Illustrators. To me, very much a writer, they are magical. They take the visions in our heads and make them real.
Or, they take the visions in our heads and say, “Well, those visions are pretty cool, but check this out.”
And, Surprise! They bring a book’s words to life in a way you never would have imagined. I’m in awe.
When Cynsations asked me to interview Ellen Rooney, the illustrator of our upcoming book Dusk Explorers (Page Street Kids, June 2020), I couldn’t wait to ask Ellen all the questions. But I had to limit myself. I mean, she has other work to do and deadlines!
A little bit about Ellen before we dive in.
Ellen is an illustrator, designer, and artist from Massachusetts, who now lives in the southern Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. She is the illustrator of Her Fearless Run: Kathrine Switzer’s Historic Boston Marathon by Kim Chaffee (Page Street Kids).
- Sounds All Around: The Science Of How Sound Works by Susan Hughes (Kids Can Press/Spring 2021);
- Lights Day And Night: The Science Of How Light Works by Susan Hughes (Kids Can Press/Fall 2021);
- and Heart Of The Storm (Sasquatch Books/Little Bigfoot/Spring 2022) by Sharon Mentyka about basketball great Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm.
Now, let’s go straight to the questions, Ellen. How did you find yourself in the world of children’s book illustrations? Did you doodle and draw as a child?
Second part first: Yes! I loved to draw as a child. There have been periods of my life where I didn’t have much time for drawing, but I always missed it and circled back to it.
As a kid, I also loved picture books. We lived just down the street from our town library, and the children’s section had its own separate floor downstairs. I spent a lot of time down there and loved poring over the books and searching the spines on the shelves for my favourite ones.
I also loved to draw, and used to make my own books (just paper and pencil) and write “Written and illustrated by Ellen Rooney” on the front covers. So all the elements were there from an early age, but it took me away into my adult life to really focus on the goal and learn what I needed to learn to start illustrating books.
Maybe it was because I loved picture books so much when I was little, but the idea of actually illustrating books for Real seemed like such an untouchable goal. I guess I thought the people who did that were like a magical species of elves or something, not regular people.
LL: I can totally relate to that. Instead of elves, which sounds pretty darn cool, I saw authors as untouchable, unreal people who lived in glamorous towers in New York City and toiled away in their writing rooms surrounded by bookshelf after bookshelf of leather-bound books creating the stories I wanted to read. Or they lived in cozy cottages in England in the middle of a meadow surrounded by farm animals and rainbows. As we both know, these images are pure imagination.
So with this inspiration from your childhood, how did you take your art from a beginner level to publishable? How has your style evolved over time?
The work I do now is built on a lot of things I’ve done over many years. I studied drawing and painting and did some printmaking. I studied Graphic Design and worked as a designer for a lot of years (still do). When I moved to Canada with my husband in the mid-2000s, I left my full-time job and spent a few years working freelance or on short-term contracts. That was one of those times I circled back to making art and drawing again. I started experimenting with techniques and materials. That was probably when my textural, mixed-media collage style started to evolve.
I wasn’t yet focused on illustration, though I was doing the occasional magazine illustration. Picture books still seemed out of reach.
About five years ago I took the first of a series of online classes that really put me on a new path. When the same instructor came out with a class specifically on illustrating children’s books, I was all over it. I took that class twice, and that was the turning point. It helped me to see picture book illustration differently and to understand a set of tools that I could use. Things like developing a character, portraying expressions and emotions and actions, creating moods and building up a detailed scene. It was like getting the keys to the kingdom.
Once I had made a series of portfolio pieces that showed picture-book work specifically, things started to happen. That was when Kristen Nobles from this new little kids’ book imprint called Page Street Kids contacted me to illustrate Her Fearless Run by Kim Chaffee.
LL: I can’t speak more highly of Her Fearless Run. You can feel the emotions of that event and what Kathrine Switzer experienced. So well done — art and text. Congratulations!
With that project finished, what convinced you that Dusk Explorers was the next picture book you just had to illustrate?
Thank you. I thank my lucky stars that I got connected with Her Fearless Run as my first project. Kim’s text is brilliant. Kathrine herself is inspirational. And the message of being fearless and reaching a goal one step at a time was exactly what I needed to carry me through my first picture-book project. It is a kind of marathon.
Anyway, after I had finished the artwork for Her Fearless Run, Kristen sent me your manuscript for Dusk Explorers. I was immediately drawn to it because I lived this kind of childhood.
I really treasure that I grew up having outdoor adventures and being in a world of kids. I have great memories of playing with my siblings and cousins outside. I loved the poetry of this text too. It was a total contrast to the first book I illustrated, which was a biography. That book required tons of research and the artwork had to have a certain accuracy. With this text, the possibilities were much more open.
LL: I have to say that is why I love creating fictional picture books. The endless possibilities entice me.
What challenges did you face when bringing the images to life in Dusk Explorers?
When I started working on the book, I didn’t exactly expect it to be easy, but I thought it would be easier compared to the biography. But I’m not sure if it was easier in the end!
You know this of course, but it might surprise some people that you and I didn’t communicate directly during the development of the illustrations. This is pretty typical: The publisher generally manages the process, with input from the author on one side and the illustrator on the other, and that was the case with Dusk Explorers.
The manuscript was so open-ended that it could have been illustrated any number of ways. For example, each “scene” in the text–like the tree-climbers or the hide-and-seek players–could have taken place in a completely different setting with a different group of kids. For that matter, the kids could have been animal characters or something else I haven’t even thought of.
So it was wide open, but that meant there was a lot more collaboration and work to hammer out the visual storyline of the book. For example, the folks at Page Street knew they wanted a gang of diverse characters that we would follow throughout the book, so I had to figure out how that would work.
One of the challenges for me was to tell some kind of visual story within this very open text structure. There was a lot of back-and-forth about it (and I only know my end of that–I’d love to hear how it worked for you).
Would everything take place within one summer evening? Or would we have a montage of memories that could be from a whole summer’s worth of evenings?
I can be overly analytical sometimes, so I got very caught up in figuring out how it would work logically, almost like planning scenes in a film. I had charts of who the kids were supposed to be and how they were related to each other, which scene they would appear in… at one point I had a map drawn out of the whole neighborhood. There were actually quite a lot of scenes that ended up on the proverbial cutting-room floor with this book.
LL: I remember one of those scenes! And it’s hard to make those cuts. I can tell you that in my mind I saw two distinct approaches. One was similar to how you approached it: a specific group of neighborhood kids in one summer evening. The other approach was going from neighborhood group to neighborhood group across different locations—some rural, some urban, etc.—to show the depth and breadth of the idea of dusk explorers.
But in the end, I became very connected with the approach you created. The continuity of the children along with the fading of the sun in that one summer evening is powerful.
You nailed it with your visual storyline.
It is funny to hear you talk about the different approaches now, because I really liked that alternative idea too. Part of me wishes we had run away together and done that other version of the book, taking the scenes from place to place and finding all the great settings for each different activity. We could have traveled through time and space!
But I’m glad I had the chance to follow through on the challenge of telling a parallel story in pictures alongside your text. I hope it connects with people. And I hope it leaves room for readers to invent their own stories about who these characters might be.
When I wrote this story, I pulled on my childhood memories big time. Did you do so as well to bring art to life in this book? What sights, smells, sounds do you recall as a dusk explorer?
I definitely pulled from childhood memories. I also had the good luck to get the assignment for this book in the spring, so I also spent the following summer observing and sketching in my own present-day neighbourhood in British Columbia. A lot of the houses, gardens, fences, etc. are drawn from those observations.
From childhood, I have vivid memories of firefly-catching and playing outdoor games with my family. But I think I remember feelings more than smells and sounds.
Mostly, I remember the excitement of being outdoors when the sun was setting and the light fading. I made reference to this in my dedication, but I was the youngest of six siblings and a couple of dozen cousins that used to play together in different configurations.
Maybe that made it extra magical for me, because I was younger than most when I experienced that outdoor adult-free world. I would have been scared in the dark alone, probably, but being with the other kids made it exhilarating.
I remember grass under bare feet, the warmth of the summer air. Smells: cut grass, pavement giving off the day’s heat, and charcoal grills. A less pleasant smell would probably be “Off” mosquito repellent–at the time a must!
The sounds I remember would be peepers in the wetlands behind our neighbourhood, and mostly the sounds of the other kids: shouts, laughs, whistles, and that hooting sound you can make when you clasp your hands and blow through the hole between your thumbs.
Can you make that sound? I never could do it that well. I was the youngest and always trying to catch up with the big kids.
LL: Interesting, we would clasp our hands, put a chunky blade of grass between our thumbs and blow through the hole, which would produce this shrill whistling sound. I, too, was one of the younger ones, but not the youngest.
I dedicated this book to my sister, who I looked up to (and still do). I often followed her lead, but then I did go rogue here and there. I would catch toads when I was dusk exploring and often tried to make them tinkle on her. Oh, little sisters.
Oh, that’s hilarious. I wish I’d known that trick.
Shifting gears a bit, did your process with this book differ from the others you have worked on?
As I do more books, I’m learning that there are a couple of ways to think about the “process.” The first process you go through involves making small sketches and planning the flow of the book and what words and visuals will be on each page and spread of the book.
The sketches are reviewed by the publisher and the author and revised until we come up with a good flow.
That part of the process is broadly the same for each book, but each book has different needs and that makes the process different.
Like I said before, for this book there was a lot of collaboration to hammer out the visual narrative.
The other “process” is the technique I use to create the final artwork. That part of the process is totally up to me. So far, my technique has varied a bit with each book.
My way of making art involved combining things, so I can vary the specific materials and the kinds of marks I make. For example, with this book, I used a lot of gouache paint and colored pencil on top of dark papers, to help create the mood of evening.
Whatever set of materials I use, I repeat them throughout the book so it forms a consistent whole. The artwork is created using hands-on techniques like painting on different papers and cutting and gluing, but I also scan these things in and create the final art digitally. I have a goal of one day doing an entire book only with traditional methods, but so far I still need the digital tools too.
LL: What you have created is so colorful and textured, it invites the reader to jump into the page and join in on the adventure.
Now, let’s talk about the publishing side of things. What came first: the contract or the agent, and can you tell us more about that story?
Well, since I don’t have an agent: the contract! This is my second book with Page Street Kids. They approached me after I completed work on the first book. I’m working with four different publishers now, but I still don’t have an agent.
I really was just incredibly lucky that Kristen Nobles found my portfolio online and liked my work. It really goes back to that body of work that came out of some months of really focusing on a portfolio for picture book illustration.
LL: Goes to show there is not one way to approach this business.
Yes, I think so. It may be easier for illustrators to get hired without an agent. The publisher is often searching for the right mood or style to fit with a certain text. Certainly, at Page Street, they develop a vision, and they look for an illustrator who can create that. So there’s some luck involved in being that right fit at the right time.
What piece of advice would you give a beginning children’s illustrator and what piece of advice would you tell them to ignore?
There are a couple of kinds of advice you might get as you try to figure out your path to becoming an illustrator.
One kind is the marketing and network part: how to get your name out there, how to master social media, build your “brand,” send your work out, etc.
At some point that advice will come in handy, but first things first: You need to make work.
Ignore all the marketing advice until you have some solid pieces for your portfolio. Until then, you have to make picture-book art. Learn the trade.
If children’s books are your goal, work on characters showing emotions, and scenes that have mood and atmosphere. If you can create characters and scenes that have mood and emotion, you are on your way. If that seems overwhelming, build up to it bit by bit. But push yourself to achieve that. In doing so, you are also building up your endurance, and this is kind of an endurance sport.
Lastly a Fun Question: If you had to pick a color palette that describes you, what would it be?
Fun question? This is a hard question for an overly-analytical artist! I feel like if I pick a palette I’ll be offending all my other favourite palettes. But I seem to be drawn toward magenta-purples and blue-greens lately, so I’ll go with that. And I just noticed that basically describes the cover of Dusk Explorers, so I guess that’s a fitting way to conclude!
Thanks Lindsay! I really enjoyed your questions.
LL: I’m so glad I could torture you a bit with that last one (insert maniacal laughter). I also think you just described my color palette. I’m a big fan.
Thanks for hanging out with me today, Ellen. I’m ready to have our book baby meet its readers. In the meantime, I’ll be waving to you from my front yard in Austin, Texas! The porch light is on.
She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, two boys, two fur-beasts, a guinea pig, and a tortoise.
See also her Cynsations interview on Twitter-Pitching Manuscripts.
Dusk Explorers releases on June 2 with Page Street Kids. Kirkus Reviews gave the book a starred review saying, “This awesome, visually rich story will captivate adults who once played outside until the street lights came on as well as their kids, who will now want to.”