I hate the sound of someone saying, “I hate you.”

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

    Douglas: Gastroenterologist. I always wanted to do a colonoscopy, or at least a semi-colonoscopy.

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

    Douglas: Editor. I would hate to have to judge and criticize other people’s work. I once did it for a friend, and she hated me for it. And soldier, of course.

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

    Douglas: “You know all those people who died in wars, and the Black Plague, and the Holocaust? Well, they’re here, and they say Hello and thanks for thinking about them.”

    * * * * * * *

    All photos and illustrations—with the exception of the coffee mug, book covers, and self-portrait of Maira Kalman—courtesy of Douglas Florian. All rights reserved.

    Spreads from DINOTHESAURUS © 2009 by Douglas Florian. Published by Simon & Schuster—Atheneum Books for Young Readers. New York, NY. Posted with permission of author/illustrator. All rights reserved.

    24 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Douglas Florian”

    1. Hey Jules – thanks for the interview. I love Mr. Florian’s work! Glad to hear that he’s a fan of Fred Neil’s The Dolphins – also a favorite of mine.

    2. Lovely, lovely interview. I’m so amazed by folks who write AND create the art for their own books. What a gift.

    3. Thanks Jules and Douglas for another terrific interview and window into another amazing artist’s work and soul!

    4. Semi-colonoscopy made me guffaw. I heart Douglas in a big way, and this interview is just one more reason to add to the pile of reasons why.

    5. my goal in life is to write a book of kidlit poetry good enough that i can blow my first royalty check on a piece of original art by douglas florian. great job, great interview, great.

    6. Love the breakfast choice and the illustrations. And how true that silence can be the cruelest curse.

      Wonderful interview!

    7. Douglas Florian is one of the great book artists of our time and you have managed to capture a bit of his wacky love-filled way of looking at language. Once my daughter learned his WINTER DAY book by heart and she would walk outside, hands in pockets, look up and say: “Snowy day. Cold and grey.” He taught both of us to bend language. Thank you for giving us this look into his life!

    8. Faboo interview! Great seagull impression, too :).

    9. Jules, thanks for this interview with one of my favorite children’s poets. Something great about Douglas Florian’s poetry books: I could always order a copy of any of his new books without reading a review of it or seeing it in a book store–and know I would not be disappointed when I got it. Florian is definitely consistent in creating illustrated poetry books that both kids and adults delight in reading.

      I love all of his books–but my absolute favorite is INSECTLOPEDIA. That book–and all his other poetry collections–were really popular with my elementary students. One of my students was so crazy about his poem “The Daddy Longlegs” that he used it as a model for a Father’s Day poem he wrote for his dad.

      BTW, I’m giving away a copy of DINOTHESAURUS as a poetry prize for the second week of National Poetry Month at Wild Rose Reader. I’ll do the drawing next Sunday. Anyone who leaves a comment at one of my WRR posts dated April 5-11 is eligible for the drawing.

    10. That French toast sounds very good. I have also been very anxiously awaiting the arrival of Dinothesaurus in my library. I enjoy Florian’s work as a rule, but I do particularly love that title.

    11. Thanks for this piece on Douglas Florian. I tremendously enjoy Mr Florian’s work… but not half as much as my 6- to 10-year old students do. I was amazed at how true-to-life his blog’s self-portrait is to the real thing #’-)

      As a follow-up to his favorite word, I thought he might enjoy this poem by Lucia & James Hymes, Jr which my second graders have fun reciting.

      My Favorite Word

      There is one word-
      My favorite-
      The very, very best.
      It isn’t No or Maybe.
      It’s Yes Yes, Yes, Yes, YES!
      Yes, yes, you may,” and
      “Yes, of course,” and
      Yes, please help yourself.”
      And when I want a piece of cake,
      “Why, yes. It’s on the shelf.”
      Some candy? “Yes.”
      A cookie? “Yes.”
      A movie? “Yes, we’ll go.”
      I love it when they say my word:
      Yes, Yes, YES! (Not No.)

    12. Thanks to everyone, especially Jane for that poem and Debra for that great little story. Elaine, I know that whoever gets the copy of DINOTHESAURUS should be very happy. It’s a great book. My five-year-old is nearly obsessed with it. And we made a song out of the word “Micropachycephalosaurus.”

      Tricia, yes, what a gift. David, I hope you get that original art one day.

    13. YES!!!

    14. […] Rebecca Kai Dotlich. Jane Yolen and I have three forthcoming books, and there will soon be one with Douglas Florian. Having written two non-poetry titles with my daughter, Beth Zappitello, has been especially […]

    15. […] am so happy Douglas Florian could join us as a guest poetry poster! He is an amazing artist, and an hysterically funny poet. […]

    16. I love Dougas Florian’s poetry books. And I don’t enjoy reading interviews with autbors (especially authors) or illustrators, but couldn’t resist this one. And his answers are just as fresh and funny as his poems, and the pictures are beautiful.

    17. I’ve just shared your website and parts of your interview with my second graders. We are looking forward to our puppet show featuring all your fabulous poems! My class wishes you a great day and wanted you to know they LOVED your books.
      My class was excited to hear you had five children and asked the ages of your kids.
      Amy Rich and students at The Ensworth School (Second Grade)

    18. Thank you for sharing this interview. Florian is my favorite poet! i still read his poetry to my 10 year old son.

    19. […] since my column from last week, a tribute to Uncle Shelby himself, included mention of Douglas Florian’s Poem Depot: Aisles of Smiles (Dial, February 2014), as well as Karma Wilson’s Outside the […]

    20. […] and he shares lots of art, especially from his latest illustrated book, J. Patrick Lewis’ and Douglas Florian’s Poem-mobiles (Schwartz and Wade, January 2014). Fitting, since it’s National Poetry Month! So […]

    21. Douglas Florian is visiting our school library at the end of April 2015. I will share of this interview with my students are we prepare for his visit. Thank you

    22. […] Interview on Seven Impossible Things before Breakfast […]

    23. […] Walker(Click to enlarge spread slightly)   This morning over at Kirkus, I write about Douglas Florian’s How to Draw a Dragon. That link will be here […]

    24. […] I wrote here last week about Douglas Florian’s How to Draw a Dragon (Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster, April 2015), I’ve got some spreads […]

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