Author/illustrator returns to her roots in Addison County
SALISBURY — Noted children’s book illustrator and author Ashley Wolff is home.
Wolff left Vermont after graduating from Middlebury Union High School in 1974 to study art at the Rhode Island School of Design. BFA in hand, she did a brief stint in Vermont and then moved to the West Coast, where she’s spent the past 30-some-odd years working from her studio in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights.
Now the 59-year-old Middlebury native and award-winning author/illustrator of more than 60 children’s books has returned to the place she loves best — Vermont.
Just about any parent who has ever held a board book will recognize Wolff as the illustrator of Raffi’s book version of “Baby Beluga” — perhaps one of the most-hummed children’s ditties of all time. Wolff is also the author of the long-running “Miss Bindergarten” picture book series, which feature a kindergarten-teaching border collie in a green dress and a menagerie of 26 animal kindergarteners, including an alligator named Adam, an elephant named Emily, and a zebra named Zach.
Wolff is back, in part, to be nearer to her mother Deane, who is now 87 and a resident at EastView. But she’s also back to be closer to the Vermont countryside that has inspired so many of her books and that first gave her a deep love of nature and of the rhythms of the natural world.
Although Wolff has illustrated books on everything from the bells of London to Native American tales to Goody O’Grumpity’s baking day in a Pilgrim village. Much of her work, especially those books for which she is both author and illustrator, center on animals and nature, the daily and yearly cycles of the natural world, and the awe to be felt in noticing even the smallest moments.
“Often in my work, what I’m trying to convey is a sense of wonder, acknowledging and celebrating the sense of wonder that children bring naturally to their world,” Wolff told the Independent in an interview at her Lake Dunmore home last week. “I know I still have that. I still walk through the world with a sense of wonder, mostly visual, and I’m just trying to share that.”
In “When Lucy Goes Out Walking” (2009), a little puppy trots month by month through her first year. In January, she romps through the snow leaving little puppy prints. By July, she’s a bigger puppy looking up at shooting stars. By December, she’s back in the snow, a young grown-up dog. In “Baby Bear Counts One” (2013), a little bear wakes up on an autumn day and sees one woodpecker, then two squirrels, and so on, and keeps ambling through the day exploring the countryside until he counts nine Canada geese toward dusk and, finally, 10 snowflakes as night falls and winter finally arrives.
Many of Wolff’s best-loved books are set around Addison County.
THIS ILLUSTRATION OF geese is from Ashley Wolff’s first book, “A Year of Birds,” which was set in Addison County.
Wolff’s first published book from 1984, “A Year of Birds,” begins with a little girl looking out a classic, multi-paned Vermont farmhouse window at “grosbeaks, purple finches, and black-capped chickadees” in January. The book progresses through robins building nests in April, hummingbirds in July, to come full circle with Canada gees flying south for the winter. If you look closely in the March mailbox in this book, you’ll even see a letter address to “Dog Team Road, New Haven, VT.”
Wolff said that although her childhood home in Middlebury was a modern chalet-style house her parents designed themselves, in “A Year of Birds” she placed the family in the kind of farmhouse she always wanted to live in. As her model, she used a nearby clapboard farmhouse and set it in the midst of wide open fields.
Her 1985 “Only the Cat Saw” was likewise set in an actual Addison County farmhouse. It takes an inquisitive cat from dusk to dawn as she looks out the window at a herd of Holsteins, hides from an owl catching a mouse at night, and gazes up at summer fireflies under the noses of two very friendly looking horses. The book’s publisher has recently asked Wolff if she would reillustrate the book to make the people look more contemporary. Wolff is considering going back to the same farmhouse on Munger Street, provided she gets the OK from the new family.
Wolff’s latest book-in-progress, called “Pony Day,” is also set in a place that looks very much like Addison County and is about a little girl who takes her pony to the show ring at an event very much like Field Days. Wolff says that although she herself was always allergic to horses, her younger sister, Peregrine, loved to ride and to compete in horse shows.
GROWING UP AN ARTIST
Wolff says she knew she wanted to be an artist as early as age five.
“I drew a lot. I wasn’t any good, but I practiced a lot,” Wolff laughs.
She was inspired by her dad, Klaus Wolff, a weekend painter and Economics professor at Middlebury College, and by local artists and art teachers. Wolff remembers taking art classes with local painter Prindle Wissler during the summers and in fifth grade, held in what is now Middlebury College’s Twilight Hall. She says that Wissler encouraged a lot of freedom of exploration in her art classes. In high school, Wolff said she spent much of her time in the room of art teacher Lachlan Field, who set high standards, especially in techniques of drawing.
“Prindle was very enthusiastic and very free. Nothing was a mistake for her. Any scribble was a possibility, and so I really enjoyed that,” said Wolff. “Lach Field was kind of the opposite, and also very multi-talented. He could do anything and taught all sorts of things at MUHS, but was pretty rigorous and really drew realistically and painted realistically.”
ASHLEY WOLFF, AWARD-winning author/illustrator of more than 60 children’s books, is a Middlebury native who has recently moved back to Addison County after living and working in San Francisco for more than 30 years.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Wolff grew up loving animals. She recalls how she could look out from her bedroom window on Chipman Hill in the spring and watch a robin building its nest. And both Wolff and her sister pursued careers that put animals at the center. Her sister became a veterinarian and Wolff an artist whose books send animals on childlike adventures.
Wolff says that not only does she like to draw animals but she often finds that she has more freedom crafting a narrative about animals than about children.
“Books are supposed to be vicarious adventures for children,” said Wolff. “And that is something that I really celebrate in my books, fight for against the arguments of editors.”
She gives an example of one editor’s objection to a story because it showed a child alone rather than being “appropriately” supervised at all times by an adult. And like a lot of parents — though Wolff’s two sons are now long grown — she worries that today’s children lack the freedom so easily claimed in earlier generations.
“I love it when I go into Middlebury and see kids walking themselves to school,” she said.
Wolff says that if she puts young animals at the center of her stories, she can take her young readers on the kinds of adventures they most want to hear about, and no one will fuss or fret.
Wolff works in a variety of media: watercolor, gouache, acrylic, linoleum block print, collage, pastel, colored pencils. She often works nine months to a year on any given project and likes best the phase where all the words are written, all the drawings are sketched out and she can then just sit down and paint and paint and paint.
Unlike a lot of contemporary illustrators, Wolff also says she prefers to work “analog” start to finish. She does everything by hand, on paper, with real materials, and still ships the finished art to the publisher, rather than working digitally and clicking “send.”
Not surprisingly, Wolff also believes strongly that it’s important for young children to cozy up with a real book that they can hold with pages they can turn, not just a flat image on a screen.
To any of Addison County’s emerging generation of young artists, Wolff has some advice.
“I say the same thing to any kid who wants to do anything. I have my four Ps: passion, practice, patience and perseverance. You’ve got to be tough. If there’s something that you love to do so much that you don’t notice time passing — it doesn’t need to be art, it can be anything — then figure out what that is because you’ll love doing that.”
Given how much of Addison County is present in Wolff’s books in so many ways — despite being written in a city facing the Pacific Ocean more than 3,000 miles away — Wolff’s not sure how working from Vermont fulltime might change her art. But she knows she’s happy to be back.
“I really love the Vermont work ethic, the independence. I was here during Hurricane Irene, I was totally impressed by the way Vermonters coped. I feel like no matter what happens, we’ll take care of it,” said Wolff.
“And so I feel really at home. I never felt that way in California. For 34 years of living there, I always felt like I was a Vermonter who lived in California. I raised two Californians, but didn’t ever become one.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected]