Grandmother Thorn + an interview with illustrator Rebecca Hahn

Grandmother+Thorn

by Katey Howes and Rebecca Hahn (Ripple Grove Press, 2017)

One of the best parts of the book world is its people, and the joy of celebrating their books’ entrance to the world. The author of this book, Katey Howes, has been a friend for a long while, and we’ve both been fans of Rebecca’s work. I had some questions for them both.

Meet Rebecca!

When, how, or why did you get into picture books?

As an artist, I have always had a few lofty goals – as most artists do. The ultimate achievements so to say. One of those has been to illustrate a children’s book, I just didn’t know when or how this would ever happen.

A few years after working as a Character Artist with Disney, I got the opportunity to freelance with Random House Publishing illustrating a few of the Pooh Adorable’s board books. It wasn’t using my own style but I still jumped at the chance. I had to match the Pooh Adorable’s books already published and of course be on model with the Pooh Characters, but it was still a really fun experience. It was nice to work on a job that didn’t have a super quick turn around and longer lasting power than magazine illustrations. The Pooh Adorable’s books ran through their ideas after 5 books with me and the project was completed.

After working on the Pooh books, I continued to freelance, dipped my toe into making merchandise and moved on to showing my personal artwork in galleries. (Another of my lofty goals.) It wasn’t until a few years after my son was born that I was introduced to Ripple Grove Press and given the chance to illustrate a book with my own imagery and style.

How did Grandmother Thorn come to you as a manuscript, and what were your first thoughts about the text?

My husband works for Laika and had heard that RPG was looking for an illustrator through the grapevine and the rest is history. Lucky for me, It was the right time and the right fit.

I thought Grandmother Thorn was a mature story, but that younger kids could still connect to the struggles of perfectionism and control. These issue seem to be important lessons through all of life’s phases! I could also relate to those struggles personally and I felt a deep connection to Grandmother Thorn in this way.

Can you tell us about your process?

People tend to think that my illustrations are done on a computer. They are actually all done by hand. Hand sewn, painted, and pieced together.

First, I do a lot of research. I can not really draw something repeatedly and from different angles until I really know it. So I make a Pinterest board and do lots of sketching to just get a feel for the subject.

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Next, I get to know my characters. This was a collaboration between the publisher, Rob Broder and myself. We went back and forth several times to get Grandmother Thorn and Ojiisan just right.

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After finishing the page thumbnails, I work with layers and layers of tracing paper over my rough drawings to clean up the final drawings.

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After the final drawings, I transfer the characters onto paper to paint and then cut out.

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Then I pick out papers, colors, and textures that might go well with each page and start the process of piecing together.

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The parts for each layout are sometimes cut out like pattern pieces for a quilt.

I plan out the stitches and pre-poke the holes for any sewing that will need to be done. The paper would tear and I would never be able to get a needle through the layers if I didn’t.

From here, it’s all just a trial and error process of creating my “puzzle pieces” as I go. I mostly use Yes Paste to combine the parts of my illustrations. It works the best with all of the different materials and thicknesses of papers.

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For this final spread when we see Grandmother Thorn enjoying the beauty of her “imperfect” garden, I ended up having to color code the leaves so that I could keep track of all of the pieces when they were cut out! I thought that I might be truly crazy as I cut out each berry for that layout.

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Sometimes all of this detailed work and late nights will make me a little crazy, but luckily I have a little studio buddy (and very vocal art director) to keep me connected to the here and now. :)

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Who are some of your story heroes?

Johnny Boo books by James Kochalka, Hug Machine, XO, Ox, East Dragon West Dragon illustrated by Scott Cambell, The Sea Serpent and Me illustrator Catia Chien, comic book artist Chris Ware, Mouk, the Mr. Bud series by Carter Goodrich, and artist Souther Salazar.

What’s your favorite piece of art in your house?

I have an unframed print of James Jean’s called Chang’e. The arrows make me think about how changes can be painful but the figure looks so strong, that she can handle them. I also love the little gallery that has formed under my desk. My son and husband are the artists.

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What’s next for you?

My next project is still top secret. I can tell you that I’m working with the wonderful writer Kelly Thompson to create a picture book series. We have known each other for a long time and are very excited to get a chance to work on a project together.

I hope to find time to continue making my personal artwork and I plan on embellishing prints of my personal work with embroidery and other fun additions to make them unique and more accessible to a larger audience. I can never just work on one thing.

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Isn’t that incredible?

Grandmother Thorn is such a lovely book, and seeing how the art was made is so fascinating. I asked the author, a debut, what it was like to see text she’d written illustrated in this way, and what it felt like to see for the first time. Here’s what Katey had to say:

Making picture books is such a collaborative journey, and it takes a lot of trust. Once your words are acquired by a publishing house, you have to have faith that your editor and publishing team have a vision that brings out the best in your story. I was blessed and lucky that Rob and Amanda Broder, at Ripple Grove Press, not only had a vision for Grandmother Thorn, but also that their vision was open enough to allow Rebecca’s talent and creativity to really flow. Screen Shot 2017-08-27 at 1.17.36 PM

I had been inspired to write Grandmother Thornby the nature in my own backyard, and by the woodblock art (or ukiyo-e) of the Japanese artist Hiroshige. Looking back, I think I hoped that the illustrations would somehow do justice to those influences. And I hoped for an illustrator who could make the garden appear as if it, too, was a character in the story. From the moment my editor sent me the first glimpses of Rebecca’s work on the book, I knew she was capable of doing all these things and more. I was a little surprised by the style. But it was such a good surprise! If I had thought at all about the actual medium in which the book would be illustrated, I suppose I imagined watercolors. (I’m not sure why.) What Rebecca created with multimedia was so much better than the vague images in my mind – so layered, and detailed, and original. Her art elevated my words to a new level. I continue to be awed by how meticulous and beautiful her work is.

Picture books, you guys. They are something special.

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