The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Carson Ellis & Review of In The Half Room
One quick note - the Winner of the Giveaway of Louis by Julie Rowan-Zoch is:
Congratulations Beth! Now, let's get on with today's post.
Carson Ellis is the author and illustrator of the bestselling picture books Home and Du Iz Tak? (a Caldecott Honor book and the recipient of an E.B. White Read Aloud Award). She has illustrated a number of books for kids including bestsellers The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, The Composer Is Dead by Lemony Snicket, and The Wildwood Chronicles by her husband, Colin Meloy. Carson has been awarded silver medals by the Society of Illustrators for her work on Wildwood Imperium and on Dillweed's Revenge by Florence Parry Heide. She's the illustrator-in-residence for Colin's band, The Decemberists, and received Grammy nominations in 2016 and 2018 for album art design. She's also an occasional maker of editorial illustration, having worked for The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Poetry Magazine, among many others, and an even more occasional fine artist represented by Nationale in Portland.
Carson lives on a farm in Oregon with Colin, their two sons, one cat, two llamas, two goats, one sheep, ten chickens, a family of barn owls, and an unfathomable multitude of tree frogs.
She is also the illustrator of: The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper (2019), The Whiz Mob And The Grenadine Kid by Colin Meloy (2017), Dillweed’s Revenge by Florence Parry Heide (2010), Stagecoach Sal by Deborah Hopkinson (2009), and The Beautiful Stories Of Life by Cynthia Rylant (2009).
Her newest picture book, In The Half Room, releases October 13th.
Welcome Carson, 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 and illustrate?)
I work in a little outbuilding in a field on my farm. We call it the nuthouse (ha ha) because it’s where farmers used to dry filberts and walnuts. I have two kids and, before the pandemic, I worked when they were in school. Now that everything is topsy-turvy, I don’t spend as much time in my studio as I’d like but I cobble together a work week with lots of help from my husband, my mother-in-law, and a babysitter. I’ve been illustrating books for about 15 years. I wrote my first book in 2014.
My favorite picture books encourage interaction – between the reader and the listener; between the both of them and the actual book. I feel like the best reading experiences for kids and grownups are dynamic ones that change and evolve with each reading. And I like making books that allow me to follow my creative impulses, which sometimes veer towards absurdity. I love writing for kids. They come to books with open minds unshaped by a lifetime of interacting with literature and learning what to expect from it. You can explore some pretty weird and exciting literary ground when you write for children. They’re having their first encounters with art and prose - everything is weird and nothing is weird.
That's such a fun and liberating way to look at children's literature. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
I used to be a good water skier when I was a kid. I could do the thing where you put one foot in a ski and hold the tow rope on the other. I learned at a quaker sleepaway camp in the Adirondacks called Camp Regis. I spent two months there every summer for years, but lots of people know that about me because I loved it there and I talk about it all the time.
I'd bet that was one interesting camp. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
My favorite books were the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. I read all seven of them a bunch of times. The illustrations for those books – by Pauline Baynes – are especially important to me.
If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?
I loved being by myself when I was a kid. I was – and am – a big loner. I like losing myself completely in elaborate, solitary projects of my own devising and I was like that when I was little too. It didn’t win me many friends. I was bullied a lot, which made me want to be with other kids even less, and I spent a lot of my childhood and adolescence on the fringes of everything. I also spent that time drawing constantly and ultimately developing a practice that led me to a life doing work I love, which is invaluable. So it’s not terrible. But I think I’d tell my younger self, “Don’t worry. You’ll find your people.” I would have been really surprised to learn that art would be a force for connection and community in my adult life. I think it would have been nice to hear that. As a kid, I just associated it with isolation.
It's interesting how many of us find that what set us apart as kids, lead to a vocation we love as adults. Where did the inspiration for In The Half Room come from?
It came from my seven-year-old son, Milo. He was suggesting things for me to draw. Mostly he wanted me to draw mythical creatures, but his last request was, “The half room, where everything is half.” He said, “Draw a half table. Draw a half chair…” So, I made a messy little sketch and, when I was done, I felt like it had the germ of a book idea in it.
I hope you two continue drawing together. Is the reason the cat doesn’t “shoooop,” because of a cat’s propensity to chase and attack its own tale?
Sort of. The cat doesn’t shooop because I didn’t want the book to end that neatly. We’re not all halves waiting to be made whole. We wouldn’t all know it if we were. Some of us would chase our other half away if it knocked on the door and would continue to sit alone, happy in our incompleteness. And if anything would reliably refuse to shooop together with its other half, it’s a cat. We got a new cat and introduced him to our old one around the time I was writing this book. I witnessed a lot of cat fights and inscrutable feline behavior. Who knows what lives in the hearts of cats? But also: is being made whole really even a thing?
That's definitely something to think about. I wonder when you ask kids, what they'll say. Do you prefer being the illustrator or the author/illustrator of a book? Why?
I prefer being the author/illustrator. It’s a simpler, more organic process. I don’t have to figure out how to approach the book, how to lay out the illustrations. It’s just in my head, co-emerging with the story.
What is your favorite medium to work with? Your least favorite or hardest?
I love to draw with a mechanical pencil and I love to paint with gouache. Lately I’ve been experimenting with acrylic paint too. I both love and hate pen and ink. I use a nib pen and an inkwell. I like the line quality and the awkwardness of it – the ink splatters and scrape of the pen nib across the paper. But I don’t feel like I’ve got a lot of mastery over that medium. I’m always ruining my pen and ink drawings.
What is your favorite spread in In The Half Room?
© Carson Ellis, 2020.
My favorite spread is the one where the woman runs out into the night.
There's such joy in that image. What is the hardest thing for you about writing and/or illustrating children’s books? Which comes first?
Writing is so hard for me. I rarely have ideas for books. (I’ve had three good ones in ten years.) I can’t seem to come up with them - I just kind of wait for them to come to me. If I’m getting better at anything, it’s knowing when some hazy, fleeting idea might be worth exploring more.
Here's to more whispers from your muse. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer or illustrator.)
So many different ways to be inspired! Artists like Pauline Baynes, Ben Shahn, and the Provensens have had a huge influence on my illustrations. My husband and kids inspire me daily – they give me ideas and help me tinker with mine. They’re also all big readers. Watching them read to themselves and each other informs the way I make books a lot. But my greatest source of inspiration is probably the natural world. I spend a lot of time outside, in my garden or in the woods, watching and listening, taking it all in.
I think your profile picture, with that gorgeous horse and ranging open space, shows how happy you are to be outside. How long did it take In The Half Room to go from concept to contract?
Not long. A couple of months?
Wow! Do you see a common thread in In The Half Room, Home, and Du Iz Tak?
They all feel connected to me but I don’t know if there’s really a common thread, other than the medium. They’re pretty different conceptually.
Maybe that each pushes the boundaries of expectations? What's something you want your readers to know about In The Half Room?
In the Half Room doesn’t have an intended message and I’m honestly still figuring out what it means to me. I hope it will make kids and grown-ups think and feel things, and that they’ll explore those thoughts and feelings together and not be left totally bewildered. That’s all I want this book to do. I want it to wash over its readers like a mysterious poem. In general, I think we like to understand our books better; to be able to solve the riddle of their meaning and intuit their purpose. I totally get that impulse. But I think we should also embrace ambiguity in art for kids, especially when it gives us the opportunity to open up deep, fascinating avenues of imaginative and critical thinking with them.
Many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in In The Half Room? Could you share one or more with us?
This is not really a hidden treasure if you know what I look like, but the woman in the story is me.
A teeny bit hidden, since I used your black & white image above. My readers don't necessarily know you have beautiful auburn hair. Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I’m about to dive into two book projects but I’m keeping them both under wraps for now. Stay tuned!
We'll be watching for your announcements. What is your favorite animal? Or maybe a current animal you are enamored with. Why?
My favorite animal, all my life, has been the cat. My childhood sketchbooks are full of them. My life has been full of them too. The only thing I can say for sure about In the Half Room is that it is an ode to the mysterious allure of cats.
Thank you, Carson for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.
To find out more about Carson Ellis, or get in touch with her:
Review of In the Half Room
When I first saw the announcement for this book, it reminded me of Gerald Durrell's Half Magic. Except in Carson Ellis' book the halved items aren't the result of wishes gone wonky, but the everyday state of things.
Like her book Du Iz Tak?, it raises all sorts of questions and pushes the edges of what we've come to anticipate in picture books.
In the Half Room
Author/illustrator: Carson Ellis
Publisher: Candlewick Press (2020)
Rhyming, bedtime, and whimsical
From the Caldecott Honor–winning creator of Home and Du Iz Tak? comes a striking tale of a wholly extraordinary room where everything is a half.
The light of the half moon
Shines down on the half room . . .
The half room is full of half things. A half chair, a half cat, even half shoes—all just as nice as whole things. When half a knock comes on half a door, who in the world could it be? With inventive flair, Caldecott Honor winner Carson Ellis explores halves and wholes in an ingenious and thought-provoking picture book. Ink and gouache illustrations featuring wry detail and velvety textures conjure a dreamlike mood while leaving space for imagining. A celebration of the surreal and the serendipitous and the beauty of the two together, this brilliant picture book will have readers seeing halves with whole new eyes.
Two shoes, each half
What I liked about this book:
In a quiet book, written in rhyme and near-rhyme, with an easy lyrical flow that reminds one of Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, Carson Ellis again pushes expectations of picture books. She leaves readers puzzling, or embracing, a bit of whimsy.
Carson begins by naming the half items in this unusual house - "Half a window/ Half a door/ Half a rug on half a floor." She sets each, in mostly brown or blue tones, individually against white backgrounds. When suddenly, there appears half a woman, reading half a book by the light of half a lamp, near half a vase full of half flowers. While "The light of the half moon/ shines down on the half room," and the half cat sprawls on the half rug. And we momentarily see the addition of grey walls.
© Carson Ellis, 2020.
Following a listing these new half items (flowers, vase, book, face), there is "half a knock on half a door," and the other half of the woman arrives. After a brief moment, the two halves align and "Shoooooop" into a whole and the woman runs out of the half house, into the night, and past a half tree. Leaving the half lamp, light, shoes, cat, rug, & floor to welcome the back half of the cat at the door.
I love this next spread of "Two half cats in a half-cat fight." It is so quintessentially "cat." I can see why Carson calls this "an ode to the mysterious allure of cats."
© Carson Ellis, 2020.
This book challenges the norms of bedtime books and the typical "wrapped in a bow" ending, leaving the reader puzzling this unusual, whimsical story. Carson's ink and gouache paintings are delightful and very thought provoking. After all, as she mentioned above, "We’re not all halves waiting to be made whole. . . is being made whole really even a thing?" Can we be content in our unique ownness? This could also be an interesting opening for parents and teachers to start a mathematical look at halves and wholes. Overall, a playful and unusual book, that could open up some interesting discussions.
- look around your room, house, and/or yard, draw half of some of the things you see. What did you discover in the halves?
- draw a dog in two halfs. Do you think it would be like the lady and “shoooop” together? Or more like the cat and stay in halves? Why do you think the cat stayed in half?
- make a half lunch. Divide all your foods in half, pour your drink halfway in two glasses. What was the funniest part of this lunch?
- color the templates, then cut the animals in half. Mount each half on craft sticks or pipe cleaners. And create your own story about the half animals.