Cats and Dogs . . . Together? Talking with Elisha Cooper About the Sublime Yes & No
There’s no April Fooling about it. Elisha Cooper has a new picture book out, and it is much in the same vein as his Caldecott Honor winning title Big Cat, Little Cat. Now before we proceed much further, there are a number of facts you should know about Mr. Cooper, right off the bat.
- First, in the event that you are invited to a book party of Mr. Cooper’s, there is a strong chance that he will provide you with very good bread. I once spoke at length with Leonard Marcus at a Cooper event, just scarfing down loaves and discussing with Mr. Marcus the best bakeries to be had. That is a good way to spend your time.
- He is perhaps the most generous artist with his paints I have ever encountered. Go to the Jefferson Market Branch of New York Public Library sometime and look at the walls. There you will see paintings by Mr. Cooper done, gratis. Then come over to my own Evanston Public Library and look at my children’s room. You will see his beautiful, hand-painted signs all about the place. A marvelous gift.
- He is horrendously talented. Case in point, Yes & No.
Not that I didn’t still have questions for the man about his latest book. Here’s a smattering of a description of Yes & No from the publisher:
Good morning, good morning. It’s time to wake up!
Join a cat and puppy pair through their day—the ups of being fed and romping through grass, and the downs of days that are too short and things that don’t go as planned—as they realize that sometimes the very best thing that can happen is just being together.
Let us dive in!
Betsy Bird: Elisha! How are you? How’s the family? How’s the COVID life itself?
Elisha Cooper: We’re all good, thank you. I hope you and yours are well, too. As are all your readers. It’s been a *!@#%! year, right? But as I write you now, sitting on the sidewalk outside my café on Lafayette Street here in New York City, the sun has come out – it’s chilly, mid March – and I’m feeling hope.
BB: While by no means a sequel to your Caldecott Honor winning Big Cat, Little Cat, Yes & No feels very much like a companion picture book. Did you always intend to follow Big Cat, Little Cat up with something or was this a surprise?
EC: When my editor pitched my idea to her colleagues she said, “This is Elisha Cooper’s next book, and no animals die in it,” and with that line, sold the book. Maybe that’s not entirely true, but I like it. And Yes & No, you’re right, is sort of a companion book. Similar ink line, similar cover. Two animals, one contained setting. But, it’s also different. Colorful, lighter. A simple out-and-back story, a puppy and a cat. That said, there were some other feelings I was trying to accomplish.
BB: I noticed that Yes & No is also a funnier book than Big Cat, Little Cat due, in no small part, to what happens when you place a cat and a dog in a home together. I know you own some preternaturally attractive cats. Do you own any dogs as well? And, if not, where have you seen this relationship at work?
EC: Yes, I had fun with these guys! I mean, the puppy in the book is a goofball, as puppies are. And the cat is so imperious. I liked playing them off each other. But a book can’t just be humor. There’s a turn, then another turn, a last turn. And I could sense some of my sadness about animals, and life, come through. I really felt that when I was painting the last spreads. There was something about these wide quiet views that broke my heart a little, and when I look at them now I get chills and I can’t quite figure out why. I guess I’m trying to say that there’s always tension between humor and sadness. They coexist. At least for me.
And yes, my cats are ridiculously attractive. So handsome! And so dumb. I grew up with dogs on our New England farm and feel I know dogs even as we don’t own one now (though one of our cats fetches balls, so maybe he’s a dog?). Still, I always love seeing a cute puppy on the street. Speaking of which, a super cute French bulldog just walked past.
BB: Former children’s librarian that I am, I pay close attention to any picture book that reads aloud particularly well. And this book is a readaloud dream. You have the exuberant optimism of the puppy and the dour cynicism of the cat (italicized words and all). Do you read your books aloud as you write them? Do you have a guinea pig (not literally) in your home off of whom you can bounce ideas?
EC: Oh, I’m so happy you said that! Because I wrote the book alone at a café in Brooklyn, then stood on a table and read the words aloud to the baristas and the entire café (Nope. I did not). But after writing the first drafts, I met with my editor, Emily Feinberg. One afternoon we took over her boss’s office (who wasn’t there at the time) and sat around for hours (this is pre-Covid), reading the whole book out loud, back and forth, adding a word, shifting another. Getting each syllable right. The da-dum, da-dum of language.
I heard that Maurice Sendak spent days deliberating between “warm” or “hot” to describe the soup at the end of Wild Things (he went with “hot”; the correct choice, I think). I love that. Because in children’s book, if a word lands right, it is everything. We all know that feeling.
I’d also like to mention that Emily and I had meetings with our wonderful designer Elizabeth Clark, gathered around her monitor, nudging the puppy around the screen, playing with words, eating brownies and drinking Sancerre on Friday afternoons, and oh my goodness, these were my favorite meetings.
BB: And editor Ursula Nordstrom wanted to change “hot” back to “warm”. A bullet narrowly avoided there.
Now I love the color scheme of this book. The puppy and the home itself are lovely bright pastels, all rose and creamy yellow and light blue. Then you have the cat, like a black ink splot in each scene. Did anything about the look of the art change in the process of making the book?
EC: Thanks for that! Painting this was such fun, an exploration in style for me. I didn’t use my normal pencil line and watercolor, as with River. Nor was it the simple black-white of my cat book. It was something in between. Before I painted Yes & No I spent a lot of time in the Impressionist Galleries at the Met, noticing what Pissarro did with clouds and shadows. Then on a whim I went over to the Asian Art Collection where I fell hard for the mountainous landscape scrolls. I became very aware of the conversations the West and East were having. As I painted I tried to keep this conversation in mind, melding black ink brushstrokes and color.
Now, I doubt anyone will notice these influences when they look at the book, or even care. At some level, this is just a children’s book about a puppy. But I was thinking about these things, and by my count, I threw in around twenty-four very specific and intentional references to other artists or artworks. When the book comes out, if anyone can find all twenty-four, I will send them one of my attractive cats.
BB: Is there anything you had to leave out of the book that you’d hoped to include initially?
EC: Donkeys. In smocks. Dancing the polka (again, not true!). But have you ever noticed how words are funny when they have hard consonants? Especially hard “k”s. I think I read Jon Stewart talking about this in a New Yorker article. So, “kayak” is funny. A donkey stuck in a kayak wearing a smock is really funny. A sleepy elephant, not funny.
But no, this book came out exactly how I wanted it to be.
BB: Last but not least, what are you working on next?
EC: Forgive me, but I’d like to circle back to your first question and expand a little (and not respond to this with the common authorial: “Thanks for asking, Betsy, I’m so excited for my next book, The Donkey and the Dachshund).
Because I want to acknowledge this year. How hard it has been, for so many of us. For the ones of us who have experienced heartbreak. For all the anxiety. For our country as we have struggled with a health crisis, and racial justice, and the fucked up exit of a shambolic presidency. It’s been hard.
So the concerns of art don’t seem to rise to any of that, and for much of the year I’ve been standing back. Trying to help independent bookstores, or my publishers, or just being present with my family. I’ve never felt more separate from creating.
But late this fall I biked to Brooklyn and I was down by the river and an idea came to me. And then, as I stopped for a coffee on my way home, another came. I’m looking forward to making both these books. And yes, I know, I didn’t answer your question.
BB: I’ll let it go. I think you’ve just zeroed in on what a lot of us have felt to varying degrees this past year. What is so strange is that no one has been immune. Apart from war, I cannot think of an event that has affected every last person in my country simultaneously to the same degree that this past year has.
And by gum, if you don’t write The Donkey and the Dachshund (a clear William Steig project if ever I heard of one) we shall have words.
More thanks than I can honestly give to Elisha Cooper for taking the time to answer my questions. Yes & No is out April 13th in fine independent bookstores everywhere.
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