Local author draws inspiration from city students
by Sara Krevoy
Jan 15, 2020 | 2339 views | 0 0 comments | 67 67 recommendations | email to a friend | print
When Elizabeth Uhlig was 16 years old, she dreamed of becoming a children’s book illustrator. She was a natural holding a pencil or a paint brush since she was a little girl, and became more serious about art as a teen while attending Jamaica High School.

After graduation, the trajectory of Uhlig’s life took twists and turns that whisked her away from her adolescent goal.

Uhlig went on to study foreign languages at McGill University in French Canada. She lived in Brazil and then Texas, before returning to New York, where she worked as a children’s librarian for nine years in three different schools.

Uhlig believes that the lily pads we leap on over the years serve an underlying purpose; that the episodes that string together a career or a life path don’t come out of nowhere.

“There’s alway a reason,” she says. “You meet somebody, you get inspired and you do something else.”

It was only many years, and many hard-earned lessons later, that Uhlig embarked on a journey that would ultimately circle back to her original destination: she illustrated, authored and self-published her first children’s book, “Grandmother Mary.”

Thus began the story of Uhlig’s publishing house, Marble House Editions, and a subsequent program where she shares books with students in public schools across the city.

For nearly the last two decades, Uhlig has run a DOE-approved, free-of-cost visiting author program for classrooms of all ages.

She guides kids through the process of writing and illustrating, using her own Marble House Editions publishings, as well as sketches and preliminary cover art, to bring the techniques to life.

On the day of her visit, Uhlig provides copies of her books available for $10, which she autographs and inscribes for students who wish to purchase them.

Students learn what (and who) it takes to publish a complete work, from the pioneering idea to the graphic designer to the printer who pieces together the final product.

Many of Uhlig’s book covers and illustrations are three-dimensional compositions imposed onto a two-dimensional page. To achieve this effect, she uses painted paper cut outs, and really any other approach that comes to mind.

“The value for the children is for them to see the artwork and meet the person who’s doing it,” explains Uhlig “I’m hoping for them to see that there’s a person behind every book, and that creative people are just people. I would have loved it if someone had made that more real for me.”

Seeds for the program were planted back in 2001, when a friend invited Uhlig to speak about “Grandmother Mary,” fresh off the presses, at a public library. There, she met a teacher who informed her that DOE was mandating the teaching of memoir writing, and that a presentation of her book might be appropriate for that.

“Grandmother Mary” is based on the life of Uhlig’s mother, who was sent to live with an aunt in Sicily when her father went off to fight in WWII. The book’s cover is an illustration of Uhlig’s childhood home in Jamaica, where her mother would sit in the front yard with her dogs as an older woman and chat with passersby.

The pages then unfold the story of a young girl who, like Uhlig’s mother, overcomes the fears of growing up without her parents.

From there, Uhlig took her book on the road and it went viral. She was invited to 52 schools that year.

Despite not having planned beyond “Grandmother Mary,” Uhlig was approached by administrators at the schools she presented at about returning with a new book to show students.

The need for this kind of engagement in classrooms was clear, as was Uhlig’s desire to fill that demand however she could. So, she dove in.

Marble House Editions has published nearly 50 books to date, the most recent being “If a Dinosaur Were Your Pet,” released last month.

Uhlig held presentations at 327 public schools in Queens, Brooklyn and The Bronx, in a program that blossomed into an unexpected business model.

The works that Uhlig chooses to publish - both self-written and those that she illustrates for other authors - address a range of topics that complement the New York City curriculum, in addition to those that resonate with the experiences of the students themselves.

Themes include communities, immigration, New York history, and using imagination, among others.

“One of the things I learned, and I learned it right upfront with the first book,” she recalls, “is that in a good story for children it doesn’t matter where or when it takes place. If it has a message, kids will get it and will benefit from it.”

“Oh, Me, Oh My, Oh, How I Wish That I Could Fly,” which came out in 2018, is inspired by some of the students Uhlig met in remote neighborhoods of The Bronx who never had an opportunity to leave the borough.

As much as she puts herself and her wisdom into the work, Uhlig’s wheelhouse of stories is perpetually in dialogue with the children she comes in contact with, forming a symbiotic relationship that keeps the operation going.

The narratives and illustrations in Uhlig’s body of work reflect the fearless diversity of the city and its youth. No two characters look the same.

She is also beginning to incorporate androgynous characters in an effort to “reach everybody without creating tokenism.”

“Many of the little treasures the students share have stayed with me,” Ughlig reminisces. Those parting gifts sometimes even make their way into the next book.

Uhlig and her husband inhabit a serene Forest Hills apartment these days, where she set up a small studio space to work on future publications.

The latest project is “Story Book Words from Long Ago,” which identifies unfamiliar objects and ideas that children might see in books.

A full list of Marble House Editions publishings, as well as information about the visiting author program, can be found at marble-house-editions.com. Uhlig is now accepting invitations for the new year.

“I’m not looking to measure the results of what I do,” says Uhlig. “It’s a visit between people, and it’s just something that has to be enjoyed.

“Anyway,” she adds “I don’t think there’s any way we can know the value that we have for other people.”
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