Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Monday, August 21, 2017

Constructing A Tree-ific Collaboration

It was decades ago.  There were four of us working; three had their own chainsaws.  We cleared more than twenty-five mature trees in order to build a home in the middle of the woods.  The use of a chainsaw is no easy task.

The weight of the saw and speed of the chain can cause injury in a matter of seconds, but when handled with care and skill it is much faster and more efficient than an axe.  It's handy to have so additional wood can be cut to fuel a stove in the middle of a bitter cold winter.  There is a certain sense of confidence in being able to use a tool to help you build a home and then heat that home.  I know this to be true.

Recently I was reminded of the dexterity necessary to fell trees.  The purchase of a new house required the removal of sixteen, one nearly fifty feet tall.  Watching the lumberman climb and cut and climb and cut and lower limbs down by rope generates respect for these people and their accomplishments.  Mother Nature has her version of adept loggers, too.  In Fred & the Lumberjack (Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division, September 12, 2017) written and illustrated by Steven Weinberg (Rex Finds an Egg! Egg! Egg! and You Must Be This Tall) we are introduced to a beaver who is assuredly the Frank Lloyd Wright of streams and forests.

Fred has built his perfect dream den.

It has two stories with a staircase leading to a loft, hand-crafted furniture, a stone fireplace and an indoor swimming pool.  Every square inch is built according to the blueprint he designed, but something is missing.  Fred goes through his den, checking and re-checking everything.


His musings are interrupted by a mighty loud noise in the woods.  Fred has to discover what is causing all this ruckus.  He finds multiple trees cut with smooth edges and stacked in piles.  There are even large carvings and sculptures.

Another resounding roar rips through the air.  Fred finds himself staring at a lumberjack dressed in plaid, carrying a chainsaw and building Sophia's Dream Den.  Yes, readers Fred is totally and overwhelmingly smitten with this gal and her notable abilities.

There is only one thing to do.  Fred has to get her attention using his equally excellent gifts.  OH! NO!  That's a major fail for Fred.  He runs in humiliation (and a little fear) back to his den knowing he literally made a mess of everything.  She is too furious to be his friend.

Now she's standing in his doorway.  She stops and stares.  Hope surges in an apologetic heart. It is a blueprint for dynamic duo dreams.

With his first sentence, a declaration, Steven Weinberg sets the stage for his exuberant tale with one word, perfect.  This opens the storytelling door for how things might not be quite perfect.  It's fascinating how Steven spins the narrative so in Fred's search for one thing he discovers what (who) he needs most.  The humorous touch with his play on words,

sink his teeth into,

the rhythm supplied with Fred's hunting at home, what he finds in the woods and what Sophie notices in his den along with the strategic use of the word roar all contribute to this spirited story.  Here is another sample passage.

What creature did this?
It's so precise,
so powerful
so talented!

As soon as readers see the opened dust jacket they have to grin.  The buck-toothed beaver looking with adoration at the lumberjack pausing in her daily efforts and both of them attired in traditional red and black plaid is classic.  Still looking at the front, on the right, it's in keeping with Fred's skills to have his name depicted in chewed logs.  To the left, on the back, the beautiful blue sky with clouds, the mountains, forest and birch trees continue.  One of the trees is close to the reader, making us feel as though we are stepping into the story.

On the opening endpapers are three map images on log walls.  One is from Fred's den to Sophie's den, the other is from New York City to The Catskills and the third invites readers to write down their name,

This Book is "Fir".
     (HA HA HA!)

The closing endpapers continue the tale of Fred and Sophie.  They give readers a peek at their future endeavors....blueprint style.

Rendered using a collage of watercolor, pencil, and digital elements most of the illustrations in this title span two pages.  This mixture of styles creates a pleasing texture and contrast between the background, other items on the pages and the characters and their clothing. Multiple smaller images are grouped together to designate pacing.  A shift in perspective and font size generates a dramatic effect several times.  Readers will find themselves smiling at the wide-eyed looks on the characters, their facial expressions (although please note the color of Sophie's plaid after Fred makes his mistake), the details in Fred's den's furnishings, and the items used by Sophie.

One of my many favorite illustrations is when Fred first sees Sophie.  It spans two pages.  On the left Fred is standing with his legs spread.  Both his arms are raised as he lifts his hat off his head.  His eyes look like they are ready to pop out of his head.  His mouth is wide open.  On the right Sophie has one boot on a stump with the other behind her for support.  Her plaid coat is closed.  She is wearing her gloves, ear muffs and protective goggles.  Her pony-tail is waving behind her.  In her right hand she holds the chainsaw as the left hand grips and pulls the power chord.  There is a gigantic roar.  Sophie is grinning in total joy.

Fred & the Lumberjack written and illustrated by Steven Weinberg is pure fun from beginning to end.  When you think about it, a beaver and a lumberjack have quite a bit in common with their adept and creative use of wood.  In this title, their tools are different but their love of plaid, blueprints and dreams coming true is the perfect foundation on which to construct a lasting friendship.  You will want copies of this on your professional and personal bookshelves.

To learn more about Steven Weinberg and his other work, please follow the link attached to his name to access his website.  To view interior illustrations please follow this link to the publisher's website.  I am absolutely thrilled that Steven agreed to answer some of my questions.  I know you will love his answers as much as I do.

Was there a single incident or a series of events which helped to form the story of Fred & the Lumberjack?  Are the characters based upon real life individuals?

A little over three years ago my wife Casey Scieszka and I moved from Brooklyn to the Catskills to open a boutique hotel and bar called the Spruceton Inn. So, I mean, that basically threw me deep into the woods, changed my life forever, and has delightfully inspired a whole new way of working. (The opening endpapers include a detailed map to my house.)

But specifically, the beaver in the story is my immediate neighbor across a field from my house. In the scope of time my wife and I have renovated our spot, this beaver has been just as busy. Den, pond, landscaping, etc. It’s really amazing living this close to nature. Keeping tabs on it reminded me of how much I loved to just build with blocks or legos as a kid. So I wanted to find a story about a beaver that BUILDS.

But that’s only half of it. The other half comes from our friends who have two little girls (now ages 4 and 3) who have been coming to visit since we moved. We’ve put them work! The elder Sophia especially. I’ve seen the girl play with a hammer nearly as much as her favorite stuffed owl. I mean here she is three years ago with her dad helping us with the early renovations:

Now I wish I could say one day I saw little Sophia pick up a chainsaw and was like EUREKA! But it’s probably more accurate to say she slowly built the character in my head in between grabbing piles of kindling and screaming in terror that she couldn’t have another s’more.

I read in another interview Steven you have been drawing, originally with crayons, for most of your life.  Do you have any formal art training?  If so, is there something special from one of your teachers (a favorite saying, technique or style) which still serves to inspire you?

I studied oil painting at Colby College in Maine under a professor who had me working harder (and taking art more seriously) than I had ever thought possible. She was a very intense disciple of the Josef Albers and Bauhaus color schools. Which, to maybe a non-art-nerd, means she had us painting color wheels, and color squares, and color fields, and NOTHING BUT COLOR!

It was infuriating at first, but now I realize it was an amazing education. Because everything starts with knowing how color works. So when I’m doing things like painting an insanely pink sunset I can still hear her whispering over my shoulder and asking questions like “have you really truly thought about that color choice?” And in my head I can tell her: “YES. The sunsets really are that crazy here!”

In this third title you have authored and illustrated you used a collage of watercolor, pencil and digital elements to create the images.  Is watercolor your favorite medium?  Why do you favor one medium (or not) over another?

I had been using watercolor for some elements in my work for years, but saw a show of John Singer Sargent’s watercolors at the Brooklyn Museum right before moving upstate. I’ve always been a huge fan of Sargent’s, but never got the time to really study those paintings. They’re so physical! So bold! So unpredictable! It made me take a fresh look at the medium. I haven’t really looked back since.

I’m basically painting watercolors landscapes constantly up here. This is a sunrise view of the mountains seen a lot in the book I painted thinking it could be an endpaper. But art’s funny. I love it, and it sits now above the bar at the Inn, but it seemed maybe too spooky for this story.

You, your wife and your dog Waldo live in the Catskills.  How is it you moved there from Brooklyn?  Did you always live in Brooklyn before moving upstate?  

I’ve been quite a vagabond. I grew up in Bethesda, MD and after college in Maine my wife Casey and I lived all over the world: Beijing, Morocco, Timbuktu, then San Francisco for awhile. Living abroad was amazing for a ton of reasons, but probably most because when I taught English in China and Mali, I realized I wanted to make books for kids. Because no one is a crazy as kids. Especially 1st graders. Here’s a blurry photo of me singing Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes with students in Beijing:

All that said, I’ve loved settling into the Catskills for LUMBERJACK. It’s where this book takes place and I can’t really describe how cool it is to see a sunset one night and paint it into your book the next morning.

I remembering reading your Mom is a youth librarian.  Do you have a favorite book she would read to you or another favorite childhood book?

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Because I’m the younger brother and was basically Alexander all of the time. It just perfectly encapsulates the complete lack of agency kids have. So I felt for Alexander. And maybe with each reading I hoped the book would change and he would get to move to Australia where apparently nothing bad ever happens.

Now that I know I’ll be a dad soon (my wife is due at the end of August!!) it dawns on me how much of a terror I was. So maybe my mom just loved shoving Alexander back in my face to say: get with it! I mean, why was I standing on this table? In bare feet?

You post wonderful paintings of Waldo (dogs) on your Instagram account.  My canine companion Mulan is wondering if there are any plans in your future to write and illustrate a book featuring a dog?

Waldo is named after one of my other favorite characters growing up, the Waldo in the red and white striped shirt. This seemed like a great idea and homage, until we discovered he loves to run away. Yep, just classic. Here’s him where he seems most calm, in my studio:

So I really want to make a book called... “Where’s Waldo?”

But instead of having to find a dog or tall dude in some incredibly complicated jampacked scene, you’d see my Waldo at first running away from me. Then he’s just out in nature doing his thing, heeding the call of the wild, and having a total ball. On every spread the only words would be WHERE’S WALDO? I’d like to think it’d irritate kids just the right amount because they’d be like HE’S RIGHT THERE! Again, and again and again. I also imagine this book would really irritate Martin Hanford. But considering Hanford is one of my favorite kids’ book people ever, I’d be pretty honored to just have him mad at me at all.

If there is anything else you would like readers to know Steven?

Here’s some more images from the book!

AND I’m really excited about the case. It’s just plaid. So fun and simple.

And last last - here’s a new author photo my friend a photographer just took.
In case it wasn’t clear I was living deep in the woods...

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Steven and for including the images.  I simply can't wait for readers to enjoy your newest book.  I think we will be hearing more laughter. 

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