Life + An Interview with Brendan Wenzel

LIFE

by Cynthia Rylant and Brendan Wenzel (Simon and Schuster, 2017)

This book is a showstopper, and this duo is so very right. Life takes a look at just that: the hopes and hardships of living things. It’s a sophisticated idea rendered with exquisite simplicity.

I got to chat with Caldecott Honoree Brendan Wenzel about books and making this one in particular. Meet Brendan!

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

I had the good fortune of being raised by two artists. My dad is the illustrator David T Wenzel, probably best known for his graphic novel adaptation of The Hobbit, and my mom Janice Wenzel was an art educator for 25 years until she retired in 2013. As a kid, artwork hung on most walls in our house, and my family of course had a huge picture book collection.

Seeing both my parents work on their own projects and my dad create book after book made me realize early on how exciting and gratifying the art and bookmaking process could be. That interest continued through high school and college and eventually led me to a career making books.

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

I recently had a conversation with another illustrator about how a manuscript occasionally lands on your desk that seems to synch perfectly with where you are in life, how you’re feeling, and subjects you can’t stop thinking about. Life was one of those texts for me. Cynthia Rylant’s words—which were originally sent by my editor Andrea Welch through my agent Steven Malk—absolutely captured the feelings I had experienced while interacting with nature and connected them in beautiful and unexpected ways.

I knew instantly I wanted to illustrate the book, and the icing on the cake was the chance to collaborate with Beach Lane Books, with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working on several projects, including Angela DiTerlizzi’s Some Bugs, which was the first book I illustrated for a publisher in the US.

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Can you tell us about your process?

I knew I would need to approach the book a bit differently than some of my past projects. Much of my previous work has been very playful, but Cynthia’s beautiful words seemed to pull in a slightly different direction. After reading the manuscript many, many times, I began to take long walks in the parks near my house. I would jot down notes and take photographs of anything I crossed paths with that reminded me of the text. This included things like patterns made by bark and soils, pathways through the forest, and the shapes left behind by melting snow.

I continued to think about the elements that combine to create life and how to incorporate them into the book. Originally I had toyed with creating the illustrations from materials found outside—soil, twigs, and plant matter. But after a day of experimenting in my tiny studio, I moved away from this direction. I experimented a lot before finally beginning to create images that felt right. I laid down thick, chunky brushstrokes of acrylic to create the rocks and earth, and I used watercolor and pencil to create the dense foliage that grows throughout the book.

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Who are some of your story heroes?

Probably the two people who I’ve admired for the longest are Jane Goodall and David Attenborough. As someone who is passionate about wildlife and conservation, their work has been very inspiring and motivating. This is for many reasons, but especially because they have both found creative ways to share their interest in and enthusiasm for the natural world.

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

A couple years ago I worked with Fauna and Flora International on an educational initiative to raise awareness about the critically endangered Siamese crocodile, whose wild population has been estimated to consist of fewer than 1,000 individuals. Toward the end of the project I was able to go to Cambodia, meet the team I’d been working with, and see their crocodile breeding center.

While in Phnom Penh, the project’s very kind leader presented me with a set of footprints from a big female crocodile. The image, which at first glance looks almost like a scaly human hand stamped in green paint on watercolor paper, was created during a veterinary checkup. I was thrilled with the gift and hung the framed image at the entrance to my studio. The footprints serve as the perfect daily reminder of all those rare and fascinating creatures going about their business in wild places around the world. I don’t know if this falls under the traditional definition of art, but it’s my favorite thing hanging in the house, hands down.

What’s next for you?

I just submitted final artwork for a book I wrote and illustrated called Hello Hello. The project, which uses a sequence of related animals to take a look at the ways in which we relate to the world around us, will be out with Chronicle Books in Spring 2018. Aside from that, I have a sketch book filled with preliminary work for a few new projects that I am really excited about. I will be going to Maine next week, where I will be gleefully fleshing them out under the close watch of a few thousand pine trees and probably a porcupine or two.

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Pax and Blue and an Interview with Lori Richmond

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by Lori Richmond (Simon and Schuster, 2017)

I’ve been so fortunate to get to know this fabulous author, illustrator, and human this year, and I’m so pleased to introduce you to her today. Unless you also know her, and aren’t we lucky?*

Meet Lori!

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

I came to love picture books through art. Ever since I was a kid, I loved to draw. My professional career has always been related to art or design — for 20+ years I was Creative Director at various corporate media companies. But the nature of my industry shifted, and design, especially digital product design, became very data-driven and technical. While there were some things I liked about it, I found that my daily tasks at work were no longer aligning with my personal goals. This was a tough thing to go through, because so many of us conflate our own identity with what we do for work.

Out of frustration and fatigue, I went shopping for art supplies. Oh man, is there nothing better than the smell of new art supplies?! I began drawing and painting again late at night after my kids went to bed, and I felt so refreshed and joyful. I took some continuing education classes at School of Visual Arts (SVA), where my husband teaches as an adjunct professor, and one of those was a picture book class. Thinking about making a picture book was so magical to me. To have something you made, and can hold in your hand and share with children — it was the piece I was missing in my professional work. I fell in love with the process and knew I had to pursue it.

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How did PAX AND BLUE originate?

We live in Brooklyn, so my kids are used to taking the subway everywhere. My then 3-year-old told me a story about when he was out with our babysitter, and that there was a pigeon stuck in the station. My son was so worried about the bird and talking about how frightened it must have been. Pigeons are certainly not the most revered urban animal, so it struck me how the child’s perspective was so sweet and innocent. My son was little, just like the bird, and could empathize with it. I knew it was a good seedling for a story, so I went from there and started on it while I was at SVA, and also workshopped it at Pat Cummings’ Bootcamp at Highlights. Originally, the title of the book was PAX AND THE PIGEON. In my mind, it kind of still is!

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What was it like to be both the author and illustrator for the first time?

I had no idea what I was doing, and still feel like I don’t. But I LOVE being the author and the illustrator, because you have the power to have the art do so much of the talking. I find that as I draw, more and more words go away. My editor, Paula Wiseman, and I edited a lot of text out of the book. The drawings were doing all the talking and left more room for the reader to discover the story and emotion on their own.

Can you tell us about your process? (And if you have any pictures of your studio or PAX-in- progress, that would be excellent!)

I usually begin with the words first. I may not have the entire narrative or all the character nuances laid out, but I need to have some kind of foundation for the story before I start thumbnailing. I admire artists who draw characters for years and get to know them, and their story comes out. That has never happened to me. (Maybe one day!!)  I do love the thumbnailing part of the process — the loose scribbles and the thinking part. Everything feels so malleable at that stage, and it is very free flowing. I like to challenge myself to come up with multiple solutions to the same problem. Sometimes I think of something way better, and other times it helps me validate my first thought as the strongest.

PAX AND BLUE looked really different in the initial submission to Simon & Schuster. It always had a limited color palette, but it wasn’t until about a year after the submission and we began to work on it, that I revisited the art. I created new character studies for Pax and expanded the palette while still staying true to the original feel. I wanted to be like a modern version of LYLE, LYLE, CROCODILE (by Bernard Waber) where the backgrounds and environments recede and the characters really stand out on the page. I love books of that era! This also led to me asking (ahem, begging?) my editor for a 3-piece binding. That was a really special touch that helped give the book a vintage feel.

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What’s your studio like?

I am part of a co-working studio in Brooklyn called Friends Work Here. We are an eclectic mix of all types of creatives, including writers, photographers, designers, and video artists. And we even have an indoor swing, people!! I like having a separate workspace and the community that comes along with it. The studio is very conveniently located to my home, too, which is helpful when I have to be home for my boys.

Who are some of your story heroes?

I absolutely love THE CARROT SEED by Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson, and SNOW by Uri Shulevitz. Both are such simple stories about a child’s belief in themselves, and persistence in those thoughts no matter what everyone else says. I love these kind of universal messages that stand the test of time.  As for modern books, my current favorite is LIFE ON MARS by Jon Agee. It’s one of those books I wish I had thought of! So well done, and the pictures say so much. And it’s so funny!

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

This is a classic case of the shoemaker’s children having no shoes. I make books, and my husband is a photographer, and we have no art on our walls. We also don’t have too many walls, because we live in a city apartment! I do always let my children hang up their work, though. I never get angry about tape or adhesives on the walls. It’s really fun to see them feel pride in their creations. My younger son has completely covered the wall surrounding my bed with love notes. So, those are definitely my favorite right now.

What’s next for you?

2018 is going to be a crazy year. In March 2018, my next author-illustrated title, BUNNY’S STAYCATION (Scholastic), will hop into the world. This is an incredibly special book about a parent who travels for work. I can’t wait to share! Then in Spring 2018 comes a super-cute book I illustrated called OOPSIE-DO (HarperCollins), written by Tim Kubart. And, finally, in Summer 2018 comes SKELLY’S HALLOWEEN (Henry Holt), written by David Martin. Whew!

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*This is a recurring line in my novel, A Rambler Steals Home, and it pops into my head so many times I just use it as much as I can. Cool, right?

Thanks to Lori for the fantastic pictures in this post!