The perfect illustration: Molly Idle’s busy, idyllic life

Molly Idle
Molly Idle in her Tempe studio. Photo by Rick D’Elia.

I know exactly how Tea Rex feels.

He’s the semi-civilized tyrannosaur who takes tea with Cordelia and her little brother in Molly Idle’s hilarious breakthrough 2013 picture book, “Tea Rex.” Rex is a real hand-, uh, houseful, but the resolute young lady is determined to make the best of a decidedly awkward situation and does so with an aplomb that would put Miss Manners to shame. Tea Rex’s super-sized intrusion is graciously managed — he feels right at home — and a good, if exhausting, time is had by all.

That was pretty much the situation one summer Saturday morning when photographer Rick D’Elia and I descended upon Rex’s and Cordelia’s creator, who is also the 2014 Caldecott Honor Book-winning author-illustrator of “Flora and the Flamingo.” With a load of photographic equipment, and notes, notebooks and pens poking out every which way, Rick and I could easily have been opposite ends of a large, costumed dinosaur thumping and banging our way through her house.

Molly Idle is definitely that gracious and resourceful little girl, all grown up. She didn’t bat an eye at our noise and baggage. She did make us very welcome and she made excellent coffee. Idle has a rich, hearty Carol Burnett-y laugh, a delightful smile and an engaging, straightforward manner that put us immediately at ease. We had a great visit.

Idle looks like the quintessential suburban mom and is incredibly kind. She’s also thoughtful, direct, fiercely intelligent and very funny. Indeed, her at-home aliases are “The Sugar Pun Fairy” and “Attila the Pun.”

She has had a corporate career others only dream about, and she has made six of her own highly-regarded picture books and written and/or illustrated several more. Her meticulous, finely observed pencil-drawn artwork is heartwarming, gorgeous and full of good humor. She has devoted fans of all ages.

It wouldn’t work for everyone…

Idle was born in California, but moved to Arizona at age 5. After a post-college return to the Golden State, she came home to Tempe, where she says she’s lived long enough “to be able to tell folks where everything didn’t used to be.”

She lives in the house she grew up in, a cozy three-bedroom bungalow on a quiet suburban street, with a big green backyard containing an almost-another-house-sized family workspace. She shares this comfortable home with her husband, Steve, her parents, John and Cheryl Schaar, her two sons — John, 12, and Tom, 10 — and cats Emmett and Figaro.

Molly Idle
Molly Idle graces the cover of our September 2017 magazine.

“I think the stars really aligned in this little house,” she says. “We all manage to rub along without too much friction. I always tell folks who ask, ‘We know it wouldn’t work for everyone, but it works for us.’ And as the years go by, I’m more and more aware of how precious this time is, that we’re all here together.”

Their small house was full of people, including her sons’ guests. Idle’s mom was in and out, alternately chatting and running errands, and her dad and husband were occupied with chores. Like a mellow cat purring in a patch of sunshine, the house hummed with happy energy, while remaining completely calm and peaceful.

Idle frequently and readily admits to being a Type A personality — the kind who stores her drawing pencils in proper rainbow arrays and obsessively straightens untidy papers and misaligned paperclips — and she just as readily admits that she could not manage without the commitment of everyone in the family.

“With my Mom and Dad in the house, with Steve and the boys — and me, too — many hands make light work when it comes to cooking, cleaning, errands.”

Obviously, harmony takes a lot of coordination and effort. But that’s not the whole story.

What was most important

The third of four daughters, Idle observes that because of significant age differences, “it’s almost as if we were each ‘only’ children growing up.” It gave her more individual parent-child time than would have been possible with closer-in-age siblings.

Both parents were devoted bedtime readers. She loved books, but it was the time and togetherness, and all the love and acceptance it implied, that was most important, and what she most cherished. It wasn’t until later that she fully appreciated her parents’ efforts to give her and her siblings everything they needed to flourish.

“Becoming a parent taught me just how hard my own parents worked to raise us, nurturing our dreams while pursuing their own dreams,” she says. “It’s like juggling kittens and flaming swords … simultaneously.”

More than anything, Idle loved to draw, and she drew constantly as a child, gaining a reputation as her classroom’s artist-in-residence. She credits Disney animator and cartoonist Lee J. Ames’ 26-book, “Draw 50” series as her early instructional guides.

All the while, she received unwavering support and encouragement from her parents, who were entrepreneurs, busy running their own manufacturing business. Her mother also was and is an actor, acting teacher and painter. She allowed young Molly to use her easel and paints, treating her as a fellow artist.

When she was 12, her dad took her to see Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” about a dozen times because she loved the film, especially the combination of her two favorite subjects: drawing and marine biology. She decided to track down Ariel’s animator, Glen Keane, and write him a fan letter, which she sent with sample drawings. To her amazement, she received a reply. Keane (who grew up in Paradise Valley, son of “The Family Circus” cartoonist Bil Keane) encouraged her to “draw all the time, from life.”

From that moment, she knew, rather than hoped, that drawing would be her life’s work.

Lessons in persistence and resilience came not from encouragement, but from seeing her parents’ respond to discouragement. “When I was younger,” Idle says, “they made several attempts to get their own archery manufacturing company up and running. Materials shortages and economic recessions thwarted their plans, and we declared bankruptcy more than once over the years. But getting knocked down never stopped them from getting back up and trying again. With role models like that, it never occurred to me that risk of failure was something to be afraid of, or that giving up on my goals was an option.”

“Make a place for yourself”

Idle majored in drawing at Arizona State University and was quickly hired as an animator at DreamWorks Animation SKG in California, where she worked on “The Road to El Dorado” (2000), “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” (2002) and “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas” (2003).

The runaway success of the computer-generated imagery (CGI)-animated film “Shrek” in 2001 was the death knell for hand-drawn animation. DreamWorks honored previous commitments for traditional feature cartoons, but began retraining staff and converting all production to CGI. Idle participated in the training but soon realized her efforts were half-hearted. She believes “the only way to be your best at something is to love it,” and she definitely didn’t love working with CGI.

A fortuitous introduction to Keane, her “Little Mermaid” idol, and his confession that he did not want to enter the CGI world either, gave her the courage to find a new way to do what she loved. Keane’s advice: “I think if you want to do something, you need to make a place for yourself.”

Idle left DreamWorks. She and her husband returned to Arizona in 2004 to start their family and to create that special niche necessary for her hand-drawn artwork to flourish.

Both sons were born in Arizona. “I was spending more time in the rocking chair than my drawing chair, but even then I worked as an artist,” Idle recalls. “Nap times, bed times, in the weeeeeee hours of the morning. I need to draw. Like I need to breathe.”

Her family stepped up to help her “strike a balance between work and home” by providing “support and coordination.” Her father designed and built the backyard workshop so that each family member would have “a quiet creative space in which to work.”

It was a while before she considered a career in children’s picture books, but after a few freelance illustrating assignments, she was hooked. She honed her technical skills, eventually embracing her signature Prismatic pencils, and refined her creative process. DreamWorks had reinforced her self-discipline and taught her about “character design, color, composition and pacing,” but John Cleese (via YouTube) coached her on creativity.

Drawing was, and is, always the easiest part of book creation for her because she thinks visually. The words, when she is not going wordless, are harder. “Writing hurts!” she exclaims. “It’s like therapy. You spill everything in the first draft.” Cleese reaffirmed that creativity needs time and space to incubate; that discomfort and delayed gratification are part of the process.

Idle admits she did everything you shouldn’t do with her first book. She wrote a story for her grandmother, and sent a copy to her mom. Naturally, her mom thought it should be published.

“Now, I love my mom, but she’s my mom and I know that she wasn’t my harshest critic,” she says. Idle sent it to some trustworthy and “brutally honest” friends who said it wasn’t “half bad.”

“That’s when I sent out queries to every single publishing house I could find,” she confesses. “You really ought not to do that. Subsequently I got a lot, a lot, a lot, of rejections. But I also got one yes. And one is all it takes!”

Idle sold her first few books relatively quickly, but says, “I was really just learning on the job. Making [them], I learned more about the kind of art I liked to make and wanted to make.” It was a full decade before her career as an author/illustrator provided the same financial stability her work in animation did.

A sign from the universe

In 2009, things were especially tough. “I was getting some work, but it was the middle of the Great Recession and most publishing houses had closed their open-submissions policies. That meant, as an un-agented illustrator, it was next to impossible get publishers to take a look at my work, and at home we just weren’t making ends meet. So I gave myself an ultimatum. … I’d go to the [2010 Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators] conference and enter the portfolio competition. The grand prize was a trip to New York, and a meeting with art directors at three publishing houses. Steve and I decided that if I won, it’d be a sign from the universe that I should keep making books. If I didn’t, we’d move back [to Los Angeles] and I’d go back to work in animation. And…I won!”

From a list provided by a Viking art director, she quickly found an agent. Idle credits that find as the turning point in her career. Two book contracts followed in rapid succession, and because of their great popularity and adorableness, “Rex” and “Flora” each got his/her own series. Other illustrating jobs appeared. All of it keeps her very busy, but it hasn’t hampered her family-centered life or her creativity.

This month, “Flora and the Ostrich: An Opposites Book by Molly Idle,” debuts. And “Santa Rex” is coming out in October.

In addition, Idle recently wrapped up artwork for a book called “People Don’t Bite People,” written by Lisa Wheeler, which will be out next spring. Currently, she is working on her next author-illustrated book, “Pearl,” about a mermaid of the same name, which will be out in the fall of 2018.

“One thing is (certain): I couldn’t keep all the kittens and swords in the air without my juggling partner/husband. He is wonderful, and handsome, too!” Idle says.

For the last seven years, Steve, a former Navy Seal and current architectural color consultant and professional builder of magnificent ship models, has been a full-time, stay at home dad. He and Idle “share beliefs about what’s important for our family: honesty, hard work, humor, and love.”

She confesses that “it’s not at all unusual for someone to be sitting in the living room and shout ‘Hey, does everyone in this house know I love them?!’ And hear, ‘Yes! Do you know we love you?!’ holler[ed] back from various rooms. I love that.”

I know women like Molly Idle, we all do. They are high-achievers; talented, tough, demanding of themselves, sensitive and caring. They are women who make great friends and great moms. All of them will tell you that they aren’t any smarter, braver, more talented than many others, that their key to success is persistence. I’ve heard it so often, and from so many amazing women, that I know it’s true.

The ability to persist, to keep on going no matter what, draws from a sturdy sense of self, healthiest when supported and nurtured from childhood. It’s a self willing and able to imagine, to dream; then, to picture a goal, sketch a plan and create a story of love and hard work bursting with life and color. I think Molly Idle’s idyll is a perfect illustration.