An Important Interview with Sarah Jacoby

Friends, every now and then a book comes along that we believe should be on every shelf. The most recent entrant into that rarefied category is The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown. Written by our dear friend Mac Barnett and illustrated by rising star Sarah Jacoby, it's simply sublime. In 42 gorgeous pages—one for each year of Margaret Wise Brown's extraordinary life—Barnett and Jacoby create a moving, empowering portrait of a fascinating woman who forever changed the landscape of children's literature. The lovely text and stunning illustrations combine to create one of the most beautiful and—yes—important picture books we've ever seen.

We're offering a special preorder campaign to support the book—when you preorder a copy of The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown before May 16, we'll send you a first edition that's signed by Sarah and signed and personalized by Mac. Check out our Q&A with Sarah below, then scroll to the bottom of the page to learn more about our exclusive offer. And stay tuned for an interview with Mac, coming soon! 

What's the most surprising thing you learned about Margaret Wise Brown during the course of this book?

I was unaware of Margaret’s artistic temperament. I did know that she changed the way humans create books for children, but I did not know how. I think it was this temperament that ultimately enabled her to make such an impact on the form. I learned she was deeply interested in play and imagination and that was something she worked very hard to apply to her books. This intrigued me, as I think it’s something with which picture book makers still grapple. At the time of her writing, books were much more oriented towards morality and lesson learning. I loved witnessing her specific sense of creativity through her journals. It was just so boundless; it’s no surprise that she was able to think so creatively about book making and to ultimately make such a great impact.

Do you have a favorite book of hers? Or perhaps a new favorite that you discovered while working on this project?

Honesty time: I only knew a few of her books when I embarked on this project. That said, the ones I knew I knew very deeply. Runaway Bunny was a childhood favorite of mine. I think it’s still my favorite. The art was so striking I recall that it made me a little anxious as a kid; in a thrilling kind of way.

Now I’m really into the books that Margaret made with Esphyr Slobodkina. Esphyr was the coolest (she made Caps For Sale). She was Russian and very into avant garde art in the mid-'30s. Esphyr used a very graphic/design-y approach when she worked with Margaret—check out the original version of The Little Firemen. It’s all simple, blocky shapes. Very, very different for that era of picture books.

You’ve created gorgeous illustrations that bring the story to life. What kind of research did you do on your subject, and what were your artistic influences?

Thank you for the compliments! It’s funny—no one tells you how much research you need to do to make a non-fiction book. I just received Mac’s manuscript. That’s it.

I once saw Sophie Blackall speak about the research she did for Finding Winnie. She did so much work. She traveled. She looked at archives. She met people. That was all inspirational to me. I believe it’s very important to get as close as possible to the thing you’re trying to visually describe—for me it’s often about “vibe.” Sophie taught me how to approach getting at the “vibe.” 

I went to the New York Public library a lot. I visited the Hollins University Archives in Virginia, and I traveled to The Only House up in Vinalhaven, Maine with a fellow named Jim Boone—a local expert on Margaret’s property. He gave me a marvelous tour. You can check out some of the research I did on a process blog I made

I was influenced by the illustrators that Margaret worked with—folks like Clement Hurd, Leonard Weisgard, Garth Williams, and Esphyr. Even Ylla. All of these artists have strong native styles. In that way, I was influenced to make art that was true to my natural way of making art (watercolor and pastel, painterly) as opposed to doing work that doesn’t come as naturally, like flat color or collage. It just so happens that my style also lends itself well to classic-feeling stuff, so that worked out well. Also: I did try and visually quote Margaret’s books. You’ll see a bunch of wash-y spots like Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny use. I once tried to use the Goodnight Moon colors—that turned out horribly. They’re very tricky. Kudos to Clement.

Which spread was your favorite to illustrate?

Gosh. I love them all for different reasons. I think the duck is very funny. I also really like the casewrap—it’s Margaret hanging out with Crispian in a field with a bunch of funny bunnies. It was the last thing I did and I think it’s a lovely little surprise.

We love the detail in your work. Are there any hidden Easter eggs in the illustrations that you can share with us?

Did you see the bunnies in the modern times library? One of them is supposed to be a little Mac and one of them is supposed to be a little me. 

There is also a scene with a horse and a flower cart. That is a real horse that I saw when I was visiting the Hollins University Archives. I had fun imagining Margaret riding her. I learned from her yearbook that she was in the riding club.

You’ll notice that there is a flower pattern running through the book. If you look closely, you’ll see it withering over time.

Also! If you look closely you’ll notice that all of the historical-time images of Margaret doing things have a slight border. That’s to indicate that these images are contained by something-like the book the modern librarian bunny is reading. Everything else is full bleed.

Is that enough secrets for now? There are more....

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