Every month I reflect on what is inspiring to me as a children's book illustrator and author. My work revolves around yearly cycles. I think of an idea for a book, write a manuscript, work on the visual side of telling the story in a book dummy- these are sketches in a book form- and finally illustrating the art as it will appear in the book. During all of these steps I am communicating with my editor, Susan who focuses on the text but also contributes to shaping the art, and my art director and designer, Marikka who looks at the art with me and also creates important elements of the book such as the jacket, type and overall design. All of our three perspectives bring the story into the form we all love and have spent our lives being fascinated by, a printed and bound children's book. Yes, it is a commercial project, but because children?s literature has touched us all in profound ways, and because the book will ultimately or be read to or read by children, we think of it more as an art form.
The actual working on the book is not at all pompous or precious though! The research often takes me places I would not normally go and can be exciting if not life changing. I often go to places far off the beaten path like the volcanic Caribbean island of Martinique (The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, that I illustrated) or a visit to Baffin Island for an arctic retelling of folktale Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The creatures I've painted for my stories have been equally as curious. I went snorkeling in Okinawa, Japan and saw a Baby Giant Pacific Octopus and recently got close enough to feel the fluff of a Musk Ox in Alaska. There are some unintended consequences too. I thought up a story involving a hedgehog and a hen, Hedgie?s Surprise. I had a hedgehog already but I felt it was necessary to grow up some chicks so I could tame them like my pet chickens of my childhood. I could use them as models! I was so smitten by my hens that twenty years later I have many breeds and varieties, travel all over the country going to chicken shows, and wake up every morning to the sound of cock-a-doodle-do. I've put a lot of family members in my illustrations that has become poignant as time has gone by. My mom, Jean Brett was the grandmother in The Mitten, my husband Joe who plays the Double Bass is the bear in Berlioz The Bear who plays a Double Bass in my book, my daughter Lia is Lisa in The Hat, granddaughter, Torynn appears in its sequel The Snowy Nap. I even have a self-portrait, I'm the goose in The Twelve Days of Christmas, although I painted it not knowing I was doing it. Luckily, I have book readers that point those things out for me!
Is there a dark side about writing and illustrating children's books? Yes, I'm afraid there is, and I am at that point in the process, usually in February. I am turning in the final pages. They never seem really finished or exactly what I had in mind. Although contradictory to that, I have fallen in love with my characters and settings and I never want to let them go. One could say, I should be reconciled when I see the bound book, and that is true, but when I can go back to the art, and freely add, for example silky fur as I just painted on Cozy, my Musk Ox, they seem alive in a way that is never the same once the book has been turned in. There is only one solution to this phenomenon, create another children's book! Then I am happy again!