Author-illustrator Mary Ann Fraser has published more than sixty fiction and nonfiction picture books and early readers for children. Long before her professional career began, she wrote, illustrated, and assembled her own books as early as the first grade. Although she did not own many picture books as a child, her family made frequent trips to the public library where Fraser headed for the nonfiction section. “My early reading was kind of an eclectic mix,” she says, including falconry, biology, and how to speak Arabic. When she read something particularly captivating she said, “I want to write a book like that,” rather than “I want to read another book like that.”
Family fly fishing trips to nearby rivers or lakes fed her interest in nature and animals where she collected bones, rocks, fossils, and watched the fish swim in the water. Fraser often uses animal characters as stand-ins for children in order to communicate a childhood milestone (I.Q. Goes to School), but she also portrays animals in their natural habitats to convey a respect for what they are and to protect the niche they occupy in the world (Where Are the Night Animals?).
Fraser began her career as a freelance illustrator for a book packager that produced fiction and nonfiction series and stand-alone titles. At the same time, she built her portfolio, took writing classes, and found not one, but two critique groups of like-minded author-illustrators who helped each other launch their careers. “None of us were published,” she says of their early days. “Within five years all of us were published.” Fraser has been a member of her current critique group for over twenty years. They are her first trusted readers and she values their combined wisdom.
On Top of the World: The Conquest of Mt. Everest was her first traditionally published book that she wrote and illustrated, but the seed for the book was planted in third grade because Fraser loved drawing elephants. In fourth grade Fraser’s teacher assigned a country report and Fraser chose to write about India so she could draw elephants. The country report nurtured a desire to travel to India, which she finally did with her husband. They also visited Nepal, where Fraser was awestruck by Mt. Everest during a plane ride over the steppes. “Here’s this mountain. It’s higher than we’re flying. Ice is blowing from the top of it. I looked at it and all I could think of was here’s a story.”
The I.Q. quartet was inspired by her son’s pet rat, named Houdini because of its propensity to escape. “My son used to build mazes for it and I marveled at how smart this rat was. I wondered how he would fare in school if he was a class pet. That’s when it occurred to me that he’d never want to be a class pet. He’d want to be a student.” Fraser has a special place in her heart for I.Q. because he is a problem-solver. “Nothing is beyond his reach,” she says. “He always finds a way around [a problem].”
Perhaps Fraser’s most satisfying projects were the Ogg and Bob books written by her twelve-year-old son. In high school he reworked the books and submitted them for publication for a senior project. The text straddles the fine line between early reader and early chapter book. Fraser’s cartoon-like ink and gouache illustrations provide a comical touch. “It was the greatest thing,” she says of the collaboration. “[My son] was weaned on children’s books!”
Fraser writes and paints from her home in Simi Valley, California. Her interest in nonfiction informs her fiction as well, and she can often be found in the library or at her computer digging for compelling details that make a project come alive. Frequently a new idea begins with a place she’s visited. While she reads and learns, she searches for the story. For every hour she spends reading, she spends three hours hunting for visual sources that show clothing and furniture styles of the era. “The hardest thing is to stop researching and get going on the writing,” she quips. “With picture books, ultimately you have to boil it down to a point of view.” For instance, in Ten Mile Day and the Building of the Transcontinental Railroad Fraser selected one specific day as the backdrop to the concepts she wanted to cover. “I talk about the big by focusing through the lens of the small.” Once she finds her focus, she writes a draft of the manuscript. When she’s reasonably happy with the text, she begins rough sketches that become progressively tighter as she revises. As the sketches take shape they help Fraser hone the text, pointing out obvious places where words are superfluous.
Fraser writes and illustrates because she loves it. “It is incredibly challenging,” she says. ‘If it were easy, I would have lost interest a long time ago.”