As previously mentioned, I've started a new weekend series on VKBMKLs wherein I'll interview contemporary children's book authors and illustrators, particularly those with a love of all books old. Following last week's interview with Lane Smith, meet Carson Ellis, artist and illustrator of such awesome works as Lemony Snicket's The Composer is Dead, The Mysterious Benedict Society series by Trenton Lee Stewart, and her latest, Wildwood, authored by her husband and lead singer of the band The Decemberists - Colin Meloy. And although tomorrow is technically a weekday, it is a holiday, so this interview will spill into Monday as well. Enjoy part one!
VKBMKL: On your blog and through your work, it's obvious you have such a classic and wonderful style, and I have to assume that translates into your personal book purchases. Do you collect vintage books for your son or do you prefer to buy your classics new?
CARSON: Thanks! Yes, I do buy mostly vintage books, though, they're mainly for me. I buy plenty of new books too but for every new book I probably buy five old ones. I spend a lot of time at Powell's, a massive Portland bookstore and treasure trove of old children's books. There's always something to find there.
VKBMKL: As a parent, I am always interested in the reading choices parents make for their children. How are books a part of your family, and as a parent, what are the type of books you are drawn to when it comes to buying for your son?
CARSON: As a family, we're obsessed with books. We live in a house overflowing with them. Both my husband, Colin, and my five-year-old son, Hank, can spend the better part of a day reading. Myself, I don't read nearly as much but I'm always amassing books, especially illustrated ones. In fact, I buy as many children's books for myself as I do for Hank. I guess ostensibly they're for both of us but I love picture books and he, sadly, is mostly over them these days. He likes nonfiction - books about Egypt and Astronomy and the Ocean and what-have-you - and he likes Star Wars and books about Legos. But there are lots of things we both love - The Chronicles of Narnia, The Brixton Brothers by Mac Barnett, Harriet the Spy, The Neverending Story. We read chapter books before bed lately and, man, there have been so many brilliant novels written for kids, we're never at a loss for what to read him next.
VKBMKL: Do you find that your son has grown into liking the same types of books that you do, or is he beginning to find his own way? I know that having a son has completely altered the connection I have with children's books, so how has having a child inspired you?
CARSON: Hank's a pretty idiosyncratic and headstrong reader. He has Asperger's and he's hyperlexic as a consequence, which means he was an early reader who now reads at a really unusual level for his age. He was reading by his third birthday and, once he started, he didn't want us to read to him anymore. This phase lasted a couple of years and he was adamant about it - he'd cover his ears and tell us to stop if we tried to read aloud. At three, he was pulling all kinds of crazy things off our bookshelves. I've walked in on him reading home improvement manuals, dictionaries, Shakespeare, The Koran. Very early on, even before it was clear he could read, he gravitated towards non-fiction, especially visual dictionary type things like those Eyewitness books. And he wasn't really interested in a lot the books I wanted him to like, which were mostly - yes - vintage picture books. I think he had just outgrown them. But then one day he did want us to read to him again. He let us start reading longer books to him before bed, and so began a new chapter in our relationship to books and their place in our family. We started reading him the novels that we loved as kids and he's been open-minded about them and excited to come back to them each night. It's awesome.
VKBMKL: Were there any picture books that inspired you as a child to eventually become an illustrator, and are there any particular images that have stuck with you through the years?
CARSON: I don't remember being so consciously inspired by picture books as a kid. I was always drawing and illustrating my own stories but if I was emulating anything I probably wasn't aware of it. I did pore over Pauline Baynes' illustrations for The Chronicles of Narnia because I just loved those books so much. And the illustrations from a picture book called Hugo and Oddsock are etched forever into my memory though, for some reason, I've never bothered to seek out a copy of it as an adult. Later, as a teenager, I became more wittingly interested in and inspired by book illustrators. I dug Maurice Sendak's books out of the basement and studied them. I discovered Arthur Rackham and Aubrey Beardsley.
(endpaper map by Pauline Baynes for Prince Caspian)
(Carson's endpaper map from Wildwood)
VKBMKL: How have your own childhood experiences influenced you as an artist who often draws for children?
CARSON: I was a loner as a kid. I loved to be in the woods, to hunt for bugs and salamanders, catch crayfish in the stream behind my house, climb trees, dig up seedlings and put them in pots, draw and make up stories. And actually my life today isn't that much different. Sometimes I feel like I'm mining those childhood experiences when I make illustrations but other times it feels like I just never grew up.
(Read part two, here.)
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