SCBWI Bologna 2012 Author-Illustrator Interview: Sergio Ruzzier

Photo by Massimiliano Tappari

By P.J. Lyons
for SCBWI Bologna 2012
at Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Sergio Ruzzier was born in Milan, Italy, in 1966, and moved to New York
City in 1995. He has created a number of picture books, including The Room of Wonders (Frances Foster/FSG, 2006),
Amandina (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook, 2008), and Hey, Rabbit! (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook, 2010)

He has also illustrated books written by other authors, such as KarlaKuskin, Emily Jenkins, Lore Segal, and Eve Bunting. Bear and Bee, his forthcoming picture book, will be published by Hyperion in January 2013.

He was a recipient of the 2011 Sendak Fellowship. Sergio lives in Brooklyn, NY, with his girlfriend Karen and his daughter Viola.

See also Sergio’s blog and facebook page.

Describe your process when you illustrate a book.

If I am illustrating someone else’s text, I begin by breaking up the manuscript into spreads. Next, I make a very quick thumbnail storyboard so that I know where I’m going. After that, I expand and refine those sketches and build a dummy. After the dummy is approved, I start working on the finals.

If I am the author of the book I’m illustrating, the process may be different each time: sometimes I start with writing the whole text; some other times I begin with random sketches that might help me to work the story out.

Do you prefer illustrating your own manuscripts or those of other authors?

It depends. So far I’ve been lucky to collaborate with exceptional writers such as Lore Segal, Karla Kuskin, Emily Jenkins, Eve Bunting, Caron Lee Cohen, and others.

Every time it has been a pleasure.

I like to be free to interpret, expand and even sabotage the text, when the editors let me or are too distracted to notice.

When I work on my own stories, it’s a more involving and intense experience, but also more daunting. It’s like drawing while the author is constantly behind your shoulders, nervously observing what you are doing with his story.

Whose art has influenced your art? What current artists inspire you?

I grew up looking at Medieval and Early Renaissance art and reading picture books and American comic strips. Hieronymus Bosch, Elzie Chrisler Segar, Simone Martini, Edward Gorey, George Herriman, Giotto, Charles M. Schulz, Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti were, and still are, among my favorite artists. It’s a mix of sacred and profane, I know.

When I moved to New York from my native Milan, Italy, in 1995, I discovered other exceptional authors and illustrators I didn’t know before: William Steig, Arnold Lobel, Tomi Ungerer and more.

One of the best things that happened to me is meeting an artist whose work inspired me since I was a little child: Maurice Sendak.

He chose me last year for his Sendak Fellowship, which meant spending a month in a house next to his, working on my projects, chatting with him, and walking with him in his woods.

We are still in touch, and I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have had this chance. I have written an article about that experience that will be published soon in the SCBWI Bulletin.

How do you think your personal experience of growing up and beginning your career in Italy then moving to New York City influences your work?

I don’t know if this always comes through in my work, but I am particularly sensitive to themes that are rarely considered in most picture books in the US.

I’m used to talking with my daughter, since she was a toddler, about subjects many people would consider too adult for a child, including death, depression, racism, war, intolerance, and other facts of life.

I wish publishers were more willing to make books for children without feeling the need to overprotect them, which often means lying to them.

How has your work evolved over your career?

I have the feeling that my drawings have gradually become more accessible and less cryptic. I don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing.

What are you working on now?

These days I am working on the finals of a picture book that has to do with a duck and some new socks. It was written by Eve Bunting, with whom I have already collaborated with on the book Tweak Tweak (Clarion, 2011).

I’m also giving the final touches to Bear and Bee, the first in a series of picture books I’m writing and illustrating for Disney/Hyperion. It will be out in January 2013. Both the story and the illustrations are simpler and more comedic than my usual work. Bear and Bee is about prejudices and honey.

I have other ideas as well, and once in a while, I go back and work on them.

What words of advice do you have for emergent illustrators?

It is very difficult to answer this question, when asked generically. A person who wants to be in this field (or any other artistic field) should be more interested in saying something personal and original than trying to fit in the market. It’s always very annoying when illustrators follow a trend, whether their books are successful or not.

Is there something you know now that you wish you had known when you first started illustrating?

That it is okay to challenge your editor’s opinion if you don’t agree. I have been too docile in the past, and I wish I had the nerve to fight more for my ideas. Most editors (at least the good ones) are open to hear what you have to say, and they actually appreciate if you explain and defend your decisions.

Cynsational Notes

P.J. Lyons has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College and an art major from Calvin College.

She is the author of Little Lamb’s Bible, Little Lion’s Bible,
and The Wonderful World that God Made.

Her earliest memories are of
telling stories to her stuffed animals while cutting and pasting

The SCBWI Bologna 2012 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Showcase in conjunction with Cynsations. To find out more, visit the SCBWI Bologna Showcase Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.

2 thoughts on “SCBWI Bologna 2012 Author-Illustrator Interview: Sergio Ruzzier

  1. The Room of Wonders is one of the most beautiful picture books I have ever read. A sure-handed, solemn and dignified story. I loved it.

    Also, his advice about defending your ideas to an editor is spot on…infinitely preferable to the advice I often hear from artists, who say you should just agree in the moment and then avoid making the discussed changes in the next draft.

    Wonderful interview!

  2. Thank you for your endorsement of ROW. I don't know that editors/art directors are looking for a quick agreement so much as a thoughtful response–not stubborness for the sake of it, but a reasoned response.

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