One of my favorite children’s books of the year (so far) is A Home for Bird by Philip C. Stead. This touching picture book has it all—adorable characters, wonderfully expressive illustrations and a subtle message about friendship and loyalty. Vernon, the determined little toad at the heart of the story, will melt your heart.
Stead, who collaborated with his wife, illustrator Erin Stead, on the 2011 Caldecott Medal winner, A Sick Day for Amos McGee, both wrote and illustrated A Home for Bird. And he also took the time to do a beautiful illustrated Q&A for the June issue of BookPage. Check out the bright colors and fine details of his illustrations here.
To find out more about this talented young author-illustrator, we asked Stead to answer a few questions from his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Please tell us a little about where you live and work in Ann Arbor. Do you and Erin share a workspace?
Our home and studio today is a renovated 100-year-old barn. People often picture a barn out in the country, but actually we live just a few blocks from downtown Ann Arbor. From our barn we have views of the train station and the busy Broadway Bridge which travels over the Huron River. It’s a great spot to watch the world go by. We live on the second floor of the barn and commute to work by walking downstairs. We share the space, but have separate desks on either side of the room. Neither of us is particularly good at keeping a set schedule so sometimes we work at the same time, but often we don’t. Of course when you’re an author or an artist you’re kind of always working. It’s tough to get your characters out of your head once a project gets going.
You used a typewriter for your answers to the illustrated Q&A, which was surprising. What kind of typewriter do you have and why do you still use one?
We actually have two typewriters. The one that still works is an Olympia Electronic Compact 2. It comes in a little plastic suitcase and weighs about a million pounds (not so compact after all!). We also have an antique mechanical Underwood typewriter. The Underwood originally belonged to my Great-Grandpa Vernon who, like the toad Vernon in A Home for Bird, was a “collector of interesting things.” I can’t say exactly why I love typewriters except of course that they’re fantastically fun. I love all the noise and movement. Writing really becomes a performance on a typewriter, nothing at all like typing on a laptop (which is what I’m doing now).
Can you tell us how you got the idea for A Home for Bird?
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment or event that sparked the idea for A Home for Bird. The story sort of began back in 2006 when I first started making drawings of a nameless toad who kept finding himself in unusual situations. The first sketchbook drawing was of a toad sitting on a telephone wire (an image that survived all the way to the finished book today). Eventually the drawings also began to include a wooden cuckoo bird. I made these drawings without any sort of story attached to them. It wasn’t until a few years later that a story and specific themes began to develop around those characters. Interestingly enough this actually leads to the next interview question!
I love the book’s dedication, which reads: “To the homes I have loved (and those I have not).” Can you explain the story behind this? Have you had homes you didn’t like?
In 2007 my wife, Erin, and I moved out of New York City and into a little house upstate about an hour and a half outside the city. We were hoping for an idyllic experience—peace, quiet, space to work, and most importantly cheap rent. New York City is expensive for artists just starting out (or anyone at all really). It didn’t take long to realize that the experience we’d hoped for was not the experience we were going to have. Everything that could have gone wrong in that home did from critters in the walls to crazy neighbors and everything in between. In desperation we moved out after just a couple months and moved into another home just a few hundred feet away. That home was better, but still bad. After a few months in Home 2, I began to toy with a storyline about two characters, a toad and a cuckoo bird, searching for a home together. It was about four more years before I finally finished A Home for Bird, during which time Erin and I lived in three more homes for a total of five, or more accurately six if you include our New York City apartment where I made those first drawings of a toad and a cuckoo bird back in 2006. I get exhausted just thinking about it! Happily, like Bird and Vernon, we eventually found a home that we loved.
What media did you use on the delightful illustrations in A Home for Bird?
My previous books were illustrated using collage and pen and ink. I enjoy those techniques a lot, but they are very labor intensive. I really wanted Vernon’s world to seem breezy and light, and I didn’t feel like my collage art could create those effects very well. So I decided to switch it up. I began the illustrations in A Home for Bird by drawing with water-soluble crayons. Crayons have a way of making you draw with an enthusiasm that we all had naturally when we were kids. Of course you can’t erase crayons so you also have to be okay with starting over from time to time! After working with the crayons I then painted over top with gouache. The gouache paint is translucent in many places so the crayon drawing shows through on the finished piece.
How does doing a picture book by yourself (as writer and illustrator) differ from writing a book illustrated by someone else? Do you enjoy the creative control of being the one and only author and artist involved?
I’ve discovered that for me both scenarios have up sides. When I am both author and illustrator I get to invent an entire world from scratch. Once the illustrations for a story really begin to develop it becomes a real treat to come to the studio and step into that alternate world for a few hours. Even when a project gets difficult if you love your characters and the world you’ve set them in then you’ll always enjoy going to work.
Sometimes, though, I’ll write a story that I simply can’t imagine myself illustrating. Most illustrators including myself have strengths and weaknesses. Even if I really like a story I’ve written I won’t illustrate it unless I think I’m the best man for the job. Luckily I also happen to be married to a fantastic illustrator. So far Erin has illustrated two stories for me, A Sick Day for Amos McGee and Bear Has a Story to Tell [to be published in September]. I can’t imagine either of these stories being illustrated by anyone other than Erin.