The Emberley Picture-Book Dynasty: Part 1


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This is part 1 of a 2 part look at an amazing family of children’s book creators. This installment is about an exhibit and an interview with Ed Emberley and his wife Barbara, who started it all. The other half of this story will appear on Friday, April 7 and is an interview with Rebecca and Michael, who are the Emberley adult children, and Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, an Irish author/illustrator who is married to Michael.

Ed and Barbara Emberley’s One Wide River to Cross was the sole runner up for the Caldecott Award in 1967. The following year, Drummer Hoff really fired the Emberley career off in style, when it won the prestigious Caldecott Award. The story’s message of peace and disarmament, published during the Vietnam War, is still as hopeful today as ever. Barbara Emberley’s story adaptation and Ed Emberley’s brightly colored block print artwork, which he developed in his Ipswich, MA studio, were followed by a hundred more successful books. And while they collaborated on their books, Ed and Barbara were busy raising two children – Rebecca and Michael, who also write and illustrate children’s books. Later Michael married Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, who was creating her own picturebooks in Ireland. So, yes, Ed is at the center of an entire creative dynasty!

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Author-illustrator Kathie Kelleher gives scale to Ed Emberley’s musical banner at the museum.

If you have not already seen Kahbahblooom:The Art and Storytelling of Ed Emberley, you are in luck as there is still time left before the exhibit at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts closes on April 9, 2017.  This illuminating retrospective of the work of an artist and a storyteller who not only crafted books, but an entire family of book creators as well, includes much that today’s authors and illustrators can learn from. For the exhibit, the WAM produced this terrific video about the artist and his work.

Mr. Emberley used two main art styles for his first books: pen and ink, often with a very fine crow quill or croquille pen, and woodcuts. Originals from both styles are represented in the exhibit. Here is a sixteen minute video, produced by, in which the illustrator talks about his process.

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Fine crowquill pen lines and hand lettered type give this delicate art gentle beauty.
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Here you can see the crop marks that show where the page is to be trimmed.
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Sets of three parallel lines show where the gutter pinch – the center fold will be.
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The orange rubylith overlay indicates where a second color will print.

What is remarkable in the crow quill or croquille ink work is the delicacy of the fine lines and often how small the drawings are, each done at 100% – the exact size they were reproduced in the diminutive final books. On some of these layouts the crop marks and other indicators for the printer are visible. In the instances where there was a second color, the actual rubylith overlay is shown in the exhibited art. The rubylith would create the space on the negative for a given page which when made into a printing plate would then be inked with the correct color to be used on the finished book.

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Mr. Emberley’s seven foot tall original woodcut and a print used to promote Paul Bunyan.
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Here are printing plates for some of the illustrator’s artwork.
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Mr. Emberley’s original prints were made into copper printing plates to print some books.

For the woodcut illustrations, Mr. Emberley would carve the design into a wooden panel, in reverse, then ink the woodcut and run it through his fine art press. As indicated in the exhibit, his goal was to produce one perfect print for each page, which would be sent to the publisher for the commercial printer to use in printing the book. In those days, children’s books were printed in the USA and the artist would go to the press run to check on the outcome. When the book Paul Bunyan was produced, Mr. Emberley printed an oversized 7 foot tall woodcut he designed on 12” wide boards for a large promotional poster, which is fun to see framed on the wall of the exhibit. In some cases, copper plates were made from the one perfect print for each page and these are shown in the exhibit also.

Ed and Barbara Emberley have generously agreed to be interviewed for you, our readers, in this Part 1. In Part 2, Rebecca, Michael and Michael’s wife Marie-Louise will share their amazing experiences.

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Ed and Barbara Emberley at a house party at Halloween.

JAZ: As always, it’s so interesting to talk with you, Ed. When you started out you did not sell your work through an agent, right?

EE: No. Back then people didn’t, because agents charge 10%. Why would I do that?  Things were simpler then. A friend dropped off my manuscript for my first book The Wing on a Flea to Houghton Mifflin in Boston. At the time there were only two publishers in Boston. The manuscript sat there for a year with no response from the editor. Then my father-in-law picked it up from Houghton and dropped it off at Little Brown. They published it and it became one of the New York Times Ten Best Illustrated books. It sold really well. Luck is so important.

JAZ: Do you prefer drawing digitally or with traditional materials?

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This book uses die cuts.
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Ed and Anne met a while back at a party at my house!

EE: A computer is just a tool like any “traditional” art medium is also a tool–like a hammer or screwdriver. It’s what you do with them that counts. I love using every medium from crow quill to woodcuts. In most of the early books, and even now, the colors are hand separated. Usually there are three colors, sometimes four. You have to give the press the artwork in the form it needs. I did the dummies and the line work, then Barbara made the overlays for the color. Sometimes I’d have to say to her, “We can go on vacation only if you can finish these color separations first.” When my kids were young sometimes I paid them to do the separations based on my sketches. In fact, I think my Big Red Drawing Book was Michael’s first published book, which he did the separations for when he was still in high school. Anyway, I love playing with all art materials and styles.

JAZ: One Wide River to Cross was a Caldecott honor book, then Drummer Hoff hit it really big with the Caldecott medal. How amazing was that for a career-starter?

EE: The Caldecott announcements are made in January. One stormy night I received a call from someone at the American Library Association telling me that I had won the Caldecott award. I asked, “Is that good?” I wasn’t sure what it was all about! Who knows why one book is chosen over another, and I don’t feel that my work is any better than another illustrator’s work. But that award sure did turn out to be a good thing.

JAZ: Once Rebecca and Michael were older, did the four of you exchange ideas and inspirations? Dinnertime conversations must have been fascinating!

EE: Oh no. We never discussed the work, especially not free-lancing as a career, with the kids because we didn’t want to smother their own creativity. Both Rebecca and Michael had their own ideas about how they might spend their lives. Rebecca was always doing crafts and making things. Michael took a year off after high school to figure out what he wanted to do for a living. But they had seen that free-lancing meant the freedom of working at home, and neither of them really wanted a regular job. So, eventually they both became their own types of author/illustrator. Both of them do beautiful work in their own styles and their own voices.

JAZ: What about your collaborations with Rebecca? How does that work?

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The Itsy Bitsy Spider, Rebecca and Ed Emberley.

EE: We’ve done ten books together so far. I take orders from her. She’s the Director and Producer. I’m the Camera Man. It works out great. All parts of the artwork are hand cut out of paper, which she’s really good at. I love doing that artwork too. Every pair of scissors, or person is cut out by hand. It’s the artist’s job to make something out of it.

JAZ: Do you have any gems of wisdom for new author/illustrators hoping to succeed as you have?

EE: Today it’s very difficult to get started. You can’t just send something in “over the transom” as you used to. Publishers won’t accept simultaneous submissions either and they want to go through an agent whenever possible. There are so many more people sending stories in. Now you have to complete all of the artwork for the entire dummy when before you’d put in a few finished pieces in the dummy book and sketches for the rest. In the past each editor had a personal vision for what they wanted, but now the choices are more market-based. And editors are overwhelmed. When Houghton Mifflin published Polar Express (by Chris Van Allsberg ) and it made over a million dollars they decided to publish fewer books and target the ones most likely to be best sellers, so that narrowed the field. My advice to new people is to get a copy of the Artist’s Market  (note: There is now also a Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market) and advocate for yourself. Get an agent since they do know who is looking for what. The digital world needs to be explored as a way to build an audience for your books. I used to send out a new mailer every month. I worked in educational materials, textbooks, children’s magazines, wherever I could. You have to struggle and give yourself a certain amount of time to see if it will work for you.

JAZ: Thank you so much for all of this, Ed. You are truly amazing and so much fun to talk with. I heard Barbara there in the background. Can I speak with her also?

BE: Hello. It’s nice to hear from you. What can I help you with?

JAZ: Barbara, I wondered about what you were thinking when you adapted Drummer Hoff. The Vietnam War was raging then. Was that conflict on your mind?

BE: Actually that was Ed’s doing. We were of course thinking about Vietnam. It was a good time to do that book. All of the soldiers in the book helped to assemble Old Sultan the cannon, then Drummer Hoff fired it.

JAZ: Yes, and after the Kahbahbloom! page, the last picture is peaceful with birds nesting in the cannon muzzle. You did the color for that book, right?

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Peace at last – Old Sultan after Kahbahbloom!

BE: Yes, Ed did the black woodcut lines. I did the color. Lots of red.

JAZ: Did Ed take your text as is? Did you sometimes influence his artwork too?

BE: He doesn’t like to write much, so he took the stories as I gave them to him. No, I didn’t influence his art beyond a few simple comments here and there. He always knew what he wanted.

JAZ: So you also helped him with the hand separations of the color or was some of that his work too?

BE: Oh no. I did the separations. The hardest one was the ABC book. I thought I’d never finish that one. The colors had to match a color chart and it took forever. It was complicated. When I finished, Ed took a picture of me coming down the stairs holding the artwork and the stack of separations was 18” high. But I did more books for him, whenever I was needed. Some of the textbook work, too.

JAZ: As Rebecca and Michael grew, when did it become obvious that they would follow in the Emberley footsteps?

BE: Oh they were always talented. It took them a while to decide for themselves, but neither of them went to art school. They are just naturally talented. (Rebecca adds: “and we had 15 years of art/craft training from two college educated art school grads!!!!!”) I went to art school. As you know, that’s where Ed and I met.

JAZ: Are the two of you working on a book now?

BE: Oh no. I’m retired from that. Now I’m just the bookkeeper. I do our taxes. (laughs). I do whatever is needed.

JAZ: You’ve enjoyed an amazing life haven’t you, and an incredible family. And you’re still very active. Now there’s the Worcester Art Museum exhibit, which is terrific.

BE: Yes, it has been a lot of work, but lots of fun. We had lunch at a meeting of cartoonists there yesterday including Mo Willems and Hillary Price  and others that we know and some that we don’t know. (Ed pipes in that there was someone at the luncheon who draws for Mad Magazine) Yesterday at that gathering with Rebecca I felt like I am a mother to all of them!

For more on this amazing family, check out Ed Emberley’s Picturebook Dynasty: Part 2 on Friday, April 7, for interviews with Rebecca, Michael, and Marie-Louise about their books.


  1. Such a fun interview; I feel as though I was right in the room listening in on you all. I have a cherished signed copy of Drummer Hoff from many years back (personalized with my own little Ed Emberley turtle drawing). Thanks for sharing these wise glimpses into their careers, Joyce!


    1. It was my pleasure entirely, Marcia. I did have a chance to visit the exhibit again before it closed. The range of styles, media and even the range of scales (from about 4″ square to seven feet tall) Made it quite fascinating. And all of the Emberleys are such fantastic people. Marie-Louise is the only one I have not met at least once, but maybe someday. They are quite a crew.

      Liked by 1 person

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