Sergio Ruzzier’s newest book is a special one. Granted, I always like to see what he’s up to in the world of picture books, but Roar Like a Dandelion(Harper, October 2019) is a text from the legendary author Ruth Krauss, who penned over 30 books for children and died in 1993. This is a text that hasn’t seen the light of day until now. (You can read more about that here.) As scholar and author Philip Nel wrote in this post that I highly recommend you read: “For the first time in 32 years, there is a new book by Ruth Krauss!” That exclamation mark is warranted.
Roar Like a Dandelion (whom Sergio dedicates to Maurice Sendak, a frequent collaborator with Krauss) is a picture book filled with details to entertain young readers (or those nestled snugly on your lap, ready to listen), as well as 47-year-olds, like me. It is an alphabet book and a series of imperative sentences (though not necessarily commands, as Sergio notes below!) that celebrate, as Nel puts it, a “slightly surrealist sense of humor–curious juxtapositions and nonsensical improvisations.” The first sentence kicks off things with a word that begins with the letter “A” (“Act like a sprinkler in summer”); the second, the letter “B”; and so on. These are illustrations, rendered in Ruzzier’s signature style, that truly extend the text in playful and unexpected ways: “Butt like a billy goat” features a rabbit butting (or attempting to butt) a rhino, his small, furry head pushing against the rhino’s backside, and “Quack by a waterfall” depicts a loud duck in a tub with water flowing from the faucet, a mouse nearby covering his ears.
These are full-bleed illustrations without borders; no lines can contain the abundant imagination of Krauss. I think my favorite illustration (though it’s hard to pick on account of the very funny “Make music” spread) is: “Look under the bed for poetry.” Krauss was an author who regularly captured the poetry in the uninhibited, deeply creative, and often wonderfully irreverent language of children (such as, in Open House for Butterflies, originally published in 1960), so I find this moment especially fitting.
Roar is a book that rewards readers who take their time. Observant eyes will notice spreads featuring repeat characters: Elephants, for instance, who fall from the sky in one spread (“Fall like rain)” appear later on the “J” spread. (They are, of all the things, jumping like raindrops in this spread. Seeing elephants jump like raindrops is, delightfully, the last thing you’d expect to see. Herein lies one of the book’s many charms.) Or look closely at the dandelion on the title page spread–and then again in the book’s final illustration. Oh, and don’t forget to check the back dust jacket. (Clue: See the sketch opening this post.) That’s to say: This is a book to linger over. Do so, and you’re rewarded.
Sergio visits today to talk about the book. The post includes many of his early drawings, and he shares some final art, too. I thank him for visiting.(I also highly recommend that anyone interested in this book listen to this wonderful episode at one of my favorite children’s literature podcasts, Jennifer Laughran’s Literaticast. In this episode, Jennifer talks to Nancy Inteli, the book’s editor; Philip Nel, mentioned above, who wrote Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature, which was published in 2012; and Sergio. You will hear there, as you can also read in the Publishers Weekly article linked above, that Krauss wrote alternate sentences for some of the letters, and Sergio chose the ones he thought best fit this book.)
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Sergio: Roar Like a Dandelion explains perfectly why I love being an illustrator. When I first read the manuscript, I immediately felt that the words were asking to have a conversation with the drawings. That’s the best condition an illustrator can wish to be in. I immediately started doing rough little doodles on the margin of the paper. They came naturally, with little effort, as if I were, in fact, chatting with Ruth. I wish I could show them here, but I am afraid I lost them during my recent move. Most of those initial pointball pen sketches became the final illustrations with very little adjustments, aside for the ones requested by the nib and the brush. this book.
Ruth Krauss wrote some of the most original and extraordinary picture books ever published. I am reading Robert Hughes’ (excellent) biography of Goya right now and this paragraph made me think of Ruth:
A writer on music who had not thought about Beethoven, or a literary critic who had never read the novels of Charles Dickens–what would such a person’s views be worth, what momentum could they possibly acquire? They would not be worth taking seriously. Goya was one of these seminal artists.
Seminal is one apt definition of Ruth Krauss. Any person involved in picture books, who was not familiar with her work, would not be worth taking seriously. Goya was one of the seminal artists.
My favorite among her many books is probably A Hole to Dig, illustrated, as anyone knows, by a young Maurice Sendak. I wonder how come he was never asked to illustrate Roar Like a Dandelion. It would have been perfect for him, as his other books with Ruth. I mean, I’m not complaining, and I feel very fortunate that the manuscript for Roar was left in a drawer for so long, all but forgotten–until now. To think that she was working on it around the time I was born! I think Roar Like a Dandelion is very close, in spirit, to A Hole Is To Dig.
Talking of Goya, one of his well-known etchings somehow entered my mind when I read the line [in Roar] “Paint the picture of a cage with an open door and wait.” It’s called The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, and you might see how it inspired me.
In that same picture of mine, I decided to have the mouse paint the cage purple–and if you know that Ruth was married to, and collaborated with, Crockett Johnson, you will understand why I chose that color.
The sentences for this book, which Ruth arranged alphabetically, could be read independently, one by one. Or in any order, not necessarily from A to Z, if one was to follow her advice to “Walk backward all the way home.”
I like to think these are not commands, as some people wrote. I don’t think that would be very Krauss-like. They are more like suggestions, prompts, encouragements. And I accepted them as such when illustrating them. One of the many licenses I took was to connect some of the episodes through my drawings, having characters reappear in different situations: One can find the cat, the elephants, the mouse, and others on more than one page. That way, I felt I could give the book a needed unity. There are a bunch of hidden things in my illustrations, but I’d rather let the readers find those by themselves–or discover others I might not even be aware of.
I cannot talk about Roar without mentioning how pleasant it was to work with HarperCollins editorial director Nancy Inteli, as well as art director Dana Fritts. I will forever be indebted to Nancy for thinking of me when choosing the illustrator and for guiding me throughout the process. Dana is the most consummate and open-minded designer an illustrator can hope to collaborate with, and her choices were always elegant and just right. I hope people will like this book as much I liked working on it.
ROAR LIKE A DANDELION. Text copyright (c) 2019 by The Ruth Krauss Foundation Inc. Illustrations copyright (c) 2019 by Sergio Ruzzier. Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All images reproduced by permission of Sergio Ruzzier.
Julie Davidson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at her acclaimed blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books. The above blog posted at 7-Imp on October 29, 2019.