Ancient Wisdom for Trying Times. An Interview with the Duo Behind The Fabled Life of Aesop
I am a greedy gus.
Not long ago (though it feels like a million years ago since the Coronavirus spread) I received a very nice offer. Would I, at all consider, hosting a conversation between the creators of The Fabled Life of Aesop (HMH BFYR, 3/10)? Author Ian Lendler and two-time Caldecott Honor recipient Pamela Zagarenski would discuss this remarkablebook. The description reads:
“The Fabled Life of Aesop is the first picture book biography of Aesop – his fables are “some of the oldest stories in human existence,” as Ian puts it, but so much less is known about Aesop himself. At 64 pages, this long-format picture book combines a biography of Aesop with retellings of several of his fables, while giving Pamela’s mixed-media artwork lots of room to shine. And given that the book highlights how Aesop’s circumstances, having been born into slavery, informed these fables, it really lends fresh perspective to these well-known tales of honesty, kindness, and perseverance.”
So, naturally, I said no. Not interested.
Shocked? Don’t be. I already warned you I’m a greedy gus. So when an opportunity to interview these creators MYSELF dropped into my lap, I snapped it right up. I don’t just wanna host these guys. I wanna talk to them with my own questions.
Just to remind you who they are:
Ian Lendler is the author of the acclaimed Stratford Zoo graphic novel series and the picture books, Undone Fairy Tale, Saturday, and One Day A Dot. He is at one with the universe, but only when eating pizza. He lives near San Francisco, CA.
Pamela Zagarenski is the winner of two Caldecott Honors. The books she has illustrated have also been Booklist Editor’s Choices, Horn Book Fanfare and Bulletin Blue Ribbon books, winners of Bank Street’s Claudia Lewis Award, and translated into many languages. As well as illustrating picture books, she creates paintings and has a gift card line. She lives in Connecticut. Visit her online at pzagarenski.com, on Instagram @sacredbee, and Twitter @sacredbeez.
Why was I so pushy to interview these two? If you had seen The Fabled Life of Aesop you’d understand. It’s amazing! Deftly, Lendler weaves Aesop fables into an imagined life. He shows how by telling these stories, Aesop was basically keeping himself alive. But don’t take my word for it. Meet the folks behind the book itself and why they chose to bring it to life.
Betsy Bird: Okay, so let me lob my first question at Ian. Your book is such an interesting amalgamation of two entirely different types of books for kids. On the one hand it reads a bit like a picture book biography, adding weight and context to Aesop’s life. On the other, it reads like a series of fables, albeit fables that illuminate how Aesop could have used them to survive his bondage. And, of course, much of his story here is imagined. What gave you the idea for presenting his book in this way?
Ian Lendler: There were two reasons.
1) I think it’s the same reason people love watching A&E’s Behind The Music, or reading celebrity biographies. You want to see how the life affects the art and vice versa. But I actually started this style with my book, Little Sid, which incorporated Buddhist fables into a life of the Buddha. I don’t think you can celebrate an artist without appreciating the art.
2) Also, in all honesty, it wasn’t my idea. This mingling of biography and fable is how the Aesop story comes down to us from antiquity. When the Gutenberg printing press was invented, the first book they printed was the Bible. But the first illustrated book (literally the first picture-book ever printed!) was The Life of Aesop, which told the story of Aesop’s life and manumission in a series of anecdotes that incorporated the ancient fables.
BB: And Pamela? What were your first thoughts when you received Lendler’s manuscript?
Pamela Zagarenski: When I read The Fabled Life of Aesop for the first time, I got goose bumps. I could feel Ian’s and Aesop’s words deep within in my bones. I was awed by how pertinent the fables felt. Truth, honesty, kindness, excess, greed, working hard and the list goes on. He’s doing something new, weaving in stories about Aesop alongside Aesop’s stories.
BB: Decades ago folktales, fairy tales, and fables were a thriving part of the children’s literature publication cycle. These days, if even one comes out it feels like a near miracle. Repackaging these, some of the oldest child-appropriate stories in existence, takes creativity. And so I ask you, why do 21st century children need fables at all? To what end this book?
Ian Lendler: What you just said is a statement that blows my mind but it’s true: Aesop’s fables are some of the oldest stories our species has created.
Not only that, but they have managed to transcend religion and culture and become a communal wisdom shared by all humankind long before Facebook and social media said they were connecting the world. (Plus, the fables don’t have Russian trolls leaving comments on them, which is nice.)
However, I wrote this book because over the past century we are starting to lose some of that shared wisdom. Intros to modern Aesop’s Fables make a brief mention of that fact that he was enslaved, but it’s actually HUGE part of the original story. I was shocked when I discovered that there wasn’t a single picture book about Aesop’s extraordinary life.
The story of the Life of Aesop is like a key that ancient people (not kings or priests, but the enslaved and downtrodden) were giving us to help us unlock the coded messages hidden inside many of these ancient fables.
So I guess my answer is, I wrote this book to help us, as humans, remember. I find it a deeply humbling experience to know that the wisdom of people who lived almost 3,000 years ago is still relevant to us today.
BB: When you imagined what this book would look like in its final form, did you have Pamela Zagarenski’s art in mind, or did you have an entirely different dream for it? How do you feel about the finished product?
Ian Lendler: I don’t think it’s possible for anyone but Pamela to envision what she could do. That’s why she’s one of the great, truly unique artists working in children’s book today.
The ideal for any picture book is for the writer and illustrator each to add something that makes for a greater whole. But I would also like to say that my great, wise, and noble editor, Ann Rider, added her own vision to the story as well.
It was Ann’s idea to create the unique book-inside-of-a-book format. That way parents can buy it as an Aesop compilation as well as getting the Aesop back-story to illuminate them.
BB: How about you, Pamela? Was there anything about this book that struck you in particular as interesting?
Pamela Zagarenski: Of course I knew some of Aesop’s Fables, but I knew very little about this person we call Aesop. The story about a fabled wise boy, born into slavery who somehow found his voice and has been heard for 2500 years was a story I wanted to tell in paint! I absolutely had no idea that the origins of these fables originated 2500 years ago. Expressions we all use are born of Aesop and I had either long forgotten or maybe never even put two and two together.
Honesty is the best policy.
Quality, not quantity.
Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.
It is easy to kick a man when he is down.
The lion’s share.
Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.
Necessity is the mother of invention.
Look before you leap.
A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.
One good turn deserves another.
Slow and steady wins the race.
Birds of a feather flock together.
Don’t cry over spilt milk.
and the list goes on.
BB: Ian, Were there fables you particularly wished you could include but that just didn’t make the cut?
Ian Lendler: Of course. Since this might be the first contact some kids have with Aesop, I wanted to include as many famous ones as I could, like The Maid and the Milkpail (also known as “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched”). But there are so MANY famous Aesop’s fables that it became impossible.
So I decided to highlight some of the lesser-known ones as well. For instance, until I started doing my research, I had never heard the fable of The Lion and the Statue, but that ended up being the central pillar of the entire book, because it’s about power, who has it, and how that shapes our view of reality. Considering the state of our world right now that REALLY struck home with me.
And if that idea intrigues you in any way, then go read the more obscure Aesop fable, “The Frogs Who Wanted A King”…these old stories are pretty wise.
BB: Pamela, illustrating ancient fables sounds daunting, and indeed I suspect that some of the fables included in this book might have given you pause when deciding the best way to bring them to life. Others, however, have been told and retold so often that people forget they even originate with Aesop. What was your method for tackling this subject matter?
Pamela Zagarenski: I never go about a book with a conscious method, I prefer to evolve into a project by doing research. I learn as much about the subject as I can, by doodling, reading, sketching and more reading. I believe illustrating a book is like learning a new language or becoming a character in a play. One has to study the character and when one becomes saturated with information, it is only then that one can become it. I aspired to bridge the gap between 2500 years ago in ancient Greece and today, so that when one looked at the illustrations they would not equate them to any one
particular time, but rather a universal place. Realistic and unrealistic in tension. By using the patterns, textures and colors found in the art, pottery and sculpture, architecture and the landscape of ancient Greece, I attempted to weave that time and place into our own. Our own lives, fables and hints of Aesop’s story, as an infinite historic tapestry being woven together. With this said, the final paintings are always worked intuitively. I don’t go from a sketch to a finish mirroring each other. I paint the feelings and know kind of what I will do and then I just let a final painting happen. I like the imperfections and mistakes that happen in paint and this kind of
There were fables like The Goose and the Golden Egg that particularly bothered me. I did not want to illustrate the obvious, so in the end I decided to illustrate excessiveness, over indulgence and greed, creating the farmer’s shattered and chaotic thought in the art. I wanted the reader to think, what goes into the thinking of a person who kills for a self serving purpose? How did he get there? The cracks, the broken egg and the broken sense of what is right and wrong. The goose cries, because we all cry. The darkness of the fable, and the flat, transparent farmer to the left who sold a piece of his soul for gold.
With The Tortoise and the Hare I wanted to think outside the box, this fable has been is illustrated many times before. I thought I would illustrate emotion and personality with color and design. A larger than life Hare on the first spread – red, bold and confidently high above it all – while the tortoise unassumingly walks in the background, on the same level playing field as the spectators. By the next page turn, the Hare become minuscule and almost lost and the Tortoise larger and more colorful – but still grounded-so to speak. All the while the Cheetah, the fastest creature on earth, humors them all.
Same with The Boy Who Cried Wolf. It is a very pertinent subject matter and I did not want to make it light hearted, but I also did not want to give anyone nightmares. If you look closely, the woods make a wolf on the right in the first spread, foretelling what there is to come. Sheep just minding their own business, but eating a red rose. Everything is symbolic. Same with red checkered picnic table like bib on the wolf. It is the the red squares that fall off, symbolically a pattern of behavior, and I did not want to illustrate dripping blood! An unbroken and decorated teapot and tea cup a bit gruesome to ponder. And the beautiful red rose with thorns remains untouched and a few sheep hide in the trees, showing hope.
There is so much more to say and I could go on and on for each page, but I will let you discover the rest.
BB: Ian, which translations of these fables did you prefer to use? Was there a particular edition or did you just rewrite them yourself?
Ian Lendler: There is no one uncorrupted source for Aesop’s fables since they were an oral tradition, so I tried to do what Phillip Pullman did with his amazing book of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I tried to incorporate the best dramatic elements and clearest writing (and least treacly morals) from a lot of different versions.
If you want to talk specifics, I found Caxton’s Aesop to be quite well done, as well as Signet’s Aesop’s Fables from the early 90s. I also looked at a lot of the fables translated by Oxford scholars in the 19th-century. They did a lot of the original research on Aesop (for instance, translating from Greek as opposed to bastardized versions in French or German). But those books are pretty obscure now, so I didn’t include them in my biblio.
It may sound odd, but I do come away from this book feeling as though there’s room for more to be said. Could you imagine a sequel to The Fabled Life of Aesop, continuing to follow the life of Aesop?
It’s not odd at all, because there’s more to the story. (Also, if anyone at HMH is reading this, I promise a sequel will be a best-seller!)
I really struggled with how to end the book. For dramatic purposes (and length), I had to stop the story when Aesop was manumitted. But the rest of the actual Aesop story is bonkers.
According to the legend, after he was released from slavery, he was so well-known for his verbal ability that became a sort-of lawyer, arguing cases in front of judges for clients. Then King Croesus, the fabled (but very real) richest king in history, heard about Aesop and hired him to be his chief advisor! So on top of it being the story of an enslaved person freed, it’s also a rags-to-riches story. It has everything!
Uhhh…except for the end bit. Apparently, Croesus sent Aesop on a diplomatic mission to deal with a rebellious city. Aesop was accused of stealing the city’s religious totems, and got thrown off a cliff. I decided against putting that bit into the book.
BB: And finally, Pamela let’s end this conversation with a look at your illustrations. In many ways the art in this book felt like a new take on your traditional style than we’ve seen before. Did you change anything specific in the rendering of these tales?
Pamela Zagarenski: I wanted to use different papers and a different style for both the Fables and the story of Aesop’s life. I thought that the Life story could be in watercolors, a more traditional style and the Fables could be rich, deep in color, texture and very symbolic. I wanted the readers to always be asking themselves questions. Why is this there? Why that color? Why do you think that those particular words were placed in the mouth of the bird carrying Aesop to freedom? Every single letter on that page placed with a deliberate purpose, spill, spelling words in all four directions. That page took me weeks to create.
That was essentially a college course in not only the lifeblood, history, and importance of fables but also a deep dive into the sheer amount of work that goes into illustrating a truly good book for children.
Many thanks to John Sellers and the folks at HMH for putting this together.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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