Jeri Chase Ferris’s picture book Noah Webster & His Words is a great read, but it could have been a snoozer without your witty illustrations. How’d you react when editor Kate O’Sullivan offered you the assignment?
Being someone who’s very fond of words, I started looking at other books that were done about Webster, and not to degrade them, but they were very dry, realistic, watercolory, and very highly rendered. Noah Webster looked like some version of Noah Webster, and the streets looked like Colonial America.
Did you wonder if you were the right guy for the job?
I had cold feet about the project. I called Kate and said, “I don’t know if this is really my kind of book because I create fantastical worlds. I invent characters. I put them in unusual settings. I fill them with all kinds of details and things out of my imagination. I don’t know if I can really render him 32 times to look like Noah Webster.” And she said, “No, no, no. That’s not what we want you to do. Vince, trust me on this. I want you to let go of all these preconceptions and just do your whimsical thing.”
Webster loved words. He read almost every book in Yale’s library, studied 20 languages, devoted almost two decades to creating America’s first dictionary—and had eight kids. But in his portraits, he looks pretty grim and smug.
He was. He was very serious. I did a little bit more research on him. He suffered from some sort of depression, and he was a curmudgeon. And I tried to get that in, but I gave him a whimsical expression, where he was sort of like, you know, delighted about the whole process.
Webster was born in 1758 on a farm in West Hartford, CT. Did you use pen and ink to capture that period?
That came directly from looking at old etchings from the time. It happened by accident: I stumbled on an exhibition when I was in Baltimore, right when I started doing this book. There were all these portraits, and they had really rough, scratchy lines, and dots and specks and dirt. And I thought, “Oh, yeah! That’s it.” To keep it from getting too clean and too cartoony, I wanted to give it some texture. So I went in with graphite and an ink point, and I used a printmaker’s tool, an etching tool, to get those lines and dots—and I just got carried away with it.
What’s the feedback so far?
I know a lot of elementary school teachers, and so when I got my advanced copies of the book, I showed it to them. They were overjoyed. They were like, “Oh, thank you. That’s the hardest thing to teach because we always do dictionary things. We pull these books out, and there’s all this long text and all these dry, dull illustrations. Your book is going to be a riot for these kids because it looks like something they would want to take a closer look at.”
You’ve created Broadway posters and designed displays for upscale stores in New York City. Did doing things your own way get you into trouble while growing up in upstate New York?
Oh, yeah. I went to Catholic school for years. And the nuns, oh my gosh. I was just like the anti-Christ to them because I totally saw things differently. I never wanted to do things the same way. I would do it totally my way. And they would be like, “No, that’s not right. You’re not doing it the right way.” So I would get sent to the principal’s office.
Since your latest book is all about words, what’s your favorite one?
I love “quintessence.”
What’s your least favorite?
A word I hate to hear is “never.” I also hate “no.” I really hate “no.”
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