January 30, 2018

Let's Talk Illustrators #57: Galia Bernstein

Yes, yes, I know, another cat book. But I Am a Cat isn't just "another" cat book! In fact, with its sleek design and timely message of community, it's a very special cat book. I decided to talk to author-illustrator Galia Bernstein about how she created it (did you know she's been working on it most of her life??) and how she draws inspiration for her work. Enjoy!

About the book:
A simple house cat named Simon encounters some bigger cats: Lion, Puma, Panther, Tiger, and Cheetah. Each of the big cats has something to say about Simon not being "cat" enough. According to them, he just doesn't measure up. He doesn't have Lion's mane or Cheetah's spots. He doesn't sleep in trees like Panther or climb mountains like Puma. He's small and fuzzy, not big and strong. But ultimately, Simon shows the big cats that he's just like them . . . only smaller.

Peek underneath the dust jacket here.
Watch the official book trailer here.

Let's talk Galia Bernstein!

LTPB: I love I Am a Cat so much! Where did the idea for this book come from?

GB: Thank you so much! The idea for this book was born a long time ago, when I was in my early teens and wanted very much to be a cartoonist for The New Yorker. I drew a New Yorker style cartoon, in black and white, of a grumpy little house cat in front of a group of 4 big cats (no panther yet) rolling on the floor, laughing. The caption line underneath read, “Yes, I call myself a cat!” The cartoon received rave reviews from my immediate family and some neighbors, and a while later, I drew a larger version, in color, as a gift for my father, who framed it and hung it in his study, where it’s still hanging today.

Years later, in New York, in an illustration class at Parsons, I had to come up with an idea for a picture book, and I immediately thought of it. I came up with a story, and the little grumpy cat finally got a name. I called him Simon after my foundation drawing teacher. After school, it was shelved again for a few more years, before it was finally time for it to step into the light. It’s fair to say this book was in the works for most of my life.

LTPB: How did Simon become the cat we see in this book? How many incarnations did he go through before you had him just right?  

GB: Simon started his life as a ginger. When I left home to study art in New York, I had to leave my gray tabby cat behind with my parents, and when Simon got his name, he also got a new look in her 
honor. He also became chubbier and cuter as you can tell from my pencil sketches. 

My style of drawing changed a lot through the years. Since I visited this story in different stages of my life, I have the same scene drawn in very different styles. Here are the shocked big cats in an acrylic painting I did in school, a digital decorative style, and what they actually look like in the book.

LTPB: I can’t get over how cute the case cover is! How involved were you in the design of this book?

GB: Thank you! I’m very happy with the way the cover came out. The idea was more recent, but was part of the dummy version I made of the book. We also had a second option (see sketches) but this one was an early favorite with everybody. For the surprised-big-cats spread to have maximum impact, it was important to me, not to show the faces of the big cats before that point. Simon’s expression was also very important. He had to show just the right amount of “catitude” without looking too angry. It was also a great way to show how small he is. The final book is very close to the dummy. Luckily, the amazing Abrams team shared my vision for this book.

LTPB: What medium did you use for your illustrations, and why? What have you learned from this medium that you will likely carry over to future books? 

GB: I used Photoshop and a Wacom tablet to draw and color the art. The only part that’s not digital is the subtle dry brush texture that I painted and scanned. I’ve been experimenting with more texture techniques that I hope to apply in future work.

LTPB: What are you working on now? Will we be seeing more of Simon? 

GB: I am working on my second book. It’s about a monkey, and that's all I’m going to say about it for now.

I’d like to say that I Am a Cat is a one-and-done book. That adding to it will just take away from it, and I believe that’s true, but those are famous last words. I know picture book sequels are very popular, and I can’t say that I will never crack under pressure if there will be a demand for a sequel. For now, I have other ideas I would like to explore first.

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

GB: She is dead unfortunately, but I would chose the illustrator of my favorite book of all time –– Once on a Time by A A Milne –– Susan Perl. She was a cartoonist for adults who also illustrated children’s books. Her line drawings are funny and expressive and never dumbed down. I am in awe of the beautiful, elaborate scenes, full of light and color, that some picture book artists can create, but telling a whole story with just a few lines of pen and ink, is true talent in my opinion. 

It's always purr-fect talking to other cat people, and my conversation with Galia was no different! Thanks, Galia! I Am a Cat publishes from Abrams February 6, 2018!

Special thanks to Galia and Abrams for use of these images!

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