My Interview of
Trina Schart Hyman
by Denise Ortakales
I must admit that I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when Trina agreed to be interviewed by me. She is my most favorite illustrator of all time and I greatly admire her work. I confess that I may have put this talented children’s book illustrator on a pedestal. But after having read several of her previous interviews, I got the impression that she was . . . well, . . . at best, brutally honest, at worst, jaded, cynical and cranky. But she was nice enough to agree to an interview, by an illustration student no less (albeit an older student,) so she couldn’t be all bad, right?

Well, all of my fears were allayed the moment she and her poodle answered the door. She was warm and gracious, and I immediately felt at ease in her cozy kitchen. After I turned down her offer of coffee, I mentioned to her how hard I tried to come up with questions that she may have not been asked before, but it was difficult because I assume that she has been asked everything under the sun. She assured me that she had not, and even so, some of her thoughts have changed over the years. I questioned whether or not it was okay if I use a tape recorder. Having heard that she did not like technology, I didn’t want to offend her by bringing any into her home. She laughed and said of course, if it made things easier for me. 

We started with a brief tour of her non-technological kitchen area. A large woodstove on one wall is used for heating purposes. On the other wall is an old gas-stove used for cooking. In the back pantry, she keeps a conventional gas range that she uses for occasional cooking. She has a modern refrigerator but still uses a rotary telephone. No answering machines, computers, or fax machines for this girl. But wait, what is this? The room off the kitchen is an office, equipped with a color copier, and a computer with a scanner! Trina assures me that it is her partner’s office, but admits to using the color copier rather than driving into town, but not the computer. Trina’s dislike of technology was unfathomable to my 10-year old son. He wanted to know if she had a microwave, so I asked.

“No microwave, because, I am just not that much in a hurry. You know, I’d rather take my time and cook real because it’s more fun. [Laughter] I love to cook and I love to eat too. I just think if you have a really, really busy life, and you’re doing ninety-five things at once, and you’ve got little children, and you need to pack stuff into the day, then maybe all that stuff makes sense. But I don’t believe in it. [She laughs] I just don’t believe that we need to rush around all that much.”
But there was a time in Trina’s life when she was that busy. I asked her what concessions she may have had to make in order to pursue her career. 
“I think it’s an important question for women. You know, if you’re going to focus on a career, how much does it affect your family, if you have a family, or if you’re thinking of a having a family, how much do you have to compromise? I think that both suffer. And I don’t think that you can get around it. I wouldn’t have not had children for the world, because I wanted kids. But God, they take a chunk of time, and a lot of emotional energy, and a lot of attention. And I don’t think, especially for an artist, that you can focus entirely on your work the way you should, if you have kids. Why haven’t there been very many women artists, painters? That is exactly why.”

 “I don’t think it was good for my health and it wasn’t good for my relationship. As soon as I started making any money where I could afford to, I had somebody come in and clean. I hate to clean house. This is a big house. I could spend my entire life cleaning it. It’s a good thing to do when you need to let an idea cook. Or walking, I like to walk when I’m thinking about something.”

 “I feel like I was a lousy mother, although I think I probably wasn’t as bad as I thought I was. I mean, my daughter is fine, and she’s happily married, and she’s a very productive and nice human being, so I can’t have done that bad, but I had a lot of bad relationships and it was because of the work. I was really determined to succeed and also, it was the only way I had of earning a living. I never thought about doing anything else to make money. I had no financial support from Katrin’s father, at all. None. No money. We were really hand-to-mouth poor until my books started taking off a bit and I started getting some royalty returns. It was scary.” 

What picture books influenced her the most as a child? 
“My favorite book was Grimm’s Fairy Tales. There weren’t picture books the way we know them now when I was a kid. There were books with pictures in them, but the first picture books that I remember were Little Golden Books. I love Grimm’s Fairy Tales a lot. I grew up on them, I believed them. My rules for life were in Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I believed in that kind of good and evil, and that magic could happen. That you could walk along and find a magic stone. I believed that for a long time. And I don’t know, maybe I still kind of believe it only it just hasn’t happened yet. I loved Heidi. The book whose pictures influenced me the most was a book of Robert Louis Stevenson’s, A Child’s Garden of Verses with Jessie Willcox Smith’s illustrations. I loved those pictures. And they are beautiful. It was some of her best work. My family was German so I also grew up on Struwwelpeter.” 
Do you mean the poems by Dr. Heinrich Hoffman about torturing children, such as cutting off a child’s thumb if he sucks on it, I asked? 
“Yes, he’s awful! Who would give this stuff to kids to read! [Laughter] Two years ago I got sick and before that I was a smoker. And I smoked two packs a day for forty years. And I got really sick and they didn’t know what was wrong with me. It turned out to be rheumatoid arthritis. Two doctors said, “If you don’t stop smoking now, within six months you’re going to have to have your fingers amputated!” And all I could think of was Struwwelpeter! [Laughing] I stopped smoking. I did, cold turkey. I mean, come on, well, that could do it to you.” 
Of course you would, I said, that’s how you make your living, with your fingers.
“Well yeah, and not only that, if you have no fingers you can’t hold a cigarette! [More laughter] Struwwelpeter went through my mind first, which shows you how these stories can really stick with you.”

“When I got a little older, I discovered Howard Pyle. The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood and The Wonder Clock. I know that was a big influence. And then it wasn’t until I was in art school that I discovered guys like Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Walter Crane, all those Englishman were a big influence on me, but also Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth. But I think they were all working in the same way. All of them, Arthur Rackham, Howard Pyle, I mean they all have the same kind of storytelling art, very romantic, dramatic.” And what of contemporary illustrators? What did she think of them? While she admired the work of many of her peers, “nobody just knocks me dead.”

Speaking of Howard Pyle, I mentioned that Trina was a third generation descendant of his tradition. Her teacher Henry Pitz was taught by Thornton Oakley, who in turn was a student of Howard Pyle. 
“Henry Pitz was the head of the illustration department when I was in art school. He was my illustration teacher. I adored and respected that man. I don’t like his work all that much but he was a wonderful teacher and a gent. A really lovely man. So he was an influence on me. I had some good teachers at the Philadelphia College of Art, a bunch of old time guys that were good, good, terrific teachers.” 
Our discussion turned to the children’s book publishing industry and how it has changed over the years.
“Illustration has changed, books have changed, and publishing has changed. It’s changed a lot.” For the worse, I asked? “Oh yes, oh God yeah. When I started out in the early sixties, most major publishers, their fall list or their spring list would be at the most twenty-five or thirty books. And now they’re sixty or eighty. And I think that eighty percent of what’s on those lists is trash. It’s not worth the paper it’s printed on. I just don’t think it’s worth reading, and they wonder why they’re losing money. And so they publish more. They’re trying to compete with . .  I’m not sure what with, with TV, with video games or something, and they can’t. The minute that publishing started to be bought by big corporations . . . they started to go down hill. Every time a publishing house is bought or sold, they clean out everybody who’s there. So these editors start moving around.  I can’t tell you how many times I have started working on a book with one editor and wound up with another one before I am finished with the book. Art Directors are worse. You can’t have any continuity on a project when people are jumping around.”
“I have really largely dropped out. I made a conscious decision to do that.  Because I was so upset and unhappy with the way things were going with children’s books, and I also think that’s what  made me sick. So I decided ‘to hell with it’ and I cancelled seven book contracts, and paid back the advances. I kept the books only if the editors would agree to no deadline. Like, when I’m done, I’m done, and then you get the book. So that really just freed me up and that’s how I’m working now. I did finish a book last year, and I had fun! I had fun doing it because I didn’t feel under any pressure, and also, it’s nice to feel out of the competition of it. It is so competitive and I don’t think that’s good for any artist. That shouldn’t be what it’s about.”
I was curious if she came up with her own ideas or if an editor calls her with an idea. 
“They usually come to me. Once in a while I get an idea. That’s why I’m an illustrator. I get my ideas from the text. Lots of times, an editor will suggest a story and I will say ‘yes’ or ‘no’.” 
Is there a classical story that you are too intimidated to illustrate? Shakespeare perhaps? 
“Oy, Shakespeare!  [Laughing] I’ve been through Shakespeare. We could be here all day. Several times I’ve been approached by editors, let’s do Shakespeare or a Shakespeare collection. I think that Shakespeare belongs on the stage. That’s what it was written for and plays don’t read well. A picture book is not a play and I just don’t think it’s worth it. I have wondered if I could do adult stuff any more because I’ve been so brain washed by children’s books. That is one thing that children’s books has taken away from me, I think, is my original creativity as an artist. Occasionally I have done work for grown up magazines but even then it has a very . . . it’s not quite grown up enough. 
I have had big discussions with my peers, at school and online, about the difference between fine art and commercial art, and I wondered what Trina’s thoughts were. 
“There is a difference, oh yes, yes, yes. Commercial art is doing something for a client. When you’re doing something for a client, you have to please that client because he’s paying you for the job. So this includes the kind of fine art that’s portraiture, or commissioned murals. Or church paintings, they were all commissioned by the church. These painters couldn’t paint their wife naked in the bathtub, they had to paint the Virgin Mary and her dress had to be a certain color. That was commercial. Fine art is the artist painting or drawing something to find out the truth for himself. I think that’s a big difference. Most of art is a gray area. My friend who is a painter, I say that she is just as commercial as I am. She works for a gallery who tells her what the end subject is. Come one, what’s not commercial about that. To me, fine art is somebody like Van Gogh, nobody likes his paintings, he’s doing it for himself, he’s doing it to find something out or he has to. Nobody buys it, nobody likes it, he dies, and then he’s a genius. And there’s got to be people like that working.” 
In preparing Trina’s biography, I came across this rather caustic passage about Trina in “Illustrators of Children’s Books 1967-1976” by Lee Kingman:
“She feels strongly that at present illustrating for children’s books has lost its focus to the extent that “the real book illustration (i.e., illuminating a text and illustrating a story) tends to be overlooked and even ignored.” She ascribes this situation to children’s book reviewers, many of whom she feels to be “disgracefully incompetent to review illustration . . . because . . . they have no education in art, draughtsmanship, art history or design. All they have is personal opinion.” Their failure to realize that the illustrations are an integral part of the book can lead, she thinks, to the death of a book, or worse, to wild acclaim of a piece of artistic trash, and even to the loss of a career for an illustrator who is serious and dedicated and talented.”

These were pretty harsh words, and sounded very much like a response to a bad review. Though I can’t imagine any one criticizing Trina’s work, it did not take me long to find a critical review. When I questioned her about her comments, she replied exasperatedly, “I don’t know what I ever did for reviewers to hate me so!” Not that she feels that all of her bad reviews were undeserved, but she does feel like she has taken on a few more lumps than she deserves. She mentioned one reviewer, years ago, that she felt had it out for her, and never wrote a positive word about her. Thankfully, she never let them bother her or we wouldn’t have over 100 books illustrated by her today.

I was pleased when she brought me to see her studio upstairs, passing along the way a mural painted long ago on the stairwell wall. Though I couldn’t make out what it was, I knew it had been done years ago because the walls had been carefully painted around it. Although she considers her studio small (“too small to oil paint in”), most of us would probably be happy with a whole room devoted to our craft. It was the size of a normal bedroom and well-lit from windows on two walls. A multitude of books lined the bookshelves, as they did everywhere downstairs. 

I inquired about the oil-paintings that she’s been working on, which she pulled out of her closet for me to see. They were very different from her work for children’s books but definitely 'Trina'. I recall one that had tree trunks that had been cut and were bleeding. Another had angels. When I questioned her about the odd imagery, she mentioned that she still had issues about her younger sister’s death years ago that she was still working through. 

We quickly turned to happier images as she showed me the book she is currently working on. Written by her daughter Katrin, it is a collection of feminist folk tales from different countries, each with it’s own chapter heading and full page illustration. I cannot relate how exquisite, lively and colorful these images were! Perhaps it is because I was looking at the originals rather than the printed page, but they were breathtaking! It is clear that she is having as much fun working on these images as she says she is. But it will be a while before we see this book. Although she has been working on it for four years and has a great deal done, she claims that she still has much to do. Trust me, it will be worth the wait.

She showed me another delightful project that she just finished, a book of poems for each month of the year. The setting is her home, because it’s the place she knows best, and the cast of characters is her daughter’s family, because she can remember them best. With a twinkle in her eye, she exclaims that she can’t wait to see what the reviewers say about the interracial family! (1/2000 update: This book, A Child's Calendar by John Updike,was  just voted a Caldecott Honor Book for 2000! Congratulations Trina, I guess the critics liked it after all.)

I asked her whether or not she was satisfied with the way her work has been reproduced in books. She said she wasn’t usually, but she learned long ago not to let it bother her because she was the only one who knew what the originals looked like. 

I mentioned that in The Mechanical Doll, there were little images in the doll’s dress that kept changing and seemed to be telling a story. She said that she loves doing things like that and the thought of fabric that changes intrigues her. When asked why many of her illustrations have people looking out from the page at the reader, she replied that it was to draw the reader in. When asked what kind of books does she like to illustrate the most, I did not get the expected ‘Fairy Tales’ but ‘silly stories’! 

I couldn’t resist asking a few technical questions. What was her favorite color? Red. She saves it for last to punch up the other colors. Does she use black or sepia ink? Both. Why does she use acrylics like watercolors? Why not just use watercolors? They’re too hard to control. Is there a medium that she’s never tried but like to? No, not really. Did she formally study calligraphy in order to do her hand-lettering? No, that’s just what flows from her pencil. Does she work actual size? She has started working a little larger to make it easier to see. I marveled at the tinyness of some of her brushstrokes. Even though she is 20 years my senior, her eyesight is clearly better than mine could ever hope to be. 

With my time running short, I took a few snapshots and had her sign a couple of books for my sons. Before I took my leave, she said that I had to come and see her new love. She brought me out through the back door, past an outhouse (I didn’t ask!), to a fenced in area to meet the newest member of her menagerie, a donkey! Trina became smitten with Annie-Ruth about a year ago, and she now lives right along side of her sheep. A couple of juicy apples kept Ruth Ann one happy donkey!

As I was packing up my things, I realized how silly my apprehension had been. It was clear to me that words on the printed page, possibly taken out of context, cannot convey the tone of her gentle voice, nor see the smile on her face or her sense of humor. I have no doubt that Trina can hold her own in times of conflict, which may be one of the secrets to her success, but she certainly was not one of her scary goblins. 

I placed my tape recorder back in my bag, reassured that I would be able to visit Trina again and again through my trusty tape recording. But then I noticed that something didn’t look right. The little wheels were not turning. In all of my excitement, I had forgotten to turn the tape over!!!! (Soooooo professional!) I didn’t mention it to Trina, said my good-byes, and spent my drive home trying to remember everything we talked about. Well, Trina, as you read this, I have to admit, maybe you are right about technology after all!

Biography of Trina Schart Hyman

Books Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman

How I Work by Trina Schart Hyman

More Words of Wisdom from Trina Schart Hyman

© 1999–2002 Denise Ortakales
All Illustrations are copyright by their respective owners.
This page last updated on 24 August 2002.

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