The Children’s Book Review | March 20, 2011
Robin Preiss Glasser is the New York Times bestselling illustrator of the Fancy Nancy series, written by Jane O’Connor; America: A Patriotic Primer, A is for Abigail, and Our Fifty States by Lynne Cheney; Daddy’s Girl by Garrison Keillor and Tea for Ruby by Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York.
TCBR: As a child, you loved to dance and draw. Do you feel that there is an artistic connection between the two—dancing and drawing?
Robin Preiss Glasser: Yes, very much so. I have found that many people who have artistic talent often find their niche. I know a lot of people who were dancers that also play the piano brilliantly or famous singers who are also excellent artists. So I think that was always just a whole area that worked for me. Although I had trouble at school—it was like I was the round peg that wouldn’t fit in the square hole—I also had a lot of those artistic talents and they all converged.
Also, with dancing and drawing, because I spent my whole dance career—which was about 25 years—looking at the body in motion, my hand and eye coordination, in that regard, is easy for me. I really know how the body moves and works so that when I’m drawing a person, it’s not that hard for me. But for a lot of people, drawing a hand can be really hard—they don’t know how elbows bend or knees bend. Interestingly, I see a lot of illustrations where people put the thumb on the wrong side. It makes me crazy, but that’s the kind of thing a lot of people do have trouble with. I don’t have that problem because of all the years of studying bodies. Those are a couple of ways that dancing and drawing are connected.
TCBR: That makes a lot of sense. So, your first career was as a professional ballet dancer. Can you tell us about your transition from ballerina to children’s book illustrator?
RPG: All the years that I danced, I drew. And in the years back when I was a ballet dancer we toured all across America—these days it’s too expensive to do that but back then we toured a lot—and so we had a lot of free time and I spent those afternoons waiting for the performance, going to every local museum. It was an interest of mine. I filled up notebooks full of my sketches from going to the art museums so that when I stopped dancing—when I was 30—I had many filled notebooks of my sketches. I brought them into Parsons and they gave me a full scholarship. So I had a body of work already and I knew of something else I wanted to do so there wasn’t this huge gap that a lot of dancers or athletes experience when they stop; they don’t know what to do next as they have spent all their effort just doing the one thing. I always did both.
TCBR: Going into all of those museums, did you have a favorite?
RPG: Chicago Art Institute—loved it! And of course the Met, but I also traveled around the world a lot with my family and so the Musée d’Orsay in Paris was a favorite of mine that I went to many times. All the museums in London are divine. I love to go to the V&A to visit their costume exhibit. Also, at the Met I was very interested in looking at clothing from all around the world and across all the centuries and drawing clothing; and that has translated now into what I’m doing for Fancy Nancy, because I design all of the outfits that are a big part of the Fancy Nancy thing. We now have a line of clothing and dress-up accessories that are all based on my designs. That’s been really fun but also based on 30 years of going to museums and really studying clothing. Its just another hobby—part of the whole thing.
TCBR: You got your first break illustrating Judith Viorst’s “Alexander, Who’s Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going to Move” (Atheneum, 1995). How did it feel to get your first illustrating job with such an esteemed author? Is it true that you got the news about this job while you were in labor and on your way to the hospital?
RPG: Oh, that is a true story about going to the hospital!
It was pretty wonderful and exciting because it also came after many years of trying to break into the industry. After I graduated Parsons it took me five years of writing my own books and illustrating full dummies—dummies are a draft of an entire book. I would do 32 page dummies of things and send them off to the publishers—I did that for five years. When I finally got a nibble it was very exciting, I thought, finally. I mean I don’t know why I didn’t just give up. But something inside of me decided that this is what I was supposed to do, so I just kept plugging away. Meanwhile, I had gotten married and had one child and, as I said, I was on the way to the hospital to have a second child. After I stopped dancing there was just a whole new direction and I was just going to keep going at it. I guess in dance it took me ten years to become a professional so I figured, okay, I’ll give myself ten years; and it took about ten years actually, from going back to school to getting my first book.
TCBR: Since then, you’ve illustrated over 35 books and become a household name, particularly through the bestselling Fancy Nancy series, written by Jane O’Connor. Did you ever imagine in your wildest dreams that Fancy Nancy would be such a phenomenal success?
RPG: Absolutely not! And you can ask Jane O’Connor the same question and she’ll just…we both just…shake our heads because we did not see this coming. It was a very big surprise. You don’t go into anything in the arts with the expectation that something like this is going to happen. I think that if you’re a healthy individual you just feel lucky to be able to work at something that you love everyday and hope to make some kind of a living. As a dancer, I was used to basically subsistence living, but I loved what I was doing every day so it really didn’t matter. I was very, very happy. And then when I got into doing this I had no expectations of it doing much more for me then really making my soul very happy and my life a delight. So this is just icing on the cake. It’s been a blast.
My favorite part of the whole thing is going on tour and meeting the kids who come dressed up in their craziest, fancy, silliest outfits and we have a ball. I have a whole thing that I do with the kids. I teach them how to walk fancy by balancing bananas on our heads. We walk around with bananas on our heads, you don’t want to balance a book on your head because it will fall on the floor and, you know, we don’t want to mess up our books. We put a banana on our heads because they are shaped a little bit like a kid’s head and they can balance them really easily. Seeing little two-year-old and four-year-olds walking around balancing bananas on their heads is adorable. That’s just a fringe benefit of this whole thing!
TCBR: Your persona and ability to read the stories with a certain je ne sais quoi gets everybody’s attention. Some authors are probably more comfortable behind the scenes than going on book tours. Would you say that your career as a ballet dancer has also made this aspect of your illustrating career a little easier?
RPG: Yes, I feel so sorry for lots of authors and illustrators. The path that they have chosen is sort of a solitary one and it very often works with the different personalities. Authors can be very internal people; and the way that the publishers want to sell books these days, they send us out; I feel so sorry for some of the more introverted people. But I’m just the opposite. For me it’s just a chance to show off again—like when I was a dancer—and get in front of the audience. Whether I have three kids or 100 kids, I’m happy.
TCBR: It shows. It really shows. To what extent do you collaborate with Jane O’Connor when creating the illustrations for each of the books?
RPG: They always start with Jane. It’s always her ideas. She pretty much writes the whole thing and sends it through our editor to me. Then, after I have drawn the dummy of it, our editor and Jane often take out a lot of the wording; if I am showing it in pictures you don’t have to say it as well. So we try to collaborate that way. Sometimes my drawings will “say” things that will sort of push Jane to change her wording a little bit. I did a hilarious picture in a book that I’m working on right now of hers and it wasn’t at all what she had intended. She said, “No, no, no, that’s not what I meant” but she liked it so much that she changed the whole text just because she wanted to keep the picture. So that does happen sometimes.
TCBR: Is Nancy Clancy, or any of the characters for that matter, modeled on anyone in particular?
RPG: Absolutely. She’s first of all based on Jane. Jane wrote her and the voice is very much something that is Jane, or Jane when she was a little girl. She absolutely touches on who I am in a very big way. I’m a drama queen. I’m very emotional: my highs are really high and my lows are really low. I’m probably always posing. But her look is based on my niece Jessie. When she was a little girl, my niece had that look, so I’m drawing from my memory of what Jessie looked like when she was a little girl.
TCBR: She’s really cute. The Fancy Nancy franchise ranges from dolls to board games to the Nintendo DS game, Fancy Nancy: Tea Party Time! Do you work on the creative production of these items as well? And, if so, do they require any different techniques than what you use when creating the illustrations for your book?
RPG: Yes, we have over 30 licensees and so for instance at Madame Alexander they have designers who will design a doll based on the latest book, for instance. They will send the designs to Jane and I, and my sister Erica helps me with all the licensing. We make suggestions, we say what we like or don’t like. Sometimes in my illustrations they will interpret something differently; like a polka dot: I will have meant it to be a sparkle and they will suddenly make the dress polka dotted. So I have to write back and say, “No I meant that to be sparkly.” Stuff like that. It’s just a collaborative process, but they do most of the work and we just edit and make our comments. It’s time consuming, but not as much as one would think.
TCBR: Moving along from the lovely Fancy Nancy … you have worked with some other very big names, including Lynne Cheney and Sarah Ferguson, The Duchess of York (Tea for Ruby). Did these ladies, or their editors, have guidelines on how they wanted their books to look? Or did you have complete creative freedom?
RPG: Oh, yes, creative freedom. Especially with Lynn Cheney and Sarah Ferguson. They were very collaborative.
TCBR: Do you have one defining moment in your illustrative career that you could share with us?
RPG: No. Exactly the opposite! It’s what they say: it took 50 years to be an overnight sensation. I believe that it took my entire life to get to the point where I am now. I’ve been making art my whole life and I only now feel like I’ve truly begun to find my voice—that I really know what I’m doing and have the confidence to be able to put out the work with out being insecure about it. I think it takes a lot to get to that point. It’s the process and you just have to work at it and work at it and work at it. I can’t give anybody any other advice except just keep plugging away. If you love something just keep working at it and you’re going to get better.
TCBR: Absolutely. Before we love you and leave you, what exciting new projects are you currently working on?
RPG: At the moment, none, because this really has taken on a life of it’s own. We’re trying to put out about 11 books a year. Next year we’re going to be putting out Fancy Nancy chapter books, so we’re also making her older. We realized that she continues to speak to girls even after they outgrow illustrated picture books; they want to keep Nancy in their lives. It’s going out to the media now, besides just print and licensing. So it’s just going out in all directions and that basically takes up all of my time right now. At some point it will be over and nobody will want us anymore and then I’ll do something else.
TCBR: I think fancy Nancy will be wanted for quite a while longer.
RPG: Thank you. I’m pretty busy doing this and it’s pretty much enough for me to deal with every day besides having two teenagers. Enough said.