~Hosted by Amanda Smith
Few people in this world impress me more than children's book illustrators. I am constantly awed by the thoughtfulness of their process, the depth of their talent, the beauty of the art they create, and the truly humble and kind people they are. This month on 24 Carrot Writing we shine the spotlight on some illustrators who inspired us during this year.
We are honored to kick of Illustrator Month with Lita Judge. Lita is the award winning author and illustrator of 24 fiction and nonfiction books including MARY'S MONSTER, a YA novel about Mary Shelley and the creation of Frankenstein. Her picture books include BORN IN THE WILD, RED SLED, HOOT AND PEEP, and ONE THOUSAND TRACINGS winner of the International Reading Association Award and an ALA Notable Book. Her book, FLIGHT SCHOOL, was adapted into an off-Broadway musical and is currently running in New York and China. She lives in Peterborough, NH.
1. You came from a science background. Tell us a little about your journey into illustration and kidlit.
I graduated with a degree in geology and spent some time working as a paleontologist on dinosaur digs. Science came naturally to me, but I didn’t have a lot of exposure to art as a kid. I grew up in Alaska and the remote areas of the Northwest and had never been to any art museums. When I first walked into the Metropolitan Museum in New York City as an adult, and saw a show of Renaissance drawings, my whole world changed. I actually quit my job and started an adventure in learning how to really paint. The best advice I ever got from a great artist was to go look closely at great original paintings. So over the next five years, I traveled to Europe more than twenty times to study in art museums. I financed the trips by painting on-location street scenes and landscapes (in oil paints with a French easel) which I sold in galleries when I returned. I was influenced by the art I saw and my style was loose and painterly. But I felt like the aspect of “story” and narrative was missing in this kind of work. The desire to create art around stories really drew me towards writing and illustrating children’s books.
2. Not having any formal art training, how did you become so proficient in concepts like perspective, composition, and skills such as drawing and painting?
I think my science background helped me a lot. As a paleontologist I put dinosaur skeletons together and so much about drawing is knowing the structure of what you’re looking at. My grandparents were ornithologist and I spent a lot of time watching birds as a youngster so I think the skills of observation really helped. I kept journals and I drew and painted what I was seeing and learning. I worked from life a lot. I drew animals and thousands of plein-air paintings in the field. Gradually I started letting go of painting only what I saw and trusted my imagination to take me to drawing what I felt in my mind. I love weaving the intellectual act of observing with the imagination.
3. Your words, whether in print as in MARY’S MONSTER, or spoken, as the narration of your videos, are carefully chosen and lyrical. Have you always played with words? How did you discover your voice as a writer?
I love to play with the lyricism of words. Its extraordinary how a poem or a picture book manuscript can give meaning to an idea, and tell a story, but also have a musicality like birdsong. I find that quality transporting. I love how a beautiful poem can work together with the quality of line in art. They’re different mediums, but they’re surprisingly similar. Both require you to observe, and distill an idea, then let yourself be free to find the artistry that lies within that thought.
It did take me a while to find my voice as a writer. I’m such a visual person, sometimes I think I could have easily stayed in the realm of painting alone, without writing. But then I wouldn’t have the story I wanted. Finding the right words didn’t come as naturally to me as drawing. But it’s ultimately what gives my illustrations their full meaning. I needed both to feel I was creating a whole. One thing that helped me find the words was to recognize they didn’t have to come first in a project. Many people assume I write a story, and then illustrate it. But I almost always start with art, and then the words come as I see my way into a story. That was true even for MARY'S MONSTER. I drew for 6 months before I put a single word down. By the time I did, I felt like the voice of the work was already thrumming through my bloodstream.
4. Let’s talk MARY’S MONSTER. You deliberately set out to do something so new and unique with this book to mirror Mary Shelly. How did you arrive at this format – an illustrated biography in verse that reads like a YA novel?
It took me a while to discover this format. For years I had been drawn to the story of the teenaged Mary Shelley, but didn’t quite know how to tackle it. First I considered a graphic novel, but it didn’t feel like the format fit. Mary Shelley’s life was so intense. Her emotions needed to leap out of the page. Graphic novels are structured so that the art unfolds within several contained panels. They leave a lot of white space around the images. This can be great for developing action, but it didn’t give me the room I needed to fully develop the visual story with the emotional intensity I wanted. I wanted full bleed illustrations that viscerally poured out emotion. I also wanted poetry, something I couldn’t fit into graphic novel format. Mary’s life and her love affair with Percy Shelley revolved around poetry and literature. And I really wanted to do something different than what I had seen before. Mary Shelley developed a whole new genre - science fiction. I felt I needed to do something unique to capture her story. Or maybe, I was just inspired by her to be bold and brave. Whatever it was, I felt like the only way I could bring her story to life was by blending full-page illustrations with free verse.
5. During discussions of this book, our book group wondered about the genre of MARY’S MONSTER and how libraries would categorize it. Were you and your editors ever concerned that it would get lost in the adult biographies? And in your heart, to which genre does this book belong?
Yes, I was concerned about how libraries and bookstores would categorize this book! I went multiple times to our local library and my local bookstore, The Toadstool Bookshop, and asked them where they would shelve it. I was concerned that it would slip into adult biography or that it would be categorized in the graphic novel section. I love graphic novels, but that section really didn’t feel like home to this book. I see this being an illustrated novel, rather than a graphic novel, and I really wanted it to be shelved with other YA books.
I was also concerned about whether it would be shelved as nonfiction or fiction, which has been an issue. It’s deeply researched and I tried to portray Mary Shelley‘s life as accurately as I could, but ultimately I chose to write it in first person. I thought that it was the only way I could capture the essence of this brave, courageous teenager who dared to throw off the shackles that society inflicted on women. But this is definitely not a straight up biography. It dives into the realm of what goes on in the mind of a creative soul. I didn’t want to be restricted by writing it in a purely non-fiction way because, in a strange sense, I didn’t feel that could possibly tell the whole truth of her story. And besides, there is also her creature. She gave him a voice in her book. I couldn’t ignore that. Her novel is about creating life from death, but ultimately she created life from literature. I wanted this story to reflect that. And to reflect the interaction that goes on between a writer and his or her creation. He just had to have a voice in this book.
6. What did you want the art to accomplish in this book?
The art was critical for portraying the emotional elements of Mary‘s life. She was such a strong and courageous young woman despite overwhelming grief, and mental abuse by both her father, and boyfriend, later husband. But despite that, she endured. I think if I had only words to convey all the tragic events in her life, the text would’ve felt very heavy. But the pictures can convey these searing emotions in a way that makes us empathize with her. At least that’s how I feel when I see a great painting. Art can also show the intensity of her creative process. The relationship between her and her creature evolves in the art. There is this back-and-forth movement of power between them. At times it’s almost like a dance between her and her creation. Sometimes her creation is lifting her up, as if to save her from her emotional ruin. Other times it threatens to overpower and consume her. All of these things can come through in the art in a way that would be very difficult to convey in text.
7. Like ogres and onions, MARY’S MONSTER has many layers for readers to peel back. You often used images as metaphors. However, as an English major, I also know that often scholars read symbols where authors or artists didn’t intend symbolism. Some things I wonder about in your book are: The black and white birds, the resemblance of the Creature to Percy, and mirrors/windows/reflection. Would you share some of the deeper symbols or metaphors with our readers?
I’m so thrilled that you picked up on the symbolism in the art! The book is loaded with visual symbolism. The creature does indeed resemble Percy. I had one picture of Percy to work from and Mary’s own description of the creature. I felt it was appropriate to create an eerie resemblance between the two. I used the same model for both! Like the creature, Percy was driven by a feeling of rejection and self-induced exile. He felt vilified by society. His internal demons drove him to be abusive towards Mary. She clearly empathized with the demons he faced. She understood the bitterness that grew in his heart came from his feelings of rejection – rejection of his poetry, rejection from his father, and rejection from society. I wanted to use the similarity between the characters to draw these parallels together.
For the windows and doors I wanted to show how Mary faced isolation due to the fact that society vilified her for running away with a married man. We think of doors as a place to escape from or enter through. Likewise, windows are a place where we can look through and mentally escape. But in the art the doors and windows are barriers. We often look from the outside, through a window where the grilles look like the bars of a prison cell. She can see the outside but she is not welcome there.
There is also symbolism represented in the hands, both Mary‘s and the Creature’s, because I think hands are so connected to the act of creativity. Sometimes Mary’s hands are literally lifting up her creature, representing her power to create. Other times the hands of the creature are enveloping her, almost at times threatening to overpower her. This is meant to represent the fine line she was walking between succumbing to all the grief and sadness in her life, versus using that pain and pouring it into her creation.
8. The amount of work that went into MARY’S MONSTER is vast. Your research, your sketchbooks, your photographs and models, your poetry and artwork. What practical methods did you learn along the way about organizing big projects like these?
Hmmm, I wish I could say I had a plan, but really it was get up every day and write and draw the hell out of it. It was just full throttle rather than planned out vision. Maybe for the next one, I could come up with something a little saner. I’m just learning how to take a weekend off again.
9. You worked on the HOOT AND PEEP books while you were working on MARY’S MONSTER. In which ways was it challenging to transition from the playful colorful artwork of making picture books to the dark, haunting paintings of MARY’s MONSTER? In which ways was it helpful?
Yes, I did work on HOOT AND PEEP during the six years I’ve worked on Mary‘s Monster. It was incredibly challenging going back and forth between the picture books and MARY'S MONSTER - not so much because the style of art was different, mostly because of the pacing involved in a picture book versus the pacing of a longer form book. Everything has to be spelled out but simple in PB art. Little readers have to be lead through a story differently. In MARY'S MONSTER, I had to trust that I could make big leaps, otherwise, it would have taken 5000 pages. But there, I could put a lot more hidden meanings into things because I knew my readers would have more life experience to interpret them. Working on the novel for such long spells made it hard to get back to the simplicity of a picture book.
But on the other hand it was incredibly helpful to have an oasis in which to fall back on, because MARY'S MONSTER was an incredibly intense project. At times I just needed to let my brain rest before diving in again. I often work back-and-forth between nonfiction and fiction picture books. I think creatively it can be good to work on more than one project at a time so that you allow yourself time to escape a project and then come back with fresh eyes.
10. You work mostly in watercolor, but in MARY’s MONSTER, the illustrations have a layered and washy quality. How did you adapt your techniques and media for the art in this book? Have you transported some of these techniques into your newer picture books?
I did have to adjust my techniques for MARY'S MONSER. To get the emotional depth to some of the pieces required a lot of haunting imagery. I found that digitally layering different washes helped me find the richness that I needed. In a picture book, simplicity is important. Young readers are just learning to explore visual images so my washes are often very simple and my line work bold. I’m not sure that the work I did with Mary will translate to picture books. But I’d love to find another project in the future where I can use these techniques. Artistically it was really fun to dive into this new style.
11. The choices you made in MARY’S MONSTER all seem deliberate, well thought through and planned. Your work has a sense of organization and forethought. Yet, in making art there are often “happy accidents”. How do you live in the tension between the two?
This is a great question! I think it is the crux of what takes a painting beyond representing something and into the realm of art. It is what makes it so hard, and yet so interesting. I perceive painting much like creating live music. For me, painting requires lots and lots of planning which is equivalent to rehearsal. But then, ultimately, the final art has to be like a jazz performance. I have to let go of all the planning, and trust that all the experience and practice will pour out into paintings so that they feel spontaneous.
12. At 24 Carrot Writing, we pay a lot of attention to goal setting and planning. Do you set illustrating/ art goals? If so, what do they look like?
I guess my biggest goal is always to have a challenge ahead of me where I remain really charged up and interested in my work. This means having a project in the works where I don’t know the answers, and I have to learn something in order to execute it. I guess I like to be a little bit terrified. It’s uncomfortable, but it what gets you into the studio every day. Fear can be such a powerful motivator. I don’t mean fear as in the way we usually talk about it. I mean, more like in the way maybe an explorer would think about it. The fear, alongside the excitement of the unknown. I always want to be curious and pushing against that fear. If I go into a project knowing all the answers, I’ll just start phoning it in. And what good is that? My goal is to always love the project I’m working on and feel like it’s an adventure. If I don’t feel both, I have to make a course correction!
13. What has been your greatest joy in your career as an author/illustrator so far?
Having my picture book, FLIGHT SCHOOL, get turned into an off-Broadway musical was an incredibly joyful experience. Creating a character out of your imagination and then watching him suddenly come to life, singing and dancing on stage, was mind blowing. I also loved seeing how other artists, in this case, the composer, lyricist, director, actors, and costume designer pour their energy into this character. I will forever be thankful for that experience. Plus, it’s pretty cool to crank up the volume and play the soundtrack of the musical and dance with my parrot on a rainy day!
14. What has been the biggest surprise?
As a kid I never imagined I’d get to be an artist. I really didn’t know people did this for a living. My mind was reeling with imaginary friends, basically because my family lived far out in the woods, and I didn’t have other kids to play with. It was kind of a lonely childhood and living in my imagination helped me get through it. But now I get to give those imaginary friends life within the pages of a book. Is that sappy? It’s just that they feel real to me. And then kids read those books, and in so doing, those characters become real to them. It gives me a strong sense of connection to people that I didn’t have when I was a kid. I wasn’t expecting that gift to come out of this career.
15. What is next?
I’m very excited to have another picture book coming out with the character from FLIGHT SCHOOL. This one is titled PENGUIN FLIES HOME and is coming out in January. I also have a non-fiction picture book coming out called HOMES IN THE WILD, which draws on my love of animals and the natural world. It’s full of all the cool ways animals create shelters and homes for themselves in the wild. And one more picture book – called Wingbeats. I wait to let that mystery unfold.
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