Author-Illustrator Spotlight: Marla Frazee
|LITTLE BROWN (Beach Lane Books 2018)
We are excited to feature award-winning author-illustrator Marla Frazee and her recent picture book, THE FARMER AND THE MONKEY (Beach Lane Books, Sept. 2020). Enter to win a copy!
Tell us about yourself and how you came to write and illustrate for children.
I’ve wanted to be a children’s book author and illustrator since I was a little kid. I fell in love with WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, THE CARROT SEED, and BLUEBERRIES FOR SAL, and from then on, all I wanted was to grow up and figure out how to make books like that myself. And I’m still trying, which is why this job is so wonderful. I’m about to start my 37th book, and I’m as challenged now by everything that goes into creating a picture book as I was when I started—because picture books are hard!
As for writing and illustrating for children, there is no better audience, in my opinion. Especially so if you are an illustrator, because no other age group looks at pictures as carefully as children who haven’t yet learned to read. They see everything: the smallest details, the secondary storylines--and any mistakes too. Picture book illustrators need to be on their toes because children are picture-reading experts.
Congratulations on your recent book, THE FARMER AND THE MONKEY. How was writing and illustrating a sequel picture book similar or different from writing the original? Was it hard to follow up to such an acclaimed book?
Thank you! I am so excited about The Farmer Books trilogy. I had no plan to continue the story when THE FARMER AND THE CLOWN was published in 2014. The idea for the first book came to me right before I went through a divorce after a 31-year marriage. Years later, I was once again struggling through a breakup, and I found solace in retreating back into that book. I’d imagine what would have happened to the farmer. He said goodbye to the baby clown, but he didn’t know a circus monkey was following him home. And what about the baby clown? How had his time with the farmer changed him? Wondering about all of this was easier than thinking about what was happening in my own life and, eventually, the whole, larger story was there, and I realized it would be a trilogy.
|Thumbnail sketches for The Farmer books
|The Farmer Books
Making these books has helped me through some difficult transitions. I hope they do that for others too, because we all go through transitions of one kind or another. Readers of the first book have shared many of their own stories with me—of their own goodbyes and feelings of being lost, and then, surprisingly, found.
|From The Farmer and the Monkey © Marla Frazee
THE FARMER AND THE MONKEY has a more humorous vibe than the first book, because it turns out that it’s not easy having a circus monkey on a farm. THE FARMER AND THE CIRCUS, which comes out in April 2021, is the finale. I think of these books as a love story in three parts: each about how seemingly random connections between us can have profound implications.
What projects are you working on now?
I began illustrating THE GREAT ZAPFINO, written by Mac Barnett, around the time we all started sheltering at home. As it turned out, it was the perfect project to work on during these strange pandemic months, and I’ve been grateful to have such an unusual book to dive into. There’s a Zapfino pun there because it's about a character who is not ready and is actually ill-suited to do what he is supposed to do—perform a high dive. I loved this manuscript when I first read it a couple years ago, and lucky for me, Mac said he would wait for me to complete The Farmer Books.
|Title page sketch for The Great Zapfino
|Interior detail from The Great Zapfino © Marla Frazee
Do your books start out as images or words first?
I’ve discovered that when I start with pictures, I end up with stories that are closer to my heart. I can get too caught up in my head when I’m writing words and sometimes the story that develops isn’t a story I care enough about. If I stay in the drawings long enough to get a handle on what I’m doing, what emerges is less self-conscious and performative.
I teach a Children’s Book Illustration class at ArtCenter College of Design and I’ve been using this technique—building stories through pictures—with my students for the past five years. I am blown away by what happens when they stay in the pictures as long as possible. Their stories grow organically out of the images, and then the words, when they come, seem less forced.
What advice would you give to your younger self? Is this the same you'd give to aspiring author-illustrators?
I would tell my younger self to be patient. It took many years and many rejections before I was published, mostly because I hadn’t yet learned to tell stories with my illustrations. I had to figure out what that meant and then actually put it to use in my own work.
I tell aspiring author-illustrators the same thing I ask of myself: Remember what it felt like to draw when we were kids? Remember how relaxed we were? Remember how it calmed us? (Otherwise we wouldn’t have kept doing it and then grown up to become artists.) Remember the things we liked to draw and what materials we liked to work with? The answers should still guide us. Because if we listen, our work will be ours and ours alone. And if our work is unique and personal, something that only we could make in the way we make it, the more likely it is that other people will respond to it. Isn’t that strange? It seems like the opposite is true, but it’s not.
What is one thing most people don't know about you?
I’ve been taking guitar lessons for the past three years. I have no natural skills, so it's super hard. I’m really not good at it. I’m not just saying that. I’m not. When I practice, my cat and dog come in the room and flop themselves down at my feet. (Apparently they enjoy it.) Afterward I say, “Thank you so much for coming out tonight!” And I mean it. They are the only audience I need.
Where can people find you online?
I’m @MarlaFrazee on Twitter and Instagram. See you there!
Marla Frazee was awarded a Caldecott Honor for ALL THE WORLD and A COUPLE OF BOYS HAVE THE BEST WEEK EVER , and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Picture Book for her wordless book THE FARMER AND THE CLOWN. She is the author-illustrator of THE BOSS BABY, the picture book that inspired the Oscar-nominated DreamWorks animated feature film and the television series, the book’s sequel THE BOSSIER BABY, and the Charlotte Zolotow Award-winning picture book LITTLE BROWN, as well as many others. She is illustrated THE SEVEN SILLY EATERS, the NYT bestselling CLEMENTINE series, and the picture book IT TAKES A VILLAGE by Hillary Clinton. Marla works in a small backyard cabin under an avocado tree in Pasadena.