David’s final “tater tot” mama squirrel character from Ol’ Mama Squirrel. (Inspired by The Scream)
David Ezra Stein spoke about overcoming creative blocks at the scbwi winter conference this past January and his talk was one of my favorites. During his presentation, he told us the story behind his latest picture book Ol’ Mama Squirrel. David completed all the final artwork, delivered it to Penguin, and then decided it wasn’t right and asked if he could redo the entire book. I repeat: he completed the final artwork then decided to do the whole. thing. over.
I appreciated hearing that even an accomplished, Caldecott award-winning illustrator can hit road blocks sometimes. His gutsy 11th-hour decision to redo the artwork—and Penguin’s gutsy decision to let him do so—is pretty cool. Read on for more about David and the making of Ol’ Mama Squirrel.
THE DIRT ON DAVID EZRA STEIN
Hometown: Flatbush, NY
Now lives in: Kew Gardens, NY
Tools of the trade: Dr. Martin’s concentrated watercolors and inks, Caran D’Ache Neocolor crayons, Aquarius II watercolor paper, Dr. Martin’s Black Star Ink, Drawing tool = anything you can dip into ink.
Illustration idols: So many. Ben Shahn, Henrich Kley, William Steig, Bill Watterson, Sendak, Seuss, Robert McCloskey, Ernest Sheperd, Arnold Lobel, James Marshall, etc. etc.
Non-book idols and inspirations: Jim Henson, Matisse, Goya, George Bellows, Rembrandt, Van Gogh’s drawings, Hiroshige, Hokusai, Persian miniatures, New Guinean sculpture, many others, ad infinitum.
Caffeine of choice: Genmaicha (smoky green tea).
Workspace: Heptagonal studio in my apartment. I have three desks: for writing, “computing,” and drawing.
Cat or dog?: Cat.
Favorite children’s book:
…as a child: Madeline, Babar, Little Bear, Bedtime for Frances, Scrambled Eggs Super, Miss Nelson is Missing, The Hoboken Chicken Emergency, The Prydain Chronicles.
…as an adult: Ox-cart Man, Snow, The Snowy Day, Frog and Toad, Harry the Dirty Dog, If You Give a Moose a Muffin, Gaspard, etc. etc.
Favorite thing to read: PG Wodehouse novels.
Favorite music: Any soulful music, such as ‘Tomorrow Night’ by Lonnie Johnson
Ol’ Mama Squirrel, written and illustrated by David Ezra Stein
P&O: How did you get the idea for Ol’ Mama Squirrel in the first place?
David: I was walking in the woods in Queens with my son and this squirrel started yelling at us. This squirrel was ready to take us on because we were treading on its territory or something. It probably thought we wanted to eat its babies. My son was two at the time and I told him the squirrel is saying “Get away from my tree! Get away from my babies!” He started saying it too. It became this game; he would pretend to be a squirrel and say “Chook, chook, chook!”
I was working on another book for Penguin about a frog and it just wasn’t working out too well. That whole spring I was trying to make it work. Basically they wanted me to change part of the story and I didn’t want to change it. I was kind of frustrated and just forcing myself to work on that everyday and not really making much headway.
Occupy Wall Street was going on at the time so I was listening to the radio and feeling like I should go down to Wall Street. It sounds really exciting; all this stuff is going on, people are organizing… and then I thought about that squirrel again. I thought that tough squirrel is a really interesting character. She was willing to take on anybody, like a bear, a monster, or someone ten times bigger than her, so maybe I’ll just set this frog thing aside and work on that.
I just got this inspiration and wrote about it. I wrote the story in about a day and a half. It was edited later on but I got pretty much everything down for the story and I did a bunch of sketches at the same time. I usually do some thumbnail sketches while I am writing to try to picture the action, the setting, and basically, you’d say in theater, the blocking, or the where the characters are in relation to each other. The cinematography of how the squirrel moves through the story. So I try to get some of that down when I am first having the inspiration and that ends up just in the margins of my sketchbook as I am writing. I get these gestural little sketches. I try to keep it pretty fresh so when I go to the final I don’t have too many steps from that initial gestural image to the final.
P&O: How did you approach Penguin about your new story? Did you say I have this squirrel story so can we hold off on the frog story?
David: I did, yeah. I had a two book contract with Penguin. It wasn’t really set in stone what the books would be but we thought frog book then owl book. This squirrel book turned out to be a mixture of the frog book and the owl book in terms of the character. In the owl book there was this really overprotective dad character so that became mama squirrel in a way now that I think about it. At the time Penguin knew I was really fed up with the frog thing. They were cool about just taking this new story because it was fresh and exciting. I was excited it and the were excited about it.
P&O: That’s so great that it just came out of you in a day and a half. It seems like the story was meant to be.
David: Yeah it’s kind of related to what I was talking about at scbwi, when you just can’t make any headway with something it’s good to follow the spark. What makes you excited? What makes you want to play and calls you away from this thing that you’ve been banging your head against? And that’s where the good energy is.
P&O: Do you think you’ll pick up the frog story again? Or is that to be decided?
Maybe! It was a pretty funny story about co-sleeping but with frogs.
P&O: So Penguin gave you the go-ahead. What was the next phase of your process? Did you draw a million squirrels and try to figure out your perfect squirrel?
David: Before I did that, I drew the whole book out in a small dummy. I took half of an 8.5×11″ page and made that into a spread and folded it so I made an actual physical book. I just did it in black and green pencil and green marker. Then we worked on the story for a little bit. Originally there was a griffin in the story, a mythical creature, instead of a bear.
P&O: Oh wow!
David: I am kind of glad we took that out.
P&O: Yeah that changes things around a bit!
David: It was unecessary. But it was kind of cool. I just wanted it to be really over the top with this enemy that she had. But a grizzly bear is fine because it’s an urban grizzly bear, kind of unexpected but kind of possible. It had to be sort of realistic but with a flexible definition of realism. All of the animals are real and they could potentially be in the same space together. After that dummy, I went on to start drawing the character, trying to get her to be the leading lady of the story. I probably drew 100 different squirrels.
Early dummy sketches for Ol’ Mama Squirrel. ” I usually do some thumbnail sketches while I am writing to try to picture the action, the setting, and basically, you’d say in theater, the blocking or the where the characters are in relation to each other. The cinematography of how the squirrel moves through the story.”
(Click to enlarge.)
Early sketches for the Ol’ Mama Squirrel character. (Click to enlarge.) “After that dummy…I went on to start drawing the character. Trying to get her to be the leading lady of the story. I probably drew 100 different squirrels.”
P&O: What was the process from creating the first batch of final artwork to realizing oh no this isn’t my squirrel?
David: I created the first batch of final art the same way I did for Because Amelia Smiled and Interrupting Chicken. I drew in pencil directly on the paper then I started building up layers of crayon and paint so there was a lot going on. The original artwork had a lot of layers and it was holding the story back because of how much there was. There were more background elements and it wasn’t as simple as it is now. It was really like an exploratory step but then I was like, oh crap, I have to hand this in, so I just went with it. I did the whole book that way, with that character that wasn’t really the final character either.
I thought, okay, this squirrel is pretty funny. She’s pretty good. I had to hand in the final art in a month and the art was taking a long time because it had all these layers. So finally I just shoved it all in an envelope and went to the publisher and I layed it out. My heart was kind of mixed. I was like, I wonder what they are going to say about it, but then I thought it doesn’t matter what they say about it because I don’t like it. The main thing was really the character, because she wasn’t the right lady for the part. I had cast her as the star so she had to be really spot-on. I said to Cecilia, you know what? I kind of want to to do this over again. Can I do that? And she said yeah sure. Can you have it in a month from now? And I said yeah I guess so.
Some color character studies for the original Mama.
The original “leading lady” and her babies. “She just wasn’t right for the part.”
I decided to do it really simply the second time. I went back to the dummy and I redesigned a lot of the spreads to make them very simple and took out all of the extra background, like joggers and litter and stuff. This was something that should have happened the first time but I didn’t push it far enough. It was almost like I was picking up where I left off and continuing to distill the book down to something more simple.
I went back and I did 100 more squirrels until I go the right one. I mean squirrels are kind of tough. I was talking to Daniel Salmieri about it, the guy who did Those Darn Squirrels! We were talking about squirrel design and he was like yeah it was really rough. I forget what he said, I think he had to flatten their heads to make them work.