Pamela Zagarenski: Drawn to Paint

Pamela Zagarenski is the winner of two Caldecott Honors. The books she has illustrated have also been Booklist Editor's Choices and winners of Bank Street's Claudia Lewis Award, and have been translated into many languages. As well as illustrating picture books, she creates paintings and has a gift card line. Her newest book for young readers, Zola's Elephant (HMH Books for Young Readers), will be available on October 9. She lives in Connecticut. Visit her on Instagram and Twitter.

What materials did you use for the illustrations in this book? Are these the materials you regularly use? What draws you to them for your work?

My illustrations are created with acrylic paint on wood and yes, these are materials I regularly use. I love painting. It is hard to say why I am drawn to paint. I have loved it as far back as I can remember. It is much like being drawn to a particular kind of landscape that feels like home: like the old stone walls, red cedars, oak trees and the Atlantic Ocean, paint just feels like part of me.

You have illustrated a number of books written by others, as well as your own written works--do you prefer one over the other? Do the processes differ?

I love words. It has always been impossible for me to hear a word without "seeing" it. When I receive a story from an author I read it over and over, as if I am memorizing it. The words talk to me and, as my contribution to the conversation, I give the words color and a visual life. The story and I need each other equally for the conversation. Whether it is words that I have written or the words from another, it does not really matter. I imagine that the white space between the words reveals imaginary and secret things--with illustrations, I fill in those blanks. When I both write and illustrate, the only real difference is that the conversation between words and images happens simultaneously. The words can tell the pictures what they want to show and then the pictures tell the words what they want to say. Back and forth, like a pendulum, I swing from pen to paint as the book takes shape.

How did you make the choices you did in order to have Zola's Elephant World be different from Zola's Real World?

I felt Zola's real world was new, lonely and frightening. So, I wanted it to feel blue, empty, angular and a bit harsh in contrast with the narrator's soft and colorful life imagined of Zola. The life of one having an elephant as a best friend.

You also create beautifully illustrated greeting cards. Is the process of creation very different from card to book? Is there one you prefer?

A card is simply a two-page book. I admit picture books will always be my favorite and always have been--they are just a more complicated puzzle and I like the challenge. But words and images... and images and words... I am the grateful, humbled puppet of both worlds. --Siân Gaetano

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