When I was two years old I began to draw and they saw right away the career that lay ahead of me and encouraged me every day of my life. As far back as I can remember, I did nothing but draw.”
A self-proclaimed “poor student,” Wells attended the Museum School in Boston after finishing high school. It was, she recalls, “a bastion of abstract expressionism an art form that brought to my mind things I don’t like to eat, fabrics that itch against the skin, divorce, paper cuts, and metallic noises.”
Without her degree, she left school at 19, married, and began a fledgling career as a book designer with a Boston textbook publisher. When her husband, Tom, applied to the Columbia School of Architecture two years later, the couple moved to New York, where she began her career in children’s books working as a designer at Macmillan. It was there that she published her first book, an illustrated edition of Gilbert & Sullivan’s I Have a Song to Sing-O.
Rosemary Wells’s career as an author and illustrator spans more than 30 years and 60 books. She has won numerous awards, and has given readers such unforgettable characters as Max and Ruby, Noisy Nora, and Yoko. She has also given Mother Goose new life in two enormous, definitive editions, published by Candlewick. Wells wrote and illustrated Unfortunately Harriet, her first book with Dial, in 1972. One year later she wrote the popular Noisy Nora. “The children and our home life have inspired, in part, many of my books. Our West Highland white terrier, Angus, had the shape and expressions to become Benjamin and Tulip, Timothy, and all the other animals I have made up for my stories.” Her daughters Victoria and Beezoo were constant inspirations, especially for the now famous “Max” board book series. “Simple incidents from childhood are universal,” Wells says. “The dynamics between older and younger siblings are common to all families.”
But not all of Wells’ ideas come from within the family circle. Many times when speaking, Mrs. Wells is asked where her ideas come from. She usually answers, “It’s a writer’s job to have ideas.” Sometimes an idea comes from something she reads or hears about, as in the case of her recent book, Mary on Horseback, a story based on the life of Mary Breckenridge, who founded the Frontier Nursing Service. Timothy Goes to School was based on an incident in which her daughter was teased for wearing the wrong clothes to a Christmas concert. Her dogs, west highland terriers, Lucy and Snowy, work their way into her drawings in expression and body position. She admits, “I put into my books all of the things I remember. I am an accomplished eavesdropper in restaurants, trains, and gatherings of any kind. These remembrances are jumbled up and changed because fiction is always more palatable than truth. Memories become more true as they are honed and whittled into characters and stories.”
Mrs. Wells says, “Most of my books use animals rather than children as characters. People always ask why. There are many reasons. First, I draw animals more easily and amusingly than I do children. Animals are broader in range–age, time, and place–than children are. They also can do things in pictures that children cannot. They can be slapstick and still real, rough and still funny, maudlin and still touching.
In Benjamin and Tulip, Tulip falls out of a tree and mashes Benjamin in the mud. If these pictures were of children, they would be too close to violent reality for comfort, and all the humor would be lost.”
Her writing career has been a “pure delight,” she says. “I regret only that I cannot live other lives parallel to my own. Writing is a lonely profession and I am a gregarious sort of person. I would like someday to work for the FBI. A part of me was never satisfied with years of tennis. I still yearned to play basketball.”
Q: How many Max and Ruby books are there?
A: There are 8 board books and 7 picture books.
Q: Where did the original idea for Max and Ruby come from?
A: They are based on my two children when they were about 5 years old and 9 months old.
Q: The personalities of Max and Ruby are based on your children?
Q: How do your children feel about seeing themselves characterized in Max and Ruby?
A: They’re faintly amused…and they definitely ignore it!
Q: Do you have a favorite of the Max and Ruby stories?
A: (chuckling) My favorite is always the last one that I wrote.
Q: About Bunny Cakes… the story is so funny and charming. Where did the inspiration for the story come from?
A: My ideas come to me, usually very early in the morning, and say, “Are you going to use me? Because if you’re not, I’m going down the road to Kevin Henkes….”
Q: How old are Max and Ruby?
A: Hmmm. Let’s see. That depends on the book. In the board books, Max is 1 and Ruby is 4. In the picture books, Max is 3 and Ruby is 6.
Q: In Bunny Cakes Max learns the importance of reading, and in Bunny Money, Max and Ruby learn how to count money….
A: No they don’t!! In Bunny Cakes, Max learns the value and importance of being able to communicate on paper, it’s not a question of reading necessarily. I really don’t like questions like these! They are attempts to sort of pin Max and Ruby down to a very mundane level of existence — the value of reading, all of this kind of thing, is much too heavy. It’s like taking a loaf of gorgeous French bread and covering it with lard.
Q: Then at what level would you like to see Max and Ruby appreciated?
A: On the level of intense fun, with the ability to laugh at ourselves, meaning that answers and interpretations all have a shackling quality to them. And they immediately begin to erode the joyful spirit of the book. Bunny Cakes and Bunny Money are whatthey are.They are just funny stories about a brother and sister, which is a universal experience. The one thing that makes Max and Ruby work is their sense of fun and mischief. Serious questions don’t belong here. These are not meant to be text books.
Q: How many more Max and Ruby books are in the pipeline?
A: I have no idea! They’re not something I dream up because of a publishing schedule. But I’m working on two more as we speak, What’s in Max’s Pocket? and Max Drives Away.
Q: So parents really shouldn’t take these books as educational guides to teaching communication skills, or as a guide for training a new generation of commoditytraders?
A: If you want to, you can of course. You can learn anything from anything. These books are wonderful for that, but they are not intended for that! If you want to get something out of them that enables your child to learn to write or count, you can do that. But these books arenot a heavy-handed, earth-bound attempt to teach something. The things that “teach” us are the things we love, because we pay attention to them, and we want to enjoy them again and again.
Q: Obviously you do not consider that your mission to is to teach and inform with your books?
A: If there is any central purpose in my life as a writer of children’s books, it is that I want to encourage children and adults to laugh at themselves in my stories, and therefore want to read them again and again. This, in my own tiny way, will contribute to a lot of life-long readers. Enjoy my stories because that’s what they’re there for!!
Thank you Rosemary!
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