Writing books is a very mysterious thing. At least it is for me. I’ve always enjoyed writing, maybe just as much as I’ve enjoyed drawing, but drawings are easier to gauge. When you create a drawing you like, you can look at it and immediately see the reasons why, and you can show it to other people and they can point to things that they like about it, too.
My work often asks, “What is a book?” First came the interactive Press Here, which was radical in its simplicity. For Mix It Up!, I painted with my bare hands—a “no-illustration” illustration. Let’s Play! (2016; all Chronicle) is the return to expressing something with drawing, composition, proportion, and feelings.
When a manuscript comes across my art table there’s always a little bit of terror attached to it. What’s the author trying to relate? How should I approach it? How would a parent, a librarian, and, most important, a child look at my paintings? If, as an artist, I can’t quell some of these questions, they’ll derail the creative process.
One day I vacuumed a fly—by accident! After realizing what had happened, I wondered what the bug was thinking. Did it know it had been vacuumed? Was it upset? Or was it just buzzing around inside the machine, without a care in the world? This is how the idea for Bug in a Vacuum (Tundra Books, 2015) was born.
Look and Be Grateful (Holiday House 2015) is the most unusual project I’ve ever worked on in my 50 years as a children’s book illustrator/author.
Usually, a book starts with an idea that I’ll turn over and over in my head, sometimes letting it pop-up when it wants to, other times, sitting down and forcing myself to get right to it, jotting down notes, maybe making a quick sketch or two–nothing serious, nothing finished, just doodling with words and images.
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When I’m asked how I came to illustrate Patricia Hruby Powell’s Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker (Chronicle Books 2014), my most direct answer is that my agent Steven Malk shared the manuscript with me, after being approached by editors at Chronicle. The more magical response would be that Josephine Baker’s life was an inspiration to me long before I read Powell’s text.
For seven years, I’ve been sharing the stories of the many incredibly talented Native artists, writers, fashion designers, and entrepreneurs across North America on my blog “Urban Native Girl” and the online magazine I co-founded, Urban Native Magazine. So when Mary Beth Leatherdale came to me with the idea to create an anthology for youth featuring contemporary Native writers, artists, and teens talking about their experiences growing up Indigenous, I was thrilled.