David Ezra Stein discusses the story behind the story of Because

David Ezra Stein discusses the story
behind the story of Because Amelia Smiled
Well, I was coming back to college
after having taken a year off. I was
now a senior, and I had had a glimpse
of the wide world during that past
year. I had been a puppeteer, a puppet
builder, a restaurant worker, a poet
living by myself in Cape Cod. I became
interested in Buddhism. I fell for a girl
who played the guitar — I never got
the girl, but I got a guitar.
So now that I was back at art school
again, I saw that children’s book
illustration was listed as an elective.
I thought, Sure, why not, that
sounds like it could be good! For
my first assignment, my teacher, Pat
Cummings, had us write a story. She is
a published author and illustrator, and
she asked us to come up with an idea
for a children’s book. As it happened,
I had been keeping a sketchbook ever
since college began. I’d been collecting my stories
and thoughts and random phrases and drawing
pictures all along.
A week before class started, I had gone
to the city to see my sister, and we talked
about this and that. We started talking
about Buddhism: about how you can
choose in every moment how to respond
to the things that happen to you. Say for
example you’re trying to cross the street,
and somebody cuts in front of you and
won’t let you cross. You could get mad
at this guy, and you could be mad for
the rest of the day. Or you could just
let it go.
I was walking home from the subway
thinking about this, and suddenly a story
started telling itself to me. I didn’t have
my sketchbook with me that day, but I
did have a large paper bag. As I was walking home, every
few blocks I stopped and jotted down the story that was
coming to me. It was the story of Amelia. When Pat asked
us to write a story, I thought, What about the one I wrote
already? So I brought it in, and she collected our stories.
A week went by, and Pat offered to help me sell the story
to a publisher.
Come again? Well, I didn’t have too
many plans for the future — I was about
to graduate that spring with a degree
in illustration, I had a part-time job as
a puppet painter, and I lived with my
mother. So I said, “Yeah, OK!” By the end
of that week, a real-life editor e-mailed
me! This was too easy! I had an epiphany:
I had been writing all my life, and even
though I was in art school, I was still
allowed to write. Heck, I could even put
my writing and art together and make
a career.
I went to the bookstore and to the children’s library and
began to study books. I reread and rediscovered all my
favorites from when I was a kid. I remembered that I loved
books, especially picture books. I was twenty-two years
old, and suddenly I knew what I wanted to do, or at least
what I wanted to try. So my writing was apparently ready to
go — it was something people wanted — and that was great!
But my art, well, that was definitely in a vulnerable place. I
hadn’t really found my visual voice yet — what to put on the
page and what not to put. I didn’t know if I wanted to do
scratchboard or sculpture, to work on paper bags or wood.
I was really into drawing from life and drawing from my
imagination, but in terms of being ready to illustrate a book,
I wasn’t.
I went to this high office building and met this big editor,
and she loved my story! She shook my hand and told me I
had a wonderful career ahead of me. I went home and
started to make art.
I used charcoal, gouache, acrylic! Inks of all kinds! I turned
my art supplies inside out, trying to invent myself, trying to
will myself to be something I really wasn’t yet: an illustrator.
Over the next six months, I’d go in once a month to the
publisher. Each time the publisher would say, “We see some
great stuff here. But it’s not quite coming together.” And I’d
go home, clueless as to how I was going to pull this off.
that was easier to illustrate. I published three books, got my
agent, met a new editor, published more books, met Sarah
Ketchersid at Candlewick. We did Interrupting Chicken
together — my seventh book. One day I showed Sarah a batch
of book ideas that I had for our next project together. Out of
ten ideas, she picked Amelia. I thought, OK, this is it! It’s
ten years later, and this time I’m ready. Let’s do it!
Now I know that I don’t have to pick only one way of
working, and the technique doesn’t dictate what I do. I
decide. The way I use a crayon is not the way someone else
does. I even invented a new way to work, just for Amelia.
I call it Stein-lining. It imitates a printmaking look for the
line work of the book by using label paper. I apply crayon
to label paper, turn it over, and press on the back to create a
line on the artwork. It’s like creating my own carbon paper
using different colors of crayon.
Thirteen years after I first wrote it, Amelia’s story is a book!
I am so pleased. And I hope you enjoy it!
After months and months, I gave up. The book was set aside.
That was in 2000.
Then I graduated. I’d sit at the dining-room table in my
mother’s house and just write and draw stories, every day.
Years passed, and I sold my first book, a different one, one
Illustrations copyright © 2012 by David Ezra Stein