Monday, March 2, 2015

A Conversation with Susan Stockdale

Back in November, at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Conference in Washington, DC, I had the good fortune of listening to Susan Stockdale speak about her work at the Children’s Literature Assembly’s forum entitled “Connecting Science and Math Concepts in Children’s and Young Adult Literature in a CCSS World.”

The whole line-up of speakers was fascinating. But I was particularly intrigued with Susan’s work because I was unfamiliar with it. This surprised me, because I pride myself on staying abreast of nonfiction authors, particularly those who write for the very young. After hearing her speak, I knew two things: I needed to get my hands on her work, and I needed to interview her for this blog, so that others invested in the education of toddlers, preschoolers, and primary grade children can also learn about her work.

Question #1: Why did you decide to focus your work on nonfiction for the very young? What is it about that audience that appeals to you as a writer and artist?

When I began my picture book career, I didn’t make a conscious decision to produce nonfiction for the very young; my creative process was more organic. I found myself coming up with nonfiction ideas, such as how animals carry their young, and conveyed them in simple, spare text and bright, bold illustrations. These forms of expression seemed naturally tailored to very young children, and I’ve been creating for them ever since. So, my artistry defined my audience.

Now I intentionally create books for this age group, and I love doing it! I especially enjoy spotlighting the wonders of the natural world when very young children are just becoming aware of it. Without being didactic, I hope to connect them with the outdoors and disconnect them from their electronic devices.

Kids are naturally curious, and I also relish coming up with themes I think they will enjoy. Why do animals have spots? Stripes? How do birds around the globe differ? I enjoy the challenge of making these subjects fun and engaging for young readers.

Question #2: Describe your process of conducting research before you write your books. How does your understanding of your child audience influence your research process?

I perform my research in traditional ways: by reading lots of books and articles in libraries and on the Web. I consult closely with scientists as I develop my manuscripts to make sure my information – both my word choices and addendum – is factually accurate. When possible, I visit my animal subjects in their natural habitat. It was thrilling to travel to the Galapagos Islands to see the Blue footed-Booby and the Great frigatebird for my book, Bring On the Birds. I came home and painted them right away.

I often research and write simultaneously. For example, while writing the rhyming lines “fish that hitch a ride” and “fish that ride the tide” for Fabulous Fishes, I researched whether fish really do these things. They do! Remoras attach themselves to whale sharks, hitching a ride for miles. California grunions swim up on shore during high tide and bury their eggs on the beach, then they “ride the tide” back to sea. I was glad I could retain those two lines, because I thought they would be amusing for kids to read.

My child audience is of primary importance when I am selecting animals to feature in my books. I try to balance exotic and familiar creatures in disparate habitats that will grab kids’ attention and provide for informative, fun text and a variety of colorful environments.

Question #3: Your nonfiction concept books are each grounded in a particular concept (for example, Stripes of All Types, Fabulous Fish, Bring on the Birds, and now Spectacular Spots). Once you have established the concept you’re working with, and begun or completed your research, how does the writing start? Each of your books incorporates rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, and really vivid precise verbs. What comes first? What was the first line that established the pattern in your latest book, Spectacular Spots?

I always begin with the rhyme, jotting down the first rhyming words that come to mind. As I keep writing and playing with the word combinations, a rhythm emerges. Once I have the rhythm, I have the structure for my manuscript. Then I focus on selecting the most vivid adjectives and verbs, using alliteration as much as possible. I spend a lot of time choosing each and every word. As a visual artist, I regard words as works of art. I think that’s why I choose to feature just a few on a page. I like having a lot of air around them, literally providing space for them to be savored.

My first line of Spectacular Spots set up the “spotted animal” theme of the book and established the rhyming and rhythmic pattern:

“Spots on creatures all around,

way up high and on the ground.”

Question #4: Can you walk us through a couple of two page spreads? In Spectacular Spots, you have four pages in a row that read like this: “Spots on snakes/spots on snails./Swimming turtles, singing quails.” I assume that you completed the writing first, to capture the language, and then designed the illustration. How do you balance movement and color choices to capture the comparison and contrast within the words?

I try to complete my manuscript before composing my illustrations, though imagery is swirling around inside my head as I write the words. I begin the process by referencing photos of the animal I am depicting and creating many sketches of it. I then submit my final sketch to scientists to confirm it is factually correct, revise if necessary, and paint the image in acrylic on paper. Once in a while, I will change the text to suit the art, because a surprise fact or new vantage point comes up.

Here are a few Spectacular Spots illustration progressions:

Spotted Owls

When I began drawing my spotted owls, I focused on the babies with the mother owl flying in the background. 

But when I changed the text from “spotted owl” to the more dramatic “swooping owl,” I needed to show a prominent swooping bird to support my text. 

This is my initial sketch with the swooping owl. I indicated where I wanted to position my three baby owls in numbered circles on the right. 

I thought it would be dramatic to show the owl flying in front of a big, round moon, as seen in this final drawing. Once my ornithologist consultant approved it, I began painting.

While painting, I mixed and experimented with different colors before applying them on paper, as seen in the markings to the right of the baby owls. 

I punched up the final illustration with green and turquoise-colored pine needles and added small, stylized white spots atop the owls’ heads. 


My text for this animal was “charging cheetah,” so I needed to show it running on the African plain.

After looking at photos of the charging animal, 

I drew this image. 

Then I decided to make the sun less prominent and position the cheetah with its legs tucked beneath it. I like the contrast between its black spots and striped tail, and the violet and orange colors in this final illustration. 

Green Anaconda

I submitted my snake drawing to a reptile scientist at the National Museum of Natural History for his feedback. He responded: “The draft illustration looks good. My only comment is that the spots on the anaconda are perhaps too regular and perfectly oval.” 

I incorporated his comments by making the snake’s spots more irregular in my final image.

Guinea Hens

I looked at photos of the hens... 

and drew this image of the birds in a standing position. 

When I changed my text from “spotted fowl” to the more active “strutting fowl,” I revised my drawing to show the hens walking. I was literally “seeing spots” when I painted the black and white spots in this final illustration! 

Question #5: At the end of each of your concept books, all of which focus on the natural world, you reveal two children from diverse backgrounds engaged in play with animals, often, but not exclusively, in a home setting. How did that begin, and why do you consistently include this motif in your work?

I began incorporating this theme in my very first book, Some Sleep Standing Up, which explored the many ways in which animals sleep. It seemed natural and fun to end the book by showing how people sleep on the final page, which reveals a child in bed, clutching a teddy bear.

This ending set a precedent for the final pages in my subsequent books. Because I feature many exotic animals in my books that live in countries like Africa that children may never visit, I wanted to show kids with animals they can see in their neighborhood, like the robin nestlings in Bring On the Birds, or that they might have as pets, like the striped tabby cats in Stripes of All Types and the spotted Dalmatians in Spectacular Spots. This motif is my way of saying: “Animals are all around you and you are both part of our amazing natural world. Enjoy!”

Question #6: What other nonfiction writers and illustrators have inspired your work over the years?

I am very inspired by Steve Jenkins; I think he is a genius! His book themes are so clever and his writing and illustrations are beautiful. I’m also a big fan of the wonderful books of Peter Sis. His detailed, patterned illustrations are captivating and original; you won’t confuse his artwork with anyone else. I visit art museums all the time, and master painters like Matisse and Degas inspire me. But nature – the best designer – is always my greatest inspiration.

For those of you who work in preschool or primary grade settings, there are so many rich opportunities for reading Susan’s work with your students. First and foremost, you can read aloud her books for all the reasons that you read aloud to students. You can use her books to teach important concepts, like stripes and spots. You can use them to investigate different animals, or within a unit that focuses on animal adaptations in particular.

For those of you who teach in the primary grades, you can use her books to build the oral vocabulary of your students, and model the vivid verbs that Susan utilizes in her work. Her books serve as wonderful introductions to the concept of a mentor text. Students can write their own books, or you can write a class book, with each student taking on responsibility for researching, writing, and illustrating a two-page spread.

Thank you, Susan, for agreeing to participate in this interview and for sharing your ideas, sketches, and illustrations. Thanks to Christine Dengel Baum at Peachtree Publishing as well, for supporting the request! You can find out more about Susan and her books on her webpage.

1 comment:

  1. fascinating, especially the process images and discussion