FLYING STARTS

from Publishers Weekly, December 1992

"My techniques are always extremely unusual—they're not the things that people teach you," says Robert Bender. His picture book A Little Witch Magic (Holt, Oct.) more than supports his point: the illustrations, glowing like the interior of a jack-o'-lantern, have an other-wordly, how-did-he-do-it luminosity and richness. His technique, like his publishing history, is the result of determined trial and error.

Several New York City summers ago, when Bender was working as a freelance illustrator, he got "some crazy idea. I took modeling clay, the stuff that doesn't dry, in different bright colors. I started mixing up the colors, making my own palette, then I went to the beach. I would kind of finger paint with the clay—it was like the consistency of peanut butter. By the end of the summer, I felt the outdoor painting was leading me to something and I began trying to translate that into illustration work that would be equally as exciting." He experimented by melting the clay and painting with it on glass before he thought of trying vinyl animator's paint, which he had used as an illustration student at Syracuse University [he graduated with honors in 1984]. After a little research, he hit upon the process that was to give A Little Witch Magic its, well, magic—the use of stencil brushes to apply vinyl paint to acetate, which is backed with black paper.

In 1990, while he was still refining this method, Bender made his first foray into children's books. His girlfriend at the time, a painter named Christina Bothwell whom he married last August, wrote a children's story that Bender illustrated. He began trying to meet editors when he had a stroke of luck: a friend's wife turned out to be a friend of Holt editor Laura Godwin, and the friends passed it along to her. "She called me a week later. Although she was not interested in the story, she was very intrigued by my work."

If the meeting didn't have a fairy-tale ending, it could have given rise to a fable about perseverance paying off. Encouraged, but unable to find the right project at Holt, Bender showed his samples elsewhere and was eventually referred to the Kirchoff/Wohlberg agency. The agents there were impressed, and, taken with a picture of a polar bear, proposed that Bender try his hand at a version of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. "They submitted it to a couple of different people, but it got rejected because there are 25 or 30 versions out there. The agents felt that it would draw interest in me even if a publisher didn't want the book, but I had this realization that I was building up my own connections with different editors. I had thought I needed agents to get my foot in the door, but then I realized it wasn't necessary."

So, in an unorthodox move, the as-yet-unpublished author severed ties with the agency. He sent the Christmas book to Godwin, who gave him a book jacket to illustrate (for the YA novel Life's a Funny Proposition, Horatio). A few months later, Bender showed Godwin another book, called The Revenge of Little Red Riding Hood. "For whatever reasons, they didn't want to publish it, but she felt I was really ready. A picture of Little Red Riding Hood holding a basket made her think I could do a Halloween book. I had been thinking about a Halloween story, so I was really excited." A Little Witch Magic followed two months later.

Despite an initial lack of confidence in his ability to write, Bender found that the text came easily to him, and already he has fans. On the wall of his studio hangs one oversized sheet of a three-page letter from a first grade class, who concluded, "We loved the book. It was awesome." An even stronger vote comes from Holt, which is releasing Bender's version of Three Billy Goats Gruff this fall. Expect to see a lot more: Bender has two other projects under consideration at Holt now, and says he plans on doing two books a year. "This is definitely what I was meant to do," he says. "I hope I still feel this way when I'm 92."

—Elizabeth Devereaux