Author-illustrator draws on childhood in Old Greenwich for inspiration
GREENWICH — You’d think when children’s author/illustrator Lizzy Rockwell makes a public appearance, she would be doing most of the teaching.
But the Old Greenwich native sees things a little differently.
“I love thinking about the minds of little children,” Rockwell said recently, sitting in the dappled sunlight outside a market near her Bridgeport home. “Every time I talk to a 4-year-old, I really learn a lot.”
She’ll have that opportunity Monday, Oct. 15, when she’s the guest of honor at AuthorsLive@Byram, a free public session at Byram Shubert Library, 21 Mead Ave. Beginning at 4 p.m., Rockwell will talk about her latest book, “A Mammal is an Animal,” meet with fans and sign a selection of the dozens of books made more meaningful through her thoughtful words and gentle illustrations.
She didn’t have to look far for career inspiration as a child. Her parents, Anne and Harlow Rockwell, created children’s books together in a studio just off the family’s dining room when she was growing up on Raymond Street. Harlow, an art director during the heyday of advertising, illustrated the stories Anne dreamed up, often inspired by fun times together.
Their daughter, the middle of three Rockwell children, remembered scenes from family vacations showing up on the pages or a favorite quilt depicted — only owned by three bears.
“All of us loved to draw. Being creative was encouraged,” said Rockwell, a mother of two grown sons herself.
Rockwell studied art history and fine art at Connecticut College and drawing and illustration at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Trained to look at art with a critical eye from a young age, she gravitated toward abstraction in college but also appreciated 19th century artists’ evocative understanding of the human condition.
After school, Rockwell became a substitute teacher and - with her father’s encouragement - took on illustration jobs, lending her perceptive touch to book jackets, textbooks and the scholastic and popular magazines that were flourishing in the 1980s. She found herself drawing more and more children.
“I liked the way they could be genuine, poignant and funny at the same time,” she said.
In 1988, Rockwell’s father died of emphysema at 78. He and her mom, who was younger than her husband, had created three books about the seasons and were in the middle of the fourth, “My Spring Robin,” at the time.
While Anne Rockwell also drew, she didn’t feel she could mimic her late husband’s style and asked Lizzy to complete the illustrations. Armed with her mom’s exacting words and direction and the many images her dad had already created, Rockwell went to work on the daunting task.
“I learned so much by that apprenticeship,” she said with a wistful smile.
Rockwell, who has been involved in some 40 books over the years, went on to form a wonderful partnership with her mother, teaming up on several solo books and series that often speak to a child’s first experience with a place or activity.
Through “First Day of School,” “Apples and Pumpkins,” “Zoo Day” and others, the mother-daughter team helped kids prepare for memorable times — anticipating their questions while leaving things ambiguous enough to encourage conversation. Both mother and daughter shared a strong respect for children’s capacity to understand complex ideas and be fascinated by the world around them.
Their books - and those Rockwell has worked on since her mom’s passing earlier this year — are filled with characters of all races, blended families, and children acting, well, like children. A baby coos over an upside-down library book in “Library Day” while a mother nurses her little one in the final pages of “A Mammal is an Animal,” subtly showing the human link to animals.
Anne Rockwell’s influence carries on in her daughter’s work. She was a tough critic with a nimble mind, leaving behind a list of real-life characters she hoped to immortalize in future books. Mother Jones, James Armistead Lafayette and Jamaican hero Granny Nanny are among them.
“She never stopped talking about the next idea, about the next book,” Rockwell said. “It was an apprenticeship that started the day I was born, and continues, even though my mom is no longer here. I was so fortunate. She was critical and honest, but also ready to praise.”
These days, Rockwell turns to walks along the water with her English setter Reggie and early morning coffee sessions with her husband, Greenwich High School teacher Ken Alcorn, for inspiration and encouragement. At root is the desire to create a reassuring reality for children, giving them what they need to be strong and self-aware.
“I’m trying to lead them to discovery rather than teach them,” Rockwell said.
AuthorsLive@Byram Presents Lizzy Rockwell will take place at 4 p.m. Monday in the Byram Shubert Library’s Community Room. Presented in association with the Alpha Chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma, it will feature books from Diane’s Books of Greenwich. For more information, visit www.greenwichlibrary.org.