Ashley Wolff remembers the exact moment in first grade when she learned to read. “It was a miracle moment,” she says. “I was looking at a book about a boy in the South American jungle, and all of a sudden it just made sense.”
Although Wolff currently lives in San Francisco, she grew up in Middlebury, Vermont. “Vermont makes an indelible impression on a child,” she says. “I had enormous freedom. I was outside all the time. I lived in nature without even thinking about it.” But every Saturday morning, Wolff took art classes in a basement studio taught by “an eccentric and wonderful teacher” named Prindle Wissler. “I remember painting rocks with her,” Wolff says.
As Wolff matured, her interest in art and story coalesced. Back in the 1970s as a senior in high school, she wrote and illustrated a book for an independent study project. Later, at the Rhode Island School of Design she developed an interest in printmaking using carved linoleum blocks. Wolff attributes her early success to her unusual style and choice of media. The illustrations in her first book, A Year of Birds (1984), showcase her printmaking expertise. Wolff inks each block before transferring the image to a sheet of paper. Every image is then hand-colored with paint.
Wolff describes the process of carving each illustration block as “exacting and meditative. Once you get the hang of it, it’s not as hard as it looks…I like the way [the lino block] stylizes and simplifies an image. I like the hands-on, handmade real quality of it. I’m kind of old fashioned. I prefer the hands-on process. And then I have an actual piece of printed and painted art.”
When Wolff was asked to create illustrations for Joseph Slates’ ABC book titled Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten, she needed to find an easy way for children to keep 26 kindergarten children straight. In the first few lines, Slate writes, “Adam Krupp wakes up. Brenda Heath brushes her teeth. Christopher Beaker finds his sneaker.” The book continues in a similar vein until the reader reaches the letter Z. Wolff’s “humanals” were the answer—animals that take on human characteristics. Therefore, Adam Krupp became an alligator. Brenda Heath a beaver. Christopher Beaker a cat. With this simple device, Wolff injected humor and phonemic awareness into the story with one punch. The role of Miss Bindergarten was played by Wolff’s dog, Pumpkin, who had been in many books before, but was now the star.
In a departure from her usual printmaking style, Wolff chose to illustrate the Miss Bingergarten series with an ink-and-watercolor-wash. “The medium has to suit the message,” she says. The fantastical and whimsical world of Miss Bindergarten called for a light, casual style suitable for busy compositions.
Baby Bear Sees Blue came directly from the illustrations for a project titled Pancho Claus, in which Wolff decided to draw the characters as bears. “I had drawn a whole dummy [mock-up] for Pancho Claus focusing on the expressions of the [bear] children in the story.” Although the Pancho Claus characters eventually became human, the bears survived in Wolff’s imagination thanks to a sheet of bear drawings posted on the wall of her studio. The idea to write a color concept story came from a magazine photo she saw of a bear against red autumn leaves. For the illustrations in Baby Bear Sees Blue, Wolff returned to her beloved lino blocks reaching a new balance between the natural world details and the solid black form of the bears without being old fashioned. “I made some sort of breakthrough, but I don’t really know what it is,” Wolff says with a laugh.
Research is part of Wolff’s writing and illustrating process. Before writing Baby Bear Sees Blue she determined that bears can indeed see color. All of the books she both writes and illustrates are set in the natural world—usually on the West Coast. She refers to a naturalists’ guide to plants, butterflies, birds, and flowers to add depth to her illustrations. Additionally, she uses a clipping file she started in high school, which now fills ten legal-sized file drawers! Even though Google images are readily accessible, Wolff says, “I don’t want to infringe on anyone’s copyright.” For each project, she might collect a stack of images over one-half inch thick showing animals and children in various poses, in different light, and in different settings. Wolff also takes her own photographs to supplement her clipping file. For the Baby Bear books, she used original photos and video of two bear cubs in a wildlife holding facility.
In addition to creating books, Wolff sits on the faculty of the Children’s Book Illustration Certificate Program at Hollins University in Virginia. She teaches media, drawing, and book design to graduate students who have an interest in illustration, but have not been to art school. “I love to teach,” Wolff says. “It’s a hugely meaningful part of my life.”
When Wolff visits elementary schools, her main message to children is to follow their passion. “I’m incredibly lucky,” she says. “How many people get to be what they wanted to be when they were five?”