SCBWI Bologna 2012 Author-Illustrator Interview: Serena Geddes

By Liz Steinglass for SCBWI Bologna 2012
at Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Serena Gedes is a Sydney-based illustrator and started her career working in animation for Walt Disney Australia.

In 2009, she secured her first contract and has illustrated 14 books, ranging from picture books – Samuel’s Kisses to junior fiction – Totally Twins.

Serena’s imagination is endless, and her ease with pen and ink is evident in her creative characters. Serena has an eye for humour with an extra dash of quirkiness.

When you trained and worked at Walt Disney Animation Australia you were surrounded by colleagues. Now that you are working as a children’s book illustrator, you more often work alone. How do you find the two environments compare? Do you still share your work with fellow illustrators?

I can’t say I was ‘well prepared’ for the changes that came with working for yourself. I had a slight glimpse of it with a roommate who pursued writing as a career, but it’s not until you are sitting in your studio starring at your inbox or phone that you realize the lack of interaction.

Grabbing a coffee with work colleagues or a simple dash to the kitchen for a cup of tea involves conversation. That I do miss. Disney was a buzz of talent and a mix of personalities (some a little stronger than others!), but I can now see the benefits of working around creative people. You bounce your ideas around, develop your creativity, find inspiration and make some pretty amazing friends.

I am a member with several associations and try to attend meetings or coffee catch-ups with fellow illustrators and authors. At times, I share my work with other illustrators, as more often than not, they will see something you have overlooked. It’s not uncommon to miss the obvious when you have been starring at the same illustration for days.

You illustrate both picture books for younger children and chapter books for young readers. Does your thinking or process differ when you sit down to do one or the other?

Not the thinking necessarily, more so with the process. Sometimes having more text allows me to pick and choose the illustration I feel will enhance the story or develop the character’s personality.

With a picture book, you may have only a couple of sentences to develop one illustration that has to capture it all.

You write that sometimes your illustrations are inspired by conversations with an author. What do you discuss during these conversations? Does your vision ever differ from that of the writer? What happens then?

Not much happens until I have a coffee in hand–number one priority of course! I find talking with the author is a great way to pick up on their characters and story, the mood and emotion, the themes and, overall, the author’s enthusiasm. I find gaining an insight into how they see the characters gives me a base, which I then develop with my own interpretation.

The illustrator’s ideas can differ from an author’s, though the publisher will give the direction of the story so any possible differences tend to get ironed out then.

It’s not overly common that the author and illustrator talk in depth about a manuscript unless the author is after something very specific, but the illustrator brings a different level of imagination and visual imagery to a story that sometimes words alone can’t capture. It’s important to allow the illustrator to tap into their creativity and add their voice to a story.

Looking at your illustrations, I am struck by how expressive and humorous you make the characters with only the simplest lines. What have you done before that final drawing that enables you to express so much so simply?

I think it comes from playing with body poses to enhance an emotion and using the eyes to exaggerate the feeling. I scribble rather loosely which seems to allow a freer feel and movement to the illustrations.

Of the 14 books you have illustrated which is your favorite and why?

I really enjoy the Totally Twins Series (by Aleesah Darlison). Other than being full of humour and dealing with every 11-year-olds deepest fear, I instantly connected with the twins and their personality (having a sister 18 months younger also helped).

I have enjoyed the freedom that has come with the three books. With each book, I seem to get away with a little more.

This just allows me to illustrate the twins in more embarrassing, humorous situations.

In addition to illustrating, you are also available for school visits and workshops. What’s your favorite activity to do with students? What do you hope the kids take away from your time with them? 

My favourite activity is creating a character based on the class’ description. They often come with unflattering features and odd personality traits that the students love seeing come to life in front of them.

I enjoy showing the students that everyone can draw and there is no limit to what you can do. The biggest reward, aside from the buzz I get, is seeing their excitement and enthusiasm showing each other what they just created.

You’ve had a very busy three years since you launched your career. What artistic and career-building advice do you have for illustrators who are just starting out?

Be prepared for obstacles: they come in the form of rejection letters and emails, negative opinions, peoples’ views on the industry and everyone wants to get into the publishing world.

I think it’s important to be aware of peoples’ opinions or experience, especially if it comes from an industry professional, but don’t get overwhelmed by it. If you believe it, you will do it.

I had well over 40 rejections, and they still happen today even with 14 books behind me. But I stayed focus and took on criticism as creative development, went to conferences and joined associations in the industry to meet people (you would be surprised how many publishers are there).

Keep creating. Not only is it good to follow-up with publishers with fresh new work; it also betters your own skills. When I first started out, I would wander the bookshops and libraries picking up books that I felt were similar in style or that I could do, and then contacted the publisher with a sample of my work.

What are you currently working on?

A holiday.

Actually I have the fourth book in the Totally Twins Series to do on my return and a children’s book called ‘Gracie and Josh’ (by Susanne Gervay) about a brother and sister creating a movie that is the celebration of the community of children who live with serious illness.

And lastly, I am working on my first author-illustrated children’s book.

Cynsational Notes

Serena Geddes Gives Us a Tour of Her Creative Space from Sophia Whitfield Children’s Book Publisher.

Liz Steinglass lives and writes in Washington, D.C. Her poems “Which Water?” and “A Book” have appeared in Babybug and Ladybug magazines. She regularly posts original poetry on her blog, Growing Wild.

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.

Here’s one more sketch from Serena…

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