October 5, 2021

Let's Talk Illustrators #193: Johanna Schaible

There is no denying that Once Upon a Time There Was and Will Be So Much More by debut author-illustrator Johanna Schaible is one of the most uniquely-designed picture books out there right now. Johanna tackles some super fun design concepts that reflect the subject matter of the book, and she doesn't shy away from tackling big ideas in the text either. It was a delight to talk to Johanna about this eye-catching book! 

About the book:
Hundreds of millions of years ago, land took shape. Millions of years ago, dinosaurs lived on Earth. Thousands of years ago, people built towering pyramids. Ten years ago, the landscape looked different. A month ago, it was still summer. A minute ago, the light was turned off. Now! Make a wish! What will you be doing in a week? How will you celebrate your birthday next year? What will you discover when you are older? What will hold you in awe forever?

Let's talk Johanna Schaible!

LTPB: Congrats on such a spectacularly unique debut! Where did the idea for Once Upon a Time There Was and Will Be So Much More come from?

JS: Thank you! I guess I wanted to make a picture book about something that matters to all of us and that connects us all around the globe. My starting points were thematically very open. My keywords were, for example, "night," "air," or "time."

I was always drawn to formally exciting and unexpected books, so I wasn’t up to doing a regular one. In the beginning I was working on two ideas: the first idea was a zoom, starting far away and coming in close to one child. The second idea was a mock-up book with the topic time. Combining the two ideas formed the starting point, and I had finally found the theme and concept I was looking for.

LTPB: Can you talk about your research process for this book?

JS: I always keep a logbook where I write about the project I‘m working on and the inspiration and input I get. It was interesting for me to look at other children's books, for example the playful ones from Bruno Munari. Dominique Goblet, a Belgium artist, once said that if you want to do a comic, don’t look at comics. Go to the movies, visit art exhibitions and listen to music. I think this is smart and helps to get new ideas. I saw Powers of Ten (1977) by the Eames Office years ago. This zoom fascinated me a lot, and I think it was somewhere in my mind while creating this book. For the first part of the book, the past, I could use historical facts. Since I can’t predict the future, I asked questions in the second part and stayed close to our daily life. This book has more of an emotional approach to time than a scientific one, so it was easy for me to bring in my own style.

LTPB: What can you share about the design of the book? Why was this choice important to you and how do you think it contributes to the larger message of the story?

JS: I treat the concept and the topic equally and at the same time, and the pages changing size was there from the beginning. Next to the development of a coherent journey through time, I had to think about the feasibility of my idea. The biggest challenge was to find a way to turn it into a real book, as the production of a book like this is complex. The form supports the content and makes it experienceable in a new way. I like that with this book design we see in every moment of turning the pages that there is a "before" and an "after" that embrace the little moment “now.”

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

JS: I often mix cutouts and painting for my illustrations. I enjoy developing sceneries and creating atmosphere, and I do as much as I can by hand – Painting, cutting and glueing. For some images I made the whole setting first. Then I cut out the figures and inserted them digitally. I also do my sketches and little mock-up books using this technique because I want to see the atmosphere of an image straight away. In this case I work more roughly, and I appreciate the liveliness that inhabits these sketches.

I do a lot of projects moving between art and illustration, and I choose the technique depending on the project. For illustrations, however, this is my preferred and most common technique at the moment.

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

JS: Hand-lettering is a big passion of mine as well, and I’m going to spend the next month painting the interior signage of a building. Then I’m getting closer to new book ideas and, like when I did Once Upon a Time There Was and Will Be So Much More, questioning the format is again part of it. I like to explore the possibilities and limits of the book medium.

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

JS: If I could I would choose one for each chapter, This would be nice! I think I would ask close artist friends who know me, who I talk to regularly and who inspire me.

A million thanks to Johanna for taking time to answer questions about this fantastic debut! Once Upon a Time There Was and Will Be So Much More published last month from Candlewick Press!

Special thanks to Johanna and Candlewick for use of these images!

ONCE UPON A TIME THERE WAS AND WILL BE SO MUCH MORE. Copyright © 2020 by Johanna Schaible. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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