Nancy Carlson: A Writer of Whimsy

by | May 2011

Nancy Carlson in her home office, where she creates clever kids' books and historical essays alike.

Nancy Carlson in her home office, where she creates clever kids’ books and historical essays alike.

Nancy Carlson, Edina’s beloved author and illustrator, looks back and beyond.

Edina has a legacy of producing a ton of talent, and that’s definitely true with Nancy Carlson, who the city is ever so proud to claim.

You may have read one of Carlson’s picture books as a child, or recently shared any of her 61 creations with a child yourself. Her brightly colored illustrations and recurring characters, like Louanne pig, Henry the mouse, Harriet the dog and George the rabbit, are sentimental favorites.

Recognition for her work includes several Reading Rainbow selections, the Children’s Choice Award from the International Reading Association and Children’s Book Council, the Minnesota Children’s Museum Great Friends to Kids Award and several others including the prestigious 2010 Kerlan Award, given in recognition of singular attainment in the creation of children’s literature. She has also been named a finalist for the MN Book Award several times.

Carlson remembers wanting to draw and tell stories since she was in kindergarten. That kind of single mindedness led to a degree in printmaking from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) and on to 30 years of illustrating and writing. She credits her transition into children’s books to her first editor. “I needed a job and she hired me to illustrate. Then she challenged me to ‘put words in their mouths and make them come alive,’” says Carlson, “She taught me what a picture book was.”

Carlson now teaches at MCAD. “Picture books are hard because you can’t use very many words and it’s hard to communicate when your mind is working visually,” she says. Her students soon learn how not to repeat in the picture what the words are saying, and they sense the illustrator’s responsibility to non-readers to understand the story without the words.”

Character Creation

Young readers have no problem understanding Carlson’s straightforward style as it addresses the very challenges they face. Her characters’ adventures show how kids can use their own ingenuity to solve their problems.

Carlson finds that animals are the best way to illustrate the stories she wants to tell. “I work by theme,” she explains. “If something pops into my mind, like bullying, say, I have a cast of characters and one of them says ‘Hey, pick me.’” As she creates the story in words, she sketches. “Kids learn lessons well from animal characters,” Carlson assures. “And, you can dress animals up in entertaining ways.”

Her characters live in a neighborhood not unlike the one Carlson remembers growing up within view of Southdale mall—a suburban landscape with few trees and “backyards that were all one big running field,” she recalls. “It was an innocent time when you could just play. Kids deserve a safe and fun neighborhood. You are only little once. Life is scary for families now. The neighborliness is gone.”

Carlson stories not only reflect a former time, they depict actual places and people that Carlson grew up with. “Mr. McCarthy, the teacher in my Henry books, is based on my Edina High School art teacher. He comes to all my events! He is pretty proud of his art student from 1972.”

Path Less Traveled

When Carlson was inducted into the Edina High School Alumni Hall of Fame, she was shocked. “I didn’t do anything!” she exclaims. She describes her time as a teenager spent drawing pictures, hanging out with her best friend and occasionally visiting the principal’s office. “I wish I’d gone to a hockey game or something, so I’d have those memories.”

Obsessed with the Twins, she does remember the day she sat, watching a game. She asked her father if she could be a bat boy and felt deep injustice when told it was only for boys. “I knew as a little girl that I wasn’t going to take a normal path,” she says.

An important moment came in high school. “The light bulb went off in my head,” she recalls as if it were yesterday. “Some teachers brought in a guest from the National Organization for Women. It didn’t have a name back then, but when I heard about the feminist movement, I was ‘in.’”

Carlson has marched to her own drummer since then, and after 30 years of picture books she’s ready for something new. This year she’s decided to say “yes” to everything. “Yes” to writing an essay. “I haven’t written an essay since high school,” she points out. “I was terrified!” “Yes” to writing an ‘ABC’ book but not drawing the illustrations. She claims her last poem was to a boy she loved in eighth grade.

“I say ‘yes’ to any meeting with anyone who wants to talk about anything.” One meeting resulted in a job for her son. “Things like this lead to amazing things. But I haven’t been at my drawing table much lately,” she reflects.

She’s also hired an agent for the first time, to explore her many ideas. “My big problem is weeding through what is workable and what isn’t,” admits Carlson. “What’s in my head right now is vegetables.” She’s working on the final rough copy for a book with less color, humans and vegetables—Nancy Carlson style vegetables!

“I love illustrating a word or concept. Sometimes coming up with a plot is limiting.” Carlson would like to do a series of books, each on a single theme like ‘friendship’. “Every page would illustrate the theme in a different way,” she explains. And, although it’s been turned down in the past, and she knows we should all be eating healthy, she still wants to publish her book-in-waiting titled, Sometimes You Just Need A Cookie.

“Harriet will not change,” assures Carlson.

Library Memories

The essay Carlson agreed to write as a result of her “year of yes” recalls childhood time in the original Edina Public Library. “It was a Tudor house, surrounded by apple trees, that was turned into a library. It was completely magical to go in there. Everybody felt that,” shares Carlson. Located in what is now a bank parking lot at 50th and France, the house was torn down in 1968.

“I hope when people read the essay they will feel those times and remember,” says Carlson. “I did about a thousand rewrites on that essay and in the end I actually liked it.”

The Minnesota Historical Society liked it, too, and has joined it with the reflections of six other Minnesota writers for children and young adults who testify to the significance of libraries in their lives. The book, Libraries of Minnesota, also features Doug Ohman interior and exterior photographs of public libraries across the state, showcasing Minnesota’s iconic architecture. It will be available in May.

Nancy Carlson will speak at the Edina Public Library, May 6 from 3:30–5 p.m. about her essay on the original Edina library, which is included in the new book, Libraries of Minnesota.

She also posts a new illustration practically every day on her blog ( Don’t miss her vegetable, sweets and monkey doodles.

Carlson Quick Q & A

What was your biggest challenge, growing up in Edina?
When I was little, I never really liked desks. It’s hard to be a squirmy girl in a desk.

What challenges do you cope with these days?
I’m totally math challenged and a bad speller. It bugs me that I can’t figure out math problems. I ask someone else to help—that’s the way I cope.

What’s the most surprising thing that others say about you?
I think when you are an artist, people expect you to be wild and quirky. I am dependable. I’m never late!

Your characters have a lot of fun. Is your life fun?
Fun now is when my kids come home and acknowledge us. My extended family is fun.

Do your illustrations now have any similarities to those of your childhood/teen years?
I found this drawing I did when I was maybe five or six, of a sleigh ride. It was animal characters imagining what they would get for Christmas. It cracked me up! It helps to be in touch with that child-like quality.

The Carlson Effect

“Nancy Carlson books illustrate lessons and they are full of characters students can relate to. For instance, when you are not so nice to someone, her book shows what happens. We have almost every one of Carlson’s books, all 60.”—Julie Reimer, librarian, Turtle Lake Elementary

Think Happy! was our first Nancy Carlson book. Martha was drawn to the colorful pictures. Now she is a more advanced reader but she still likes the simple messages.”—Christen Thompson, mother of Martha, a second-grader at Concord Elementary

“All of our four kids read her books. Harriet and the Roller Coaster was first—we were totally hooked. Loud Mouth George and the Trumpet, I remember them all—we read them so many times.”—Karen and Doug Johnson, parents of Carlson readers now aged 25 to 34

“Not every author who writes children’s books is great with kids, but she is! Nancy reads and does drawings for them. She has a following!”—Julie Poling, Red Balloon Bookshop

“We have a long and very wonderful relationship with Nancy Carlson, and I personally LOVE her. Every couple years, we add a Nancy show to our season. Her audiences love it and so do ours.”—Sandy Boren-Barrett, Artistic Director at Stages Theatre Company, where more than eight Carlson books have come to life


Recent Stories

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This