Robin Preiss Glasser, the illustrator of the Fancy Nancy series of books by Jane O’Connor (see April column), expresses herself with movement. As a professional ballet dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet, she danced dramatic character roles using large, overly dramatic movements, always playing to the back of the house. As an illustrator, Glasser dances through her books acting out the parts. “I see an image and express it through movement.”
Although Glasser began dancing professionally at the age of 15, she never gave up her passion for drawing. “The dance season is 32 weeks long,” she says. “The other 20 weeks I took art classes.” When a back injury cut her dancing career short at the age of 30, Glasser felt old. “I felt like I had lived an entire life already and was all washed up. I didn’t feel like I was able to live another life.” With encouragement from her parents, she realized she could continue to express herself visually through drawing and enrolled in the Parsons School of Design in New York. “School opened up a whole new world to me,” and she began submitting work to publishers.
After five years of rejection, one marriage, and one pregnancy, an editor finally called with good news and bad news. The bad news was the publishing house was not going to publish the story that Glasser had submitted. The good news was the editor wanted Glasser to illustrate Judith Viorst’s Alexander, Who’s Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going to Move(Atheneum, 1995). The semi-good news was that Glasser had to imitate Ray Cruz’s style—the original illustrator of the series. Glasser countered with her own good and bad news. The good news—she’d love to undertake the project. The bad news—she was currently in labor and on her way to the hospital. Glasser asked, “How long can you give me?” The editor said a week, so Glasser took several deep cleansing breaths, had her baby, and returned home to send in sample art for her first book. “It’s been like that ever since,” quips Glasser about her hectic schedule.
Glasser’s own unique style emerged in subsequent projects: three wordless picture books with her sister, Jacqueline; three patriotic books with Lynne Cheney (the vice-president’s wife); and Tea for Ruby with Sarah Ferguson, The Duchess of York. But it was Fancy Nancyby Jane O’Connor that tapped something hiding inside her waiting to be released. As a ballet dancer, Glasser remembers never being thin enough. The George Ballanchine dancers of her era were skinny, long-legged creatures. “Fancy Nancy is the fat little ballet dancer inside me,” she says. Despite Nancy’s plump physique, she is graceful, poised and perfectly turned out. “She’s always playing to the balcony,” says Glasser, recalling her own drama queen tendencies.
As Glasser considers new manuscripts to illustrate, she says, “If I can’t see slashes of images, I know I can’t do it.” The little foibles of life attract her most—she calls these Jerry Seinfeld manuscripts—because they are so funny and charming. Glasser’s special gift is creating an entire world of background story that meshes perfectly with the main plot line. After she and her editor decide on the exact images that will appear on each page, Glasser creates final sketches and then paints with watercolors. Since life with two teenagers is hectic, Glasser has learned to multi-task. “I can paint without my brain,” she says. “I can get the background done [in a painting] while I’m working on Social Studies [with my son].” She also eats at her desk to save a few precious minutes. “There isn’t a book I’ve done that doesn’t have salad dressing on it!”
Now that Fancy Nancy has taken on a life of her own, author Jane O’Connor and Glasser are trying to keep up. Even after 25 books, Glasser occasionally wonders if Fancy Nancy is the culmination of her career. She worries about producing new work. But Glasser has been expressing herself visually in one form or another for most of her life. “I trust the work. I trust the discipline. I trust the creative process,” she says.