Author-Illustrator Interview: Bridget Strevens-Marzo

By P.J. Lyons
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Bridget Strevens-Marzo is an illustrator-author who combines her love of color, painting and play in creating books for younger children.

She is sought out for her talent for inventing visual sub-stories, with warm, lively and original characters such as the little hippo in the award-winning international co-edition, Kiss, Kiss! (Little Hare/Egmont/Simon & Schuster U.S.) and her cast of animals in her French children songs and in Bridget’s Book of Nursery Rhymes.

She is also at home with both story and concept books. Her graphic Big Book for Little Hands (Bayard/Tate Gallery U.K./Abrams U.S.) was shortlisted for the British Book Design Award, and the most recent U.S./U.K. book she illustrated, Mini Racer (Bloomsbury) added another star to a good collection of reviews.

Bridget also enjoys weaving her own stories and playful paths around pictures. She has learnt from working in an international children’s multimedia start-up and later for Bayard Press, that working with a publishing team is like having a party with a purpose. She also enjoys sharing her work with young and old at book events and workshops across the world.

She is represented by Hen & ink Literary. See Bridget’s blog.

What words of advice do you have for emergent illustrators?

Well, I myself feel like I am perpetually emerging! Every book is a new beginning.

Publishing is also as much about relationships as it is about talent or a big new idea…there’s a dose of luck too.

Joining SCBWI can help to demystify the book world and make it more humane, best of all by observing publishing professionals talk at SCBWI events.

People are as readable as books. Those you like the look and feel of, are the ones you can think about approaching later.

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

I wish I had had the courage and sense to start out by approaching the publishers whose books I loved the most. As I needed to earn money urgently, I took on whatever commissions fell into my lap. I put my heart into ephemeral outlets and often with no good art direction.

Good art directors and designers are precious and really help make your work stand out. They can really help launch a career. 

Although parents aren’t supposed to have favorites, do you have a favorite book you’ve worked on? What makes it special?

My favorite book is always the one that is coming to life slowly in my sketches.

I live mostly in the ‘now’. I don’t like looking back at my previous work. Every book is special when I am working on it.

How do you think your unique life experiences (a Catalán mother, a painter father, traveling, living in France then returning to England) have influenced your art?

The very first books I wrote and illustrated, came out of my experience of traveling as a child with my parents, and coming to terms with unfamiliar ‘close up’ things like food, and local currency.

I still love French artists like Bonnard, Vuillard, late Monet and Matisse – I couldn’t talk about how they’ve influenced me but I often go back to them to refresh my eyes from time to time.

Before I could read or write, as a small child I had a little easel in my father’s studio. I’d paint away quietly in a corner or look at his old books. He never taught me directly – but I learnt concentration and I often watched him paint. It must have helped me gain a facility at drawing.

In my early teens at school, my art teacher told everyone that yes, Bridget could draw very realistically but that wasn’t “art”. She made me feel that I had to start over, if not stop altogether.

After that, I spent years studying art history, translating art books and doing all kinds of jobs until a friend suggested I try earning a living from what I really loved doing. Back to the drawing board!

I moved to London last summer, and it’s now an incredibly stimulating international city. It’s rinsing my eyes and making me want to try out new things in my work.

Cycling through the city reminds me of my father who worked from the age of 14, as a poorly-paid messenger boy there. To work as an artist must have seemed like an impossible dream for the eldest of a large family with very modest means. However did he manage it? Another story to tell…

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m working on a French commission – illustrations to a story about a little wolf decides to be vegetarian.

Since I’ve started working in a shared studio, I’m sketching a lot more ideas out and writing again too.

Getting stories and sketches ready to show publishers is a much longer process than illustrating other people’s stories.

In 2003, you had posters from Popi magazine, small dummies of concept books ideas, and drawings by and photos of your children on your wall. What’s on your walls these days? 

A fine giclée print that looks like an original gouache painting, of a runaway alligator by Tibor Gergely, the wonderful Golden Books artist, sketches of my new characters, and behind my computer screen, a map of London.

What current trends have you noticed in children’s illustration?

One trend is the reprinting of books from over 40 years ago – John
Burningham and more Golden Books for example.I love them – just hope
it’s not taking up space for new talent.

I’ve seen a
smattering of 1960s and 1970s ‘avocado’ greens and ochre wallpaper
design elements in picture books – U.K. ones at least – for no real
reason than to appeal to a vintage trend.

However it is really exciting to see more illustrated older fiction for children – and there is every reason for books to be getting more beautiful as objects. They make a nice complement to e-books.

In the work I like best, I’m finding an exciting combination of the very best of traditional and digital media – more vibrant color, looser, more inventive drawing, greater invention.

The joyous surge of bold color alongside interesting drawing patterns and expressive shapes that I first noticed on a big scale in the French Children’s Book Fair in late 2008 was still visible in some of this year’s Bologna illustrator exhibitors – fingers crossed this continues!

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

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