Give him a blank sheet of paper and a pencil and Eric Rohmann will turn it into a book—without even using one word.
“The pictures that I’ve made have always told stories,” Rohmann says. “I only brought words in later.”
Rohmann made his children’s literature debut with a wordless picture book, Time Flies, which was honored as a runner-up for the prestigious Randolph Caldecott award for children’s book illustrations in 1995. Six books and a decade later, he’s still inventing stories and experimenting with art techniques. In 2003, he won the Caldecott Medal for My Friend Rabbit.
Despite not having any children of his own, the 46-year-old author says he relates to the curiosity and enthusiasm of a 7-year-old. For Rohmann, his work opens windows to his own imagination.
“I found those things I want to do when I’m in front of an easel are also things kids are interested in,” Rohmann says. “They laugh easily at the ridiculous and are willing to believe the unbelievable.”
The former school teacher now supports himself as a full-time author and illustrator and through public appearances. He visits Chicago-area schools and libraries about twice a month and shows the kids his preliminary sketches and those that hit dead ends to “show them they’re capable of doing what I do,” Rohmann says.
After hearing Rohmann discuss how he created his 2003 story about a boy born with a pumpkin for a head, aptly entitled Pumpkinhead, a group of second-graders mailed Rohmann their adaptation of it.
“There is no greater feeling of satisfaction than knowing they used me as a leaping point and somehow made it their own,” he says.
Rohmann spent his childhood turning characters into comics in west suburban Downers Grove. After earning degrees in fine arts from Illinois State University, he left the Midwest to teach for six years.
Since returning to Chicago, Rohmann’s stories continue to inspire others, sometimes in ways he didn’t expect.
“A nurse who works in a pediatric burn unit [told] me she uses [Pumpkinhead] with the kids,” Rohmann says. “I would never have thought in a million years the book would be used to help kids feel better about being different.”
Roben Kantor is a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and writes for the Medill News Service.