May 16, 2023

Let's Talk Illustrators #249: Lotta Nieminen

I finally got to talk to Lotta Nieminen, creator of the Cook in a Book series! This has been a long time coming for me because I have loved the heck out of this series since book one, and today Lotta and I talk about both the series overall and the most recent addition, Spaghetti. Bon appétit!

About the book:

A simple but accurate recipe takes young readers through the steps of cooking spaghetti, from chopping onions to serving up a plate of steaming hot pasta with tomato sauce, while the interactive novelty features invite them to participate in the process ... without any chance of spilling anything. Move the tab up and down to add the onions and garlic, lift the flap to open the can of tomatoes, pull the tab to bring the water to a boil, use the punch-out fork to twist some spaghetti onto your fork to taste, and more. One hundred percent adult-free, danger-free, and mess-free - whether you are cooking outside or inside this book, spaghetti has never been so independent!

Let's talk Lotta Nieminen!

LTPB: How did you come up with the idea for the Cook in a Book series, most recently Spaghetti? How do you choose which food to explore next (what criteria must be met)?

I was approached by Phaidon art director Meagan Bennett back in 2016, to illustrate a series of interactive cookbooks for really young children — the idea she introduced was that novelty elements would be used in order to provide children with the experience of “cooking” in the book as they turn the pages. I loved the idea, and we started developing the visual approach from there! At the time, I had started feeling a bit pigeonholed into illustrating intricate landscapes with abundant detail, and loved the idea of approaching the project through larger shapes, with a high emphasis on color.

The foods are generally discussed together with Phaidon. The recipes can’t be too simple nor too intricate, in order to fit the page count in a nice way. The recipes can’t also be too similar, to avoid having to repeat similar steps. We’ve also tried to do a good mix of sweet and savoury. Pancakes, pizza, cookies and tacos were all round, and I guess spaghetti fits the bill too, once scooped on a plate! This works with the cover concept, which features all foods in a circle.

LTPB: How do you map out which parts of each spread will be interactive? How do you try to work in new interactive elements with each new book in the series?

The interactive elements have been a collaboration between Meagan and I, brainstorming the possibilities of each food as they’ve been decided. Once the recipe is chosen and I receive a first draft, I lay it out on a book map. Pacing of the recipe dictates which interactive elements can happen where, but I’ve also occasionally suggested some changes to recipe order to work better with the mechanisms. Pull tabs need to have a function on both sides of the page, but the die cut holes can never overlap as to not show through the other side. Cost is also a factor, but the rule of thumb is having at least one action or effect per spread. For me, an important factor has also been to find how to do a maximal effect with as simple of a mechanism as possible — it’s a simple one, but I love when there’s an effective way to execute a simple pull tab! Spaghetti has probably one of my favourites to date (once you drop your pasta into a boiling pot of water). :)

LTPB: What have you found most difficult in creating this series? Has it gotten more or less challenging as the series has gone on?

After the original challenge of establishing the style through the first book, the challenge lies generally in the mechanisms and how to have each new book feel both new, as well as part of the series. With pull tabs, the die cut holes can never overlap on opposing sides of the page, so this can affect positioning of illustrated elements — each still needs to look good and dynamic. Finalizing the cover color is generally one of the last, but also most discussed phases of the process.

LTPB: How do you create your illustrations? What medium do you use, and what is your process like?

I work digitally, but work in handmade textures once the base illustrations are approved. I have a library of textures, but some books require creating custom ones, such as the swirls for cookies! Color is an important factor for me, and I spend a lot of time creating delicious palettes for each book.

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

I have just returned from my maternity leave, so my daughter has been keeping me busy for the last 6 months! Aside illustration, I work as a graphic designer, primarily on visual identity projects — a few, new exciting ones are in the making now!

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?

One of my favourite (and earliest) children’s books is Tove Jansson’s The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My. It also has such a beautiful executed interactive element throughout — die cut holes that reveal details of the following spread. As a child, I found this transportive element so magical! What happens next? The colors are also spot on. I would love my life interpreted through her magic, unique lens!

A big thank you to Lotta for talking to me about this special series! Spaghetti and the rest of the Cook in a Book series is available now from Phaidon Press!

Special thanks to Lotta and Phaidon for use of these images!

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