Childrens Book Event: Interview with Micheal Emberly

Today I bring you an interview with author & illustrator Micheal Emberly. Enjoy the interview and leave a comment for the author below!

You Read To Me I'll Read To YouCan you tell me a little about yourself and how you got into writing and illustrating?

I grew up an hour north of Boston, in the northeastern U.S., in an old wooden Colonial house near the ocean, with my sister, mother, and father, a well known and successful children’s book author/illustrator, working upstairs in his studio. My sister, mother and I worked on some of my father’s books growing up. And my sister, Rebecca, has done books as well over the years.

Obviously I was influenced by that experience... and I finished my first book (Dinosaurs! A Drawing Book) at 19, still living in the house. It was meant to be a section of one of my father’s well-known series of books on how to draw. But the style was not consistent enough to use in his book and he suggested I try to turn it into a book on it’s own. Which I did. I took a sketch dummy of the book down to one of two major publishers that were in Boston at the time, Little Brown, (both publishers eventually moved to New York) and to my father’s editor, John Keller. He probably was wondering how to let me down easy, clearly doing this as a favor for my father, but surprising to me, and I imagine him, he liked it, and my first book got published...

It was a bit of an accident really. I didn’t take it all that seriously at the time. And that was probably a good thing in the long run. Growing up with the profession so close to home made the whole notion of creating a book seem a lot more ordinary I’m sure than it would be for say, a plumber’s son. My father was thrilled he would not have to pay me for working for him anymore... and maybe even get me out of the house (!)

Can you tell us about some of the books you have written and illustrated?

Dinosaurs!I’ve been doing this since I was 19 as I said so there are quite a few books. Though not nearly as many as the more prolific authors out there. When I began doing picture books, I would have called myself primarily and artist/illustrator. I published three projects before taking a break from children’s books for a few years. When I came back I wanted to do more of my own writing, so I set that process moving, doing odd illustration work for magazines etc, giving myself a few years to get something together that might sell.

I had no formal training in writing. I just dove in and taught myself - with some help from kind friends who read and commented on my (crude) early attempts. It took a few years. I can’t honestly remember how many, a few. I spent a lot of time with lined paper and pencils, as well as sketch books, but also table napkins, telephone note pads, the back of grocery receipts, anything handy, jotting down any idea, or an improvement to an ongoing idea that came into my head. I started by accumulating tons of material, then weeded it down slowly to some likely candidates.

Then finally, when I had a few complete books written and sketched out, I went back to my old editor, and showed him five completed book dummys and one un-illustrated manuscript.  I didn’t know it wasn’t typical to show up with so much completed work. It was a result of how I worked. It was just natural for me to let my mind wander as I worked from story idea to story idea, slowly working up many stories at once, going back and forth. As I got stuck on one, or something I wrote in another might make me think of an idea for the other one. Rather than just sitting there with writer’s block, thinking and puzzling with a unfinished story, shutting out thoughts, stopping my mind going off on tangents, it was easier for me to just go with those ideas, and come back to the one I was stuck with later.

It would have been easier at times to have a big round table that spun like a “lazy Susan”(if you know what that is), and work on each book in turn, as I got stuck on one, spinning the table to the left and move on to the next... eventually I’d get back the first one, and hopefully, have something to add. If not, go for a bike ride....

Eventually I pressed forward with the most promising ideas, ending up with the 6 books I brought with me that day. It was a bit like a race, I had no idea until quite late in the process which book, or books, would come out ahead.

You have illustrated the books for many books in the You Read to Me, I'll read to you series with Mary-Ann Hoberman. What is it like working together with other authors on books?

I have had the great pleasure to work with four talented authors over the years: Mary Ann, Robie Harris, Sally-Lloyd Jones, and most recently, the great Barbara Bottner. All different writers, and all different types of working relationships.

Now you maybe aware that at least in the US children’s book author’s and illustrators usually never meet or even speak during the project, or after even! So my experience is a bit unusual.

I worked very closely with Robie Harris for over ten years on a series of three books for three different age groups: (8+)(6+)(4+) on sexuality, where babies come from etc. We did many hours of work together outside of the publisher, developing the books from start to finish. They were complicated projects that took two to three years to complete. We also worked closely with the editors and designers, as well as professionals in many fields relating to the topic, to make them as accurate, accessible, and responsible as we could. I also had to make them interesting, and quite often – funny!

Mary Ann and Barbara I do not work side by side with, but I know them both very well and have a friendship with them both. (They do not live near me which may be a good thing in the long run...) but we do talk outside the publisher about certain aspects of the book as it develops, but most of the coordinating is done through the editors or designers. Sally-Lloyd Jones I have never met though we did email a few times. I hope to someday though. It’s strange to think that the vast majority of illustrators never meet their author partners.

I’ve been very lucky. I’ve worked with charming, generous people who have been easy to get along with. That’s not always the case.

What is the illustrating process like for you, i.e. how close do you work with the authors of the books, do they have much say is the illustrations etc. 

You Read To Me, I'll Read To You, Fairy TalesI work primarily as I’ve just said away from the author, and most of the sketch art and final art is shared, in my experience, with the author, and they are given varying degrees of influence over my artwork depending on the relationship the author and editor has, the degree of trust primarily, based on prior experience. It’s not all up to me. And I could send hem all kinds of stuff, but in general I agree with the level of involvement given the authors I’ve illustrated with, and would maybe give them a bit less if it was up to me... I think it is an excellent idea to show them everything, but not necessarily give them veto power, or get bogged down in waiting for detailed feedback that may or may not be useful.

I have worked both sides, but never had anything I wrote illustrated by someone else. Being an illustrator myself, I would find it hard to accept art that I was unhappy about. But I would hope the editor would listen to me since I do know what I’m talking about as a designer, whereas, an author who has little or no experience in art and design, I’d be wary about taking their side against the artist in a dispute. I guess, it all depends...

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently working on another book in the You Read To Me series, about (American) ‘Tall Tales’ – which means well known American Folklore characters.

And I’m writing again, speculatively, several books at once. (you shouldn’t be too surprised if you’ve read the beginning of this interview...) I’m writing longer works for older children, some of which may have no illustration  at all... a first for me – if they ever get published. I’m working on YA novel, a  two middle grade novels, a chapter book,  as well as a few other less developed ideas – all at once.

Thank you to Michael for the interview. You can check out his website here!

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1 comment

  1. Great post. Love the illustrations of those You Read To Me, Ill Read To You books.