Interview with Arnold Lobel by Lucy Rollin
Rollin: We talked yesterday about your illustrations of animals, and how you balance them between being human and being animal.
Lobel: My reason for that isn't all intellectual. It's a way of creating something that seems new. It's a very practical thing to do. In Piger- icks, for example, if I had made them people, someone would have thought that I had the audacity to imitate Lear. But sometimes it is a conscious process. Children's books today reach such a wide audi- ence that if you make your characters people, you have to make them some kind of people. If Frog and Toad were two gentlemen, for instance, think of the questions that would occur to you: How old are they? Where are their parents? How do they earn their money? What in fact is their relationship? They seem to have childish inter- ests, and yet they live alone as adults. If I made them two middle- aged gentlemen all of those things would occur to you. It's part of the suspension of disbelief, and it's a very, very tricky thing. I would never, for instance, have them pick up a telephone to talk to each other. That would cut into the world that I have created in some way that I cannot exactly articulate. But by making this little world with these two strange creatures in it, I bring them to everybody; all different kinds of people can enjoy that. I want my work to appeal to everybody. This is a conscious part of my thinking when I create my animal characters.
Rollin: Is there another Frog and Toad in the plans?
Lobel: No, I'm not going to do any more. I don't want them to become another commodity on the American scene. But it also occurred to me, when I was doing the last one, that there was a certain cruelty in the relationship, in Frog being the controlling one and Toad being controlled.
Rollin: It sounds as though they took on a life outside the books.
Lobel: Well, they did take on a life; lots of authors have said that about their characters. And Frog and Toad started to take on this life, and I perceived something there that I didn't want to continue.
Rollin: How many I Can Read books have you done now?
Lobel: I've written about twelve and illustrated many others: When I first began to illustrate, the I Can Read series was just beginning. I was terribly lucky to walk in the door of Harper's, and they were looking for illustrators for all these manuscripts. It could not have been more fortuitous.
Rollin: Is it easier to illustrate one or to write one?
Lobel: To illustrate somebody else's manuscript is an entirely differ- ent profession, whether it's an I Can Read book or something else. I want to keep doing both because I think both are very valuable. Every now and then some editor will say, "t have this wonderful manuscript but I didfft send it to you because I heard you weren't illustrating other people's manuscripts." And you know', [ say that's not true. For financial reasons I don't want to do it exclusively, but I certainly want to do it occasionally. It's good for my talent and for a kind of security. I can't always be a fountain of ideas. If I have several years where I don't conceive of anything original, I can always illustrate other people's work.
Rollin: When you do an I Can Read book, do the editors supply you with the limited vocabulary they expect you to use?
L o b e l: I understand there are some publishers who do that, but Harper's never would dream of that. I have total freedom, and t!he only harness is that I am aware as I work that I'm doing a reader. If there are words I can't find a comfortable substitute for, I'll put a big word in. I've used the word somersault, and the word nervous. There's one Christmas story where Toad "decorates" a tree. I thought I could find a simpler way of saying that, but I couldn't. You could "trim" the tree, but that's ambiguous. You could "put balls on" the tree, but that's even worse. So we left it at "decorate." My theory is, if the child is interested in the story he'll learn the words.
Rollin: Do you get letters from children often?
L o b e l: Oh, yes, it's getting to be a big problem, because I get lots of letters, and I answer them. I let them pile up, and then I just take two or three days off and answer. In the early days when I didn't get too many letters, I would write a long letter and draw a little picture. Now they get a great big picture and a little letter, sort of like Joan Crawford in Hollywood. A lot of teachers use it as a way to teach the letter format. The funniest letter I ever got was a very beautifully written letter that the teacher had obviously written the form for on the blackboard. It had the date in the right place and the salutation, and then the body: "Dear Mr. Lobel, I like your work very much," etc., a very sweet letter. Then it said, "Love, NAME." I couldn't answer that one! But why not use the letter that way? It used to bother me, but after all, the child went to the library and picked me. He could have written to any author.
Rollin: Do you try to read the published criticism of your work?
L o b e l: There isn't much published criticism about my work. Pub- lishers are not very good about getting journal material to the author. Reviewing of children's books is almost nonexistent in the popular media, except for Christmas. And I find that in the library organs, often the quality of the reviewing is appallingly superficial. I would prefer an intelligent bad review. The most obvious is missed. You've worked long to create something, and they say, "Mr. Lobel's watercolors are very charming." This is not reviewing.
Rollin: It seems to me sometimes that the most overused word in children's literature reviews is "delightful."
Lobel: Yes. And yet children's books, the best of them, are not delightful. My favorites, anyway, strike deep. The artists that do the best ones are able to make them delightful on one level, but that's just the whipped cream on top. Underneath there is something much more. William Steig, for instance, is a great favorite of mine. His drawings look so effortless, but his books deal with moral issues, moral decisions, that are really profound. And I think children sense this underpinning, and that the parents like the books too.
Rollin: Are there other artists whose work you admire?
Lobel: Beatrix Potter, for one, obviously. And Lear. And I learn a lot by looking not only at other children's book illustrators, but at, for example, Rembrandt. Right now I'm illustrating a book about Anton Van Leeuwenhoek, who invented the microscope. I wasn't enthusiastic at first, but then I discovered he was a contemporary of Rembrandt's, so I'm doing the book in the style of a Rembrandt etching. It won't look like a Rembrandt etching, I assure you. But I have my Rembrandt at my side as I'm working, and I look at it and I study it. I often do that if there is a particular art period or an artist that I like and feel is appropriate. I did that with As I Was Crossing Boston Common; it was based on those 19th century besti- aries. I call that a handle. It's a way of getting into something.
Rollin: Maurice Sendak has often spoken about the influence that Disney cartoons had on his work. Have you been influenced by cartoons?
Lobel: Well, in my early work, like Mister Muster, the whole style was influenced by watching television over the heads of my chil- dren. That's all I was able to do in those days. I was just beginning, and I was glad I could do that. I used to loathe my early books, but now they're so far removed from me that I can see the charm in them.
Rollin: Has your craft changed, or your vision? Or can we separate them?
Lobel: I think it's a little of both. I think I learned at some point to use myself. At the beginning, I was creating nice little stories for children, which may have been an offshoot of being a parent. I think that parenthood takes away from you some of whatever is creative. It is very difficult to have children and create at the same time. Those early stories were just written for children, and there's noth- ing wrong with them; they're funny and pleasant. But after about ten years, I realized that there was no reason w h y I couldn't stop writing for children and start writing more out of my own feelings. I think that's how Frog and Toad came to be. It was the first time I had turned inward. It's a rather schizophrenic thing. I cared about what the story would be for children, but at the same time I was aware that all of the things that happened in it were essentially very personal to me and had resonances in my own life. I don't think that had happened before. I think possibly it was because the children were getting older and I had more time to be introspective and study the work of other artists that I liked. And I realized that quality was missing in my own work. I tell groups I speak to now that there's probably nothing more important than t h a t - t o be able to create a children's book that's also important to you, that is a self-expression, that isn't just done to amuse the children. I won't be happy unless my books are amusing to adults as welt.
Rollin: Sometimes adults are made very uncomfortable about some children's books, though, Sendak's, for instance.
Lobel: Yes, I think children are more comfortable with Outside, Over There than a lot of adults. I try not to intellectualize about my work too much, though, as I think perhaps Sendak has in his inter- views. If I get into trouble, then it helps to construct it in my mind intellectually and start again. But I try to think of myself as an enter- tainer primarily.
Rollin: You mentioned in your speech yesterday the similarity between children's books and the movies.
Lobel: In a book, you are using pictures in a narrative way, and the turning of the page is like a cut in a movie. If a movie is well done and you're caught up in it, even if you know the plot backwards and forwards, you're still pulled along by a rhythm. Alfred Hitchcock movies are a good example. And in children's books, the pictures have a rhythm, from large to small, for instance. And sometimes really sequential pictures work, but I wouldn't force that on some- thing that I didn't think called for it.
Rollin: Your self-portraits in Pigerichs are so interesting, I t h i n k - showing yourself as an artist.
L o b e l: Well, I found that the children I talk to are absolutely fas- cinated by the creative process. They are not aware of other art forms particularly, but they see it in picture books. They know it's work, in some way. They see their parents go off to work, and they know this is my work; but their parents' work seems very distant from them, and what I'm doing is work, yet it's like play. If I go to a classroom and give a little talk, and then ask, "Is there a question?" every hand shoots up. And the questions are good questions, not dopey ones. They want to know how I do it, how long it takes, how many hours a day I work. So in Pigericks I felt if I just did forty pages of limericks, there would be no depth. So I used the self- portraits as a framework. I tried in a simple way to show that this was something that this person was creating, and then he had created it, finished it. In "Whiskers and Rhymes," I think this kind of thing is unnecessary because some of those rhymes have enough depth to carry themselves. You just deal with these things as they come along; there's no way to anticipate problems like that.
Rollin: We've talked mostly about your animal drawings. Do you think your drawings of people have changed, over the years?
Lobel: I think I feel more confident drawing animals. Maybe it's because I've done more of it. But also, I don't like drawing people in contemporary clothes. There was a time when I was getting all these manuscripts about Mommy and Daddy in the kitchen. They were like sitcoms on television. And I wouldn't illustrate them because I didn't grow up in a suburban atmosphere. I didn't have a Mommy and Daddy in the kitchen, and I don't know what Mommy and Daddy are like in the kitchen any more anyway. I think a book like that should be illustrated by somebody who has some kind of relationship to the material.
Rollin: What projects do you anticipate for the future?
Lobel: I'm going to do a big Mother Goose book for Random House.
Rollin: How do you feel about that? So many people have done Mother Goose.
Lobel: Yes, I do feel ambivalent. The other day I went into a book- store and there was a line of Mother Goose books fifteen miles long, so it'll be a challenge. I suppose the best thing that can happen is that I have to think, "Well, all those poor people will be wild with jealousy when they see my Mother Goose." That will be an incen- tive to try, anyway. And I'm the editor in this case; I get to pick the ones I like, like Humpty Dumpty.
Rollin: Those are good incentives.
Lobel: You know, I've been doing this for twenty years, and I'm continually dissatisfied. I make a religion of being dissatisfied. I don't think there is a point in doing a book and saying, "Isn't that wonderful?" Then you don't learn. When people ask what's the best book you ever did, there's no point in saying, "Oh, that was four years ago." That means everything since was worse, right? So I say, it's the next book. Then, you know, even though I've done the best book I think I can do, I know the book I'm going to do might be even better. It's all delusion, but it does keep one trying one's best.