A Three-Time Caldecott Winner Talks With His Editor About How a Children’s Book Is Made

Reading between the lines.
June 4 2014 1:41 PM

Peter Sís and Margaret Ferguson

The Slate Book Review author-editor conversation.

Peter Sis and Margaret Ferguson.
Author Peter Sis and editor Margaret Ferguson.

Photo courtesy of FSG Books for Young Readers

Margaret Ferguson has edited children’s books for over 30 years, and is now the publisher of Margaret Ferguson Books/Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers. She talked with three-time Caldecott Honor winner and MacArthur Fellow Peter Sís, about the process of editing a picture book and how Sís’ new children’s biography of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Pilot and the Little Prince, was made.

Margaret Ferguson: When and why did you start illustrating picture books?

Peter Sís: I became a picture book illustrator out of desperation or necessity because I came to Los Angeles from Czechoslovakia to make films and it didn’t work out, and someone sent my pictures to Maurice Sendak, who called me in Los Angeles and said, “So you want to be in children’s books? You need to live in New York.” So in 1984, I moved to the city and at first I was assigned to illustrate other authors’ books. Finally, three years later, Frances Foster signed me up to both write and illustrate my first book, Rainbow Rhino.

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Ferguson: I find that there are more steps involved when an author and an illustrator are not one and the same. It begins with an exchange with the author about who we think should illustrate the book and it is followed by the editing of the text without an illustrator involved. And then once an illustrator makes a dummy with the sketches, I show it to the author. The author and the illustrator rarely communicate so I am the go-between. Is this your experience when you illustrate other people’s stories?

Sís: Everything very much depends on the editor. I didn’t understand in the beginning that the editor didn’t want me to know the author. I’d make an effort to meet the author, but it would end up being a disaster because then I had the author telling me what I should be doing. When I do my own books, I take it as more of my own confessional, but when I illustrate for other people, it is intriguing because I feel like I shouldn’t be stepping too much into the limelight. It’s like playing the piano while someone else is singing.

Ferguson: It is always fun to match stories and illustrators—I have to find someone whose work reflects the tone and energy of the text, and not just anyone will do. We used to have portfolio days when illustrators would come in and show their work, but that doesn’t happen so much now because of the Internet. But still, whenever I see art I like—in a magazine, for instance--I clip it and put it in my idea box.

Sís: Ursula Nordstrom was famous for finding artists in unlikely places. Maurice Sendak was a window designer and she just came across one of his windows. Everyone was looking to find a talent.

Ferguson: Why did you decide to write The Pilot and the Little Prince?

Sís: I read The Little Prince when I was a boy, but I never thought about who wrote it and what his inspiration might be. My father came to visit me in New York City in 1987, and when we took a walk along Central Park South, he pointed out where Saint-Exupéry lived when he was in New York. I had no idea he had lived here and that this is where he wrote The Little Prince.

I project myself into all my books. Since I am also from another country, when it came to Saint-Exupéry I thought, Oh, he must have been so sad living in New York, away from home and unable to speak English. But with all my books I start to project too much of my own ideas, my own life, my own feelings, and that’s when it takes an editor to keep things on track.

Ferguson: The Pilot and the Little Prince is the first book we worked on together because our dear friend and your wonderful editor for more than 20 years, Frances Foster, became ill and retired. So when I came on board you had gone through many dummies, had completed some illustrations, and had a rough text. Is this the way you usually work?

Sís: I’m a visual person, so it always starts with a picture, and then I get obsessed with the idea, sometimes too much. I have these blank books in which I take notes, and I add postcards and other physical items. This book of ideas gives me a sense of what the book will be, and then I scale it down from there to something closer to the final work.

1406_BOOKS_Peter-Sis_Idea-Notebook
A page from Sís’ idea book.

Courtesy of Peter Sís

For The Pilot and the Little Prince, in the beginning I was just trying to doodle his life and see where it was interesting. I made a chart of his life and it was amazing because he was always crashing his planes and surviving! There was a lot of information I couldn’t use because there was just no way to fit it all in. From this first book of ideas, I made more and more concise dummies, until I felt I had it right.

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