One of the most creative, award-winning authors and illustrators of children’s books actually never thought much about the medium until he and his wife, Robin Page, started having children. Both Jenkins and Page worked in graphic arts and had established their own successful design firm, Jenkins & Page. But when the children came, a new idea began to form.
“Robin nor I had really given much thought to making children’s books until we had kids of our own and started reading to them all the time,” confesses Steve Jenkins, winner of numerous awards including a Caldecott Honor. “All of a sudden, we were immersed in this world of picture books. At some point, I realized that, having all of these design tools and experience, we could create picture books, too.”
“I understand the intent of the Common Core State Standards, and I obviously like the fact that there is an emphasis on nonfiction. Of course, fiction is important: it is a wonderful way to live other lives. But I also think kids are really curious about the world because it is so mysterious. Many of them will lose that curiosity if it is not nurtured a bit, which is sad. As they grow up, there will be a bunch of issues that will require them being able to think about evidence and deciding whether information is valid and makes sense. I think nonfiction, especially about the natural world, is where that can start. Children can begin to see how science works, and the world will start to make more sense and not seem like such a random, irrational place.”
At the time, Jenkins and Page were living and working in New York. Jenkins decided to approach a friend in the publishing world with his idea about entering the picture book market. The friend heard that Houghton Mifflin had started a new imprint and was looking for projects. Jenkins put together a couple of proposals, gathered some samples, and took them in. The publisher immediately liked them and bought them both. “It was kind of ridiculously pain free compared to stories I hear of multiple rejections.”
Jenkins published two or three of his own books and Page published a few books on her own, including a counting book and sticker books. However, a natural working partnership established with their design firm easily led the couple to begin collaborating on book projects as well. “I believe the first book we made together was Animals in Flight (2001, Houghton Mifflin Company). That was a rewarding process.” Today, the pair continues to publish their own books as well as work together on projects.
“When we work on a book together, Robin usually comes up with the initial idea and then we kick it back and forth. Robin will do much of the initial research and will sketch layouts and put the rough book together to see the page sequence and how the images will work. From that I will do the final sketches and illustrations. The text is on a parallel track.”
Jenkins’ illustrations are made using his cut- and torn-paper technique to create collages. “I was always interested in drawing and illustration, but I wasn’t particularly skilled at it. Collage uses a lot of what I used as a designer: color, size, shape, and contrast. I had done a lot of book covers with collage, so when I started thinking about making children’s books, it seemed like a natural place to start.”
The collages Jenkins creates invite readers to lean in and study the various textures which combine to reveal his amazing images. Where does he find unique papers to use? Many come from a shop in New York City that carries imported handmade papers. Jenkins also uses sources online and in other countries. “I am always on the lookout without knowing what the paper will be used for. Now I kind of know what kinds of papers are likely to come in handy.”
Occasionally, Jenkins is unable to find exactly what he needs for projects. In those cases, he will make his own papers. For example, in Down, Down, Down (2009, Houghton Mifflin), each spread required a blue that became incrementally darker. “I couldn’t find manufactured papers to go through the spectrum, so I ended up making my own.”
From start to finish, a book may take up to two years to be published, so Jenkins is always working on something new. Currently, he and Page are creating a book about animal faces and what the facial features actually mean; and Page is working on a book about chickens. This month Animals Upside Down (August 2013, Houghton Mifflin), a collaborative book by Jenkins and Page, will be released. And in October, Jenkins’ next solo book will be launched.The Animal Book (October 2013, Houghton Mifflin) features more than 200 pages filled with illustrations and facts about the animal world.