In order to talk about how I create picture books, I need to tell you about my audience. My audience is children. First of all, I consider them to be very much the same as adults. Which is to say that I consider myself to be very much the same now, and some things are harder. Talking to strangers is a little bit easier today. The entire month of August has improved since I was eight. On the other hand, learning another language is a lot harder now. And I ran much more as a child than I do today, which is too bad. However, I don't feel that the me of thirty years ago is much different from the me of today. I don't recall any single moment of the great change, or many little steps. I just remember a long, gooey flow from the beginnings of my self-awareness to now. This view of my childhood definitely influences my work.
Usually a number of events will be going on around me to start me on a book. What I mean is, I will have read a poem or seem a picture that is lingering in my mind. I will be brooding about something going on in my life, and then Iw ill remember something that happened to me as a child. Some of this will just come to me; some of it I will actively pursue-for instance, maybe what it was that worried me the most when I was eight. So then I will have this thing I want to get down. It might be just a single picture in my mind, or an image suggested by a line of poetry, or a turn of phrase I heard in the street, something that I want to nurse along into a picture book.
No I have to wait: I have to wait for the structure. What I mean is that these ideas coming together need to find a form. Part of the form is already given: it will be thirty-two pages. Whatever I'm thinking about has got to fit into thirty-two pages, the standard picture book size. So that's something. But the structure and the form for me are almost the most important, because these will express as much as words and images will the content of the work. Sometimes I'll have to wait for this part for a long time. Often I will follow the wrong path for months and then have to discard what I have done. Sometimes it takes getting to know the book better. Sometimes the structure comes to me intact almost at once.
Somewhere in this process, I begin reading and showing my book to my audience. When I say my audience I mean a single imaginary child who is a blend of myself as a young person, the students in my wife's classroom of first- through third-graders, and the students from two classrooms I visit regularly in the Bronx, New York. I think about reading the book to this imaginary child, or this imaginary classroom, and I try to see what their reaction is. Finally, I will actually read a dummy of the book to some of these children, or better yet, I will have the book read to them by someone else, who will take notes for me. And then I make some changes.