Last week, Greg Pizzoli, who graduated from Millersville in 2005 with a B.A. in English Literature and a minor in Fine Arts, won the Theodore Seuss Geisel Award for his book, “The Watermelon Seed.”
The award, issued by the American Library Association (ALA), is given to “the most distinguished American book for beginning readers published in English in the United States during the preceding year,” according to the ALA’s press release.
After graduating, Pizzoli spent two years with AmeriCorps, the first in Rhode Island working at a community arts center, and the second at Temple University. He received his Master’s in Book Arts/Printmaking from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and went on to teach screen printing and illustration there as well. Furthermore, his own work has won many awards and has been included in over a dozen exhibitions. Last Monday, The Snapper was lucky enough to be able to interview him.
Snapper: When did you first know that you wanted to be an author-illustrator?
Greg Pizzoli: I was an English major and took art classes … screen printing was the one where I was immediately really hooked. I didn’t take that till the second semester of my junior year. Then I was in Rhode Island, where I was in AmeriCorps for two years working at a community arts center, and I set up my own screen printing shop. That put me on a path to making my life about visual art.
Snapper: Who are your favorite illustrators/authors of children’s books?
Greg: I’m a big Maurice Sendak fan—probably my favorite book that he illustrated is called “How Little Laurie Visited Times Square.” I also like Richard Scarry, Mary Blair, Jim Flora—a lot of the flat, graphic illustrative style. I like illustration from the ‘50s and ‘60s, stuff from that time period, because they’re only using two or three colors. “The Watermelon Seed” is printed in three colors.
Ed Emberly, who’s most famous for those how-to-draw books, where you put the shapes together, I really like. I used to get his books out of the library when I was a kid.
As far as contemporary illustrators, I really like Bob Shea, although, full disclosure, he’s a friend of mine. I originally contacted him because I liked his work so much.
Snapper: Who are your favorite grown-up book authors?
GP: When I was at Millersville, I got really into contemporary Scottish literature. I got really into Irvine Welsh, who wrote “Trainspotting.” I like books by people like Malcolm Gladwell—who has recently lost credibility—and Steven Johnson. Books that tell how people think and how society works.
I do nonfiction picture books too, so now I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction for adults in the subjects I’m writing about. My nonfiction books will be coming out in ’15 and ’16 and they’ll be for ages 8-14. With picture books, you turn the book in about a year before it comes out, because they need time to do promotion.
One book is about a con artist who lived in the early 20th century. He tried to sell the Eiffel tower for scrap metal—a classic smooth-talking con man in a nice suit. He escaped from prison once by tying sheets together and climbing down the wall and washing the windows, just pretending he was a window-washer. For that, I had to read a lot about the Eiffel tower, Paris and him, to try to get the mood right and make sure everything looks appropriate and feels appropriate in the language.
So far, I’ve illustrated five children’s books, only one of which is out right now.
Snapper: What’s your illustration process like?
GP: “The Watermelon Seed” is parts screen printed, parts with a Wacom tablet on Photoshop. Whatever I’m doing, it’s a combination of doing things by hand and using the computer. For the book about the con artist, I used a lot of collage and rubber stamps.
Snapper: What inspires your subject matter?
GP: I wish I knew. That I could just press a button and get a new one. My book “Number One Sam” is about dealing with what it means to be friends. If you ever see kids on a playground, one of them is always proclaiming he or she is the best at everything. [It’s about how it feels when a friend is better than you at something.]
“The Watermelon Seed” … the character has swallowed a watermelon seed and is afraid something is wrong with him. A lot of people are hypochondriacs; kids and adults can have these feelings. I guess I try to translate my own anxieties into kid language … as a kid, you’re anxious about these things that you don’t have control over.
Snapper: Have you done any illustration for other people’s writing?
GP: Yes. I don’t really put that kind of stuff on my website because it’s in a different style than the work I do for my books. I’ve done some for McSweeney’s — Their one publication is called The Goods, which has a kids’ theme.
Snapper: What was that?
GP: It was a kids’ insert in the San Francisco Chronicle, published by McSweeney’s. Almost like a section of the paper.
To see more of Greg Pizzoli’s work, visit his website: gregpizzoli.virb.com.