March 28, 2023

Let's Talk Illustrators #242: Rilla Alexander

You could say it's about time that I caught up with prolific author-illustrator Rilla Alexander, whose bold, graphic, and incredibly eye-catching illustrations have been taking up more and more room on my shelves over the years. Among many things, we talk about her career so far and her new book You Rule!. Happy reading!

About the book:
How far can you go? How much do you know? How kind are you? How much do I love you? These are the impossible questions every child has asked, and every parent has struggled to answer. This is a wonderfully affirmative and aspirational book of possibilities and exploration, a fantastic linguistic calibration/celebration of bravery, kindness, love, and so much more.

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Rilla Alexander!

LTPB: Where did the idea for You Rule! come from? How did you think to link common questions to different forms of measurement?

RA: Six years ago now, I was asked for proposals for an installation for a museum. The theme was “Into the Space of Time” and I started to wonder how growing up affects attributes like strength, bravery and patience. The measuring dog I imagined didn’t end up happening, but I showed the sketches to my editor Christopher at Handprint/Chronicle and he thought there might be a book in there somewhere. And so began a long adventure to figure out what form that might take!

My first sketches involved elaborate gatefolds to try and make the book into a very wide and extremely tall measuring device. I was also trying to avoid having a protagonist and instead, simply and graphically representing the questions and answers. However, on a plane to New York for a meeting with Christopher, I drew a series of thumbnails with a main character (based on my nephew Mac) and a story connecting the questions, and then things started to click into place. It still took a couple more years to complete, though. . . Mac is not so little anymore!

LTPB: What can you share about the design of this book? The wide trim size, the peritextual elements (casewrap versus dust jacket, fully-designed endpapers), a limited color palette…Did you come to the table with these ideas already, and/or how did you work with the design team to create such a cohesive project?

RA: I am a graphic designer (and designed this book), so writing, illustration and design go hand in hand for me. After initial sketches by hand, I usually write directly into inDesign, and do the remaining rounds of sketches in photoshop, gradually resolving the story, illustration, typography and layout all at once.

I definitely think of books as complete objects, so turning the case cover into the ruler is the kind of idea that makes my heart sing. I also have a bit of a thing for using the end papers as part of the story. They are most satisfying for me when the story comes back to the same location and clearly marks the change that has taken place in the story.

I love to use Pantone colors to get the brightest, most clear colors. This book is printed in Yellow, Green, Blue, Brown and Black.

LTPB: What differences have you found between creating a picture book on your own (text and illustrations) versus illustrating someone else’s text? Do you find that you prefer one over the other?

RA: I enjoy both! A big part of creation is setting restraints and pushing against those boundaries to come up with ideas. Someone else’s text comes with a pre-established world to work within. I find real joy in researching, discovering and immersing myself in those ideas. For instance, when I illustrated Jane Yolen’s A Bear Sat on my Porch Today, which is based on a true story, I looked up her house on google maps so I could surprise her by drawing the real thing.

endpapers from A Bear Sat on my Porch Today

When I am creating my own story and illustrations, I have to set up similar restraints for myself. It’s very easy to talk yourself out of an idea when you hit a rough patch, so the sooner things are set in place the better. Thank heavens for editors who can stop you veering off course. When it comes to the details, though, I am very happy to be able rewrite entire spreads when something better clicks into place. I often delete or change text after I have improved an illustration.

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?

RA: I am sometimes frustrated at myself for reinventing my method for every book I do, but I have come to realise that the process of experimenting is really important to me. Usually I use a mixture of ink or pencil. Lately I also use a lot of rubber stamps, including a set I designed myself. I collage everything together in Photoshop and then carefully separate all the artwork so that it is ready to be printed in Pantone colors. Preparing the finished art for printing in spot colors is an integral part of my process and can sometimes take as long as creating the art itself.

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

RA: Recently, I did the illustration and design of this year’s Children’s Book Week poster and activity sheets! The theme is Read Books, Spark Change and it made me think about the butterfly effect and how, even if you’re small, you can make a big difference. Here is a photo of a test print!

If you sign up to participate the Children’s Book Council will send you two posters! You can find out more here.

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?

RA: My family like to make books for each other, so I am going to nominate my new nephew Fox. He’s not even one yet, but if I get on with it I should have a manuscript ready just as he gets to grip with pencils.

The tradition has been going for a long time. When my sisters and I were little, we’d do the pictures and dictate the stories to our mother who would type them onto the drawings, bind the books and give them to our grandparents for Christmas. My first book documented daddy burning the porridge and featured the recurring line “her did everything her mother told her”.

Now, as a grown up, I love to help the kids make books. One year my niece Jemima (aged 9) illustrated my mother’s childhood memories using my Wacom Cintiq. You can see them here. My favorite is the dreamtime snake.

Another Christmas, I drew everything my family did together and Jemima and my nephew Mac colored the pictures in. I compiled all those drawings as a book, and sent it back to them as a memory of the holidays. Those sketches are also the ones that I used when drawing Mac in his starring role in You Rule!.

Mac and Rilla

Rilla, you rule for talking to me about your illustration process! You Rule! publishes one week from today, April 4,  from Chronicle Books!

Special thanks to Rilla and Chronicle for use of these images!

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