For New York Times best-selling author/illustrator Anna Dewdney, her work is all about “the power of the book for the child.” She is frequently contacted by parents who share how her books helped their children through a divorce, an accident, or the illness of a family member. One family wrote to say that when their child died of cancer they buried one of Dewdney’s books with him because the story meant so much to him.
With that kind of power, Dewdney takes her job seriously. “I was an anxious child and I’m an anxious adult,” she says. “My books are an expression of my experience.” Dewdney remembers what it felt like to be very little. What it was like to go to school for the first time or how scary it felt to fall asleep by yourself in a big room. “The world can be overwhelming, but with love and support it’s not really that bad,” she says. “The theme of all my books is relationships make the world less scary.”
Books drew Dewdney and her psychiatrist-father together each evening. “It was the one time of the day to spend with my father,” she says, recalling how hard he worked. As a toddler, Dewdney remembers the work of Caldecott Medal-winning author/illustrator Tasha Tudor. “I was infatuated with [her] books. I loved her illustrations and her writing sensibility.” Dewdney and her mother talked about Tudor’s home in Vermont and her decision to live in the modern world as if it were the early 1800s. “She churned her own butter and cooked over a wood stove,” Dewdney says. “I thought that was the greatest thing ever!” As young as age three or four, Dewdney knew she too would write and illustrate books.
Throughout childhood Dewdney made up stories and illustrated them. “From the age of seven I was fully invested in the process,” she says. Aside from a brief period in college when she thought she wanted to study theater and abstract expressionism, Dewdney’s focus has not changed. She even moved to Vermont like her hero, Tasha Tudor. Although Dewdney supplemented her income with short-term illustration gigs, she never made enough to support herself. “And no one would buy my writing for 20 years,” she said.
Then she captured an editor’s attention with Llama Llama Red Pajama (Viking, 2005). When Dewdney’s two daughters were little, she remembers driving by cows, saying, “Cows moo.” When they saw sheep, she said, “Sheep baa.” Then, “Chickens cluck-cluck.” But when she drove by llamas, she didn’t know what sound they made so she said, “Llama, llama, llama, llama, llama” in a sing-songy voice, which led to rhymes like llama llama red pajama. “The sounds are fun to say,” Dewdney says, “and [llamas] are so much fun to draw! Llamas have amazing expressions. Fuel for dramatic faces.” In Dewdney’s five Llama Llama books, she reflects on her childhood and describes the little llama “as the quintessential anxious little person.”
Dewdney is one of the few illustrators who works in oils. “I love the mess and the smell of the oil.” She begins with pencil drawings which she transfers to an 18” x 26” canvas using a light board. Once the paintings are completed, the oil paint needs between one and three weeks to dry to the touch, so “I have to have all of my ducks in a row when it comes to deadlines.” Dewdney admits that her illustrations do not necessarily have “fancy artistic footwork” because she wants to communicate with the child on an intimate, emotional level. “There are books that I would like to do that will show a little more flash than the Llama Llama books, but I’ll have to be careful to stay on task: telling the truth as best I can. It’s really easy to let the ego of author or artist get in the way of communicating directly with children.”
In a departure from the Llama Llama series, Dewdney wrote and illustrated Roly Poly Pangolin (Viking, 2010). Dewdney’s boyfriend first introduced her to pangolins, timid creatures that roll into a tight scaly ball when they feel like they are under attack. “Like you,” he said. Dewdney, her daughters, and her boyfriend visited a nature preserve outside of Hanoi in Vietnam to photograph and study the pangolins before Dewdney wrote about them.
Dewdney rises late and starts her day slowly with a walk or a run accompanied by her three dogs. She might putter in her garden and respond to email before finally settling down to work at about 6:00 pm. She paints or writes until about midnight or 2:00 am. Her youngest daughter will graduate high school this year, but Dewdney often refers to Llama Llama as her third child. “At least he’s still around.” Dewdney’s next Llama Llama book will focus on sharing. “I really love what goes on in the mind of a child. I relate to being a small person and am constantly amused by their honesty.”