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Welcome to the Wonder House: Adventures with Author and Illustrator Deborah Freedman

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

In this episode of the Adventures in Learning podcast, we speak with beloved children's book author and illustrator Deborah Freedman. You may know her work from such books as Carl and The Meaning of Life. Tiny Dino, Shy, Is Was, and the soon to be published Welcome to the Wonder House. Educators, librarians, and families will love the resources on her website to accompany her books, there are so many teaching ideas, connected experiences and activities, and suggested read alikes to go with each book.

I first met Deborah at the Shenandoah University Children's Literature Conference in 2022. I was tasked with creating games and learning activities to get elementary students excited about meeting the authors. I immediately fell in love with the beauty of her illustrations and the wonder in which she was able to combine science and illustrations for such books as Tiny Dino and Carl and The Meaning of Life.

In the conversation that follows, we discuss dinosaurs (did you know they now think they looked AND sounded like birds?), where ideas and artistic inspiration arise, our first book friends and influences, and several exciting projects that connect the realms of wonder, curiosity, and nonfiction.

Adventures in Learning: How did you get to where you are today?

[01:13] Dr. Diane: So I'd like to start with the same question I ask everybody, which is, tell me about your Adventures in Learning. How did you get to doing what you're doing today?

[01:22] Deborah: Well, I started out in life, actually, as an architect, and I majored in art history in college, so I have this background in art and drawing and design, all those things. But then I had kids, and I think that's not so unusual for book authors to say that their children inspired them. But mine, really, they really did. They brought me back to the library, where I rediscovered a love of books and a new appreciation for them, actually. And I loved being a mom. I loved seeing the world through a child's eyes. It's so amazing.

And now I get to do it all over again with my grandchildren. I don't know, one day I spent 20 minutes with my grandson when he was a baby, just blowing on milkweed fluff and watching it float into the air or watching a bee buzz, that kind of thing. So just that sense of wonder and imagination and how kids, they just live in their imaginations.There's, like, no boundary between reality and their imaginations.

All of that inspired me to make my books, to start making books. And my first books were really about that kind of imagination, art, creativity.

cover of Carl and the Meaning of Life by Deborah Freedman
Carl and the Meaning of Life

And then I think it was with Carl and The Meaning of Life that I moved a little bit more into sort of the world around me and the science and curiosity about that world.

So it started out as an idea about a small character with big questions.

And then I didn't have to do a ton of research for that book because I knew from gardening and whatnot what worms do, but I did read Charles Darwin. Darwin wrote an entire book about worms. I think I read somewhere that he did it as taking a break from the Origin of Species or something. But basically, there's a note at the back of the book quoting that book about how important these small creatures are to our ecosystem. And I just really enjoyed it. I mean, I did do some research. I mean, obviously, worms don't talk. That's where people suspend their imagination. But I didn't want Carl to talk to animals that might eat him, because...

[04:16] Dr. Diane: That’s a whole different story.

[04:18] Deborah: It's a whole different story, and it could create tension that I don't actually want to be there. So I did check, do enough research to make sure I wasn't doing that and just to inspire things. But I had a lot of fun doing that book.

And actually, when I wrote it, I had no idea that there would be all these curriculum connections in schools. I had no idea how many schools, how many classes study worms or how many schools have gardens or any number of things. I had no idea. But I really enjoyed it. And I do like to tell kids that when I make a book like Carl and The Meaning of Life, most of, almost all of the animals in that book have wandered through my yard at some point. Not the bear or the beaver, but every other one. And that a lot of story and illustrations as well, come from just close observation. I just try to pay attention to things around me, like that worm. What is it up to? Where is it going? What's the story there? Asking questions, observing. And that includes for the illustrations as well. Yeah, it's not just, oh, you look at an animal, and then you sit down and draw it, or you look at a picture and you copy the picture.

If I want my books to come to life, I really need to pay close attention, really observe their behavior, how they move, what they're doing, and then I can take all that back to my studio and just let it feed my imagination once I've really kind of amassed all that observation.

[06:44] Dr. Diane: As you were talking about Carl and The Meaning of Life, one of the things that really struck me about that book is it really is about the interrelationship of species as well. If Carl doesn't do his job, then there's a domino effect, and the rest of the world suffers. And so something as seemingly insignificant as an earthworm can have a huge impact on our environment. And I thought that was beautifully illustrated without being preachy about it.

[07:12] Deborah: Thank you. That's like the best thing you could possibly say because I want to have a good story that engages children, and then there's the science of it, but I don't want it to be didactic. And I try pretty hard to layer in a more profound theme, say, for lack of better way to put it, some kind of takeaway for kids, again without hitting them over the head with a two x four.

Shy by Deborah Freedman

[07:52] Dr. Diane: And I love Shy as well. I was just thinking about how beautiful that book is, and I love the surprise at the ending where you're wondering who Shy is, and that's really a lovely twist. But I thought that was just such a lovely book in terms of thinking about introverts and their need for connection and being able to take that step away from your comfort zone and move into the world around you. And I wonder, was that a transitional book for you in terms of sort of moving from those quieter wonder books into these larger science themed books?

[08:29] Deborah: Oh, thank you for getting the book that way, and that's interesting. I've never thought of it that way. But, yes, I think you're right. It was sort of a transitional book because it has that metafictional aspect to it where the character is hiding in the gutter of the book, where I'm inspired by the book itself and where could I go with that and then taking it a step further with the story. And definitely I thought of the book as part mystery, and it was almost a challenge for myself. How little information could I give kids and still have them go along for the ride? It is maybe not a book for kids who want something action packed, but I love the idea that I could create these spare pages or images in places, not the whole book, so that to leave room for kids’ imaginations. Really to see if they could infer what was going on, not just in terms of the plot and the action of the plot, but the emotion of the emotional arc of the book.

Deborah Freedman and the yellow bird who populates her books
Deborah and Florence

[09:48] Dr. Diane: And I noticed there's a yellow bird that seems to move across your illustrations in multiple books. Is that intentional?

[09:55] Deborah: Yeah. Kids love to ask about that bird, which makes me really happy that they notice that it's appeared in multiple books. So when I wrote Carl and The Meaning of Life, I named the worm after my grandfather, which was just, I don't know, just for fun. I thought it was funny to have a worm named Carl. And so there was this little yellow bird in that book just because I loved that pop of color. Well, it was first, and I guess I'm backwards here. In Shy, the bird I decided to name after my grandmother, Florence, because I just loved her very much, and I just liked the idea of naming the bird after my grandmother. So then after I had done that, I just had this personal attachment to this yellow bird, aside from the fact that it added this pop of color so it just appears. And Carl doesn't get too close to the bird, because birds, worms, right. It's just there in the sky. And then in This House, Once, yeah, just that pop of color. I really enjoyed having that little bird fly through, and I considered using the bird as the main character of Tiny Dino. But then I thought, sometimes you can get too attached to these personal things, and then they don't actually work for the story. I felt like for Tiny Dino I had to go for the tiniest bird I could think of, which was, of course, a hummingbird.

Cover of Tiny Dino by Deborah Freedman
Tiny Dino

Tiny Dino, Birds, And Igniting a Passion for Science

[12:53] Dr. Diane: So talk a little bit about Tiny Dino. I'm like a four year old child. I love dinosaurs, and so I loved the fact that you were able to connect the notion of birds to dinosaurs, going with the latest science. What inspired that book, and what kind of research did you do to write it?

[13:12] Deborah: Well, I did a lot of research for that book.

Ideas for books, they can come from a million different directions, and sometimes you have something that's just simmering for years. I always tell kids I collect ideas, I write them down. I keep piles of scraps of paper and notebooks full of ideas.

And one day I just wrote down the words "Tiny Dino" because I like the sound of it. And I thought, oh, I should write something about a popular subject like dinosaurs. I actually had no idea for the story. Then a couple of years later, I was researching something else. I don't remember what, but I stumbled on this article in Scientific American: How Dinos Shrank and Became Birds. And boom. My brain just lit up, because a lot of kids know now that birds are dinosaurs, but I didn't know that. We weren’t taught that when I was a kid, and I just went, what? Birds are dinosaurs? And immediately I thought, Tiny Dino. That's my Tiny Dino. And these ideas just collided, and boom.

But I actually was not into dinosaurs as a kid. I didn't really know anything about dinosaurs, so I had to read a lot. I read big books about dinosaurs to learn everything I could. And I did so much research because, oh, gosh, you don't want to get anything wrong, especially with a dinosaur book. So I did tons of research. I listened to podcast interviews with paleontologists and watched videos. And then once I was watching a panel discussion sponsored by the Yale Peabody Museum in town near where I live, and they were discussing dinosaurs. And one of the paleontologists at Yale had a few things to say about crocodiles and birds and their relationship. And at that point, I had written my book, and I thought, whoa, I have to reach out to this person. And so I did, and he fact checked my book for me, which was fabulous. I don't know if you saw an article in the Times about how they're rethinking what dinosaurs sounded like, that maybe they were like birds, but they've discovered because usually I think the larynx or whatever is cartilage, and they don't find it, but they found some specimen that made them think they sounded more like crocodiles or birds.

[16:31] Dr. Diane: Interesting.

[16:32] Deborah: So interesting, right? They're always discovering new things. So this paleontologist was able to look at my drawings and say, you need a few more feathers here. This beak is a little too pointy. So that kind of thing, it was really cool.

[16:48] Dr. Diane: Well, and I love the fact that your dinosaurs are vibrant with color as well, because that's, again, something that changed from when we were kids. At the time, dinosaurs were brown and black and maybe red. And I love the fact that now they're rethinking that it's entirely possible, if they were birds, that they may have all those other colors.

[17:08] Deborah: I was a little nervous about doing those illustrations because I'm not a scientific illustrator, and I didn't have the means of amassing enough current information to know exactly what these creatures would look like. So I just kind of made it a little cartoony so that I could get away with whatever.

[17:35] Dr. Diane: Well, and that's okay. When I work with kids, one of the things I love to do with them is we'll do paleontology and we'll excavate dinosaur bones, but then I'll have them research and kind of look at the most current thinking and pictures and then have them create their own using whatever materials we have. And so they'll make 3D models of dinosaurs and they'll make up their own. I'm like, you can decide what habitat it would live in and what kind of environment. Is it a vegetarian? Is it a carnivore? And it's just really fun because they're so into it, so why not enjoy?

[18:17] Deborah: I love that. And they learn so much by that. Like, why would a dinosaur have four legs or stand on two legs? And how are their feet different? What's their diet? How does that affect what they look like? It's so fascinating.

[18:32] Dr. Diane: It really is. And I wasn't a dinosaur girl as a child. My sister was, so I got dragged to a lot of dinosaur museums. But later when I ran the preschool.

[18:44] Deborah: So it was lurking.

[18:45] Dr. Diane: It was lurking.

[18:46] Dr. Diane: And then when I ran the preschool, I was surrounded by four year olds who that was their passion. And so you enter into their passion.

[18:54] Deborah: And you go with it.

[18:55] Dr. Diane: And that's what we did. And so I became a dinosaur lover by default.

[19:00] Deborah: Well, it's a very cool love to have. I've just really enjoyed it, and I just enjoy that one now that I'm out in schools. And whatnot with that book, I get such a kick out of the passion that so many kids have for dinosaurs.

[19:16] Dr. Diane: And it's sort of like a first introduction to science for so many of them. And if we can capture that lightning in a bottle, we can get them interested in science in other ways as well, I think.

[19:28] Deborah: Yes. I love that.

Cover of Welcome to the Wonder House by Deborah Freedman
Welcome to the Wonder House

Welcome to the Wonder House

[19:30] Dr. Diane: So talk about Welcome to the Wonder House. You have a new book coming out, and I'd love to hear a little bit more about it.

[19:38] Deborah: I do. It's the first book that I have ever illustrated where I didn't write the words myself. It's a collection of poetry by Georgia Heard and Rebecca Kai Dotlich who are just wow, amazing writers. And it was really an honor to be asked to do this. And I just loved working on this book. It pushed me in directions that I never would have gone on my own. And it gave me an excuse to do the kinds of illustrations that I just never had that kind of story that begged for these kinds of illustrations. And it was just a wonderful collaborative effort with the editorial team as well, because they just want me to read these poems and run with them, just come up with stuff we might not think of.

And what an invitation, right, to just let your imagination go wild. I loved getting feedback, like, could you make this illustration more magical? Isn't that the best kind of criticism? More magical? Okay, I'm on it. So I really, really enjoyed it.

So it's poems about imagination, curiosity, and, of course, wonder. And they're arranged by rooms. It's this wonder house, and each room there's the room of curiosity, the room of imagination, the room of science. And it was just a wonderful, let me see if I can find the very first poem, it’s Keep an Open Heart. That's where Curiosity likes to start. And I just ran with it. And I don't even know how to describe the pictures that I made, except that I loved making them. I incorporated drawing and painting and even some photographs and just really had fun with it. And I had to do some research because there's a poem about a meteor, and I had to get that right.

Deborah Freedman at work on the computer in her studio.
Deborah Freedman at work.

[22:08] Dr. Diane: So how did the illustrations for this book differ from the ones you've done in the past in terms of your process, in terms of the kind of style of the art itself?

[22:20] Deborah: I don't know quite how to describe it, except it's maybe a little more sophisticated than some of my other books. I can't remember the age range the publisher gives this book, but it does skew. I like to think that all my books are for all ages, but I would say that this one, because of the poetry, skews a little bit older. It's more for school age children. I'm not sure if the poetry is really for, say, preschoolers. And so the art reflects that. There are some surreal kinds of mind bendy things that I'm trying to do with the art that I I'm hoping older kids will really appreciate.

[23:07] Dr. Diane: Well, I can't wait to see it, and I'm so excited for welcome to the Wonder House.

[23:12] Deborah: Yeah, I can't wait for you to see it.

An image of Deborah Freedman's art studio.
New projects are brewing in Deborah's studio.

What new adventures lie in store?

[24:06] Dr. Diane: So, in terms of what you're working on now, what kinds of books of your own are you working on? What's in the works?

[24:13] Deborah: Well, I had so much fun doing all that research for Tiny Dino. That was really my first foray into inching closer to nonfiction, where I have all those facts incorporated in a little tiny bit of back matter. And it was just so fun to learn about something new. So I decided to keep moving in that direction.

And I just turned in a book called Partly Cloudy, which will be coming out in about a year next spring. And it is about two characters who are looking at clouds. And one looks at clouds and says, “Oh, it looks like cotton candy.” And then the other character says, “Well, actually that's a cumulus cloud.” So we go through clouds this way, looking at them from both sides now, from two points of view. And then there are these little tiny sidebars in there like I did with Tiny Dino. So it's about point of view. But it's also, I've got six pages of back matter, so it's like true nonfiction in the back of the book about clouds, the water cycle, weather, all of that.

I just love painting clouds, which is really how it got started when you come down to it. When I show kids art, I always think there are a million ways to render one single thing. There's so many different ways you can paint clouds. I love painting clouds. So I did a whole book of them.

[25:58] Dr. Diane: Well, and it sounds like a perfect bridge between a book like It Looked Like Spilt Milk, which was all about the shape of clouds, and some of the nonfiction real life pictures only of clouds. This sounds like that perfect bridge book between the two.

[26:15] Deborah: And it's my style, if I have a style. So I'm hoping it's a different take on clouds, both in terms of the story and visually. It's going to look different from most of the cloud books you've seen.

[26:32] Dr. Diane: Which sounds so exciting and definitely will lend itself, I think, in terms of science for so many elementary classes where they're studying weather and clouds and things like that. So Partly Cloudy sounds like it's going to be a lovely addition to the canon.

[26:47] Deborah: I hope so. I hope so.

Describe your process when creating a book.

[26:50] Dr. Diane: Describe as you were creating a book like Partly Cloudy, what is your process? Sort of take us through how you would go about coming up with a book like that.

[27:00] Deborah: So I start with this idea collection that I have. And when I have an idea that I think has potential as a book, I start a little notebook for it, which becomes like a personal diary of that project. Every brain burp, I just vomit my thoughts onto the page in these notebooks. I'm writing with words and pictures in my book. So I'm doodling and writing and doodling and writing. Pull those words out to just play with words. Sometimes I spend a lot of time in a messy storyboard space doing them over and over and over again because that's just so important to me, to see the whole book at one time on a piece of paper, very messy, so that I'm not discouraged from doing them over and over and over again. I'm in that space for a long time. At some point I thumbnail it up and send it to my agent, maybe get some feedback from him. I think Partly Cloudy is the first time ever that he said, no comment. Let's submit it.

[28:16] Dr. Diane: Wow.

[28:17] Deborah: That's the dream every time. And it's never happened until that book, and it's not happening again. So I do that, do the same thing with my editorial team back and forth with those thumbnails just to nail that story. And I don't start final art until I've really nailed that story down. Although I might spend some time designing my characters, which, as I said for Carl, might involve lots of observation and imagery search. Even if I go online, I'm looking at lots of photographs, so it's not just one single static photograph or watching videos. Partly Cloudy, the two characters are bunnies because I wanted fluffy animals, so it's a little more cartoony. So I didn't have to do any research for that.

So I'll start designing my characters, thinking about my setting, which really doesn't completely come into its own until I start painting because it's not something I really draw in detail. I'm thinking about color, about my palette.

Color is a huge part of what I do. I have a color theme, really, for all of my books. I think it can help tell the story and it can really help drive the emotional plot.

I think you talked about Shy, and another challenge I gave myself with Shy was the character doesn't appear to the end. So how much of the emotional plot of this story could I drive with color alone? So I'm thinking a lot about color. The color I chose for that book is actually, once you read it through, you realize maybe it was a hint about who that character is, right?

So I have a lot of fun with color, and I do a lot of experimenting.

I love to tell kids that I do tons of experimenting with materials and colors just because I do mostly do watercolor and pencil with a few other things. But you can keep pushing those things in new directions. That's one of the things I love about watercolor, all these happy surprises that you can discover, things you can do with it. And so I do a lot of experimenting.

A lot of them fail, which is fine. That's part of learning what you can do, right?

Deborah Freedman against a backdrop of blue watercolor paint splashes
Deborah and watercolor splashes

So, Carl, for instance, I love to tell kids I often just use things I find around the house, like all that dirt you see in that book. Just a plain old kitchen sponge, dipped it in paint and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. You can do this at home.

Or all those splashes in Blue Chicken and some of the other books, just dropped some water, liquid watercolor on the page. And with a plain old drinking straw poof, I get these little splashes or using an old toothbrush that I don't put in my mouth anymore, but you dip it in the paint and spray those splatters all over the place. So there's so much fun you can have experimenting, and you just really never know what you'll come up with until you start playing around. So that's basically the process, I find the way I want to tell that story, which could work visually, and then I just settle in and work on that final art for five or six months or whatever it takes.

What books inspired you as a child and later as an author/illustrator?

[32:10] Dr. Diane: Back at the beginning of the conversation, when I asked you about your Adventures in Learning, you talked about rediscovering books with your children. And one of the questions I love to ask is, were there books that inspired you as a child? Or when you rediscovered books later with your own kids that sort of have influenced your work or made you realize that illustrating books was something you wanted to do?

[32:36] Deborah: My aunt is an author. Her name is Mary Ann Hoberman. A lot of people are familiar with her books, and her books were my first books. My brother and sister and me, those were our first books. I don't think I ever thought about being a writer till I had kids. I really didn't think about it outright, but maybe it was always lurking there. It's in my genes, but I had a model for that. And I think because she has such an ear for rhyme and wordplay, and I think that really reading her books and really practically memorizing some of them, memorizing, many of her poems I can recite by heart still, really trained my ear from a young age. And for me, when I read books that rhyme, I have a very low tolerance for bad rhyme because of her. I will probably never write a rhyming book, but she definitely influenced my ear, my love of cadence and rhythm and all of that. So those books meant a huge amount to me.

And then, of course, my mom took us to the library regularly, and my brother and sister and I would check the same books out over and over again, and my dad would read them over and over again. He can still, at 89, recite chunks of these books like Mike Mulligan or The Snowy Day or Harry the Dirty Dog, which I'm now reading with my grandson. And it's just so much fun, so many favorite books. It's really hard to know where to start. But The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, there was an exhibit at the Jewish Museum a number of years ago, and I almost wept seeing that art, because it just flooded back to me and his art, it's collages. So seeing it in person, it was so moving, so moving.

[35:03] Dr. Diane: I can only imagine. The Snowy Day was my first, when I think about my first book friend, Peter was my first book friend. And it wasn't so much The Snowy Day, it was Peter's Chair, the one that came after he served as both a window and a mirror for me. Because at the time we were living in Germany and we were living in an apartment and Peter was living in an apartment. Peter had a sister, whether he wanted to or not. And at that point, my parents decided to bring an intruder into my life. I love her dearly now, but my poor sister. I've used that joke for years, but Peter really resonated for me and gave me sort of this first book friend that I was like, oh, we're more alike than we are different. And to this day I can pick up that book and feel that same feeling of comfort and well being I felt far too many years ago.

[36:02] Deborah: Oh, it's such an amazing thing. And when I think about it, sort of my dream before I started making, before I got published, was like could I write a book that an 18 year old would bring to college with her? You know, that she just would always remember and would always be in her heart somehow? And The Snowy Day was one of those books. I think I went a large number of years without reading it till I had kids again, returned to it. And it all came because I'm a very visual person, very designy person. And those images were really seared in my brain. The words the snow plopped on Peter's head. I mean, the words just everything about it. So I'm sure I could think of other books like that, but my aunt's books and that book are really standouts for me.

What are you hoping to work on next?

Letters to the author from young readers
Letters from young fans

[37:21] Dr. Diane: So as you look to the future, what brings you hope and what are you hoping to work on next?

[37:31] Deborah: Well, one of the really cool things about having books out in the world is you don't realize what it's going to be like till you actually have that happen, discovering that there are all these curriculum connections. And I think when I first started writing books, it was as a mom and someone who was once a kid who loved to read and make art. I wasn't thinking about group settings, books within group, my books in group settings, and now I do. And now that's really in my head.

I love hearing about how teachers, librarians are using my books. And so that definitely feeds into how I choose what to write now. It's definitely affected what I write, imagining it in those settings. And I really have I just keep pushing forward. I always want to try something new, but it kind of builds on what I've done before.

So I went from Tiny Dino to Partly Cloudy. Well Welcome to the Wonder House just fed me in all kinds of ways, moved on to Partly Cloudy, and right now, I'm working on something that is another step from that.

You can keep up with Deborah Freedman on her website or follow her on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok.

You can listen to the full interview with Deborah Freedman here.

You can find all of the books referenced in the conversation at my shop. Note: As a affiliate, I may receive a small commission if you click through and purchase from the site. I list books there so that you are able to access them (and support indie bookstores at the same time). Please feel free to use the lists to visit your own library or indie book store.

If you enjoyed this interview with Deborah Freedman, you may enjoy these additional interviews with other children's literature authors and illustrators.

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