When Erin and Phil Stead visited Lemuria Books in March, I was fortunate enough to speak with them about their writing, their art, who influences them, and what projects they have coming up. The live and work in a place that inspires their craft, and this conversation is between the three of us outside a coffee shop.
Phil talks about his most recent book, Ideas Are All Around, and Erin talks about a time in her life when she wasn’t creating art, and the drawing that changed all of that and served as a springboard for the book that would change their lives—A Sick Day for Amos McGee.
Both of them are as familiar with each other as a creative team who also happen to be husband and wife can be. Their conversation is organic, and reflects their calm demeanor and shy personalities. They both possess a very dry wit and keen sense of the world around them.
Thank you, Erin and Phil, for your kindness in speaking so honestly with me, and I hope that readers enjoy this interview!
|Erin and Phil present "Storytime with the Steads" at Lemuria Books.|
Where are you from and where do you live now?
Erin: We are from Michigan and we most of the time live in a place in Northern Michigan called Leelanau County which is right outside of a national park. It’s rural, and there are a lot of orchards and beaches too, so it’s a neat place to live.
Phil: We live in a 115 year old farm house on a lot of land. It’s a nice and quiet place to live and work.
What did you do before writing and illustrating great books?
Erin (to Phil): You tried to make books.
Phil: Erin and I have known each other since high school and we have always been trying to make books.
Erin: There were a few years when I still loved books, but I didn’t think that I should make them, so I stopped trying. I stopped drawing or making any art. It was a strange time. It was a short period of time, but it was definitive because it made me realize that without art I was really boring.
Phil: After Erin took three years off of drawing, a friend of Erin’s asked her to make a drawing for him. She worked on this little drawing at her kitchen table in New York City, and the drawing was of an old man and an elephant.
Erin (to Phil): You saw me draw it, and you wrote me a story. That was A Sick Day For Amos McGee.
Phil: And then suddenly we did make books for a living.
|Buy one of Erin's amazing prints here.|
What were some of your favorite books as a child?
Phil: That’s an easy one. I loved Roald Dahl more than anything.
Erin: We both did.
Phil: I still love Roald Dahl. My favorite book of Dahl’s was The BFG. I read everything by Roald Dahl, and I think I imagined that I would become Roald Dahl. He is described as a caustic and sometimes nasty writer. Wicked is a word that is used to describe him. I think that his books are, inevitably, about kindness. So I think that our books and Dahl’s books have a lot in common for that reason. Whenever I pick up a Dahl book to this day, I feel a kinship with themes that he wrote that are themes that I like to explore.
I also really loved William Steig. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble was definitely my favorite picture book as a kid. I really only remember owning two picture books. One was Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and the other was Swimmy, by Leo Lionni. I think that both of those books influenced the types of books I was going to make later in my life.
Erin: If Phil only remembers owning two picture books I remember owning a lot. I was the third child so I inherited books. My mom was really good at getting me picture books no matter what age I was, which was really important. My godmother also did that, she was an elementary teacher at an inner city school in Detroit, and she really had her finger on the pulse of what was new, so I have some first editions of books that went on to win the Caldecott.
The first book I remember reading out loud was in Kindergarten, but that was because we were all supposed to read it out loud. I had memorized the book, and it was Where The Wild Things Are. My other favorite book was The Snowy Day. I had good taste, but it wasn’t that I was an original child.
I also loved being read aloud to, so any book that my teacher would read to me I loved. Those are the memories that I hold dear. Charlotte’s Web was also a big influence.
Who are some authors and illustrators who inspire you today?
Erin: Someone we have always loved is Carll Cneut. He is Belgian, and his work is amazing. He’s published a few of his books here, but they never caught. So we own a lot of his books that we can’t read because they are written in french.
Phil: Before we were published, when we were just students, I really wanted my work to look and feel like Carll Cneut’s books.
Erin: I was working in a bookstore, and when we received a few of his books I was so taken by them.
Phil: My favorite book of his is The Amazing Love Story of Mr. Morf. I just recently read it again and I was amazed at how much I had copied it in the way that I write. I must have read it so many times that I think it exists inside me. I think all of our books are some version of The Amazing Love Story of Mr. Morf.
Erin: It was published by Clarion and I think we bought all of them.
|The Amazing Love Story of Mr. Morf by Carll Cneut, Clarion Books, 2003|
Erin: I think one of the neat things now that I never expected is that a lot of the people we admire the most we are lucky enough to call friends.
I love Mac Barnett’s writing and he’s a friend. I love Jon Klassen’s illustrations and he’s a friend.
Phil: Maybe my favorite contemporary book maker that I consider a peer is Tao Nyeu. She’s only published a few books, but some of the ones that are out are some of the most influential, to me, now. Her first book is called Wonder Bear. It is beautiful, groundbreaking, and extraordinary. I think it is a book that will last a long time. I think it has been really influential in the minds of artists in the last couple of years. Her second book, Bunny Days, is my favorite. I think it’s absolutely brilliant. I’ve only read a few books ever that only exist in the mind of a five-year-old.
Erin: Yes, and the way that it [Bunny Days] makes adults uncomfortable, specifically because it is true to kid logic.
Phil: It is told in three short stories. In one of the stories, a bunch of bunnies get thrown into a washing machine. Parents have trouble with this part of the story according to online reviews, but to kids, they don’t even question it. But to five year olds, it’s perfectly normal.
Erin: Their best friends get thrown into the washing machine all the time.
|Bunny Days by Tao Nyeu, Dial Books for Young Readers, 2010|
How does your writing and illustrating process usually work?
Erin: Every day is different. I think that Phil and I both wish we had a routine and we don’t. I also think that the Caldecott actually does change your life. Here we are five years later after Amos came out, and we are still trying to chase after a routine. We wake up in the morning, we walk the dog, and do some business. We have slow mornings, and we don’t start any creative work until at least after lunch.
Phil: No matter how many years we do this, I never stop being afraid to work. Every single day I avoid and procrastinate and avoid getting into the studio because every day is a little bit scary. There’s always something to overcome.
Speaking of getting your ideas, this question is for Phil. Can you talk about Ideas Are All Around and why you decided to write this book? It’s a poetic book; each page is poetry. It’s an ode to inspiring writer and artists.
Phil: Thank you. I actually didn’t intend to write this book in the way that I intended to write my other books. It actually came from different scraps and pieces of writing without any intention of compiling them into any kind of story. I was working on pitching a different project, Samson in the Snow, and while I was pitching that book to my editor, I also sent him some scraps of writing I had been doing. Neal Porter, our editor, was excited about those scraps, and asked if that could be a book. Thus began the process of finding the book within those scraps. It’s a book about creativity, a book about the process of finding an idea and developing an idea. More than that it’s about what it means to live an open life, to live in a community, to live with kindness and respect to the world around you.
The nuts and bolts of the writing process are actually just the structure on which the rest of it hangs.
|Ideas Are All Around by Philip C. Stead, Roaring Brook Press, 2016|
What was your favorite book to work on together?
Erin: Bear Has a Story to Tell was the easiest.
Phil: That one was the most fun. Erin was working on And Then It’s Spring, and Erin drew an illustration of three bears, and as soon as I saw that illustration, I knew that I wanted to write something about a bear because I loved the way she illustrated those characters. I wrote the first draft the same day I saw her illustration, and the first and final draft were almost identical, so it was an effortless writing process. Once it was handed to Erin it was as close to an effortless illustration process the we can get.
Erin: It was the first period of time that it really felt like we could pull this whole book making thing off, like something we could continue to do. Bear Has a Story to Tell was the first one we were able to make without as much terror.
|Bear Has a Story to Tell by Philip and Erin Stead, Roaring Brook, 2012|
Do you have the illustrations in mind before writing, or do the words come first?
Erin: It can happen either way.
Phil: In the case of Amos, [A Sick Day For Amos McGee], there was the image that came first. At first there was the image that Erin made at the kitchen table. Then more images appeared in mind, an image of the old man playing chess with an elephant and an image of an old man running a race with a tortoise. The visual middle of the story first came to my mind for that book. We developed the character and then developed the story.
With Bear Has a Story to Tell, I saw an image of a bear, but the story just existed from start to finish, and then the story belonged to Erin.
Both of you illustrate, so what art style do you like to use?
Phil: I would describe myself as eclectic. I like to use different mediums and try different styles.
In Ideas Are All Around, I love the page that is just pictures of the sky.
Phil: In the case of my new book, that is as eclectic as I get. I didn’t plan that I wanted it to look a certain way, I just wanted it to look like a visual diary.
Erin (to Phil): Taking polaroids is how you tend to journal your life.
Phil: Polaroids, charcoal drawings, it all made it into that book. It was very natural to make.
Erin: I consider myself someone who draws and has to figure out how to add color with every drawing. We change our medium with the story we are trying to tell and the characters we are trying to describe. We have to learn how to make art all over again because we are trying to be good illustrators.
Phil: With A Sick Day For Amos McGee, that book is made with woodblock printing which is a slow and deliberate process. It fits with Amos McGee, who is a slow and deliberate character. Whereas Bear Has a Story to Tell, the main character, Bear, is neither slow nor deliberate. He’s bundling, off the cuff, a little bit of a mess, so we felt the art should reflect him.
Erin: The medium was different. It was painted with ground up chalk pastels so it was almost like painting with mud.
Phil: If you take A Home for Bird, prior to that book, I had only made books using collage. Collage didn’t seem right for A Home for Bird, and in the end, I used crayon as my primary medium because crayon is an honest and simple material, and Vernon is honest and simple.
|Phil demonstrates his illustration process to a captive audience|
If you could walk into any of your stories, which one would you choose, and why?
Erin & Phil: A Sick Day For Amos McGee
Phil: It just seems like a nice place to be. It is a reflection of how we wish the world worked. place that we wish the world
Erin: Amos was going to be my one shot to make a book. Even though I was trying to tell a good story, it reflects all my favorite things. The color palette is the truest color palette of what I’m drawn to. It’s orderly.
Phil: I might also want to visit Sebastian and the Balloon because it gave me strange dreams while I was working on it.
|A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip and Erin Stead, Roaring Brook, 2010|
Any new projects coming up?
Erin: We both have books coming out in the fall. It has been a busy couple of years for us. I have a book called The Uncorked of Ocean Bottles.
Phil: I have a picture book this fall called Samson in the Snow which is a simple story about a woolly mammoth who goes looking for a friend in a snow storm.
Erin: The reason I picked this book up is because it felt like a book my mom would have bought me.
What do you love about creating picture books for children and adults?
Erin: The thing that I love about making picture books for children, and the adults who love picture books as well, is that the audience is about as honest an audience you could chase after. It’s scary because you can lose a two year old really fast in a book. At the same time, a two year old isn’t politically motive, or isn’t concerned about the ulterior motive of the rabbit [in Bunny Days]. Our job is to take these really broad feelings of what it like to just be human and distill them into very short stories that attempts to be relatable to anyone. It’s a really interesting problem to attack with every book. I really love the challenge that book making gives me, and the challenge of how to tell the story in such a short amount of time.
Phil: I think I was drawn to making books for children because I felt that children’s books were in some way subversive. They aren’t being scrutinized in the same kind of way that art or writing for adults is. you can get away with tackling really difficult stuff that matters. What does it mean to live in a world that has kindness and cruelty? What does it mean to live in a world where people are lonely? These things can be dealt with in any art form, but there is something about the purity of children’s books, and the fact that the audience still believes in a kind of magic that makes making picture books a worthwhile endeavor to me.
|Phil and Erin inside of OZ, the Children's Section of Lemuria Books.|
I will be giving away one first edition copy of Ideas Are All Around, signed by Philip Stead.
Rules to Enter: (U.S. Only)
On Twitter, retweet the interview link with the hashtag #ideasgiveaway.
On Instagram, repost the photo, and include the hashtag #ideasgiveaway.
Winner will be randomly drawn on Saturday, April 30, 12 p.m. EST.