Literary Influences

As Mitra Modarressi gains distinction for her children's books, she continues to draw inspiration from her Baltimore upbringing and her famous mom, Anne Tyler.

April 22, 2001|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,Sun Staff

As a child, Mitra Modarressi liked to wander around her neighborhood hiding slips of paper under rocks and in cracked walls.

"My secret notes," she says, "were communications to my future self." How are things going? she scrawled. Just checking in.

On a serene Saturday morning many years later, that checking-in process continues. The youngest daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Anne Tyler has returned home, to the simple stone house in Homeland where she grew up. She has grown into an accomplished author and illustrator of children's books, a wife and mother, a Californian who still gets homesick for Baltimore.

"We're here because we chose a different holiday to celebrate because we couldn't come for Christmas or Thanksgiving. So we're calling this Persian New Year, the first day of spring," explains Modarressi. "Of course, it's freezing."

Modarressi's husband, Greg Amundson, and their year-old son, Taghi, named after her late father, are upstairs; Tezh, Mitra's older sister, reads in the sun porch nearby. Her mother is out running errands.

Modarressi leans back comfortably on the couch in the immaculate living room. ("Mom's the queen of decluttering. She's got it down to a science," she says.) With her jet-black hair and olive complexion, she bears a slight resemblance to Princess Molly, the main character in her first book, "Tumble Tower."

The book, written by her mother and illustrated by Modarressi, features a slovenly princess who rescues her compulsively clean family. Modarressi acknowledges that the story, which launched her career, might have a basis in real life. "I am a slob," she says.

Her mother, in a rare interview via e-mail, offers another picture: "Mitra was the most resolute, private, and self-possessed of children. She always seemed absolutely clear about who she was, even from infancy, but at the same time she was very sunny and peaceful.

"When she was small she would drape her bunk bed so the lower bunk became a kind of cave that she could seclude herself in to draw or read."

In Modarressi's books, the secret worlds she conjured up as a child have come to life. Rugs fly, pillows induce nightmares, monsters have insatiable appetites and typewriters are possessed. Her lively watercolor illustrations are minutely detailed, unusual for this often lush technique.

"The story for 'Tumble Tower' just came to me whole one sleepless night," her mother writes. "Because I'd been convinced for a long time that Mitra's paintings had an enigmatic, storylike quality, I asked if she would consider illustrating it. I'll never forget how unexpectedly shy I felt as I watched her read my manuscript."

Modarressi knows that collaborating with her mother "opened a lot of doors."

But Tyler adds, "Publishers may have been more willing to give the book an initial look because I was her mother, but it certainly doesn't explain why they were willing to bid on the book as illustrated by Mitra, or why they've bought the later books written solely by her."

In the catalog and jacket notes for the book, Modarressi decided not to mention their relationship, but some reviewers figured out the connection.

One British critic, The Sunday Times' Nicolette Jones, wrote, "Modarressi's gentle illustrations, crisply drawn in autumnal colours, suggest that Tyler's own parenting has instilled a talent for clarity rather than chaos."

Tyler says: "The whole experience was enormous fun, but I'd be scared to repeat it. She's already gone beyond me; the humor in 'Monster Stew' and the exuberance of 'Yard Sale' are more than I could ever have come up with myself."

At 33, Modarressi's published seven books (five of which she wrote as well) but still finds the industry challenging.

"It's a really difficult business, for me, not being on a tier of really established artists and illustrators," says Modarressi. "It's still a lot of work to get published. I've had to compromise a lot and work hard to find deals and get projects."

While a work is in progress, she is able to fall back on her close-knit family. "Are you kidding? I definitely ask my mom for advice. She's really good about stepping back and saying 'Well, you know best.' She tries to give me the faith to do it on my own and get confidence, which is a hard thing to do, but then she's always there if I have questions, or want a second opinion, to proofread and do grammar checks."

Modarressi also feels fortunate in having an artistic sister and husband with whom to bounce around ideas.

A lost opportunity

As a youngster, she loved to draw and read. She speaks of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Maurice Sendak with fondness, recalling regular outings to the Enoch Pratt Free Library's Govans and Roland Park branches.

At the Friends School of Baltimore, she excelled at English and art and struggled through math and science.

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