June 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

It Takes One Brilliant Artist… | A Q & A with Marla Frazee

This fall Hillary Rodham Clinton published her first picture book for young children. It Takes a Village (S. & S., Sept. 2017) is loosely based on the tenets of her adult book by the same title. In an inspired choice, Clinton’s publisher asked the award-winning and popular artist Marla Frazee to illustrate the book. Frazee recently shared some insights with us about this dream assignment.

What a fun undertaking! How did you know this was a book project for you?  

I was in the middle of painting my front porch and I got a phone call from Jon Anderson, the publisher of the children’s division at Simon & Schuster. While I applied paint to the concrete, he told me that there was talk about having me illustrate a picture book version of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 1996 book It Takes a Village. I have admired Clinton for decades—through both of her presidential runs—and like the majority of Americans, hoped that she would be our country’s first female president in 2016. Anderson asked me if I was interested. “Of course!” I said. Then I hung up the phone, and, while I put the last coat of paint on the porch, freaked out that I wouldn’t be up to the task. 

How did you turn a spare, barely 100-word text into a full-blown picture book? Was the visual narrative based on a real community project?

A sentence at the very end of the original It Takes a Village was the starting point for me as I began thinking about how to tell the picture story: “Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes children to raise up a village to become all it should be.” I read and reread that book and took a lot of notes. I pulled out phrases, underlined words, and tried to get the gist of each chapter.

The 1996 It Takes a Village was about how to raise a child to become a responsible citizen. Our picture book, on the other hand, is for children. It begins with the sentence “Sometimes it takes a child to make a village.” 

My visual narrative was not based on a real community project, but once, when my three sons were young, our family went on a long road trip and we chanced upon a park with a playground constructed as if it were an elaborate village. It stuck with me. (I added the tree!)

Bringing back characters and families from your previous books felt like visiting with old friends. Was that intentional? Do you consider them an Everyvillage?

This cracks me up! I think that the people I draw end up looking like people I’ve drawn before. But this isn’t intentional. It’s just that my style always seems to poke through no matter what I’m drawing. 

How does your signature style of multiple vignettes allow you to convey so much of the explicit action, implied emotion, passage of time, and larger concepts of “being a champion” and showing “kindness, caring, and sharing”?

Well, as you’ve pointed out, vignettes are a “signature” aspect of almost all my books. I really love them because I can riff on a bunch of different ideas within a larger theme. I try and construct a picture book so that each spread has its own emotional or dramatic point. Some of them employ a single illustration across the gutter. To me, those pieces function as a single resonant chord. The pages with multiple vignettes function more like a musical phrase. I love to vary this within a book and spend a great deal of my time working it out before I even start to sketch anything specific.

I have to ask about the spectacular endpapers, which takes the book’s simple message beyond the specific “village” depicted and expands its scope. Can you talk about how they came to be?

One of the most inspiring things to me about Hillary Clinton is her lifelong commitment to public service—specifically with regard to communities, families, and children. In the days after the election, like so many others, I was reeling with disbelief and disappointment. On November 16th, 2016, Clinton delivered an impassioned speech to the Children’s Defense Fund. I listened to it on my phone, buried under the covers one morning before dawn, with tears in my eyes. It was the first morning since the election that I felt even the slightest glimmer of hope. And as I listened to her most amazing speech, the idea for the flag endpapers came to me.

I wanted to frame this story with the American flag for two reasons. One, to visually reinforce the fact that Hillary Rodham Clinton is a patriot and an important historical figure of our time. Two, to directly connect the words and pictures in this book to the United States of America and what it stands for.

Mrs. Clinton dedicated this book to her grandchildren. What are your hopes for the book and its larger message?

I hope this book inspires children and those who love them to feel empowered to do something positive and hopeful in the world, whatever and wherever that may be, however large or small it is.

In lieu of recent events, why is it more important than ever to promote the ideals of helping all children to thrive—supporting families, communities, and institutions.

I think we are being force-fed the opposite of positive, loving, and inclusive messages by the current administration and it’s already taken a toll on our collective well-being. Many in the children’s book community—publishers, editors, authors, illustrators, librarians, teachers, booksellers, parents, and caregivers—have been working hard to counter that. Children need positive, loving, and inclusive messages in order to feel as if they belong and are an important part of things. Hillary Clinton has always championed these ideas.

A couple months ago, at BookExpo, Clinton flipped open our book to the illustration of three kids on bikes and said, “This is the world I want to live in!” I do, too. Everyone should have opportunity to live in the kind of village that Clinton has been championing for her whole life. I hope I’ve illustrated that vision in our book—and it was a true honor to be given the opportunity to do it.

Luann Toth About Luann Toth

Luann Toth (ltoth@mediasourceinc.com) is Managing Editor of SLJ Reviews. A public librarian by training, she has been reviewing books for a quarter of a century and continues to be fascinated by the constantly evolving, ever-expanding world of publishing.

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