Friday, July 22, 2011

Jane Rosenberg, Writer and Illustrator
In Conversation with The Pen And Ink

by Lupe Fernandez

Jane has written and illustrated three children’s books on the performing arts. She started as a painter, living in lower Manhattan. Jane studied with the artist, Sol Lewitt and received a Masters of Fine Arts at NYU. “Minimalism was in flower in NY. I loved the aesthetic. It reduced art. It wasn’t arbitrary.” After graduate school, she worked full-time in advertising, then taught art in elementary school, but Jane didn’t have enough time for painting so she put together an illustration portfolio, hoping to freelance.

“In those days, I had a black portfolio that I carried around the city, as opposed to online submissions these days.” Jane set meetings with art directors and editors. She did illustrations for Scholastic, Highlights, Ms. Magazine, Brides, and Essence. She also did food illustrations for cooking magazines and illustrated the cookbook, Romantic and Classic Cakes, by the noted pastry chef, Rose Beranbaum. After illustrating for New York News for Kids, Jane served as their art director. It was distributed throughout the New York City school district. 

Jane’s early influences for her writing and illustration were fairy tales and the Eloise books by Kay Thompson, illustrated by Hilary Knight. Contemporary illustrators who she finds appealing: Peter Sis, William Joyce, Lane Smith, Gennady Spirin, and William Steig.

Her first book was Dance Me a Story: Twelve Tales from the Classic Ballets. Upon visiting Scribner's bookstore on 5th Ave in New York, she discovered a copy of ballet stories for children published in the fifties. Jane loved ballet. She had studied as a child. 

“I had a Eureka moment.” Since the only book on ballet had been written decades earlier and the illustrations were dated, Jane decided to write and illustrate her own ballet book. She started with “La Sylphide”, one of the oldest of the romantic ballets. Then she shopped the proposal to various editors. 

The fifth publisher she approached, Thames & Hudson, was interested in the project. This became her first book deal, and she had a wonderful working relationship with her editor. Merrill Ashley, a Balanchine trained prima ballerina with New York City Ballet, wrote the introduction. 

"Petrouchka" copyright 2008 by Jane Rosenberg, 
DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales from the Classic Ballets
Jane often works in watercolor and gouache. Watercolor is at once transparent and vivid. It has a jewel box quality. “When I paint in watercolor I work on Arches Hot Press. I’m able to do the smallest details on hot press, unlike cold press. I do my best work in the morning, whether illustrating or writing, although I keep at it after a lunch break for another couple of hours. I write in silence but I often paint while listening to music: classical or jazz. My studio/office has white walls, a large window that looks out on an oleander bush in our side yard, packed bookshelves, a drawing table, a long white tabletop where my computer and printer reside; and a ten drawer flat file where I store my paintings, drawings, and paper, on top of which sits a light table for transferring my sketches onto paper for final art.”

"Petrouchka" copyright 2008 by Jane Rosenberg,
DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales from the Classic Ballets 
Jane’s next book was Sing Me a Story: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children

She proposed an opera book after Dance Me a Story. Her publisher’s response was that it was a lovely idea, but they weren’t sure there was enough of an audience for a children’s opera book. Then, as luck would have it, the Metropolitan Opera called Thames & Hudson. They had seen Dance Me A Story and wanted Jane to do a book of opera stories with their imprint. Luciano Pavarotti wrote the introduction. 

The third book, Play me a Story: A Child’s Introduction to Classical Music Through Stories and Poems, had a different origin. 

The director from the education department at Alice Tully Hall wanted a book on classic music for kids and approached Jane and her publisher. “I suggested doing a book and accompanying CD but Thames & Hudson didn’t have the resources to produce a CD.” Disappointed, Jane put the book proposal in a drawer. Six months later she took it to Random House Children’s Books. The head of children’s books and the head of the audio division loved the book. The CD was complicated to produce.

The original poems by Jane (poems that follow the composer’s programmatic intentions) were read with musical underscoring. Then the musical excerpt was played. Knopf (it was published under their imprint) needed music in the public domain played by orchestras who didn’t charge huge fees. Jane wanted Dudley Moore to do the narration. At that time Dudley Moore was interested in promoting classic music, but he was unavailable. Instead, Knopf used local New York actors. This book sold briskly but is currently out of print. 

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" copyright 1994 by Jane Rosenberg,
PLAY ME A STORY: A Child's Introduction to Classical Music Through Stories and Poems 
For the illustrations of Play Me a Story and her other books, Jane drew on sources from art history. She was influenced by such artists as Jean-Antoine Watteau (see Pilgrimage to Cythera pictured below), the Commedia dell-arte engravings and drawings of Jacques Callot and Domenico Tiepolo, and the Russian artists, Benois and Bakst. Jane researched ballet and opera productions and costumes, attended ballets, operas and concerts, watched performances on video, and went to the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center to watch ballet on film.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" copyright 1994 by Jane Rosenberg,
PLAY ME A STORY: A Child's Introduction to Classical Music Through Stories and Poems
Classical music is underrepresented in children’s literature. Regarding the interest her books generated from her publishers, “At that time, I saw an opening in the market, though today’s market is well saturated with music books. Unfortunately, too many schools have cut back on the arts. There’s little exposure to opera and ballet. Yet it’s important to introduce children to the performing arts when they’re young so they’ll develop a lifelong love of the arts.”

Pilgrimage to Cythera, Watteau, Jean-Antoine
Jane would love to do a book on world opera and world dance, featuring productions from across the globe outside of the traditional Western repertory. 

What’s Jane working on now? 

“I’m currently working on a YA fantasy novel. I’m also working on a Middle Grade novel – a musical mystery that teaches kids the vocabulary and concepts of music within a fantasy/adventure story. The illustrations are black, white, and red and painted in gouache. They reflect the flat, two-dimensional world of the sheet music that my young protagonist unwittingly enters.” 

Jane acknowledges missing the publishing industry of the past when there were more independent publishers. Why continue as an illustrator and writer in these difficult times? “That’s what I do. I’m never without an idea for a book, which I’m driven to write and illustrate.” Jane’s been drawing since she was a child. “When I was six or seven, I remember thinking: When I grow up I’ll illustrate children’s books so I can work at home and have kids.”

And that’s just what she’s done. Jane’s husband is a writer. They have three grown children and work from home. 

The Pen & Ink Blog would like to thank Jane for her time and permission to exhibit her work. 

For more about Jane see her website, Jane Rosenberg Children’s Books – The Watercolors or find her on Facebook at Jane Rosenberg Children’s Books.
Edited by Susan Berger
Images Courtesy of Jane Rosenberg


  1. Thanks for the wonderful conversation with Jane Rosenberg. It's fascinating to get the parallel inside stories on the ideas behind her writing and her illustrations too.

  2. I like illustrators because I can't draw.
    Pencilless Pipsqueak

  3. I love Jane's style of illustrations. It's so rich and reminds me of the picture books I grew up with.

  4. I grew up with Linus and the Purple Crayon.
    Lupe The Orange Popsicle

  5. Jane, I'd be hard pressed to imagine you ploughing life's furrow in any other way than you have done. I may not be surprised but I'm deeply delighted. barz


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