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Author of the Month

Lois Ehlert
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Born: November 9, 1934, in Beaver Dam, WI

Genre: Picture books (focuses on nature and animals)

Biography | Books | Awards and Honors | In the Classroom | Bulletin Board

Lois Ehlert

I grew up in a home where everyone seemed to be making something with their hands. As far back as I can remember, I was always putting things together, cutting, stitching, pasting, or pounding. The feel of the object I made was as important as the look.

My mother, a good seamstress, shared her fabric scraps with me and taught me to use her sewing machine when I was about eight years old. My dad had a basement workshop, which supplied me with scrap lumber and nails. So I always had a ready supply of art materials, but not necessarily traditional ones like paper and paint. In fact, colored construction paper was pale in tone compared to my bright cloth scraps. (To this day I prefer to paint my own papers to create just the right color or texture.)

While growing up, I worked on a folding table. My mom and dad allowed me to leave my projects spread out on this table so I could continue to work in my free time. It was my own spot. Today I have a large studio to work in, with a huge drawing board and cabinets filled with art supplies. But it's still my spot. If you are creative, you need to find your own spot to work in. You won't do much drawing or writing if you have to hunt for a pencil each time you get an idea.

If you look closely at my books, you will see that I still use simple art materials-and that I'm still cutting and pasting. It's an art technique called collage: cutout pieces of paper, fabric, or objects glued to a backing. Sometimes I paint white paper with watercolor washes and then cut up the paper, and sometimes I use paper with just one tone or texture. I usually start out by making a dummy book with sketches. That way I can figure out what I want to illustrate on each page. Once I get that figured out, I start to really research my subject. I spend a long time checking my facts before I begin to paint. I guess I feel I can never know too much. After I decide what to illustrate, I start cutting out each little piece and gluing it on a board.

If you are an artist or writer just like me, sometimes it is difficult to know just where ideas come from. That's a question people ask me all the time. Now that I'm grown-up I realize that I write and draw thing I know and care about. Yes, a squirrel really did sneak in through my window. Yes, I do enjoy gardening. Yes, I've made snow creatures, and each year I press beautiful maple leaves in my phone book. The ideas for my books develop as slowly as seeds I plant in early spring. Ideas and seeds both have to be nurtured to grow. I study, sketch...and sit and think.

Then I begin to paint, setting the mood for the book. I'm messy when I work. When ideas are coming, I don't clean up my studio every day-I keep working. I know there will be days when I have no ideas, and then I will have plenty of time to clean up and empty my overflowing wastebasket. I splash pint on my shoes and get glues under my nails; scraps of paper lie strewn all over the floor and stick to the bottom of my shoes. I wear old clothes and a denim apron when I work, an idea I borrowed from watching my dad. I leave the paintings scattered around my studio; if I run out of space, I even use the floor.

Then I begin to write. As you may have noticed, in most cases my writing complements my art. I work on writing for a while and then go back to the art-back and forth, until I get just the right balance. It takes me a long time to make a book, and it is difficult but enjoyable work. It looks so simple if you get it right.

I'm often asked why I chose to become an artist. I think it may be the other way around: Art chose me. If you are creative, you know what I mean. No one has to make you paint a picture. I think being creative is a part of a person's makeup. It's something I feel very lucky about. I've worked hard to make this gift as fine as I can make it, but I still think I was born with certain ideas and feelings just waiting to burst out.

Selection of Awards and Honors

  • Caldecott Honor Book, 1989, for Color Zoo
  • A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year for Snowballs
  • Booklist Editors' Choice for Cuckoo/Cucú: A Mexican Folktale/Un cuento folklórico mexicano
  • IRA Teachers' Choice and NCTE Notable Children's Trade Book in the Language Arts for Feathers for Lunch
  • American Library Association Notable Children's Book and Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award for Chicka Chicka Boom Boom

Lois Ehlert's Booklist

Here is a selected list of the author's published work.

Color Zoo
by Lois Ehlert
HarperCollins Publishers, 12 pp., ages 3-7
1989 Caldecott Honor Book Winner

This stunning book introduces nine shapes and sixteen colors that form a series of animal faces when placed on top of one another. As readers turn each die-cut page, they can watch the pictures change--a lion turns into a goat; an ox into a monkey; a tiger into a mouse, and more.

"Children will delight in identifying both animals and shapes, depicted in bold juxtapositions of vibrant primary colors."-School Library Journal

Growing Vegetable Soup
by Lois Ehlert
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 40 pp., ages 3-8

In bright pictures, a father and child plant, water, and watch seeds grow into vegetables. Then, they cook them up into the best soup ever.

Circus
by Lois Ehlert
HarperCollins Publishers, 40 pp., 3-8

This unusual circus feature leaping lizards, marching snakes, a bear on the high wire, and a ferocious tiger, among many other energetic collage figures.

"The playful celebration of the circus is a most joyous use of the graphic-art style which Lois Ehlert continues to expand and refine."-Horn Book

Snowballs
by Lois Ehlert
Harcourt Brace & Company, 32 pp., ages 3-8

It's a snowball when a group of children build a family out of snow. Ehlert's bold and charming illustrations include labeled pictures of all the items they used to decorate the snow family.

"Children will love figuring out what each decorative item is, and Ehlert labels everything in a glorious double-page spread that is certain to give kids (and their teachers) lots of craft ideas."-Booklist

Mole's Hill
by Lois Ehlert
Harcourt Brace & Company, 32 pp., ages 3-8

Mole loves safe and cozy home near the pond. So when Fox says Mole has to move her home to make way for a new path, she has to do some quick thinking--and digging--to save it and make everyone happy.

"As with Ehlert's other books, the artwork reflects careful research and a strong eye for shape and color. Although the book is visually dynamic, the storytelling lacks tension. Still, Ehlert's fans, as well as teachers seeking simple picture books based on Native American tales, will want to consider this one."-Booklist

Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf
by Lois Ehlert
Harcourt Brace & Company, 32 pp., ages 3-8

Told through the eyes of a child who plants a sugar maple tree, Ehlert's watercolor collage, leaf-shaped die cuts and pieces of seeds, fabric, wire and roots introduce children to the life cycle of a tree.

"In her handsome collages, Ehlert blends bold graphics, vibrant colors, and laudably precise details... An outstanding example of early nonfiction that is not only visually striking but also informative and scrupulously accurate."-Kirkus Reviews

Fish Eyes: A Book You Can Count On
by Lois Ehlert
Harcourt Brace & Company, 32 pp., ages 3-7

In rhyming text, this simple and fun introduction to counting and basic addition encourages children to imagine that they are fish.

"A dazzling package."-Horn Book

Cuckoo/Cucú: A Mexican Folktale/Un cuento folklórico mexicano
by Lois Ehlert, Spanish translation by Gloria de Aragon Andújar
Harcourt Brace & Company, 40 pp., ages 3-8

This traditional Mayan tales explains how the vain and lazy Cuckoo overcomes her faults and loses her feathers.

"A festive bilingual offering from Ehlert ... A book almost as much a piece of folk art as it is a folktale."-Kirkus Reviews

Nuts to You!
by Lois Ehlert
Harcourt Brace & Company, 32 pp., ages 3-8

A frisky city squirrel digs and eats, dashes and hides. But when he sneaks inside an apartment window, he must find a nutty solution to get out.

"The story, told in brisk rhyme, is a fast-paced romp, and the large, dramatically styled collages will dazzle every reader. Ehlert's familiar labeling of plants and animals continues in this book, and her innovative bookmaking adds enjoyment."-Horn Book

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom
By Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault, Illustrated by Lois Ehlert
Simon & Schuster, 40 pp., ages 3-7

In lively rhyming text, the letters of the alphabet race to the top of a coconut tree. Once they all reach the top, the tree sags and they tumble off in a colorful heap.

"This nonsense verse delights with its deceptively simple narrative...Ehlert's bold color scheme, complete with hot pink and orange borders, matches the crazy mood perfectly. Children will revel in seeing the familiar alphabet transported into this madcap adventure."-Publishers Weekly

In the Classroom

Read aloud Color Zoo. Define collage, the medium Ehlert uses, and discuss with your students the color and shapes she used to create the animals in her zoo. Re-read the last page of the book-"I know animals and you do too; Make some new ones for your zoo." Invite your students to make a collage of zoo animals by asking them to cut out shapes from colorful pieces of construction paper and to paste them together. Then create a large "Color Zoo" mural featuring each child's animal. Ask your students to label their animals.

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