At the age of five or six, Douglas Florian watched a television program about the microscopic world, never before envisioning anything so amazing. The initial page of his website (www.douglasflorian.com) displays row after row of thumbnail-sized images of several of his paintings. Taken together and miniature in size, they look like the biological marvels one might see under a microscope.
Florian’s abstract art has been displayed in solo and group exhibitions around the northeast. To help pay the bills that his five children generate, he also illustrated for theNew York Times. But Florian is a self-described rule-breaker and he hates following directions. According to Florian, the world of the Times was “too rushed and dependent upon the whims of literal-minded editors. So I turned to children’s books for the freedom and imaginativeness I saw there.”
Initially, Florian began illustrating other people’s stories, but after finding a book of poems at a flea market he was inspired to write his own. He experiments with different rhyme schemes and word play like many children’s poets do, but like his art, his poems are sensory three-dimensional experiences. The Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award winner forbeast feast (Harcourt, 1994), Florian makes up words, uses inventive spelling, uses bad grammar and is well. . .abstract. The text for “The Whirligig Beetles” (from insectlopedia, Harcourt, 1998) whirls around the page in a clockwise fashion; “The Slugs” (zoo’s who, Harcourt, 2005) oozes across the page with lots of space between letters and words; “The Aardvarks” (mammalabilia, Harcourt, 2000) plays with the double-A: Aardvarks aare odd./ Aardvarks aare staark./ Aardvarks look better/ By faar in the daark. Florian chooses animals as the subjects of his poems because “animals are so intrinsically visual and varied and unique.”
According to Florian, “I look at an enormous amount of nonfiction to create a few simple lines of poetry. Sometimes one word gets me going. For example, I read in a field guide that aardvarks are stark and the wheels started turning. Other [poems begin with] the mere sound of the word: wallaby became walla-be, as in ‘Walla-be nimble’” (from “The Wallaby” in zoo’s who).
Florian’s earliest artistic influence was his father. “I grew up in a home surrounded by art [because] my dad was and still is an artist,” says Florian. His father also taught him to love nature and interpret it with an artistic eye. According to Florian, “I think my inquisitiveness and amazement at nature inspires and informs my poems and paintings.”
Many of Florian’s illustrations begin on brown paper bags primed with white gesso. To that he adds watercolor, gouache, colored pencils, or inks, then perhaps some tin foil, candy wrappers, shredded papers, stencils, and rubber stamps. Collage brings all the pieces together. A careful reader will often find words embedded in his illustrations. Each successive Florian book is an artistic experiment containing paintings of different densities, complexities and expressive qualities. According to Florian, “I wanted zoo’s who to have a multinational and multicultural feeling since animals come from all parts of our planet. . .So I looked at Persian and Indian miniatures, Japanese woodcuts, Inuit art, children’s art, folk art, primitive art, medieval illuminations, surrealism, and even quilt art.”
Florian submits as many as 35 poems to his editor for a final book that will contain only 21. To help himself stay fresh and innovative, he eschews a regular writing routine in favor of more spontaneous inspiration. “I might write on a bus, a plane, at a school or at 3:00 A.M. in bed (my wife’s a heavy sleeper). And I can get ideas at any point in the day or night. I got the title Bing Bang Boing (Harcourt, 1994) while having lunch with teachers in New Jersey. It was a math game they played with their students.”
A Douglas Florian book is a guaranteed laugh. In poems as little as two lines he captures the essence of animals—or at least the part sure to pique a child’s interest. Don’t be surprised if you see your child turning the book every which way to be sure she doesn’t miss anything. Expect the next Florian book to take even more chances and break whatever rules are left to break!