The Emberley clan has been a powerhouse of design, innovation and visual flair for decades. Ed Emberley, the head of the dynasty and an eminent figure in American children’s publishing, has published over 100 books during the last 50 years. Having won many prizes, including the prestigious Caldecott Medal, he is probably best known and loved for his many series of instructional design books that have inspired confidence and empowerment around drawing in children for generations. His daughter Rebecca has been writing children’s books since the 1980s. Her work always possesses a striking visual dynamism and child-centred approach, and recently she has been involved in several collaborative picturebooks with Ed. Her brother Michael has created many fiction and non-fiction books along with his work on picturebooks, including solo projects as well as partnerships with well-known writers such as Mary Ann Hoberman. I was delighted to have the opportunity to discuss the challenges and processes of illustration for children with this multitalented family during their recent trip to Dublin.
Across your careers, you’ve all demonstrated an impressive capacity for imaginative play and design in a wide range of media and genres. How do you decide your approach and techniques for your next project? Do you set yourself the challenge of trying something new?
Michael: Never! In a critical book or film review, ‘unoriginality’ is usually used as the ultimate criticism, but if you really like a book, like Harry Potter, you don’t mind or notice that it’s essentially a story that has happened before. The important thing for me is if I create a story that connects with people and is successful at expressing something human.
Rebecca: There’s no way of knowing how a book will turn out. Editors are the first stop and they either like it or they don’t, but it’s always worth doing the work and putting it out there to see what happens. If I tried to make each new project ‘fresh’, it would feel contrived. I can only do what seems new to me.
Ed: I wouldn’t be a good editor or marketer because I would never have predicted that my two most successful books would have had the long life that they’ve enjoyed. Little Green Monster and the Drawing Book of Animals have sold millions of copies yet both have very simple and repetitive text. I thought that once a child read that kind of book once and got to the last page, they wouldn’t want to read it again. Was I wrong!
M: The most important thing for engaging children is making sure to keep the story and the level as complicated, for what they can handle, as possible but not to be caught up with the cleverness and intricacies of adult life.
While the right of the reader to choose and to make their own decisions is crucial, the reality is that young readers are operating within a system where the adults usually have the power and authority of selecting books. How do you feel about the role and the power of teachers in choosing fiction and non-fiction for children?
R: There are classroom books and there are home books, although some teachers and librarians are better at making good choices than others. When I was raising my daughter, she had access to books at home that weren’t available in school and vice versa. As a parent, I wouldn’t give up control about what my children should to be exposed to, but I think librarians and teachers are great at guiding and exploring what children respond to. The important thing is that children are reading and are able to choose from everything that’s out there.
E: I don’t think you can or you should talk children into liking a particular author or series. All you can do is present the choices, like you would to your own children, and if kids take to a particular book, they take to it. It’s very difficult to actually reach the child reader since you have to go through all these adults: the editor, the marketing director, the bookstore, the teacher and the parents.
Some kind of curating process is needed for selecting and organising access to enriching books for children, but have you ever had an experience where one of your books has been challenged on any grounds by parents or teachers?
M: I worked with the author Robie Harris for over 10 years on three sex education books for children (including Let’s Talk About Where Babies Come From and It’s Perfectly Normal). There has been a lot of moral and political debate around this series and whether its ‘suitable’ for children. It’s actually quite easy to challenge a book in the US and difficult to counter this process. One person can fill out a single slip at a public library and request that a book, such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, be removed from the catalogue. That starts a kind of process where individuals begin to eliminate books from the public sphere based on particular moral and political reasons and it can take a significant period of time to get the book reinstated and placed back on the shelf. In my experience, many librarians in the US are quite heroic about standing up to pressures from their communities.
R: Another kind of censorship is on the retail level. There’s silent censorship happening in the current battle between the two big powerhouses, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, around what they decide gets promoted and what gets into the bookstores. When I was working as an independent publisher, a lot of the process felt very limiting to me. It was a fantastic learning experience, taking a book through production and becoming familiar with the financial side of the publishing business, but no one could figure out where on the shelves to put the books I produced and how to classify them. The part I really misunderstood was having to sell and promote myself. It was very difficult to go out as the author as well as the illustrator, publisher and bookseller of a book and say, ‘look how great I am’. At that time, about nine years ago, social media didn’t really exist. Having access to those tools back then would have helped me stay anonymous and manage it all in a more successful way.
Do you think the current status of illustration in the overall publishing sector is in good shape?
M: One example of the changes that have happened, that no one could have predicted, is transitions and opportunities with new technology. When we started making books, we had to do our own separations. We didn’t have a machine that could take an inexpensive picture of a full-colour piece of art and put it into a book. That meant you had to turn yourself into a mini-printing press and work within the medium of printing and that affected the kind of art you produced. With the invention of the laser separator on a drum, although it was still rather limiting, you could produce more complicated things. And since you were now also doing less of a particular kind of pre-graphic thinking, it opened up the field for a lot more people to feel confident doing design work.
R: With the computer there are no boundaries. With pen and paper, there are always boundaries whether it’s the edge of the piece of paper or the pencil would break down, but now the possibilities are endless.
This question is for Rebecca and Michael. What influence does the ‘branding’ of your image and the Emberley family name have on your approach and work? Has there been any ‘anxiety of influence’ for you due to being linked with your father’s reputation and style?
R: I do think Michael and I responded consciously and unconsciously to what we liked of our father’s work while we were growing up. My favourite book of his is Suppose You Met a Witch, which is very bold and graphic. I think in colour. I’m constantly moving closer and closer to developing how much I can tell with colour and trying to express something with the least amount of shape to achieve the reaction I want. I’ve always been a huge fan of Pre-Columbian art and when I was in high school, I loved Egyptian art and how both traditions answered the question of trying to represent a face through a stone. Some people find my work too frenetic, while I find some other people’s work too detailed, but it’s a personal taste. I think you could hold my books up to my dad’s work and point at the use of colour and say, ‘here’s the connection, here’s what we share’. My design work looks a lot like a period in my father’s work from the 1960s and early 1970s with bright colours, but Michael responded more to his line drawings.
M: I don’t feel any anxiety! I’ve moved recently into writing and I’m most interested in expressing emotions and in performance. It really appealed to me to do my new book, You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You: Very Short Fables to Read Together, as theatre. It’s exciting creating a set, characters and dialogue and presenting and exploring characters having relationships. I like figuring out how to interpret emotions and how to create pathos in your audience.
E: I’ve never tried to influence my children’s style or tell them how to do things. At some point during art school, you tend to discover a particular technique and you stay with that for the rest of your life. Doing the same kind of one thing again and again is the best and safest way to make a commercial career. Fear is a great motivator! But the way readers, and children, respond to pictures is not intellectual. The important thing when starting to draw is to think about what you like and to start to trust in your voice. Don’t try to second-guess it or ask ‘would this sell?’ What you’re trying to do is open up a window to the non-verbal part of your brain and you need to allow yourself to trust, and not doubt, that process.
R: I stopped illustrating for three or four years because editors were telling me ‘no, no, we want you to do the same thing again and again’. I was bored of the 32-page hand cutting and my hand was hurting from the repetitive work, but publishers feel safer publishing what they already know. Your initial publisher is very likely to say: ‘Don’t take any risks and stick to the same style because we want people to recognise your work and buy it.’
What conclusions, if any, have you reached about the nature of the collaborative creative process? Is there a difference between how illustrators collaborate and the process of an illustrator and an author working together?
R: In any collaboration, each individual has to be able to let go of the outcome. There’s always the risk that at the very end of the project, you find out that you weren’t able to make it work. Or even if I think it works, someone else might say it doesn’t. It’s still worth doing the journey to find out, but so many people are attached to the product and the outcome that it’s like they’re fighting the process.
M: My collaborations have worked best when there has been mutual respect and the right level of ‘hands off’ for all parties. There has to be a developing of trust and you have to learn how to tell the other person where the problem lies while erasing the instructions from the communication. The author should try to stay away from telling the illustrator that a page or a detail is ‘too red’. Instead, they should say ‘it’s confusing’ or ‘I can’t understand it’, but not dictate exactly to the illustrator how to get to a place for resolving it.
E: When it comes to deciding ‘that bit shouldn’t be yellow’ or ‘we need to use that typeface’, when in doubt, the person whose name is on the book must get the say, even when they’re wrong. You should take advice and always look for changes that make a book better but not changes that make it different from your vision. Different isn’t always better!