A movable feast for the eyes

By Andrea Faiad

This old man, he draws books.

OK, so he's not that old, but he is an award-winning children's book illustrator.

"It's an art form that moves me," said Paul O. Zelinsky by phone from New York, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. "And it's important. It's really very gratifying to think that you could be doing something that's meaningful to people."


On Sept. 28, he'll be at Pied Piper Bookstore and Music in Rochester to discuss his new moving parts book for ages 3-7, "Knick-Knack Paddywhack," which he illustrated and adapted from the song "This Old Man."

It took 14 years to find the next bright idea to conceive after his first best-selling moving parts endeavor, "The Wheels on the Bus."

In the meantime, he illustrated nonmechanical books, such as the award-winning "Hansel and Gretel" and "Rumpelstiltskin," both of which earned Caldecott honors. In 1998, "Rapunzel" won the Caldecott Book Award. Each year, the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, bestows this award to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.

Success, however, came incrementally to the Yale University-educated artist. He began post-graduate life as an art teacher.

"Teaching is it's own talent," he said. "You need a kind of charisma and supportiveness. I really appreciated that in my teachers, and I noticed an absence of it in myself."

Instead, he undertook plan B, and moved to New York to illustrate. He free-lanced for publications, including Barron's Weekly. These jobs helped him survive as he tried to break into children's publishing. He landed his first deal for "The Maid and the Mouse and the Odd-shaped House," which became a success for the small publishing house that released it.

"I knew from the start that was my aim," Zelinsky said. "As soon as I started getting one children's book to do after another, I dropped the other kind of illustration. Illustrating an article in a newspaper could be nice, but it doesn't last and it doesn't make a lasting impression and it doesn't change anybody's life. But I would say that a really good children's book does change people's lives."

He spent a year illustrating the counting song and collaborating with paper engineer Andrew Baron to design the 56 moving elements.


The book follows a young boy as he gets up, dresses and goes for a walk. Along the way, he encounters old men who play knick-knack on or around him. Each of the 10 men come from a different walk of life. For example, a beekeeper plays knick-knack paddywhack for five, and an elderly military general plays for eight.

"I just spewed out doodles page after page and thinking what could they look like? All I really knew was they were old. Some were old by being cavemen, and others were old by having yards of beard and millions of wrinkles," he explains, adding that he also had to figure out the best way to illustrate each paddywhack.

In addition to finding the right look and hook for each old man, Zelinsky hid extra rhymes and numbers throughout the book. For instance, the hole through which Old Man Six rolls home in his mining cart is lined with bricks.

"Children, including me, love to examine pictures for their details, and this book has quite a few to examine," he said. "I just like it. You probably couldn't ask me too much about 'Knick-Knack Paddywhack.'"

Book discussion

From 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sept. 28, Paul O. Zelinsky will discuss his new moving parts book, "Knick-Knick Paddywhack," at Pied Piper Books and Music, Miracle Mile Shopping Center, in Rochester. Call 281-1890 for more information.

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