This is the second part of an interview with the amazingly talented Emberley family, all of whom have careers in the children’s book field. In Part 1 you saw that Ed has done a hundred books and counting, many of which his wife Barbara wrote. Ed and his daughter Rebecca have collaborated on ten books and she has done many of her own. Michael, her brother, has written and illustrated dozens of successful books and ten years ago married Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, an Irish author illustrator who, like Michael, publishes with Candlewick.
JAZ: Hello Rebecca!
RE: I want to preface all of this by saying that when we were growing up, our life was just our life…we didn’t know any differently. Once we reached school age we knew it was different, but that didn’t really make us anything but odd. It is only in retrospect that others see it as magical. As teens, our parents were just as embarrassing as everyone else’s. I was teased mercilessly in Jr High for being seen out and about town with my family, riding bikes and god forbid – jogging on the beach (in front of the town lifeguards – horrors!!!)
We were heavily involved in sports and lots of family trips, the art was just one aspect of our lives and for us it was definitely a business.
It was a different time. Fathers were mostly absent, kids roamed free and my folks kept a pretty tight rein on us.
Of course we liked “doing art” but it just was. And it was often lonnnnggg instruction. I see people crestfallen when they want to hear that it was all fairies and jelly beans and that my father was Willy Wonka…not so — just people. Flawed and fabulous sometimes, but just people….
JAZ: When did you first realize that you wanted to devote your life to writing and illustrating children’s books?
RE: I’m not sure that I would call it a devotion. I create lots of art. It’s integrated into my everyday life, it’s who I am – a creator. Part of that is children’s books. It was the family business in which I received my training. That said, I like what I do and strive to tell a story that reaches children of all ages!
JAZ: Your dad said that he used to hire you and Michael to do separations when you were in high school. That sounds better than flipping burgers for gas money!
RE: There were really no burger joints where I grew up and the job choices were even more limited, so we were happy to do it. (Although I hated the erasing when there was a mistake and I made plenty of those!) We also did lots of handcrafts and I did A LOT of craft fairs to earn a living through my 20’s. My mother and brother as well.
JAZ: You’ve brought your own ideas about ways to sell your books and also your use of dual language books. You are also self publishing some. These seem like good strategies.
RE: Hmmmm, Two Little Birds Books is in flux at the moment. Self pub can be a good way to go if you have a niche book or you LOVE to go out and promote. I am doing trade publishing and some of the titles are mine but the cycle is different from self – pub. Not sure right at this moment where I am headed next!
JAZ: Your cut paper collages are lively and inventive. Is that your preferred medium?
(JAZ Note – here’s a link to the exhuberant Chicken Little trailer.)
JAZ: How do you feel about illustrating digitally? Ed said that the books you worked on together were all done with traditional cut paper. Do you submit scanned versions to press or do you send originals and let them do the scanning? Have you done any books only digitally?
RE: To explain the way I work now; I cut paper from brown shipping paper but it could be any paper, then they get scanned into the computer, I color them on screen and the work proceeds from there. So all files I submit now are digital. The color control is much better, but you lose some depth. The reason I gave up traditional collage as an illustration technique is because of repeat use injury in my right hand from too many years of using scissors and exacto knives to “draw”. I still have a love-hate relationship with the computer. My father was the tech guy who pushed me into it and it worked!
JAZ: You have collaborated with your father on ten books. Is that an easy, natural process?
RE: It worked better than I thought it would but only because my father capitulated to me for the most part…we both like to be the boss and there could be only one. In the old days he was the boss/director, this time around I was the director.
We both had skills the other didn’t. He really was the tech guy and solved all the tech issues AND – I am terrible at doing 3/4 view in collage, he does it easy as pie; so if you see a 3/4 view of a character in our books, he did it. I make decisions much more quickly than he does and he will try to re-work something forever – if I can’t be satisfied in a few tries I toss it and move on. We did page layouts together, sometimes both of us trying to move the action one on a mouse and one on the touch pad and wondering why nothing was moving. Most of the character design and creation was mine, but not all, we leave it a mystery as to which is which. I can tell just by looking at the style but few can…
JAZ: What’s the craziest thing that has happened while working with him?
RE: not telling…
JAZ: He and your mom mentioned the cartoonist society meeting you went to yesterday at the Worcester Art Museum. How was that?
RE: I arrived late but they were a myriad and interesting group! Cartooning is perhaps harder hit even than the picture book industry and those of us in a certain age group spent some time discussing how to stay employed going forward. I’ve had a chance to look over their work online and it’s all very cool.
JAZ: Which books are your favorites among your babies? What are you working on now?
RE: Mmmm not sure, some I liked the outcome, some I loved doing them.
I am currently working on a children’s show. Magazine format, animation and live action, how-to art for children…
JAZ: Is there any advice you can give to writers and illustrators who are trying to break in now?
RE: Sure – if you’re not already writing and or illustrating right now – every day – you may want to walk away and find another job. It’s a crowded field and if you want to do it for a living it (in my humble opinion) it has to be something you do without being reminded or “finding the time”. You need to have several books near complete, publishers want to invest in a person not a single book. If you’re there, in that sweet spot, then try to find an agent because it is tougher to do unsolicited stuff right now. All that said – there is still the possibility that you have a one off that will be a run-away best seller, so who am I to tell you no?
JAZ: Hello Michael! I’m sure you have an intriguing perspective on the Emberley dynasty from where you are in Ireland. How is publishing looking from over there?
ME: My books published with Candlewick Press in Massachusetts, like, It’s Perfectly Normal, It’s So Amazing! etc. are sold here through their sister company, Walker Books in London. But they are unusual in having a duel relationship. All my other major publishers, like Little, Brown, Simon and Schuster, Scholastic etc., do have London or Dublin offices, but it’s hard to break that Atlantic barrier.
Some of it is protectionism. Here in Ireland, Irish authors are understandably given preference. It’s a tiny market and there’s little room for the Yanks. Most UK, and almost all Irish authors make very little money. Seldom enough to live on even. So it’s hard to break in, and also, frankly, difficult to justify dedicating much time trying to get a book published when I will likely lose money on it. My creative output is limited, and the whole publishing industry is slowing down. Also, I have to be honest that the Irish just aren’t interested in my work. Not so far.
Perhaps in the future I’ll have a book published and or sold here, or even be considered for an award. I’m eligible now, as resident almost ten years and duel citizen. But, for now it remains only a dream to be recognised by my adopted country in such a way.
It has been interesting hearing about whether my work looks American or Irish/European. I do have to pay attention at this point as I will sell most of my books in the USA, I have to be careful not to look to “Euro”.
My latest book, Priscilla Gorilla, may be American looking but you’re bound to see influences by now.
JAZ: Do you work with an agent? If so, a literary or an artists agent?
ME: I only took on an agent in the last two years. Literary agent Rick Richtor. I knew Rick from when he was the head of sales for the newly created Candlewick Press, (the offshoot of Walker Books in London). The book, It’s Perfectly Normal, written by my friend and partner Robie Harris, was their first all-American signing.
I don’t know why I waited so long getting an agent. But with the industry changing so fast, I thought I needed help. Another of my friends and author collaborators, Barbara Bottner, was looking to change agents, and when I told her I was going to sign with Rick, she contacted him and ended up signing with him too. So we sold our first book together represented with Rick. All in the family…
JAZ: Have you and Marie-Louise ever collaborated on a book? Might you?
ME: No, not yet. But we do, as Mel has said, look at each other’s work and comment. We talk about possible projects all the time. We do have this one idea, an idea that has percolated up from years ago. We were in the US with my parents, I was eavesdropping on a family in a coffee shop we were in, and I made one of my typical, “Hey here’s an idea…” and we all talked about it. I’ve never gotten around to doing it myself, but we keep talking about it and Mel adds her part, and I add two cents, and if it ever makes it to book form, it will truly be an organic project. No, I can’t tell you what it’s about…
JAZ: Ruby is one cool book, partly because the Little-Brown connection is slipped into the pictures in a fun way. Do you have a favorite among your books?
ME: Ruby might be the one. It was my first published book, that I both wrote and illustrated. Back when Little, Brown & Co., my publisher at the time, had it’s offices in these old buildings on top of Beacon Hill in Boston. For those who don’t know Boston, Beacon Hill has some of the oldest, narrowest streets in the US. The closest thing to a European village in America. I lived in Boston at the time as well, and drew the illustrations for Ruby sketching the local streets for background. The end-sheets remember, are the view from my old studio windows. People who grew up in places like Texas or California I’ve met at book signings thought I made up the setting…The story, as you know, is a satire on Little Red Riding Hood. The address Ruby goes to visit her granny at is 34 Beacon street, at the time, Little, Brown’s address.
JAZ: Hello Marie-Louise! You are the only Emberley I haven’t yet met. I suspect you are as child-hearted as the rest of the family, therefore a wonderful person. You are enriching this already amazing family!
M-L: Hi Joyce. Sounds like a fun blog.
JAZ: How does it feel to be part of a picturebook dynasty?
M-L: I met Michael at a children’s book conference (of course) ten years ago, so I’m still getting used to becoming part of a family of picture book creators!
Getting to listen to Ed tell stories about decades of working in publishing, about how various books came into being, getting to ask questions about various techniques he’s used, getting to hang out in his workroom and studio – and work in them sometimes when we’re visiting – that is all pretty special. We do tend to ‘talk shop’ quite a bit when we all get together. I find both Michael and Rebecca have very practical, business-like attitudes to the book industry, which must come from growing up with it as the family business. They are artists first and foremost, but aren’t romantic about the industry – they expect to have to act professionally and to be treated that way too. That’s been educational for me – there can be a lot of fluffing and faffing in the children’s book world! I’ve also learnt a lot about US publishing and been introduced to the work of many American writers and illustrators I didn’t know before – a lot of picture books and novels don’t make it to this side of the pond, and vice versa.
Michael and myself do tend to look at each other’s work in the early stages. Michael is particularly good at giving specific, detailed feedback- not always easy to take but always, always useful, because he’s nearly always spot-on. Basically, I have my own in-house editor!
JAZ: What in your experience is different between the American and European children’s book fields?
M-L: I mainly work with UK publishers. UK and US children’s picture books are quite similar in many respects. The biggest difference, I think, is that UK publishers don’t publish the same range of topics as the US. There are lots of picture book biographies published in the US, for instance, and books around particular holidays like Halloween. These would be more unusual in the UK because UK publishers are dependent on co-editions – they publish small quantities of a title for their home market and spread the costs by selling foreign rights. This means they rarely publish a title which is very culturally specific, unless they expect it to sell extremely well in the UK. They also publish fewer rhyming texts, because of difficulty translating. Very few picture books are published in Ireland. Those that are will always be aimed solely at the Irish market, so have to perform very well with both Irish customers and tourists.
In the sixties American and UK picturebook makers created many wild and ground-breaking books but by the time I started making picture books in the late eighties things had become more conservative. The biggest difference between US and UK publishing and other European countries, like France and Italy, was breadth and sophistication, I think. The French, Italians and other European publishers really push the envelop a lot subject-wise, and also in art styles. They have a long history of seeing picture books as books, as opposed to books for little kids. In the last decade the wheel has turned again, the US and UK have become far more artistically adventurous and innovative, and people are responding by seeing picture books as beautiful objects they want to collect for themselves, as well as give to the children in their lives.
JAZ: I truly love the cover for There. Your art is so evocative. Do you have advice for young American artists and writers looking to get into doing picture books?
M-L: Concentrate on developing your own voice as a writer and your visual voice as an illustrator. You are the unique thing you have to offer. The work you put out there has to be the best you can possibly make it. Look at the best picture books you can get your hands on and examine them. Read them out loud so you can hear the sound and rhythm of the text. Read the illustrations – become fluent in the language of illustration. Set the bar for your work high and then try to reach it. Only the very best work gets published.
JAZ: Thank you for sharing!
Hi Marcia. Yes, they are definitely fun. That’s true of most children’s book people – most are just tall children! Thinking about a whole family of them in one house must make for amazing times!
What a great interview, fun to learn more about this talented family!