Home > Around Town > Author and illustrator Claire Ewart conjures prehistoric skies in Fossil
Author and illustrator Claire Ewart conjures prehistoric skies in Fossil
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
You may not think that the rocks and stones littering the bottom of a dry river bed or scattered across a field hold much mystery, but to Fort Wayne-based children’s book author and illustrator Claire Ewart, those stones represent a world of wonders, a world she recreates with stunning vibrancy in her third picture book, Fossil.
Fossil begins with a young girl’s discovery of a fossilized dinosaur bone and goes back to describe the life and times a giant winged pterosaur sailing over prehistoric seas, dodging the snapping jaws of hungry ichthyosaurs, feasting on squid and feeding her young. Ewart’s lyrical, fluid rhyming text and vibrant watercolors make for a compelling story as we follow the end of the pterosaur’s life and the gradual transformation of its bones into stone. The book ends where it began, with the girl and her mother unearthing the dinosaur fossil.
Ewart dedicates Fossil to her parents, and the origins of the book go back to Ewart’s childhood. Nature plays a big role in Ewart’s books, especially Fossil. When she was younger, Ewart says her parents made sure she always spent time outdoors, close to nature. “My dad was never squeamish about snakes and toads and frogs, “ she says. “So we grew up out there, in the mud, goofing around, catching turtles…”Part of her outdoor experience was finding fossils among the rocks, and she began thinking about this part of her childhood when she started looking for fossils with her own daughter. “Even as a child, I was amazed that this thing I was holding in my hands was once alive millions of years ago,” she says. “I did the same thing with my daughter, and I thought that I wanted to write about this, and share what it so cool about these ‘stones’ that we can pick up, and why we should be interested in them.”
A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Ewart worked in computer animation before anyone was really sure what that meant. She worked for a while at Computer Creations in South Bend, one of the first computer animation companies in the world, doing animation for corporate clients from all over the country. When she moved to Fort Wayne with her husband, however, there wasn’t really any call for computer animation. Very few people were doing it anywhere, let alone Fort Wayne. “I went around with my tape, and most people just didn’t have a reason to look at it,” Ewart says.
She did courtroom illustration, freelance design work for newspapers and ad agencies (“one time I had to make plastic fruit into cars”). But the goal was always to be published as a childrens’ writer and illustrator.
“For about ten years prior to my first book, I was sending out samples of my work and stories and getting polite rejection letters,” Ewart says. Her big break came on a trip to New York. Ewart sent out her portfolio and arranged meetings with editors at several publishing houses. Harper Collins responded almost immediately and asked Ewart to illustrate Paul Fleischman’s book Time Train. Time Train went on to garner a handful of notable mentions from Parent’s Magazine, School Library Journal, and The New Yorker. It also led to Ewart’s first credit as illustrator and writer on her own book, One Cold Night.
Ewart is quick to point out, though, that there’s nothing particularly magical about a trip to New York to meet with publishers. The portfolio that impressed the editors so much was the result of over a decade’s worth of work. “I had finally compiled a really decent portfolio,” she says. “Had I tried it ten years earlier… I don’t believe my work was ready for it then.”
In addition to doing three books on her own, Ewart has illustrated seven books for other children’s authors, including Tomie dePaola, a Caldecott and Newberry award-winner and a huge name in the world of children’s books. Ewart says that authors like dePaola can request a specific artist to work with, though many times, it’s the editor who makes the connection. “They have at their fingertips samples and knowledge of all this incredible art talent out there,” she says. “Then they have this manuscript, and they get to pick and choose, so for them it’s probably fun. They’re sort of combining the talents.”
When I ask how long Ewart takes to finish a book, she says that it’s nice if she has at least six months, and that six months includes the exchange of ideas and discussions with editors, a process she says she still enjoys. With Fossil, Ewart and editor Tim Travaglini (who also worked with her on her previous book, The Giant) paid especially close attention to the text. “It’s a rhyming text, and you really have to be right on with that, or it’s pretty obvious,” explains Ewart. “We’d e-mail back and forth, sometimes just one word or phrase at a time, but it was actually a lot of fun for me. It’s flattering but you know someone else cares about what you’re doing and gets it the same as you do.”
This careful crafting and attention to detail in the illustrations and the text is evident throughout Fossil. It’s a book that will capture the imagination of children and dinosaur-loving adults.