David Ezra Stein says, “Before I could read, I would make people read to me. I had this little toddler bed with an orange-stripey pillow. We would sit there and read.” He recalls his grandmother’s voice saying, “I think I can I think I can” from The Little Engine That Could—a strong auditory memory even today. Books grabbed hold of Stein from a young age, pushing him to read more and more. He didn’t discriminate in his choice of readers, either, sometimes drafting friends of his parents—relative strangers really. “Want to go to my room? Read books?”
In addition to books, nature was another strong influence in Stein’s life. Together with his sister and cousins, they played in the backyard and “made up games in nature. Our backyard became this immense place as big as our imaginations,” he says. Sometimes they explored a big oak forest near Stein’s home, or his cousins’ pond, and made up stories about the squirrels and frogs. “I always had this idea that I was going to maybe grow up to live under a tree or a bush. I would survive on berries like Robinson Crusoe.” Currently, Stein lives in a conventional New York apartment with his wife and son, but dreams of one day building a tree house for a studio. His connection with nature continues through an interest in foraging through Central Park (thanks to walking tours with The Wild Man who teaches fellow foragers what is safe to eat).
Stein’s interest in foraging also feeds his work. In his upcoming book that features a squirrel as the main character, Stein says, “I can write about a squirrel better knowing what an acorn tastes like.” Although many of his stories are influenced by his adult experiences, his childhood memories are strong. “I’m still in touch with what it feels like to be a small person. I know when I write something that it will be appealing to the kid, because I have that sense of what will tickle the kid and what makes me feel good as a former kid.”
During his senior year at the Parsons School of Design in New York City, Stein registered for a children’s book class without knowing why. In the first few meetings, he realized his instructor wrote children’s books for a living—something that had never occurred to him. Stein conceived the idea for his upcoming book, Because Amelia Smiled, in this class and his instructor helped introduce him to editors at publishing houses. “I sent [Amelia] to an editor at HarperCollins, but couldn’t settle on a style of art I wanted to use,” he says. The book required an artistic style combined with research that challenged Stein at the time—an unpublished author/illustrator. Now, after eight books, one of them a Caldecott Honor, Stein felt he had the experience to pull it off.
In each book, Stein explores a new facet of his art, picking a technique that works for the story. For instance, in Leaves and Pouch!, he mixed water colors with pencil and ink pen lines to achieve softer illustrations. “I think of myself as an artist, not an illustrator,” he says. “I keep trying new things to keep developing as an artist.” Love, Mouserella required a level of detail not in his other books, so he used a combination of water color and opaque white paint to accentuate Mouserella, her city, and the cultural references in the book. “The light and shadow is more sophisticated, too,” Stein says. In Interrupting Chicken, Stein’s Caldecott Honor book, he invented a new technique: painting dark purple backgrounds before adding the details to each page.
Because Amelia Smiled is Stein’s first book illustrated all in water soluble crayon. “The crayon becomes water color with water,” he says. “It’s the best of both worlds.” He created ball point pen lines of different colors with a new technique he invented that uses the crayon as carbon paper. “The lines come out really crisp and transfer well,” he says.
Stein recalls several artistic influences in his life. The work of famous author- illustrators, such as William Steig and Dr. Seuss, plus “everyone I read as a kid.” He also credits television commercials because of their sparse directness and almost poetic form. “They say a lot with a little,” he said. “The Reading Rainbow was a really big influence on me now that I think back. Seeing books on T.V. made them that much more interesting. I feel like I really got into the pictures by seeing them on T.V.” he says. “Ironically, T.V. got me into books.”
Stein’s books celebrate love and relationships. He searches for the truth in each story, and tempers that truth with respect for the world and other people. “I hope people find my books helpful and inspiring,” he says. “I hope my books do something that other books don’t do.”