Children's Corner: Author's first picture book published 13 years later

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Author/illustrator David Ezra Stein wrote his first children's picture book text 13 years ago when he was a senior at the Parsons School of Design in New York City.

Mr. Stein wrote the book as a school project, and his teacher, author/illustrator Pat Cummings, liked it so much that she helped him connect with a publisher. To Mr. Stein's surprise and excitement, the publisher accepted the manuscript but also urged him to create some better illustrations for it.

Yet there was the rub: No matter how hard Mr. Stein tried, he couldn't seem to come up with the right kind of illustrations for the story. The publisher eventually returned the manuscript, and it languished over the years while he created -- and published -- eight other children's books, including "Interrupting Chicken," which won a 2011 Caldecott Honor. (The Caldecott Medal is awarded annually by the American Library Association to the best-illustrated children's book; several honor books also are usually chosen).

Mr. Stein refused to give up on his first manuscript, however, and two years ago, he finally found the perfect way to do the illustrations. The result is "Because Amelia Smiled" (Candlewick Press, $16.99, ages 3-7), a cheerful book about how a little girl's smile sets off an international chain of good works.

Seeing Amelia smile, for example, inspires a woman to bake cookies and send them to her son in Mexico. He, in turn, shares the cookies with his class and teaches the students a new song; the song inspires one of the students to create an Internet video, which then inspires a dancing troupe in England, and on it goes.

The illustrations were done in pencil, water-soluble crayon and watercolor, but Mr. Stein invented a new way of using the crayons, a painstaking process he dubs "Stein-lining."

"It imitates a printmaking look," Mr. Stein, 35, said in a recent interview. "I apply crayon to label paper, turn it over and press on the back of the paper to create a line on the artwork. It's like creating my own carbon paper using different colors of crayon."

The technique adds even more color to the brightly colored illustrations and allows Mr. Stein to highlight the many details in his book, which takes readers from New York City to Mexico, England, Israel, Paris and Italy.

Mr. Stein says that the "Stein-lining" technique "allowed me to capture the energy in the story." The story itself was kindled by his interest in Buddhism, especially the idea that, as he says, "you can choose in every moment how to respond to the things that happen to you."

For example, Mr. Stein explained, if someone cuts in front of you, you can get angry and stay that way for the rest of the day, or "you could just let it go and continue that positive energy into the world."

The notion of taking this idea of positive energy and making it into a children's book came to Mr. Stein when he was out walking one day and thinking of what to write for his school project.

"In the rhythm of walking home, I started hearing the words. I wanted to write them down, but all I had was a paper bag, so that's what I used."

As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., Mr. Stein was always doing some kind of art, using Post-Its and other things left around the house by his mother, an editor who also was a painter. In college, Mr. Stein focused on editorial illustration before taking a year off. Returning to Parsons for his senior year, he signed up for an elective on children's book illustration -- a decision that changed his life.

"I had amazingly forgotten how much I loved picture books," Mr. Stein said. "As a teen, I was too cool to admit that I liked picture books. But picture book art is fantastic, the stories are wonderful, and when you put them together, there is an alchemy that happens."

After graduating from Parsons, Mr. Stein worked in a variety of jobs: puppeteer and puppet builder; window-display artist; set designer; and a cartoonist for The New Yorker. His first picture book, "Cowboy Ned & Andy," was published in 2006. Other books followed, including "Leaves," which won the 2008 Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award. The award is given annually by the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, named for the author of the classic picture book, "The Snowy Day," among others.

Mr. Stein gradually was able to make a living from creating picture books and doing school visits, and then he won a Caldecott Honor for his hilarious book, "Interrupting Chicken." The book became a best-seller and is hugely popular with the preschool set and their parents.

Now that he's finally finished "Because Amelia Smiled," Mr. Stein is looking forward to creating other picture books. His next book, "Ol' Mama Squirrel," is scheduled to be published next March. For that book, he went back to his more typical artistic style, using mainly watercolors.

In fact, Mr. Stein isn't sure he'll use the "Stein-line" technique again anytime soon.

" 'Because Amelia Smiled' was a big leap for me -- It's probably my most ambitious book," he said. And while the story of "Because Amelia Smiled" is simple, Mr. Stein hopes that it helps kids to understand a profound concept.

"I want kids to realize that what they do matters, that one person really can change the world," he said.

books

Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.


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