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Interview with author and illustrator Jeanette Winter
by Marjorie Coughlan*

Acclaimed author/illustrator Jeanette Winter has written and illustrated more that 60 books for children. Her first self-authored picture book, published in 1988 was Follow the Drinking Gourd, and it was at that time that she developed the folk-art based style of illustration for which she has become so renowned.

Many of Jeanette's books any based on true stories. She has created several picture book biographies of inspirational people past and present from around the world, including The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq; Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa and, most recently, The Watcher: Jane Goodall's Life with the Chimps. She has illustrated two books written by her son, Jonah Winter: The Secret World of Hildegard and Diego, a biography of Diego Rivera and winner of a New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Book of the Year. Her books have garnered many awards and special mentions, including the 2010 Jane Addams Children's Book Award in the Books for Younger Children category for Nasreen's Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan.

Jeanette's vibrant picture book Biblioburro: A True Story from Colombia, about Luis Soriano's donkey library bringing books to children in remote parts of Colombia, has been selected for inclusion in the 2011 Spirit of PaperTigers Book Set.

Jeanette lives with her husband artist Roger Winter in New York City and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

How did you first hear about Luis Soriano and his Biblioburro – and how did your story then reach its germination point?  Have you met Luis Soriano?

I first read about the Biblioburro in an article in the New York Times.  I then found other newspaper sources for the story of Luis Soriano, including pictures of Luis, and Colombia.  I haven’t met Luis.

What do you hope young readers will take away with them, after reading Biblioburro?

I would hope young readers would get a sense of the wonder and magic of discovering books, and that this discovery can take place in any kind of environment.  Also, how one person can make this happen for others.

Your illustrations are very vibrant, but there’s no blue sky until it’s nighttime at the end of the story. Can you tell us about the background to your illustrations?

I made these illustrations quite spontaneously and instinctively.  There was really no plan beforehand other than a very, very tiny, rough dummy.  I mainly used the sky to indicate the time of day.

One enduring image is of the bandit who had earlier held up the biblioburro, sitting under a tree, reading a book.  What was your intention in including this tiny vignette?

I had fun with the image of the bandit—even bandits can discover the joys of reading, and forget their life of crime.

As well as Biblioburro, you have written other books such as The Librarian of Basra and Nasreen’s Secret School that focus on education as an antidote to war, and the heroism of individuals to hold onto that principle.   What compels you to tell these stories?

I am drawn to true-life stories, and true stories that relate to world events.  Stories about brave and courageous individuals are personally so inspiring to me, and I want children to know about these people.  I feel that children have the capacity to understand the big issues of our lives, if in a simplified way.

Most of your books are based on true stories, about an eclectic range of people (and animals).  You have a gift for distilling each protagonist’s character through a few well-chosen episodes so that young readers really get a feel for that person. How do you go about this process?

When the material is available, I read as much as possible about the person (or animal).  I make copious notes, including quotes when appropriate.  Then I ask myself, “What is important here?”  I put away the notes, and begin a first draft.  With each draft, I eliminate, eliminate, eliminate.  My goal is for the reader to know what this person did, and why she/he is important, in the fewest possible words.  This is the most challenging and exciting part of making a book.

In her PaperTigers review of Nasreen’s Secret School, Aline Pereira referred to “images of doorways and windows to convey the power of knowledge and the possibility of transformation: from confinement to freedom, hopelessness to faith in the future.”  How conscious were you of that metaphor when you were creating your illustrations?

I was conscious of that metaphor in the illustration of Nasreen in the schoolroom.  The doorways in the earlier illustrations communicated a sense of danger and imprisonment, I hope.  I often like to frame my pictures because it seems to me that one can look at a framed picture and truly enter into another world, like looking into a mirror or out of a window.  Illustrations that bleed, or use the white space of the page have another quality, which I also like, but it’s different.

Once you have decided on a story, how do you go about creating the book?

Each book is different.  I often make no preliminary sketches at all, and my editor won’t quite know what to expect until I deliver the art.  I like the spontaneity that this allows.  Sometimes I will make a rough tiny dummy (2 ½” X 2 ½”, or slightly larger) with books where the illus. bleed to the edges.  Sometimes I make all the illustrations before I even have a contract.  The words will come first on some books, the pictures first on others.  Sometimes, mainly for graphic reasons, I use speech bubbles to convey the narrative: a story has a different impact when speech bubbles are used, and they’re fun to make.  After all these years, I don’t have a set pattern.  It keeps work exciting.  My finished art is same size, or often smaller.  The art for Biblioburro was enlarged.

Your latest book is about Jane Goodall, The Watcher: Jane Goodall's Life with the Chimps.  Can you tell us a bit about it?

I would have liked to have read a book about Jane Goodall when I was a child—about how she made an exciting and original and brave life for herself, at a time when girls were not encouraged to do that.  And how she made her dreams come true, by her own industry and spunk.  I haven’t met Jane Goodall, I would like to, but I feel I know her from reading her books, and ‘living with her’ while I worked on the book.

And you have a new book coming out next year called Kali’s Song.  Who is Kali and what is his song?

There is a cave painting in France, around 15,000 years old, of a figure, probably a shaman, playing a mouth bow, surrounded by many animals.  Kali is a fictional boy, who has discovered that he can make music with his bow, and his music charms the animals.  The ‘song’ from his bow is his magic.

What impact do you see e-books having on your work in the future?

Before e-books, the biggest technological development was the advancement in color printing, which was easy to incorporate in my work.  I’m not a fan of e-books, and if the shift to this technology overtakes print books, I imagine I won’t be making books anymore.  Or if I do, they will be self-published. 

Can you tell us what you are working on at the moment?

I have many starts at the moment, and I’ll see which one takes my hand to completion.

If you could send Biblioburro anywhere in the world, where would you send it and why?

I would like Biblioburro to be on the Biblioburro book cart, so those children in the countryside of Colombia will see how their story is important to people far away.

* Marjorie Coughlan is PaperTigers Editor

Posted September 2011

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James Rumford

By Jeanette Winter (selected bibliography):

Kali’s Song
(Schwartz & Wade Books, 2012)

The Watcher: Jane Goodall's Life with the Chimps
(Schwartz & Wade Books, 2011)

Biblioburro: A True Story from Colombia
(Beach Lane Books, Simon and Schuster, 2010)

Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan
(A Global Fun
d for Children Book/ Beach Lane Books, 2009)

Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa
(Harcourt Books, 2008)

Mama: A True Story, in Which a Baby Hippo Loses His Mama During a Tsunami, But Finds a New Home, and a New Mama
(Harcourt Children's Books, 2007)

Angelina's Island
(Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007)

The Secret World of Hildegard, written by Jonah Winter
(Arthur A Levine Books, 2007)

The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq
(Harcourt, 2004)

Calavera Abecedario: A Day of the Dead Alphabet
(Harcourt, 2004)

September Roses
(Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2004)

Elsina's Clouds
(Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2004).

Niño's Mask
(Dial, 2003)
Beatrix: Various Episodes from the Life of Beatrix Potter
(Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2003)

Emily Dickinson's Letters to the World
(Frances Foster Books, 2002)

My Baby
((Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2001)

My Name Is Georgia
(Silver Whistle, 1998)

The Tortilla Cat, written by Nancy Willard
(Harcourt, 1998)

Day of the Dead, written by Tony Johnston
(Harcourt, 1997)

(Harcourt, 1996)

Shaker Boy, written by Mary Lyn Ray
(Harcourt, 1994)

The Changeling, written by Selma Lagerlöf, translated by Susanna Stevens
(Knopf, 1992)

Eight Hands Round: A Patchwork Alphabet, written by Ann Whitford Paul,
(HarperCollins, 1991)

Diego, bilingual, English and Spanish, written by Jonah Winter, Spanish translation by Amy Prince
(Knopf, 1991)

Follow the Drinking Gourd
(Knopf, 1988)

More on PaperTigers:

Visit our Gallery Feature of James' work.

Find out more about the Spirit of PaperTigers project and the 2011 Book Set.

More on the web:

Read this annotated booklist from Central Rapphannock Regional Library to find out more about some of Jeanette's books.

Read this Q&A with Jeanette, and this interview with Jeanette about The Librarian of Basra.

Read Patricia Newman's article from California Kids!







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