Julie Paschkis Brings Color and Life to Children’s Books

Karin Snelson introduces several acclaimed Seattle writers and illustrators for the younger—much you
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All Julie Paschkis wants to do is paint. A steep, narrow staircase leads to her “place of painting”: a treetop-nestled studio with small-paned windows that, on a clear day, offer a peek at the Olympics. Bottles of dye labeled “strongest red,” “grasse green” (long story) and “lemon yellow” sit in cardboard boxes. Gorgeous folk-art-style paintings on silk dupioni hang about, waiting to make their appearance at Seattle’s Grover/Thurston Gallery. Paschkis has just sent off a big batch of artwork for Rachel Rodríguez’s new biography for young people, Building on Nature: The Life of Antoni Gaudí (Holt, 2009).

Paschkis says her distinctive folk art style comes partly from a high school year spent studying crafts in Norway and also from childhood trips to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she gravitated toward the wooden birds and folk art toys. She loves the decorative arts, especially utilitarian objects such as blankets and dishes. Even the colorful pantry shelves look like art in her cottage-like, storybook home in Maple Leaf, shared with artist husband Joe Max Emminger.

 “Everything in your life goes into your painting, even if you don’t know it at the time,” says Paschkis. “Recently, it was only when I was framing a painting that I realized it was about turning 50. The place where you live [shows up], too—we have tons of squirrels and birds...and they come out of the yard and into my paintings.”

While Paschkis has submitted several books to publishers with a writer as a team, it is more common for the book’s editor to choose the artist for the project: “As the illustrator, I figure out how the book will look, what images/ideas should be illustrated, what medium to use, how the pages will be divided up and where the text will go on the page,” Paschkis explains. Each story she illustrates comes with a unique set of artistic challenges.

When she received Rachel Rodríguez’s manuscript for a picture-book biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, Through Georgia’s Eyes, she wondered how she would avoid merely casting a dim reflection of the artist’s bold, original style. “I started crying in the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. I think people thought I was weeping at the altar of my queen, but I was just panicking.” Fortunately, she had an epiphany looking at Polish cut-paper art at a nearby folk art museum—she would use cut-paper collages to create a more modern, less detailed style to bring the artist and her legacy to life.

When Paschkis moved to Seattle in 1982, she liked its welcoming feel—and still does. She also enjoys the warm, supportive children’s book community. (“It’s not the bunny-eat-bunny world people think it is,” she jokes.) “They’ll have to cart me out of here,” she says. “After all, if I had to move, it would just take time away from painting.”

Memory Artist: Childhood memories figure into award-winner Laura McGee Kvasnosky’s books for young kids

 The American Library association’s children’s book award committees were convening in Seattle on January 21, 2007, when Laura McGee Kvasnosky (rhymes with Moss-nosky and the v is not silent) got the call. She had won the prestigious, relatively new Theodor Seuss Geisel (yes, that’s Dr. Seuss) Award for writing and illustrating the most distinguished American book for beginning readers.

The winning title, Zelda and Ivy: The Runaways, is a chapter book (fourth in an ongoing series) that begins with two red fox sisters who just can’t take it anymore: “Dad’s making cucumber sandwiches for lunch,” said Ivy. “Not again!” said Zelda. “That’s it. I’m running away.”

Growing up in California as the middle child of five, Kvasnosky says she was Ivy (even though her younger sister sees it differently). Daughter of a newspaper-editor father and a mother who recited poetry regularly, Kvasnosky couldn’t escape her fate as wordsmith. After studying journalism at California’s Occidental College, however, she became less interested in “fast and accurate” and more interested in fiction: “Often I can make more sense of life if I can tweak the facts,” she says.

So far, all of Kvasnosky’s books have been for young readers. “Writing is a way I process my childhood, thinking through the memories that just won’t lie down flat, making a story as a way to understand and to savor,” she explains, adding, “I loved reading to my children. Snuggled into a big chair, we entered the story together. I like that my work may be part of that experience for other families.”

Writing is more of a passion for her than drawing, but her “gouache resist” paintings—often of winsome animals—are as endearing and artful as her stories. “I’ve always liked painting, but came to making picture books from the writing side,” says Kvasnosky, who took a few art classes in college. “I use the art to set a mood, expand the text, and underline the humor.” Asked about the evolution of her distinctive artistic style, Kvasnosky remembers some advice the late local children’s book artist Ted Rand once offered: “In the end, you don’t have to develop a style; your style has you by the neck.”

Kvasnosky moved to Seattle from Los Angeles with her husband, John, and first baby-to-be 35 years ago—and never left. (She has two grown children.) She sold her first children’s book to E.P. Dutton in New York at age 42, and has been writing and illustrating them for 17 years. “It still feels like the beginning,” she says, petting Izzi, her vigilant springer spaniel. “And I like that it feels that way.”

Market Force: Author/illustrator Sara Anderson lets her exuberance spill onto every page

If you go to Seattle’s Pike Place Market and look to the east, you might see children’s book author-illustrator Sara Anderson. She has lived above the cobblestones for more than 25 years in a jewel-like apartment that’s a richer mix of color, texture and cozy pillows than I Dream of Jeannie’s bottle ever was. One of Anderson’s children’s books, A Day at the Market, reflects her deep love for the place; every detail is affectionately reflected in the playfully rhythmic text, the saturated colors and her trademark cut-paper style, from bumbleberry jam to that guy hosing down the fishy Market at day’s end. (That’s her buddy Gar.) Listening to Anderson describe how it felt to draw a delectable mango in her book Fruit might make you blush.

The beautiful quality of the light in Seattle is one of many reasons she stays here—she experienced the same color phenomenon while living above the Arctic Circle with reindeer herders in Scandinavia and never forgot it: “The color of grass isn’t just the color of grass when the light hits it a certain way.”

A student of fine art and design at Cornell, Anderson ventured west in 1979 to find work. Her first consulting job in Seattle was designing marketing materials for the architectural firm of John Graham & Company, of Space Needle fame. In a series of fortunate events, Anderson met the architect who designed her Market apartment building, Fred Bassetti, who saw an unusual deck of cards she’d made with cut paper and sent her straight to the Museum of Modern Art. For MoMA, and for Crate & Barrel, she began designing children’s dinnerware, beach towels and the like, but none of that work, however satisfying, would compare to what she describes as the intense challenge, commitment and responsibility of creating children’s books. “It’s not for sissies,” she says with smiling eyes and an impish grin that belie her intensity.

Creating children’s books was a natural extension of Anderson’s boldly colorful, engaging work in product design. Her first two titles, Numbers and Colors, first published in 1988 and re-released twice since, are conceptual in nature. Numbers has a graduated page design—cleverly, the pages grow in size as the numbers increase from one to 10.

If there’s one thread that ties all of Anderson’s work together it’s a palpable exuberance for life. She often tells her stories in quirky, sing-song rhyme that makes her books dance, and the forced simplicity of her cut-paper medium delightfully distills the complex essence of her subjects; for Anderson, a rose is not a rose. When you see a man closing down the Market or a shapely mango in the pages of her books, you can be sure it’s brimming with back story.

A Rising Star: A local children’s author makes his debut with a book chronicling a harrowing trip to the South Pole

Seattle author Richard Farr (richardfarr.net) says he was “unwisely persuaded” to write children’s books by his oldest son, who thought Farr’s bedtime stories were the best in the world. After 10 years of trying to get published, he recently landed his first book contract with the highly respected publishing house of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Emperors of the Ice: A True Story of Disaster and Survival in the Antarctic, 1910–13 (which he says is for “ages 12 to 112”), available this month, is a gripping work of historical fiction based on a young zoologist’s memoirs.

Farr came to the United States from the United Kingdom in 1984 to do a doctorate degree at Cornell University. This was his fourth degree in philosophy, which he says, “usually renders you basically unemployable.” Since moving to Seattle in 1996, he’s become a full-time writer, living on Capitol Hill with his wife, Kerry, and two sons, ages 10 and 13. Farr’s home has a view of the mountains, which, he says, “gives my eyes some relief from the tyranny of the blank page.” His current projects range from board books for babies to a literary novel for adults—all of which are sure to get more attention now that reviewers have deemed Emperors “compelling” and “unforgettable.”