Guest Interview: Uma Krishnaswami & Aimee Sicuro Explore Creative Pathways

By Uma Krishnaswami

Aimee Sicuro’s illustrations for my picture book, Bright Sky, Starry City (Groundwood Books, 2015), blew me away. There were so many elements that just opened up the universe of my story about a girl who loves the sky. When I saw the illustrations, I became convinced that Aimee had read my mind. She’d referenced details that were nowhere in my text but had been part of my thinking. You can find more about this in this interview on The Light of the Road. I’m delighted that Aimee’s here now to tell us about her process, her books, her creative path—and endpapers!

Aimee, your art turned my text for Bright Sky, Starry City into something wider and deeper, suggesting bigger connections, creating layers in the book. Talk to me about your process. How do you go about delving into the pictures to open up a writer’s words in this way?

Uma, it means so much to me that you, the author of Bright Sky, Starry City, enjoyed the artwork as much as I enjoyed making it.

For me, as a picture book illustrator, it’s the manuscript that sparks the imagery. When I receive a manuscript for consideration, I read it several times and think about what it is that I could contribute to the author’s words and if I’m the right person for the project.

Sometimes it’s difficult to decide and I have made mistakes along the way, but for the most part this helped me enjoy the projects that I have the opportunity to work on.

When I received your manuscript, I found the story touching in a couple of ways. The first was the relationship between the father and daughter and their love of the night sky. The second was the issues with light pollution and what we miss in that night sky if we live in an urban environment. Currently, we live in Brooklyn with our two small children, so this really resonates. Lastly, I loved that the main character was female and interested in astronomy.

You’re also a designer of surface patterns, and your collage work plays with the patterns of leaves and feathers and paper folds. What draws you to these recurring images and how do you find this interest in patterns expressed in your book illustration? 

Collage and finding inspiration from nature is something I’ve always been drawn to.

One of my favorite parts of the book making process is creating the endpapers for the book. This is the two pages before the book begins and is usually decorative, color or pattern based. This part of the book feels very free to me and I have so much fun experimenting with the endpapers.

Aimee’s endpapers for Bright Sky Starry City

No one has ever talked to me about endpapers, but I remember as a child being fascinated by the patterns on endpapers. Your endpapers for Bright Sky captured the feeling of playing with chalk on a sidewalk, so they also added thematically to the book. Does it feel meditative, to be entering that additional space? Where does the freedom of a whole extra spread take you? 

After working so closely on a book and being very focused on the text, there is something so freeing and decorative about the endpapers. Meditative is the perfect word to describe it. Bright Sky was my first picture book, and when the art director explained the endpapers to me and the overall freedom I had, it was exciting.

A few books later I realized how much fun it was repeating patterns, so I took an online class to learn how to make a repeat pattern for fabrics or wallpaper. These skills helped me create patterns for future books and sell patterns to fabric companies.

That’s fantastic, that endpapers led you to a whole new way of making art! Let’s talk about your latest book, The Stuff Between the Stars: How Vera Rubin Discovered Most of the Universe (Abrams, 2021). Here, once again, we find the theme of a girl stirred by the night sky, and I did notice some stylistic echoes of the work you did for Bright Sky, Starry City.

The author of The Stuff Between the Stars, Sandra Nickel, has remarked on how beautifully your art engages with her text, amplifying in places, foreshadowing in others. Tell me about the work you did in creating the art for this book. What inspired you? Were there any surprises along the way? What delighted you?  

This book was probably the most heavily researched book I’ve ever worked on. Trying to illustrate dark matter, something that can’t be seen, was daunting and overwhelming at times. I did months of research for this book and read as much as I could about Vera Rubin. The Natural History Museum in New York City had a film by Neil deGrasse Tyson called The Dark Universe at the planetarium that I took my son to see. We both walked out of the film pretty awestruck with more questions than answers.

The thing that really drew me to this manuscript and the subject matter was Vera Rubin herself. She was an incredible force and never gave up despite the many obstacles she faced. She also accomplished so much while raising four children during a time (she was born in 1928) when women in astronomy were rare and not accepted like they are today.

When I accepted this manuscript, my daughter was six months old and Vera became the voice in my head as I struggled to get my work done in the pockets of time that I had which always felt very limited.

What a great example of life and writing intertwining. Aimée, as a writer I’m always trying to understand how artists approach the unique form of the picture book. What, in your estimation, makes for a strong picture book manuscript? What would invite you to create the visuals that will grow a manuscript into a book? What makes such a project irresistible for you? What, in contrast, might trip you up? I guess what I’m also asking is, do you think writers can anticipate and make room for the art to come and if so, how?

It’s hard to describe what it is for me that draws me to a manuscript, and I don’t know if that’s particularly useful for writers. It’s a gut feeling that I get when I read it. It feels new to me and something that I wish was out in the world. Sometimes there is a  flood of imagery inspired by the words on the page that makes me feel like I have to say yes!

What always makes me nervous is if there are a lot of art notes in the manuscript.

So glad to hear that! I try hard to let my picture book text speak for itself, but sometimes I think beginning writers resist that advice. 

Right away I feel boxed in, and I think this is probably not the right project for me. Illustrating a picture book takes many months and to commit that amount of time to something I need to be deeply invested in the text.

What’s funny about this question is that before having kids that consume picture books, my answer to this question of “what makes a strong manuscript” would have been completely different. Having kids is a humbling experience and it’s also made me see books through their eyes. What they are drawn to is the stories that make them laugh, have drama or a compelling climax and imagery that creates a world that they relate to or find exciting to be in. I try to think about this when I consider projects or when I brainstorm my own picture book ideas.

As an illustrator I was always drawn to the beautiful imagery and meaningful, sometimes moving text in children’s books. But a lot of my favorites that I’ve collected over the years don’t resonate with my kids. This was eye opening to me and also very useful.

Children—our own and our readers—certainly keep us honest. What’s next for you?

My first authored picture book with Random House is almost complete and will be out in late summer 2022. It is called If You Find a Leaf and is based on a series of collages with fall leaves that I’ve been exploring for the past four years.

It was a dream to have a personal project become a book, and I can’t wait to see it in print.

Collages! Leaves! That sounds so playful and inviting. Thanks, Aimée! 

Cynsational Notes

Read more about The Stuff Between the Stars: How Vera Rubin Discovered Most of the Universe in Cynsations blog post: Guest Interview: Kate Hosford & Sandra Nickel Discuss The Stuff Between the Stars: How Vera Rubin Discovered Most of the Universe.

Aimee Sicuro knew at an early age she wanted to make things and spent many years trying to figure out how. She is the illustrator of many books and her work has appeared in The New York Times, Parent Magazine and other publications. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and two young children. If You Find a Leaf (Random House Studios) is her authorial debut and will be released fall 2022. Visit her website and find her on Twitter and Instagram at @aimeesicuro.

Uma Krishnaswami was born in India and now lives in British Columbia, Canada. Threads of Peace: How Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Changed the World, was published by Caitlyn Dlouhy Books/Atheneum. Uma teaches in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.