By Danielle Cantor
Photo by Eric Van Eyke
If you have children, grandkids, nieces, nephews or other small people in your life, surely you are acquainted with Fancy Nancy, the little girl with curls as wild as her imagination, who looks at a perfectly average world and sees nothing but glamour. Fancy Nancy illustrator Robin Preiss Glasser first brought Jane O’Connor’s best-selling stories to life with the original Fancy Nancy (HarperCollins, 2005), launching an empire that now includes more than 50 story, sticker, paper doll, puzzle and doodle books in 17 languages; a video game; a musical theater production; enough merchandise to fill a Sears catalog; and Fancy Nancy-themed events and parties held in homes, schools and communities all over the world.
One of four sisters from a loving Jewish family in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Glasser was a professional dancer from childhood and eventually became a soloist with the Pennsylvania Ballet. But after she was sidelined by a back injury, she refocused on another passion—drawing—and at age 30 enrolled in New York’s renowned Parsons School of Design to pursue a new career. Over the next five years Glasser married, had a baby and struggled to get published, until she was chosen to illustrate Alexander, Who’s Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going to Move (Atheneum, 1995), a sequel to Judith Viorst’s popular 1970s Alexander series. The rest, as they say, is history.
Now living in Southern California with her husband and two teenage children, Glasser has since brought nearly 75 children’s books to life with her whimsical art, including three picture books with her sister, Jacqueline; three patriotic books with Lynne Cheney (yes, the wife of the former vice president); and Tea for Ruby with Sarah Ferguson, The Duchess of York. But it was O’Connor’s Fancy Nancy that awakened something deeply personal in Glasser and inspired the brilliant ink and watercolor images now admired by millions.
Do you follow a certain process when you begin working with a new author? How do you develop that relationship?
Now that I’ve been sort of knee-deep in this business for 15 years, the way I come to a project is so completely different than when I first started, when I just was hoping somebody would choose me to illustrate their story. For a freelance artist, this is a very insecure business early on. Fancy Nancy put me on the publishing map in a way that has made it much more secure. Now I get to pick and choose which projects I work on. I’ve been incredibly lucky in who I’ve had the opportunity to work with, from my very first author, Judith Viorst, on a sequel to the classic Alexander series, to working with Garrison Keillor, the three Lynne Cheney books, Sarah Ferguson, and now the Fancy Nancy series with Jane O’Connor, which I’ve been doing pretty exclusively for the last five years. The Fancy Nancy series has become sort of an “industry” in that we have 30 licensees and produce about 10 books a year. We have a Nintendo DS game, and TheatreworksUSA is going to be creating the musical. There have already been ballets produced all over the place, which is a wonderful circle for me because I was a ballet dancer in the first part of my life.
Which media do you use in your illustrations?
I use pen and ink, and I actually have my own process that I developed over the years, which involves my old warhorse Xerox machine. If it dies, I won’t be able to work anymore; it’s irreplaceable. When I draw, I draw very fast; I might draw Nancy’s face 12 times trying to get the right expression, then I pick and choose the best of the eyebrows, the eyeballs, the squiggle of the mouth, the individual features that express an emotion the best. Then I collage all those parts together to create a new face that I think best expresses what I’m trying to bring to the page. I stick that into my golden Xerox machine and copy it until all the little lines are gone and it looks like a single illustration. I send it to the printer, and they print it on watercolor paper and send it back to me to be colored. If I were to draw this on watercolor paper, I’d have just one chance—you can’t mess up on watercolor paper. My Xerox machine enables me to redraw and redraw until I get it exactly how I want it. I’d say my hand isn’t half as good as my eye; my eye is what says, “Yes, you’ve captured that emotion,” but I don’t let my hand stop until my brain recognizes that I’ve gotten it right. Though I’m never really satisfied. It takes me about an hour to draw an inch.
How has your illustrative style evolved over the years?
After art school—I went to Parsons School of Design at age 30, after my dance career ended—I was in a very dark place in my life, and I think my art reflected that. I was doing a resist method that I had fallen in love with in one of my media classes, which was a very dark kind of painterly work, very black. And I was working right out of school with a wonderful editor, Arthur Levine, who famously brought Harry Potter to America. He never published anything with me, but he absolutely molded me and helped me get from this dark place to a light place. He suggested that I do lighter, more comedic stuff. My first book was in the Alexander series, which combined comedy with drama. I suppose that’s what I still do now. There’s always a lot of emotion underneath the comedy, but I prefer an author with a good sense of humor.
Are the layout and typesetting of each book also your handiwork, in addition to the illustrations?
This is a great time to explain how many people are involved with creating a book. The only names on the cover of Fancy Nancy are Jane’s and mine, but our amazing editor, Margaret Anastas, and Jeanne Hogle, the art director, are so instrumental in creating what everybody sees. Their names should be on the cover, as well as so many other people involved with the process. People talk about wanting to self-publish, but you really can’t do it in a vacuum. You need all these people to give advice and help and mold. Creating a book is similar to what it takes to do a movie, just on a smaller scale; there really are so many people bringing their expertise to the table to create a successful world.
Fancy Nancy exudes such playfulness, positivity and confidence. Were you the same way as a child?
No, but I am her now. Nancy is the child inside this 54-year-old woman. As a child, I suppose I was somewhat like her, but I also was much more insecure as a kid. I was creative like Nancy; I was always making things. I used to make clothes for my troll dolls. I made a troll house, troll clothes, troll jewelry…I had a whole troll world going on as a kid. In fact, Nancy is a bit like a troll doll. You’ll notice her hair sticks up the same way. I didn’t realize for a while that I was drawing her that way, but when Nancy came around—and the character was such a creative little girl—my brain put two and two together and came up with the Nancy we see.
Is Fancy Nancy inspired by anyone you know?
She’s based on my niece, Jessie, who absolutely was this little girl when she was a child.
What did your first career as a ballet dancer teach you about being an illustrator?
Everything. I do feel that the overnight success of Nancy was a 45-year process. Absolutely everything that I ever saw, learned, felt and laughed at is now being brought to the table and is appearing on the page. My dance career was very important; my art is so much about the character emoting a feeling, which is exactly what I did in dance. Dance is a mime; you’re telling a story with your body, and I’m doing that still, but now it has to come through my hand onto the page. But I’m constantly dancing or moving or feeling the emotion, and paying attention to what my body is doing and then trying to convey that body language through my art. And just being out in the world and paying attention to detail—a lot of people talk about the detail I put into my scenes, and I think it’s because things from your everyday life give information. What Jane doesn’t have room to say in her words, I can say in my image. The manuscripts often come in with a lot of extra text so I can put those elements onto the page, and then the words are taken out later.
What did you read over and over as a child?
I’m embarrassed to say this, but I was not a big reader until I became an adult. Although I did love books, I have come to love them more now. I wasn’t a quiet enough child to sit there with a book, though my parents read to my sisters and me. I was constantly on a bike, no helmet, no hands, no feet, seeing how fast I could go down a hill. I was also already a serious dancer by the age of 10. If I had two minutes, I was not sitting in a corner reading.
Who are your female role models?
I’ve been influenced by so many women I’ve known, starting with my mother, who is an incredibly creative person and takes in every part of the world the way I do now. Everything bombards and impacts her constantly. There is never a moment of boredom. So many opportunities to do and see and have and be. I get all that from my mother—gobbling up the world. I also have three sisters, and we’re all emotive and larger than life. When we all gather at my parents’ home in Poughkeepsie, the energy and laughter and feeling of joie de vivre is so intense that when a plane flies overhead, it’s in danger of being sucked down.
Do you think the affinity for aesthetics and finery that you and Fancy Nancy share is a particularly Jewish trait?
I am constantly surprised at how people of all persuasions identify with Fancy Nancy, since I do think that I bring a Jewish identity and slant to her. For instance, I was on tour somewhere in the South, arriving at a school that was built into former cotton silos in a cotton field. It was a very Christian area. But when I walked into the door, there were about 40 women—parents of the kids—dressed in Fancy Nancy finery. They had outfitted the lunchroom in Fancy Nancy fashion; there were pink feathers everywhere. The boys had on suits and ties. The girls had on Easter bonnets and gloves. And I thought, “These are my people.” Everybody knows a little girl who is Fancy Nancy. It’s not just Jewish. It’s an old-fashioned sensibility. Ten years ago this book wouldn’t have existed because before the recession, people could afford to buy nice things, so we didn’t need to fantasize about nice things. Fancy Nancy is not about buying nice things; she’s about creating them out of things she has around the house. Her mother didn’t buy her a canopy bed; she made one herself. She’s sort of a toddler Martha Stewart, I like to say. She’s just a middle-class girl with a fancy gene. It’s not about affluence; it’s about being the best that you can be.
What does the digitization of literature—e-readers, the Internet—mean for kids today, and the adults they’ll become?
I know it’s going to be completely different for my grandchildren, but I hope that they’ll still be able to curl up in bed with a book that doesn’t glow.
Has your Jewish identity informed your work over the years?
I have a very strong Jewish identity; it’s very much a cultural identity. My father and his parents escaped Nazi Germany and my father grew up in the Philippines, while most of the rest of his family perished. That is a very big part of my identity. My father wonders why he lived and his little cousins didn’t. Every day of his life has been a gift, and he’s imparted that way of thinking to all his daughters. He’s also made us feel like we should make a difference, explore why we’re here and give back, instead of just taking. I don’t think I’ve brought that to my art so much, except when I was working on the Lynne Cheney books. They were historical books for kids, and it was an incredible experience for me to be able to bring these inspirational stories to children. There was one story about her grandmother, who was a Mormon, walking west alongside a carriage with all her belongings in it. She walked without shoes so she wouldn’t destroy them and could still wear them on Sundays. Mrs. Cheney managed to work her grandmother into one of the stories in the book A for Abigail, which was about great American women, and I got to bring some stories of Jewish heroines to the book.
Which is your favorite Jewish holiday?
My sisters are a very big part of my life, even though they live in Jerusalem, New York and Chicago. All of us try to go home for Passover to our parents’ house in Poughkeepsie, and it is a blast. Each of us has two kids, so it’s a big family celebration. Probably more boisterous than it’s meant to be—there are always spoons balanced on noses—but it’s a lot of fun, and I still like sitting at the kids’ table.
A Parent’s Take on Fancy Nancy
I confess I was unacquainted with Robin Preiss Glasser’s work, having no nieces, nephews or children of my own. So I polled my friends on Facebook to see what I could learn about this Fancy Nancy character.
Said one of my elementary school chums, “My 7-year-old reads her books with gestures and grand inflection, which is great to work on at that age.” Another friend tells me that Fancy Nancy “teaches excellent vocabulary, imagination play, and being true to yourself. I think Jesse's favorite part of the book is the pictures. They are so detailed, and there is something different to see and find each time you read one.”
And Tim, father to a very precocious 4-year-old girl with discerning literary tastes, says, “The charm of Fancy Nancy is that, while she is all about being ‘fancy’ in how she talks and what she wears, her child eyes find fanciness in what would otherwise seem mundane. While her puppy Frenchy is cute, he is basically a mangy mutt. And when her family travels for her grandparents’ anniversary, she quips, ‘The City Squire Motel is quite elegant!’ It's a reminder to parents that anything and everything can be special with the right attitude.”
“Robin Preiss Glasser is a great illustrator,” Tim adds. “Whenever I read the books to my daughter, she points to every face on the page, and asks, ‘And what does he say? And what does she say?’ and I do my best to come up with something funny and off-the-cuff to entertain her. It takes about five times as long to read the book, but after you’ve read any book 20 times, it's nice to breathe new life into the narrative.”—Danielle Cantor