• Read to Them

An Interview with Paul O. Zelinsky - The Illustrator of Toys Go Out

By Chloe Grant, Read to Them Staff


One of the things we love about Toys Go Out are the delightful illustrations that accompany the prose. We had the opportunity to learn more about the man behind the illustrations, Paul O. Zelinsky. As we learned last week, him and Emily Jenkins are quite the duo, so we couldn’t wait to chat with him. We hope you’re inspired to dabble in drawing after reading his take on being an artist! So without further ado, here’s our interview with Paul O. Zelinsky:

When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in art? Did you draw a lot during your childhood? How long have you been drawing? Do you draw daily? 

There were a lot of things I wanted to be when I grew up; being an artist was one of them, but I didn’t think it would involve book illustration. There was no reason it didn’t; I just did not think of that!

From an early age I loved to draw. My mother was an artist: she was trained as a medical illustrator, which means she drew the insides of people, for doctors! A doctor who invented a new operation might ask my mother to make illustrations to show other doctors how to perform it (photographs aren’t nearly as clear). She didn’t try to teach me how to draw, but she liked to draw portraits of her family (and she drew beautifully!) so when you see your mother doing something like that, even without instructions it is a kind of teaching. And our house had all the art supplies you could ever want!


I’ve always liked the feeling of a pen or pencil in my hand. It relaxes me. And then I start to draw. So yes, I draw daily, but it isn’t like work, it is like play.





How did you come to be the illustrator for Toys Go Out?

Emily Jenkins wrote the book with the help and guidance of editor Anne Schwartz. Anne had known my work for a long time, and thought I could make just the right drawings for Emily’s words, so she wrote to me and asked if she could send me the manuscript. I had not worked with Anne before this, but I knew she published very good books, so everyone was happy when I LOVED the manuscript and jumped at the chance to illustrate it.





What is the process of illustrating a novel like? How long does it take? How do you develop the characters?

Illustrating a novel is easier than illustrating a picture book, not only because there are fewer pictures (or at least there were in this case) and not only because you don’t have to worry about color (at least I didn’t in this case), but because each drawing is more self-contained, and you don’t have to think about all the other drawings so much when you plan one of them. Also because in addition to the pictures being fewer, they are much smaller, and that means they are less complicated and easier to make. There will be characters and objects and locations in the story that won’t be in any of the pictures, so you don’t have to work to figure out exactly what they’ll look like. You won’t have to do as much research or as much trying this and trying that to see if it feels right, which is how I develop characters. But all of those things that you do less of for a novel, those are things you still need to do, and all of it is fun when you love the story.


Deciding how to draw a character is a lot like deciding how to draw anything else that will be in a picture. If there’s a window, what kind of house do I think it’s in? Modern or traditional? Moulding decorating the wall? Curtains? What kind of pattern would have been chosen by whoever chose it? If there’s a chair, whose chair is it and what kind would be right? If it’s a person, what do I know about that person that needs to show in the face; what kind of hair, what kind of clothes, what expressions? If nothing specific comes to mind at first, I’ll just keep on sketching variations, all the possibilities I can think of, and see which one seems most like what’s in the text. When I’m illustrating a story, I do a lot of re-reading of the text, and thinking about the feelings it gives me. I can’t say how long it takes me to illustrate a novel, because it can vary so much.





When you're not illustrating novels, what is your favorite thing to draw?

I have been drawing a lot of cats lately, just as part of my doodles. The drawings that I make all the time when I’m not planning anything—when I’m at my desk and doing other things, for instance-- I call them doodles, even though sometimes they get very elaborate. (Cf. my Instagram postings, as @paulozelinsky). But even though these cats aren’t exactly for a novel, I have agreed to provide drawings for a novel later this year, a large number of small drawings of a cat, so I am definitely trying to up my game! Even though my wife and I have a Siamese cat at home, I find it hard to make up pictures of cats that look like good cats. I’m pretty good that way with dogs, though. Toys are much easier: a toy buffalo doesn’t have to look exactly like a buffalo, and a rubber ball is the easiest of all!





What’s your ideal working environment, or where do you do most of your work? 

I do all my work in my studio, where I am now, which is a small apartment a couple of blocks away from where I live. This is a quiet neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Right across the street from my windows is a beautiful churchyard with a fancy wrought iron gate. There are flowering trees, and a statue of the church’s pastor who during the Civil War was very important in the fight against slavery.





Where do you draw inspiration from? 

I think my inspiration comes from the words I’m illustrating. A good story makes the illustrating easy; it becomes so clear what kind of picture would feel right and what would feel wrong.





What advice do you have for aspiring artists? 

I think the most important thing is to play, and not to worry about what comes out, at least not to worry if it’s good enough. Do a lot of drawing, and have a good time! Don’t let anything discourage you. Copy other drawings. Draw from life. The more you draw, the better you learn to see. And the more you see, the more you can see how to draw.

Zelinsky and Jenkins offer similar advice to both artists and writers - learn from those who practice the craft! Explore the arts and find your niche, and follow your passion! We’re inspired to be creative, and to borrow some tools we’ve seen Paul O. Zelinsky and Emily Jenkins use. Utilizing the guidance of the creators we love is how we build our own style, after all. We hope you explore the art that the world has to offer and use it to empower your own. There is no perspective like yours. Happy creating!