Maryann Kovalski - Author/Illustrator
I was born in the Bronx, New York City.
Where do you live now?
I live in Toronto, Ontario.
When did you start writing?
I started writing when I was in school. I suppose I liked it because my fourth grade teacher thought I might become a writer. This seemed preposterous to me because I always assumed I would be an artist. I have always been a journal keeper.
Do you have any tips for young creators?
The surest tip I can give a young writer is to write the truth as you know it. By that I mean that when you write, don't ever think of how it will be received or what the future reader will like. It will sound self-conscious. The truth can be disguised. That's what's so great about children's books. Say you have a mother who's terribly forgetful and a father who's grumpy. You can make them a pair of rabbits or turtles. The story will ring true. Another suggestion that might be helpful when you're stuck or don't know where to begin is to think of a problem a person might have. In your tale, you must think of a way that the character, or characters, will solve it. It can be a very simple, everyday problem like having too many chores to do (done to charming effect in one of Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad stories). If you look at the best stories, all of them have something that a character overcomes. It can be from within --- a fear of something, for example --- or from without --- a snowstorm, a leak --- the possibilities are as long as there are human problems. An ironic ending is always nice. The first idea for an ending is usually the obvious. Try thinking the opposite. For example, a character could be searching for home for all his life, only to realize that where he is is now his home.
What's your favorite book?
My favorite adult book would probably be Anna Karenin by Leo Tolstoy --- I re-read it every year. My favorite children's book would be either William Steig's Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (which is, as far as I can see, a re-telling of Ovid's Metamorphosis) or Arthur Yorinks and Richard Egielski's Hey, Al.
Do you have any pets?
Max , our dog of questionable heritage, of Wheels on the Bus, Jingle Bells, Take Me Out to the Ball Game and Rain Rain fame.
What's your favorite food?
My favorite food is spaghetti.
What are your hobbies?
My hobbies are history and collecting antiquarian etiquette books. I can tell you the proper way of exiting a brougham and which end of your calling card to fold when visiting prominent society ladies in 1890 in Chicago.
What was your schooling or training?
I attended the School of Visual Arts in New York.
How did you get involved with children's books?
My first attempt at writing a children's book happened when I was still a student at The School of Visual Arts in New York. I wrote a dreadful story and made some illustrations. I sent it to all the best New York publishers, certain they would recognize my genius. They soundly rejected it, thank God. I abandoned the thought of children's books (but not the longing to do them) and illustrated for magazines and newspapers until, ten years after graduating, Valerie Hussey called me. She'd heard from another illustrator how much I wanted to do books. She had just started Kids Can Press and chose me to do Molly and Mr. Malone, one of their first efforts. I sat down once more and wrote another story --- Brenda and Edward. I showed it to Valerie with more modesty than I had for my first effort but happily she liked it.
What's your favorite movie?
My favorite movie is King Kong. I don't know if I love it because I loved it so when I was a kid and remember the pleasure it gave me, and so when I see it again, the pleasure comes flooding back. Proust had the smell of madeleines. I have King Kong. Could be worse.
On a local channel in New York, channel 9 I think, they had what was called Million Dollar Movie. I think it was a cheap channel because they showed the same movie for a week and not much else, as I recall. The first showing was at seven a.m., I think, and then it was re-run until midnight. I got the flu the week they showed King Kong, and I was totally captivated. My mother couldn't imagine anyone wanting to watch any movie so many times, day in and day out. People say my work looks old fashioned, from another period. Well, the period is the thirties and the setting is the New York streets as depicted in King Kong.
As I watched the movie, wrapped in a blanket on the living room couch, eating my Lipton's chicken noodle soup, I longed to someday go to the kind of Chinese restaurant that was in one scene. The somewhat unscrupulous director took the starving Fay Wray, who had just fainted on a breadline. I still do long for that kind of tacky Chinese restaurant, much to the groans of my husband and friends, who prefer more stylish restaurants, which I hate. And the special effects! I saw the movie not long ago and I remain knocked out by the special effects they used.
What do you like best about creating kids' books?
I guess I love picture books because they are so like movies. I can wrap myself up in the world I create and get to wear all the hats. I'm scriptwriter, casting director, art director, cinematographer and set decorator. Only I don't get to be the producer, who has to shell out the money for the production!
Where do you work?
I have a studio where I work away from home. That's better, I've found, because I can organize my time into a 9 to 5 day --- although when I'm in a book the last six or eight weeks usually end up being 6 or 7 days per week.
How do you research or create your stories?
I research a book by first going into deep imaginings. This is especially true when I'm illustrating another author's work. When I feel the time and place, I try to go there. The last book I just finished, called Rivka's First Thanksgiving by Elsa Rael (published by McElderry Books) takes place in the Lower East Side of New York. The time wasn't specified, but I chose 1910 because that was after the second, and the greatest, wave of Eastern European immigrants --- the one in which my grandparents came. My father grew up there and being given the book was incredibly meaningful for me.
My father died two years ago, and while he lay sick in bed I asked him as much as I could about his childhood --- exactly where he lived, that sort of thing. He told me every address --- there were ten! They moved so often. After he died, my brother Tom and I went searching. Most of the buildings were still standing. Then a year later the documentary New York was shown, and I got very teary watching the story of the waves of immigrants. And then, one Friday night last October, my husband and I were preparing dinner and I was going on about the documentary and the doorbell rang. It was a courier delivering a manila envelope from Simon and Schuster (a publisher I'd never worked for). I opened it and sat by the fire and read it. It was a magic to get such a gift when I was so immersed in the period and the place. Even though the story was about a little Jewish girl and I'm not Jewish, the flavor and the message was about all immigrants.
So I went to the Lower East Side again and visited the addresses and the Tenement Museum, and I sketched all that I saw. Then I went to the picture collection at the Library for details like costume, etc. I checked the Internet as well. But for me, drawing on the spot is the best way to get the atmosphere down. I suppose I shouldn't say this but I really don't like those books where you can see that the artist has worked from a photograph. They always look so lifelessly correct.
Where do you get your ideas?
My ideas come from my life and then I add and subtract to make a better story. It's funny how a story that comes from life sounds so real, but if the author just tells what happened, it falls flat.
Brenda and Edward started when I found a dog lost, alone and panicked on the subway. All the passengers were laughing about it, knowing that the dog could never find its scent back home because in its confusion, it ran from one subway car to another, getting deeper into the bowels of the subway system. I took it home and called the SPCA and they came and got it. What a boring story it would have been if that was how it ended!
All of my books have a slice of my life in them, even if I don't realize it at the time.
What's your greatest childhood memory?
I think my favorite memory was driving around with my father. He was a chimney sweep and I guess August was the time people began to think about cleaning their chimneys. Sometimes he'd come home unexpectedly in the middle of the day and ask me if I wanted to go on an estimate or to visit. He knew so many people in every part of the city who were so happy to see him --- and me.
Sometimes we'd just go for a drive. I'd sit next to him in his great, big 1955 station wagon and we'd tour. He'd show me the Manhattan Bridge, which he used to climb, or the hospital where he got his tonsils taken out or he'd proudly introduce me to his customers. Often we'd visit his parents, my grandparents, and that was joyful but had about it the air of mystery because my grandfather couldn't speak English and my grandmother spoke only Polish to my father, who answered her in English only. But they used to squeal and look at me as if I were a miracle.
What's your favorite animal?
My favorite animal, of course, would be a dog but elephants come in as a close second.
What's the weirdest or most interesting job you've ever had?
The weirdest job I ever had --- that had to be when I worked as a part time “wig demonstrator.” Now you're probably wondering what that is because I did when I saw the ad posted on the jobs board at The School of Visual Arts. This was during the time in the early 70s when tendrils and thin braids worked into your real hair were in. I was to go around to all the department stores in New York and stand in front of the counter that the wig company had rented from the store. I was to get as many bits of their product in my hair that I could humanly manage. I was to stand there and chat up people as I curled and braided the things on a wig stand. I was a natural for the job in that I loved talking to strangers. Always have. The pay was bad and I suffered a crisis of conscience because I'd often sell things to people who looked ridiculous or whose hair clearly didn't match the wig let and I'd tell them that it did and that they looked beautiful. When I quit I was told that I was the best in the city and they begged me to stay. Not feeling comfortable with telling them that their wigs were junky looking, I told them that I was a Marxist and this didn't jive with my politics. Truth be told I didn't really know what a Marxist was, but a girl I met at Visual Arts said she was one and clearly, in her construction boots and baggy overalls, devoid of all make-up, would never wear tendrils and braidlets.
The most interesting job was acting for television. I moved to Montreal after I graduated from The School of Visual Arts. Finding work as a freelance illustrator was tough. More than tough --- I was about to face an eviction from my apartment. Someone told me that there were tryouts for a wonderfully tacky show called Family Court. They had a staple of four professional actors and the rest were people with only a little acting experience. I must have done well in the audition because they gave me four consecutive days work and the pay was, to me, astonishingly high. I couldn't believe anyone could make that much money. Because I got so many hours of dialogue time, I got my Actra union card. A year later when I was asked if I wanted to remain in the union and I checked off “no,” I suffered a little pang. I knew I was making a commitment to being an illustrator. Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I had pursued acting as a career.
What's your next project?
My next project is one I'm writing myself. It takes place in the Frick, and I'm loving the research. The guards there say they like it.