Mornings With Monet is the fourth picture book collaboration between children’s author Barb Rosenstock and illustrator Mary GrandPré, all of which have explored real artists and their art. Their book about young Kandinsky, The Noisy Paint Box, received a Caldecott Honor in 2015, while their book about Chagall, Through the Window, received a Sydney Taylor Honor in 2019. Mornings With Monet depicts the impressionist painter Claude Monet at work on his riverboat studio on a bright summer morning.
Whom can we thank for the idea to include a reproduction of Monet’s signature in the title on the book’s cover?
Barb Rosenstock: It wasn’t me. I don’t think to ask those “who did what” questions because picture books are the ultimate team sport. We all work with and around each other’s ideas and opinions for four years, and then we wind up with a book—so I don’t know, but it is perfect.
Mary GrandPré: It was my idea. I like to design the title type while I am in the concept stage of the cover art, and the Monet signature seemed like a good way to bring that feeling of brushstrokes into the cover.
Barb, this is one of many children’s books you’ve written about real figures in history. How do you choose your subjects? What sparked your interest in Monet?
Rosenstock: Most of the time I tend to write biographies backward. There will be a topic I find interesting (in this case, the idea of the work of making art), and I find a person or event whose story can represent that idea. After spending 10 days in Paris, I thought I was writing about the impressionists’ first group exhibit in 1874, and the book wasn’t going to be a biography so much as a “Let’s put on an art show” picture book. But as I researched at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Ryerson Library, the work ethic of the group’s leader, Monet, became more fascinating than the group as a whole.
Typically, picture book authors and illustrators don’t work directly with one another. Have your books together become more collaborative over time?
Rosenstock: Yes, but not in the way people might assume. Except in rare circumstances, Mary and I don’t discuss the specifics of text or art in conversation beyond an initial email like, “Hey, I’m thinking of Monet, are you interested?”
But for me, it has become more collaborative because I believe I have a better understanding of what portions of the text Mary tends to be drawn to visually. I actively try to focus on those in the story as much as possible—color, shape, texture. At Mary’s level of artistic ability, there is no such thing as writing something she can’t draw, but I am always thinking about how to write just enough text, never too much, so that I’m leaving space for her freedom to expand the story.
GrandPré: Barb thoroughly researches the life of each artist she writes about. In sharing that, she provides me with a vast amount of information that is extremely helpful, including details about place and time period, appropriate fashion, details about the artist’s lifestyle, as well as parts of the artist’s family history, the influences of other artists and what may have been going on socially or politically at the time. All the information Barb brings to the table gives me a more solid base to draw from.
Barb, I love the structure you’ve given Mornings With Monet. We spend one morning with Monet as he heads out onto the river to paint and then comes home and inside for breakfast, and you incorporate biographical information into this primary narrative. Did you know right away that you wanted the book to have this structure? If not, how did you get there?
Rosenstock: I wish! It took almost a year to know what I was writing about, and my laptop holds eight or so separate manuscripts to prove it. Once I began focusing on Monet, I kept writing drafts that started in his childhood, which is a typical way to connect a young reader to historical biography. I soon realized that Monet’s childhood would bore children, because it was boring me!
When I asked myself what I thought a young reader would find interesting, the answer was the boat. Why would you paint on a boat? How do you paint on a boat? What happens when you paint on a boat? I went in search of Monet’s relationship to his studio boat, which brought me along on his lifelong love affair with the Seine. Eventually I found an 1898 essay in La Revue Illustrée by Maurice Guillemot. Guillemot stayed with Monet in Giverny, in northern France, and in the essay, he details part of a morning spent with Monet on la bateau atelier, his studio boat. That essay guided my structure. I’m proud of having written a nonfiction picture book that begins and ends in four hours. Yes, it’s work. Yes, it’s magic.
Mary, is it difficult to capture the style of another artist—in this instance, Monet’s soft color palette, impressionist brushstrokes and the precise way he captured light?
GrandPré: Capturing the style of an artist is both challenging and enjoyable. Monet’s work is all about color and light, so my challenge for this book was to bring that same focus to the illustrations. I studied his paintings of the Seine, the fluid strokes, the sparks of color in the shadows, the soft neutrals with bits of underpainting showing through, and all of it was a joy to discover.
Monet has become one of the most well-known and widely reproduced artists in the world. Barb, as you researched the book, what did you learn about Monet as a person or about his art that surprised you?
Rosenstock: Well, first, let’s not make him out to be any kind of saint. One of the reasons I settled on the book’s structure is because spending one morning on Monet’s boat seemed doable compared to addressing his many missteps and flaws in a single picture book. I can make a straightforward case that he was a misogynist, a user of people, an anti-Semite and a glutton, just for starters.
What surprised me was something that readers need to understand about creativity of any kind. Monet, long after he was world famous, was an immensely hard worker who was consistent in his practice, much like a world-class athlete. Talent is overemphasized in our society; most success is due to work.
How did working on this book change the way you see Monet and his art?
GrandPré: I came to appreciate Monet’s art more. I discovered more about his sensitive use of color and the amount of layering that each painting holds. I also came to appreciate Monet’s dedication to truly capturing the light and the water. This had to be a very challenging thing to do, particularly with weather being unpredictable—not to mention painting all those paintings on a small studio boat. That’s commitment and being true to your vision!
Rosenstock: Visiting the impressionist wing of the Art Institute of Chicago has always been a part of my life. I knew since I was a child that these masterworks by Monet, Renoir, Degas, Sisley, Pissarro, Morisot and others were gorgeous. Now I see their individuality—the thousands of brushstrokes, hundreds of color decisions, thoughtful highlights and brooding shadows. I see the time and the work dedicated to the creation. It doesn’t take away from the overall beauty, it adds to it.
What’s something you each love about each other’s work in this book?
GrandPré: I love that Barb is true to the artist’s vision and that she sees the beauty in the creative exploration of the painter. As she takes us through the morning, she sensitively describes colors and how they change with the time of day, from the soft gray violets before the dawn to the warm yellows that break through the fog. I love that she can take a single morning with Monet and give us an entire journey in which we discover the power of light and color, as well as Monet’s steadfast dedication to capturing the ever-changing character of the river.
While Barb’s writing is true to the history of Monet’s life, her understanding of the artist’s inner struggle and their passion to create is what makes her stories so enriching. As an artist, I especially appreciate that part of Barb’s writing.
Rosenstock: Mary’s art always, always brings other levels of thought to the text. She’s one of our great children’s illustrators because her art tells its own story, not just my text’s story. For Mornings With Monet, I confess I was worried. Monet’s style is so familiar that I wondered how Mary would illustrate the book without copying it. But her artistic process informs our understanding of Monet’s process while remaining wholly original. Mary’s extensive visual research, her hints at relationships and the moods of the river are what I love best. And that “magic” spread near the end of the book—it’s truly magic!