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Lois Ehlert: She's Got Style, by Becky Rodia

This talented author/illustrator has mastered the "triple threat" combination of a good story, fun artwork and real learning

Lois Ehlert could be one of her own books, personified: all rainbow-hued fun at first glance, with thoughtfulness and craft revealing themselves when one takes a closer look.

Lois Ehlert

Three brilliant butterflies attend their creator. Lois describes the process of creating the butterflies for her book Waiting for Wings (Harcourt, 2001) as "almost like origami."

Photo by Becky Rodia
Illustrations from Waiting for Wings, copyright ©2001 by Lois Ehlert, reproduced by permission of Harcourt, Inc.

Lois' books are a study in contrast – as is Lois herself. The vibrant paper-and-found-objects collages she's created for Waiting For Wings, Fish Eyes, Planting a Rainbow (all from Harcourt) and many other books are the perfect counterpoint for her soft-spoken stories, just as her funky silver rings, colorfully appliqued sweater and dazzling smile are at the other end of the spectrum from her gentle, measured voice. When you put all those things together, however, you get something really special.

The birth of a dream.
Lois grew up the oldest of three children in a family that was always creating artwork.

"My mother and my dad both had jobs for earning a living, but art was their avocation," Lois told us. "I'm very grateful to them for not saying, 'Why don't you just go do something else?' They never put me down or discouraged me from achieving my dream."

The "dream" Lois held so dear – "To have a book of my own, with my name on it." – was realized after many years of education and work in related fields. After completing art school, Lois worked as a designer, then went back to school for degrees in English and psychology. "I felt I needed those added levels of understanding in order to create my books,"she clarified.

Lois began teaching art classes for children at museums and libraries. "I loved doing that,"she said. "I think that's where my love of collage began – I was always seeing kids cut and paste." She also worked with kids in a roundabout way, by doing illustrations for textbooks.

The dream comes true.
In 1987, however, Lois' dream came true with the publication of her first book, Growing Vegetable Soup (Harcourt, 1991), a book she'd been trying to sell for two and a half years.

Ever since then, Lois has created a string of picture books, all featuring her distinctive artwork and text that's a mixture of fact and fancy. Take, for just one example, her book Feathers For Lunch (Harcourt, 1996). The story – a cat stalks birds in the hope of snaring one for his lunch – is told in rhymed verse, and one can't help smiling when the birds outsmart the cat. Tiny words tucked amid the text and artwork tell the names of the plants and animals Lois has depicted using paper shapes. The last four pages of the book present facts about all the birds pictured in the book.

In book after book Lois serves up a good story, vivid artwork and real learning – a sort of literary "triple threat" – and makes it all look like fun.

Lois Ehlert books, Cuckoo, Moon Rope, Waiting for Wings, and Mole's Hill

Four of Lois' many colorful titles, including two – Cuckoo and Moon Rope – in English and Spanish. (All books from Harcourt.)

Building a book.
While creating these books may be fun for Lois, it's a lot of work, too. Before she lays out the collages for a book, Lois makes sketches, takes photos and prepares the papers she'll use.

"For Waiting For Wings, I painted the papers with watercolor and folded them while the paint was still wet," she told us. "It gave the paint texture."

Lois also spends a great deal of time making "dummies" of each of her books. Authors and illustrators of picture books frequently make homemade "dummy" books to see how the text and pictures will look on a page. Lois' dummies tend to be very elaborate, complete with a binding that she sews herself.

She creates each collage at the size at which it will appear in the book, periodically making color photocopies as she works, so she can see how her sometimes three-dimensional collages will look in two dimensions. Once the artwork for a book is completed, Lois sends it off to her publisher packed in boxes that she custom-builds herself, so none of the 3d pieces in the collages will be crushed.

Around the world.
In Lois' book Market Day (Harcourt, 2000), the collages were made almost entirely from artifacts and textiles she bought in Mexico and Peru.

"I used to collect pre-Columbian art," Lois said. "But now it's against the law to take it out of Peru, because it's considered a national treasure. So now I study art history and look at cultures such as the Egyptians and the way they do flat patterns and profiles."

Lois also places great importance on the fact that some of her books feature the story in both English and Spanish, and she enjoys looking at the foreign-language editions of her books.

"I can look at the Korean copy of Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf and not understand what it says," she explained. "That helps me understand how it must be for a young child to look at something and not understand it. It helps me to think of ways of bridging that gap."

Lois Ehlert's books certainly bridge gaps –in understanding, age and culture – and they do it with style.

Lois Ehlert signs her book Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf

Lois signs a copy of her book Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf (Harcourt, 1991) for us. The book went through approximately 30 revisions before Lois was happy with it.

Author Study Info

Q. Where were you born?
A. I've always lived in Wisconsin. I grew up in a small town near Madison, called Beaver Dam. I moved to Milwaukee when I became an art student.

Q. What was your favorite book when you were a kid?
A. I loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, probably because I'm a Midwesterner. My mother used to read them to me.

Q. Do you have a favorite color?
A. I think red is terrific. Yellow is pretty. Blue is really nice. Orange is beautiful. Purple is kind of gentle and soft, and green is beautiful in nature.

Becky Rodia, senior editor Teaching K-8 magazine.

Meet the Author