There’s a huge oak vestment cabinet, the kind typically used by Episcopalian priests, in author-illustrator Steve Jenkins’ studio in Boulder, Colorado. His wife and artistic ally, Robin Page, bought if from an antique store a few decades ago on the hunch that it would come in handy—not for storing ceremonial garb, but something far more precious to Jenkins: paper.
Inside the cabinet’s wide wooden drawers are reams of colored sheaves, hailing from near and far: the neighborhood deli, New York City, Japan. This kaleidoscope of fibers is Jenkins’ preferred medium. Through an intricate process involving sketching, cutting, tearing, and layering, he transforms gossamer shapes into animals and other natural forms for the pages of more than dozens of children’s books. His and Page’s latest collaboration is EGG: Nature’s Perfect Package, which hatched on March 3, just in time for spring.
In an interview with Audubon, Jenkins reveals how the duo was able to transform these polymorphous wonders into whimsical pieces of art. (Sneak a peek at some of our favorites at the very bottom!)
Audubon: You’ve covered a lot of members of the animal kingdom. How did you and Robin choose the subject matter for your latest book?
Steve Jenkins: There are a lot of beautifully illustrated egg books, but the focus seemed to often be on bird eggs and their extremes—it was just the ostrich egg and the hummingbird egg. We didn’t see much with these really interesting shapes, like some of the insect eggs and some of the mollusk eggs, so we were drawn to showing that.
A: What role do you each play in making a book like EGG?
SJ: We both do some research, although Robin does a lot more of the image research. Then we go through it together and make some preliminary choices. She then starts doing sketches that will be guides for me later on. While she’s doing that, a lot of times I’m doing some of the factual research. She’ll take real rough text that I’ve come up with and drop it into her layout, which will then require editing. Finally, there’ll be a point where I’ll do the final cut of the paper illustration, but I’m working from her layout.
A: How do you pick out your paper?
A: Rarely do I know going in exactly what paper I’m going to use. Usually the subject steers you in some direction. So if I’m doing a fish, say, I’ll make a pencil sketch that’s going to be a template for the final illustration, and I’ll cut a window out. Then I’ll hold that windowed template over maybe a dozen different paper possibilities, and sometimes something will just pop. It’s usually a little bit of process-of-discovery. And sometimes it’s kind of surprising—there’ll be something that I wouldn’t necessarily have considered if I thought about it before.
A: Was there a paper choice in EGG that you were particularly proud of?
SJ: I like the elephant bird paper. I thought it worked out well, because we had a big space to fill in the beginning of the book. The egg is kind of blandly textured, but somewhat believable. It looks like it has cracks in it.
A: What cool egg facts appealed to you?
SJ: I’ve always been partial to the Maleo (a chicken-sized bird that’s endemic to parts of Indonesia)—the one that incubates its eggs in volcanic ashes. I’ve actually used it in another book. For animals, everything has a cost, so if this bird doesn’t have to sit on its nest and use its body heat to incubate the eggs, it can be catching bugs or whatever and let the volcano do the work. The trial and error that must have been required to not end up with a hard-boiled egg . . .
A: How do you hope kids will respond to your book?
SJ: I hope the reaction is a little like our reaction. We spend probably a few hours each day looking at blogs and books and researching one thing or another. We’ve been doing that for years, and still, almost daily, one of us will come across some creature or some behavior that’s totally new, that’s just astounding. The natural world is just so rich; it’s much more complex than we think it is. To give children some glimmer of that would be a good thing.
EGG: Nature's Perfect Package, by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 32 pages, $17.89. Buy it at Barnes&Noble.