Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Meet Children's Book Illustrator Miriam Nerlove

Today we have a special treat. Illustrator Miriam Nerlove joins us to talk about what it takes to be an illustrator. Her newest project is Greenhorn written by Anna Olswanger. A few of Miriam's illustrations for Greenhorn are sprinkled throughout her interview. By the way, Miriam also writes and illustrates her own children's books.

Miriam, tell us a bit about yourself:

I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but have lived in many places. I graduated from Oberlin College and went on to get a masters in printmaking from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. While living in New York, I worked in the Photograph and Slide library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (I always wanted to work there because of the E. L. Konigsburg book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), and I did editorial illustrations for various publications, including magazines and newspapers such as Barron's and the Asian Wall Street Journal Weekly.

After taking an evening illustration course at Parsons with the wonderful children's book author and illustrator Jacquie Hann, I was able to get my first picture book with Margaret K. McElderry, who was at Atheneum at the time. The book, I Made a Mistake, was based on a children's jump rope rhyme, and I remember the confusion in people's faces when I mentioned the name of my first book. "I Made a Mistake!" I would say.

Which medium do you prefer to work with: pen, pencil, chalk, pastel, oil, watercolor and why?

When I first started drawing and illustrating, I was enamored with pen and ink, which was the perfect medium for cartooning and working on editorial illustrations for newspapers. But as I got more into children's books, I phased out of ink and began working in pencil and watercolor. I loved painting in oils when I was in college, but with my children and space situation, watercolor has been the easiest medium for me to get into, and I fell in love with it. It is a luminous medium, and a lot more forgiving than people realize.

For all those budding artists out there, how did you get started illustrating books?

As I mentioned above, that illustration course with Jacquie Hann was key. Also, I was living in Brooklyn at the time, and my landlord was an aspiring children's book illustrator with a very different style of artwork than mine. I remember we each had a list of the publishers we wanted to show our portfolios to, and after a while we noticed that art directors who liked Catherine's work were not so keen on my work, and vice-versa. One day Catherine told me I should try showing Margaret McElderry my work, as her feedback had been lukewarm.

I remember taking the subway and reaching Margaret's office, which was this cozy and inviting room filled with books and a soft, comfortable couch. Margaret herself was a delightful, incredible woman—no nonsense but warm and brilliant. She "put me through the test" by telling me to go home and work on the jump rope rhyme project I had worked on with Jacquie at Parsons. "See if you can write enough additional rhymes to make a book," I remember  her saying. And so I did. There were many revisions, along with the additional "test" of seeing if I could handle doing my own color separations for the book—something many people nowadays don't know about with all the technologies for color printing.

A couple of things I learned from these experiences that I hold dear are:

a) Don't get discouraged if an art director or editor rejects your work—I always remember how Catherine, whose work was marvelous, and I got very different responses. People (and that's what editors and art directors are, after all) have different tastes. And this extends to good and bad reviews as well, by the way.

b) If an editor or art director gives you feedback that encourages you to revise, to change something for a project they show some interest in, do it! That's what I call a "good rejection"...when there's feedback in the form of suggestions that can turn into inspiration.

Explain for readers the importance of collaboration between authors and illustrators.

I think the collaboration between authors and illustrators depends very much on how the project is handled. In many, and perhaps most cases, the artist and author are kept apart. "Too many cooks stirring the pot," was the expression I always heard. The author would work on the manuscript with the editor until it was completed, and then the story was presented to the artist, who would work mainly with the art director.

However, in some cases an author and artist are able to work together, and thanks to Suzanne La Rosa of NewSouth books, I was able to collaborate with Anna on Greenhorn. This turned out wonderfully for me, as Anna's knowledge and sensitivity, her care for what she had written, significantly deepened what I was able to put into the illustrations.

How important is it for illustrators to read the manuscript first?

Very important. Read and reread the manuscript to absorb it as much as possible, and the illustrations will benefit by this.

If an illustrator is reading the manuscript to decide whether or not they feel like a good fit for the story, then that is another matter.

Once you have decided on what the illustrations should look like, describe for us the creation process of one illustration.

In the case of Greenhorn, where Anna and I were able to work together, I would do an illustration, which consisted of sketching and then painting a scene. The sequence of scenes had already been decided upon with the editor Suzanne, but the key to making sure the paintings were accurate and true to character in their depictions was very much achieved with Anna's thoughtful suggestions. Sometimes I would "tweak" an illustration I had already done; other times I would do the entire picture over. It's not the most efficient way to work, but it suits me.


Besides book illustrations, what other types of art do you create?

In the past I did some greeting cards for Recycled Paper Products in Chicago. Mostly I enjoy painting and writing for various projects I set up for myself.

When you are not working, what types of activities do you enjoy?

I live just outside of Chicago with and near my family, and I love being with them. I work part-time at a library, which provides me with lots of material for inspiration. I also read, swim and play piano every day.

Long ago I wanted to be a jazz pianist, and I remember late one night when I was living in New York, a friend and I went into a piano bar in midtown Manhattan. It was deserted except for a few elderly men sitting at the bar. I don't remember how it happened, but I found myself playing the piano for them. Oh how exhilarating it was! But then, my "audience" was quite drunk and probably slightly deaf, which most likely was the only reason I was able to play and to also have people clap. For years I've enjoyed playing for myself, and I always have music on when I'm painting.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to pursue a career in illustrating books?

I brought up the incident of my playing piano in the bar to make the point that there is a delicate balance in knowing whether one has the talent to "make it" or not in an arts field. I knew from my experiences around incredible musicians while I was at Oberlin, that even though I loved playing the piano and thought I was pretty good at it, I didn't have the talent or drive to do what it would take to become a professional musician. Feedback on my artwork and writing had always been more encouraging, starting with work I did for my high school newspaper and yearbook. But when I got to Pratt I was overwhelmed by the talent I saw, and I realized the only way to make myself stand out and perhaps "get the work," such as a magazine assignment or a book, was to be persistent and reliable.

The work I did for the Asian Wall Street Journal Weekly was a training ground, in the sense that I would pick up my assignment after work on a Tuesday afternoon, (this was in the 1980s, in the days before computers and e-mail), read the article and make the drawing that night. Then I would drop the artwork off the next day either before or after I headed back up to the museum. Sometimes the work would be rejected and I would have to do it all over again, only even faster. It was hectic and stressful, but I loved it, and it helped me to become more efficient and to approach deadlines with less fear. I also learned how to collaborate with and for an editor, to listen to the ideas of someone I respected, and to try and incorporate their suggestions into my work. All ingredients, I believe, in working as an illustrator for children's books.

As for the idea of balance, I do believe that loving what you do is the first priority for anyone who wants to pursue a career in the arts. I think talent in the visual arts is not as easily defined as it might be with writing or music, just because the definition of what makes "good art" might have a broader range? Having said that, the balance I speak of is learning how to work for oneself as well as for others. During years where I had no book project to work on, I still made the time to draw and paint, if only to keep learning and growing--and, most importantly, because I loved and love it. If the only validation for my artwork came from the outside, then I would've stopped painting a long time ago. And it's the same with my piano-playing. Even if my daughters beg me to stop, I wait until the house is empty and I play to my heart's content. It might send my husband to the basement and the dogs running under the bed, but I do it for myself first; I do it because I love it.

And now, a peek at Greenhorn:

In Anna Olswanger’s Greenhorn, a young Holocaust survivor arrives at a New York yeshiva in 1946 where he will study and live. His only possession is a small box that he never lets out of his sight. Daniel, the young survivor, rarely talks, but the narrator, a stutterer who bears the taunts of the other boys, comes to consider Daniel his friend.

The mystery of what’s in the box propels this short work, but it’s the complex relationships of the school boys that reveals the human story. In the end, Aaron, the stutterer, finds his voice and a friend in Daniel, and their bond offers hope for a future life of dreams realized, one in which Daniel is able to let go of his box. Greenhorn is a powerful story that gives human dimension to the Holocaust. It poignantly underscores our flawed humanity and speaks to the healing value of friendship. Families will want to read Greenhorn together.

A special thanks to Anna Olswanger for suggesting Carpinello's Writing Pages interview Miriam.


Amazon Greenhorn

B & N Greenhorn

For a list of books Miriam has written and illustrated, go to Goodreads.

Learn more about Anna Olswanger


  1. What a wonderful interview with Miriam. I really enjoyed reading about her illustrating journey. I have been working with an illustrator who is just starting out and that has been an awesome experience. I found Miriam's points very helpful and I really enjoyed the illustrations that Miriam created for Greenhorn.
    Thanks again Cheryl for hosting the Kid Lit Blog Hop.

  2. My dream was to be an animator. Miriam, you're living my childhood dream. I've read and enjoyed Anna's book, and it was interesting to read some extra background about the illustrations. Cheers

    Kid Lit Blog Hopper here :)

  3. This is a lovely interview. The warmth in her art work and illustrations show in her words and sharing in this interview. I really enjoyed reading it. Looking forward to reading some of her books too.

  4. My thanks to each of you for your lovely comments, and to Cheryl and Anna for the opportunity to contribute to this wonderful blog!
    I wish you all happy writing and illustrating!

  5. Thank you for this interview and for sharing the beautiful artwork! I gave up on being a professional musician, too, though I studied it in college. I just started playing the harp, and am very much enjoying it.

  6. Very interesting to read about Miriam's background as an illustrator. I've often wondered how that process works. Thanks for the inside look and especially with Greenhorn - which I read and enjoyed as well! Thanks for linking your post in the Kid Lit Blog Hop and thanks for hosting once again! :)

  7. So glad to hear you are playing the harp and enjoying music again, alibrarymama, and I'm glad you enjoyed reading Anna's Greenhorn book and about the illustration process, Renee! Again, many thanks to Cheryl for the blog:)

  8. Wow, we don't often hear from the illustrators! Thanks so much for lifting that veil, Cheryl. Visiting from the KLBH :)

  9. The best illustrator. Without you, stories will be nothing.

  10. We were friends at Oberlin. Nice to see she has made a career of what she most wanted to do.