October 31, 2016

Let's Talk Illustrators #7: Deborah Freedman

I've made no secret about how much I love Deborah Freedman's latest picture book Shy. In fact, I might be a little TOO excited about it: I've talked about it here on Let's Talk Picture Books, as well as on Instagram, Twitter, and everywhere else people will let me stand on a soap box and rave about it. 

And now I get to share her process with you!!

About the book:
Shy loves birds. He loves to read about how they fly and sing, but he's never gotten to see one in real life. Until one day, a bird flies right by! There’s just one problem: Shy is, well, shy—so shy, in fact, that he’s afraid to leave the gutter of the book. Can Shy overcome his fears and venture out onto the page? 

Don't be shy--join us as we talk Deborah Freedman!

LTPB: I cannot tell you how excited I am to have you here, Deborah! You know how much I love Shy!

DF: Thank you, Mel, for not being shy, and for inviting me to your blog! I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate your insightful response to Shy

LTPB: I've made a lot of my own noise about this book, especially because it explores the physical structure of a picture book, namely the gutter. How did the idea for this book come about?

You may not be surprised to hear that I tend to obsess about books as objects. Way back in another life when I briefly was an architect, I used to think a lot about site and context when I began to design a building. Now, when I design a story, I still have that habit of starting with the “site”, only now my setting is the physical book. I like to think about its structure and different parts, like the jacket, the case cover beneath, endpapers, and pages that meet in and turn from the gutter.
Thumbnail sketch from 1st page of 1st draft: “Shy was happiest between the pages of a book.”

The Gutter — my mind had been in it for years. The gutter actually had a large role in early versions of The Story of Fish & Snail, only that bit of fun wasn’t working and had to be edited out. I had trouble letting go but finally managed to file the idea away, telling myself that I could play with the gutter in another book someday. My agent Stephen Barr reassured me that I could, and a few years later we were chatting about it when he said: what if a character came out of the gutter? That "what-if" sat around for a long time until it popped into my head again one day, along with more questions, like: WHO was this character coming out of the gutter? WHY was he in there in the first place? Was he hiding? Was he afraid? Or was he — perhaps — shy??

LTPB: I love talking to author-illustrators specifically because they get to oversee the creation of the whole book, and in your case you’ve written and illustrated all of your published books so far. What benefits have you found to writing AND illustrating your books? How have your previous books informed Shy?

DF: I love writing stories with both words and pictures, choreographing the little cha-cha they do together in a picture book. It’s hard for me to separate the two, so I’ve always felt lucky and tremendously grateful that publishers have trusted me with doing both, beginning with Scribble.

I really plunged in head-first with that first book and haven't stopped flailing around since, never stopped feeling like a beginner, even though I’ve learned a ton about storytelling from each book and its publishing team, and especially from Kendra Levin, my indefatigable editor of three (going on four) books at Viking. Shy is my fifth book, but it’s my first “quiet” one, which is odd really, because I consider myself a contented introvert and certainly was a very quiet child. It could be that the process and practice of writing my more lively books allowed me to find this other voice; maybe the experience of channeling Fish and Frog gave me the confidence to try a book like Shy

LTPB: Why was it so important to you that readers not meet Shy until the end of the book? How did you work to maintain a consistent visual narrative without allowing readers to see your protagonist?

DF: At first it just seemed like a cool game to play with myself, to see if I could pull off a picture book without revealing the main character. And then it was fun making the book part mystery, adding that “who is Shy?” layer to the story. But more seriously, I simply would like readers to truly understand Shy and what is in his heart before they see him. Hopefully, they will be able to empathize with him without knowing what he looks like. And if Shy’s identity is a total surprise to readers once they finally do meet him — well, without giving anything specific away, I did want to challenge readers’ assumptions. I would love to leave them with something to think about after they tuck Shy safely back between the covers of his book.

Late sketch, including animals that didn’t make it into the final book.

But how to keep readers turning those pages, when the character is hiding? Creating enough tension was challenging! Kendra and I realized early on that Shy could not stay in the gutter for too long or the story would stall, so we pushed Shy out and sent him on a journey. At first the reader sees only footsteps, and then he is hidden in plain sight among other animals, all of them moving toward something. Shy is also moving through a day and into night, which allowed me to play even more than I usually do with my palette, to design a color arc that would enhance the story arc. I wanted to see how much of Shy’s emotional journey I could tell with color, and hopefully, readers will respond to it at some gut level.

Screen catch of thumbnails of final art, made for checking color progression
LTPB: What medium do you use for your illustrations and why? How does your process evolve as you take on a new project? 

DF: To me, illustration’s most important job is to serve a story; its visual tone must complement the tone of the narrative. Since each of my books has been different, each has required a different approach. Which, to be honest, is partly decided and limited by whatever my abilities at the moment are, since I didn’t go to art school and basically have no idea what I’m doing! But I do experiment a lot and since Blue Chicken have enjoyed playing around with watercolor — seeing how far I can push it, what affects I can get from it — mixing it with pencil and sometimes also pan pastel, colored pencil, and gouache. In the case of Shy, I was glad to finally have a story that allowed me to do a kind of quiet and dreamy art I’d wanted to do for a long time.

Final Art for jacket

LTPB: What’s coming up next for you?

DF: This House, Once will be published in February by Atheneum. It’s a meditation on a house and where the different parts of it came from — a bit different from my other published books, but one that had been lurking inside me for a long time.

LTPB: If you could have one illustrator (other than yourself!) illustrate your picture book biography, who would it be and why? 

DF: Hahaha, what a ridiculous thing to contemplate…

Of course this question makes me immediately start thinking of all the illustrators who have inspired me over the years… but that list is so long and keeps growing and growing and choosing just one would seem terribly random and wrong. So I think I’ll just go back to my first treasured book, A Hole Is to Dig. Because Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak take the thoughts and feelings of children entirely seriously and, at the same time, make me smile. And that best expresses my aspirations!

Can't get enough Shy?? Neither can I! Shy published from Viking Books in September, so step out of the gutter and go get yourself a copy today! A special thanks to Deborah for being so enthusiastic about my enthusiasm for one of the year's best picture books!

Deborah Freedman was shy as a child. Now she is the sometimes shy, sometimes brave author and illustrator of several books for children. She lives in a quiet house in Connecticut, where she happily reads and draws and listens to birds sing. You can learn more about Deborah at www.deborahfreedman.net.

Special thanks to Deborah for use of these images!

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