• November 2011

Rosalyn Schanzer's "Witches" Takes Children's Literature to New Levels

By Michael Gibbs
Art Director
Be Inkandescent Magazine
illustrator, Michael Gibbs Illustration & Design

For years, Northern Virginia artist and author Rosalyn Schanzer has taken many of the best stories that have shaped American history and turned them into fabulous children’s books.

With titles that include, “John Smith Escapes Again,” and “George vs. George: The American Revolution as Seen from Both Sides,” these hardbacks, published by National Geographic, are filled with such incredibly detailed characters that they appeal to art buffs of all ages.

But with her newest title, “WITCHES!: The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem,” she takes her ability to capture history with art to an even deeper, darker level.

“Certainly, witch burnings in Salem Village, Mass., is one of the more unsettling episodes in American history,” says Schanzer, who in this book departs from her colorful paint palette and uses black-and-white scratchboard art, spattered in appropriate spots with dollops of red.

“My goal is for the illustrations to help tell the tale of the hysteria that took 20 women’s lives and impacted hundreds more.”

See our interview with Schanzer below.


Michael Gibbs: First of all, congratulations on the incredible success of your new book, “Witches.” It has already garnered awards, most recently the Gold Medal from the Society of Illustrators for Best Illustrated Book of 2011. That’s hard to top.

Roz Schanzer: Thanks, Michael! When I got the magic phone call from the Society of Illustrators, the person at the other end of the line asked if she could speak to Rosalyn Schanzer.

Since everybody I know calls me Roz, I was positive that this had to be an advertisement, so I was about ready to hang up. I’m very glad I didn’t. I was totally flabbergasted, thrilled, shocked, and honored to find out that I’d won this award.

The most exciting parts for me are that the artwork is judged by some of the best professional illustrators, art directors, and art connoisseurs in the business, and the past winners include almost every single one of my artistic heroes.

Michael Gibbs: Tell us a little more about the story of Salem Village, and why this subject fascinates you.

Roz Schanzer: The story of the Salem witch trials can make the hair on the back of your neck stand straight up and salute.

Why would anyone accuse a perfectly normal 4-year-old girl, a heroic minister, and three dogs of being witches? Did the judges really believe that a hog, a huge black dog, two cats, and the devil himself tried to drag an Indian slave into the fire and scratch out her eyes for refusing to bewitch two innocent children?

When people confessed that they were witches, why were they treated so well by these same judges? And why were 19 people hanged for proclaiming their innocence to the very end? It’s a mystery, a thriller, a horror movie, and a piece of genuine American history all rolled into one, and I got to be the detective who was trying to put this puzzle together.

Michael Gibbs: You must have had to do a tremendous amount of research on the topic. Tell us about that process, and how long it took you to finish this book.

Roz Schanzer: The book took about 15 months to complete, and a big chunk of that time was spent doing the research.

First, I went to Salem and Danvers (formerly Salem Village) to photograph houses, furniture, graveyards, and even walking canes from 1692 and to meet with some very knowledgeable folks who gave me lots of insights about the Puritans’ lifestyle and their folk medicines and their clothing and more.

I also pored over 38 of the most scholarly books, historic documents, trial transcripts, and other original source material I could lay my hands on. There’s a lot of inaccurate material floating around out there, so it’s imperative to separate fact from fiction.

Of course I didn’t live in Salem in 1692 so I couldn’t see what happened with my own two eyes. But I was an extremely careful detective, so I hope I got it right.

Michael Gibbs: The scratchboard illustrations in “Witches” offer the perfect atmosphere of menace. You work in other styles and mediums—did you ever consider doing this book in another style?

Roz Schanzer: Nope, not for a minute. In spite of the fact that all of my other books are painted in living color, the one thing I was sure of from the very beginning was that black-and-white scratchboard illustrations with small blood-red spots were the way to go.

This is a very dark story, and the mostly black artwork reflects that mood. When I do my research, I always look at the competition to make sure my books are nothing like theirs, and one thing I noticed was the lack of great artwork that could help tell the tale.

But I think the juiciest part of the story is about an invisible world filled with demons, devils, and witches’ cries that need to be depicted. To see a time-lapse video of one of my scary scratchboard illustrations being scratched, click here.

Michael Gibbs: That’s wonderful stuff. Now, tell us about some of the big themes that you uncovered. I think this will help bring to light the neighborly resentments, greed, and even boredom that you uncovered.

Roz Schanzer: A few of the more intriguing questions I posed included these: What caused the victims’ fits (if they were, in fact, real fits)? Was a dread disease at fault? Was witchcraft actually afoot (and why so much hysteria over witches anyway)? Was fear of the Indians a part of the mix? Was it superstition?

And were the accusers crooked or honest or just bored thrill-seekers? Was the testimony of the younger “afflicted accusers” part of a secret conspiracy to make their enemies look bad or were they aiming to please their parents? And how about the judges—were they crooked or honest? Did jealousy and anger over perceived loss of farmland spur a desire to make innocent people look like witches? You get the gist.

Michael Gibbs: The fervor of the accusers was quite palpable. Can you liken that to what we see in modern times?

Roz Schanzer: Sure. Just switch to Fox and CNN on your TV and hear what vicious things the candidates for president have to say about their opponents. Or take a gander at all the finger pointers from around the world as they demonize each other. And here’s a shocker. Did you know that even today in the Niger Delta and other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, children are still accused of being witches? Google it.

Michael Gibbs: I can’t help but think that after immersing yourself for so long in “Witches,” that you didn’t put yourself in their shoes in that time period. If you had lived then, how would you have reacted?

Roz Schanzer: It’s easy to say that I would have laughed my head off at the folks who believed in witches and would have bravely decried their accusations with great vigor. But of course I would have been accused of being a witch and tossed into the clink if I did any such thing, and who wants to be chained to a wall? So there’s no telling.

Michael Gibbs: You’ve illustrated books on a wide variety of themes. Witches, I would think, is one of your “darker” projects. Did you enjoy the experience? What project are you currently working on; something a little lighter?

Roz Schanzer: You are right, Michael. Normally, I write true tales of adventure about people from history I would love to meet, but there’s probably not one person in this story that I’d like to run across in some dark alley.

I also wrote this very dark tale for a young adult audience—think grade 6 and up. My other books are for kids from grades 1—8 depending upon the subject, so it was fun to write something longer for an older audience. So yes, despite the sinister and sometimes gruesome subject matter, I had waaay too much fun making this evil little book.

My next project promises to be a whole lot lighter. I’ve been working seven days a week for more years than I can begin to count, so I’m going to take myself on a good vacation and indulge in some serious photography among other non-gruesome things. Think of it as a sabbatical. To be continued.

Michael Gibbs: Thank you so much for your time—and for creating this fascinating book. It is not only a beautiful example of an artist at her best, but this story should be read by everyone.

Click here to buy Witches.

*Click here for Roz’s speaking gig with GotStory: A Symposium for Children’s Picture Book Illustrators.

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