The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/ Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann
It is such a treat to have the amazingly talented duo Candace Fleming & Eric Rohmann join me to talk about their collaboration on the gorgeous newest picture book - Polar Bear.
Candace Fleming has always been a storyteller. Even before she could write her name, she could tell a good tale. She’s the versatile and acclaimed author of more than forty books for children (fiction, historical, and science picture books), and young adults (biographies, anthologies, & novels) -
including the Los Angeles Times Book Prize honored The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of the Russian Empire; Boston Globe/Horn Book Award-winning biography, The Lincolns, the Sibert-Award-winning Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera, bestselling picture book Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!, the Sibert-Award-winning Giant Squid, and the beloved Boxes for Katje. She even contributed the chapter on Katharine of Aragon to Fatal Throne.
Eric Rohmann in a suburb of Chicago. He holds degrees in fine arts from Arizona State University, and Illinois State University. In addition to writing and illustrating children’s books, he has taught drawing and printmaking. His artwork has been featured in various exhibitions and permanent collections throughout the country. When he’s not working on books and paintings. He’s thinking about books and paintings, and looking at books and paintings by other people.
Eric is the author/illustrator of 8 pictures books, including My Friend Rabbit and the Snow Geese (2013), A Kitten Tale (2012), Bone Dog (2011), and My Friend Rabbit (2007). And the illustrator of 10 picture books, including Once Upon a Camel by Kathi Appelt (2021), Bulldozer's Christmas Dig by Candace Fleming (2018), Oh, No! by Candace Fleming (2018), Strongheart: Wonder Dog of the Silver Screen by Candace Fleming (2018), Bulldozer Helps Out (2017), the Sibert-Award-winning Giant Squid (2016), Bless This Mouse by Lois Lowry (2015), and Bulldozer's Big Day by Candace Fleming (2015). [Strongheart & Giant Squid covers above.]
Their newest picture book, Polar Bear, releases November 22, 2022.
Welcome back Candace and Eric, thank you both so much for coming back to talk about your newest picture book.
What do each of you like to do outside?
CANDACE – I’m going to answer for Eric here. I hope he doesn’t mind. But since most of our time away from creating books is spent together, I feel comfortable doing so. We both love to travel and have done a lot of it this year -- Puerto Rico, Ireland, Wales, Croatia, Austria and the Czech Republic. And that’s just our travels abroad! We also love to hike and walk our dog Oxford. We also enjoy taking “stay-cation” days, visiting museums and local sites. We live in Chicago, so there are plenty of opportunities for that kind of stuff.
What a wonderful year! It all sounds like so much fun. Knowing you both collaborate on projects, where did the inspiration for Polar Bear come from?
CANDACE – We’re both enamored with polar bears. And we’re both concerned about their continuing existence on our planet. I especially found the relationship between a mother and her cubs heartwarming… and heartbreaking. I knew I wanted to write about that relationship. It’s always been a real challenge for mother polar bears to raise their young to adulthood. It’s harder now with climate change and melting ice. And then… well... Eric is a master at the polar bear.
Have you seen the cover of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass? That’s Eric Rohmann. We all knew (our editor Neal Porter included) that he’d create magnificent illustrations. And he did!
ERIC – The first nonfiction picture books we wrote are about disparate creatures: giant squid and honeybees. When we talked about the next book, Candy, Neal, and I agreed on polar bears. Not only did we like the topic for all the reasons Candy just explained, but we knew it would be nothing like the other two books, and not just in subject matter. For example, Giant Squid takes place in the course of about ten minutes; Honeybee over 30 days and Polar Bear an entire year.
You are so right, Candy. Both covers are stunning. I am glad you decided to do polar bears. They are desperately in need of the world's assistance. What's something you want your readers to know about Polar Bear?
CANDACE - I’m not sure I want them to “know” something so much as I want them to “feel something.” I want young readers to care about this mother and her two cubs. I want them to experience the hardships (and joys) that this little family faces each and every day. I wanted them to connect to our polar bear family. Eric and I believe that action starts with empathy. If we can get readers to care – really care – about these bears then maybe… just maybe… they will care about all polar bears. And that caring will be transformed into action (suggestions for which are included in the backmatter).
ERIC – I needed to show the connection between mother and cubs. That’s the core of Candy’s story and as I made sketches and did the research for the finished illustrations I tried to always keep that in mind.
That deep emotional core is one of the things I love about this book! Eric, as both an author/illustrator and illustrator, which do you find most challenging writing and illustrating or illustrating picture books? Why?
ERIC – Each book presents its own troubles and glories. It’s true that every time you make a book you have to learn how to make that book. Illustrating someone else’s text is limiting—you can’t change the color of the rabbit’s fur just because you want to— but it’s also the limitations, set up a finite set of choices, which guide you. A really good story, written by a person who knows picture books also inspires and informs.
Writing and illustrating your own book puts it all on you, which is both daunting and liberating. All the choices are yours and so you have more freedom to change and experiment with the story as the pictures are being made.
I think both ways of working are challenging and rewarding, which is why I have always tried to do both.
I hope you continue to do both! Candace, what was the toughest aspect of writing this book? How long did it take for Polar Bear to go from the idea to publication?
CANDACE - I think the whole process took about two and half years. Does that sound right, Eric? As for the “toughest aspect,” I found it difficult not to anthropomorphize. As I wrote, I sympathized with the mother bear. A mother myself, I understood her instincts to protect her babies. In my head, I believed I knew how she felt. But this book is nonfiction, so I had to control myself. No adding thoughts. No assigning emotion.
It is one of the most daunting tasks of nonfiction, to appeal to the reader's emotion without layering "human" emotions onto the animals. I am so impressed with how you do that in your books. Eric, many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Polar Bear? Could you share one or more with us?
Eric - I hope I’m understanding the question correctly… the simple answer is that because the pictures are made with my mind, eye, and hand there will always be parts of me, my history, my likes and dislikes, the way I see the visual world in the pictures. But with every picture I make of an animal I always look to the animals I’ve known to find some connection. The mother polar bear’s eyes are the eyes of our dog , Oxford. Not the coloring or shape, but his quiet strength and innate tenderness. There is a scene in the book where the mother bear confronts wolves, and that is certainly very un-Oxford, but when she is with her cubs he always came to mind.
Understood perfectly. And I love knowing that you channeled Oxford in the illustrations. Candace, when you first saw Eric’s dummy and/or finished illustrations did anything surprise, amaze, or delight you? Which is your favorite spread?
CANDACE - Since Eric and I live together, I’d seen the book through all its phases – initial sketches to finished paintings. Still, the beauty of his work continues to awe me, and when I saw the finished book – how the art works spread-so-spread creating this emotional arc – well, I was blown away.
Text © Candace Fleming, 2022. Image © Eric Rohmann, 2022.
Hmm… my favorite spread? That’s so hard. I have so many. Um… if I have to pick one I’d chose the very first spread where mother is looking out the entrance to their den. She knows the journey for her and her babies has just begun. And yet, the little ones lay cuddled within her massive legs completely unaware of their future. It’s not only gorgeous, but also so emotion-filled. I choke up just looking at it.
Wow! As you said, Eric is masterful in his illustration of polar bears! Candy, you are SO lucky to see his work and collaborate with Eric! But it's fun to know that even seeing all the initial work, the final art still amazes you! Eric, is there a spread that you were especially excited about or proud of? Which is your favorite spread?
Text © Candace Fleming, 2022. Image © Eric Rohmann, 2022.
ERIC - My favorite is the picture just after the gatefold where the bears are huddled, asleep on a shelf of ice. A picture of sleeping bears might not seem particularly compelling, but this is the moment -- after a dangerous and difficult open water crossing -- that the family rests. I wanted to show their connection to one another and give the reader a sense of calm and caring after their ordeal.
I am so in awe of your art! I love both of these spreads and ADORE the final spread. After seeing the minute details of the hairs on your honeybees, I shouldn't be surprised that it felt like you could feel the plush fur on these bears. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
CANDACE - Eric and I have a couple new picture books in the works. Perhaps surprisingly, they’re’ fiction rather than nonfiction, and written for the youngest reader. I’ll mention one, and let Eric talk about the second. In August, we have a rollicking, read aloud called Mine! coming from Anne Schwartz Books/Random House. This book looks and reads nothing like Polar Bear. It’s full of rhyme, repetition and rhythm, the kind of story in which a preschooler will want to chime. Still, it’s lots of fun! Keep an eye out for it. Eric?
ERIC –Mine! is finished! (that makes two exclamation points in a three word sentence…) Like Candy says, it has little resemblance to Polar Bear either in story or illustration, which made it feel fresh in the making after a year with oil paints . The pictures are relief prints colored with stained, pasted paper which is a medium I have never used before.
I also just finished Candy’s young picture book, Penny & Pip which let me return to my love of dinosaurs ( my first book was Time Flies). The pictures in Penny & Pip were my first foray into combining drawing and digital art. This book, too, turns up this coming spring from Caitlyn Dlouhy Books/Simon & Schuster. [June 2023]
These sound like so much fun! I can't wait to read them. What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
CANDACE - Indiana Dunes National Park for sure. Not only is it close to home, but I grew up on Lake Michigan so the newest of national parks feels like home. I'm my happiest when I'm here.
ERIC – That’s like asking someone to name their favorite food when there is so many delicious choices. I think of the rugged ocean coast of Acadia National park, but then the stark beauty of White Sands jumps into my mind, then the varied landscapes of Yellowstone or the quiet beauty of the Everglades… you see the problem. We do spend a lot of time in our local national park—Indiana Dunes — so that will always be one of our favorites. Now…what to have for dinner: sushi or Indian? © Kenneth Carper
HA! Whichever you chose, I hope it was delicious. Thank you, Candace and Eric for stopping by again and spending time with us. As always, it was wonderful to chat with both of you.
Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF sneak peek preview post on Polar Bear.
For more information about Candace Fleming, or to contact her:
For more information about Eric Rohmann, or to contact him: