HomeMarch 2012Whimsical World

Whimsical World

“You Can’t Take a Balloon into the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” but you can hop a ride on the string of the yellow balloon snared by a pigeon and visit the sights of New York City, including the opera Aida.  Such is the fun and creativity that enriches the children’s books illustrated by award winning illustrator Robin Preiss Glasser.
But you probably recognize her for her most celebrated achievement: the illustrations of the Fancy Nancy series of over 45 children’s picture books she has created for stories by author Jane O’Connor, about a little girl who adores things fancy.  She always dresses extravagantly in ornate frilly dresses, in tutus, boas, red shoes and pink ballet slippers and wears her hair in flower adorned corkscrew curls.  She loves using big fancy words such as ecstatic, spectacular, iridescent, unique and extraordinary, inserting French words like papillon (butterfly).  “Just like me!” exclaimed Glasser.  “Inquisitive, creative, just as stubborn.  I think I share her qualities.  And we both have a supportive family.”
She added, “The characters are based on the women in my family, drama queens.  We wore my mother out.  The spectacled father is my husband and the mother’s glasses are mine.  Nancy uses grand body language to express her emotion.  She is based on my niece Jessie, when she was a little girl.”
The books have spent 264 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List with over 18 million copies sold and translated into 18 languages, including Hebrew, Korean and Hungarian.
But this funky, delightful world has not always been the habitat of Glasser.
Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, the eldest of four sisters, her first career began as a ballet dancer.  After attending the Professional Children’s School in New York City for eleven years, she starred as a soloist for the Pennsylvania Ballet in Philadelphia, until a back injury forced the end of her career.
So she set out for a new career – drawing (the creativity and mime of the dance has reappeared in Nancy.)  At age 30, she returned to school for a Bachelor of Fine arts at the Parson School for Design.  Her teacher at Parson directed her out of her dark period, following the end of dance, into a lighter whimsical world.  “I started illustrating,” Robin related, “but it took nine years of determination, fighting the freelance years of rejection, but with a fierce determination to get published.”
Her breakthrough came when Simon and Schuster, looking for an illustrator for Judith Viorst’s book, Alexander, Who’s Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean it) Going to Move.  She was limited to copying the style of the original illustrator of the first book, but her reputation was set, and she never had to clone again.  A musical of the book was produced and performed at Washington’s Kennedy Center.  Then followed more books for Viorst: You’re Officially a Grown-up and Completely and Totally the Messiest.
She joined forces with her sister, author Jacqueline Preiss Weitzman, to collaborate on the sights of New York City in their balloon picture book describing the adventure.  She giggled as she described how they transported the elephant in Aida.  Their problem: How were they going to transport the elephant across the lake?  “It’s a children’s book,” she related, “so we pictured them rowing the humongous animal in a row boat.  But what tickled me, was that by coincidence, we pictured the same amount of voyagers in the boat as those in the famous painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware.”
The book won the American Library Association (ALA) Notable Book Award, which segued into two more books in the series.
Now other publishers began to recognize her talent.  Harper and Collins chose her to illustrate radio star Garrison Keillor’s Daddy’s Girl.  Then came A Sock is a Pocket for Your Toes by award winning poet Elizabeth Garton Scanlon and Tea for Ruby by Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson, which achieved the New York Times best seller list.
Lynne Cheney, the former Vice President’s wife, had seen the book and, when Simon and Schuster asked her with whom she would like to work, she requested Glasser, who traveled to Washington to meet her.  That meeting metamorphosed into three books: America, A Patriotic Primer; A Is for Abigail, An Almanac of Amazing American Women and Our 50 States.  Abigail’s inclusions range from first ladies and Ella Fitzgerald to artists Louise Nevelson and Georgia O’Keefe, Nobel Prize Medical Physicist Dr. Rosalyn Yalow and Mary Todd Lincoln.  Glasser was able to bring in her favorite Jewish woman who touched her life, Henrietta Szold, a forerunner of Jewish women’s liberation and the founder of Hadassah.  All three books sold more than one million copies, with long runs on the New York Times best seller lists.
So involved was Glasser with these books that she had to put off Fancy Nancy for three years.  In 2003 she received the manuscript for the first book and quickly illustrated it over the summer.  “My thought was this was going to be my life.”  Immediately there was a contract for seven more books with author Jane O’Connor.  They have now become classics.  At present she is working on designing ten Fancy Nancy’s covers for new books.  There is a children’s musical coming to Vital Theater Company, a new off-Broadway musical in production and ballets in six companies across the country.
Glasser’s sister, Erica Preiss Regunberg, is in charge of the 30 licenses for the accessories produced based on the characters, including three doll companies.  A “wine cellar” in Glasser’s new home has been accessorized to display the articles, including an incredible collection of dolls, purses, glasses, outfits, animals, party and paper goods, puzzles and games.
Glasser’s illustrating technique relies on her copy machine.  “If it dies, I won’t be able to work anymore,” she exclaimed.  “When I draw, I work very fast.  I may draw Nancy’s face 12 times to achieve the best expression.  I draw over and over.  Then I stick it into my copier to get rid of the fine lines, and then I send it to my printer who prints it on watercolor paper.  My copier enables me to redraw over and over to achieve exactly the emotion I want.”
“What is most rewarding about being a children’s book illustrator,” she said, “is going on tour.  I am now on the road for two to three months, crisscrossing the country, meeting kids and experiencing their energy.  They dress up in their fanciest stuff, different like snow flakes – no two alike.  They are very creative, smart kids.  Even at two years old they recite Fancy Nancy books.  You can see it on YouTube.”
Glasser lives in San Juan Capistrano with her husband, attorney Robert Berman, and children, Sasha and Benjamin, and dog, Boo.


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