Steve Jenkins lived in the Virginia countryside as a child. His backyard seemed as big as a forest and he spent his time catching little critters and collecting rocks. He captured box turtles, lizards, and spiders and housed them in stray boxes and jars. Jenkins remembers drawing pictures of them and writing little stories. The animals either escaped their temporary homes, or Jenkins and his father released them before they perished.
In college, Jenkins was torn between science and art. Before choosing to study design, he remembers checking out the students on the North Carolina State University campus. “The scientists wore slide rules and the design students looked more like hippies, drove VW buses, and had a lot more fun. I guess it was a lifestyle choice to study art.” After a pause, he adds, “Not a particularly responsible decision.”
After a brief stint in advertising, Jenkins worked for several large design firms before opening his own firm with his wife, Robin Page. He first used his trademark cut paper collage technique on a series of book covers for Frommer’s travel guides. But reading to his children opened up the world of children’s books. “Because of my design training is was not totally absurd to think about making a book myself.”
“Although I’ve always been interested in drawing,” says Jenkins, “I’ve never been particularly good at it.” Using his design skills in composition and color, Jenkins frequents a store in New York City where he chooses handmade papers from all over the world for his illustrations. “The paper can do a lot of the work that would have to be expressed in some other way with brush strokes or pencil shading,” he says. “It’s the nature of the paper.” Jenkins’s hard and fast rule is to let the paper do the work; he never embellishes his illustrations with any other media. He cuts his paper shapes (and the accompanying adhesive backing) with X-Acto knives, using between 200 and 300 blades per book.
Drawing on his lifelong interest in science, Jenkins creates picture books about the natural world. Biggest, Strongest, Fastest (Houghton Mifflin, 1995) grew out of the questions his son asked about animals. Caldecott Honor book, What Do You Do With a Tail Like This?(with Robin Page, Houghton Mifflin, 2003), examines a variety of animal tails and their functions. A bronze cast of a gorilla hand at the San Diego Zoo inspired Actual Size(Houghton Mifflin, 2004), a book that compares the sizes of very large and very small animals. The idea for Looking Down (Houghton Mifflin, 1995) came to Jenkins while on an airplane with his daughter. As she looked out the window at the tiny houses and cars, he realized she had no concept of the way distance influences what we see. Jenkins beginsLooking Down in outer space and zooms closer and closer to the same spot on Earth.
Jenkins is proudest of Life on Earth (Houghton Mifflin, 2002), an ambitious book explaining evolutionary theory in terms a seven year old can grasp. In several of his other books, Jenkins was preoccupied with scale, for instance distance in Top of the World, and size inActual Size. Time was the scale in Life on Earth, and the problem—how to illustrate 4.6 billion years of Earth’s history. Jenkins says, “I felt a lot of pressure,” not only because of the scope of his time scale, but because, unlike most of his other books, the topic of Life on Earth was so focused it couldn’t be reworked into another concept if it faltered.
The four books Jenkins created with his wife, Robin Page, have been her concepts. Page is a graphic artist and book designer. Together Jenkins and Page work on the text of the book. Page often decides how each two-page spread will look and even completes some of the initial sketches before Jenkins chooses and cuts his paper shapes. “We’ve worked together for 25 years on design projects,” says Jenkins. “There is no clear division of labor.”
Jenkins estimates that he devotes 60% of his time to children’s books and 40% to his graphic design business. “I may have to put the books aside for a week for a corporate design client,” he says. “Things may be on a short time schedule.”
Because of his design focus, the visual aspect of children’s books is where Jenkins feels most comfortable. A soft-spoken, serious man, he says, “I was forced to put words in my books because people have that expectation.” Writing the text is the hardest part of each book, and Jenkins categorizes his process as “still evolving.”
Research is a large part of every Jenkins book. For every topic, he says, “I usually spend two months reading.” Reading helps him refine his topic and helps him choose which animals to include. His goal with each book is to make children look more closely at the world around them. “Anything gets more interesting when you look closely at it,” says Jenkins. For him, both a fact and his guiding light.