Telling stories without words

Illustrator Rohmann visits Young Readers

Leah Rankin | Staff Writer

His artwork has transformed some of the most imaginative stories into some of the most visually recognizable books in children’s literature, but author and illustrator Eric Rohmann said you still can’t judge a book by its cover.

Rohmann, a Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator whose pictures appear on book covers like Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, traveled to Chautauqua for the Highlights conference this week. He will visit the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle Young Readers program at 4:15 p.m. today in Room 203 of Turner Community Center. This week’s Young Readers selection is Sparky: The Life and Art of Charles Schulz by Beverly Gherman.

“I never hold back with my illustrations, because I’ve never had a kid who hasn’t understood one,” Rohmann said. “Even the little (kids) look at it and find something they understand, because they know the world enough, and they’re imaginative. They can fill in the blanks.”

Rohmann said he drew a lot as a kid and soon realized his pictures never stood still. It was the difference between static art and illustration. His characters had personalities; they had

adventures, and they often took on a life of their own.

“Now I know that the pictures I drew as a kid always told stories,” Rohmann said. “It wasn’t like a landscape or a still life or a portrait. There were characters in them. There were people and animals in them. They had a past and a future, almost like a frame in a film.”

There are two things an illustrator has to know how to do, Rohmann said. The first is to turn a person, animal or object into a character. The second involves putting that character into a sequence.

Illustrations inside a book, Rohmann said, are not always grand statements. Each picture is part of a sequence. There is an “ebb and flow” between what was just shown on the previous page and what will appear on the next page. These kinds of illustrations have more to do with providing information than displaying a detailed work of art.

“Imagine if you had a Broadway musical where every song was a showstopper,” Rohmann said. “By the time you get to the end, you have showstopper fatigue.”

Rohmann has authored and illustrated several of his own books. His first book, Time Flies, is about time travel and dinosaurs and was awarded the Caldecott Honor in 1999 and was named a New York Times Book Review Best Children’s Book. His book My Friend Rabbit won the Caldecott Medal in 2003.

Rohmann uses everything from oil painting, to watercolors, to woodblock printing for his pictures. He said the story always dictates the medium he chooses.

Writing books, however, gives Rohmann better knowledge and insight into what other children’s book authors want in their illustrations. He doesn’t always get to work directly with authors but said the best illustrators know that books are a collaborative process.

The author has one idea and the illustrator has another, and the combination of ideas creates something new.

But authors rarely tell Rohmann exactly what to draw.

“I like getting the author’s take on what I’m doing,” Rohmann said. “I like to know what they’re thinking. But I’ve never had one that said, ‘The main character’s a pig, and he’s

got blue pants.’”

Rohmann was invited to visit the Young Readers meeting today to talk about this week’s book, Sparky: The Life and Art of Charles Schulz by Beverly Gherman. The book is a biography about the cartoonist that created the famous “Peanuts” comic strip.

Jack Voelker, director of the Department of Recreation and Youth Services, said h

e loves to bring books to life by introducing Young Readers to the authors and illustrators who create them.

“I’m hoping he’ll demonstrate his art and give Young Readers an idea of how an illustrator works,” Voelker said.

Rohmann will not only demonstrate how he invents a children’s book character; he will involve the Young Readers in the process. He starts the picture, he said, but the kids always finish it.

It turns out Schulz was indeed a great influence on Rohmann, just as other illustrators like Maurice Sendak and Virginia Lee Burton had an impact his artistic ideas.

“I think Charles Schulz pretty much, in four panels, gives you the world,” Rohmann said. “It was real hard not to be influenced by that growing up. It’s perfect illustration and perfect storytelling. Each panel is a tiny picture book.”

He said one of the greatest lessons he learned from studying Schulz’s comics is that even though one panel can contain the world, that doesn’t mean the artist has to show it.

“The difficult thing about what (illustrators) do isn’t necessarily what you put in; it’s what you leave out,” Rohmann said. “It’s how you can say the most with the least.”

Rohmann just released his newest book, Bone Dog, on July 19. The book is about a dog and her boy who are inseparable even through death. He said children couldn’t provide a better audience for his stories and illustrations.

“Kids inhabit pictures,” he said, adding that he is looking forward to showing kids how to tell stories without words.