Q&A with Jim Arnosky

Though prolific and beloved by educators and children, children’s book author and illustrator Jim Arnosky has rarely consented to interviews, preferring a walk in the woods over publicity tours. Yet I had the great pleasure of speaking with him for over an hour this fall about his life away from the hustle of the city, and how that connection with nature intimately informs his books.

A self-taught artist, Arnosky, 70, has been sketching ever since he can remember, but began illustrating the outdoors in earnest while serving in the military. Once discharged, rather than return to his birthplace of New York City, he headed for the hills–first to a one-bedroom unheated cabin in Pennsylvania, then to a farm in South Rygate, Vermont, where he has spent the past 28 years writing and illustrating over 100 books, raising sheep, and providing for his family from the surrounding forests and streams.

Much like the great naturalist John Muir, Arnosky’s love of the outdoors grew through firsthand experiences–by exploring, living, and getting as close to the wilderness as possible, and his books are the fruit of his dedication. Over the years, he has been honored for his overall contribution to
children’s literature with the Eva L. Gordon Award, the Christopher
Medal, and The Washington Post/Children’s Book Guild Award for nonfiction.

In his most recent publication, Frozen Wild (Sterling Books), Arnosky reveals the icy regions of the world, from the Arctic to our own backyards. A consummate self-taught naturalist, his books and his way of life exemplify an independent spirit and the interdependence of wild spaces and the human spirit.

Below, part one: The birth of a naturalist. 

Basbanes: Describe how you began your career as a children’s book author—you started sketching while in the Navy, correct?

Arnosky: Yes. I joined the Navy after I got out of high school. I didn’t go to college—we didn’t have the money to go to college—I didn’t really want to anyway. I was kind of tired of school. So I joined the Navy, and I married Deanna soon after that, and by the time we had our first little girl, we all moved to Germany where I was stationed.

B: You joined the Navy during the Vietnam War?

A: Yes. I joined the Navy during the Vietnam War because I wanted to have a choice rather than be drafted into a branch. Ever since I was a child I had a natural ability, and I knew that I wanted to make a living drawing, but I really hadn’t been able to put it all together. In the Navy, I took up photography, and in particular wildlife photography. I began photographing animals in Germany, too.

B: What kind of camera did you use?

A: Before leaving for Germany I bought a used, cheap Pentax and a 300mm lens. I put a doubler on it, and that gave me a little more telephoto capability.

B: Did photography led to painting?

A: No. I started painting in Germany, inspired by music that I liked. I would do a painting for certain classical pieces and I would paint a scene from my imagination. During the day when I wasn’t on duty, I would gather the family and go to wild places where I photographed birds and natural subjects – a lot of butterflies and flowers—it was all natural, but I really hadn’t figured out what to do with it all at that point. I was just 21 years old!

B: What happened when you left the Navy?

A: When we got home from the Navy, we saved up for a down payment on a home in a suburban area. It dawned on me that I would be there forever if I took a mortgage, and I would never be able to really do what I would like to do–to live way out in the country, or live in the wilder areas. We sold the piece of land before the house was built, we took the down payment of eight thousand dollars, we went into the Pennsylvania mountains, and we found a one room cabin for eight thousand dollars.

B: Could you describe the cabin? What was daily life like?

A: We were at the base of Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, where the famous hawk migrations pass over, and I hiked every day for almost ten miles, every time. I had a particular mountain hike I would take along through the hills, and little by little, I began to write down the things I saw. We were very rustic—we had no plumbing, we had to cut a tree a week in order to heat in the place because we didn’t have any dried wood when we first moved in. We spent four and a half years there until our second daughter came and they started getting big for one room.

But in the meantime, I had learned the names of the trees and the names of the birds, and I was catching fish every day for us to eat. I really became a naturalist by being outdoors, by going out every day to see what nature would give me, and I would take it home, either in a sketch or a drawing or a notebook, or maybe I’d bring a few little fish, and then we would have that for dinner.

B: That sounds very much like John Muir—becoming a naturalist by living in the wild. Though I imagine if you got poison ivy you didn’t revel in it like he did!

A: Well, I had never been a reader, and we had no books in our home when I was a child. Because of what I was experiencing, I started noticing that other people had done this, and I began reading the great naturalists. I read Muir and Thoreau, though Thoreau wasn’t like anything like what my family and I were doing – he was more of an experimentalist, and more political than I could ever be. But he wrote beautifully in his journal! Then I began reading Henry Bastian and Hal Borland, and it was like a door opening for me. I learned that there were others who thought the way I did, others that had a similar affinity for the wild animals, the wild world, and nature, and they were able to get it down in words and share it with other people. That’s when I started thinking that perhaps I could do a book instead of just illustrating cartoon animals for magazines I was working for.

In part two, Arnosky talks about the transition from cartooning to illustrating, the importance of great editors, and how living in nature is vital to his work.

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