November 29, 2016

Let's Talk Illustrators #9: Francesca Sanna

If you're an avid picture book reader, there's little chance at this point that you haven't come into contact with Francesca Sanna's The Journey. In the few short months that the book been out, it has been translated into several different languages, it has won the gold medal of the Society of Illustrators (US) and the Premi Llibreter (Spain), and the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has written Francesca a personalized letter thanking her for her attention to such a difficult subject.

And there's a very good reason for all of it.

The story we read about in The Journey is universal and timely, and it was an absolute honor to sit down with Francesca to pick her brain about one of this year's most important picture books.

About the book:
With haunting echoes of the current refugee crisis this beautifully illustrated book explores the unimaginable decisions made as a family leave their home and everything they know to escape the turmoil and tragedy brought by war. This book will stay with you long after the last page is turned.

Let's talk Francesca Sanna!

LTPB: I was so moved by your story and illustrations, especially how you abstract your shapes and colors to convey tone. How did you work the illustrations to enhance the emotions we read in the text?

FS: I mix a lot of media, and I love to work digitally and in a more analog way with shapes, cutting them and putting them together. I especially like to build the page composition in a way that creates tension: I play a lot with the difference of the elements’ scale, or comparing similar shapes and elements on different pages.

LTPB: You have an author’s note in the back that tells us how the text came together, so what kind of research did you do for the illustrations?

FS: Before I started with the illustrations I listen to many people that undertook journeys like the one told in this book. When I heard those stories, the main reaction I had was to ask myself “What if this was my story, or my family’s story?”. We put a lot of distance between us and this kinds of experience, we could never imagine this could happen around us, and I understand this is a “protection” to say to ourself that we are safe, that this happens somewhere very far away and it doesn’t really affect us.

LTPB: This family’s story feels so authentic and (sadly) timeless. How did you work to keep the illustrations ambiguous and not specific to any one time period?

I am Italian, and less than a century ago, a lot of Italians emigrated to US to look for a better life, in our history migration is something very natural, and many societies now have their roots into a past of migration. I decided I wanted to keep this approach, leaving the context of the book as neutral as possible, without many cultural and historical details, to leave the space to the reader to identify oneself with this story.

LTPB: What medium do you use, and what is your process like?

FS: My favourite medium is the collage, I love to mix different techniques and I think with this medium I can do it very well. My process is always very messy, I start with sketching on paper and cutting different pieces and composing them back together on a digital support.

LTPB: What are you working on now? How do you use your surroundings to form stories?

FS: I am working on two possible new book projects. I always have to start with something I am passionate or worried about, something that I think is important to work on.

At the moment with the news we received a few weeks ago about where this world is going, I think I have a lot of feelings I would love to put down in pictures. I woke up the other week and I was so sad and shaken by the results of the American election, I took my notebook and wrote down some ideas.

LTPB: The last question I’m asking all illustrators who participate in the series is, if you could have one illustrator illustrate your picture book biography, who would it be and why?

FS: Can I aim very high? My favourite illustrator is Wolf Erlbruch, I grew up with some of his stories, and his pictures still makes me go back to my childhood. He adds a softness to very tough topics or stories that makes the storytelling very special and unique.

Be sure to stop by your library or bookstore to pick up a copy of The Journey, published by Flying Eye Books.

Special thanks to Francesca and Flying Eye Books for use of these images!

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