David Ezra Stein is an award-winning author/illustrator. “Interrupting Chicken” was awarded a 2011 Caldecott Honor. “Leaves” won the Ezra Jack Keats award and was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, a Kirkus Reviews Editor’s Choice and a School Library Journal Best Book. The following is a complete transcript of his interview with Cracking the Cover for “I’m My Own Dog.”
How did “I’m My Own Dog” come about?
Hi Jessica! Well, I was on a business trip, running around like mad on other people’s schedules. I was feeling like I needed time to myself and that I had a strong desire for independence. A voice started to speak up in my mind’s ear, and it turned out to be the dog from I’m My Own Dog. This is often how I discover characters—I hear their voice begin to tell me about them. I jotted down all that he told me, and then later on, when it was time to develop a new book project, I went back and began to elaborate and create more details about this wonderful dog. What was his life like? Who did he share it with? These questions open the door for an author to make a world.
How long did you work on “I’m My Own Dog”?
It took me about a year to revise (and revise) the story, design the character (he is loosely based on my cousin’s Boston terrier), and discover what technique was right for the final art. For the line work, I ended up using a Crayola marker, hacked to dispense India ink. It was a lot of fun to illustrate this one.
I do not own a dog. And a dog does not even own me. But now that I have written this book, it’s weird, but my appreciation of dogs has grown a lot. There are so many of them here in New York, and they are so diverse. You never know what kind of dog you’re gonna see. I saw a dog riding shot gun in a car the other day and, no joke, he was wearing sunglasses.
You’ve featured animals in your books before. What is it about animals that speaks to you and to children?
I have always loved animals, since I was a little kid. I used to have stuffed animals and make up all kinds of stories about them. They each had a personality. I find encounters with wild animals amazing, and a wonderful connection to Nature. Animals make for a great metaphor, in a way. They are useful for reflecting aspects of ourselves as humans. For instance, in my book Ol’ Mama Squirrel, the mama squirrel reflects parents’ desire to make the world better and safer for our children. Ol’ Mama was based on real squirrels I’ve seen, defending their nests. And the bear in my book Leaves is as curious and innocent, and ultimately as hardy, as a child. I think children have a spot of wonder and love in their hearts for animals. There is magic in that relationship. I’m not exactly sure why it is so.
As time passes, does writing and illustrating become easier? Are there new challenges?
Oh…ha, ha! Sorry, I have to laugh, because I’m thinking of all the ups and downs I’ve had in my creative life. It never ends: There are always challenges in a creative endeavor. So many hurdles to clear. If there aren’t, then it isn’t a very interesting project. In some ways, I find it easier nowadays to get into my “zone” where good writing and illustrating can happen. That comes from practice, self-awareness, and good self-management. None of which are easy. I have more patience than I used to, as well. Patience to gather the right resources, consider options, do research. Ultimately, though, I just have to do the work and trust my sense of what looks or reads best. That never changes.
I can’t really separate the two. When I have ideas and put them on paper, both writing and illustrating are native languages that I use. I have always been able to be my best self on the page. At least I hope so! There is a great joy in putting colors on paper, so I love painting. But if I didn’t have a good story as the “bones” or the whole reason for the artwork, I wouldn’t be satisfied.
Do you have a favorite book that you’ve written? Why?
I love Leaves. Kids always get really quiet when I read that one. And I also love the ones that are the funniest and most fun to read out loud. I’m My Own Dog is one of the ones I’m most proud of.
What are you working on now?
I am just finishing a book called Tad & Dad for next summer (2015). It’s about a little tadpole who jumps into his dad’s lily pad every night. Tad keeps growing and Dad keeps getting crowded out of his bed. Think co-sleeping, with frogs.