When Leslie Tryon was a little girl, her mother would ask, “How much do you love me?” Tryon answered in a way she could best express herself: “If you want to know how much I love you, I will dance for you.” As Tryon grew older, she extended her answer to, “I will draw for you,” and then “I will write for you.” Dancing, drawing and writing have been part of Tryon’s life from her earliest memories. She used the stage as an outlet for storytelling—sketching costumes and sets to add richness to her stories. Her drawings captured the tiny details of dancers’ movements and gestures, bringing her characters to life on the page.
Even after childhood, Tryon continued creating characters and sketching their antics, but she never equated her work with children_s books. A librarian friend helped her to make the connection by giving her stacks of picture books to read. After receiving the Ezra Jack Keats Fellowship for a promising author from the University of Minnesota, Tryon assembled five stories to meet with five different New York editors. Although Tryon attempted to show each editor a different story, they all wanted Albert’s Alphabet (Atheneum, 1991). Tryon says, “I went to New York prepared to beg, not to negotiate!”
Albert is the star of eight Tryon books and has his roots on an Indiana duck reserve. According to Tryon, “If life gives you lemons, you make lemonade, right? Well, life gave me ducks, so I sketched them. . .They always looked so busy, I wanted to give them a job.” Tryon put an apron on a duck, named him Albert, and put him to work as a carpenter. And because carpenters need to build something, Tryon assigned Albert the alphabet.
“I used to work alongside my father building things. . .I wanted children who read Albert’s Alphabet to feel as though they were building something along with Albert.”
Tryon’s readers frequently ask her where she gets her ideas. She explains the process using a simple light switch. “If you flip the switch up, the lights go on. If you flip it down, it goes off. When you lead a creative life, the switch gets stuck in the ‘on’ position. You become a natural receptor for ideas. The problem is not when or where, but having time to implement the ideas you want to deal with.”
Tryon works from her home in Carmel Valley, California. She begins illustrating with a crow quill pen dipped in ink. Depending on the palette of colors she wants to achieve, Tryon uses either traditional transparent water colors or gouache, an opaque water color more like acrylic paint.
Sometimes Tryon illustrates a story written by another author. Her newest illustration effort is called With Love, Little Red Hen (Atheneum, 2001), the third in a series of books written by Alma Flor Ada. Tryon remembers a recording of The Little Red Hen narrated by Gene Kelly that her parents played for her as a baby. “I loved working on the illustrations because The Little Red Hen is very close to me.”
When Tryon receives a manuscript written by another author, mental images immediately begin forming as she reads the story for the first time—a skill acquired from her training as an editorial illustrator for the Los Angeles Times and later in her own advertising agency. In 1982, Tryon flew to Southeast Asia as a documentary artist for the Air Force. There, she took photographs, made sketches, and took notes on Air Force activities for the Art and Museum Branch of the Pentagon. When she returned home, she painted what she saw. Tryon’s documentary art can be found in the Pentagon, the National Air and Space Museum, or at military facilities around the world.
As an adult, Tryon continues to express herself through her drawing, writing, and even dancing. Every Monday night she slips on her tap shoes and dances the night away in dance class. Sometimes she even brings her tap shoes to school visits. “I love what I do and I hope that is evidenced in my work.”