Pauline Ts’o is an author, illustrator, photographer, and co-founder of Rhythm & Hues, a computer animation and visual effects company that has won multiple Academy Awards (Best Visual Effects for Life of Pi, Babe, and The Golden Compass). Recently, Pauline has written and illustrated the book, Whispers of the Wolf, published by Wisdom Tales Press. The story centers around a young boy named, Two Birds, and is set 500 years ago among the Pueblo Indians of the desert Southwest. Pauline first encountered the Pueblo people of the desert Southwest during a photography workshop in the 1980s and kept going back.
Pauline’s production credits as a digital artist and lighting/art supervisor include Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Disney’s theme park attraction, It’s Tough to be a Bug, and various commercials, including the first Coca-Cola Polar Bear spot. Pauline talked to the John Hughes Institute (JHI) about the inspiration behind Whispers of the Wolf.
When did you first become involved in children’s literature? What made you want to create stories for children?
When I was a child! Back then, I read a lot. Part of what I read was illustration-driven. For example, in elementary school, I hunted down all the Scribner’s Illustrated Classics illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. These were books like “Last of the Mohicans” and “Kidnapped”. I also enjoyed my brother’s comic books and MAD magazine. Reading and drawing were my favorite hobbies. (And basketball, believe it or not! I was really short then, too.) As a teenager, I began writing a bit. Fantasy, mostly. Really bad stuff. My best friend couldn’t even finish reading it. I also became interested in animated films as an art form around that time. I started going to animated film festivals, like Spike and Mike.
Then when we started Rhythm and Hues, we agreed that we wanted to eventually create animated features. I figured someone ought to know something about story – but that obviously wasn’t me yet. So, I started taking extension classes at UCLA and Otis. Mostly writing for children’s books, but also for short stories, screenwriting, and TV animation. Those seemed most appropriate for the goals of Rhythm and Hues.
Writing for children and illustrating for children are two different art forms and yet you seem to feel comfortable in both realms. Is that true? Or do you prefer one over the other?
When I’m writing, I prefer illustrating. When I’m illustrating, I prefer writing! I think it’s a classic case of problem-avoidance…
I am wondering about the origins of this particular story. You write in the author’s note that you spent several years with the Pueblos. What drew you to do this? What kind of activities were you involved in there?
When I moved to Los Angeles to work at Robert Abel and Associates’ software division, I knew nothing about the Southwest. I soon discovered a photographer, Dave Wyman, who was leading outdoor photography workshops all around California for USC. It was a great way to discover all sorts of places here.
Eventually, after a few years, I evolved from trip participant to assistant trip leader. Around that same time, Dave began extending the reach of his trips. We started taking people to the Four Corners area, including northern New Mexico and Arizona, where today’s Pueblo Indians still live. We would visit a couple of times a year over a span of about 10 years, often visiting the same people. So, for better or for worse, they got to know us! Some of these people became friends and helped me out tremendously on “Whispers of the Wolf”.
What is the origin of this particular story? Is it based on stories that you heard? If not, how did the idea come to you?
“Whispers of the Wolf” is not based on a traditional story. One of the first classes I took on children’s books was at Otis, taught by Barbara Bottner. This was around 1990 or so. Barbara is a great teacher. I believe the second assignment in her class was to take a problem you were currently having and give it the voice of child. As it turned out, one of the issues I was facing at Rhythm and Hues was, for the good of the company, learning to let go of certain tasks so that others could feel more involved. So, “letting go” and the good that can come from it became the theme of my story, and the setting evolved naturally from the photography trips.
I specifically did not want to do another retelling of a myth because there were so many examples of that already. What I noticed lacking were more realistic portrayals of Pueblo people who really could have existed, and therefore might be relatable to today’s Pueblo children in a more direct way.
Vivian Arviso Deloria and Rosemary Lonewolf wrote the Preface and the Forward to the book. What was their involvement with the project and how did you come to meet them?
I actually haven’t met them yet. It can be controversial when a non-Native writes about Native Americans. Sometimes, writers don’t do enough research and instead rely too heavily on stereotypes and preconceptions. Or, they reveal things that they shouldn’t. I had shown earlier versions of the story to about six Pueblo families and also ran it by another 4-5 academic experts, so I was pretty confident “Whispers of the Wolf” was well vetted. My Native American friends were all supportive. But my publisher asked Rosemary and Vivian to provide more independent reviews of the story, to bolster potential readers’ confidence that it was a respectful and accurate portrayal of Pueblo culture.
Unlike many books for children, yours contains extensive notes documenting the origin of each illustration. What made you decide to take this approach?
I had done extensive research for both the story and the illustrations anyway, and had come across a lot of interesting facts. There were also some points about Pueblo Indian culture that I wanted to make, but couldn’t quite fit into the story. I had always hoped that teachers and librarians might find this book useful as a teaching tool, so including the notes became both a way to add general interest as well as to directly support curriculum.
Usually, picture books are only 32 pages long. Increasing the length to 40 pages adds significant cost to the book, as well as time to production. But happily, my publisher agreed that it would be worth it.
Finally, do you have advice for those who want to become involved in the creation of books for children? What are the first steps someone should take?
First, read, read, read. This is another Golden Age of children’s books with enormously talented writers and illustrators contributing to the field. But that also makes it very competitive and requires nearly inhuman persistence (at least in the US). One of the best ways to get a handle on the business and the craft is to join SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators. It’s a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of children’s literature and has chapters all over the world. Good luck!
The Amazon link to reviews of Whispers of the Wolf: http://goo.gl/w0qCeW
- Interview by Susan Lewak & Shish Aikat