The Picture Book Buzz - Brendan Wenzel
It’s crazy that one name appears on the front of a book
when things should really read like movie credits.
~ Brendan Wenzel
Brendan Wenzel is an author and illustrator with great affection for all things furred, feathered, and scaly. His work has appeared internationally in magazines, animations, and in several books. Brendan is a proud collaborator with many groups working to protect and conserve wild places and creatures. His debut picture book, as the author/illustrator, They All Saw A Cat, is a 2017 Caldecott Honor book.
His latest picture book, A Stone Sat Still, released on August 27th.
ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write/illustrate? How long have you been writing/illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate?)
BRENDAN: My name is Brendan Wenzel and I am an author and illustrator of picture books based in New York. I made my first book, The Frog, at the age of 8 and have been keeping it going to one degree or another, ever since.
I’m guessing the character trait most people would probably note when describing me, would be my fascination with wildlife and the natural world. An interest that can border on obsession. My favorite types of books to write and illustrate are picture books, usually with fairly sparse text and a lot of interplay between the words and images.
What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
A black bear walked through my yard last week. I’ve been fixated on seeing one since my wife Magdalena and I moved into our house last year, and I personally consider it to be one of the more momentous occasions of the past decade.
Wow, not something I immediately associate with NY! Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
The picture book I probably loved above all others was Our Animal Friends At Maple Hill Farm by Alice and Martin Provensen. I have spent so much time with that book over the years. It is now on the shelf in my studio and I usually crack it open weekly.
Similar to your book They All Saw a Cat (2016), A Stone Sat Still also revolves around how point of view affects one’s experience. What was your inspiration for these two books?
This is a tough question to answer concisely but, there have been two notable experiences that have led to my interest in perspective. The first was travel. In 2007 Magdalena and I put the few belongings we had in storage and left the country. That’s ultimately a longer story, but after about five dreamy months on the road with a shoestring budget, we eventually ended up settling in Vietnam.
That’s also a longer story, but it relates to the two books in this way. When I arrived in Vietnam, I was blown away. It was the most beautiful, fascinating, and exciting place I had ever experienced. In so many ways, Vietnam was very different from where I grew up and it challenged me to recalibrate my relationship to the world around me. Language, etiquette, fashion, flavors, landscape, the folklore, our modes of transportation, everything changed. I am embarrassed to acknowledge just how unaware I was of how much I had been shaped by my environment. Realizing just how much the way I saw the world shifted with my experience, was a revelation.
The second element that led to my interest in perspective, is my aforementioned animal obsession. One of my favorite pastimes is wildlife watching. There is nothing else I would rather do than watch wild animals being wild animals. When I do have the good fortune of spending time with a creature in its natural habitat, whether it be a lizard or an elephant, a familiar string of questions show up. They usually go something like this. What on earth is this creature thinking? What are they seeing? What are they feeling? Where are they going? Where did they come from? What do they want? The list could go on and on, but they all tend to point to the larger question, what is this animal’s experience in the world? These are two of my main inspirations for exploring point of view and perspective.
Interesting. Especially when one thinks about how experience shapes an animal's impression and interaction with the world. How is your picture book Hello Hello (2018) different from, or similar to, these two books?
For me, the process of making a book is a great way to explore and communicate things I am having a tough time wrapping my head around. Hello Hello stemmed from exploring an interest I’ve had my whole life in field guides. There has always been something about seeing animals next to each other on white space, that I’ve found really interesting and exciting. The shapes, colors, patterns, and unique behaviors that exist throughout the animal kingdom are mind boggling, and just as interesting is how those traits connect species to each other and the larger world. I wanted to explore and try to tap into this feeling.
The book ended up being a departure from They All Saw A Cat in many ways, and in the end had a much different structure and feel. Of the three books, Hello Hello is the most obvious outlier, but I also don’t consider it to be entirely unrelated to They All Saw A Cat or A Stone Sat Still. Each book attempts to explore ways in which we connect to each other, as well as how diversity - both of form and experience - adds beauty and complexity to the world.
I love your explanation of the connection between your books. Many illustrators leave treasures (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in A Stone Sat Still? Could you share one or more with us?
Ha! Great question. I would probably prefer to leave a map to any treasures, rather than take the reader right to them, so I guess I’ll say this. I snuck in some imagery referencing patterns in nature, which also relate to growth and time. It’s pretty subtle and I really didn’t think anyone would notice, at least on a conscious level, but if you are the type of reader who is looking for hidden elements, those might be worth hunting for.
Okay readers, there's your challenge. Did you find these hidden elements? What is your favorite medium to work with? Your least favorite or maybe one you’re itching to try?
The medium I usually work with is watercolor and cut paper, but that is far from the only thing I work with. I actually really enjoy switching up the mediums I use a lot. Particularly when creating artwork for children, it really helps me to keep things playful, and using materials which are entirely unfamiliar or that I haven’t played with in a while, can be a great way of staying in that space.
I think the playfulness of the illustrations and the covers are one of the things which drew me to your books in the first place. What is the hardest thing for you about writing and/or illustrating children’s books? Which comes first, the story or the illustrations?
All of it. It’s always so much more difficult than I think it’s going to be. Landing on the general idea for a book is always very exciting and energizing. The parts of the process that tend to be the toughest are editing and figuring out how to pace and structure the story to best further the overarching idea. This is a bummer because normally 50 ideas for spreads that sounded really fun to illustrate, get cut.
The second part that is tough for me is figuring out how to approach the process of creating the final artwork, so that it communicates those emotions the text or initial idea evoked. It can be a long process and usually leads to many experiments that don’t make the final book. Words and pictures typically develop together.
Even illustrated "darlings" sometimes don't make the final cut. Do you have a favorite spread in A Stone Sat Still? Which one?
The piece that took the most time and ended up being one of the images I feel was most successful, is the illustration that portrays the stone as a pebble seen through the eyes of an enormous moose.
© Brendan Wenzel, 2019.
To convey this enormity, it felt like the moose should compositionally take up the majority of the spread. Because it would be such a big part of the image, it also felt important to make sure the topography and textures would be interesting and worth exploring to a young reader. To accomplish this, I decided to create the bull’s fur with hundreds of pieces of hand painted cut paper, which I used to accentuate its bulky form. The grass in the spread was also created with cut paper, and I had fun drawing comparisons between the two very different landscapes with the materials.
I am awed by the amount of time this spread had to have taken. What's something you want your readers to know about A Stone Sat Still?
One fun thing about A Stone Sat Still is that it was inspired by a real place. A real stone actually, although not one with the exact shape of the stone in the book. The place is called magic rock and it sits right on the high tide line of a beautiful inlet in northern Maine, where my mother and father in-law spend their summers.
At low tide the rock is surrounded by expansive mud flats where birds come to hunt for their dinner. When the tide rolls in, the stone, which is in reality much larger than the one in the book, almost vanishes completely, becoming a tiny cap surrounded by still, salty water. Ever surrounded by shifting tides and temperamental Maine weather, magic rock is also a place where it is easy to be aware of the world constantly changing around you. This change became a big part of the thinking behind A Stone Sat Still.
On a related note, all the animals that appear in the book can be found in Maine, and a handful of the animals in the book, I have seen with my own eyes either from the vantage of magic rock, or sitting on top of the rock themselves. Most notable were three otters which once swam by me on a very lucky misty morning.
That's so cool! Thanks for sharing this tidbit about the reality and setting of the stone. Having been the illustrator for Life (Cynthia Rylant 2017), Some Bugs and Some Pets (Angela DiTerlizzi 2016), One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree (Daniel Bernstrom 2016), and Beastly Babies (Ellen Jackson 2015), do you prefer being the illustrator or the author/ illustrator of a book? Or do you like doing both? Why?
The two processes are very different, and both provide unique challenges and advantages. Working with someone else’s text is an opportunity to step outside yourself and to inhabit their world for a bit. The process also can lead to characters, settings and images that can feel surprising and unexpected. It’s great and you can learn a lot.
Writing and illustrating books provides a chance to explore and spend time with thoughts, experiences, and emotions that have felt meaningful, but that I would like to understand more. Parts of the process seem to move more quickly, but when you get stuck, you really get stuck. The belly of the beast. I happens on every project. I always seem to find a way out, but until I do, it’s excruciating.
Yikes. "Illustrator block" might indeed be tougher than writer's block. Afterall, you can't just change the text to fix it. What is the most surprising thing an author ever gave you to work with?
Every text has been surprising in its own way, but because of my love for nature, Cynthia Rylant’s Life is probably the manuscript that caught me the most off guard. The first time I read it I honestly had tears in my eyes. She expressed so many ideas that I felt on some level but would never have been able to communicate or put into such remarkable words in million years. It was a great joy to work on and it also felt like a great responsibility to get right.
You did a great job bringing the text to life. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer or illustrator.)
Being in the natural world. The wilder the place the better. It charges my batteries completely. Never do I feel more creative and more inspired to write and draw, than returning to the studio after being off the map in a wild corner of the world for a few days.
I also find nature restorative and inspirational. If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?
Get really into whatever fascinates you! Even if other people don’t seem to get it.
Nice. Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I’m working on a few things I’m excited about, but I’m not sure how much I can share. I have two new books in the works, but probably can’t say anything more about them just yet. Another of the projects I want to invest more time in over the coming years, will involve carving out more time to work with conservation groups. I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to collaborate with many organizations working to protect some of my favorite species and I am hoping to find ways to expand these efforts.
I'm looking forward to those books and wish you success in your collaborations. Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or are glad that you did not know?
I used to think that because I was exploring many ideas at once or even developing multiple projects, I was unfocussed. It’s been really gratifying to realize that many creative people seem to do this, and that it can actually be an important part of the process. Not to say there isn’t a time to get down to brass tacks and focus a good deal of your attention on one thing, but to any aspiring authors or illustrators who feel frustrated by how many lines they have in the water, I for one, think it’s great. My guess is they probably overlap and relate in some very interesting ways.
I agree that multiple projects help keep us sane. What is your favorite animal? Or maybe a current animal you are enamored with. Why?
My favorite question and also the one most difficult to answer. Many make the short list; The Sunda pangolin, The Small Clawed Otter, The Sumatran Rhinoceros. I could go on and on. My favorite creature to read about and to on very special occasions observe in the wild however, are elephants. There is something about the quiet way they move, that radiates dignity, curiosity, and intelligence. Not to paint with a broad brush, because the other thing that is fascinating about elephants is their complexity as individuals. They blow my mind. They are also tapped into the world around them in ways I probably envy a bit. Dolphins would also be high on the list of favorites, for many of the same reasons.
Thank you so much, Brendan for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.
Be sure to stop back by on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on A Stone Sat Still.
To find out more about Brendan Wenzel, or get in touch with him: