Even after fifteen books, five of which she's authored and illustrated, Maryann Kovalski is still searching for new challenges and different approaches to her work.
From her early years growing up in the Bronx, her life has been full of change and challenge, both in physical location and career direction.
The only girl in a family of three boys, she enjoyed the freedom of roaming comfortably, in the relatively safe atmosphere of the Bronx of the 1950s. Those were days, unlike the frenetic pace of life today, when children like Kovalski didn't attend lessons after school. Summer camp too was a rarity. It was a time you could play and dream. It was also a time when much of her early life revolved around the colourful Catholic holidays celebrated amidst a large family and the people in the neighbourhood.
But money was a problem for her family and when she was ten, her parents decided to seek brighter economic opportunities in Florida. The journey south was exciting. The family crossed state lines, slept in a motel for the first time, and ate in restaurants every day. And just as they'd heard, they were given a free glass of orange juice as they crossed the border into long-awaited Florida.
But in the end, the journey proved to be bittersweet. Florida was suffocatingly hot, full of annoying bugs, alien in atmosphere and lifestyle, and, worst of all, the hoped-for economic opportunities never materialized. After a few months, Kovalski's parents decided that Florida was not the promised land and that they were going back to the Bronx.
Like her parents, she felt uncomfortable in her strange Florida surroundings, but she also felt it was embarrassing to return to the Bronx. Yet return they did and soon they were back on bustling, familiar streets, in the world they'd left only three months before.
It was in seventh grade that Kovalski's interest in art took off. One of her teachers, Sister Ignatius Loyola, whom the kids nicknamed Iggy, understood her passion for art and invited her to help decorate her bulletin boards. She loved staying after school to do this, and she loved sharing her dreams of becoming an artist with her kind-hearted teacher.
After high school, Kovalski began studying art at the School for Visual Arts. To pay the hefty fees there, she waitressed at a diner. Those years of art school and work were full of intense highs and low. There was encouragement by teachers such as the renowned children's book illustrator, Leo Dillon, coupled with demanding classes and often seering criticism. Yet, right after one of the worst experiences, a disastrous animation assignment, came one of the best. On her very last day of school, she was offered an illustration assignment with Harper's Bazaar.
As many new writers and illustrators discover, one job, even with such a prestigious magazine, doesn't necessarily lead to more. A few months after the assignment was completed, with no job prospects in sight, Kovalski decided to try her luck in a totally new place: a totally new country. She booked a flight to Montreal.
After a few years in Montreal she married and moved again, this time to Toronto. And there her career as an illustrator-writer took off.
In 1983, with her third book, Brenda and Edward (Kids Can Press), Kovalski discovered the particular joys and frustrations of writing and illustrating her own work.
"With your own work, you're the screenwriter, designer, actor, and director all rolled into one. And then," she laughs, "you can make yourself totally crazy. It's funny. I can take someone else's work and I see the breaks. I see the periods. I can be so businesslike. It's pure pleasure. When it's my work, it's much harder. One of my dreams," she says, "is to have someone else illustrate my words."
Brenda and Edward is the touching, romantic tale of two dogs who live together, lose each other, and finally reunite. It's very autobiographical. "It has to do with leaving, getting lost on the way, and deciding what you want to do with your life."
Kovalski followed Brenda and Edward with Wheels on the Bus, Jingle Bells (Kids Can Press) and Take Me out to the Ballgame (Scholastic). In all three she wrote and illustrated a brief story to accompany the words of popular songs. "It was like writing musical comedy," she explains. All three are also replete with the elements that her pictures have become known for. Like her childhood, the drawings are full of action, colour, humour, and warm-hearted characters. The relationships between family members gleam through the drawings, as they do through her life.
She also conveys the madcap activity of city life in many of her books. In Jingle Bells the glittering lights of New York City are central to the story's atmosphere. And in her most recent illustrated book, The Marvelous Market on Mermaid, written by Laura Krauss Melmed, Kovalski fills an old-fashioned food store with expressive people, mischievous animals, and rollicking events-a lot like a neighbourhood shop in the Bronx of the forties and fifties. "The forties, fifties, and sixties," says Kovalski, "are comfortable times for me. That's the time I was reading picture books."
Kovalski has illustrated other authors' books, including poetry compiled by David Booth (Doctor Knickerbocker and Other Rhymes, Kids Can Press). Here all the illustrations are in black and white and full of quirky characters and unusual page layouts.
She has also illustrated work by the acclaimed authors Tim Wynne-Jones (I'll Make You Small, Douglas & McIntyre) and Margaret Atwood, Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut (Key Porter). "Princess Prunella was an easy book to illustrate," says Kovalski. "I've always wanted to do an eighteenth-century French book with lush period detail."
As for the future, what stories does she want to tackle? Does she envision any change in her style or process?
"I'd like to get back to being more sketchy," she says. "I'd like to make the best pictures I can in an unstudied fashion." She's also avidly pursuing her own writing, both in stories and screenplays.
Kovalski believes that publishers today have become too cautious, too afraid to take risks. She feels that "sometimes you can edit the life out of something. Everyone's trying to be so careful. I took a screenwriter's course and there was this guy at the blackboard with arrows and diagrams saying, `At this point you do this and at this point you do that.' It looked like a physics course."
Kovalski tries to convey that belief in spontaneity and experimentation when she speaks to kids. She encourages them to take risks, to try something new-just to try. "I want them to let the stories come out. I want them to stop with this I-can't stuff," she says. l
Frieda Wishinsky's most recent book is Jennifer Jones Won't Leave Me Alone (HarperCollins Canada).