PAPER CAPERS Children's book illustrator is a real cut-up on the job

She is a scissors wizard, whittling paper into art.

With a clip here and a snip there, she embroiders a skirt with ribbons and rickrack. Slicing and dicing, she carves a quilt of hearts fit for a princess.


Susan L. Roth creates in cut-paper collages. She is a children's book illustrator and author, and many of her books have received rave reviews; her fourth, "Fire Came to the Earth People," was a New York Times Best Illustrated Book.

Ms. Roth, 49, started out as a woodcutter ("a poor woodcutter," she says) after receiving her bachelor of arts and master of arts from Mills College in California. She used woodcuts in her first book, "Patchwork Tales," a collaboration with Ruth Phang, published by Atheneum in 1984.


"The woodcut process has at least three parts -- drawing, cutting and printing," she says. "I'm so impatient, I think I like the immediacy of collage. And not only the immediacy. For example, if you work in watercolor, you can't make even one mistake. But in collage, you can make a little mistake and you can fix it much more easily. And I like the construction aspect of it. I always liked to make paper dolls and dioramas."

Collage is not without its problems, however. "Sometimes I lose a piece. It gets very messy. I might drop an eyeball that I've spent an hour making. It's so tiny I can't possibly find it. . . . So I make another one, and then inevitably, I find the first one."

And there was the near-catastrophe involving "Princess," her 12th book. It was scheduled to be released this month by Hyperion Books for Children, which is owned by the Walt Disney Co.

"I couldn't find all the pinks and purples of a genre that I liked, and somebody sent me to a stationery-supply place somewhere downtown," she says. "The paper came in exactly the colors I had envisioned, and I bought reams and reams, for $5 or $6 a ream.

"After I was done and ready to send the originals off the publisher, I took them to get copies made for myself. [The copier] had a problem. She said, 'Something is really peculiar; I can't get this chartreuse to copy. I bet it's iridescent.' Then she took it into a back room and held it under the black light, and it was iridescent.

"You can never, ever use iridescent paper because it won't reproduce. I thought I was going to have to do the whole book all over again. But somehow the people at Hyperion were able to salvage it, because they have magic hands. It's the Mickey Mouse touch. Anybody who can make cups and saucers dance. . . ."

In fact, the reproduction in "Princess" probably is the best of any of her books, Ms. Roth says.

Some of her other recent work, including "Ishi's Tale of Lizard," published last year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, uses handmade paper. The texture invites you to touch the pages. The same is true of the exotic paper used in "Buddha," to be published next spring by Doubleday Books for Young Readers, and "The Great Ball Game: A Muskogee Story," retold by Joseph Bruchac, which is scheduled to be released in September 1994 by Dial-Penguin USA.


Doing research for "The Great Ball Game" was convenient for Ms. Roth; she went to the Lacrosse Foundation and Hall of Fame Museum adjacent to the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus, a few blocks from her Guilford home. The Muskogee, a Native American tribe also known as the Creek, played "stick ball," a version of lacrosse where players carry sticks in both hands. In this tale, the game is played to settle a dispute between the birds and the animals.

Ms. Roth works in a studio at home. She and her husband, Jesse, have three children: Alisa, 20, Alex, 19, and Alana, 14.

Even when deadlines loom, she says, creating books "is never a chore. The only scary part is the beginning part, because until I feel that I've really begun, there's always that terror of thinking that I really can't do it.

"But once it hits, goodbye. I'm really not good for anything for the duration. I think about it and dream about it and taste it and live it. It gets really, really exciting, and I get up earlier and stay up later. . . . It's fun because I can't wait to see what it's going to look like when I'm done."

MOLLY DUNHAM GLASSMAN writes a column on children's books for The Sun.