10 Questions with Eileen Christelow Ahrenholz AA ‘61

Eileen Christelow Ahrenholz AA ’61 is an author and illustrator of more than thirty acclaimed children’s books. Her work includes the “Five Little Monkeys” series, “The Great Pig Escape,” “Letters from a Desperate Dog, and more. Besides writing and illustrating, Ahrenholz enjoys photography and gardening in her free time.


What was your favorite memory at Abbot?


I just liked my friends and meeting people, living together with people, very different from my experiences in elementary school. I actually found it a little bit of a hard transition from living for my freshman year, in Tokyo, Japan, and being able to just get on a bus with friends and go into Tokyo, walk around, and then coming to Abbot, where it was very restrictive, but going to Abbot [was]… a wonderful memory, and I had some wonderful teachers, 


You photographed buildings for architects and did photo essays for making your books. Do you still take pictures?

We were living in Philadelphia when I was doing most of my photography and, for some reason, there was something about being in Philadelphia that made me want to take pictures and it wasn’t buildings… I did architectural photography because I studied architecture, and I kind of knew what the architects were looking for, but I was a street photographer. I knew the people, it was the ’60s, there were the peace marches, the anti-Vietnam marches, Civil Rights was a big thing… I photographed on Skid Row, just lots [of photography]. Then, I would put all of the prints together in a portfolio and take them out and show them to people and sometimes they’d say, “Oh, we’d like to use this one in a magazine.”

When you decided to start illustrating children’s books, what was your family’s reaction?


I’m not sure they had much of a reaction. I mean, they basically hoped that I would earn a living, and I was always doing other things: graphic design, I was photographing for small magazines, I built up a portfolio, I have a feeling they couldn’t figure out what I was doing. As long as I was able to earn a living, and I married fairly young, but my husband was also an artist and… he’d build a garden for somebody and design this or design that… Between the two of us, we [lived] together and that was, I think, basically what they cared about. They may have thought we were totally nuts, they probably did, but they didn’t say so, which was good.


How did you first come up with the idea to personify your dog Emma as a character in your books and webcomics?

I love anthropomorphism, and I started with her as a character in “Letters from a Desperate Dog,” and then I did another book called “The Desperate Dog Writes Again,” all about this dog Emma, who I adopted from the local humane society. I love animals, and some of the stories in the first book, “Letters from a Desperate Dog,” are true. In the story, where the dog locks the guy out of his truck, that happened to my husband. You take a little bit from real life and then it grows.

What advice would you have for someone considering starting a career in illustration?

Things have probably changed, I know that the publishing world has changed a lot… All the publishers are eating each other up and they’re now five great big publishers. Mine was Clarion, which is a small part of Houghton Mifflin. If somebody wants to do illustration you just draw and figure out your style. Figure out what you want to draw and if you want to do books, there’s all kinds of illustration that a person can do. I started with photography, that was the first kind of illustration I used. You have to put together a portfolio, then start making phone calls, and take that portfolio out and show it to people. Hopefully you find somebody who says “I’d like to use that,” so it’s a long process. Lots of times people say “No, thank you.” Every once in a while, somebody says, “Great.”

To the kids who read your books, what’s one thing you’d want to tell them?

If you’re thinking about what you want to do, think about what makes you happy. Think about doing something that you want to explore, that you care about, not something that somebody else wants you to do or that sounds good or because it earns lots and lots of money. I am fine with living [at] a bare minimum, as long as I’m doing something I want to do.

What does your workspace look like as an author?

It’s a fairly big room, enough so that I have several desks. It obviously looked a lot different when I was painting but now it’s centered around a computer desk that you can either stand at or lower it to sit. I always put the whole book up on the wall so I can see all of the pages at once, which is useful to see a story.

If you could learn more about one thing, what would it be?

Probably history. I was thinking I should say learn something that I’m totally bad at, like mathematics or something, but I think maybe taking some bit of history and just exploring it more. I’ve been exploring World War Two a little bit more because I was born just as World War Two was ending. You think about how the adults were acting, what they were saying, what they were doing, and you think back on it and you think “what was it all about” and then you can start reading.

What’s so appealing about Vermont and why have you chosen to live there?

My mother grew up in Vermont, so I was somewhat familiar with it. She went away to school and did other things and married my father [but] her parents were still in Vermont. Then they moved on to various other jobs, but then they came back to Vermont and they bought a farm. It’s interesting because I have nine cousins and all ten of us can reminisce about that farm forever and there’s probably three or four of us right now who are living in Vermont. There’s just something that’s really nice about it, but it’s a wonderful place and I like it, it’s just laid back.

What’s your favorite book?

[Growing up], I loved “Madeline.” Somebody gave that to me after I had my appendix out, and “Madeline,” reliving the story, that stands out in particular…[Now], I’ve been reading nonfiction and then I’ll go to fiction… A book I’m reading right now,  I would not say is a favorite, it’s just incredibly long, but interesting. I love [Elena] Ferrante, three books that she wrote, “My Brilliant Friend,” I can’t remember all the titles, but those are wonderful.