Q&A with children's illustrator & author Lizzy Rockwell
Lizzy Rockwell is the illustrator of numerous books and games for children and is the author and illustrator of children’s nature titles like Plants Feed Me, A Bird is a Bird, and A Mammal Is An Animal. Lizzy has worked with her mother, the late author/illustrator Anne Rockwell, creating Apples and Pumpkins in 1989, and Hiking Day most recently.
Lizzy is also a muralist, a quilter and a frequent presenter at schools and libraries. She lives in Bridgeport, CT with her husband and their dog, Reggie.
What is your favorite outdoor childhood memory?
When I was five years old, we moved from our apartment in New York City to a house in a suburb called Old Greenwich, CT. The house was on a quarter acre. In the backyard there was a corner with a huge tangle of Azalea bushes that burst into every shade of red pink and lavender in the spring. This area was sort of elevated from the rest of the yard, and there was also an ancient gnarly apple tree that hung over a rock which was big enough and flat enough to sit on. The landscaping seem to create little “rooms” between the trunks and under the foliage and blooms of the azalea. The rock formed a kind of covered “porch”. The rock was a good place to sit by yourself too, and peel off thin layers of transparent mica. We called the area the Nature Trail, and it was a popular neighborhood hangout for playing house, looking for bugs, and hatching secret plans of all sorts.
What inspired you to become an author and illustrator?
My parents, Anne and Harlow Rockwell, made picture books as a team from their studio in our home. I always loved to draw, and my brother sister and I all got lots of encouragement. When I took illustration courses at art school after a liberal arts college education, I did not plan to do picture books. I was interested in and first worked as a magazine and book cover illustrator. When my father died in 1988 and I was 27, he was working on the illustrations for a book by my mom called My Spring Robin. The publisher let me finish the illustrations in his style, and then let me illustrate the remaining title from this series on the seasons, called Apples and Pumpkins. All four books in the Seasons series were about a little red headed girl, discovering the natural world with her parents. This was the odd and poignant beginning to my career in picture books.
You’ve written and illustrated a number of informational children's nature books, like Plants Feed Me and A Bird is a Bird. What does your research process look like for these books?
The text for these two books came to me pretty well formed, without doing much preliminary research. (I am not always so lucky!) They were based on my lifelong interest in the natural world, and a fascination I had since childhood with natural classification. This is true also for A Mammal Is an Animal. Once I had the text roughed out, then I did research, and welcomed advice from expert readers and my editor at Holiday House, Grace Maccarone, to make sure everything was accurate and the concepts were solid.
My deepest field research came with illustrating those books. For Plants Feed Me, I went on field trips to the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, and other botanical learning centers, my friend’s farm, the farmers markets and grocery store, and best of all, my own backyard. That summer I really got serious about growing food, first as a research project, and then as lifelong hobby.
For A Bird Is a Bird, I spent lots of time observing birds outdoors, at the zoo, and by studying the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and at the Peabody Museum in New Haven, CT. I have been to the Ding Darling Bird Sanctuary on Captiva Island numerous times, and had photos and memories of that habitat and amazing fauna that is depicted in one spread.
For A Mammal Is an Animal, I went hiking to observe the biodiversity of a New England forest and pond, and sketched and photographed my dog Reggie. Of course, I couldn’t do field work for every animal or plant I painted in those books, and for this I am grateful to the fantastic work of nature photographers around the world.
There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about the problematic lack of diversity in children’s books. Would you share a bit about your thoughts on this issue, and the ways in which your work helps address this “diversity gap”?
Though I am a white woman, I have spent more than half of my life living in very diverse communities, like New York City, Brooklyn, Norwalk, Ct and currently Bridgeport, CT, so it is only natural for me to include all sorts of children as characters in my books. This is simply how the real world looks to me. But I am thanked for portraying diversity, and I know how important it is for children to find characters they identify with in books.
When I cover topics of nature, I am secretly hoping that I will spark that love of the natural world in a child. And I want to spark it in every child. This is a gift to the child, because overcoming intimidation of the outdoors, provides the greatest opportunities for creative healthy learning, and the most joyful play. It’s a gift back to the world, because those children are more likely to grow up to be good stewards of the natural world they love.
Last week I got the most touching email from a mom, thanking me for creating the protagonist family in Hiking Day. The narrator of the story, is a little black girl with pretty braids who goes on a hike up a small mountain with her parents. The mom who wrote told me that her daughter was so excited to see this character in her library book, that she read it to all her relatives. Her kind aunt even braided her hair, per her request, in the identical style of the girl in the book. The mom sent me photos of this precious child proudly holding up her library book in front of her new hairstyle. In her email she wrote, “Thank you! Representation matters!” I knew it did, but man, that email just touched my heart.
What is your favorite children’s book?
Hmmm…. Tough one! Certainly one of my favorites is Sally’s Caterpillar, written by my mom and illustrated by my dad. It’s about a family that finds a monarch caterpillar during a summer trip on an island (Block Island, RI though it is not named in the text) and brings it back to their apartment in New York City, in a jar with holes punched in the top, and milkweed inside. They watch as the caterpillar forms its chrysalis, and emerges as a butterfly. Then they set it free out the window. This was all true and about us, so it’s very sweet to me.
Finish this sentence: "Spending time in nature makes me feel…”
…the most like myself.