"I grew up in a home where everyone seemed to be making something. As long as I can remember I was always putting things together, cutting, stitching, pasting or pounding. The `feel' of the object I made was as important as the `look.' "
This texture with the sense of color and graphic design has become a trademark for author/illustrator Lois Ehlert. The technique of collage is developed with pieces of paper, fabric and objects.Unlike Ezra Jack Keats and Leo Lionni, whose collage pieces are often torn, making fuzzy edges set into detailed background, Ehlert's work is crisp and stark on clear pages. The compelling colors are rich and intermixed; for example, all shades of orange, green or purple are watercolor washes over white paper. "I prefer to paint my own papers to get just the right color or texture.
"For my book `Planting a Rainbow,' I visited flower gardens, garden centers and parks. I spend a long time checking my facts before I begin to paint . . . After I decide what I want to illustrate, I start cutting out each little piece and gluing it on a board," the artist said.
The same intricate work is seen in "Growing Vegetable Soup" and in "Eating the Alphabet" where each kernel of the Indian corn is a separate piece of tiny painted paper.
"My writing goes hand in hand with my art. I work on the writing for awhile and then go back to the art - back and forth, until I get just the right balance."
This balance is seen in two of Ehlert's latest books, "Feathers for Lunch" and "Fish Eyes," which, although they vary in size and format, retain boldness in design and feature a lilting rhyming text that carries the story along. Each features a protagonist that young readers can follow and will find humorous: a cat trying to get a feathery meal and a small fish that keeps a running narrative throughout.
Two of her most creative books have single words as text. "Color Zoo" and "Color Farm" introduce colors and shapes as each page exposes a new visual interpretation through holes in the pages. Ovals, rectangles and squares turn into deer, goats and monkeys with a wide array of puzzles and back-and-forth guessing games on the vivid pages.
The rhymes in some of Ehlert's books are a bit halting, caused by the page breaks, but what really makes the work in all her books extraordinary is the distinctive artwork. While other artists have designed with cubism style - such as Gibbons, who makes the block-work appear simplistic and childlike, or Wildsmith, who swipes at the pages with brilliant tones - Ehlert's work is direct and unexpected. Her color selections range from the most brilliant to the iridescent. Never does she condescend. The surprises are many. Why haven't we always had chartreuse fish with orange and yellow fins, bright blue tails, purple eyes on a royal blue background?
This imaginative use of color and shapes represents the author's feeling about the aesthetics of picture books. "It's a part of a person's makeup, I think, to be creative. It's something I feel very lucky about. I've worked hard to make this gift as fine as I can make it, but I still think I was born with certain ideas and feelings just waiting to burst out!"
There are many readers, young and old, that appreciate and look forward to these bursts in Ehlert's creative books.
PLANTING A RAINBOW, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988
EATING THE ALPHABET, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989
GROWING VEGETABLE SOUP, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989
COLOR ZOO, Lippincott, 1989. (Caldecott Honor Book)
FEATHERS FOR LUNCH, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990
COLOR FARM, Lippincott, 1990
FISH EYES; A BOOK YOU CAN COUNT ON, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.
- Marilou Sorensen is an associate professor of education at the University of Utah specializing in children's literature.