Mary: I tend to avoid traditional nine-to-five jobs. In HS I knitted sweaters for a local designer, and used my calligraphy skills to address envelopes and make signs. During college and after, I interpreted for the deaf, mostly in classroom settings. My first job out of college was at a small greeting card company in Chicago where I did some typing, filing, and brainstorming for scented stickers for children. For example, if the scent was grapes, I’d make a list of hundreds of ideas for what a bunch of grapes could do: sing, skydive, drive a racecar, walk on stilts, go white water rafting, paint, eat an ice cream cone, etc, etc…I didn’t get to draw the stickers, I was just thinking up ideas for the guy who did draw them. I lasted there about six weeks. Then I took an even lower paying job being an apprentice engrosser where I ground my own ink, mastered various lettering styles, and wrote names on certificates all day long.
Mary is still knitting things...like the mittens above.
Elaine: When did you decide you wanted to become an author and illustrator of children’s books? What inspired you?
Mary: Well, after the engrossing thing, I tried all kinds of illustration. I attempted medical, semi-technical, editorial, advertising, and textbook illustration. I would get the work, try really hard, learn new skills, flounder a bit, realize I wasn’t very good at it, cross that career off the list and move on. So by process of elimination I was left with children’s book illustration. I knew lots of illustrators, but none who illustrated children’s books. I had never even given it a thought because I was kind of in awe of children’s book illustration, I guess. I imagined that some separate species of illustrator—geniuses—illustrated children’s books.
But I did send out postcards advertising my work to editors and art directors at publishing houses. I was pretty much dumbfounded by the response. Susan Hirschman, editor at Greenwillow, called and wanted to know if my illustration had a story to go with it. No, I said. She suggested that I try to write a story. Oh, sure, do you need your car repaired or any brain surgery while I’m at it???! I mean, I knew writers were very serious about their business and I had never written more than grocery lists. But I got this response over and over and I finally tried putting some book dummies together.
The stories that I made up for my book dummies were terrible, but my illustrations were charming. Some editors were very kind and thorough in their responses, and I learned what NOT to do. By making every error known to children’s book writers, then eliminating them, (and sheer dogged persistence), I did finally write and illustrate a book that was published.
Elaine: You have illustrated books for other authors as well as your own texts. Do you find there is a difference in how you approach a picture book project when the text is your own?
Mary: I enjoy the freedom and flexibility of writing my own text. Sometimes the story evolves in surprising ways and I’m free to follow my ideas and change my text if I want to. Illustrating other writers’ works helps me to stretch out of my comfort zone and has helped me to learn new things. For example, I would never have attempted to illustrate a crowd of children if it weren’t for Betsy James’ wonderful text for My Chair. (I would have avoided writing a crowd scene because I would have been too lazy to draw it.)
Elaine: You created snowflakes for Robert’s Snow 2004 and 2005. Can you tell us what your inspiration was for each of those snowflakes?
Mary: In 2004, I illustrated a book by Eileen Spinelli titled Now It Is Winter. It was the perfect snowflake theme book! I made a three dimensional mouse skating on the snowflake. I even knitted him a little sweater.
Mary's 2004 Creation for Robert's Snow
In 2005, my book A Grand Old Tree was published and I was pondering how to make a tree snowflake. My son suggested having the snowflake be the crown of the tree. So he was the creative genius behind that one!
Mary's 2005 Snowflake Tree
Elaine: I know that your 2007 snowflake was inspired by your new book The Nutcracker Doll. Would you like to tell us about the book and how you created your beautiful three-dimensional snowflake?
Mary: When my daughter Kepley was in the third grade, she got a role in Boston Ballet’s The Nutcracker. The book is about that wonderful experience, and it is published just in time for her 21st birthday! I built a little Kepley ballerina standing on her snowflake stage with a wire armature, newspaper, and rigid wrap. I sewed her a costume out of ribbons and netting. I hope it captures the adorable awkwardness of a very young ballerina.
We make these snowflakes with love and we’re grateful to have the opportunity to share that love with everyone who sees the snowflakes and benefits from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s work.
Mary Newell DePalma has a great website that includes a book animation of A Grand Old Tree, a Kepley paper doll activity sheet, and curriculum guides for some of her books. Why not stop by for a visit?
REMINDER: WIN A PRIZE!!! I do hope you’ll stop by to read all of my Blogging for a Cure interviews and to comment about the artists and their work. I have a special prize for some lucky person who leaves a comment at any of my six posts featuring a Robert’s Snow artist: a limited edition giclee print of an illustration from Grace Lin’s book Robert’s Snow! Each time you comment at one of my Blogging for a Cure posts about a Robert’s Snow artist, I’ll put your name in a hat. If you comment at all six posts, your name will go into the hat six times! The drawing will take place on November 19th, the day bidding begins on the first of three Robert’s Snow 2007 auctions.
I also have several consolation prizes for commenters who don’t win the “big” prize: five small prints of the Robert’s Snow mouse(mice).
Read about the following Robert's Snow artists that I have already interviewed for Blogging for a Cure: