June 18, 2019

Let's Talk Illustrators #111: Cindy Derby

It was downright delightful getting to know up-and-coming picture book creator Cindy Derby. Cindy released two books in March: her author-illustrator debut How to Walk an Antand Climbing Shadows: Poems for Children, written by Shannon Brammer. Cindy's process is fascinating, so let's get right to it! And don't worry: only 3 ants were harmed in the production of this interview.

About the book:
There are nine steps to becoming an ant walker, and Amariyah, the expert ant walker, is here to show you how it’s done.

How to Walk an Ant follows a young girl as she goes through the process of walking ants, from polite introductions to tragic leash entanglements.

In the end, as long as you’re doing what you’re best at, you may find a like-minded friend to tag along.

*Zero ants were harmed in the making of this book.
**Oops, 7 ants were harmed in the making of this book.

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Cindy Derby!

LTPB: Am I correct that How to Walk an Ant is technically your debut? Congratulations! What was the impetus for creating it? 

CD: Thank you, yes! How to Walk An Ant is my debut book as an author illustrator. 

The inspiration behind this character came during my time working as a teacher at an after school arts program. I had a student in 3rd grade who loved to chit chat with the insects on the playground, and create interesting games with them. She reminded me of myself growing up, and maybe that’s why I was drawn to her spirit. 

A few years later, I sketched out a character with a similar energy. I named her Amariyah. At first she was holding jump ropes which I messed up, so I turned them into ants instead. “Yeah, this character would totally walk ants.” That’s when she took on a life of her own. 

I am very happy that How To Walk An Ant was my first book. As a creator, I feel very proud for sticking to my gut during the development of this book. There were so many moments I would be scared for putting out a book that was so different. That’s when I would ask myself: “Well, what would Amariyah do?” And she would barge through all the doubting voices in my head and say “HERE I AM. WALKING ANTS.” 

She just is who she is, and I love that. She’s my hero. And I hope she can be for others, too. 

LTPB: Your book acts as a guide for walking ants, including tips and tricks, an appendix, a glossary, and even rules that any good ant walker must follow. What kind of research did you do for the book? How did the tone of the book evolve as you created your story? 

CD: Yes! This book is written in the format of a Nine-Step Guide. Because this is Amariyah’s guide, most of my research involved getting to know her and her world. 

I sketched Amariyah in hundreds of situations (ie: trying to walk rollie-pollies and crickets, assembling an ant fort in her attic, using the thread from her sweater as a leash). I did it all. And even though 95% of those things didn’t end up in the actual book, it helped me with the fine details. 

I trained as a theater actor for many years, and I utilized many of the exercises from my Character Development classes to help with this. One of my most useful exercises was keeping a daily journal. This is where I would journal everything that Amariyah was feeling that day, along with scribblings of her thought processes. 

The format of the guide fell into place. It was originally called The Ant Walker’s Guide To Walking Ants

During this process, I learned that I work best when I have some limitations. Working within the constraints of a guide format helped me channel Amariyah’s voice in a more comedic way. And I had already done so much character development, that creating each Step, Rule and Tip felt like natural dialogue. And with that...the tone of the book evolved. 

Other research involved reading books about ants, looking at Salvador Dali paintings, and also listening to other people’s reaction/relationship to them. I heard many kitchen ant invasion stories, but I also heard more morbid stories involving magnified glasses. I also would watch them for hours at a time. This research helped me figure out the ants’ story in this guidebook. At one point, I even wanted real-looking ants to come out of the gutter of the book and take over the guide. I still love that idea. But it wasn’t helping me with Amariyah’s story. It took a lot of mapping out and hundreds of drafts, but eventually, the heart of the story slowly revealed itself. That’s when the ladybug walker came into play, and this book became something more than walking ants. 

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 (I’d love to know more about Climbing Shadows!)? 

CD: To create the illustrations in How To Walk An Ant, I used ink and wire to create the lines for Amariyah’s hair, and a rubber clay shaper dipped in black watercolor to create her expressions. All the leashes and sugary food items were created with crayons and watercolor pencils (which I muddied up by dipping them in paint and water). Her shirt is made by dusting on some yellow pastel. 

There were so many moments during the creation of the final art that I wanted to repaint a background, or redo a spread one more time because it wasn’t ‘just right’ or ‘beautiful enough.’ And I would have to take a step back and remind myself: Amariyah isn’t perfect, and neither is this book... and neither am I. So, instead of trying to paint something ‘better,’ I would paint it with the intention of staying as true to Amariyah and her world as much as possible. She taught me that its ok to be unapologetic, messy, and rough around the edges! 

I created most of the drawings of the characters on Japanese rice paper. I loved that there was this uneven texture, so that when the ink ran over the surface it would do unpredictable things. A lot of my work ended up on separate pieces! 

All these pieces were then scanned and collaged digitally. Ant by ant. Not sure if I will work this way again, but at the time, I felt it was necessary for me to work in this way. There was also a little bit of fear mixed in there (because this was my first book), I wanted some kind of control how everything was laid out. 

Now, after having reflected on this, I recognize that my process in itself says something about the book and its theme of control versus uncertainty! Which is why every book has its own unique beauty. They are pieces of what you were going through at that point in your life. 

With each book that I create, I experiment with different mediums. I have to. I thrive on the excitement I get when I am trying a new technique. It reminds me of the improvisational exercises we did in acting school. We did this exercise called ‘taking the first thing’, and I still utilize this method in my painting today. In theater, you never know whats going to happen on stage. An entire glass could shatter on stage in the middle of your scene in front of a live audience. And those unexpected surprises (that were unplanned!) actually set me free in many ways, because it immediately put me in the present moment. As a painter, I don’t like feeling like I am in a space where everything feels predetermined and too planned. I am constantly striving to work in a playground of uncertainty. I somewhat stick to my sketches (they are like the rehearsal), then in the final art, I let go and have fun! 

In my first illustrated book, Climbing Shadows: Poems for Children (Groundwood Books, March 2019) written by Shannon Bramer, I also worked this way, but because this was a completely different book, I had different needs. The work on this book came shortly after finishing How To Walk An Ant, so it was necessary for me to change my setting and head space. So, I worked out of the childhood house I grew up in. 

Shannon’s poetry speaks to my heart. Her words are nostalgic. I knew I wanted to work on these because upon reading them for the first time and even the thousandth time, I felt like I was seven years old diving into my infinite imagination. I loved dancing alongside Shannon’s poems. I felt like a wild little ghost— something you catch in your peripheral vision but can’t really define. 

I used a variety of tools to create the illustrations in this book. I had a lot of fun spritzing white paint onto the trees with a tooth brush in "A Question for Choying." 

And in "Penelope’s Birthday," I threw paint from across the room like I was pitching a baseball to achieve perfect rain drop shapes. All these extra flares and splatters filled me with joy! But don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t always joyous in every moment. Art is hard, and achieving this mystical spontaneous look is actually quite a triumph of painting something over and over, each with different outcomes! Many times, I over-painted gorgeous landscapes I created until they became a muddied mess. There is beauty in that too, though. And I find it interesting what we decide is good or not. It's a never ending mystery, this artist life. And it keeps me coming back for more! 

Also something fun: I worked very large for this book. The original paintings were over twice the size of the book. I did this because I felt like I could stretch and sprawl. And Climbing Shadows needed this kind of space. 

LTPB: What can you tell me about the design of this book? The font is pretty unique, and the casewrap is wonderful!. How involved were you in adding these details? How do you use these design elements as extensions of the central story? 

CD: The design of How To Walk An Ant was inspired by many different artists that I learned about through research. I would make appointments at the San Francisco LetterFrom Archive and look through many collections of graphic design from the early 20th century with really interesting typography. I was most fascinated in the work that was black and white with lines that were erratic. 

This is some of the work of Klaus-Peter Dienst, a visual typographer whose work I found to be really interesting. When I stumbled across some of these pieces, I knew exactly the kind of design I wanted for How To Walk An Ant. 

My editor and art director at Roaring Brook Press gave me so much freedom in the design of this book. I designed the typography to look like it was straight from Amariyah’s journal. They also allowed me to design a different case wrapping! Things may not always be what they appear on the surface! 

Other research I did that helped with the design of the book, was looking at Alfred Hitchcock films. I stole some inspiration from The Birds...you can see that in the spread where a colony of ant corner Amariyah for her candy cane.

As the book unfolds, the audience will experience the spreads getting more chaotic (for Amairyah)...which ramps up the stakes for the character. 

In terms of the sizing, I wanted this book to be the size of a standard piece of paper (8.5 x 11 inches), so kids could put their own notes and findings inside the book if they want. 

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

CD: Yes! I am working on multiple projects at the moment. I am very excited about The Boy And The 800-Pound Gorilla, by Jackie Azua Kramer which will come out next year with Candlewick Press. It is about a boy’s relationship with a gorilla after the loss of his mother. Here are a few sketches from my development. I have been visiting the Oscar, the beautiful silverback gorilla at the San Francisco Zoo for inspiration. 

I have also just completed the final artwork for Outside In by Deborah Underwood which also comes out next year with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Deborah wrote a beautiful story that reminds us that very little separates us from Outside, and that we are all part of a much greater universe. I tried all different paintings techniques while exploring this book— and I can’t wait for this book to be out in the world. 

I am (also!) working on my second book as author/illustrator with my incredible editor at Roaring Brook Press. I can’t say much about it now, but I will say, I’m having an absolute ball creating all the characters in it. This one will also be out next year! 

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

CD: I would love Remy Charlip to illustrate my picture book autobiography. It would be his own twist on my wacky little world, and that just makes me cackle real loud. 

Thank you to the incredible Cindy for talking to me about her debut! How to Walk an Ant published from Roaring Brook Press earlier this year!

Special thanks to Cindy and Roaring Brook Press for use of these images!

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