A frequent visitor to the Free Library of Philadelphia is Geisel-winning illustrator Greg Pizzoli. Greg recently sat down with us in the Children's Literature Research Collection to discuss his career, his love of elephants, and his two new titles, The 12 Days of Christmas and The Quest for Z. Greg also invited us and you to his upcoming book launch for The 12 Days of Christmas at The Print Center on Saturday, December 9 from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. We hope to see you there!
The Free Library is lucky enough to house examples of your work in both the Children’s Literature Research Collection and the Print and Picture Collection. What was your inspiration to become and artist and an author?
Honestly, my inspiration for making children’s books probably comes from all the time I spent in libraries as a kid, and my whole life. I have always been fascinated by picture books, and when I was starting out as an illustrator, I would use my lunch break at work to go to the Rittenhouse library (a.k.a. Philadelphia City Institute) and check out ten picture books at a time to try to figure out how they worked. I'm still trying to figure that out.
It seems like you figured it out! You’ve had an impressive career as an author/illustrator so far. Your first picture book, The Watermelon Seed, received the 2014 (Theodor Seuss) Geisel Award and Goodnight Owl picked up the 2017 Geisel Honor. In 2015, Number One Sam was chosen as that year's One Book Every Young Child selection for Pennsylvania. With all of these accolades, is there a moment in your career that brings you the most pride and joy?
Thanks! I’ve been very lucky. The moments you describe above were all incredibly meaningful. I think the Geisel Honor for Good Night Owl was particularly meaningful to me because after my experience with The Watermelon Seed, I had learned what the awards can mean for the life of a book, and how many more kids would get to read it because of the award.
Both acknowledgments from Geisel were well deserved. Goodnight Owl was one of our favorite picture books of 2016. It's a great book for storytimes because the pacing is just right. Besides picture books, you have two middle-grade books, Tricky Vic and The Quest for Z. What inspired you to write and illustrate for a different age group? Do you approach these illustrations differently than you would those in a picture book?
I’ve always been interested in history, and in particular, figures in history that people might not know about. The nonfiction books are a chance for me to stretch a bit as a writer and an illustrator—to try things that wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate for the art in a book for young kids. I am working on my third nonfiction at the moment, a biography of John Wilkes Booth.
That's interesting. We all know about Booth and his his connection to Lincoln, but I wonder how many people know of his life before the assassination. We're looking forward to hearing more about it. Speaking of new books, The 12 Days of Christmas introduces your readers to an elephant family and a parent who is under increasing amounts of stress from each daily gift. How did the framework for story come about? And why elephants?
This book started because I wanted to do a Christmas book, with all the aesthetic trappings of the holiday, but I didn’t want to make anything didactic or saccharine. And if you take the lyrics of the traditional The Twelve Days of Christmas carol at face value, it’s an absurd and ridiculous premise. Seven-swans-a-swimming?! Who wants that? Once I committed to the premise, the book came naturally.
As for the elephants—I love elephants and have tried to cram them into almost every book I’ve done. They finally got the lead.
We're glad they did! The expressions of the parent elephant are wonderful, they do reflect the absurdity of the song. All of your characters emote beautifully. It makes us wonder what your favorite stories were as a child.
Thanks about the emoting. It would be funny probably to have someone film me draw during the day because I tend to contort my face into the face I am attempting to draw. My favorites as a child were Ed Emberley's books on drawing, Arnold Lobel's "early readers", and my favorite book once I learned to read myself was The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, and Six More by Roald Dahl. I loved all of Dahl's stuff, but this one hit me in the right way at the right time and just stuck. I reread it every couple of years and it holds up.
Ed Emberley is one of our favorites too. We have a few pieces of his in our collection, and soon they'll be available to view in our Digital Collections. You'll have to check them out the next time you stop by. Last question for you: How do you handle writer’s block/illustrator’s block?
The best thing I've found is to get out of the studio or my workspace and do something unrelated to writing or drawing. A long walk in the Wissahickon, a bike ride, cleaning the house, anything to keep your feet or hands busy and let your mind wander. I've rarely come up with an idea while sitting at a desk or staring at a screen. I finally cracked The 12 Days of Christmas page layout while walking along the Schulkill River. Just make sure to bring a pen with you wherever you go.
"Bring a pen with you where you go," should be featured on a button (Hint hint!). Thanks Greg for the stimulating conversation!
Thank you! I hope I'll see you at the upcoming book launch for The 12 Days of Christmas. It's at The Print Center on Saturday, December 9 from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Everyone should come!
Individuals or classes with an interest in the history, study, and/or development of children's literature will find the Children's Literature Research Collection (CLRC) an invaluable resource. CLRC houses over 85,000 non-circulating items from the 1830's through the present.