Robin Preiss Glasser met Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, in the summer of 2001 to discuss illustrating her first children’s book called “America: A Patriotic Primer.” Since then, Glasser has collaborated with Cheney on “A is for Abigail: An Almanac of Amazing American Women” and their latest, “Our 50 States: A Family Adventure Across America” (Simon & Schuster, 2006). She is also the illustrator of the best-selling “Fancy Nancy,” written by Jane O’Connor, and “Super-Completely and Totally the Messiest!” written by Judith Viorst.
Cheney, who has spent she has spent much of her professional life writing and speaking about the importance of knowing history, was invited on “Today” to discuss her fourth — and newest —children’s book. The idea for “Our 50 States” was inspired by a cross-country road trip two of her granddaughters took with their father. Glasser took some time to answer some questions about working with Cheney over the years, her favorite parts of the new book, and her own road trips across the U.S. Glasser lives in Southern California with her husband and two children.
MSNBC.com: You’ve worked with Lynne Cheney on several books. What was the first book you collaborated on? How did you get paired to work on that book?
Robin Preiss Glasser: In the summer of 2001, I was invited to Mrs. Cheney’s residence to meet her and talk about the possibility of illustrating a book of hers “America: A Patriotic Primer.” Although she’s a scholar of history and English and had written many books for adults, she hadn’t yet written one for children.
MSNBC.com: Has your relationship changed over the years?
Glasser: I started out a bit intimidated by her brilliance and office, but after working intensely on three books with Mrs. Cheney and spending a lot of time getting to know her and her family, I now care about her in a more personal way, having gotten a chance to experience her in her roles as grandmother, mother, wife, and friend.
MSNBC.com: How did you and Mrs. Cheney work on this book, since you live in California and she’s in Washington, D.C.?
Glasser: We met a few times before starting each of the books, brainstorming ideas for format and looking over Mrs. Cheney’s manuscripts. We always started with her ideas and then she allowed for plenty of input from me as well as the many other researchers and experts that we contacted for specific advice. Each book took successively longer — this last one actually took three years: one year for Mrs. Cheney and her team of researchers, and then two years to illustrate it.
During the two years I was working on it, e-mail was our tool. As she is often traveling, I’ve gotten answers to my questions at all times of night and day and from all over the world! Sometimes she would have to get back to me as she wasn’t at her desk and couldn’t get me the information for a few hours. I still can’t understand how she did her “day job” and still managed to be completely present whenever I needed her advice. Often it required a choice, such as, “Mrs. Cheney, I can only fit one of these two facts you gave me in this spot, which would you prefer?” I always got the answer instantly. It was amazing.
MSNBC.com: Did both of you make suggestions about what information should be included in the book? Is there any fact that you’re especially pleased was included in the book?
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Glasser: To balance each page, I needed to have a lot of leeway to pick and choose and suggest. She completely allowed my creativity and rarely changed a direction I was going in. However, as the three projects went along, Mrs. Cheney learned the children’s book form so well and her eye is so good, that she became an excellent art director. She even drew a sketch of something for me that I wasn’t getting right and faxed it to me! By the time we did this third book, she would suggest images and I would suggest text ideas.
One of my favorite things included in this book is a quote on the last page. As this book is about a nationwide family road trip, it seemed fitting to end it with this by Eleanor Roosevelt: “The greatest thing I have learned is how good it is to come home again.”
MSNBC.com: Where did you grow up? Did you learn anything about your home state?
MSNBC.com: Your parents were immigrants. Do you think that gives you a different perspective on the U.S.?
Glasser: Absolutely. When I first met Mrs. Cheney, I told her the following story: When I was 10 years old, my parents took my sisters and me to the Philippines to visit my father’s parents. They had escaped Nazi Germany and ended up in Manila where my father had grown up. I’ll never forget being taken to the Manila fish market and seeing many little children living in boxes with no clothes or shoes. Knowing the strife of my father’s childhood and what I witnessed on this trip made a huge impact on me and gave me an understanding of how lucky I was to live in America.
MSNBC.com: Do you take a road trips around the country with your family?
Glasser: Every year we do a family trip and it is broadening for my kids and there are memories we’ll always have.
MSNBC.com: You were a soloist with the Pennsylvania Ballet for 11 years. You have also designed theater sets, costumes, playbills, and posters. How did you get started illustrating children’s books?
Glasser: Even as a child pursuing dance as a career, I always drew and took art classes. My dance career was over when I was 30 years old and I feel fortunate to have had another love in the arts to fall back on. I decided to go back to school specifically to illustrate children’s books. Parsons School of Design made that possible for me by giving me a scholarship. Even after four years of school, it took five more years of trying to break into publishing before I got my first book to illustrate. Meanwhile I did theatrical work as I still had contacts in the dance world. I thank Judith Viorst and Simon & Schuster for giving me my first break and I’ve done 20 books since 1995, including three with my sister Jacqueline Preiss Weitzman who also helped me with the research I did on Mrs. Cheney’s three books.
MSNBC.com: What was your favorite illustrated children’s book?
Glasser: I have so many! I am a huge fan of many other illustrators and tend to fawn embarrassingly over my favorites when I get to meet them at book events. I wouldn’t even want to begin naming them because I’d probably kick myself later for not including this favorite or that favorite.
MSNBC.com: Do you think children’s books have changed since you were a little girl?
Glasser: Very much and in many ways. The subjects are more realistic; the best writers don’t treat children as precious innocents any more, and there is more attention to the feelings and psychology of children. Humor is also treated more sophisticatedly these days. As for the illustration side of children’s books, the developments in printing have completely changed what is possible. Even back in the 1990s when I was in art school, I was taught how to do color separations, which the illustrator often had to do. That’s why so many books from our childhood were in black and white and sometimes one or two colors. Now, because of computer technology, we illustrators are free to use any medium we like and a full palette. As the baby boomers buy more books for their children than our parents did, more fine artists and noted writers have entered the field, so the quality overall is better. As books have gotten better and more sophisticated, more adults buy children’s books for themselves and other adults as well. I probably have more adults attracted to my books even than children.
MSNBC.com: Do you have plans to collaborate with Mrs. Cheney on other projects?
Glasser: Mrs. Cheney is busy working on an adult book now and I have a few contracted to do with other authors as well, but hopefully we’ll find another great project to work on down the road. Working with Mrs. Cheney has been an education, an inspiration, and a thrill in every way.
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