Meeting Paul O. Zelinsky: the man behind the books your kids have chewed, read, and loved

April 25, 2014

WheelscropWhen children’s book illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky was first starting out, he took a bus from New Haven to New York City to show his work to an editor at The New York Times. The meeting got him his first assignment with the paper. Back in New Haven a few days later, he saw his work in print.

“Hey, Zelinsky,” a professor said, calling into his studio, “there’s a cartoonist at The Times with your name.”

I was in the art gallery of my daughter’s school when I heard Zelinksy tell this story. The room was full of parents, some of us clutching tattered or newly purchased copies of his Wheels on the Bus, or Italian Renaissance- inspired Rapunzel. When it comes to children’s book illustrators, Zelinksy is revered by parents in part because we feel smarter after looking at his books with our children. We’re fed by his artistic skill and beauty, the emotion behind it, and his humor. And we wouldn’t be fooling anyone if we said it was only our children who liked to “lift-the flap” or “pull-the-tag” on his versions of Wheels on the Bus and Knick Knack Paddywhack.

Zelinsky’s career illustrating books spans thirty-five years, but when he was an art student at Yale, he told us, the word “illustration” was a dirty word. It was used to describe the most perfunctory work; nothing akin to art.

That changed, at least for him, after a course his sophomore year on the history and making of the picture book. The class was organized by a fellow student, who, “…found Maurice Sendak’s number in the phone book,” and convinced him to co-teach the class.

So the young man from Yale, who was raised in Illinois, and now lives in New York, would go on to become one of the most recognized and respected illustrators of his generation. His classmate in that class with Sendak, Sandra Boynton, hasn’t done so badly herself.

But it was Zelinksy whose work covered the walls of the gallery that day I met him.  He didn’t often see his work on exhibit, he said.  There were sketches in pencil; illustrations in full color, mounted behind glass; and a few enlarged replicas of pages with flaps, a type of book he makes in collaboration with a paper engineer.

“It takes a year,” he told me, when I asked him about the process.

He showed us a contraption he made to allow him to be more precise when matching text to illustrations in certain styles of books.  He mounted teleprompter glass at a 45-degree angle. The glass projects an illustration onto a surface where he can then draw the letters of the text, confident everything will fit when printed.

As I looked at Zelinksy with his invention, I had to think that this artist must have inherited something from his mom and dad, a medical illustrator and a mathematician.

He was in high school when his art teacher told him about a few colleges that had good art programs. He applied to three, he said, and got into Yale. I think many of us, big and small, are glad he became an illustrator.

rapunzel

Whenever a group of parents is in the presence of an exemplary individual in a profession, the elephant in the room, of course, is the question: how do my children become like you?

Most of us can’t bring ourselves to say anything more than, “we love your work,” but the conceit is palpable.

The path Zelinksy described, in his own affable and rather modest way, was one that stands in contrast to the ways of today in some respects. But it would be a mistake to say that things were easier then, or opportunities more plentiful. Not for all, certainly, considering that classmate, Sandra Boynton, entered Yale just one year after it went coed. (And the ratio of men to women in 1969, the first year of coeducation, was 8:1.)

But what is certainly true is the fact that Zelinsky pursued his art without an initial ambition to be a best-selling children’s book illustrator, whose Wheels on the Bus, alone, has sold more than 1 million copies. Art. Passion. Initiative. And most interesting: no discussion of parental pressure or anxiety driving the process.

I asked, Nancy Weinstein, my colleague, who was at the lecture with me, what she thought. It was only a few hours later, she said, that she made the connection to her own work and life as a mother.

“And so now I’m left wondering how he was parented,” she said, “were his parents supportive of pursuing a career in the arts? What gave him the courage to pursue an illustration career that was considered a “dirty word” behind ivy walls?  When I put on my own parenting lens, I wonder how we can give our children the courage to pursue their dreams yet teach them and influence them when they need it.  Will we be able to “let go” as I imagine Zelinsky’s parents did?”

The next time we see him, instead of asking about the flaps in Knick Knack Paddywhack, we need to remember to ask him about that.

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