Petra + An Interview with Marianna Coppo


by Marianna Coppo (Tundra Books, 2018)

This book instantly shot up to the top of my favorites list. It is a smile from start to finish. I chatted with Marianna Coppo about Petra and how it was made, and hope this shoots it to the top of your favorites too.

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

When I was little I was very much attached to the world of books and images. Being a solitary child, I read a lot and drew just as much.

Even today the characters of my favourite childhood stories – all by Roald Dahl – have the faces of those created by Quentin Blake.

I don’t have many memories, though, related specifically to children’s picture books. I started getting into them much later, when I began to study illustration.

When I began studying, I was ignorant of picture books – I probably still am – and was knocked off my feet when I made their discovery. I fell in love with picture books (the wonderful ones, naturally), because with children’s picture books it’s difficult to fool the reader.

There aren’t many tricks. A picture book works if there’s a strong idea behind it. They say a lot with so little. When a picture book works, text and images blend together perfectly, creating something magical. So, it’s a world in itself. And at the heart of it form, content, and rhythm are condensed into 32 pages.

In 2015, two years after finishing my studies in illustration at Mimaster in Milan, I attended a year-long course in Bologna at the Accademia Drosselmeier, a center of studies dedicated children’s literature. There I read and looked at thousands of books and I haven’t stopped looking since. I think it’s safe to say that I have a joyful obsession with picture books. And I now draw with a different perspective: words and images grow within the limited space of a book, an enclosed space that allows me to express myself as best I can, I hope.

Petra and dog Petra as an egg

How did Petra come to be?

The idea for Petra came to me around three years ago. I had been working on a different project that wasn’t working at all. The best ideas always seem to come to me while I’m working on something else. On balance – well, at least for me – I think that every story is an attempt to respond to a personal need. Or perhaps stories are questions asked at the right moment. When I wrote Petra I was going through a terrible period. I felt like I was running on one of those indoor exercise bikes and getting nowhere.

Nothing was going right, but at the same time I was afraid to make a change. So I think Petra came from a necessity for me to change perspectives. I needed to see unknown things with a renewed optimism.

Things are always in flux. Petra rouses a dog, for example, and no matter how much she tries to stay still, sooner or later, she gets thrown here and there.

The message, for me, is not “be yourself.” What I wanted to say is that the “yourself” is whomever you want to imagine yourself to be. It was a liberating idea for me.

The choice of a rock as the main character was easy: it’s a fixed object, that can be considered useless, but can also make leaps and bounds!

Petra in winter

Can you tell us about your process?

My creative process is totally chaotic. The first step is insight! That moment of grace that compensates all of the work and frustration that will come after.

Then there’s months and months of this…


Then I go straight to the final artwork (I’m trying to change the process and find a middle way between my scribbled storyboard and final illustrations).

Then I do all of the final artwork again. This is repeated at least three times.

At a certain point, I make myself stop, otherwise it would be never ending.

Fortunately, I usually like the results from the fourth round.

What do you hope readers take from Petra?

I wanted children to enjoy playing with the different perspectives and playing with Petra. I also wanted readers to try looking at things from a different point of view to see how things change depending on one’s perspective.

Petra's houses

Who are some of your story heroes?

Oh dear. I don’t know if I have an answer. I don’t have true heroes. Or perhaps I have so many that I’m not sure I can call them that. In the world of contemporary picture books, I think Jon Klassen’s and Mac Barnett’s work is absolutely genius.

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

I collect ugly and absurd things that don’t make sense. A lot of these “things” are also in storage because of a recent move, but here’s one. It’s a package of pasta that I found in a souvenir shop in my hometown, Rome.

As you can see, there’s an image of the coliseum with the writing “Made in Italy” on the package, but the pasta itself is made in the shape of the Eiffel Tower. How clever is that?!


What’s next for you?

I’m working on the final touches to my latest book, A Very Late Story (to be published by Flying Eye Books in late spring).

And I’m also working on a new project about a dog, which is filled with… dogs!