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Inside "The Wheels on the Bus": Interview with Caldecott Winner Paul Zelinsky

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Joan Brunwasser       (Page 4 of 6 pages) Become a premium member to see this article and all articles as one long page.     Permalink    (# of views)   4 comments, 4 series

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Then I was asked to make a carefully drawn dummy in which the outline of anything that moved, and some things that didn't, would be final, unalterable. I played around a lot with art medium and technique trying to find the right style before starting this dummy, though the dummy itself was only pencil on (flat) paper. I hadn't yet managed even one mockup of a page in a finished style when I sent my dummy to California. I just hoped I could pull it off when the time came.

Not too long after they received this dummy, Intervisual sent me a set of diagrams on very large tracing paper. They were something like sewing patterns, with a lot of parts laid out across the pages, all of them constructed from messy-looking photocopies of my dummy, cut into pieces. The parts were clearly outlined with a band of "bleed" surrounding each one like a seam allowance. Some of the parts were full pages of the book but with blank sections where figures had been removed or would be covered up by some other part. Most of the parts were just parts: an arm, a head, the lady holding out a coin for the bus coin slot. Some of the parts were in there twice, as mirror images, for printing on the front and back of the same piece. These diagrams were my guides for making the art, and while I could paint whatever I wanted within their outlines, the outlines themselves had to be scrupulously observed, or the book's mechanics might not work.

The anatomy of the 'move on back' page
(Image by courtesy of Paul O. Zelinsky)
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So I was charged with creating eight double-page images by painting many dozens of separate parts and hoping they would coalesce into a visually pleasing whole when assembled in the book. Also, Intervisual pointed out that the bleed area around each piece would show a bit, because die blades would be cutting the parts out from large printed sheets with some inaccuracy. Leaving the bleed white would be a disaster. So, all around the edge on each piece the ideal bleed should match the color of whatever was in that spot behind the piece. I'd have to figure out and paint sort of halos around all the pieces, reproducing what surrounded them in the overall image, but in a very blurry form.

Development of Bumpety-bump page
(Image by courtesy of Paul O. Zelinsky)
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JB: Was this daunting?

PZ: I like challenges of this sort, and I have to say that the firm deadline that Intervisual demanded motivated me to work more efficiently than usual, which was satisfying in a way. So, it wasn't daunting. I worked up a fun, colorful technique using mostly thin, wet oil paint on gessoed paper, with some colored pencil drawn into the paint, and managed in nine months to finish what could easily have taken me a year and a half.

JB: Where did you get your ideas for the town/neighborhood that plays such a major role in the book? Was it based on any place you'd lived?

PZ: There wasn't a lot of reference research necessary to make these pictures. In a vague way, I let the cityscape resemble my local views in Brooklyn, but with nods to rural and suburban America as the bus goes out from the center of town. At the center (most visible in the panoramic view at the end which accompanies a full reprise of the song), buses travel around (and around) a domed governmental building that I think of as Brooklyn's Borough Hall, though it doesn't resemble it all that much.

The library nearby has features I associated with our local Brooklyn Public Library branch, (which was demolished recently, to the regret of many). Some people have observed that I put myself in the book as the guitar-toting passenger who turns out to be riding to the library to perform (you can guess what he'll be singing), but I had no intention of so doing and I don't think he looks like me. I did, though, deliberately put both of my daughters into the book: you can see the older one plugging her ears in frustration at the racket of the Waah-Waah-Waah-ing babies, the main one of which, a blonde infant, I based on her own little sister.

JB: Thanks for giving us some insight into the process. Once the mock up was complete, did you test it on friends and family? (And I bet your daughters got a kick out of appearing in your book!) What was the initial reaction?

PZ: The first, blank, dummies were something only I could understand, so I didn't show them around for feedback. But after that came later ones assembled from photocopies of my rough dummy, and then eventually from photocopies of my finished paintings. I still have six or seven of the dummies made from my final art, so there must have been quite a few issues to be worked out. What I do remember is that eventually I was allowed to communicate directly with the paper engineer, I assume because I was showing myself to be rational and reasonable.

So in the end, I had a feeling of collaboration with Rodger Smith, and I made sure to credit him on my "title page" (a sign in the foreground of the first spread). When I showed any of the later dummies around, everybody liked them! It was reassuring to find that my original thought, that physically moving parts around while singing this song would create quite an impact, was not only on-target; it was stronger than I had imagined. It felt so right to sing the song, move the parts, and turn the pages. (As to my daughters' reactions, they pretty much kept their feelings about being in the book to themselves. I think their feelings were positive, but they probably had complications and changed over time.)

JB: Did you ever imagine the success you've had with it? Don't most books, for children or adults, show up and fade away relatively quickly? Yet yours became a classic. How do you explain it?

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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