Interview with Paul O. Zelinsky, Celebrated Caldecott Illustrator

Illustrator Paul Zelinsky at workGrowing up, I can remember enjoying Saturdays of reading in the Fairy Tale-like tower at our local library. It held the folk tales section, and two of my many favorites were the elegant illustrations in Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin. They made me feel as though I'd stepped into a Rennaissance painting. 

Both of these books were illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky, whose career has continued to the present day. He has illustrated numerous children's books and received the Caldecott Medal for his classic retelling of Rapunzel. His innovation has continued throughout his career, bringing him Caldecott Honors for his illustrations in Rumpelstiltskin, Swamp Angel and Hansel and Gretel

His latest book is Z is For Moose, a delightfully silly quest to recite the alphabet without any interruptions from a moose. Mr. Zelinsky offered to take some time out of work at his studio and answer some questions from us about his art and life as an illustrator. 

-- Jess Stork Glicoes


What were your favorite books when you were a child?
I have a lot of trouble choosing favorite anythings, but apparently I didn't start out that way, because I can give you a lot of answers to this question. I loved a lot of books.

Some of my favorite picture books were: The Color Kittens, by Margaret Wise Brown and the Provensens, The Tawny Scrawny Lion, by Kathryn Jackson and Gustav Tenggren, Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag, and Bear Party by William Pène du Bois. I knew the titles of the books but I paid no attention to the names of the book makers, which is as it should be. I learned about the authors and illustrators much later.

For chapter and middle-grade books I had favorite authors. Two of the major ones were Robert Lawson and William Pène du Bois. I also had as a favorite a very strange chapter book called Piccoli, about a girl who finds a tiny boy living in her apartment. An army of brightly painted cockroaches figures in that story. I don't know what happened to my copy of the book, and in fact I frustratingly forgot the name of it, for years. Then I chanced to see a copy of this old, long out-of-print book sitting on a desk in a publisher's office. I was surprised to see that it was written by the well-known photographer Philippe Halsman, who is perhaps best known for his photograph of Salvador Dali in mid-air, being hit by a big spray of water and three flying cats. But that is beside the point.

How did you first get into children's illustration?
I have a hard time thinking that I wouldn't have ended up here no matter what I did, but in fact I began thinking of children's illustration in college, when I saw, signed up for, and got into a seminar about picture books. The course was being co-taught by Maurice Sendak. This was the first time Sendak ever taught anything. I had no idea how lucky I was. Well, actually, I had some idea.

What media do you work with and do you have a preference towards one medium?
I like to try out all sorts of media and techniques. Though I want to think that I don't tilt toward any one in particular, I find that I do use oil paints more than anything else. I wrote a little piece about that for the Horn Book Magazine, which is now online.

Rapunzel cover
You won a Caldecott for your detailed illustrations in Rapunzel. What originally drew you to paint this fairy tale in such a realistic and classic style?

Isn't this the only right way to do it? Seemed so to me.

If the story didn't feel somehow extremely real, how could it wield its power? If it didn't feel at some sort of remove from everyday life, the way classical paintings do, how could you accept it on its own strange terms?

What artists are you inspired by?
I take a lot of inspiration from painters, mostly not recent ones. I can't stop looking at Velasquez, Vermeer, Dürer and many others. I look at Massaccio and Piero della Francesca, and Grunewald. Among less ancient artists, I like Corot and Le Douanier Rousseau, and I love some of the German Expressionists like Beckmann and Klee. One artist I've found inspiring is Guy Pène du Bois, who was William Pène du Bois' father.

 Cover for Knick-Knack PaddywhackThere is a lot of variation in your style from book to book.  Some are more whimsical like Knick-Knack Paddywhack!, whereas others have a more classic look. What is your motivation for varying your style so much?
What comes first is my desire to do right by each book. Sometimes I'm given a wonderful manuscript, and I want to give it pictures with the same sensibility. Sometimes, as with Knick-Knack Paddywhack! (there's actually an exclamation point in the title, if you look carefully), a project starts with me wanting to make a certain book, and I try to work out the style more from scratch. But it's always a matter of working toward a picture that's right for the text.

What has your favorite moment been during your career as a children's illustrator?
That's a hard one. I've had so many! Plus it's a "favorite" question, so it's next to impossible for me to answer. Receiving the Caldecott Medal was quite a wow-moment. But there've been others -- like getting to meet authors and illustrators who created books I loved as a child. One kind of private special moment is when I've finished a piece of art, look at it, and it seems to have come out bettter than I had even hoped -- that's been rare, and an extraordinary feeling. But truthfully, when I am standing in front of a group of children at a school, and talking about or reading from a book of mine, and I see that they are as wrapped up in my story as I ever was, that is probably even more rewarding than those other things.

On your website, there is a book trailer for one of your newest books, Z is For Moose. How do you see book trailers and other technology changing the world of children's illustration?

Z is for Moose Cover

All I really know is that I wanted to make that trailer, and with some help I did it. I guess I'm lucky that I enjoy learning about animation, and trying my hand at it, but this shouldn't become a requirement for a book illustrator. The more books start coming out with trailers, the more everyone with a new book will feel obligated to have one, too, so that even if they serve no practical purpose, trailers for picture books might become a universal phenomenon. I hear that libraries and classrooms find trailers useful for introducing a book to children, so that is a nice thought.

What is the first thing you think about when starting a new illustration?
Oh, well, I tend to think: how on earth am I going to do this? What if it comes out terribly? What if I can't do it at all? Then I have to put all these thoughts out of my head. I read and read and reread the manuscript, even if it's something I've written myself, and sketch and sketch and sketch with nothing much in my head, and eventually something always seems to work itself into existence. At least it has so far.

What are you working on right now?
Kelly Bingham has written another book about Moose and Zebra, called Circle, Square, Moose. And I am working on it.

What advice would you give to young artists, hoping to be illustrators one day?
Keep on drawing. Don't get self-conscious. It doesn't matter if it doesn't look good enough. Keep on doing it. Love the doing of it, not just the look of the finished thing. Only by not stopping do you get better.