October 8, 2019

Let's Talk Illustrators #121: Misa Saburi

I have yet ANOTHER favorite book about cats! But in my defense, this one is so unique and funny. Cats Are a Liquid by Rebecca Donnelly and Misa Saburi takes a very specific look at cat behavior and flexibility, shall we say. I talked to Misa about what it was like to have a dream come true and illustrate this fantastic, as of yet unexplored angle about our favorite felines for young readers. 

About the book:
Cats fill./ Cats spill./ Cats flow downhill.// Cats tip./ Cats drip./ Cats grip, snip, rip.// Cats are a liquid/ Except when they’re not.

Inspired by an Ig Nobel Prize–winning investigation of how cats behave like liquids, this book introduces some of the physical properties of liquids—they adapt to fit a container, they flow like fluids—and is just pure fun.
Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Misa Saburi!

LTPB: Between the dedication in the book and the number of cats you showcase, it’s clear you’re a cat person! What is the first thing you did when you received the manuscript for Cats Are a Liquid? What kind of research did you do? What challenges did you encounter?

MS: “OMG is this a dream?” is how I replied to my agent when I first got the email about the project. But then I read the text more closely and realized that there was so much room for interpretation that it halted my thoughts for a while. I read that it was based on the Ig Nobel prize which celebrates scientific research with strong humor, and that led me to imagine that children as scientists in white lab coats will be fun to draw and will unify the whole book visually. The main challenge was to not get too caught up in what each word meant but have fun with the flow and feel of words.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium?

MS: I use Adobe Photoshop from sketches to final art for all of my books. I started making work digitally when I didn’t have a lot of resources. I couldn’t afford a fancy scanner or buy paper and paint for all the trials and errors I was going to make. I’ve known several professional illustrators who simply had an iMac and a Wacom tablet and were producing beautiful pictures. That encouraged me to think that the medium doesn’t matter as long as you make the images work.

I do like ink and wash, so I’ve been using Inktober these last couple of years as an opportunity to play around with some dip pens and I post them on Instagram.

LTPB: How does your process change from book to book?

MS: I start from reading the text many, many times out loud. Then I will separate the text into 16 or 20 spreads, depending on the total page count. Often the text indicates where the page turn will be but if there is room for the pictures to add some interesting effects I will integrate them. One of the most important things for me when preparing the sketches is to put in all the fun ideas I might have. It could be anything from some Japanese words I sneak in on the side of the box of cat food, or how most of the kids are wearing mismatching socks. They are often tiny details that most people might not even notice, but sometimes a reader will find a detail meaningful to them. For Bearnard’s Book, written by Deborah Underwood, I placed some framed pictures of cats titled “Pa” and “Ma” in a goose’s house. I was told that a reader appreciated it a lot because it suggested that the goose was adopted by a cat couple. The reader herself has two adopted children from a different race.

LTPB: What can you tell me about the design of this book, specifically the casewrap/dust jacket combo? How do you use design elements like this as extensions of the central story?

MS: The case wrap design of two fluffy cats in boxes was the editor’s idea but I was thinking of something similar too. With any book, the main story is of course written and is inside the book, in the pages. But the book itself as an object can add to the fun. And with picture books, the jacket comes off often when in the hands of little ones. The caregivers can wait a moment before they help put the cover back on and enjoy another page of the story with the child. Maybe it’s like an extra footage after the end rolls in movies.

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

MS: I am working on another book written by Cats are a Liquid author Rebecca Donnelly titled How Slippery is a Banana Peel?

Also a sequel to Bearnard’s Book in which Bearnard struggles writer’s block! I have recently finished the artwork for Natsumi’s Song of Summer, written by Robert Paul Weston, that will be out from Tundra in May.

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

MS: Zach OHora, because every single line he draws is kind and humorous. Whatever happened or happens in my life, it’ll be good for the soul to look back and find kindness and humor in them.

A special thank you to Misa for taking time to answers some questions! Cats Are a Liquid publishes TODAY from Henry Holt!

Special thanks to Misa and Henry Holt for use of these images!

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