Kristen Balouch is an author and illustrator of award-winning picture books, most notably Mystery Bottle (Hyperion Books for Children, 2006), which won the Ezra Jack Keats Award. In addition to writing and illustrating books for children, she is a fabric designer and gardener.
All of her passions, particularly the outdoors and finding beauty in the small moments of life, are evident in her newest illustrated picture book, If You Are the Dreamer (Cameron Kids, 2021). If You Are the Dreamer is written in call-and-response verse. The book begins with the line:
“If you are the pilot, I am the plane./If you are the gardener, I am the rain.”
From pilot to plane and from gardener to rain, the characters are animals that give the story a cozy aesthetic. Through metaphor, the verses speak to the bond between parent and child and between reader and story. The illustrations are colorful and full of surprises, perfect for a young child just learning to read, where the illustrations will help the child draw inferences between the animals (sometimes named and sometimes not) and the connections between the character on the page and the text.
Kristen’s illustrations are reminiscent of Scandinavian folk art, and as Kristen is a textile designer, it makes sense that her illustrations have the appearance of a rich tapestry of fabric. Kristen, what is your inspiration for your own illustrations, and how would you say they have evolved over the course of your writing and illustrating career?
I’m inspired by so many things—my garden, the woods, weeds growing out of concrete, other children’s books, all kinds of art, but I have a fondness for art made by children or untrained artists, just about any textile, and the touch of materials like stone or wood or wool or cotton. I love folk art and utilitarian art. I find the efficiency of combining art in our everyday objects, the history of documenting the past, and the connectedness of people and families all so beautiful.
As far as the evolution of inspiration in my career….my inspirations have become broader over the years. And the relationship to my inspiration has changed. Early in my career or my school days I was only interested in what looked related to my work. Now I’m delighted and comforted by seeing the beauty that exists in the world. I mean beautiful in the poetic way as well as the aesthetic way.
It is evident that you have a strong connection to the natural world as that appears in your books and illustrations. What is your artistic background and how do you create your illustrations?
I’ve lived all over the United States, but the play-outside time of my childhood was in the Redwoods, along the Russian River, and Goat Rock Beach in California. I was sort of the dreamy type of child and only understood a little of what was going on in the grown-up world. But the outdoors always felt like home.
I always made art as a child (I got very caught up in the macramé frenzy) then in high school through direction from my art teachers (more like guardian angels), I went to art school. I ended up at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Even in the city I spent most of my time outdoors. I sketched in parks, cafes, and on the subways, then came home and worked digitally and created illustrations and fine-tuned color. These days I split my time between Brooklyn and the Adirondacks and do much of my work in a hammock on my porch. I still prefer the outdoors to indoors.
The verses in If You Are the Dreamer are so lovely. Where did the idea for this story come from, and did you have the illustrations before the text, or vice-versa?
Thank you! I like the theme of being a support to a child (my own children) but also allowing lots of room for a child to create independence. One day I thought of relationships (I was gardening). If you are the seed, I am the sun. Or—I could be the earth, water, or rain.
But I went on making couplets for a few months, transposing relationships onto things. It was fun. Nothing I do is neat or tidy. It was a jumble of back and forth, writing and illustrating—paper everywhere. The jumble eventually evolved together into the book.
Every project is a little different, but often I see a visual or hear a line. When it comes to me, I try to get it on paper as soon as possible.
Do you have a favorite illustration and verse from If You Are the Dreamer and what was your inspiration and process behind the creation of this illustration?
I love “If you are the gardener, I am the rain.” The illustration became so pattern-like, collapsing space into a two-dimensional design. When I thought of this illustration I gathered the elements that told the story: the vegetables, the gardener (with an unneeded watering can), and the rain. The birds too are part of a narrative thread through the book. The inchworm is an added detail, like an adjective to the setting. I arranged these items on the page and it became rather pattern-like. Visual storytelling can place elements where you might expect them, vegetables in the ground, in rows perhaps with perspective, but we have all seen what a garden looks like. Isn’t that a little static?
Anyway, I don’t think that is how a kid experiences the garden. They would want to touch it, to see it, to taste it. That’s how I’d want to experience it. What if there is another way to visually have the experience of what it’s like to be in a garden? What if the vegetables are scattered across the page? What does the reader experience? Maybe the reader feels like they just picked the vegetables and perhaps they feel like they could pull a carrot off the page and take a bite? Time and space can collapse in its representation. How does that visual experience feel different than viewing a garden row? Which is more realistic? I have a theory that this type of visual narration is postmodernism in children’s books.
You are an artistic creator beyond making children’s books! Tell us about some of your other projects and how they influence each other.
I’ve designed lots of things, furniture and toys for the Guggenheim Museum, homes, landscapes and gardens, clothes, baby clothes and blankets. I’ve been designing fabric collections for a few years and I am starting a fabric company called Little House Cottons. We will be launching our first collection in Spring 2022, followed by our second collection called If You Are the Dreamer to accompany the book.
I like to look at things and think about how would I make this object? How can this baby blanket be a different experience of a baby blanket? Perhaps the blanket tells a story? How can I bring a narrative to things that haven’t necessarily held a narrative before?
Actually, all things have a narrative once you look for it, but making the narrative more obvious or more children’s book like. For example a baby blanket with an enchanted kingdom scene, a soapstone sink designed to fit a little spot yet keep a big presence, furniture that is narrative, and fabric…. I love fabric. Fabric can tell a story in its print and then again in how the fabric is used.
Little House Cottons is a company my aunt and I are launching together. My job is the designer. I am designing fabric that is versatile in it’s storytelling. So the person that will be using the fabric has more flexibility in creating.
And, do you mind giving us a sneak peek of an illustration from your next auto-biographical picture book arriving this spring called One Million Trees (Margaret Ferguson Books, March 2022)?
Absolutely! When I was ten years old, my parents took me, my sisters, and our dog Wonderdog to Canada for a season to plant trees. We left our school in the middle of the year and went into remote parts of Canada where the logging industry had clear cut forests. The book focuses on one of our camps on the northern part of Vancouver Island.
Designer and author/illustrator Kristen Balouch has created almost a dozen books for children, including Ezra Jack Keats Award winner Mystery Bottle (Hyperion Books for Children, 2006) and the Golden Kite winner The King and the Three Thieves (Viking Children’s Books, 2000). She has collaborated on projects from exclusive designed toys and furniture for the Guggenheim Museum, fabric collections for Birch Fabrics, fine art shows in New York City, and teamed with various licensing partners. She lives in a tiny top-floor apartment in Brooklyn. She likes cooking for friends and family, wandering to scout out good food, gardening, and swimming and kayaking in Lake George.
Clara Hammett holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is from Jackson, Mississippi and is a former bookseller at Lemuria Books. She has reviewed children’s books for The Clarion Ledger newspaper and owned former children’s book review website Twenty by Jenny. She likes creating all forms of art and going for walks with her family. While she has held many jobs, her most recent one is that of mom. Her current reading stack ranges from Jane Austen to Jesmyn Ward and a lot of Sandra Boynton!