Debby Atwell has written and illustrated various picture books, including Pearl, The Warhog’s Tail, and Thanksgiving Door. Recently, she illustrated Miss Moore Thought Otherwise, a picture-book biography of pioneering children’s librarian Anne Carroll Moore, which is due out next month. This week, she caught up with Kidsbiographer about character creation, archival research, and the joys of collaboration.
Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to illustrate Miss Moore Thought Otherwise?
Debby Atwell: I used the archives of the New York Public Library. I found pictures of Anne Carroll Moore on the job! The picture of Taft visiting the library was drawn from a photo of the library’s opening day. I used also used photos to paint Anne’s house in Limerick, Maine and the town’s library at that time. Photos are very helpful. If I draw from photos, I can enjoy the details, instead of worrying about them.
Kidsbiographer: In Miss Moore Thought Otherwise, you employ a lively folk art style of painting. Why did you select this approach for this picture-book biography?
Debby Atwell: The stories I like to illustrate pertain to American history and folklore. These primitive images – the sort that a precocious child might produce – are easy for children to grasp. The story can predominate supported by simple images – not cute, folksy, or sentimental, all of which I like to avoid.
Kidsbiographer: One of the most enjoyable aspects of Miss Moore Thought Otherwise is the way text and picture interact. For example, in the page that describes Anne’s college education, a small image of her accepting her diploma from a library school dignitary appears in the upper right hand corner, beside the text. At the bottom of the page, an oval illustration depicts Miss Moore waving to young patrons in front of her first library. In a later spread, children circle the text as they line up to greet the King and Queen of Belgium, guests of the library. How did you compose these spreads, and what effect did you hope to achieve by arranging the illustrations this way?
Debby Atwell: When I work on a story, I don’t like to leave a child in the lurch about the tale’s progression. Throughout the project, my editor, Ann Rider, was a very flexible and helpful guide. She allowed me a great deal of freedom. These developments, in terms of the arrangement of text and image, often happen at the end when you’re immersed in a book. And after I’d handed work in, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s ArtDepartment often came up with even more exciting delivery. I didn’t do it all by myself, and I’ve discovered that I prefer sharing work. It makes for a better book.
Kidsbiographer: In many of the book’s illustrations, Miss Moore wears a blue suit with a matching hat: in others, she wears blue dresses or skirts. Can you describe how you created her as a visual character?
Debby Atwell: I learned early on that you don’t want to confuse a child, so I made her quickly recognizable. Kids don’t have to struggle to find her in every spread. I chose to dress her in blue because I like to paint in yellows, oranges, and golds; she stands out when she’s wearing blue. Also, blue complements human skin tones.
Kidsbiographer: The book’s back cover shows Miss Moore exchanging a knowing look with a lion statue atop a plinth – one of New York City’s best-known landmarks. What’s the story behind this illustration, which reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon?
Debby Atwell: Inspiration came at the very end of the project. I needed something for the back flap. The lions outside the building have a tremendous impact on a child going to the library. When you see them, you know you’re going someplace special. I wanted to be playful and show that the lions were proud of Miss Moore and what she had accomplished.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
Debby Atwell: I have a few irons in the fire right now, but at the moment I’m really enjoying how Miss Moore Thought Otherwise is being pre-received, especially how librarians are really embracing the book. Given the status of libraries and children’s services in the U.S., it’s a very timely book as well.