Philip and Erin Stead are an emerging power couple in the publishing world. Within just a few short years, the author-illustrator, husband-wife team has achieved their dream to make picture books. In fact, their first collaborative effort, A Sick Day for Amos McGee (2010, Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press), was awarded the 2011 Caldecott Medal. Passionate about their work, the Steads are committed to being true to themselves and to producing books they can be proud of. Here, they speak with Mackin’s Amy Meythaler about their journey into publishing and what the future may hold.
As a couple known for creating award-winning picture books, it seems you have discovered your niche in the publishing world. Have picture books always played a significant role in your lives?
Philip: When I was very young, picture books didn’t really play a big part in my life. I was an avid reader, but I read above my age level. I really only remember two picture books from my childhood: Swimmy (1968, Pantheon) by Leo Lionni and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969, Simon & Schuster) by William Steig. Those happen to be two of my favorite books still, but I went a really long time not having a relationship with picture books.
It was during my junior year of high school when my art teacher handed me a brochure that described the process Maurice Sendak went through in making Where the Wild Things Are (1963, Harper Collins). I can’t even explain why, but something about that whole process of bookmaking was completely fascinating to me. I was pretty much hooked from that moment on—I knew that was to be the direction of my life.
Erin: I was the type of kid who was always interested in picture books and never grew out of them. Every year, no matter how old I got, my mom always gave me really good books, and picture books in particular, even when it seemed like maybe I was too old. But there are picture books for people of all ages, and I always loved them.
As a teenager, I would browse the picture book section in bookstores because that is what I was interested in. And when Phil and I met in high school, we had both already decided this was something that we wanted to do.
So you met in high school? Was it love at first sight?
P: Well, Erin was so shy that she couldn’t even look at me when we met.
E: One of the reasons I couldn’t look at him was because I liked him but I was a little afraid!
P: We went to a high school that had a really great art program. It was centered around this expansive series of art rooms. Erin had a drawing class in one room, and I had a class in another. People were always sort of flowing between rooms, and I found plenty of time to “float” through her room.
What were your childhoods like? Was creativity encouraged in your homes?
P: For me, I grew up in a pretty creative household. There were no visual artists in my family, but we had a household of musicians. My mom played the piano and my dad played the flute and the accordion. They were always pushing me toward doing anything creative with my life. I am kind of a quiet person by nature, so drawing alone in my room was the right thing for me. They were very supportive of that from a very early age.
E: It is funny that my mom had three very creative children. She doesn’t consider herself a creative person and thinks drawing is scary. My father doesn’t think he is creative, either; he is a businessman. But they never said “no” to me while I was growing up. They were very encouraging to me as a kid and would put me in supplemental art classes. I always loved to draw, and I think that helped me a lot.
You both loved to draw as children, you both fell in love with picture books, and you two eventually graduated from art school. How were you discovered by a publisher?
P: It is a complicated tale! We moved to New York City in 2005 in an effort to jump start our book careers.
E: I had lived there while I was in art school, and I worked at a children’s bookstore where I met a bunch of people with shared interests. All the people I worked with wanted to be children’s authors or illustrators. So when we moved back, that was the community we were part of.
One of my friends there got his first book published. Then he introduced an illustrator friend to his editor. And then that person introduced us. So we all helped each other, and we all have worked with the same publisher for the last six years. When we get together, it is like having a little family reunion!
P: There are technically six of us from the bookstore if you count me. Even though I didn’t work at that store, I was there a lot. Now, we all have the same editor, Neal Porter, and publish through the same house. He doesn’t publish many books a year, so our group makes up the bulk of what he does publish.
You grew up in Michigan, moved to New York City, and now are in Michigan again. What brought you back home when you seemed to have been doing so well in New York?
P: So we lived in Brooklyn for a little while, and I took on side gigs for publishers before signing with Neal Porter. Though we got our first book deal in 2007, we found you don’t get paid much for a first book. New York City is a really expensive place to live, so we knew we were going to have to move if we were going to make books. We had lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and we loved it. But we didn’t want to move to Michigan just yet; we wanted to stay closer to New York.
We looked all over, up and down the East Coast in the New York region, for a place that reminded us of Ann Arbor. We didn’t find anything, so we ended up making sort of an unusual choice to live in the mountains for a year. We were in the real middle of nowhere and it almost drove us completely insane.
E: It wasn’t the concentrated time with each other that was the problem. It was the nine miles you had to drive just to get a cup of coffee. We were working for ourselves and never leaving the house, so we just felt stir crazy.
P: In 2008 our lease was up, and we decided to go visit Ann Arbor to decompress. As soon as we got back, we were so relaxed and so happy to be here. We stayed a few weeks, then a few weeks longer, then a few months, then a few years, and we are still here.
And now you live and work in a 100-year-old barn.
E: We first lived in a tiny little apartment, and we thought it was really nice because we actually had a little 8′ x 8′ room that we could use as a studio. We found the barn about two years after that.
P: The barn is in downtown Ann Arbor. It was constructed in 1907 as a livery stable for the gas and coal company. It was derelict for several decades until about the year 2000. A friend of mine bought it in 1999 and refurbished it.
What is it like for two creative people to spend all of their time together?
P: I think we average about 23 hours a day together. We don’t exercise together, so that is the one hour we are alone.
E: I don’t think we ever feel like we spend too much time together. There are times working together when one of us will say to the other that the piece isn’t “there” yet. We might get a little sensitive, but it is at those times that if we are not honest with each other, then we can’t trust each other. That would ruin our relationship. So figuring out how to deal with that has taken some practice.
P: In general, we think couples who work together need to practice immediate conflict resolution. If something arises, then it needs to be dealt with within five minutes.
Since you share a work space and collaborate on some projects, do you have a set process for developing ideas and images together?
P: I really don’t have a method yet. For Erin, it seems to happen much more easily. It seems like every story I’ve written for Erin, I will have a first draft within the first hour of having a moment of inspiration. And the final text doesn’t tend to deviate much from that first draft. If I’m writing for myself, the ideas come in really weird ways. Sometimes it will be an image like in A Home for Bird (2012, Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press). I had a few sketches that didn’t have a story attached to them—one was a toad sailing in a tea cup. Then I try to build a story around the images, which is so much more difficult to do. I really haven’t developed a strategy for how it should work.
I never try to force an idea; I try to let ideas flow. And when the ideas come, I try to make time for them immediately. A lot of times that means I have to make time for writing at strange hours—like at 2:00 in the morning. And I’ve learned that if I don’t get out of bed and start writing, the idea will be gone by morning or it won’t be as fully formed as it was at 2:00. I also tend to get ideas when I am doing nothing like lying in bed or driving on the Ohio Turnpike.
E: It sounds silly, but the first thing I do is think about it. Phil had to get used to that because it often looked like I wasn’t working at all, but I tend to live with the text before I do any sort of drawing. That part normally takes me the longest, and sometimes it feels a little like procrastination. But it works for me.
Before I set pencil to paper, I live within the story and tend to run through it and try to take it as far as how I think the book should be laid out. That is one of my favorite parts about making books. Usually, by the end of the process, I will have memorized the story and I can begin drawing from that point.
I’m not a sketchbook person. I do have some sketchbooks, but it depends on the book I am working on. Right now I’m working on a book that has various shades of gray, so I have a sketchbook for it so I can keep track of what I’ve used in different passages of the book. For the Amos book, I had the palette all picked out before I ever began. I kept those swatches in a little box beside my desk, and I still have that little box and the swatches.
Phil is a lot more organized as far as how he will lay out a book.
P: For writing, I tend to always begin by writing longhand, usually on a legal pad, but I’ve also used napkins and the backs of envelopes. But I feel a little crippled if I immediately sit down in front of the computer. The first draft always happens with paper and pen. I think that will probably always be the case.
For illustrating, I have this habit where I do all my initial sketches on tracing paper. That way, you draw a picture, and it doesn’t have to be perfect. You can put the tracing paper on top and retain the parts of the drawing that you do like while changing the parts that you don’t. And something about doing it that way takes the pressure off having the drawing be perfect right away.
At the end of a book, though, I might have 500 little scraps of tracing paper that have all the sketches from the entire book. It is incredibly delicate, and the stack of papers probably won’t last too long into the future.
Erin, you seem to have a signature style for your illustrations. Phil, what about you? Are you still honing a style or do you enjoy working in several different styles of illustration?
P: Sometimes I envy the illustrators that I really respect, like Erin. They have honed a certain style and don’t really deviate. Well, Erin deviates in certain ways with each story, but she really does one thing with her life: she draws really well. I’m constantly getting distracted by whatever is new. Right now I have a typewriter habit. It is beneficial because it keeps me interested in things, and if you are interested in new things, then you are likely to always be creating.
There is sort of a thread that you can follow from book to book to book. Usually, whatever media or technique that is employed in the newest book actually came out of what was in the previous book. For example, Erin used chalk pastels in a unique way for Bear Has a Story to Tell (2012, Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press). I had never used chalk pastels before, but I really liked them and experimented with them before making Hello, My Name is Ruby (2013, Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press). And that is what I ended up using as a primary medium for that book. And then I was using a lot of water-soluble crayon in Jonathan and the Big Blue Boat (2011, Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press)—not as the primary medium, but as the secondary. Then, that became the primary for A Home for Bird (2012, Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press) because by that time, I was more comfortable with it.
I’m sure other people have used the stamp method, but I decided I wanted to try it because I love pencil drawing and wanted to add color. For my personal work, I was using some oil paint to add color. But for a picture book, I thought oil paint would be too heavy—especially for the type of story Phil would write for me. So I wanted to have a more limited palette, and I thought the wood grain texture might look nice with the type of marks I make naturally with pencil. So that is where my technique started.
Clearly, your technique, Erin, is very much appreciated considering you were awarded the Caldecott Medal for your first book! Do you view the honor as a nod to your technique or more of an honor for the whole book?
E: There were so many good books that year, and I was really humbled by that fact. I believe the award is definitely for the whole book, though. Without the story, my illustrations wouldn’t be. I don’t think you can look at any book without considering the story. That would just be impossible. Without Phil giving me Amos’ story, I wouldn’t have had these characters that I got to draw and to love. Hopefully other people decided to love them, too. I think the Caldecott shows that.
P: From my point of view as the writer, I don’t have an issue with the award going to the illustrator. I think that although it is difficult to learn how to write a picture book, I’m not going to sit here and pretend that it takes as much time and effort to write good picture-book text as it does to illustrate it. The heavy lifting is done by the illustrator every time. But it is an honor to be attached in any way to a Caldecott book.
There are so many excellent books that come out each year. There are dozens and dozens of books, but the Caldecott and Newbery committees can’t choose dozens and dozens of books; they have to choose a very small number of books, and it is just extraordinarily lucky if you are chosen.
E: The Phildecott and Steadbery awards started just between us. We do it because we love books, and often we choose books that don’t get much exposure.
We really like to see what is coming out each year, so we would have these discussions about what we thought were the best books that year. Then, when we started trying to be professionals at bookmaking, we both decided to start blogs. Since we thought nobody would read what we wrote except my father-in-law, we decided to publish our picks and started having those conversations online. At the end of the year, we would decide our favorite books and put those lists on the blogs.
P: The funny thing is that they turned into the posts on our websites that get, by far, the most traffic and shared the most. It is to the point where we will start hearing from some of the authors and illustrators within 24 hours of our posts. They are really excited about it. It is pretty cool.
We try to be very clear that we are not necessarily choosing the best books of the year, in general, but they are the books that are most important to us that year. We didn’t think people would pay attention to this like so many other things in our lives. And then, suddenly, people paid attention. It just made me laugh.
E: One of the winners even asked us jokingly where his medal was!
P: We might have to print up a certificate or something.
You have published two books collaboratively and have had several individual projects. What can readers look forward to seeing from you in the near future?
E: Right now I’m working on the art for a story that Phil wrote. I am quite behind because I had to take some time off for a pretty severe repetitive stress injury. So I won’t have another book out until Fall 2015, but it will be called Lenny and Lucy. It is the story of imaginary friends, and there is one gigantic dog in it.
P: I have a few things going. I have a book due out this year that I wrote and illustrated called Sebastian and the Balloon. Shortly thereafter I will have a book out that I wrote called Special Delivery. It is being illustrated by Matthew Cordell and is about a little girl trying to mail an elephant to her great aunt Josephine. I’m really excited about that one.
Some authors and illustrators eventually choose to donate their work to places for preservation for researchers, students, and future generations. Have you thought about what you will do with your sketches and manuscripts?
P: We’re not sure yet. Each book has its own drawer here in the studio right now. With our first two books, we discovered we made a mistake. We didn’t think we really cared too much about the source material or the manuscript or the initial sketches, so we gave a lot of it away. We realized later that it felt strange to break up the book like that. So now we have a policy that we keep all books together. If we are ever to give them away, we will give away entire books at once.
Sketch from Phil’s book, A Home for Bird
Sketch of the cover of Erin’s book, A Sick Day for Amos McGee
E: One of the reasons we did that is because we went to a conference where they had the entire manuscript from first draft to the final to the design proofs for The Westing Game (1978, Dutton). It was fascinating because you can see how Ellen Raskin worked on things, how she line edited things. The evolution of the book, and from just an educational standpoint for people who want to make books, it just offered so much. I think that if anybody would want to use our things to learn, that is something we’d like to do eventually. Right now, though, we are pretty attached.
Philip C. Stead and Erin E. Stead are the husband and wife, and the author and illustrator of A Sick Day for Amos McGee (2010, Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press), winner of the 2011 Caldecott Medal and a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book. Bear Has a Story to Tell(2012, Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press) is their second collaboration; both Phil and Erin have worked separately on other picture books as well.
Erin, Wednesday, and Amos
Wednesday McGee and Erin Stead seemed to be destined for each other. They met at a time when both were facing personal crises. Wednesday, with her signature Mohawk and underbite, had been abused and was in a shelter waiting for a home. She was afraid of noises, uncomfortable around people, and unsure about communicating with other animals. Erin had lost her confidence both personally and professionally. It was her junior year in art school, and she felt as if she didn’t belong.
“It just felt like all the worst parts of my personality, all of my insecurities, were amplified. I just had to reevaluate why I was even making pictures. For a really long time, and even through the Amos book, I felt that I was making pictures that no one would want to look at.”
Slowly, over time, Erin won the trust of Wednesday as she taught the dog how to chase Frisbees and squirrels. And slowly, over time, Wednesday helped Erin to put aside her fears and to move forward with her artistic endeavors.
On a cool January morning in 2011, Erin received the confirmation she needed. Phil was up early and ready to take Wednesday on her morning walk. The phone began to ring and Erin answered as Philip and Wednesday headed to the park. A short time later, Phil saw Erin running toward them. He let Wednesday off leash to greet Erin, and that is when he heard the good news. The phone call had been from the Caldecott committee: A Sick Day for Amos McGee was the winner of the 2011 Caldecott Medal.“I think Amos was a very aggressive way of showing me that some people wanted to look at my drawing.”
- Philip and Erin live in a 100-year-old barn in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
- Philip and Erin’s favorite sports team is the University of Michigan basketball team. Erin is very serious about March Madness.
- The Steads also love the Detroit Tigers and listen to every game on the radio, often while they work.
- Philip has still not ruled out the possibility of a career as a shortstop. If Philip cannot be a shortstop, he also has not ruled out the possibility of being a free-form radio DJ for underground radio.
- For books written or illustrated by the Steads, Philip writes and performs music which is used for book trailers. These compositions are available on his website for free downloading or sharing.
- The couple created and compiles the annual Phildecott and Steadbery Awards lists. These awards go to their favorite books read during the year and are announced every January.
- The Steads’ studio assistant, Nicole Haley, is also their blog thief and a professional photographer.
The Steads are committed to responding to all the fan mail that they can accommodate with their busy schedules. (However, notes from children and from art students do take priority.) According to Philip, they also receive many get-well cards for Amos McGee. “It has actually turned into a pretty common thing; teachers have their classes write get-well cards for Amos. It is really fun because it allows me to write back as Amos McGee.”
“We try to get really nice paper like Amos would use,” says Erin, “and then Phil uses the typewriter to write the letter.” “It even has a City Zoo header on it!” adds Phil.
Fan mail and get-well wishes may be directed to:
Philip and Erin Stead
c/o Roaring Brook Press
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York 10010
“I learn something about my own books every time we go on book tour. We don’t try out the stories on children prior to the release of the book; we just try them out on ourselves. Sometimes, reading them to a group of 30 or 50 second graders really shows us something about the book that we had not realized. I remember when we were first doing readings for Amos McGee. I never had considered it a funny story, but there were all these moments that people thought were just hilarious. Now, I’ve read the story hundreds of times and it is always the same things that make people laugh. It is just interesting to see the book take on its own life beyond what we had originally intended.”
— Phil Stead
“I don’t think either of us is concerned about the sales at all while we are making the book. Neither of us has ever gone into any project thinking that this book is really going to sell well. As soon as you start thinking that way, you end up making a book without much substance. And nobody should go into books to get rich!”
— Erin Stead
“We don’t ever begin a book with a moral or a message and then develop a story from there. The story always comes first. As we get to know the characters, the message develops as a secondary thing. It does tend to be a reflection of what our world view just naturally is: we both would like it if people were just nice to each other.”
— Phil Stead
“I’ve always loved animals, and I think that is why I always see animals in my pictures. I think the presence of animals in people’s lives makes us better people. If my books stop selling tomorrow, I will probably try to do something with animals.”
— Erin Stead
“Often, when I meet people, I feel like they expect me to be Amos McGee. They expect me to be very sweet, and I’m not often very sweet. I can actually be very prickly, especially to work with. But I think my characters reflect how I wish I could be and how I wish that other people were.”
— Phil Stead
“We both want to make the best possible book we can, and there is this moment when you think you’ve made the best book in the history of books. And then you think it is the worst book ever made. We are both our harshest critics. I think we only have to impress each other and not anyone else. If we feel like we’ve done that, then we are alright.”
— Erin Stead
“When I was younger, I loved to read. But the second I had to read, I hated it. As soon as it felt like homework, I hated it. I still feel that way today, in general, and in my approach to kids. If you just give a child the opportunity to be around books, then he or she will end up doing most of the work. Parents and teachers don’t even have to do much else.”
— Phil Stead