Interview with with Emily Jenkins and Paul O. Zelinsky

It is exciting to see Lumphy, StingRay, and Plastic in a picture book! How was the decision made to introduce the characters in this format? Paul, how was it different illustrating this story versus the Toys chapter books?

EJ:  When we toured for Toys Come Home, the third book in the series, there were many three- and four-year-olds in our audiences. They would come up for the signing clutching a toy stingray or buffalo. So cute.

I had not realized how young some of our readers were until that tour! They were hearing a chapter each night as a bedtime story, sometimes with their older siblings. We wanted to make a book for those readers, younger kids for whom illustrations are such a big part of the reading experience. And of course, we hope Toys Meet Snow will be an introduction to the series for young readers who don’t know the Toys books yet.

PZ:  When Emily finished Toys Come Home, that was the end of the series; she said there was nowhere else it could go. I guess she wasn’t interested in writing new chapter books about three toys spending twenty years jammed in a cardboard storage box in the attic. But I know that Schwartz & Wade and I were all heartbroken at the prospect of no more Toys books, and maybe Emily was, too, so somehow the idea came up that a picture book, without any strict place in the chronology of the trilogy, might be a possibility. What I know was that I was asked whether, if there was a picture book text about these characters, I would illustrate it, and I said yes, even though I had many doubts about how I could pull it off. At least, that’s how I remember it.

Was illustrating Toys Meet Snow different? Some of the usual tasks at the beginning of a picture book were already taken care of. There was no casting around for what the characters would look like. But the question of overall look, and the effect of that look, was a big question mark for me. The chapter books’ format—small pencil drawings in a small book with big margins and nice paper—created a very specific feeling, a certain kind of specialness, which may not even be available on a larger scale and in color. When I thought about making realistic-looking colored drawings in a large-format book, whatever my mind conjured up looked ordinary and dated. And that was if the drawings came out well.

But I had to try anyway. Because the jackets of the chapter books feature pastel-pencil drawings, which they do because I think pastel comes about as close as possible in emotional effect to what pencil does in black-and-white (colored pencil wouldn’t do it), I figured, after some experimental variations, that these illustrations should be in pastel. I own a big set of pastels that I bought in college and have barely used since. But I have some major issues with pastels (hence their longevity), and didn’t think I could work with them. To make a long story less long, I used Photoshop; I’ve learned to use Photoshop pretty well, and the digital brushes I happen to have built for myself do a pretty good job of resembling pastel or chalk. So physically creating the art was very different in this book. Conceiving it was also different because the images had to go in sequence, unlike a chapter book, but something at the core was the same. I’ve been hoping to capture as much charm and humor as I think are in the other three books. And I hope the new pictures don’t look dull or dated.

Emily—how did you first come up with the idea for the Toys books? How did you feel when you heard Paul would be illustrating?

EJ: I wanted to write a toy story in the tradition of books I loved both as a child (Winnie-the-Pooh, Raggedy Ann) and as an adult (The Doll People, The Indian in the Cupboard, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane). I give Lumphy, StingRay, and Plastic strong emotions that kids connect to—jealousy, fear of abandonment, the excitement of a new friendship, bouncy joy.

When I heard Paul would be illustrating, I performed grand jetés around my apartment for about fifteen minutes and then went up to the roof deck and shouted the news to all of New York City. Hooray! Zip-a-dee-doo-dah! (Okay, not really. But I felt like it. Because, you know, PAUL O. ZELINSKY.)

Paul—what drew you to the Toys books?

PZ: The manuscripts! Can’t you imagine? I felt privileged to be asked to illustrate them. I don’t remember this, but editor Anne Schwartz recently told a group of librarians, while I was standing next to her, that when she sent me the manuscript of Toys Go Out, I wrote back that I really didn’t have the time to illustrate it, but that if I passed it up, I would regret it for the rest of my life.

This is the fourth book that you have worked on together. How has your author/illustrator relationship changed, grown, evolved over the years? How often do you actually, physically get to work together?

EJ: I come to Paul’s studio and stand over him while he draws. I breathe down his neck and ask him to move things a little to the left, or a little to the right, to make the characters cuter and funnier. I do this generally five days a week for about eight hours a day for two or three months, until the work is done. Paul doesn’t mind.

PZ: Emily and I have continued to observe the traditional U.S. children’s book publishing protocol, in which communication about the work goes entirely through the publishers. It has worked well so far. All right, we’ve cheated a little bit, when we’ve seen each other, say, at a cocktail party, and had some ongoing issues that needed to be resolved. But Schwartz & Wade don’t need to know about that.

Toys Meet Snow is already receiving some amazing critical acclaim. How did you come up with the idea for this particular title? Why do you think the characters seem to resonate with all who read the books?

PZ: For me, seeing my own private insecurities and false securities and other messy human characteristics embodied by these plush or rubber toys has always been irresistible. Also, Emily is a master at writing comic scenes. She gets them just right. My role is to not ruin it with the wrong illustrations. Or so I have seen it for the three chapter books. With this picture book, I’ll take credit for a larger role, but I still think not getting it wrong is the biggest thing.

EJ: Snow is hardly a universal topic, since so many climates don’t have it, but the wonder children feel in looking at the beauty of nature, that’s pretty universal. Elements of the natural world feel magical but can be explained by science. Right? StingRay articulates the poetic nature of snow, and Plastic the scientific. Lumphy is the questioner.

It is also a story about friendship.

I try to make the toys stories truthful as well as funny. I write about feelings almost any kid can relate to, and emotions are the center of every story. But I also think the stories are comforting. They are cozy, warm reads that parents like to share with their kids.

Also, Paul didn’t ruin them.

Do you have any suggestions for parents of reluctant readers? What can they do to help their children enjoy reading? 

PZ: I’m not an expert in this, but I say read to your children, and don’t stop. Nobody is ever too old to be read to. Picture books make good out-loud reading for any age.

EJ:  Oh! I am opinionated on this topic! Don’t shame their reading choices. Ever. I see this happen so often in bookshops and libraries, or at school book fairs. “You’re too old for that.” “That’s too easy for you.” “Why do you like that junk?” “That’s a book for girls, not boys.” Instead, I recommend parents try this approach: Don’t try to get your kids to choose appropriate books. At all. Just bring them to the library, where they can choose inappropriate books at zero cost to you.

For example: At the public library, I let my kids get as many books as they want of any kind. You want TV tie-ins? Sure. Movie novelizations? Sure. Comic books? Sure. Emmanuel Kant when you’re a second grader? Sure. Baby books when you’re a second grader? Sure. Then I add a couple of my own choices to the pile without mentioning them. We literally have tote bags to lug everything out of there.

Back home, I leave everything on the coffee table. I pretend I don’t care if the kids even pick up the books I chose. I listen happily when they read aloud their TV tie-in books.

Reading is not a chore in my house. It is not homework. It is not something my kids do to try to please adults. It’s fun.

Do you both have a favorite character from the Toys books, and if so, who is it, and why?

EJ:  StingRay is my favorite because I connect with her the most. I, too, need to be encased in a ziplock bag whenever I go out in wet snow.

PZ: I never like choosing favorites of anything, and usually can’t, but I just might favor Lumphy, even though I identify with all three (as well as with the mice in the chapter books; not so much the towels). Lumphy is the most interesting character to draw, so I like him for that. StingRay is a fun challenge because that simple flat body with two glued-on eyes doesn’t give you that much with which to form an expression, and she needs to be very expressive. And I like Plastic because she is so easy to draw. I think of her as showing a lot of expression, too, but maybe that’s just me.

What do you hope parents and children take away with them after reading Toys Meet Snow?

PZ: In any number of ways, this book could spur thinking about important things; I guess it carries lessons about curiosity, about friendship, and about alternate points of view, but I don’t like zeroing in on lessons. I mostly hope that readers will come away from Toys Meet Snow with the feeling that they’ve just encountered a captivating book and want to go back to it again.

EJ: Yes, some facts about snow. Yes, an appreciation for what poetry offers that facts do not. But really, I hope children will fall in love with StingRay, Plastic, and Lumphy, and with the world Paul has painted, and feel a sense of glee mixed with peace. Then I hope they will get all three Toys chapter books and read them.

PZ: By the way, I’ve never asked Emily about this, but a book review I wrote for the New York Times in 2008 kind of reminds me of Toys Meet Snow. I was writing about two wonderful snow books: Carolyn Fisher’s The Snow Show and Cynthia Rylant and Lauren Stringer’s Snow. My conclusion was that one was about the science of the topic and the other about the poetry, and I suggested readers of the review might want to get both books:

“What does it add up to? 1) A wild and crazy how-to book for the meteorologically curious and for fans of humor. 2). An oversized, lovely snowdrift of a book that you can get lost in, evoking the feeling of snow such that my fifth-grade classmates would really have known what it was like.

So who was it who wrote that those who approach the world looking for scientific explanation, and those who are in it for the poetry, form two cultures that can’t talk to each other?

It was—forgive me—C. P. Snow. Give your children both books, and see if he can be proven wrong.”

Emily, was that review in your head somewhere?

EJ: I never saw that review! But a book in which science and poetry talk to each other is exactly what I tried to write.