August 30, 2016

Let's Talk Illustrators #3: Brendan Wenzel

Happy book birthday to Brendan Wenzel's (can you believe it) author debut They All Saw a Cat! I am so beyond excited to share my interview with Brendan on how this incredible story came about. This is a book that ended up in an eight-publisher auction before the manuscript was even complete, a book that everyone believes is a shoe-in for the Caldecott. And from what I can see, every moment of that attention is well-deserved!

It's better to go into They All Saw a Cat without knowing too much, but here's the book trailer (which is too cute not to show) and a very, very brief book description that I pulled directly from the publisher:

About the book:
In this glorious celebration of observation, curiosity, and imagination, Brendan Wenzel shows us the many lives of one cat, and how perspective shapes what we see. When you see a cat, what do you see?

So let's talk Brendan Wenzel and (my favorite topic ever) cats!

LTPB: Thanks so much for stopping by!

BW: Thanks for having me, Mel! I’m grateful for the chance to chat about the book.

LTPB: My first question is about the basic premise of the book: perspective. We get to see this cat from so many points of view. I know the idea came from your time in Nepal, so what can you tell us about how the book came together? How did the idea to explore perspective come to you? And why did you choose to focus on a cat?

BW: They All Saw A Cat took shape during a time period when I was processing many fantastic and expanding experiences from several years spent living abroad off and on, both in Nepal and Vietnam. A ton happened during our time out of the U.S, so countless encounters and odd ideas found their ways into the book. A few experiences however were particularly pertinent. In Vietnam, the privilege of catching glimpses of the world through a lens so different than the one I grew up looking through shifted my perspective in drastic and wonderful ways. This opportunity revealed unexpected aspects of even the most familiar objects and interactions and set my mind racing.

Another hugely informative experience has been working with young artists, both in the U.S. and abroad. Kids who I have gotten to know will have no doubt heard me emphatically repeat my favorite mantra “There are no bad drawings.” It is really true. Every sketch of a subject reveals something new and exciting, that can only be tapped into by that individual. Seeing the variety of images that emerge from any art class, is a reminder of the numerous wonderful things a single bullfrog or even a vase, can mean to a group. This is a huge part of the book.

All this and a lot more was sitting in a big tangle when I started to work out They All Saw A Cat. I feel really fortunate that mess eventually ended up taking the shape of a picture book, as the form helped me explore thoughts and feelings I think I would have otherwise struggled to communicate. As so much of the concept hinged on re-imagining a commonplace cat -- a creature both familiar, and yet in my opinion, a bit mysterious -- seemed like the perfect subject.

LTPB: How has your process for creating They All Saw a Cat -- a book you illustrate and author -- been different than your illustration process for other books?

BW: Working on They All Saw A Cat has been different in many ways. Reconnecting with the thought behind the book and the process of creating it, I have realized how much I was not only doing my best to explore an idea, but also trying to capture a specific feeling I kept having. The ideas for the images and the text, the larger pieces, actually came pretty quickly, once I zeroed in on the basic structure, but as I moved forward the challenge was hanging onto that feeling and communicating it. It's kind of tough to explain, which was a reason I felt lucky I could explore the concept with a picture book. I hope it comes across to the reader.

LTPB: It definitely does! So what is it like to illustrate someone else's words?

BW: When an author trusts me with their manuscript it is clearly a great honor, but it's also a responsibility that I take very seriously. Engaging with a text always feels like an opportunity to really grasp a slice of someone's experience and get a glimpse of how they see the world. Reaching that place where I feel like I understand a manuscript, and then figuring out an approach that authentically integrates and honors what it means to both the author and myself is an expanding but, at times, challenging process.

LTPB: I want to make sure we talk about the “The cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, ears, and paws” pages. They almost serve as chapter markers and visual introductions to the perspectives that will be introduced. How did you tailor these pages to represent forthcoming pages? What it a conscious decision to “divide” up the book this way?

BW: This is one of those questions that I am hesitant to answer too specifically. Some of the most interesting questions the book raised for me personally really took shape on those spreads, and I want to make sure I give the reader lots of room to play and see things in their own way. As far as breaking up the book, I did really like repeatedly returning to “whiskers, ears and paws." As both tools a cat could use to perceive its world and components an observer might use to describe the animal in the most basic language, they felt important to check back in with. I really like that you refer to them as markers, and absolutely agree that they work in this way. It would have been a much different book without those pages.

LTPB: You use so many different media in this book, which is amazing! Were any of them new to you? How did you work to keep the cat looking and feeling consistent among so many illustration types?

BW: Thanks! I had experimented with most of the materials that appear in the book before, but I certainly had not attempted to hold a composition together with them. Using new materials is always great, however, as it encourages me to play and adds a spontaneity to the images I sometime miss if I get too comfy with my process.

In regards to consistency, I actually tried to push the illustrations as far from each other as I could and hoped that feeling I mentioned before would create a thread that would hold things together. In my wildest dreams I would have just engaged the grueling contractual process of hiring a freelance bee or a skunk to handle their own perspective, and taken myself out of the mix completely. I know that sounds silly -- and it is -- but the general sentiment is honest. My fall-back was doing my best to adopt the character and thought process of each creature, and then setting out to create a piece of artwork from their perspective. Once in character, certain materials just felt right.

LTPB: What’s next for you?

BW: I just finished up final art for the book Life by Cynthia Rylant, a beautiful text I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to create images for. After I finish up here, I’ll be diving back into work on my second project with Chronicle, which although I’m not ready to say a whole lot about, will involve a large cast of creatures from around the world. I’m really excited about it!

LTPB: Your answer to who you'd want to illustrate your picture book biography is maybe the best answer I've heard so far! So for our readers, who would it be?

: It would definitely be my Dad! Quick backstory, my father is the illustrator David T. Wenzel, probably best known for his graphic novel adaptation of the Hobbit, but funnily enough he has also worked on a number of picture books. Although Dad is best known for his watercolor work, he has this really loose playful, style he only uses when creating these hilarious (and very time consuming) hand-made cards, for birthdays and special occasions. Every portrait of me he’s ever scratched-out cracks me up for a good twenty minutes, and I can think of no one better to share an honest perspective on yours truly than Mr. Wenzel.

I can't thank Brendan enough for stopping by to share this magical book with us! They All Saw a Cat publishes (today!) August 30, 2016 from Chronicle Books! Get it immediately--it's an instant classic and a beautiful exploration of perspective!

Special thanks to Chronicle Books for use of these images!

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