ARCHIVE: Elise on Life, Laughs and Lessons

EliseBookChildren’s book writer and illustrator Elise Primavera displays the latest in her best-selling AUNTIE CLAUS series at her Red Bank home studio. The award-winning author visits two area bookstores this weekend, to read from two new titles. (Photos by Diana Moore)

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit November 23, 2009)

When last we looked in on Elise Primavera — with a feature that appeared in 2007 on our mothership site redbankgreen — the Red Bank-based author and illustrator of the best-selling Auntie Claus series for young readers was explaining the origins behind her latest character creations, a couple of monster-obsessed young goofs named Fred and Anthony.

Just a couple of short years later, Fred and Anthony have run their course through four titles of their series — but the Red Bank Catholic grad (who came back to the borough to live full-time in 1997) is evidently busier than ever, with new characters, new collaborations, two recently published titles — and a slate of personal appearances that will make her very visible in the greater Red Bank area’s bookstores this weekend.

The two new books that Primavera will be promoting through readings and signings will include Auntie Claus Home for the Holidays, the third title in the popular series, and a story in which young Sophie Kringle gets to spend a magical Christmas in New York with her favorite aunt (and Santa’s sister) Auntie Claus.

Also out this fall is Louise the Big Cheese, the first in a fun new series of stories about a take-charge little girl named, oddly enough, Louise Cheese. It’s a project that also marks the first professional partnership of writer Primavera and her friend, the Caldecott Award-winning illustrator Diane Goode.

On the afternoon of Saturday, November 28, the author leaves her home on Hubbard Park and ventures just down the road to River Road Books in Fair Haven — that resolutely indie cranny of local culture that Primavera’s praised as “better organized” than the corporate megastores when it comes to live story circles for the kids. She’ll be hosting a reading and signing copies of her latest published works and more — quite possibly including The Secret Order of the Gumm Street Girls, her first foray into chapter book novels for young readers.

Even though the author likes to keep things indie-intimate, she’ll hardly be ignoring the megastores, as this Sunday the 29th finds her taking it to the brand new Barnes & Noble outlet at Monmouth Mall for a 2pm signing session.

Red Bank oRBit paid a visit to Elise Primavera at her sunny and spacious home studio in Red Bank; a place where projects of all shapes and sizes get born and nurtured, and a place that — equipped as it is with reassuringly well-used art supplies, cheerfully paint-splotched furniture and a playful wire-haired dachshund named Lulu — is one happy house of ideas. Continue Reading for the scoop on Primavera projects past, present and future.


A happy and healthy Lulu rejoins Elise Primavera at their shared Red Bank studio.

RED BANK ORBIT: When you stop in at River Road Books, you’ll be promoting the newest in your AUNTIE CLAUS series, and also the first in a brand new series. What can you tell us about that one? 

ELISE PRIMAVERA: It’s called Louise the Big Cheese, and it’s the first of four titles that we’re planning to do altogether — the second one will be out in February. It’s also the first time that I’ve worked with another illustrator — Diane Goode, who’s a good friend of mine, from Watchung. We work well together, we can commiserate about things, and we’re working with my editor from Harcourt.

The books are aimed at girls between 5 and 8 years old; they’re considered to be bridge books, a bridge between picture books and chapter books, and they use speech bubbles in addition to the text, like a hybrid of a picture book and a comic book. They’re about a girl named Louise Cheese, whose whole deal is that she’s always full of big ideas, but somehow never gets to become the Big Cheese. The theme is that even though it can be fun to be the big cheese, it’s not always what it’s cracked up to be.

Well, the book looks great and it seems like the two of you really achieved a good working balance. Now how about some of these other projects that are strewn around your studio in various states of completion?   

Well, I’ve been working on a book called Thumb Love — it’s sort of a 12-step program on how to kick the thumbsucking habit, with a story-within-the-story in which a girl explains how she did it. (She shows a page of pen sketches for the work in progress) Here you see her encasing her thumb in Play Doh, then putting hot sauce on top of it, then putting a sock over it, and finally putting her whole arm underneath her body when she sleeps.

Just about everybody goes through the thumbsucking thing — it’s hard to believe that nobody’s really done a book like this before.   

I know, it seems like a natural for a children’s book! And while I’m working on this plus the next Louise book, I’m also planning to start on a chapter book for 8 to 12 year old girls, called Libby of Hi-Hopes. I’ll be starting that in January; doing writing mostly, along with black and white spot illustrations and the cover art.

So would this be your first foray into books for slightly older readers, with chapters of text and just a few pictures?   

No, I did my first chapter book in 2006 — Gumm Street, which is still in print. In fact, it’s been optioned by Sony for a film, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed about that one. I honestly don’t know where that one came from — I’d never written anything resembling a novel before, and I can’t believe I wrote and illustrated it too. It took me about 3 years to complete it, and I suppose I’ll do another one someday when I have 3 years to devote to it!

I have to ask you, in between this flurry of activity, what’s become of the FRED AND ANTHONY series.   

That one unfortunately turned into just a complete mess when everybody I worked with at the publisher left — by the third book the situation there had totally changed, and now the books are basically out of print. But I have the rights back to them, and I’m either going to try to sell them, or I have an idea based on that series; I’m thinking of rewriting Fred and Anthony as Frankie and Stanley — Frankie and Stanley in Dracland.

Well, from the looks of things you certainly have a lot of irons in the fire right now.   

It’s tough work, it really is — I do everything, the business end, the taxes, but I need to keep working constantly and I never stop. I’m always working to meet deadlines, and something always comes up like my dog, my baby Lulu needing surgery on her back. Being a dachshund, you know, they tend to develop spine and back problems as they get older, and I spent seven thousand dollars with the vet! She’s just come out of her crate for the first time in six weeks; just now allowed to run around the house and play.

So you can see how when you’re an artist you need to stay busy. And I don’t do this for the money — there are a lot of easier ways to make money. It’s just that there’s nothing else that I can do!

You’ve said before that you studied fashion; you were going to work as a fashion illustrator…   

Fashion illustration, of all things — can you imagine a line of clothing designed by me?

I dunno, might be really playful and cool from the looks of things. I love your breezy style, and the way your main characters just kind of take life by the horns and turn the situation around to their way of doing things. Anyway, something happened there, something turned you off of fashion work and onto book illustration. What might that have been?  

I went to Moore College of Art in Philadelphia, and I was doing a lot of riding of horses at the time; I had my horse and I lived in Pennsylvania near the Brandywine River Museum — I would go there and see all this amazing work by Howard Pyle,N. C. WyethJessie Willcox Smith — I looked at them and said I could do this! Fashion for me wasn’t interesting; I wanted to try something new.

And when you embarked on your first book project, you didn’t have any little kids in your life? No nieces or nephews or anything?   

No, I don’t think it’s really necessary to talk to kids to get an idea for a book — it’s all very internal actually. It has to do more with how you looked at the world when you were a child.

And what were some of the things you read that made a big impression on you as a kid? Or a grownup for that matter?

When I was a kid I read a lot of Harvey Comics — Casper, Richie Rich, Little Audrey, Little Dot. I didn’t like superhero comics — when I look at them now, and even back then, they give me a headache. I loved Little Dot, Wendy the Witch — although not as much as Richie Rich!

Am I right in seeing a touch of Edward Gorey in what you do, especially the pen work?   

I love Edward Gorey,Tim Burton’s book drawings — William SteigStephen Gammell. Oh and I love Lynda Barry! She is the best — some of her stuff just kills me!

I also love to watch standup comedy — Kathy GriffinEddie IzzardJerry Seinfeld. And I try to go to plays; I love musicals.

Looking around your studio, seeing all these wonderful art supplies, all the old furniture and easels all spattered with paint, tells me that you still like to do things old school when it comes to preparing your art.   

Oh yeah, I do. I’m not a tech person when it comes to the art. In fact, I actually wrote my first Auntie Claus book longhand! I didn’t even start typing until the next one, and of course I’m new to the computer. When I do color art now, I’ll do the line art in pen, then Xerox it and paint over it. That’s about as high tech as I get.

Wow, that’s, like, catching up to 1950s technology…   

(laughs) I know, but that’s the only way I can work — I don’t think that using Photoshop is any quicker than painting it by hand; you can really obsess over one small corner of the picture that way. But I’m thinking of doing more writing and less illustrating as I go along, now that I have the chapter book projects and my collaboration with Diane. Full color art is something that I’m not happy with doing anymore.

You’ve had your own experiences with your titles coming under consideration for films or TV adaptations, such as GUMM STREET as you mentioned…

I’ve had some interest in Auntie Claus also — you know, an option can hang around for several years, and then if they just let it expire, then nobody else will want to pick up on it because it’s already been optioned and passed on.

If you had your druthers, who would you cast as Auntie Claus?   

Oh, I don’t know — Meryl Streep! But it would probably make a better TV special than a regular length film. Not too many books for young readers have been turned into feature films with any success — well, they were successful with Shrek!.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE had to get a lot of padding to be made into a movie. Speaking of which, do you even think that book would be as successful today as it was when it first came out? 

It depends upon the editor. It’s a completely different world now from that little piece of time when editors were nurturing talents like Maurice SendakShel Silverstein…it’s at a point now where it’s so random, you can’t figure it out.

So where’s it all going in the next few years? Not just your own work, but the whole children’s book field in general? When I was working in children’s publishing, the only things that were getting a green light after a while were strictly product or movie merchandising tie-ins and nothing else.  

There seems to be a cycle that they go through every few years where they panic and try to play it too safe with the tie-ins, but then something will come along that changes that.

I think that the next big kid’s book is going to be so completely non-commercial — people are going to have to go back to where books were in the 1960s and 70s. Part of the whole human condition is to tell stories, hear stories — and whether you’re getting that from a book or a computer screen, or a Kindle, a part of you is always going to want to share in that story time.