Jonathan: Welcome to Kidorable Parenting’s interview with Demi, celebrated author and illustrator of over 300 books for children. I’m Jonathan Domsky, blogger, parenting coach and co-founder of Kidorable. Demi’s books have been a special companion to our family for years. We’ve read over 50 of her books, some of them dozens of times. In addition to being wonderful stories, their beauty and wisdom have broadened our perspective by introducing us to some of the most interesting and influential people throughout history in the world. Demi, tell me a little bit about who you are, what you do and what you’re passionate about.
Demi: Oh, my goodness, well, I think you have said it. I think I’m passionate about books and writing and illustrating and painting, and so to be able to do that and make a book is what I just love to do.
Jonathan: What’s something that you wish you had more courage or imagination to do when you were younger?
Demi: Well, I have to tell you something about that. My family, for actually generations, have been in the arts and I feel like my childhood was just completely magical. My great granduncle was the American architect Richard Morris Hunt. He built the base of the Statue of Liberty, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, most of 5th Avenue, the Biltmore House in North Carolina, Newport Rhode Island. He really was like a designer of American architecture and then his brother was my great grandfather and he was the American painter, William Morris Hunt who studied at Ozar in Paris and really carried the spirit of impressionism to America.
Then, for the next generation, everybody was artists and then my own father and mother were also artists and so, my home was just filled with everything for any would-be artist to use. I mean, my mother had a studio, a huge studio filled with marvelous paint brushes and papers and my father was doing architecture, art and theater too and it was just absolutely magical, absolutely magical. I could paint and draw and I don’t think I wished for anything else, it was really just…I think of those days as magic. We had a…it was an all-New England farmhouse where we lived but, the second floor of the barn which was enormous was my mother’s studio.
So, as soon as I could crawl up the stairs, I crawled up there, right into her studio and used all her best brushes on all her best papers. She was very nice about that, but it really was incredible, and then my mother’s father was an English professor at Harvard. And he also taught at Radcliffe and it was like he could get anybody to write anything and whenever he came, he would always give us books or start telling stories and then stop somewhere right in the middle and then say, “Then what happened next,” and then we’d have to continue the story and he was just somebody amazing. So, I think that sort of, was the literature part of this magic that I really had. I look back on it and just, I’m amazed at these marvelous people that were there for me.
Jonathan: So, if you had been born to be an accountant it may have been a challenge, but being an illustrator was ideal. Demi, what do you do to give children that you love the courage and imagination to see the possibilities within themselves in the world in the same way that you had when you were a girl?
Demi: Well, you know, a few years ago I had done…well, more than a few years ago now but, I had done a whole series of books, “Find the Animal,” “ABC,” “Find Demi’s Dinosaurs,” Find this and that, and I went across the country. Particularly when “Find Demi’s Dinosaurs” came and we had a program to get children to draw and paint and just do whatever they felt in their hearts they would like to do. And I remember I would just start a slideshow showing my dinosaurs and what I had done and because nobody knew for sure what color the dinosaurs were, I did them my way but, then I’d say that the children paint them any way you wanted to do.
So, these lectures would take place in, like a gymnasium where I had large rolls of paper rolled across the floor every yard or so and then magic markers. And the children would walk into the gymnasium and sit down at the papers and after my little slideshow would then start drawing. It was just amazing what would happen, every single child just did something incredible and then they would sometimes write poems along with their dinosaurs and their names and everything, and then we’d hang these large paintings up on the walls of the gymnasium and have an instant art show and it was…The energy in that room was just incredible, just incredible. And it’s not just the power of creativity and everybody could do it…it wasn’t a question but, they just dove into it and did it.
I loved doing that so much. I did it for about two years, and then I wasn’t doing any drawing myself anymore so, then I sort of stopped and went back into drawing. But, I really thought I could do that forever, it was just so joyous and marvelous and amazing, what they came up with. I mean, if it wasn’t dinosaurs, I mean, we did sea creatures or we did insects or fish or anything, you know, it was…That’s what I like to do, it’s just, I don’t know, I guess just encourage and just keep saying, “Follow your heart, keep going.”
Jonathan: Very nice. Demi, what’s something in your family life that you’ve consciously made more fun, easy, meaningful or joyous?
Demi: Oh, my goodness. Well, I guess seeing as I’m here, always making books or doing something, if anybody comes in you know, I just try to share whatever there is here. Share ideas, get their ideas…
Jonathan: What’s something about your current family life that you wish was more fun and easy, meaningful or joyous?
Demi: Well, it’d be nice to travel some more, like going to China or something and I would always…But, I think when you commit to do a book, it does take on its own life and energy and you give up a lot of things because of that.
Jonathan: What’s an example? What’s something that you feel that you’ve given up because of writing your books?
Demi: Well, I mean, I love people and I love to have a lot of friends and… but, it’s very hard to join in sometimes when you have 78 pages of illustration to do by Friday or something. And I found like too with the computer, I thought, “Oh, now this will help everything,” and, you know we’ll have more time but, it wasn’t so. It’s like, even less time now. As quick as the computer is, it’s like the faster, I don’t know, the illustrator’s expected to move with it so, I don’t know, I’d just love more time for more people but, anyhow, I’ve had to, sort of, I guess, sacrifice that way.
Jonathan: Yeah. What’s something you treasure from your own childhood that you’ve tried to recreate in your own family?
Demi: Well, I think just fertile ground to develop. You see the child’s interests are as they come along and to just make it possible for that to happen.
Demi: I mean, my own son got into an early interest in science and electronics and I don’t know where that came from but, he was just taking apart all the radios and vacuum cleaners and everything and I didn’t seem to like that then he just quietly put it all back together again so, it worked perfectly. But, so we did everything to help develop that interest, I mean, just follow along.
Jonathan: Yeah. Is there anything from your own childhood that you consciously changed in raising your son?
Demi: Well, before my son was born, I was doing actually large mural paintings. I was doing a lot of silkscreen printing and I had never even done or thought of doing illustration but, with a little child, and raising a child and with the schedules, it just was1 very hard to do huge silkscreen printing and then the child would wake up and you would have half the screen filled with paint or something. So, I just found illustrating was a way to, you know, just stop whatever I was doing and also raise a child at the same time. So, I could draw in the park if I went to the park with him. And so, I really did change what I did and really began my book-making.
Jonathan: What’s the best thing about being a parent?
Demi: I guess just love, you know, unconditional love. What a joy. I don’t know what… I think that just sort of covers it.
Jonathan: Yeah. So, Demi, my son is very excited that I’m talking to you. We’ve not only read so many of your books but, we read a lot of history together and your books have been such a wonderful introduction to all of the world’s great religions and historical figures. He wants to know, what inspires you to write the stories that you choose?
Demi: Well, I think the Chinese stories were so influenced by my Chinese husband and stories like, “Su Dongpo,” I don’t think I would have known about “Su Dongpo” for example, unless my husband kept saying these marvelous things that Su Dongpo had said. And then I think because also he’s a practicing Buddhist but, also a very deeply, spiritual and religious person that I started really thinking about doing a book of Buddha or Lao-Tzu and the Tao Te Ching. Well, early in my life, I guess when I was about 21, I won a Fulbright scholarship to India and that just really changed my life because all of a sudden, I just saw everything, Sikhs and Farsis and Hindus and all the art and architecture and it just seemed to me so much of India. Wherever I went, it was just such a deeply spiritual experience. I guess that was the reason for a lot of these other books.
Jonathan: Yeah, my personal favorite book of yours is Mahavira and I still think…a month doesn’t go by when I don’t think about what you wrote, when he sees the demon and says, “I fear nothing and nothing fears me.” That’s just a wonderful way to live in the world.
Jonathan: Tell me about your current project or something else that you think I should know about your work?
Demi: Let me see. I generally work on about six or seven books at once so, let me see. A book with world wisdom coming out very soon will be, “Shiva”. I just did, “Al-Ghazali, the Mysteries of Prayer” too, then I did “Hildegard of Bingen: The Scientist, Composer, Healer and Saint of Germany” and then just now, “The Gifts of our Lady of Guadalupe” is out and I’ve just done “Mozart: Gift of God”
Jonathan: Where can we find out more? Is there a website where people could find out, learn about all your books?
Demi: Well, I know in Wikipedia and some of these…the interviews list quite a lot.
Jonathan: Wonderful. Well, Demi, this has been such a treat, I’m grateful for your time, your wisdom and the example that you share with me and our listeners.
Demi: Well, thank you so much too. I’ve enjoyed it so much.
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