Robin Preiss Glasser, One of Fancy Nancy's Mothers



I had the great pleasure of talking with illustrator, Robin Preiss Glasser, recently.  Below is a close approximation of our conversation.

Robin said, “Yes, completely,” when I asked if her drawings of Nancy in her fancy tutus, dancing along the pages, were a reflection of Robin’s own experiences of wearing elaborate costumes while dancing professionally.  Robin went on to talk about how important it is to tap one’s own experiences to create:

“It took a long time to understand the very first rule of the craft, which is do what you know.  Unless you are working on fantasy, I believe there is something deep inside that is unique to you and that is the story you should be telling.  I look back on my life and at how I am unique, what I have in common with others, how I am different from others.  And, I try to draw from inside of me.  Nancy in many ways is who I am today, not just who I was when I was six.  I feel her when I am drawing her. I am tapping into something beyond what is on the surface.”   

When asked where she starts off in her imaginings of how Nancy will look on the page, Robin said:

“Costuming is what I figure out right away as I’m reading the manuscript.  I’m imagining how this character who likes to “fancify” her world would look, and am trying to stay true to her truth.”

I mentioned that I liked the stars in Nancy’s hair in Fancy Nancy Stellar Stargazer, and Robin said that she uses everything she has discovered from pop culture over the years to come up with ideas for Nancy’s looks.  For instance, Star Wars remains popular, and inspired the Princess Leah hairdo Nancy wears on the cover of this book.  Robin said:

“This hairstyle could be something that she [Nancy] might have seen, and so she might put her hair that way. I have to figure out how Nancy would make each outfit she wears.  I go back into my arsenal of life, having looked at the world for the last 56 years, and come up with various ideas.  For instance, for the cover of Mermaid Ballet, Nancy has made herself a mermaid.  I had to figure out how she could make her own mermaid tale by herself.  So, I decided she would use a sheet, and then, since tie-dye was in vogue I used tie-dye for the coloring of the sheet.  And, then, Nancy uses some of her signature ribbon to tie off the bottom like a mermaid’s tail.  It just ended up looking so funny when I drew it!”

I went back, and asked Robin what part of Nancy she deeply relates to since Nancy’s costuming is more of a technical consideration.  She relates to the “drama queen” in Nancy. 

Robin said: “Nancy’s highs are ridiculously high, and her lows are ridiculously low.  She is emotional. Unfortunately this is how I am, as well. I’m a great exaggerator. Everything is larger than life.  Thankfully my husband is a nice calm person who constantly rolls his eyes at my exaggerations. Nancy, for me, has some resemblance to I Love Lucy, that kind of character; one who is just trying so hard and reaching for the stars but sometimes falls on her nose. I don’t know that Jane intended for Nancy to be this way when she first wrote her story.  That just came out of me developing the character.”

I asked Robin if she was able to share her artwork with Jane O’Connor, author of the Fancy Nancy series, as each book was being developed because I know many people do not get to do that in book world.  To this Robin replied:

“Jane and I were already quite established in the children’s book world by the time we came together which changes the rules.  Usually it is best for publishers to keep authors and illustrators apart.  Sometimes the author has an idea of how the characters and book should look like and it can cause a difficult problem.  When you get to a certain point, where Jane and I had been in the industry for years, you get to pick and choose whom you work with.  Pretty much from the beginning, Jane and I had a relationship.  And, both of us have a longstanding relationship with our brilliant editor, Margaret Anastas.  The three of us are doing this whole thing together.  We think of Margaret as the third mother of Nancy.  Usually we meet up in NY, where Jane and Margaret live, sit around a big table and hash each book through and develop it together from Jane’s manuscript.”

She went on to elaborate on how Jane O’Connor is really the driving force that breathes life into Nancy:

“Everything starts with Jane.  Sometimes we may suggest a story idea, but if she can’t find a beginning middle and end, it doesn’t happen.  It starts with Jane and then she and Margaret work on.  Then, it comes to me, and I draw a dummy of it, laying it all out.  It then becomes apparent that many of the words Jane has put in for description can come out because I’ve drawn what the words say. We bat it back and forth a few times in this way before it’s ready for me to do the final illustrations.” 

I told Robin that I was pleased to hear that she enjoyed working with her editor, Margaret, as I know that these professional collaborations usually mean that a book will have to change significantly between birth and publication.  Robin indicated:

“Most of us are pretty thrilled with the help that we get because you really have to have that third eye.”

I asked Robin what the most exciting part of working on the Fancy Nancy series has been.  She said:

“Working on a series that has consumed my life, as we put out six to 10 Fancy Nancy stories a year, has been incredible.  It is a lot like working on a television series as I envision this character, Nancy, move around through various scenarios.  And, it always amazes me how many people are involved in keeping a project like this going.  I know how many are involved because I know how many Christmas cards I send out!  Just at Harper Collins alone there must be about 50 people working on these books. I feel like I’m a cog in a wheel of a big machine. When I hear that so many people want to self-publish, I think to myself that you really need all of these other people behind you so they can help create and sell your book.”   

My favorite part of this discussion involves what Robin calls the “licensing” part of things.  Apparently, the Fancy Nancy dolls fall into this category.  As Robin said:

“The biggest surprise of working on this series has been the licensing part of it.  I’ve always loved dolls for instance.  When we were little, my mother had a fancy Madame Alexander doll on a high shelf out of reach, and my 3 sisters and I weren’t allowed to touch it.  She had saved her nickels during the Depression in order to buy this doll; it took her a year to save up for it, and her mother thought it was a waste of money since she was too old to play with dolls.  Now, fast forward to Fancy Nancy getting published, and in comes Madame Alexander to make all of these Fancy Nancy dolls. Some that I can even play with! I’ve gotten to experience the thrill of helping to create the dolls from the very start when their faces are sculpted from clay, and searching out materials for their funny clothes.”

It seemed like there were so many things that Robin could say about the great experiences she has had, and is continuing to have while working on the Fancy Nancy books.  So, I asked her to just continue talking on this topic.  Robin went on to say:

“The fun part of this period is that Fancy Nancy started as a picture book.  Then as her readers were growing up they would write to Jane, asking her to write Fancy Nancy stories for their age group.  So, Jane wrote a lot of easy reader books about this character.  We had fun figuring out who Nancy would be as she got older.  It’s sort of weird to grow this fictional character who is so alive to us, and creepily so sometimes.  I dream about her, and we do talk about being her three mothers [Margaret, Jane, and Robin].  All the characters seem real to us! Mrs. DeVine is one of my favorites. My backstory for her is completely different from Jane’s.  I think of her as a world traveler, but Jane thinks she was a hairdresser in Hollywood. Of course, Jane gets to win, because she is the “boss of the words.” Meanwhile, as Nancy’s fans grew older still and asked Jane for chapter books about Nancy, we’ve started to age her up to third grade.  So now we are also producing the Nancy Clancy series of chapter books. And just when we feel like it couldn’t continue another year, demand for the books keep it going.  We have teachers and librarians to thank for this, who embrace the Fancy Nancy series, and who use the books as good vocabulary builders, as learning tools.”

I had to take this opportunity to tell Robin that I hoped that I would someday read about Nancy the teenager, and also to gush over her artwork.  I told her that her use of pattern on pattern was reminiscent to me of my favorite artist’s, Yoshitaka Amano’s, work.  While looking at his work online, Robin laughed and exclaimed about how her work was just not comparable to his beautiful painting.  She said that she did not consider herself to be a “real artist”, just a “commercial artist.”  I had to disagree—clap your hands three times if you believe that Robin is a real artist!  I know you are all clapping with me. 

I asked Robin which artist most inspired her drawing, and she said:

“The Impressionists, particularly Matisse, were the ones I studied.  Matisse perfectly assimilated pattern on pattern in his artwork, and Bakst did it brilliantly in his dance costumes for the Ballets Russes in the 1920’s.  There is a way to make bright color and pattern on pattern work, and then, there is a way to make it look like mish mosh.  I studied this period of art, costume, and fashion and it’s my greatest influence.”

I asked Robin if she made art outside the confines of her work.  She noted that this was the same question she got when she was a ballet dancer.  Did she like to dance when she was not busy rehearsing for or dancing in performances?  Robin answered:

“I think the answer really is no.  I spend so many hours a week, like 80, on my illustration work.  When I am not working I am reading or playing with my family, anything but drawing.  When making art is your job, it does take a little bit of the magic out of it.  At the same time though, I feel like one of the luckiest people in the world to be able to do what I love every day.”

Robin and I got into a short discussion of her work hours, and her transition from business interactions to family interactions to actually creating the illustrations.  Robin said:

“Most of the time I work on the books from about 5:00 in the evening until 2:00 to 3:00 in the morning.  Those are my desk hours.  The business side of this constantly twirling hamster wheel happen in the morning. So, up until 2:00 I am mostly dealing with e-mail or on the phone working on the business side of things.  I have between 2:00 and 5:00 to myself.  That is when I get to go to the doctor or the bank…Then my husband comes home.  We have a cup of coffee together, sometimes go for a walk with the dog, and then I work the rest of the evening.  My husband is really good about not disturbing me.  He knows when I crank up my music really loud, and am in my work space, that I am in “the zone” --drawing and painting.”

I had to ask Robin what kind of music she listens to.  She said:

“Every kind of music.  I am partial to musicals, and I heartily sing along in a tone-deaf voice.  My husband rolls his eyes and shuts his door when he hears me singing along with someone who has an English accent, like Julie Andrews.  In addition to being off tune, I cannot sing with an English accent!  I also really love Italian opera, which I sing very loudly in pretend Italian since I also do not speak Italian. My husband should get an award for living with me!”