We’re so grateful that this month Roberta Grobel Intrater agreed to be featured in our Believe in Books interview series. Roberta is a graphic designer, photographer, educational arts consultant, and the award-winning author/photo-illustrator of several popular children’s books. Peek-a-Boo, You!, her first lift-the-flap book, won gold and platinum Oppenheim Toy Portfolio awards and a Best Books for Babies award from the Beginning with Books Center for Early Literacy. She lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.
Thank you so much, Roberta, for being such a loyal friend to our organization and a powerful advocate for early childhood literacy.
Please read more about Roberta and her love of books in our interview below.
What’s your favorite childhood reading memory — whether of reading to yourself, or of someone who read to you, or something you imagined?
To be perfectly honest, the memory regarding reading that left the greatest impression on me was not initially a pleasant one. No cuddles with mom or dad while reading together in the easy chair. In fact, it’s a memory of my mother abruptly whisking me away from my birthday party, her lovely face marred by an uncharacteristically angry expression. What was my offense? I had opened my aunt’s present and exclaimed, in no uncertain terms- “A book? I didn’t want a book! I wanted a doll!” So it goes for some of us when we’re five years old. The book, as it turned out, was a thick and quite fabulous illustrated dictionary and not long after apologies to my aunt for my rudeness were made (a good lesson, actually), I realized what a treasure it was. The pictures! What a joy! I loved looking through those pages not because I cared about the words, but because I loved examining the illustrations. Like most children, I was an artist first, and the art made learning the words so much more engaging.
Which books are among your childhood favorites?
The ones with the most appealing illustrations, of course. l had to like the story too, but that was usually secondary. Many plots have long been forgotten, but the memory of some of those marvelous illustrations remain to this day. I had a particular edition of Heidi (and maybe also Tom Sawyer) about which I remember nothing except the weird and intriguing psychedelic colors of the illustrations. Line drawings accompanied by delicious magentas, oranges, and turquoise colors that almost seemed phosphorescent. No wonder I loved the ‘60s!
For completely different reasons, I treasured All of A Kind Family, a book about a Jewish family of 5 sisters growing up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side during the early 1900s, which my mother liked to read to me as a way of sharing some of her own experiences growing up within a similar community. If she wanted to imbue me with a sense of cultural identity, this book did the job. It also instilled an enduring fascination with history and other cultures. Significant influences, but it was the charming line drawings of those sisters with their hair bows and starched white aprons that always drew me back to the book. I could stare at those illustrations for hours, and occasionally, still do.
I loved all the Little Golden Books in my possession, and wish they were still widely available in supermarkets for the original 24 cents. My absolute favorite was The Pokey Little Puppy, which I recently bought in its 75th Anniversary edition. (I’m not alone here- turns out it’s the all-time single best-selling hardcover children’s book in the US, according to Wikipedia, a fact that shouldn’t have surprised me but did.) I loved those mischievous pups and delightful illustrations. I wound up with a mischievous pup of my own many years later, when my son was about 8 years old After she disappeared, I wrote a story about her, which Scholastic later published as a chapter book, The Christmas Puppy (1999). Was I influenced by one of my favorite children’s books? Probably not, because the story I wrote was based on my family’s real life experience and evolved out of a need to make myself feel better about our loss- but who knows? I always did like mischievous pups – and strawberry shortcake. These things tend to stay with you.
I’ll never forget my big hardcover edition of Disney’s Cinderella (I loved all the early Disney renderings of folk and fairy tales). It had a huge paper pumpkin that popped up when you opened the front cover. Oh, how I loved that big, beautiful orange pumpkin with its honeycomb structure. I loved it so much that I wanted to understand how it worked and be able to look at it all the time, so I tore it out of the book- only to discover that without the book, it could no longer work its magic. I was so disappointed and annoyed with myself that I couldn’t bring myself to look at the book again, but my interest in novelty books remained. Perhaps that was why I enjoyed creating a few lift-the-flap books- Peek-a-Boo, You! for Scholastic (2002) and the ABC and 123 Look at Me books for Penguin (2005).
I’ve always enjoyed creative approaches to alphabet books and have a small collection of favorites. I just finished another ABC (working title: A is for an African Adventure!), illustrated with photographs that explore all the awesome aspects of an African safari; very different from my first) and hope to get it published soon.
When I started reading on my own, and illustration began to take second place to character development and plot, I was drawn to books featuring clever, intrepid, mystery-solving young women like Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames, and biographies of real life heroes like Amelia Earhart. There were a few male heroes in the mix too, but it’s funny how I can’t seem to remember them now.
What are your favorite titles of today?
Press Here by Hervé Tullet is certainly one of the most original and imaginative of the current crop; Lane Smith’s It’s A Book is kind of an inside joke, which I found totally irresistible. I like This is Not a Hat, by Jon Klassen, the Peppa Pig and Olivia books, and am intrigued by the clever technology of Dan Krainen’s Photicular books, like Safari (which has some meaty text) and the Rufus Seder’s Scanimation books, like Gallop! (which do not). I like anything by Sandra Boynton, Eric Carle, Maurice Sendak, Chris Van Allsburg, and many of Lois Ehlert’s works. Other old favorites thankfully still on the market include the huggable Good Night Moon, Runaway Bunny and Corduroy, the Richard Scarry books (politically corrected but just as much fun) and the forever enchanting George and Martha.
One of my absolute favorites for adults interested in the creative development of children is Inventing Kindergarten by Norman Brosterman, which I discovered shortly after finishing my teaching guide, Awesome Art Activities Around the Year (grades 2-5 ). I wish every early childhood educator would get a copy of this well written, beautifully illustrated history of the 19th c kindergarten to understand not only what today’s kindergarteners are missing, but also how many creative skills children that age are capable of mastering. Bring those classes back!
I want to give a shout out for biographies (factual, not reimagined), fact-based (and sometimes illustrated) history and science books for older kids and books about animals for every age. I’d love to be able to recommend some engaging and sorely needed books about civics, but none come to mind. Are there any out there?
As far as recommendations go, I think what’s really most important is that kids are encouraged to read books in any style about any topic they’re interest in — fiction, nonfiction, comic books or graphic novels; subjects about sports, dance, music or movie stars; tales of friendships or rivalries, sci-fi or other fantasies. Whatever. Reading about what you love best encourages a love of reading about everything. And that’s the bottom line.
What was your biggest idea or inspiration that came from reading?
While many books have inspired me, my biggest idea and inspiration came from an observation my father made when I was a kid. “Isn’t it amazing,” I can still hear him say with a touch of wonder in his voice, “that everyone has just two eyes, a nose and a mouth, but nobody looks the same?” Wow! The mathematical possibilities of this fact (identical siblings excepted) WAS amazing! This was a profound revelation and I know it had a profound effect on me.
Yet I didn’t consciously remember his saying it until he passed away. And then I couldn’t get it out of my head. Was it this remark what encouraged me to become more aware of everything around me and begin to appreciate the things that make each of us unique? This struck me as a life-enriching thought concept worth sharing. Inspiring other kids too would be a wonderful tribute to my dad, so I decided to write a book. Two Eyes, A Nose and A Mouth, (Scholastic 1995) would soon become my first book, which I illustrated with photographs of all kinds of faces to drive home the point that variety is what makes our world such a marvelous place, and when it comes to people, that’s something we should celebrate, not fear or condemn.
Not long after Two Eyes was published, it became apparent that babies loved looking at these faces too- but they also loved tearing up the pages. Bernette Ford, who was then my wonderful publisher at Scholastic, decided to remedy the problem with a series of durable board books for infants and toddlers, which she asked me to write and illustrate. She gave me only one directive- the books had to have context. Not one word, but full sentences easy to read aloud to babies. Happily, the resulting Baby Faces Board Book series (Smile!, Peek-a-Boo!, Eat!, Splash!, Hugs & Kisses, and Sleep) have been part of the ROR program for many years.
What is your favorite word?
Two words, actually – or half of one word. It’s something my husband loved to say whenever I was struggling with an idea or a deadline. “What’s the last four letters of American!”, he’d bark, in the mock tone of an army drill sergeant. “I can” I’d usually grumble, suppressing a smile, and then press on. I don’t know where or how he came up that little motivational device, but it still resonants with me.
If you were going to be anything other than a writer, what would you be?
Certainly not be an actor, athlete or a pop star. I worked as a graphic designer for the fashion industry and at an advertising agency for the movie industry; I freelanced as a magazine photographer and journalist for much of my career, studied painting as a post graduate and taught art and photography on every level from grade school to graduate school- all of which I enjoyed immensely. I used to have fantasies about playing jazz piano in small clubs, piloting planes, driving race cars and becoming a lawyer to fight the good fight (To Kill A Mockingbird inspired me too) or a CDC doctor to do medical detective work. (If my math skills had been better, I might have become an architect (the highest level of artistic achievement, as one of my professors once remarked). Any of those vocations would have made me happy, but I’m grateful I’ve had the opportunity to do what I’ve come to love best- write, design, take photographs and illustrate books for kids.