Today we are excited to welcome to Poetry Teatime the wonderfully creative children’s poet and illustrator, Betsy Snyder. After illustrating everything from greeting cards to children’s books, Betsy shifted gears and started writing and illustrating her own books. Her first few books introduce haikus to the very young, and she's been busy working with sounds and images ever since!
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Welcome to Poetry Teatime, Betsy! Let’s start off with a question about beginnings. When you are writing and illustrating your own books, do you start with an idea for an image or with words, stories, or lines of poetry?
It's really hard to say what comes first because the process of writing and illustrating is so interconnected for me. I think the project dictates the process, so every book evolves a little differently. I am probably an artist first—even when I begin a project with writing, I usually have an idea in my mind of what the illustration might look like. For my haiku books, the haikus came first, but I would also do thumbnail sketches as I was writing.
For my novelty books that are more format-driven, like Have You Ever Tickled a Tiger? (Random House) and my I Can… series (Chronicle Books), I explored the images first and then wrote to the art. But I always have to go back and forth between the art and the words to get the marriage just right.
Your books on haikus, Haiku Baby, I Haiku You, and Haiku Night, are delightful and beautifully illustrated. Why did you choose the haiku style? Why do you think simplicity (in images and words) is so appealing to young ones?
I love the simplicity AND depth that haikus can achieve. When I had the initial idea for "Haiku Baby”, my first authored book, I didn’t find many haiku board books in the market. I saw an opportunity to bring this poetic form to the youngest of audiences in a playful and inviting way. Haikus were a perfect fit for capturing the magic of a child’s first experiences with nature.
Haikus make me think of how children see and interact with the world, moment by moment. They foster that sensory exploration and connection to nature that is so central to a child's world. Haikus encourage us to peel away all of the layers of our busy, complex lives to focus on one single moment—this is something that comes so naturally to children but that all of us need to be reminded of.
What’s your favorite artistic medium to use?
I like different media for different reasons. I appreciate the control and forgiveness that cut paper, collage and printmaking offer. Assembling my final art digitally allows me even more of this control. But I also love the washy, gestural quality and unpredictable "happy accidents" of ink and watercolor—this medium teaches me to loosen up and be more spontaneous with my art making.
What is the research process like for your books, whether the ones you illustrate or the ones you both illustrate and write?
Part of my research process is looking to see what other books are out there in the same vein. I don't want to be redundant—I want my idea to offer something new. I read up on a topic if I need to. A “brain dump” of word lists and thumbnail sketches always helps clear my head when it gets too busy. Or if I’m having the opposite problem—when I’m feeling stuck and the ideas aren’t flowing—I look at lots of things that inspire me. Sometimes, I need to put my ideas aside and give them time to percolate—it’s often the "getting away" part that allows answers to come—like during a walk or hike or shower when I’m not forcing them.
Your digital illustrations often use collages. What are some of the strengths and limitations of collaging? Do you see any connection between the method of collaging and your writing process?
The strengths of collaging, both by hand and digitally, are being able to test out and refine parts of the art until I get it just right. I can try out different colors, patterns and textures and use layers to add depth and interest. When I assemble my collages digitally, editing is easy at any stage.
The weakness of collage is the same as its strength—having TOO much control. And sometimes making decisions and moving forward is hard with so many options. The challenge, especially digitally, is retaining some spontaneity so the art doesn't feel stiff and overworked. I always aim for my digital work to still have a hand-touched feel—I don’t want it to look TOO polished or perfect.
Interesting—I never really considered the connection between collaging and writing (haikus), but I definitely see some parallels! Whether it’s working with cut paper or with words and syllables, both creative processes are all about mixing and matching and rearranging the pieces of the puzzle together to get the just-right fit.
We love that connection! Now you've said in an interview that, in your crazy wild dreams, you'd love to team up with a museum. How do you think that the experiential process of museums aligns with artwork and writing? Or, to ask a slightly different question, you've got some picture books that are interactive. How do you think being able to explore the environment of the page affects the reading process?
A child's first experience with books is very sensory and physical. It's about learning to navigate the form of the book—touching and turning (and sometimes even eating!) the pages. Novelty books give little ones an open invitation to touch and explore in a world full of DO NOT TOUCH signs. I love making books that are hands-on and format-based because they draw kids in on a whole other level, truly connecting them to the page and experience, and hopefully, sparking an early interest in reading.
One of the wonderful things about your books is that they appeal to even very young kids. What difference does age make when you are illustrating and writing your books?
Age is everything. I really strive to connect my words and art with the developmental stage that my child audience is in—that is the place where I always begin and where I always go back to. In the early years, there is a heavy emphasis on the visual and tactile experience of books because vocabulary is limited. But at the same time, I also like weaving in a few more sophisticated words—because what better way to expand a child's vocabulary than with books, right? I really enjoy thinking about who I am creating for and understanding what interests, motivates and challenges them—it makes the creative process much more personal and rewarding for me, and I hope it makes the reading experience more engaging and intimate, too!
And, just for fun, if you could illustrate on one surface you haven't yet (a building, the side of an airplane...) what would it be?
How about three surfaces? 1. An exhibit—I’d still love to work with a museum (or aquarium or zoo)! 2. The screen—because I’d love to see my characters hop off the page and come to life through animation. 3. Bedding—so kids can literally snuggle up to my art.
Thanks so much for joining us today, Betsy! If you’d like to see more of Betsy’s work, you can check out her website here. Also, be sure to read her poetry books Haiku Baby, Haiku Night, I Haiku You, Have You Ever Tickled a Tiger?, and Sweet Dreams Lullaby.