By Traci Sorell
Jen Betton is winner of the 2012 SCBWI Illustration Mentorship Award and the Portfolio Grand Prize at NESCBWI in 2014. Last year, Putnam published her debut picture book, Hedgehog Needs A Hug, and she illustrated a 2019 NCTE Notable Poetry Book, Twilight Chant, written by Holly A. Thompson and published by Clarion.
Toronto Public Library named Aidan Cassie’s debut picture book, Sterling, Best Dog Ever (FSG) to its 2018 First and Best List of Canadian books building reading readiness in kids under age five. She has two more books coming out with FS&G with the second book, Little Juniper Makes It Big, arriving this summer.
Jen, I’m so thrilled about your debut year. Tell me what first inspired you to illustrate for young readers?
I’m a total book addict, and I’ve always loved picture books, both as a kid and even when you’re supposed to be too old for them.
I’ve also always loved to draw. So once I figured out you could actually study illustration, that it was a real job you could pursue, children’s book illustration was a natural fit.
I love the marriage of art and storytelling, creating something that is (hopefully) beautiful and fun and tells a great story.
As an author-illustrator, how did your writing journey inform your artistic journey and vice versa?
I started illustrating first, so I think that is part of why I think of the story as separate from the writing. The story exists separate from the way it’s communicated (hence there are lots of wordless books out there!)–it’s the outline, the story arc.
I find I really have to get that part–the core story–figured out before I move on to the words or illustrations. Once the core story line is firm, it’s a matter of figuring out which language (writing or pictures) tells which part of the story best, and going back and forth tinkering with them both.
Since revising drawings can be a very time consuming process, I try to keep those very rough until the manuscript is pretty far along.
I think starting as a visual storyteller has helped me keep the word count low, and definitely helps me thinking about pacing and page turns. Writing has helped me focus a lot more on structure, which I’ve really enjoyed studying more.
What were some of your challenges in bringing the images to life?
One challenge was finding pictures of hedgehog feet! They scurry so low to the ground it can be hard to find good images of what their hind legs look like. Fortunately, my friend and fellow illustrator Reneé Kurilla had a hedgehog named Lemon who helped me out.
Some of the challenges stemmed from the nature of illustrating a book rather than single images or a smaller series that you have in magazines.
It’s surprisingly easy to forget how you painted something– the colors you layered on for the fur, the type of brushstrokes you used. So to keep it consistent, I started a production-line approach where I painted the individual character on each painting all at the same time (for example, I painted all images of the fox one after another, in three different pieces).
One other challenge was learning to sit and think about the painting before starting it. With an individual image, I don’t need to do this as much because I’ve done the research, drawings, color studies all within a few days or weeks prior to the finished piece.
With a book–because you are working on so many images simultaneously- t might be months since I’ve looked at the reference material for an image. I found through this process that sitting with my reference images, drawings, and color studies and really thinking about how I’m going to approach this painting helps me come up with a much better piece. I need to take time to re-absorb what I’ve learned.
And my second daughter was born three months before the deadline, so that was challenging, too!
Wow! I know that was a challenge. Given that, what advice do you have for beginning children’s illustrators?
- Practice, get your work to a professional level, and make sure your portfolio is appropriate for the kind of work you want to do (Does it have kids in it? Does it show a series of images?).
- Read a lot of recently published children’s books! Know your audience and your market.
- Find a community. SCBWI was really invaluable in helping me find a community of friends who were at the same stage in their journey as me. It’s really easy to get discouraged – you need others to encourage you and help you improve!
Aidan, how did your writing journey inform your artistic journey and vice versa?
My writing journey actually started in the visual arts and totally wordless.
I’d always wanted to be an illustrator, but didn’t believe it was really a career option.
After forays into far more “legitimate” degrees (in zoology, and then education) I eventually came back around to illustration by doing a Fine Arts degree in animation.
I loved it. Animating allowed still images to come alive; time and sound could help tell the stories.
My first hand drawn film, Sitting Next to Bernie, was a wordless tale that went to film festivals from Newfoundland to Brazil and yet, after graduation, I couldn’t see myself working in a specialized role on a huge film, nor working at securing endless grants to illustrate and direct my own independent films.
Instead, I became an illustrator and designer of, gulp, knick-knacks. I loved drawing all day (stuff like wee little hedgehog candle-holders and sleepy kitten bookends), and I certainly enjoyed the steady pay check, but I longed to tell more stories.
When my daughter was born I focused on building my illustrator’s portfolio (during nap-times) in the hopes of telling the visual half of other people’s picture books. As I worked I found each new character seemed to grow its own narrative. As their stories emerged, I found myself spending half my time writing.
After a few years of personal projects honing my writing skills and creating rough dummies (book mock-ups), I approached literary agents with my first manuscript and full book dummy instead of applying to art directors.
When I sent out my second story it landed me a great agent, Wendi Gu, who sold it, and two more of my books, over the next year.
Wow! That’s an incredible way into this field. How did you take your art from a beginner level to publishable? How do you see that your style has evolved over time?
At art school, they didn’t teach the craft of drawing or painting; not in a step-by-step-Bob-Ross kind of way. Instead they demanded we read, think and discuss art while creating constantly ourselves. We learned by doing, observing, and exploring. No “How-To” books permitted.
The main tenets of animation (from developing the story arc to endearing character design, and finding impactful key-frames to using expressive body language), all seem to inform my style of storytelling.
The process of animating my six-minute film, with almost 6,000 drawings, gave me plenty of practice. I still create my stories like they’re little movies in my mind, but instead of drawing them as film storyboards, I’m now designing them into 40-page books.
Despite commonalties, the art forms are also dissimilar. I now have to focus more on backgrounds, on color design. Picture books also offer what a film cannot; the way a child can hold and handle the book, the boundary of a world at the page’s edge, the tension created in anticipation of turning that page, or lingering on it, the book’s inherent silence being filled by each reader’s unique voice.
Picture books have their own special magic created in a child’s imagination, and sparked in the spaces between what is said and what is shown.
What were the challenges (artistic, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the images to life?
For me, it is always about walking the fine line between realistic and stylized, between details and gestures. I’m often drawn to the work of artists that are entirely unlike me. I may treasure a cat that’s just a scribble with eyes, or fall for a loose inky line suggesting a sleepy elephant.
I hear the voice of self-doubt imploring me start over as I struggle with wanting more bold, simple, dramatic design. But then I recall how, as a child, my favorite books were highly detailed images that I could pour over. I loved hand-drawn book-worlds that invited me into their reality: intricate cut-away illustrations of gnome homes, action sequences you could follow all over the page, and settings and characters that ignited my own imagination.
Anthropomorphic characters helped create a connection to the animal-world when I was child, and walking talking animals remain my imaginary friends and muses, the best of company in my cozy studio.
What were the most striking ways your life changed after you transitioned to published author?
When my first book, Sterling, Best Dog Ever (FSG, 2018), was accepted by agent Wendi Gu, it was an immense joy, and a relief. She was in love with the character and confident she’d sell it quickly. Her enthusiasm meant I could focus on the dreamy work of making more books.
Within a couple months, it was sold and while awaiting contracts and edits I was able to jump into new creative work without the looming challenge of going back to a day job.
I feel incredibly fortunate to get to work as a storyteller full time. Because my husband and I both work from home it’s also meant our life is more flexible.
We agreed to do a one year exchange with a family in the south of France. I packed up all my supplies and for three months spent long hours drawing the Sterling book illustrations from my sunny little studio looking over lavender and olive trees and listening to cicadas.
Jen Betton loves to draw and make up stories with her pictures.
In Kindergarten, she got into trouble for drawing presents on a picture of Santa, and she has been illustrating ever since.
She wrote and illustrated Hedgehog Needs a Hug, published with Penguin-Putnam, and she illustrated Twilight Chant, written by Holly Thompson, published with Clarion. She has a BA in English, and a BFA and MFA in Illustration. She now lives in Dallas with her family.
You can see more of her work at www.jenbetton.com
Author-illustrator Aidan Cassie grew up on Canada’s west coast.
She studied animation in Vancouver and Edinburgh, and earned her Media Arts degree from the Emily Carr University of Art and Design.
She now lives on a small island in the Salish Sea with her wee family and giant dog. Aidan is now working on the final artwork for her third book with FSG.
To connect or see more of Aidan’s art and book-related activities, check out her website, aidancassie.com.
Traci Sorell covers children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She also covers fiction and nonfiction picture books.
She is the author of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018), a 2019 Sibert Medal Honor and 2019 Orbis Pictus Honor award-winning nonfiction picture book with four starred reviews.
Her forthcoming works include: At the Mountain’s Base illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (Kokila, Sept. 17, 2019); Indian No More, a historical fiction middle grade novel co-authored with the late Charlene Willing McManis (Tu Books, fall 2019); and Powwow Day illustrated by Marlena Miles (Charlesbridge, April 21, 2020).
Traci is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation and lives in northeastern Oklahoma, where her tribe is located. She is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency. Follow Traci on Twitter and Instagram.