Native Voice: Natasha Donovan Talks About Her Artistic Journey

By: AJ Eversole

I am happy to welcome Natasha Donovan to the blog today! Natasha is the illustrator of children’s books such as Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer by Traci Sorell (Lerner, 2021) and the forthcoming A River’s Gifts: The Might Elwha River Reborn by Patricia Newman (Lerner, 2022) as well as the graphic novel Borders by Thomas King (HarperCollins/Little Brown, 2021). Natasha reflects on the reality of being an artist with the lessons and joys she has gained along the way.

When and where do you work? Why does that time and space work for you?

My workspace has been in a state of constant flux ever since I began my career in illustration. I live on the West Coast with a partner and a dog, and for a couple of years now I have been responsible for supporting us financially, so my shifting work environment has been a reflection of the challenging housing climate in this area. But I have gotten pretty used to adapting. I’ve worked from co-working spaces, cafes, couches, beds, and in my car when necessary. The essentials for this mobile workspace are my iPad (for drawing in Procreate), headphones, and a vast catalogue of podcasts.

It’s not ideal, but it’s the reality for a lot of artists in this area. My partner and I are currently experiencing the immense privilege of being able to stay with my family in the Gulf Islands for a few months and for the first time, I have access to my own studio space (one that doesn’t have a bed in it!). It’s giving me all sorts of hopes and dreams.

I work as early in the morning as I can possibly bear to wake up – five a.m., if I can manage. I love being awake before anyone else. I love getting a good chunk of work done before anyone starts emailing me and my anxiety wakes up. And these days while we’re staying on this island, early rising means taking a sunrise walk on the beach with Luna-Dog (I do a lot of nature illustration for nonfiction picture books, so this doubles as a “research” trip). My head is clearest in these hours when the world is quiet.

Natasha Donovan’s Coworker


Could you tell us about your new release?

The most recent graphic novel I worked on is called Borders. It’s an adaptation of the short story of the same name, written by the prolific author Thomas King. The short story was actually published about thirty years ago, and Mr. King gave the editor (Suzanne Sutherland) and I a (slightly terrifying) amount of creative freedom when it came to the adaptation process. The story itself is about a young boy and his mother crossing the Canada/U.S. border to visit the boy’s sister.

When his mother insists that her citizenship is “Blackfoot” rather than “American” or “Canadian”, she initiates a standoff that lasts for days. It’s poignant and funny, and it’s a story that I’ve loved for decades, so it was a huge honor to work on it. I don’t want to give too much away, because the plot itself is fairly simple, but I personally think that everyone has something to gain from this meditation on nationality and identity and family.

Working on the adapting process was a new challenge for me. I’m used to projects that come with a finished script attached, and sometimes even have questions about imagery and palette already decided. For this book, I was responsible for creating a graphic novel script, which meant making decisions about what would happen on each page, how many panels there would be, how the dialogue would flow, etc. I got to develop new artistic skills, and also got to be present for more of the book publishing process, which I love learning more about.

This book was the most time-consuming thing I’ve ever worked on. It was absolutely a dream project…and I’m also so completely relieved that I’ve finished it. I had stress dreams for months afterwards in which I would get emails about having forgotten to draw a page for Borders.

What appeals to you about working on children’s projects? What are the craft challenges of writing for this age group?

My neurodivergent, autistic brain tends to find it much easier to relate to children than to grown-ups. They say what they mean, they have wild and imaginative inner lives that they don’t attempt to suppress in any way, they’re shockingly observant, and they say weird things with utter abandon. I think we grown-ups have a lot to learn from them, and I think the world would be a better and kinder place for everyone if we took children more seriously.

So, I love being a part of making books for them because it feels like they deserve everything, and this is what I have to offer.

When I was a kid, I struggled, as many do, with feeling constantly out of place – books helped: they made mundane things magical, they made painful things bearable, and they made obscure things knowable and fascinating. Everyone deserves to have access to books that speak to their particular loneliness and joys.

The challenge of creating art for young people, I think, is just trying to fully leave the world of, say, self-employment taxes and health insurance behind, and return to that place of wonder and fear and curiosity and all the big emotions that come with wandering around in this world for the first time. It’s a constant effort, but even just attempting that challenge is rewarding in and of itself.

Natasha Donovan Mock-Up Example


Natasha Donovan Final Sketch Example

If you could tell your younger illustrator-self anything, what would it be?

I say something similar to this in almost every interview/talk: Stop being afraid of making bad art! In fact, get comfortable with the idea that bad art is a required stop along the route to better art. I spent a very long time paralyzed by the irrational conviction that I had to be good enough before I made anything. I stared at a lot of other artists’ work — which is important, and which I still do — but I told myself that these geniuses must just put pen to paper and immediately generate masterpieces. Not so.

In part I started the long process of unlearning this belief through doing thumbnails for graphic novels. Thumbnails are the first step in the creation of a graphic novel, and in a way, they’re intentionally “bad”. They give a sense of where the images will be located in the panel, but there’s not much detail; often people are basically drawn as glorified stick figures at this stage. In addition to giving the editor and the writer a glimpse of how the written work will translate visually, this stage plays a very important role for the artist: it forces us away from staring, terrified, at the blank page.

It’s a lesson I’m still learning all the time, but every rough draft is worse than the last one I drew, so I’m making great progress.

Tell us about the individuals who encouraged your art early on.

I didn’t go to art school or receive any formal post-secondary art training, but sometimes I feel like I got something just as good: a high school art teacher who treated her students like they were already professional artists. Mrs. Barbara Sunday had this perfect blend of encouragement and dry wit, and her classroom was where I felt safest to openly express myself. Most of high school is a blur now, but I think because my anxiety left me while I was in that room, I can recall the details of those classes with clarity.

In the higher grades, I think a lot of the students who remain in high school art classes are going through this agonizing process of starting to wonder how or whether this practice that they’re so attached to will stay with them in the “real world”. I think Mrs. Sunday must have known that, and she addressed that turmoil in each of us with real grace and respect.

Cynsational Notes:

Natasha Donovan is an illustrator with a focus on comics and children’s books. She grew up in Vancouver, Canada, and is currently splitting her time between Washington State and British Columbia, Canada. Her short comic work has appeared in The Other Side Anthology (2016), edited by Melanie Gillman and Kori Handwerker, and This Place Anthology (2018), published by Portage & Main. She illustrates the award-winning children’s book series The Mothers of Xsan (written by Brett Huson and published by Portage & Main). She is also the illustrator of the picture book biography Classified, by Traci Sorell (Lerner, 2021). Her most recent graphic novel project was Borders, written by Thomas King (Harper Collins/Little Brown, 2021). She did the art for the upcoming picture book A River’s Gifts (Lerner), which was written by Patricia Newman and will be released in 2022.

AJ Eversole covers children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She grew up in rural Oklahoma, a place removed from city life and full of opportunities to nurture the imagination. She is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and writes primarily young adult fiction. She currently resides in Fort Worth, Texas with her husband. Follow her on Instagram @ajeversole or Twitter @amjoyeversole