“Dear Ms. Frazee: I love the stories that you draw.”
Marla Frazee says it took almost a decade to learn how to add her own voice to her illustrations—a voice that deepened the story and resonated with the text in a different way—so she is grateful to fans who notice that she does indeed draw stories. The lesson required Frazee to move away from a commercial style where generic children have more appeal, toward a more personal approach where the children in her illustrations have their own personalities and their own lives off the page. “Kids do read the pictures in a way adults have lost,” she says.
Frazee describes herself as a quiet kid who liked to read and draw, but she says, “So many things were hard for me as a kid.” Going to school. Sleeping away from home. Riding a roller coaster. As she looks back over her body of work, many of her stories tap into her fears and anxieties. “When I’m called on to speak in public, I have to dig deep to find the strength. [My anxieties] don’t prevent me from doing anything I want to do, but it’s not easy,” she says.
As a child, Frazee discovered Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal. She intuitively knew that someone was behind the decisions in books and she wanted to be part that process. In Blueberries for Sal, Frazee says, “the decision to use blue ink was a personal gift.” Likewise, in Where the Wild Things Are, the three page turns where Max’s room changes into the forest made Frazee want to figure out how Sendak visually told his story. “That’s when I started telling people I wanted to be a children’s book illustrator when I grew up,” she says.
When Frazee received Mary Ann Hoberman’s text for The Seven Silly Eaters, she felt like she was already living the fictional Mrs. Peters’ life. Frazee’s three young boys kept her hopping and the chaos in the Peters household mimicked her own, but she needed to do more than echo the text. Frazee added two visual story lines to the book that were not mentioned in Hoberman’s text: Mrs. Peters’ cello and a visible presence for Mr. Peters. Frazee remembers thinking, “Mrs. Peters obviously needs a husband because she’s having babies every time you turn the page.” Frazee created a warm, loving, supportive father and husband who is an integral part of the story in spite of the fact he is never mentioned. Additionally, Frazee gave Mrs. Peters the ability to carve out some time for herself by practicing her cello. When the word-story and the picture-story are read together they are so intermingled they are difficult to separate.
Early in Frazee’s career, she illustrated books by other authors, but in recent years story ideas started percolating in Frazee’s mind and she now writes and illustrates. Before finding the idea for Roller Coaster, a different project had fallen through and she wanted to come up with something new. “My husband and I went on a driving trip with the boys for a week and a half…While I was on this brain-scrub of a trip, I planned to look out the window and let things come to me.” Her boys had recently returned from a camp in which they visited several theme parks and rode roller coasters. Conversation for most of the trip centered on which brother was the bravest, which coaster was the steepest, which one had the biggest drop. Frazee remembers thinking, “If they’d just be quiet about roller coasters, I could think of something.”
After Frazee refines an idea enough to feel the beats of the story, she starts the thumbnail sketches to uncover the rhythm and pacing, the important scenes, and the pauses. Some pages she hits hard with a two-page spread and other pages show small sequences of images that hip-hop across the page. During the thumbnail stage of her writing and illustration process, she says, “the content of each image might take quite a while to figure out.” As the individual images unfold, a couple of places are more difficult than others. “Sometimes the picture is not different than the words. It’s flat and needs something else,” says Frazee.
Frazee’s research informs her illustrations and makes them more believable. For The Seven Silly Eaters she built a cardboard model of the Peters house so she knew where she was in the space of their home. For Hush Little Baby she visited the living history museum in Fort New Salem, West Virginia to learn more about Appalachia of the 1850s.
When Frazee started Santa Claus the World’s Number One Toy Expert she imagined Santa to be an incredible expert on toys, but that attribute alone wasn’t enough. Santa’s magic lay in the fact that he can match each toy with a child who will appreciate it. It’s also Frazee’s magic. Whether she’s illustrating her own stories or the text of other authors, she creates a picture-story that is more than the sum of its parts. It may not come easy, but it’s the perfect match for her readers.