January 29, 2019

Let's Talk Illustrators #96: Amy June Bates

Written by Lesléa Newman and illustrated by Amy June BatesGittel's Journey took my breath away simply from the cover: it's clear that this is the story of a strong girl coming to America, and as she looks forward hopefully, it's as if she is gently urging readers to open the book and read her tale. Amy was kind enough to chat with me about how she created the illustrations for Lesléa's text, and I'm pleased to share that here. Enjoy!

About the book:
Gittel and her mother were supposed to immigrate to America together, but when her mother is stopped by the health inspector, Gittel must make the journey alone. Her mother writes her cousin’s address in New York on a piece of paper. However, when Gittel arrives at Ellis Island, she discovers the ink has run and the address is illegible! How will she find her family?

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Amy June Bates!

LTPB: Can you talk a little bit about the visual evolution of Gittel’s Journey? As you got to know the characters, how did your illustrations change? 

AJB: As far as Gittel’s character went, I think she emerged fully formed, especially the more I dove into the history and Eastern European art and illustration, particularly Ivan Bilibin, a Russian illustrator from the turn of the century. Those things influenced my palette, and I wanted to make the wood block prints to add folk art detail. I wanted it to have a little bit of a folk tale feel because I really feel like being an immigrant it is a part of our collective American story. 

LTPB: What kind of research did you do to get your illustrations factually correct? What challenges did you encounter? 

AJB: Probably the biggest challenge was that there was no time, country or city mentioned specifically, and there are probably good reasons for that, one being that what is now Poland was then something else and wars and boundaries changed everything so it is simpler to be nonspecific. However when you are dealing with visual history, things have to happen somewhere. So in this case I made a sort of fake history for her and followed that. For example I decided that she was from somewhere in what is now Poland around 1906, and that she left on a boat from Libau, and I looked at old pictures of the immigration office there. I found records of particular ships that left from Libau and went to Ellis Island and found pictures of the different decks and types of berths on that ship. Anyway…

I want to emphasize that I am not a historian. I do my best, but I am sure I make mistakes. I was most interested in the feel of the events rather than the exact type of light shade or wall color or whatever. 

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book? 

AJB: I usually paint with watercolor and gouache. For this book I made a bunch of wood block print carvings which was different. I think every book I do is a little different in part because I am evolving and responding to the text. I am interested in creating a visual narrative that exists uniquely for every book.

LTPB: What can you tell me about the design of this book? How involved were you in adding details like the unique casewrap and the borders around each illustration? How do you design your casewraps and endpapers to be extensions of the central story? 

AJB: Yes, those are the wood block prints that I made. I started looking at wooden houses and cottages in eastern Europe and there are these amazing beautifully carved window casements that are so unique and folk arty. I also love the idea that with a book you are looking through a window at a different world. I wanted to make the borders look like these old carved architectural features on these windows. As Gittel gets to America some of the designs are more Federal style and more like Ellis Island with the star windows, etc. Probably no one notice these things, but they please me.

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us? 

AJB: I am working on a couple of books that I have written, and an exhibition of my artwork, which you can see below.

LTPB: If you were to write your picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why? 

AJB: Omigosh. This is the best question…

Lisbeth Zwerger. Ernest Shepherd, Shaun Tan or Howard Pyle. I love their work. I know it would look nothing like I would expect. I would want to own and live in the paintings that they make and I love pirates. I feel so worried that I got that question wrong, as though it might be a real thing that could happen.

A million thanks to Amy for taking time to answer some questions! Gittel's Journey publishes from Abrams next Tuesday, February 5, 2019!

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

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