Aug 31, 2013

FLORA and FLAMINGO: Meet Molly Idle

Molly Idle, Author and Illustrator
Walker Children's, 2013

I’m so excited to share this blog-stop “virtual interview” with readers. I’ve been a fan of Molly Idle’s work for several years. This year she hit the trifecta of publishing with simultaneous releases of three remarkable picture books: ZOMBELINA, (written by Kristyn Crow), TEA REX, and FLORA AND FLAMINGO.

Viking Juvenile, 2013
2013 is quite a year for remarkable picture books, proving once again that this format has (and will continue to have) a vigorous and relevant role in the world of publishing, and in our literary lives. Earlier this spring I interviewed Jesse Klausmeier about her own release of OPEN THIS LITTLE BOOK, after which she introduced me to Molly Idle (again, virtually). 
Jesse's title and Molly's FLORA AND FLAMINGO share the distinction of receiving mentions among  reviewers eyeing contenders for the 2013 Caldecott Award. (I've been assured that these mentions in no way carry a jinx-factor, which allows me to repeat them here.) Each of Molly’s 2013 releases has been met with acclaim, but none more so than the innovative wordless book, Flora and FlamingoShe was kind enough to answer some questions about creating this book to share with you here.

Without further ado, welcome Molly! Congratulations on your amazing year. 
*Extended pause for applause.*

Molly: Thank you so much for your kind words about Flora, and for featuring this interview on your blog.
Chronicle Books, 2013

Who came to you first, Flamingo or Flora?

Ah, which came first- the flamingo or the egg? The answer (in this case) is the flamingo. My knack for nomenclature misinterpretation was a running gag when I was growing up. For years, I thought Lee Iacocca and The Ayatollah were the same person (their names sounded exactly the same to me!) I was 10 before I realized that A.A. Milne’s characters, Kanga and Roo, when put together, made "kangaroo". To me, that was just who they were, and it never occurred to me that it was also what they were... (sigh)
And, for years, I thought "flamenco dancing" was "flamingo dancing". So, the idea of a dancing flamingo had been playing about in my mind for a long time. It was only when I started thinking about a dancing flamingo as a character for a picture book that I began looking for his partner.

I can envision you researching and investigating the movements of a flamingo, but how did you settle on this particularly shaped and sized child? Did you have a model or are you a trained dancer? 

Oh. my goodness no- I am not a dancer.  I do love to watch dancers though. Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor* are two of my favorites. Two more of my favorites are my nieces, Sarah and Katie. When they were about 8 and 10 they came to visit my husband and I for summer vacation. In the evenings they would choreograph dance routines which they would perform for us on the front porch. At the time they were both in that round tummied, growing-out-before-growing-up stage. They were also completely, blissfully, oblivious to all of the body image insecurities that plague young women. They thought that they were fully awesome just the way they were...  and they were right. And to my mind, they were the perfect models on which to base the dance partner for a flamingo.

About Flora’s flippers and swim cap (which are not only charming, but genius, in my opinion), were they the end result of a variety of hair/foot design trials, or did Flora arrive in your imagination fully geared up?

Both the swim cap and flippers were there from the very first sketch. In fact, neither character changed from my initial sketch (which is a first for me ). But the detail of the flowers on Flora's cap came after I had finished coloring in the pair for the first time. As I stood back and surveyed them, I just thought she needed a little something extra... And in thinking about the rubbery surface of her swim-cap, I remembered these rubbery non-slip stickers that had been on my bathtub growing up. They were shaped like daisies, and I thought- "That's it!"

When you settle in to your incredible workspace, sip your java, and gaze out the window, is music playing? Click here for an extensive Chronicle Books interview with Molly to find out more about her work habits and spaces. And take a few minutes to watch BOTH videos embedded in this link.

Most always... When I'm working on final art, I have different mixes for different projects, and they help get to me in the groove, and to switch grooves when needs be. I love the company of background noise in the studio. But when I'm working out initial sketches, or when I'm writing, then I have to turn everything off.  It sounds melodramatic, but, to really get deep down inside a story or a compositional problem, I want (like Greta Garbo) " to be left alone."

In other interviews I’ve read, you mention the fantastic art and design teams at your various publishers. Can you tell us a bit about those collaborations as compared to your animation collaborations?

In animation, the artists I worked with had an incredible sense of imagination and play, but the production environment itself was extremely regimented. It has to be when you have an enormous team, creating thousands upon thousands of images. Even after having been a part of it, it never ceases to amaze me how the hands and minds of so many individuals can collaborate to create such a unified vision. It’s awesome! But, as a small cog in the works, it can also mean subjugating your individual style for the sake of consistency. 

That is why I find making books so freeing. For while it is still very much a collaborative process, I'm never asked to make my work like that of anyone else. The editors and art directors I get to work with instead push me to create the best work I can make... Whatever it may be. They are like magic mirrors up to which I hold my work, and when they reflect it back to me I see what is working and what can be made better. (And it can always be made better.) That kind of collaboration is really exciting!

In a mini-interview with Jeremy Holmes on your blog, you said the design of his book THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO SWALLOWED A FLY opened your mind to alternative interactive picture book design. Can you tell us more about your choice for fold-down flaps for FLORA AND FLAMINGO?

Yes, yes I can! 

I pitched the idea for the book to my agent, as a straightforward wordless picture book, and while she liked it, she asked me to think of of some element that would necessitate it being a book rather than, say... a short animated film. Could the story, she asked, have some element of interactivity?

And it was like a lightbulb popped on over my head! I knew right then that the interactivity needed to be that of the reader determining the poses  in which the characters would relate to each other. And I knew the way to achieve that was to have the characters appearing in opposing flaps.

I didn’t know if it was possible to print something like it in a cost effective way, nor did I know how to construct it. But I knew it was the way I needed to tell the story, and I set to work. Once I had muddled through the paper engineering, and about 4 rolls of double stick tape, I had the assembled first draft of the dummy, and we sent it off to Chronicle!

This spring you released Flora and the Flamingo from Chronicle Books, Zombelina from Walker Childrens,  and Tea Rex from Viking Press within weeks of each other. That must have been exciting, but were the deadlines and other development processes simultaneous? How do you handle projects when that happens?

I learned a lot about time management in working through the books I had published this year! Yes, FLORA, TEA REX and ZOMBELINA were all in the works simultaneously. It was like a year long  game of round robin in my studio!  Rather than try and spend a bit of time each day on every project, I  finished each book in stages. I dove into the sketches for Flora, and when they were finished, I sent them off for notes and then started in on sketches for Rex. When they were finished, I jumped into character design for ZOMBELINA. By the time I had finished that, I had revision notes back on the sketches for Flora... And round and round it went. 

Are you free to tell us about any of the projects you are working on currently?
I'm working on another round robin schedule right now. I've just wrapped up work on CAMP REX (Viking, April 2014), and now I'm working on  FLORA AND THE PENGUIN (Chronicle, Winter 2014), RODEO RED, written by Maripat Mohr (Peachtree, 2015), and the third REX book!

In the mini-interviews on your blog (which I recommend to my readers here) you ask the same questions for each illustrator. Which of those questions were you hoping someone would ask you?

Yes, Juana Martinez Neal, Mikela Prevost, Laura Jacobsen and I have asked the same questions of all of our interviewees for the past few years during National Picture Book Month. But this year, we are changing up our format, and the question I would most like to be asked, is the  new final question I’ll be asking in this November’s round of Mini Interviews. But I don’t want to give it away. So... I'll just say...Check back in with me in November!

Thank you, Molly, I really enjoyed this virtual conversation and hold out hopes of meeting you in person someday.

Cheers, Sandy- the feeling is mutual! :)

So there you have it. readers. If this doesn't send you racing for a copy and exploring Molly's other books and online links, you're either in a summer snooze or early hibernation. Don't miss this one! 
*If you have ten minutes to spare, I beg you to watch this YouTube video of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. In particular notice the interaction, facial expressions, and body language between the two of them starting at about 6:50 minutes into the video. Am I the only one who sees the roots of Flora and Flamingo’s friendship here? Brilliant!
I just loved Molly’s references to classic cultural icons- makes me practically giddy to see current generations giving appreciative nods to timeless talents.


  1. Great interview, and I must check out these books for my daughters!

    1. Thanks, Jenny! Your girls will love them. I planned to give my Flora copy to nieces after the interview, but can't seem to part with it. They'll be getting their own copy, but this one stays with me!

  2. What an amazing interview! I love Molly's books and I learned so much about her thoughtful, creative process. Thank you for sharing all this delightful info. Looking forward to reading much more from Molly in the future.

    1. Thanks- it was all Molly- so generous with her thoughts and time! I hope you'll check out the various embedded links taking you to even more looks at other interviews and her own work spaces. Isn't it fun to learn that she has so many other intriguing titles in the works?

  3. I think Molly is an AMAZING illustrator! I fell in love with FLORA AND THE FLAMINGO as soon as I opened its cover. Buying that one was a no-brainer. Same goes for TEA REX. When I get the money, that will be on MY shelf, too :) I wish I could say the same for ZOMBELINA, but I don't really find certain things appropriate for kids. Obviously, there are many who don't have a problem with it.

    Meanwhile, I will check out---and probably purchase---most, if not all of Molly's work :)


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