Milwaukee Talks: children's books illustrator Linda Bleck
Mequon-based illustrator Linda Bleck has done all kinds of work, from banners and shopping bags at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo to packaging for Microsoft to illustrations for Bacardi Rum adverts. But parents and kids will likely know her best for her series of books featuring the always-smiling, always-romping Pepper the dog.
Recently, she got what might be considered among the most prestigious jobs for an artist working in children's publishing. She was hired to illustrate a long-lost manuscript by Margaret Wise Brown, author of "Goodnight Moon" and "The Runaway Bunny," among many others.
The Illinois native settled in the Milwaukee area a few years ago and we caught up with her to talk about her background, her work and what it's like to collaborate, posthumously, with one of the most popular children's books authors of all time.
OnMilwaukee.com: Can you tell us a bit about how you came to be a "Milwaukeean"?
LB: I arrived here in Milwaukee eight years ago by way of, Madison, Marshfield, Chicago and New York. My husband took a job in the area as we discussed settling in the Midwest to be closer to family. I grew up in Waukegan, Ill., where my parents still live. We both feel that is very important to be near family when raising a family.
OMC: You grew up in an artistic house, didn't you?
LB: My father is an architect and my mother was trained as an interior architect, but after raising nine children all she wanted to do was be an illustrator. She embarked on her career at the age of 45 and became a Hallmark freelance artist.
OMC: Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?
LB: Many of my siblings were also in the arts. I was lucky to be the seventh of nine children. My oldest brother is a dentist and then follows a brother who is an industrial designer, sister that is an accomplished illustrator, another sister who is a graphic designer, a brother who is an architect, and my sister who s year older is a physical therapist. She takes care of our backs.
OMC: What was your first big break in the business?
LB: I didn't know that I wanted to be an illustrator. I thought I wanted to be scientist in grade school. I loved the science fairs! I think I liked doing the posters the best. By high school I knew I wanted to be a designer of some sort, especially after taking advanced chemistry and struggling with stoichiometry problems. I simple lost interest in becoming a scientist. I became obsessed with great design, drawing and painting.
OMC: Is having your own series, like Pepper, considered a prestigious accomplishment?
LB: My biggest break in the children's book market was having my Pepper Book concept accepted by Simon and Schuster. I had created some comps of pop up books with paper mechanics. I guess that's where my science interest came in. They had accepted "Pepper Goes to School" and before they could say no I created three other book concepts using Pepper as the main character. Then it started to roll after that. I received a four-book deal with Sterling Publishers and a three book series with Dutton. The work has been steady for six years now.
I should mention that I didn't just wake up one day and say I think I'll publish a book and then the next day I got a letter saying we like your idea. I had worked as an editorial illustrator for 15 years. I illustrated package designs, display posters, zoo signage and many articles on business, science, health, etc. Making the transition was hard work and sheer determination.
I'm not sure if I look at Pepper as prestigious, but in the world of publishing and looking back I say WOW what a break! This business is so hard to crack. I often take pause and thank my lucky stars. I think there is someone routing for me up there.
OMC: Are they purely entertainment, do they have an overarching message, are they aimed at teaching something specific?
LB: For the most part Pepper is a source of entertainment for children, it is categorized as a novelty book. There is no deep-seated message other than Pepper always tries to be good. The books are pure. It 's a perfect world with absolutely no conflict. That was hard concept to sell. Editors love conflict
OMC: How did you come to illustrate "The Moon Shines Down"?
LB: "The Moon Shines Down" arrived on my desk in late 2007. The manuscript had been acquired by Thomas Nelson Publishing. I had met Amy Gary, the person responsible for getting her hands on the undiscovered manuscripts at an illustrator's conference eight years prior. I wasn't even in the children's business at that point. Ironically, she told me all about this discovery. That 's one of the moments in life you say what a "quink-e-dink." But in short the art director from Thomas Nelson had seen my work from the "Children's Treasury" series published by Sterling and it reminded her of Clement Hurd, illustrator of "Goodnight Moon."
OMC: Was it a daunting task to work, posthumously, with such a revered author?
LB: I rather separated my self from the pressure of duplicating "Goodnight Moon" and trying to impress Miss Margaret Wise Brown, God bless her soul. Have you ever had that pressure of shooting a free-throw that will win a game or sinking a 10-foot putt to win a match? Well, that's not easy to work under that kind of pressure. Rather I thought of it as any other book I would illustrate with the attitude of "How can I make this a beautiful piece of artwork?"
OMC: We've found Margaret Wise Brown's prose to be sometimes really oblique and her rhyme scheme kind of like a 13-bar blues. Did you encounter that?
LB: I read the manuscript several times and it lacked a bit of rhythm. It's hard to tell if she meant it to be this way; after all it was locked in a chest written on sketch paper, not completed.
Laura Minchew wrote the adaptation. At that point I decided what I needed to do was create a third-person character that could travel from place to place and make sense of the text. The artwork needed to stand on its own merits. I didn't channel Miss Brown, but took a guess at what she might have been trying to do with the theme. No matter where you are in the world you are blessed.
The story is based on an old sampler prayer. I know from experience that children love identifying with characters and following something on a journey. The one element I did pick up from her previous moon book was the tiny mouse and the need to find him on every page. I can only hope that Miss Brown would be pleased at the end result, but what really counts is if my little readers like it.
OMC: I see you also do illustrations for the New Yorker and other publications. Of this varied work you do, what do you find most satisfying?
LB: At this point the children's illustrating is most satisfying. I enjoyed my previous accomplishments as an editorial illustrator, but onto the next phase of this career. It's wonderful to have something that stays on a shelf longer than a month or day. As in any creative field you never know what project and path your career will take. You can guide it, but the winds push it along. I would never guess this is where I'd be today if you asked me 20 years ago, "What will you be doing as an illustrator in 2010?"
OMC: Can you tell us what you're working on at the moment?
LB: Along with being a full-time mom of two kids ages 10 and 13 I am working on "The Longest Day: Celebrating the Summer Solstice ,"as well as starting a new book for the "Children's Treasury" series published by Sterling. I continue to write and concept new ideas. I need to be hush-hush about those.
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