Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Author Dianna Hutts Aston and Illustrator Sylvia Long on An Egg Is Quiet

An Egg Is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long (Chronicle, 2006). Lyrical, informative language combine with magnificent illustrations to introduce children of all ages to the world of eggs. Perfect for lap reading and classroom discussions. A must-buy for school and public libraries. Arguably the best concept book in print. Ages 4-up. HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.

On Dianna Hutts Aston: We last visited with Dianna shortly after the publication of her debut picture book, Looney Little, illustrated by Kelly Murphy (Candlewick, 2003). Dianna quickly followed this success with When You Were Born, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Candlewick, 2004), which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly, and Bless This Mouse, illustrated by John Butler (Handprint, 2004). Her latest books include: Mama's Wild Child/Papa's Wild Child, illustrated by Nora Hilb (Charlesbridge, 2006) and Mama Inside, Mama Outside, illustrated by Susan Gaber (Henry Holt, 2006). See Dianna's 2003 interview. Learn more about rising star Dianna Hutts Aston. She lives in Central Texas.

Sylvia Long on Sylvia Long: "At an early age, I was designated the official family artist, in charge of making birthday and get well cards for relatives. It wasn't because my three brothers and sister couldn't do it, but their interests lay elsewhere. I took on the responsibility enthusiastically and found it fun and rewarding. My cards were usually formatted as small 'books,' so there were blank interior pages for each of us to write our individual messages. I believe it was that early family encouragement that nurtured my tenacious desire to create visually.

"My most successful and pleasurable creations are two wonderful sons and, indirectly, a granddaughter. My art is a close second, though. I've said many times that if I won the lottery, the view out my studio window is about the only thing that would change in my daily life. I know I'm extremely lucky to be able to illustrate books for my profession."

Learn more about Sylvia Long. She lives in Scottsdale, Arizona.

What was your initial inspiration for writing/illustrating An Egg is Quiet (Chronicle, 2006)?

DHA: My sweet mama gets the credit for this beautiful book. Her hobbies are gardening, cooking, laughing, and rehashing the olden days of my youth. (I've heard these stories so many times I can lip synch them behind her back.) One of her favorites happened in 1981, when a teacher asked a preschooler--my best friend’s little brother, Dusty--if he would please tell the class something about an egg. He thought and thought and finally said, "An egg is quiet." I wouldn’t have remembered this—Thank you, Mama.

DHA: Flash forward to 2003 and my home in the country. I'd begun collecting eggshells, nests, rocks, fossils, etc.,...the way I'd once collected round bits of asphalt in Houston's parking lots. The eggs were especially enchanting. So one day, my mom called, and I told her I'd found some pretty, speckled eggshells. To which she promptly replied, "I'll never forget that time Dusty said, 'An egg is quiet.'" All of us who happily collaborated on Egg should celebrate my mom’s contribution with a pedicure of thanks.

SL: Dianna Aston's inventive, original and intriguing manuscript was the initial and continuing inspiration for Egg's illustration. Her mature seed fell on fertile ground. My general curiosity about nature was acquired through osmosis from parents who enjoy and revere all things natural. In my family, there was particular focus on bird watching, not as an end in itself (i.e. a "life's list of bird sightings"), but more for the process, which always involves getting outside where one has access to whatever natural elements are present, including the fresh air, plants, spiderwebs, shells, lizards, smooth pebbles in rushing streams.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

DHA: With that spark, I began to consider eggs in a new light. What else were they, in addition to quiet? The other day (May, 2006), I came across an old journal, (one Cynthia gave me), and I found my initial ramblings about eggs. An egg is: quiet; a good thing unless it is rotten and stinky; an egg is like glue--it makes cakes moist; an egg is laid, quiet, warm, wobbly, hatched; it is cracked, scrambled, heated, cooked (with a note that says, eggs thicken at 144 degrees); boiled; dyed; hidden; found; it lives in the refrigerator; doubtful (whatever that means); gooey; lonely; eaten. After ruling out all of those but quiet, I limited my adjectives and focus to a natural context. The story flowed from there.

DHA: What happened next was the magic we writers hope for when submitting a manuscript. Victoria Rock, editor and associate publisher at Chronicle Books, who is most often described by her colleagues as "brilliant," had been hoping to publish a book about eggs, and she liked my manuscript--and she already knew exactly whom she wanted to illustrate it: Sylvia Long. Thankfully, this quiet gem of an artist agreed.

SL: Pictures flooded my mind during the first reading of Dianna's manuscript and I knew immediately that it would be delightful to spend eight months or so of my life emerged in her world of eggs.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

DHA: When I research a subject, I look to the Web, my local libraries, and to experts, who are more accessible nowadays because of email; they're usually glad to talk about the subjects that fascinate them. The research wasn’t so much a challenge as a delight. Sylvia and I had a good excuse to contact scientists who studied fossils and ladybugs and ask them dozens of questions, which they answered patiently. If anyone wants to know more about eggs, there is a beautiful Web site, which was particularly helpful.

DHA: Egg is one of those books remarkable for the collaboration that produced it. I think of Victoria as the conductor, melding the talents of writer, artist, designer, calligrapher, and others into a lyrical tribute to eggs--and that’s just the creation of the actual book. Then Chronicle's marketing and publicity team stepped in to make sure it found its audience. I have the highest praise for everyone at Chronicle.

SL: Usually for me, it's rendering the illustrations that I enjoy the most. For An Egg is Quiet, the many weeks of research required for non-fiction was the biggest challenge as well as the most rewarding and fun. I found myself lost in libraries and on the Web many times, following intriguing threads of information to find colorful and fascinating examples for the various egg characteristics described in Dianna's text.

For Dianna, what do you think Sylvia's illustrations brought to your text?

DHA: The word I hear most often to describe the book is "gorgeous," and that’s a perfect one-word review. When I first saw the "colorful" spread, my eyes jiggled in disbelief. It’s a glorious, visual feast--the entire book is. When I read Egg to children in the classroom, this is what happens every time: I open the book and hold up the first spread, the gallery of eggs without text. No reading necessary after that. Kids forget everything the learned about "crisscross applesauce"--they literally can’t resist scooting, scooting, scooting up the eggs, on top of my feet, and over my shoulders so they can point, touch, ask, "What’s that one? What’s the green one? What’s that little bitty orange one? What’s the one that looks like a banana?" Sometimes, they’ll let me read a few pages before asking, "Can you go back to that other page?" It is immeasurably gratifying to watch a book have such an effect on children.

DHA: What Sylvia’s illustrations ultimately brought to me was a wonderful new friend. On both a professional and personal level, Sylvia is a treasure.

For Sylvia, what about Dianna's words inspired you?

SL: Her utter beauty and modesty.

SL: As a writer, Dianna has the equivalent of perfect pitch in a singer. Her verbal instincts are excellent and inspired my effort to meet the high standard she set in her manuscript.

What can your fans look forward to next?

DHA: A Seed Is Sleepy (Chronicle)—waking up in spring 2007.

SL: I'm happily busy finishing up the illustrations for Dianna's sequel to Egg.

Cynsational Notes

An Egg Is Quiet has received starred reviews from Publisher's Weekly and Kirkus. It also was an April 2006 Book Sense pick. Barb Bassett of The Red Balloon Bookshop in Saint Paul, Minnesota; wrote: "'This has my vote for next year's Caldecott Medal.'" I agree.

Dianna has recently launched a picture book critique service, which is highly recommended.

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