The Rare Teaflet & Roog Dual Interview: Jeanne Birdsall and Jane Dyer Tell All
It’s a horrible word, “classic”. Hard to encompass. Makes you wonder aloud where nostalgia ends and “classic” begins. But children’s books are funny that way. You can, if you have the talent to do so, actually make books that “feel classic” to readers. Which is to say, books that will be treasured and loved and remembered by kids long after other memories have faded. So when I heard that (A) there was a Jeanne Birdsall/Jane Dyer early chapter book (or is it a bedtime book?) coming out and that (B) it involved models and photography, I was more than intrigued. I was positive that I had to ask some questions about this book. The book in question? Teaflet & Roog Make a Mess. Here, I’ll hand you a plot description to clear things up:
Teaflet navigates interruptions while scrambling to clean up in time for a neatness inspection, while her brother, Roog, bakes yummy treats for their annual strawberry jam party. By the National Book Award-winning author of the Penderwicks series and the best-selling illustrator of the Cookies picture books.
Bit skimpy on the details, but we’ll let it slide. After all, I was able to go right to the source anyway.
I should mention that usually I combine questions, going back and forth when I interview duos. But in the case of Jeanne and Jane, they’re coming at this book from such distinct angles that I wanted their answers to be distinct as well. That is, until the end.
Talking With Jeanne Birdsall
Betsy Bird: Thank you both for joining me on the blog today! Jeanne, I’d like to start with you. You and Jane have been friends for a number of years. This is not, however, the first book you’ve done together (I know that the picture book Lucky & Squash was one example of this). How did you two meet?
Jeanne Birdsall: We met when Jane moved into a house around the corner from mine … around twenty years ago? Yikes. Still, since neither of us is notably outgoing, we wouldn’t have become friends if it hadn’t been for our brand new puppies (one week apart in age) who spotted each other across the street, declared themselves BFFs, and eventually maneuvered their way into our picture book, Lucky and Squash.
BB: From your other interviews, I understand that the story of Teaflet & Roog came after the felting, so to speak. You told Jane that you’d write something and she could create the characters for it. The end result is a story with, forgive me, a rather “classic” feel. Something that could have been written today or 100 years ago. Was that what you were going for or did you not think about it much as you wrote it?
JB: Betsy! Argh! To answer this, I’d first need to write a long essay on how one defines “classic.” Or you write it. You’re better at this theory stuff than I am.
Here’s what I thought about as I wrote Teaflet & Roog: Jane, and her talents and sensibilities. For several years before we dreamt up the trelfs, she’d been making dolls, all of them redolent with story, usually of the out-of-time fairytale variety. (None of her dolls had their own cellphones, for example.) I’d sneak them off to my shooting studio, and found that when I photographed them, they always seemed to have been caught in the middle of something. Like the girl in a funny hat, riding a hare. Where have they come from and where are they going and why? Is the hare very large or the girl extra tiny? And the way the girl looks at us through my lens — what is she trying to tell us? What will happen next?
It wasn’t much of a jump to want to write a story for Jane. I already knew the kind of characters she could make and, more important, the kind she enjoys making. The story should be fairytale-like in its improbabilty, because that’s where her characters seem most comfortable. And it should be funny, because Jane is very funny, and I wanted to tap into that. Thus, Teaflet and Roog, a sister and brother who live in a tree and get into trouble.
BB: Tell me about the inspector of neatness. Is she based on anyone particular? She’s effectively the villain of the piece. What’s her origin story?
JB: The inspector’s hair has an origin story. Jane based it on the hair of an old teacher of hers. I wish I’d seen the original, or maybe I don’t. I’d worry about it falling over.
For the inspector’s obsession with tidiness, I looked to my own internal Inspector of Neatness. Not that I ever listen to her.
BB: I’d love to know a bit more about the technicalities of the set-ups of these photos. The process of photographing models for picture books astounds me. How much the lighting was yours and how much was natural? Did you run into any unexpected problems with the photography?
JB: The first technical issue to work out had to do with size. Teaflet and Roog are a mere eight inches tall, and the animals in proportion to them. The props that Jane made for them — books, plates, cakes, cups, clothes (the overalls, the shoes, the aprons, the hats!) — are necessarily teensy-weensy. We set all this up on a table, against a background of either plain velvet, or patterned cloth pinned to foam board (to simulate wallpaper). And then I shoot.
Thank you for asking if any of the lighting was natural. I wish it were that simple. My little shooting studio does have natural light, but I needed to control the lighting for consistency. I couldn’t shoot Teaflet and Roog’s kitchen with sunlight streaming in on one day, then shoot it again on a cloudy day. The colors, the shadows, the mood, would all be different. I used four LED floodlights, three for the ambient light, and one to control the light on the dolls’ faces. Jane and I were always tripping over light stands. It’s a miracle we survived to finish the book.
On a more esoteric note, the angle at which I shot was important. I was usually perched on a low stool, shooting up from about the level of their feet. This gives more mass and better proportion to the scene.
The unexpected problems were mostly with software, you know, when it’s midnight and you’re talking to a guy named Frank in Germany about how to convince your printer to match the colors you see on your screen.
There were also unexpected pleasures, lots of them. How well Jane’s dolls convey mood never stopped amazing me. Since she builds them on flexible wire armatures, we could bend their arms and legs, and swivel and tip their heads, according to what they’re doing and feeling in the scene. Roog, in particular, was often worried, and acted it out beautifully, poor guy, even wringing his hands at one point. We could also convey a lot with Teaflet’s magnificent hair. The raccoon was usually confused, and he did that well, too — something about the way he looks at us from under bushy eyebrows. Even the teensy hedgehog’s tiny legs could splay apart when he’s in trouble (or in chocolate).
Talking with Jane Dyer
Betsy Bird: So, Jane, was the plan always to mix photographs of the models with illustrations or was the process more fluid than that?
Jane Dyer: Our original plan was to use all photographs, but our editors suggested adding watercolors to the mix. We’re glad they did, as I had fun with many of those paintings. Some even surprised me, like the bucket and the mop!
BB: The felting is absolutely lovely, not to say impressive. Was there anything you wanted to felt that didn’t turn out well? And was there anything that turned out particularly nicely?
JD: I wasn’t that happy with the skunk — he showed up so late I had to rush my process. The trelfs are my favorites, but I’m also extra proud of the pheasant, particularly because I was worried about felting him. Those feathers!
BB: I know that you had done felting earlier with the picture book Roly Poly (2019). In that book, though, you just did polar bears. Here you tried your hand at human-like faces. I have to imagine that was more difficult. Was it?
JD: The human faces aren’t more difficult than the animals’ faces, but they are more labor intensive. However, working on human faces is one of my favorite parts, whether I’m needle-felting, painting, drawing, or sculpting. Side note: Working on the clothing is another favorite part. They are all hand-sewn.
BB: So in general, how long does a book take when it must be hand felted versus painted?
JD: It depends upon the length of the book, how many characters it contains, how many backgrounds need to be designed and built, and how long it takes Jeanne to figure out the best way of photographing each scene.
BB: Finally, and this goes out to the both of you, what are you two working on next?
JB: My first post-Penderwick middle grade novel. It also, coincidentally, has small creatures in it, but they’re nothing like the trelfs. And this time humans run the story.
JD: The sheep I have had the longest, was named “Blossom” by my granddaughter. I’m using Blossom’s wool to needle-felt what I call “Blossom Babies,” each one inspired by a flower. They may be in a book someday.
For additional information, I recommend checking out this dual interview that PW conducted with Jeanne and Jane as well. Many thanks to the both of them for taking the time to answer my questions. Thank you too to Kathy Dunn and the folks at Random House Children’s Books for this interview!
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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