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Children's book illustrator Nancy Carlson on sexism in the industry, the importance of doodling

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Nancy Carlson was five years old when she first decided she wanted to draw pictures and tell stories. She was too young at the time to know that she could do it as a career, but she loved to read and to look at picture books. Soon, she was making her own drawings.

MCAD Gallery
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About 10 years ago, the Edina-based author was helping her mom clean out her house when she came upon some drawings she made when she was six or seven. “It looks like what I’m doing now,” she says. “It’s just the way I think!”

Now a celebrated children’s author and illustrator of over 60 books, she’s been at it for 38 years, publishing favorites such as I Like Me, Harriet’s Recital, and Smile a Lot.

Carlson is part of an exhibition at MCAD featuring 13 women illustrators opening this week. The show, titled “In Words and Pictures,” was curated by Chris Monroe and Kerry Morgan.

As someone who came of age in the '60s, feminism has always been an influence in ’s work, even with a book such as I Like Me, whose main character is a pig. “It’s about liking yourself for who you are,” Carlson says. “It doesn’t matter what you look like, you’re you.”

Like many of her female characters, the pig in I Like Me is independent and strong. “I think subject matters I tend to pick to write about are more intuitive and message-driven,” she says. Also, as a mother she often chooses subjects related to the fact that she’s raised three children.

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Early in her career, Carlson did face some sexism, like men getting paid more than her for visiting schools, libraries, and conferences, even if they had fewer books out than she did. “I remember one librarian years ago saying, ‘Well, you don’t have to support a family.’ And I’m like, ‘Yes I do. I’m the main breadwinner of my family,’” she recalls. “That was an eye-opener for me.”

Things have gotten better in the industry, she says, though many of the successful children’s book illustrators are men. “I think it has a little bit to do with the fact that everybody’s trying to get boys to read,” she says, “and men’s picture books might lend themselves a little bit more toward boys reading.”

The MCAD exhibition, opening this Friday, will feature work from Carlson’s latest book, Sometimes You Barf, which she says is a diversion from her previous books. “You know it’s my art but it’s been evolving, so it’s going to be fun to have it up,” she says. The book has a lighter touch, with less bright colors and a background wash instead of her characteristic white pages.

Carlson attributes the change to a practice she began seven years ago, where she creates a doodle a day and posts it on her website. 

“It started because I was teaching at MCAD, and some of my students didn’t draw unless I told them what to draw,” she says. “I told them, ‘You have to draw every day. I’m not there every minute to tell you what to do.’” She began to do her own doodles, and doing so has changed her style over the years. “It’s a chance to experiment with different mediums and it’s only a doodle, so it’s quick,” she says. “It’s making it’s way into my picture-book art now.” 

Work by Betsy Bowen and Kelly Dupre, and Elizabeth LaPensée’s re-imagining of traditional Anishinabe stories will be on display at MCAD as well. Also included will be pieces from children’s book pioneer Wanda Gág, author and illustrator of Millions of Cats, who Carlson considers one of her heroes.

“I grew up on her books,” Carlson says of Gág. “She was the creator of the full-page spread. No one had done that before her. She made a huge influence on my picture books.” 

Next up for Carlson is an adult picture book that she says is a really big change. “It’s a zillion times harder than I thought it would be,” she says. The book is a memoir. After that, she plans to go back to what she knows best: making illustrated books for children. 

IF YOU GO:

"In Words and Pictures"

The opening reception takes place from 6 to 8 p.m. on Friday, June 17 at MCAD.

The show runs through July 17.