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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Patricia MacLachlan and Chris Sheban

Patricia MacLachlan was born on the prairie, and to this day carries a small bag of prairie dirt with her wherever she goes to remind her of what she knew first.

She is the celebrated author of many timeless novels for young readers, including Newbery Medal winner Sarah, Plain and Tall; Word After Word After Word; Kindred Souls; The Truth of Me; The Poet’s Dog; and My Father’s Words.

She is also the author of countless beloved picture books (including Prairie Days), a number of which she cowrote with her daughter, Emily. She lives in Williamsburg, Massachusetts.

Chris Sheban won the Gold Medal from the Society of Illustrators for his radiant illustrations in The Story Of A Seagull And The Cat Who Taught Her To Fly by Luis Sepulveda.

He’s the illustrator of numerous picture books, including I Met a Dinosaur by Jan Wahl, Catching the Moon by Myla Goldberg, What To Do With a Box by Jane Yolen, Three Squeezes, by Jason Pratt, and Someone Like Me by Patricia MacLachlan, His artwork has also graced the covers of several award-winning novels. He lives Northbrook, Illinois.

Their newest picture book When Grandfather Flew, releases tomorrow!

Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write or illustrate? How long have you been writing or illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate?)

PATRICIA: I’ve been writing since I was 5, once getting locked in my country library! I didn’t care. I just kept on reading. I began to write books in my 30s. I like writing both novels and picture books. Novels give me room to explore. Picture books test me more – no room for wandering thought.

CHRIS: I moved to Chicago (via Ohio) around 1984 after working in Italy for a year, mostly as a graphic designer. After some years of working in the basement of my home (next to the boiler), I upgraded to the corner of an unused living room. It has these things called windows which made me instantly feel better. I’m a morning person and like the light, so that’s my most productive time.

I would have loved being locked in the library - until I got hungry. Wow, Chris, is that what those things are? What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

PATRICIA: I love the game of baseball! In my country elementary school, I played on the “boy’s” team – they needed more players. I played first base. And I could hit. I have a new novel called “Painting the Game” about a baseball pitcher and his family. I love the Boston Red Sox. That’s no longer a secret, is it?

CHRIS: I secretly enjoy pulling weeds. I am boring, too, but more than a few people know that about me.

Patricia - I can just imagine you playing on the "boy's" team. You still have that spunk and spark. Chris - If you ever tire of illustrating, I know LOTS of people who would love to utilize this other passion!

Patricia, what was the inspiration for When Grandfather Flew?

PATRICIA: The inspiration was my husband and my grandchildren, close and active, exploring the world together. One day when we were watching hawks soaring high above our mountain top home my husband said, “When I die, I want to fly away like a hawk.” The grandchildren loved this. And I went into the pantry off my kitchen and wrote the title “When Grandfather Flew.”

I love this! What a great start for a story. Chris, what about the When Grandfather Flew manuscript appealed to you as an illustrator?

CHRIS: To be honest, anything Patty writes is interesting to me! Her language is very evocative and beautiful in its simplicity and directness. I am fond of illustrating the natural world, and there is plenty of that in Patty’s stories. Milo, the grandchild in the story, tends to be more of a listener, not a talker. He quietly absorbs his grandfather’s wisdom and stories which is revealed at the end of the text. When my kids were little, I would point out beautiful clouds and trees and usually get a shrug or eye rolls in return. Now that they are grown, they send me texts with pictures of beautiful skies, trees, or architecture that they see. It makes me smile.

Ha, they were listening after all! Now that we've had a chance to rave about you, Patricia, what's something you want your readers to know about When Grandfather Flew?

PATRICIA: The young and old have much in common – they are both thoughtful, interested in each other, and strangely understand each other despite their age differences.

I totally agree with you. I adored spending time with my great-grandmother and grandparents. Chris, many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in When Grandfather Flew? Could you share one or more with us?

Text © Patricia MacLachlan, 2021. Image © Chris Sheban, 2021.

CHRIS: No treasures here. I do take the Illustrator’s Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.” It’s usually best to stay out of the way of the story and don’t muck it up too much. There is an illustration of Milo looking anxiously at a paper bag. I decided to do the art on the inside of a grocery bag for this one. It’s a drawing of a bag - on a bag.

*Chuckling* I do love knowing things from 'behind the scenes.' Thank you. Chris, what is your favorite medium to work with? Your least favorite or maybe one you’re itching to try? For When Grandfather Flew, was it the texture of the paper that made it seem like you’d used chalk?

CHRIS: I typically work with a combination of watercolor, color pencils, and pastel. The texture was mostly created with the application of pastel on top of the watercolor. Some images are on cheap copy paper. I recently got an iPad, though I don’t exactly know how to use it, but it’s fun to make drawings digitally. Much easier to erase. I love to see other people’s oil painting and printmaking, but my fear of being historically bad in both mediums keeps me from jumping in.

That is such an interesting technique. As a child, who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book?

PATRICIA: As a child I loved all books – even the ones I thought could be improved. Once my mother found me editing a book, crossing out what I thought were too many words. As someone older, I loved Natalie Babbitt, Jean George, and all books about faraway places.

CHRIS: There was a book of nursery rhymes in a childhood nightstand that I would look at often. I liked the work of Frank Frazetta (a fantasy artist) when I was a teenager. The Dutch painter Jan Vermeer has always been an inspiration to me, as well as an older brother.

Now I tend to prefer non-representational art. This way, when my drawing skills diminish and the images become unrecognizable, I can say it’s abstract art.

You two! I haven't laughed so hard during an interview for a long time! What is the hardest or most challenging thing for you about writing or illustrating picture books? How about specifically with When Grandfather Flew?

PATRICIA: I work hard not to become tiresome – going over and over a book, deleting words, adding words! And I try to be honest.

CHRIS: Just about every part of it. I enjoy the sketching and experimenting phase. The finished art makes up the longest and hardest part of a book project for me. For this book, I made tiny sketches (@ 3 inches tall) on tracing paper, refined them a little bit then photocopied them twice the original size. I painted on these copies with watercolor and pastel. You can see the photocopied lines of the original pencil drawings on many of the images. Using cheap copy paper is not conducive to the long-term survival of a drawing, which means they will self-destruct over time and save me from future ridicule - not a bad thing.

Patricia, did anything surprise you when you first got to see the illustrations? What is your favorite spread?

Text © Patricia MacLachlan, 2021. Image © Chris Sheban, 2021.

PATRICIA: I love the illustrated book! It feels so personal to me, as if Chris knew our hilltop home, knew my grandchildren, and knew me. And I LOVE the endpapers! I call Chris my “kindred soul.”

Which helps make the book so special. Chris, is there a spread that you were especially excited about or proud of? What is your favorite spread?

Text © Patricia MacLachlan, 2021. Image © Chris Sheban, 2021.

CHRIS: I am particularly critical of my own work, and never quite satisfied with much of it. (Neal Porter, our editor, can attest to this). The first image in the book with a younger grandfather making notations in a notebook is one I like (kind of) because it was an early experiment with the technique I would use throughout.

As I said, I think this technique is amazing. I was initially sure it had to be done with chalk. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (Either as a child, now as a writer, or both.)

PATRICIA: Great thinkers, great musicians, great music, and kind people.

CHRIS: My mom. She raised five young boys by herself after my dad passed away. I still have no idea how she did it on her own.

Here's to kindness and our amazing moms. How are you, or have you been, staying creative these days? What are you doing to “prime the well”?

PATRICIA: I talk to my wise children – and their incredibly amusing children. And I find a friendly dog whenever I can!

CHRIS: I try to draw something every day. I’m waiting for Patty to write another story then hope that Neal Porter will ask me to do the illustrations.

Are there any new projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

PATRICIA: I’m writing a novel about a family of musicians. My husband was a violist, I played the cello. There is something about music what shows us truths.

CHRIS: Nothing currently apart from some sketchbook drawing. That leaves me plenty of time to pull more weeds.

*Chuckling* Might be a good side job....just saying. Last question, what is your favorite animal? Or one that you are especially enamored with. Why?

PATRICIA: I always had dogs – there is something honest about a dog. My daughter rescues Great Pyrenees dogs. When my son worked for Jane Goodall in Africa, I visited him there and became very fond of chimps! Now I have a smart cat that doesn’t like rules: “no you can’t catch a bird.” “No, you can’t eat my cereal.” “No, you can’t scratch the rug.” I always loved Jean George’s African Gray Parrott who listened to me when I spoke on the phone: “Uh-huh… Uh-huh… Uh huh…”

CHRIS: I like dogs, but I think it would be neat if we still had dinosaurs walking around. Maybe they were smarter and friendlier than we think - like elephants…and could be pets.

Patricia, hopefully your cat makes up for its rule-breaking with lots of snuggles & purrs! Chris, I think there's a picture book in there.

Thank you Patricia & Chris for sharing with us a bit about yourselves and your newest picture book.

Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on When Grandfather Flew.

To find out more about Patricia MacLachlan’s books:

To find out more about Chris Sheban, or get in touch with him:


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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