Get to Know the Author and Illustrator of Interrupting Chicken
by Traci Swain
Ever since he was three years old, David Ezra Stein has loved books—and now, he makes them!
In this Scholastic Book Clubs–exclusive interview, David tells us about what inspired him to create the Caldecott Honor–winning Book of the Week, Interrupting Chicken. Plus discover more about his creative process and what other exciting projects he has in the works!
What was the first book you remember falling in love with as a child?
The Runaway Bunny was one that I have a visceral memory of, from very early on. Those colors are seared into my mind! The reddish orange. The deep blue. The green, fresh and tasty-looking—perfect for a rabbit-centric tale. The pumpkin orange. The black and the white. They are still magical to me. And I was impressed that some pages are black-and-white only. As for the writing, some say it is a weird story of an overbearing mother, but I think it embodies a game of hide-and-seek that very small kids enjoy.
Could you share some things you think about before creating a book for kids?
Sure! Usually I have a character that I am excited about. I am interested in the way that character interacts with the world. For example, I had the chicken for Interrupting Chicken before I knew quite what to do with her. Then I realized she could interrupt stories and that she lived with her father. The story began to flow when their relationship came into focus for me.
I knew Papa wanted Chicken to go to bed, and she wanted to be a hero and help the characters in the fairy tales. It brought up my own love of having grown-ups read to me when I was small. The story became a dramatic dialogue, an epic struggle between parent and child for control of bedtime!
Could you tell us more about your process when it comes to character design and selecting color palettes?
Trial and error is a big part of my process! I have good taste and I know what I’m looking for when I see it. All I have to do is keep on drawing and painting till I come up with something that jumps off the page. Which could take a month or so. I often draw hundreds of versions of a character before I come up with just the right one.
As for palettes, almost the same thing. I do many, many color studies to see what feels exciting. Sometimes I “borrow” a palette from a painting or textile I love, say, by Matisse. In other words, I use similar color combinations in my book. At least that is a jumping-off point. The story dictates what it needs. I always try to do what’s right for telling that story.
How much research tends to go into each of your books?
Usually, the research is my life experience: places I’ve been; people and animals I’ve known; foods I love; feelings; flowers I admire. They all end up in my books. If I need to see the details of what a cardinal or a rocket-engine race car looks like, I can easily search it up. I’ve even used Google Street View to walk around cities I’ve never been to! But I like to digest research and then throw it away and just paint. Too much of it can get in the way! You’re currently working on writing Interrupting Chicken #3—what’s your thought process behind creating a series?
Yes, in fact, it’s finished and coming this fall. Interrupting Chicken: Cookies for Breakfast. Can’t wait for you to see it!
When I wrote the second book in the series, Interrupting Chicken and the Elephant of Surprise (2018), I wanted to make sure it was really going to be special and worthy of the first book. First of all, it had to have funny interruptions and a good setup for Papa and Chicken to read together. It had to be not too close to the first story, but not too far either.
I wrote a whole lot of stories that didn’t quite work. Then I took this Elephant of Surprise character, for whom I’d been looking for a story for nine or ten years, and put him into the chicken’s world, and bam! It worked.
For the third story, I have Chicken interrupting nursery rhymes, and the interruptions are rhyming. So fun! And of course, she is obsessed with cookies.
How do your other interests impact your storytelling?
I’m very interested in making music. I sing, drum, and play cello and guitar. I’m a fan of all kinds of music, especially classical, jazz, and anything with soul. I think this influences the rhythm of my stories. Like a song with verse and chorus, they have a structure. I think of rhythm visually as well. Dark next to light and cool next to warm is the key to an interesting painting.
I love cooking as well! I’m especially into Indian food right now. (My chana masala is really coming along!) When I make a book, it’s a big stew of all the things I love, improvised from what I have in the house (studio), sprinkled with spice, and put together by instinct. And I keep going till it smells good! Much of the flavor comes from smell, so I smell as I cook. And I look as I paint! And hopefully people eat it up.
David Ezra Stein is the creator of many award-winning picture books. He received a Caldecott Honor for Interrupting Chicken and the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award for Leaves, which was also a Publishers Weekly Best Book, a Kirkus Reviews Editor’s Choice, and a School Library Journal Best Book. He also wrote and illustrated Ol’ Mama Squirrel; Love, Mouserella; Pouch!; and The Nice Book. He lives with his family in New York City. Large portions of the art for Interrupting Chicken were created with a four-and-a-half-year-old on his lap and a baby wandering the studio floor and gnawing on art supplies. Find him online at davidezrastein.com.
Photo by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
INTERRUPTING CHICKEN. Copyright © 2010 by David Ezra Stein. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.