If you’ve ever read to your baby, chances are pretty good that you’ve read a Karen Katz book to them. The beloved children’s author and illustrator has had a career spanning over 20 years—and over 60 books. We spoke exclusively Karen about becoming an author, balancing work and family, and why she is so excited for Thanksgiving!
My daughter, Claire, is 17 months old and some of the first books I bought her was yours. Her very first book was Where is Baby’s Pumpkin? She just loves your books. I know them by heart.
Where is Baby’s Belly Button? is the first book I ever did, and it’s still one of my best sellers. And Where is Baby’s Pumpkin? is a newer one.
I think your books are a great way to introduce babies to the world of books.
That was my intention. Babies want books that are bright and engage them, and I wanted to make books that would be fun and for parents, so they read together. My overwhelming thought when I started was that I wanted them to be big, bold and bright, so a baby would want to look at them and it could be an interactive experience for the parent and the child.
They absolutely are. In today’s day and age where being interactive means sliding your finger on an iPad or tablet, this is a very traditional way of reading, where you’re actually lifting the flaps. I think it’s a wonderful way of reading together.
I agree; I don’t think that’s going to change. At least, I hope it’s not going to change. Reading for older kids and adults is different, but I think that babies are going to continue to want books to interact with. They want to touch it and pull it and lift the flap even though they might not know what it means. And very young children like to chew on books. They like to hold onto them and really play with it. You can’t do that with an electronic device!
When did decide to become a writer?
When my daughter, who is now 25, was born, I decided I wanted to illustrate children’s books. I didn’t know I would be writing and illustrating my own books. I had done a couple of books for older kids and then I went to see a creative director I knew. She suggested that I do a book for really young babies. I did some sketches, took them back to her the next day and she said she was publishing them. That was 22 years ago.
And now over 20 years later….
It’s been great. I am really, really lucky. I get to do the thing I really wanted to do. I’m an artist; I get to do art and I get paid for it, and people send me emails and say that they like it. It’s hard; I work really, really hard. I used to work all the time because I was working on so many books.
Some people might think that writing a children’s book is so simple. It’s not a lot of text, and to that you would say…
The end product is simple. It’s simple to write a lift-the-flap book, but you have to really think about things and think about what makes the book fun. There always has to be a surprise at the end of the book. Most of my books have very little text in them. The book, The Colors of Us, had only one sentence per page, but it must have gone through 25 drafts. We wanted to say things correctly; we wanted to embrace everyone, so that was extremely difficult to write.
As a fellow writer, I think the lack of text would make it that much harder because what you do write has to hit. It has to be engaging, fun, etc.
A great many of my books are board books. I would like to be the kind of writer to write a simple story that is charming and beautiful and has that magic at the end. I haven’t achieved that yet and that’s something I’m working on. I might even take some writing workshops; it takes real talent to write that kind of book.
If you had to choose between illustration and writing, which do you prefer?
Oh, I’m an illustrator who just got lucky enough to write my own books. I didn’t go into this as a writer; I went into it as an illustrator, and I hoped that someone would give me a job illustrating someone else’s books!
So, 60+ books later, does it ever get old?
I love my work. Now I’m doing a book called Where Is Baby’s Turkey? because I’ve done every holiday but we’ve never done Thanksgiving. Even though I’ve done them before, I’m so excited about doing this one! I was sitting at my desk drawing and thinking how the book will be. The turkey will be a plush turkey, not a real turkey. I was drawing the baby and then I thought that the baby could wear a pilgrim’s hat and I got so excited! In fact, it was the same excitement that I had when I wrote my first book. That’s always been a part of my creative process, to make it cute and yummy and the parents will smile.
When your daughter was growing up, was it hard to balance work and family?
It was always hard. I was lucky because I worked at home. My kid was with me, but my husband has always freelanced so he was around. My husband was a fantastic mommy/daddy and he took a lot of the responsibility for her. He’d be the only guy in the park and he would take her out so I could work. It is hard to have a child and launch a career. But no matter how you slice it, the mommy has more on her plate. But now, it’s the norm to be a working mom.
Absolutely! Now, what are you working on now?
In addition to the Thanksgiving book, I’m working on a touch-and-feel book. It’s going to be 10×10. It’ll have flaps as well as touch-and-feel. It’s exciting to pick out the fabrics and think about which parts will be touch-and-feel. My art is all hand-done. It always starts out with eye, hand and brain. I love what I do and can’t imagine doing anything else.