October 17, 2023

Let's Talk Illustrators #265: Nancy Whitesides

Today I'm very pleased to share an interview for a book very near and dear to my heart. Grief Is an Elephant, written by Tamara Ellis Smith, touches on the intricacies of feeling grief, and the book is thoughtfully illustrated by Nancy Whitesides. Nancy was gracious enough to share her process with me, and you can take a closer look at that below.

About the book:
When Grief first arrives, it is like an elephant--so big that there is hardly room for anything else. But over time, Grief can become smaller and smaller--first a deer, then a fox, a mouse, and finally a flickering firefly in the darkness leading us down a path of loving remembrance.

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Nancy Whitesides.

LTPB: How did you become the illustrator of Grief Is an Elephant? What were the first images that popped into your mind when you saw Tamara Ellis Smith’s text? Do you have personal experiences with grief or loss that fueled your connection to the book?

NW: I was approached by Chronicle to illustrate Grief Is an Elephant, and I loved Tamara Ellis Smith’s story from the start. It was a dream project to work on.

The first images I thought of were of the elephant. She needed to show the breadth and depth of the story. So I drew and painted several versions. I was searching for how best to show the emotion and weight of grief. I imagined her ears, her tail, her build. Very early on, even before any storyboard or dummy, I drew and painted two scenes. One became the final spread for the book, and the other was picked as the cover.

I do have personal experiences with grief and this played a part in the makeup and world building I created for this book.

LTPB: The topic of this book is particularly tough. How did you approach the book so that it would be accessible to young children? What challenges did you encounter? What did you find most rewarding?

NW: My approach was ultimately to imagine myself as the child, given my own experience with grief. I placed myself in the story. I’m not sure I would treat the story differently for an older audience. It was how I perceived the manuscript, so that is what I needed to illustrate.

So from my experience of loss, I remember that day, the world changed and it was like a bad dream. I tried to illustrate this feeling. An example is the spread where the elephant is revealed. She looms, and appears to take over the whole spread which is my way of showing how grief takes over everything in our life when it first comes. One of the challenges was creating the balance of illustrating grief and also hope. In moments I thought this is truly heart-breaking, but this is where you would find love the most. I tried to show that somehow. Another challenge was–sometimes the work was emotionally tiring. I would need to stop and maybe watch something trivial and funny because it would be too much.

On the other hand, what I found rewarding was the work itself including researching the animals. I love nature and animals so for me to “have to” watch more animal documentaries, how lucky am I? I studied the animals’ anatomies and how they moved, and I think most illustrators reading this will nod and understand when I say deer legs and hooves. But this task turned out to be quite rewarding when I finally got them right.

Another big plus was drawing five different animals. I remember thinking, I have to draw an elephant and a deer? Now I have to draw a fennec fox? A mouse? A firefly? No way. It felt like I’d won the lottery in the world of kidlit illustration.

Another rewarding thing for me was creating imagery not drawn from reference pictures, but drawn from imagination, memory, and feelings. This is what I usually aim for in my work, and my editor and art director wanted me to lean into that.

Years ago, even before I was an illustrator, I was able to see a fennec fox in a zoo, and it was sleeping. I saw how it laid with its tail curled around it. So the sleeping fox in the book, I’d drawn from memory. But this was a lucky coincidence that I'd seen a fennec fox in real life.

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?

NW: For this book, I used mixed media with watercolor, pencils, crayons, and digital. The process for me is there would be the sketches and then going into colors, it depends on what the story is.

I think it would be like asking someone how does one ride a bicycle? We balance and push the pedals, but ultimately we just go on this automatic mode. Like when I do my colors and final art, it is almost by instinct. For this book, there is a haze of pain and grief, and everything is not what it should be. So the colors and textures I made were for this feeling.

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

NW: I've finished working on a second picture book, Small Things Mended, written by Casey W. Robinson, and it comes out Spring 2024 from Rocky Pond Books. It is about a kind and lonely man who helps repair toys and watches and other valuables in his community, but he himself has a broken heart that needs mending.

I'm also working on a couple of picture book stories I wrote, and I’m revising them with my agent. I cannot really show anything for these yet.

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?

NW: This is my favorite question from your illustrator series. I chose Beatrix Potter. I hope she would illustrate me with these cute forest animals and I would be helping them find a pinafore or maybe running away, or maybe mending their clothes. Oh wait, that might be more fiction. Well something like that would be neat.

An elephant-sized thank you to Nancy for talking to me about this special book. Grief Is an Elephant publishes from Chronicle Books one week from today on October 24.

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

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