Rosalyn Schanzer is the author and illustrator of sixteen books for young people, including Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem, which won the Society of Illustrator’s Gold Medal for Best Illustrated Book of 2011.
Rosalyn has also illustrated posters, magazine and newspaper articles, greeting cards, children's games, and other-authors's books. When she isn’t watching words or pictures fall from her fingers, this nationally ranked master's swimmer and avid photographer has ridden through the sand dunes of Mongolia, swam with sharks in Belize and the Bahamas and kayaked with whales in Alaska, Canada and Mexico. She's hiked the Andes, climbed volcanoes, fished for piranha and helped sail a racing boat from Bermuda to Boston. Most of the time, though, she lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, Steve in a house surrounded by birds.
If you have a degree in what field is it? To make sure I could find work in the real world, I signed up for a double major and graduated from college with a BFA and a BS in education. As it turns out, I’ve been doing the art part ever since.
Have you always been able to draw or was it a skill you learned in college? I decided to become an artist when I was two years old and didn’t know any better. I guess I wasn’t too bad at art though, because in first grade everybody wanted me to draw their portrait. Of course this got me in big trouble with the teacher since we weren’t doing any work, so I had to stand in the corner for my art. But, to answer the question, even though I had a great time in college, every useful thing I ever learned came down the pike after graduation.
What was your first paid assignment? After my freshman year in college back in the Dark Ages, I took a summer job at an advertising agency in Knoxville Tennessee, and my first assignment was to animate a movie ad about a trash incinerator with the tagline “Melts Glass Down Small!” I had to paint a zillion colorful and lovely pictures of melting glass bottles and clean laundry on a clothesline waving in the breeze. There were no personal computers, so movies had to be made one frame at a time on cels.
Which illustrator do you most admire? Only one? Impossible. There are a lot of illustrators whose work impresses the hell out of me, so maybe it would be better to mention some of the people who have influenced me the most… I worked with Brad Holland for a hot minute and he convinced me to use my noggin (thanks Brad, wherever you are). I was also under the spell of some other illustrators who knew how to think: Tomi Ungerer and Etienne Delessert and Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast and Shel Silverstein and The Stupids Step Out.
What would you be doing if you weren’t an illustrator? Well, I do love photography and for years I thought about becoming a photojournalist with an edge (whatever that means). That way I’d get paid to travel all over the real world instead of spending massive chunks of my life inside a studio.
From where do your best ideas originate? Since I write all the books that I illustrate, and since most of these books tell amazing-but-true stories that I dig up out of history, I guess my best ideas are handed to me on some ancient silver platter straight out of the past.
How do you overcome a creative block? It’s called deadlines. Every pro in any field has to meet deadlines; if you can’t come up with good ideas on time and time after time, you ain’t about to get any more work.
In one word describe how you feel when beginning a new assignment. Psyched. Otherwise I’d have to quit.
Do you have a personal philosophy? In my professional life? I don’t have a magically philosophical philosophy, but I do try find a new twist for every book I write and illustrate, and then I try my best to make it work. In my personal life and my family life? I guess it comes straight out of a middle school yearbook: Carpe Diem.
Do you have creative pursuits other than illustration? I have lots of pursuits, some creative and some not so much. I love to travel to places most people hardly ever see and take photographs of vanishing cultures and wild animals. When I write my books I’ll go just about anywhere on the planet to unearth new research about people like Charles Darwin, Captain John Smith, Ben Franklin, Lewis and Clark, the folks who joined the California Gold Rush, George Washington or the witches of Salem
What music are you listening to right now? Really? Kelly Joe Phelps singing “River Rat Jimmy” and “Jehoshaphat.” Since we just went to Mongolia I was listening to a Mongolian throat singer before that. Go figure. In a minute I’m going to listen to the Washington Nationals play baseball.
What’s your favorite quote? “Wherever you go, there you are.” OK, here’s a more serious one, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” Shakespeare said it long before Paul Simon did.
Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? 1) Think, Think, Think… Draw, Draw, Draw… Think, Think, Think… Draw, Draw, Draw... 2) Draw with authority. Timidity is not an option. 3) Love what you do, set the bar high and only show your very best work. 4) Be brave enough to start at the top and be creative and hard-working enough to get away with it. If you don’t, you’ll either spend your career designing boring websites for clueless clients or you’ll have to find yourself another line of work.
What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? Writing and illustrating books is a lonely job. It’s also labor intensive and all-nighters are the rule, not the exception. There are lots and lots of easier ways to earn a buck and still get paid vacations. But the good news is that I don’t have to drive in rush hour traffic, the better news is that I have almost complete control over my own work and the best news is that I can pick and choose whatever variety of interesting story ideas and artwork styles I want. Building a book is also fun and challenging, and every single time I learn jaw-dropping things I’’d never heard of before.