Joy Interviews Elizabeth Rose Stanton, Author and Illustrator of COWIE

Article by Joy

I met picture book author/illustrator Elizabeth Rose Stanton a few years ago at a weekend writer’s event at the fabulous Writing Barn in Austin. I fell in love with the quirky fun of her picture book HENNY, about this chicken with arms. Yes, arms! ERS has a gentle style - whimsical yet thoughtful. Her books speak to our need to be ourselves, to have the world accept us for who we are… even if we’re a chicken with arms! Of course when her latest, COWIE came out this year, I knew I had to interview her, and I hope you are all as delighted as I was with her fascinating and often unexpected answers to the questions I asked! 


Joy Preble: We’ve been in love with COWIE since the F&G arrived months ago. (For those who are not up on publishing lingo, F&G stands for folded and gathered and it’s basically an unbound sample copy of the picture book to come). Was there a particular inspiration for this delightfully quirky tale of a donkey who wants to be a cow? And in a broader follow up, what draws you to stories of creatures who don’t quite fit in? Basically, tell us a little about Cowie! 

Elizabeth Rose Stanton: Actually, Cowie did start out as a little cow. My editor loved the story idea, but suggested I consider Cowie as a different animal—maybe a lamb or a horse. I played around with it, then a donkey popped into my head, and the real Cowie was born! Cowie was so fun to write because, as I did a bit with BUB, I really got to play with the book itself. Cowie gets a little “meta” when his friends Duckie and Mousie “see” what’s going on and figure out how to help him. One of the biggest challenges was having to paint Cowie either facing forward or left, since the word is actually interfacing with the book itself. I was intrigued by things like this when I was a child . . . overlapping realities, as it were. I think my little readers will have fun with it! There’s also a bit of “code” built into the book that no one has picked up on . . . yet! 

I think children often worry about being different, about fitting in and feeling accepted. I hope my characters— whether they figure out how to cope on their own (like Henny and Bub)—or get there with a little help from friends (like Peddles and Cowie), let them see they’re not alone in their feelings and that there are various paths to empowerment.   

 

JP: Absolutely. It’s part of what I find so wonderful about your books. And speaking of your books, I love asking illustrators questions because creating art through drawing is not something I do professionally. How do you establish the right color palette for a particular story? I know you are drawn to delicate, whimsical colors and lines. Is this because you are creating stories for children? Who are your artistic inspirations for your very distinctive style?

ERS: Most often, my characters come first by way of a doodle. Henny happened when I was painting, for fun, a little hen wearing boots. Then I started thinking about her wings and how chickens don’t really fly. I replaced her little wings with arms and started asking myself what a chicken would/could do with them . . . and it all flowed from there! My palette, by extension, is developed from the look of the character. There’s a lot of piggy-pink, for example, in Peddles! 

I think I am drawn (pun intended) to delicate, whimsical colors because, as a child, I was easily overwhelmed. Things that were too loud, or brash, or fast-paced didn’t allow space for me to think. My books are meant to be silly and fun and not-in-your-face—both the art and the stories. I want to challenge children with stories that get them to think, and I try and craft the art in ways that will give them the time and space to do that. I leave out anything that might distract from what’s going on or doesn’t directly move the story forward. Less is always more, in my book!

As for inspiration, I look at everything, but I have to say Beatrix Potter and Lisbeth Zwerger top my list of the truly inspirational. It’s followed closely by the work of Gyo Fujikawa and Helen Oxenbury. I also frequently look to the women of the Golden Age of Illustration— like Jesse Willcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Kate Greenaway, as well as Caldecott greats such as Dorothy Lathrop, Virginia Lee Burton and, of course, Sophie Blackall.  

 

JP: Such a fascinating set of influences! Lisbeth Zwerger’s fairy tale books are wonderful! Continuing with questions about your influences and artist’s journey, I see in your bio that you started out as an architect! Tell us about the transition and journey to art and children’s books. Why art? Why children’s books?

ERS: My transition away from architecture had everything to do with my children. I basically dropped everything to be a full-time parent after my eldest was born. Then, two more rolled out and I was out of commission, so to speak, until my youngest was in kindergarten and I had more than two minutes to myself. By that time, I had effectively aged out of architecture since everything in my child-rearing interim had been computerized. But the good news is that I had been trained old-school . . . everything hand drawn. So instead, I built on that and began doing some fine art and portrait commission work. It wasn’t until my third child graduated from college that things started to happen. I had toyed with the idea of being an illustrator, and when a friend invited me to take a course in children’s writing and illustrating at an art school here in Seattle, I became hooked . . . and all the planets suddenly aligned!

 

JP: What a wonderful answer to read, especially in the context of so much endless social media chatter about how if you don’t publish well before you’re 25 or whatever, you’re not going to get anywhere, which is, well, absurd. Sometimes it takes a while to find your job, your place, your time. And to that, what are the best parts of your job? Are there parts that are more of a struggle?

ERS: The best part, hands down, is the creating (and a true confession is that I think I enjoy writing a little more than the illustrating). The parts that are more of a struggle include the relentless requirements of social media, as well as having to “perform.” I’m not a natural extrovert, although I of course step up when I have to (we always do for our children, right?). I’d rather be wandering around in my head looking for characters and stories and bringing them to the fore! That said, the remarkable people I’ve met and gotten to know in the children’s book industry have often been the wind beneath my wings.  

 

JP: What other picture book author/illustrators are you obsessed with these days? I love when my favorite authors recommend books they love.

ERS: There are so many people in kidlit whose work I love and admire, but I like to keep my recommendations and obsessions confined to the more “historic” (aka, mostly dead) creatives. I never grow tired of the impossibly brilliant work of Ronnie Solbert and Jean Merrill (The Elephant Who Liked to Smash Small Cars), the seminal art of Wanda Gag (Millions of Cats), and the wacky and timeless books by Dorothy Kunhardt (Pat the Bunny, Junket is Nice). I wish more people were aware of them! 

 

JP: Oh my gosh, Jean Merrill! I was obsessed with The Pushcart War when I was a kid. Obsessed! But to finish this out now, tell us something unexpected about yourself. Or if you prefer, tell us anything else you’d like us to know!   

ERS: Some trivia, for what it’s worth: My first book, HENNY, was released when I was 60. (I mention this because I want others to know it’s never too late!). My “middle” name, Rose, was actually my last name. I am related to Elizabeth Cady Stanton! I have an inordinate fondness for tabby cats and ghosts. I stood on my head a lot when I was a child . . .  and I still would if I could, but I’d probably have a stroke.

Thank you so much Joy, and Brazos, for having me! 

 

JP: What amazing trivia!! What fabulous answers all around! Thank you. And let me end this by encouraging everyone to purchase a copy of COWIE!

 

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Cowie Cover Image
$17.99
ISBN: 9781534421745
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books - January 7th, 2020

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