Molly Bang Reflects on 25 Years of Making Pictures Work | Up Close

Author/artist Molly Bang looks back on her career and her definitive exploration of constructing and decoding images in the 25th-anniversary edition of Picture This: How Pictures Work.

See SLJ’s starred review of
Picture This: How Pictures Work

When it comes to visual narratives, Molly Bang’s style shifts according to her content and her range is wide: folktales, a counting book, easy readers, a biography, picture books, and science titles. Along the way, she took on perception itself. In the anniversary edition of Picture This: How Pictures Work (Chronicle, Aug. 16, 2016), Bang’s innovative approach to constructing and decoding the emotional content of images is rendered even more compelling with additional full-color content and an elegant redesign.

In the preface, you describe how your friend Leon Shiman candidly critiqued your sense of composition and set you on the path to understanding how pictures are structured. Who is he? Did you rethink your earlier books? Leon has a very wide-ranging background: architecture, stage design for opera, mathematics, and a lot of questioning about how we see. He would take apart pictures and reduce them to their smallest parts to see what information we got from each area, or he’d include letters and see how that affected the picture.

I don’t mind having people criticize my pictures; I enjoy it. I agree with a lot of what they say and get real help. If I don’t agree with them, I just don’t change what I’ve done. I don’t go back and review my books. Once I get the first printed copies, I leaf through them again and again, not so much to learn as to just be happy that this turned into a book—wow! I think once a book is done, I’m just on to the next. Maybe you’ve given me an idea of how to review them and think/feel about them again now, before I begin the next one.

Please talk a little about how you came to write When Sophie’s Feelings Are Really, Really Hurt and When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry vis-à-vis the structural principles from Picture This. The idea for “Hurt Sophie” came directly from my editor Bonnie Verburg, who came up with not only the situation of a child being teased for her “weird picture” but even the detail of a blue tree and orange sky. But it took a long time to figure out the details: Who would tease her? How would the situation be resolved and by whom? How would it end? That took a good year or so to figure out. “Hurt Sophie” was more to suggest that we each have our own way of making pictures, and for me, the job of a child and teacher is to explore and appreciate—both one’s own work and the work of all the other children in the class. When I worked with third graders years ago, that was our process: look, paint, look at everybody’s work and find what “works” in each, or what was different, and see if there was something they wanted to incorporate from other children’s pictures, then go back and restart or finish one’s own. This led to wonderful appreciation of each other’s work and also of their development as picture explorers. We all had a really good time.

I don’t think the pictures in “Hurt Sophie” really convey the structural principles of Picture This all that well, and it’s partly because I didn’t ask myself each time: What emotion do I want to show with this picture? For “Angry Sophie,” my husband suggested right at the start that I do this: choose one clear emotion for each picture and use whatever I knew to convey that specific feeling. I actually followed his suggestion, which he found most unusual.

1610-uc_molly-bang_workingIn All of Me: A Book of Thanks, interpreted through collage, your main character is essentially formed from a paper bag. I was reminded of the way you created the protagonist from the background color in The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher. What intrigues you about working with negative space and what have you noticed about children’s reactions? Working with negative space in The Grey Lady really was fun, so it became a game to see how many ways I could use gray. It also enabled the pictures to have some breathing space, as I became more and more obsessive in the painted parts. I wasn’t so interested in negative space with All of Me as I was in being as simple as possible and still getting clear emotions, and also reminding children—and parents—that they can make pictures with a variety of things and on the cheapest paper. The idea of using the endpapers to show the picture “ingredients” came from the art editor, Kathy Westray. I haven’t seen children’s reactions much as I rarely go into classrooms, but this coming year I’ll be taking off at least a year from making books and will go back into classes again to explore.

Your new book, Rivers of Sunlight: How the Sun Moves Water Around the Earth, the fourth with MIT scientist Penny Chisholm, describes how the constant cycling of water gives life to our planet. Is the illustration process different in these "Sunlight Series" science books than in your fiction? Yes, the process of illustrating science books is different, because science involves visible reality, difficult concepts, and complex processes. While Penny worked mainly on getting the science as correct as she could while simplifying it for a lay audience, I worked on getting the illustrations as right as I could using different visual approaches.

In the pictures showing visible life, I usually used real trees or plants: in Ocean Sunlight I painted the algae and protozoa and ocean animals from life or photos; in Buried Sunlight I showed the layers of sand and mud interspersed by coal seams and oil accumulations. When things were too small to see even with a microscope or too big to see except in small parts, I had to rely on the best models we could find—in Living Sunlight the atoms, and the molecules they build; in forthcoming Rivers of Sunlight the circulation of ocean currents and of water in the air, land, and sea. I showed light itself as a mix of two concepts—waves and photons—so I painted millions of yellow dots arranged in waves.

But book illustration involves static images, while science is about process and constant change, so the challenge was how to show movement with static images. In Living Sunlight, I showed the process of photosynthesis as a series of four rectangles with elements that changed, like series of actions in comic books. In Ocean Sunlight, I represented the doubling of algae as a series of five petri dishes with algae inside, their numbers doubling every day. In Buried Sunlight, I showed the movement of oxygen and carbon dioxide as arrows shaped by hundreds of dot “molecules.” In Rivers, I accompanied the depiction of each process with a child acting it out as a sort of mirror image.

And I wasn’t working alone! As Penny and I worked back and forth on the text, Penny also went over every picture and gave me corrections, suggestions and alternative ideas. The process was much more difficult than illustrating fiction, but also much more interesting and fun!

Many of your books are influenced by time spent in places as diverse as Japan, India, Mali, and Alabama—or by close relationships. You’ve created books with your mother, Betsy; daughter, Monika; and friend and MIT professor Penny Chisholm. Are there other cultural narratives, unexplored styles, or collaborations percolating? None percolating at the moment, but I’m sure there will be. As I say, it’s time to explore and see. I have to say that working with Penny on the science books has been one of the most difficult and exciting and revealing and frustrating and fun projects I’ve done, and if we can find a subject we both want to explore, we’ll definitely do it.

Wendy Lukehart is the youth collections coordinator for the DC Public Library.

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