I had the good fortune to meet Sara Woster while we were working together as camp counselors/teachers in a tiny village in the Pyrenees in the early nineties. She is likely one of the most creative people I have ever met and also one of the most amusing. An extremely talented painter, writer, illustrator, and animator, she lives in Brooklyn and northern Minnesota with her husband and two children. It’s a great pleasure to share her captivating new Book Set 3 (just published by Home Grown Books) with our TCBR readers.
Nicki Richesin: Could you tell us the story of how Home Grown Books contacted you to create your gorgeous box set of eight books and a little bit about your collaboration with them?
Sara Woster: Kyla Ryman and Sarah Rogenes came to the opening of a group show that I had some paintings included in and told me about the publishing house they were launching in order to create high quality early reader books. I was really excited about the project, especially because I had an early reading daughter at home and was struggling to find good content for that reading stage. So when Kyla and Sarah contacted me a few months later, and asked if I wanted to create a series, I immediately said yes. Kyla is a diehard early education activist and it is an honor to be connected to a company with a mission of growing enthusiastic readers.
NR: In your lovely book trailer, you mention the two very different worlds you inhabit in the peaceful northern woods of Minnesota and your urban life in Brooklyn. How do they influence your work and your artistic sensibility?
SW: We are in Brooklyn most of the year, living above a pizza place and next to a subway stop. It is busy, smelly, loud, my senses are overloaded – everything you would expect. When I’m painting or writing here, a lot of my creative process involves finding a way to stop being distracted and settle in to do concentrated work. In the woods there is nothing but peace and stillness, so then the struggle becomes finding a way to tap into the nervous energy I like to feel when I am working. So I recreate that nervous anxiety artificially by drinking about ten cups of coffee.
NR: I appreciated how some of your books are instructional, like how to build a fort, play pretend and dress up like a pirate, finger paint, and make a strawberry pie. In My Walk your daughter is a clever tour guide as she explores the streets of Brooklyn (and Manhattan, right?). With the Home Grown Books philosophy and aesthetic in mind, how did you choose the images you wanted to paint? Did the two earlier box sets inform your decisions or did you feel free to create whatever you wanted?
SW: I felt free to create whatever I wanted. Before I started painting I presented a list of ideas to Kyla. We agreed on the 8 book ideas that seemed most exciting visually and the ones that Kyla thought she could write some cool content with. The first two book sets that Cecile and Nathalie were so pitch perfect and intimidating that I could barely look at them. I found it very hard to even consider them until I was done, for fear of never approaching their level of awesomeness. But I definitely did look at them for ideas of what type of story, or series of images, might work well.
The Home Grown philosophy is pretty close to my own philosophy about books for kids. If the artwork and writing is honest and dynamic, kids probably will spend some time with it. If it isn’t, they probably won’t. So I chose the images that were of interest to me and were dynamic, assuming that if I am interested in theses stories, there might be kids out there who would be interested as well. I think my choices were really informed by the fact that half of the paintings were done in Brooklyn and half were done this summer in Minnesota. The images of the animals at night and stars and bonfires were painted because I spent a summer in the woods with owls and fireflies and bonfires. Versus, the book about the city walk was born because I have a little baby and spend a good part of each day pushing him in a stroller around the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn.
NR: You’ve been studying creative writing and painting for years. Which do you love more and why?
SW: Painting is the most satisfying way for me to be creative. I love the smell of paint, I love the tools and the process and how something emerges that you could not plan in a million years. For me it sometimes feels like I am sitting with a Ouija board at a sleepover, I am coaxing spooky things from the ether. But I also love writing, just in a more complicated way. Writing involves a lot of tedious struggle, and nitpicking, but finishing a writing project is satisfying in an ‘I just completed an Iron Man race’ kind of way, which I love. But if we are attaching the verb ‘love’, it would be painting by a hair. Maybe that’s because it was my first love and I’m sentimental like that.
NR: What were your favorite children’s books when you were a child?
SW: I loved anything with baby animals, poky puppies, Swedish girls (Pippi Longstocking and Flick, Ricka, Dicka) and anything by Richard Scarry. We had a lot of great books going through the house, my mom was a librarian and she took us on a weekly Bookmobile trip. Reading was heavily promoted. As far as chapter books I was all about the All-of-a-Kind Family series.
NR: I love how you share your creative process with your children. Your husband Rob Fischer is also a talented artist. It must be such a joy to live in your household with the flurry of creativity. For our less artsy-parent readers, what would you recommend as the best approach creating/painting/art-making with children?
SW: Flurry of activity? Is that a euphemism for a total mess? It’s probably good that the kids see us making art; they think that making art is just commonplace, everyday behavior, like doing Pilates or washing an SUV or something. They get to visit Rob’s studio and learn to use power tools and hear him talk about his works in progress. They see me struggling with a painting, starting over, trying again, not giving up, all those good childhood lessons.
And I am a very messy person (do you remember that from France?) I mean, a very,very, very messy person. And so I think I am a little more lenient about the use of art supplies, and the places where kids can use those supplies, than a normal person would be. I think its important to introduce more tools at each age, you don’t want to just keep crayons and paper around the house for ten years. Start with q-tips and finger paint and work your way up to hot glue guns and power drills. My toddler loves those dot-making paints sticks, those are a great first tool as far as getting a feel for paint. And with the Internet, there are so many great sites with totally inspired art projects created by mothers and fathers cleverer than me. I am also a huge fan of computer tools like drawing games and world building games they experiment with space and design.
In general we keep our art supplies really accessible for the kids, so they don’t have to ask for us to get them out. August has had her own desk for a long time so that she has somewhere to keep supplies and a work surface for when she wants to do a project. We do classes and workshops. Almost every museum now has very cool, often free, classes for kids. We also watch a lot of movies and TV. I’m a big TV fan. I think a good show can really get them thinking about story and art direction, this is a theory of mine that goes against all scientific research, I know.
NR: If you could be reincarnated as a character from children’s literature, who would she/he be and why?
SW: Pippi Longstocking. She is so defiant and disinterested in public opinion. The polar opposite of me. Plus, she has a horse in her living room.
NR: Do you have any future dream projects you’re itching to create?
SW: For the past few years I have been working on an overly ambitious project that involves paintings and animation and short stories, all connected via this one imaginary incident on a highway. I’m trying to figure out how it can all live on-line in a semi-hypertext project. I want to find time to do some more animation for that. And I would love to figure out how to code so I could get it living online myself. I recently read a quote that by the year 2050 anybody who doesn’t know how to code will be considered illiterate, so now I’m kind of obsessed with figuring out how to code by then. I have 37 years to figure it out, so I’m feeling pretty optimistic.
NR: If you could invite any five people (historic figures or living) to dinner, who would you invite and what would you serve at your feast?
SW: My grandma, not just because I miss her but also because she was the funniest human being I have ever met. Jane Goodall. President Obama. Joseph Campbell. Ann Richards. And then I would order in Thai or something. If I have all of those amazing people having a conversation at my table, I’m not going to be standing at the stove in the other room.
NR: What are your current projects? Any plans for future children’s books?
SW: I am working on a children’s book about the difference in how parents perceive troublesome situations vs. how kids perceive troublesome situations. According to my daughter, it’s very funny.
I also just completed a novel, which I am beyond happy (and relieved) about. I’ve been working on it for eight years.
Also, my friend, Jo Solomon, and I have developed an animated series that we are currently pitching. Jo is a singer/songwriter (Stretch Princess) who also runs Music for Aardvarks in Brooklyn. The show is aimed at kids 3-8 and teaches them about history and invention through super engaging stories, music and artwork. I’m very excited by the thought of watching it on the television set some day.
And I’m always painting.
Nicki Richesin is the author and editor of four anthologies; Crush, What I Would Tell Her, Because I Love Her, and The May Queen. She is the San Francisco correspondent for Du Jour and a frequent contributor to Sunset, The Horn Book, 7×7, The Huffington Post, and Daily Candy. Find her online at https://nickirichesin.com/.