Life + An Interview with Brendan Wenzel

LIFE

by Cynthia Rylant and Brendan Wenzel (Simon and Schuster, 2017)

This book is a showstopper, and this duo is so very right. Life takes a look at just that: the hopes and hardships of living things. It’s a sophisticated idea rendered with exquisite simplicity.

I got to chat with Caldecott Honoree Brendan Wenzel about books and making this one in particular. Meet Brendan!

When, how, or why did you get into picture books?

I had the good fortune of being raised by two artists. My dad is the illustrator David T Wenzel, probably best known for his graphic novel adaptation of The Hobbit, and my mom Janice Wenzel was an art educator for 25 years until she retired in 2013. As a kid, artwork hung on most walls in our house, and my family of course had a huge picture book collection.

Seeing both my parents work on their own projects and my dad create book after book made me realize early on how exciting and gratifying the art and bookmaking process could be. That interest continued through high school and college and eventually led me to a career making books.

How did Life come to you as a manuscript, and what were your first thoughts about the text?

I recently had a conversation with another illustrator about how a manuscript occasionally lands on your desk that seems to synch perfectly with where you are in life, how you’re feeling, and subjects you can’t stop thinking about. Life was one of those texts for me. Cynthia Rylant’s words—which were originally sent by my editor Andrea Welch through my agent Steven Malk—absolutely captured the feelings I had experienced while interacting with nature and connected them in beautiful and unexpected ways.

I knew instantly I wanted to illustrate the book, and the icing on the cake was the chance to collaborate with Beach Lane Books, with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working on several projects, including Angela DiTerlizzi’s Some Bugs, which was the first book I illustrated for a publisher in the US.

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Can you tell us about your process?

I knew I would need to approach the book a bit differently than some of my past projects. Much of my previous work has been very playful, but Cynthia’s beautiful words seemed to pull in a slightly different direction. After reading the manuscript many, many times, I began to take long walks in the parks near my house. I would jot down notes and take photographs of anything I crossed paths with that reminded me of the text. This included things like patterns made by bark and soils, pathways through the forest, and the shapes left behind by melting snow.

I continued to think about the elements that combine to create life and how to incorporate them into the book. Originally I had toyed with creating the illustrations from materials found outside—soil, twigs, and plant matter. But after a day of experimenting in my tiny studio, I moved away from this direction. I experimented a lot before finally beginning to create images that felt right. I laid down thick, chunky brushstrokes of acrylic to create the rocks and earth, and I used watercolor and pencil to create the dense foliage that grows throughout the book.

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Who are some of your story heroes?

Probably the two people who I’ve admired for the longest are Jane Goodall and David Attenborough. As someone who is passionate about wildlife and conservation, their work has been very inspiring and motivating. This is for many reasons, but especially because they have both found creative ways to share their interest in and enthusiasm for the natural world.

What’s your favorite piece of art in your house?

A couple years ago I worked with Fauna and Flora International on an educational initiative to raise awareness about the critically endangered Siamese crocodile, whose wild population has been estimated to consist of fewer than 1,000 individuals. Toward the end of the project I was able to go to Cambodia, meet the team I’d been working with, and see their crocodile breeding center.

While in Phnom Penh, the project’s very kind leader presented me with a set of footprints from a big female crocodile. The image, which at first glance looks almost like a scaly human hand stamped in green paint on watercolor paper, was created during a veterinary checkup. I was thrilled with the gift and hung the framed image at the entrance to my studio. The footprints serve as the perfect daily reminder of all those rare and fascinating creatures going about their business in wild places around the world. I don’t know if this falls under the traditional definition of art, but it’s my favorite thing hanging in the house, hands down.

What’s next for you?

I just submitted final artwork for a book I wrote and illustrated called Hello Hello. The project, which uses a sequence of related animals to take a look at the ways in which we relate to the world around us, will be out with Chronicle Books in Spring 2018. Aside from that, I have a sketch book filled with preliminary work for a few new projects that I am really excited about. I will be going to Maine next week, where I will be gleefully fleshing them out under the close watch of a few thousand pine trees and probably a porcupine or two.

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They All Saw a Cat

CAT_INSTA

by Brendan Wenzel (Chronicle Books, 2016)

You might have heard about this book.

You might have read the fascinating and buzz-inducing article on its acquisition.

You might have heard Matthew Winner and Brendan Wenzel in conversation here. (And do if you haven’t! It’s a treat.)

You might have seen Emily Arrow’s super sweet song and video. (Kid-tested and approved in my library!)

You might have seen many, many bloggers invite the Caldecott (and Geisel!) committee to the party on this one. (See here, here, here, and here.)

All of those people saw a cat. And I did too!

But somehow, Brendan Wenzel actually wrote a cat.

Let’s break it down.

The opening spread is an introduction to the character, his journey, and his senses. The art asks us to follow, but so do the words.

Read this out loud.

The cat walked through the world,

with its whiskers, ears, and paws . . .

You can hear the hiss of a cat in the final sound of the words in that second line. Its, whiskers, ears, and paws. The words are the cat. The cat is in the words.

Even better, look at those three words that begin with w. Walked, world, with, and whiskers. Not only is that a lovely example of alliteration, it’s also paced in such a way that each W sound becomes the quiet pitter-patter of our cat’s paws. Read it out loud again. Do you hear how with drops out a bit, but each of the other Ws are stressed beats?

And we know cats are observers and quiet hunters, so it’s a perfect starting sound that’s both nonchalant and predatory.

Once the reader has followed that cat into the book, we are treated to a true visual feast. It’s a remarkable look at perspective and interacting with the world. Our cat shifts from fearful to fierce over the pages. Isn’t that how we all see the world?

But let’s take a look at the creatures who see the cat. The book is paced in threes, a tried-and-true structure in many forms of storytelling.

Up first, the child, the dog, and the fox.

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Look at how those connect:

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And then Wenzel revisits the opening, reminding us of the cat’s mission, giving us a brief respite from the adventure and another opportunity to experience that rich language.

And then:

fish mouse Listen to those sounds: short i, the ow of mouse (a dipthong, /au/!), and a long e.

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It’s almost a meow. Can you hear it?

And then we’ve got a real romp.

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This time, a bird, a flea, a snake, a skunk, a worm, and a bat.

Bird follows bee.

Flea reminds of that bee too.

A snake, a skunk.

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fleabee

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A worm from down low, a bat from up high.

And a bat, our (almost) final watcher, perfectly rhymes with cat.

You’re going to hear a lot about the visual acuity of this book, and that is wholly deserved. But take note of the text. It’s also seeing things differently. And saying them, and hearing them, and experiencing them. This is the beauty of the picture book, and this is a spectacular one.

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Thank you to Chronicle Books for the interior images in this post.