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Growing Reader

Meet the Illustrator: Erin E. Stead

by the Brightly Editors

Erin E. Stead is an illustrator of five picture books, including Caldecott Medal-winning A Sick Day for Amos McGee, Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor recipient And Then It’s Spring, and the lovably quirky picture book Lenny & Lucy. Bringing an original art style to each story she illustrates, Erin gains new fans with each new book. Her charming and wistful artwork in the The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles, a brand-new picture book about finding friendship in unexpected places, is enough to take any reader’s breath away. In this installment of Meet the Illustrator, we chatted with Erin about the how art smells and sounds, the ways in which her mother enabled her artistic exploration, and the real-life (and local!) inspiration for the beach scenes portrayed in The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles.

What first made you excited about art?

I’m not sure I can honestly answer what first made me excited about art because I have, for the most part, been excited about art for as long as I can remember. I love, like all humans with a heartbeat, the smell of a new box of crayons. But I also love the way a pencil drags along a page and the sound a brush makes when it swirls around in the water when cleaning the paint off.

I grew up with a lot of books and art around me, which was very generous of my mother. She finds the idea of having to draw on a blank piece of paper to be deeply intimidating (and I think a lot of adults can relate to that). At the same time, she was very good and dedicated at picking out picture books for me and that certainly made me excited about art.

What illustrated book from childhood has stayed with you over the years? 

This could be a very long list, but I’ll try to condense it. Richard Scarry books, The Snowy Day, Little Bear books, anything illustrated by Marc Simont. I had this version of e.e. cummings’s Little Tree that I pulled out every Christmas (along with my Sesame Street Christmas record) that I loved. Similarly, I was also obsessed with the maple syrup snowballs in Thee, Hannah!, though I was never actually allowed to try them.

Truthfully, there are countless books that have stayed with me over the years. They mark different moments or milestones of my childhood. They also allowed me to reflect back within my own childhood. My picture books would comfort me when I was 10, or 12, or 15. My tattered, hand-me-down set of Shel Silverstein books still sits on my shelf with my (ahem, brilliant) notes in the margins.

Sometimes it’s good to remember where you’ve been and where you’re going.

Where do you find inspiration for your illustrations? 

First, the story. I try to shift my art style or medium towards what the story calls for. For my most recent book, The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles, I was heavily influenced by the area I’ve been spending the majority of my time in for the last couple of years. I live in northern Michigan, near the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. There’s giant sand dunes and beaches, much like the Uncorker‘s surroundings.

Inspiration for The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles

Inspiration for The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles

What does your workspace look like?

I work in a renovated barn on an old farmstead. My husband, who is an author and illustrator, and I share the studio with our dog, Wednesday.

Erin E. Stead's Studio Is in a Barn

Erin E. Stead and Philip C. Stead's Studio

What materials do you most like to use?

I’m usually very traditional with my materials. I mostly draw in pencil and add color in different ways, depending on the story. Most commonly, though, I print with woodblocks and draw on top of the prints.

What design resources would you recommend to young artists? 

I’d recommend just getting involved in the art you’re interested in. I wanted to make picture books so I worked with books in any way I could. And I’d also just say: Study the things you love. I loved Sunday comics, Kenneth Grahme, Robert Motherwell, William Kentridge, and science. Still do.

What’s the best name for a color that you’ve ever heard?

We just painted the barn a red color named “Codman Claret,” and I thought that was pretty charming.

Erin E. Stead is the award-winning illustrator of five picture books, including the Caldecott Medal Winner A Sick Day for Amos McGee, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor winner And Then It’s Spring, and the acclaimed Lenny & Lucy. She lives in a 100-year-old barn in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with her husband, author and illustrator Philip C. Stead.