Monday, February 7, 2011

2011 Sydney Taylor Honor Award Winner Claire Nivola shares her love of illustration

Claire Nivola has illustrated several children's books, including Elisabeth, her telling of her mother’s story of her childhood doll; The Mouse of Amherst by Elizabeth Spires, and her own two books, The Forest and Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai (Frances Foster Books).

In recent years, Nivola has also worked with publishers in Boston, illustrating The Friday Nights of Nana by Amy Hest for Candlewick Press, and for Houghton Mifflin, The Flag Maker by Susan Campbell Bartoletti and The Silent Witness by Robin Friedman.

Nivola says, “Having spent many years reading, often more than once, the books I loved as a child to my own children, and discovering new ones, my appreciation for the best of children’s literature has only grown. Writing for children is a serious business. Even if the result is to delight one’s small readers, the words and images are destined to become a vivid and lasting part of a child’s live experience.”

Emma's Poem: The Voice of the Statue of LibertyClaire Nivola is the winner of the Sydney Taylor Honor Award in the younger readers category for Emma's Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty. The Sydney Taylor Book Award is presented annually to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience. Presented by the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) since 1968, the Award encourages the publication and widespread use of quality Judaic literature.

I'm excited that the Sydney Taylor Book Award blog tour brings Claire Nivola to Lori Calabrese Writes! So without further ado, let's dive into some questions...

You've said you drew and sculpted from earliest childhood and took art for granted, like breathing and walking. Why do you think you took art for granted?
Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai (Frances Foster Books)I think drawing and making things comes naturally to most children, but after a certain age they do less of it, grow self-conscious, and often stop completely. My father was a sculptor. He didn't go to an office; he went to his studio. When we were in the country, his studio was right across the garden. In the evening, as we all sat around and talked, he often sketched us. My mother crocheted exquisite scarves and mended things ingeniously with her skillful hands; later she made extraordinary jewelry. On our walls hung art made by my parents and their friends. The house, though simple, was beautiful and beautifully tended. Aesthetics were not something separate from the activities of daily life in our household. That is what I meant by taking it for granted: that one made something beautiful or appreciated and cared for something beautiful was a given.

Soon after graduating Radcliffe College in 1970, you illustrated your first children’s book. How did that come about and what were you feeling--nervous, excited?
My father was Italian and in the circle of Italian émigrés in New York City of the time he had met Fabio Coen, the head of children's books at Pantheon. Fabio had a manuscript of Italian tales that he wanted to publish and he asked my father to illustrate it. My father answered that he did not do illustration work, but that he had a daughter who drew…. I had just graduated from college - it was beginner's luck - I illustrated the book with no sense of how lucky I was to have such an opportunity! I don't remember feeling nervous, and the drawings I did for that first book were very free and confident in style (much less detailed than the work I do now). I was certainly excited to have a commission. I think the process of illustrating came naturally to me and I simply enjoyed it. I went and met with Fabio Coen in the Random House building - that felt important. He was very kind to me; he reminded me of many of my parents' European friends. It was in an office a few doors down from his that I first met Frances Foster with whom I have worked on many books over the years. I was very young and I think I took much of all this for granted.

Emma Lazarus's famous lines inspired the way we envision America's exceptional freedom and the way we hold it dear today. How were you inspired to create the amazing illustrations in Emma's Poem?
Most inspiring for me was the photographic record of the time - pictures of newly arrived immigrants, photographs of the statue itself partially uncrated, of the statue once erected seen from the decks of ships arriving in the N.Y. harbor. Photography was still in its infancy then, but often those early black and white pictures documenting the arrival of a refugee or a family carrying all its modest belongings provided a powerful, deeply telling, and poignant record. There were few photographs to help me at the early end - for instance, I had to imagine Emma as a child - but I was able to research etchings and prints of clothing fashions and home interiors of the period to give me a feeling of how a wealthy family like hers might have lived. Of course for the story I needed to emphasize the contrast between Emma's comfortable life and the hardships of the immigrants she wanted to help - so I had to attempt to capture two worlds at the same time.

I always do a good deal of visual research in preparing to illustrate a book. In this case, by looking at many pictures and drawings of the historical setting, I began to get a feel for it, and began to imagine how it might have been to be there.

What are your tools of the trade and could you please describe for us your typical 'start to finish' workflow when working on an illustration?
The ForestThe tools of my trade are few and humble: a range of brushes, many of them breathtakingly fine; a glass of water on a dish with a paper napkin on which to clean my brushes; three trays of watercolors and gouache paints laid out; paper and rulers and an eraser. I work on the dining room table.

There are two stages to my way of illustrating, but first comes the visual research mentioned above. I compile for myself a visual dictionary made up of Xeroxes of the researched images.

Now I can begin sketching out my illustrations in pencil. The sketches are to size and are fully worked out in detail. They will comprise the dummy that will go to the editor for approval before I begin the final painted versions.

The Silent WitnessThe second stage is that of painting. By eye and with a few measurements I transfer my sketch onto the paper I will paint on. In a sense I am redrawing everything but it feels as if I already know where I'm going. The big new element is the choice of colors. Color changes everything! And the use of a brush has a very different feel from a pencil. In many ways I prefer the modesty and tentativeness of the pencil, but of course much is gained, too, with color and with paint. Often what results is somewhat different from what I imagined, though I try to hove to the mood or feeling or impression I am striving towards.

The process of sketching in pencil is closer to writing and calls for the same kind of concentration. But when I paint the final images, I feel I am on holiday! I can listen to music or NPR and the decision about which color to use is almost instinctual. The recapturing with paint of the figure in the pencil version seems to result from a different sort of concentration, one that really does hearken back to when I spent hours as a child with my markers and scrolls of paper.

I love all stages of the process and I love how different they all are from one another.


A big thanks to Claire Nivola for answering my questions and a big congratulations on her Sydney Taylor Award. To see all the winners, please visit the Association of Jewish Libraries blog and the official Sydney Taylor site. Also, make sure you check out the entire schedule for the Sydney Taylor Book Award blog tour. There are so many wonderful books, authors and illustrators highlighted. You don't want to miss it!


  1. Lovely interview! I love how Claire describes her tools. Thanks Lori and Claire.

    Barbara B

  2. Thanks for visiting, Barbara. It was fascinating to learn more about Claire. I always love being a part of the Sydney Taylor Book Blog Tour.

  3. Like Barbara Bietz, I, too, am intrigued with the discussion of approach and tools. Thanks for sharing. Congratulations, Claire, on your accomplishment and thanks, Lori, for participating in the Sydney Taylor Book Award blog tour!

  4. I absolutely loved this book when I first read it. Tomorrow I'll have to look at it again and imagine the work that went into each illustration. Congratulations to Claire Nivola and thanks to you, Lori for a great interview.