February 14, 2023

Let's Talk Illustrators #236: Zeno Sworder

I was enamored with Zeno Sworder's 2021 debut This Small Blue Dot (see more here and here), so I'm thrilled to have caught Zeno on his much-anticipated follow-up My Strange Shrinking Parents. I'll let the interview speak for itself, but it's safe to say that this new book lives up to the high expectations Zero has set for himself, and he has a bright future in children's book creation. More below!

About the book:
One boy's parents travel from far-off lands to improve their son's life. But what happens next is unexpected. What does it mean when your parents are different? What shape does love take? And what happens when your parents sacrifice a part of themselves for you?

Let's talk Zeno Sworder!

LTPB: What was the impetus for creating My Strange Shrinking Parents? Why did you choose to add a fantasy element (the parents shrinking over the course of the book)?

ZS: I have always been interested in the way that fairytales, fables and myths were able to work on a symbolic level to reach into deeper truths. They are able to tell readers something about what it means to be human even though the setting and story are often fantastical or absurd. When I set out to make this picture book I wanted it to be the map that I needed as a child who often felt out of place, lonely and disconnected from my migrant parents. Looking back at my childhood there was something very real, almost tangible, to the sacrifices that my parents made. And so I set out to write a story about belonging and love as a fairytale that was emotionally grounded in my own experiences.

LTPB: What differences did you find between creating My Strange Shrinking Parents and your first book This Small Blue Dot? What new challenges did you encounter with this book?

ZS: The two books are very different. I am grateful to the publisher, Thames & Hudson, for taking a leap of faith with this book, which is unconventional and a huge departure from my first book, This Small Blue Dot. Each book project is at least a two year commitment and I have the most fun when it is a tightrope walk and I am not sure exactly how it will turn out. However, with this one there were times I worried that I was completely out of my depth and that I would not be able to bring all of the pieces together.

When I started the illustrations for this book, I very consciously didn’t want to lean on the same style, technique or art process from This Small Blue Dot. It was important to reinvent these things so that they could better serve the themes and emotion of the story. This was one of the biggest challenges and it took roughly a year to arrive at a place where I felt that the texture of the illustrations complemented and enhanced the story.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? What was your process like?

ZS: The finished illustrations are made using a mix of pencil, graphite powder, watercolour and a 15 year old computer and scanner (fingers crossed that they can hold out for the next book). Because I was aiming for the feel of an old fairytale it was important that the illustrations felt handmade.

I spent a lot of time looking at traditional wood block prints and the way they depicted cycles of change in nature, which is a central theme of this book. There is a school of thought in traditional Asian art that imperfections and blemishes can heighten the beauty of a piece by imbuing it with a uniqueness, warmth and humanity. This was also a guiding principle for the artwork.

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

ZS: I am working on something very different again (and again I am at the stage where I worry I may be out of my depth). It is still very early so there is not much to show but I can say that it will take place in an otherworldly setting and will be a story about siblings (by choice not by blood). I can share some pencil drawings that were made years ago and serve as inspiration for the story.

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?

ZS: What an interesting question. Although I have worked in many strange and wonderful jobs I believe I have lived a very simple life. I think the French artist Sempe would be a good fit for illustrating the humor and absurdity of the clumsy path I took through the world.

An ever-growing thank you to Zeno for talking to me about this special book. My Strange Shrinking Parents published this past January from Thames & Hudson!

Special thanks to Zeno and Thames & Hudson for use of these images!

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