Jeanette Winter loved to draw and tell stories with her pictures when she was a child. She knew early in her life that she wanted to be an illustrator, but “[creating] children’s books seemed too far-fetched,” she says. When she was young, children’s authors did not visit schools, and therefore seemed mysterious and alien to a youngster growing up in Chicago. “They were almost like characters themselves. I didn’t have an unusual enough name. I didn’t live in an exotic place on the side of a mountain,” she says. The connection between her classes in painting, drawing and printmaking and professional illustration eluded her.
Having no mentor to shepherd her through the world of children’s publishing, Winter embarked on a program of self-instruction, but at that time illustration was frowned upon in fine arts circles so she kept her decision to herself. She practiced skills such as layout, pacing, and maintaining the consistency of characters between pages by illustrating familiar nursery rhymes. Initially Winter’s illustration style was more realistic and she incorporated an outlining technique that helped define the objects in her paintings.
In her early work, Winter favored folktale retellings and illustrating stories written by other authors. Her first attempt to create an original story in words and pictures wasFollow the Drinking Gourd. “I was excited about the subject, and it was something I wanted to write,” she says, but she soon learned that the transition from idea to manuscript is a difficult one. “I had an anguished time trying to figure out how to tell the story.” Also, Winter’s realistic artistic style forced her to consider hiring models so she could illustrate her characters in various poses. She toyed with taking a trip to follow the path the runaway slaves would have taken on the Underground Railroad and studied folk art because of its strong connection to storytelling. In the end, Winter created the simple, clean style for which she is known today, boiling down each scene and each character to its essence. She eliminated the outlining technique she clung to earlier, and found that color played a more dramatic role. “I didn’t plan it, it just happened,” she says.
Winter’s story ideas come from events that inspire her. “I have to see the pictures right away,” she says of a story idea. “When I do, I get very excited.” When a friend sent Winter an Internet video of a hippopotamus who thought its mother was a tortoise, the visual possibilities seemed ready-made for Mama. “I didn’t hear any words,” she says. “I just saw it in pictures from the baby’s point of view. No narration—it was just happening.”
Winter’s early confusion about how to become a professional illustrator paved the way for her book about Georgia O’Keefe. My Name is Georgia attempts to demystify how a child who liked to draw became a professional artist. “It is a book I would have liked to have as a child,” says Winter.
The newspaper is one of Winter’s favorite sources for story ideas. The Librarian of Basragrew out of a New York Times article about Alia Muhammad Baker. The seed for her newest book, Wangari’s Trees of Peace, was planted when Wangari Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize for establishing the Green Belt Movement in Kenya.
Winter prefers writing the drafts of her manuscripts in long hand on a pad of paper, making notes in the margins as she goes. “The computer is not my friend,” she quips. “Sometimes I start with the pictures first, working for myself to help me get into what I’m writing about.” Unlike most artists, Winter submits finished paintings for her editor’s first look at a project stipulating that she’s willing to make any necessary changes. Although she still creates dummies and sketches, she does not share them with anyone. “It’s more nerve-wracking for the editor,” she says, but in the end she knows she can deliver a better book. Winter works in matte acrylic paint. “It looks like gouache,” she says, “but I can cover up anything I want to change which takes away some of the stress.”
Winter used to work all day, seven days a week, but a major heart attack in 2000 changed her habits. Now she reserves mornings for writing and painting, surprised that she’s actually more productive working fewer hours. She and her husband divide their time between New York City and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Winter learned a valuable lesson while working on Diego. Initially, Winter’s presentation was rejected by her editor with no revision suggestions—a blow to a published author/illustrator. Her excitement for the project forced her to continue. “I saw the whole story in pictures,” she says, “but I was unsure of the writing and I knew it was slowing me down.” She asked her son, Jonah, a poet, to write a simple text to accompany her illustrations. Together, they worked without a contract from a publishing house. When the book sold, Winter knew she had made the right decision to stick with her passion.