March 26, 2024

Let's Talk Illustrators #285: Anna Forlati

I am so excited to share my interview with Anna Forlati here today! We're taking a deep dive into her process and style for What Makes Us Human, written by Victor D O Santos. Enjoy our long overdue chat!

About the book:
Can you guess what I am? I have been around a very, very long time. You hardly knew me as a baby, but now you cannot get me out of your head. There are thousands of me, all over the globe, and some of those forms are disappearing. I can connect you to the past, present, and future. Who am I--and why am I so important to humanity?

Let's talk Anna Forlati!

LTPB: How did you become the illustrator of What Makes Us Human? What were the first images that popped into your mind when you saw Victor D O Santos’ text?

AF: Victor and I had collaborated previously on another project, My Dad My Rock (a Kirkus Reviess Best Book of 2022, republished by Scribble in 2024). He had initially contacted me after coming across my first published book, Maliq's Books, which was published in Brazil a few years after its first publication in Italy (Os livros de Maliq, Pequena Zahar).

So that's how we've met… When Victor proposed What Makes Us Human, I instantly fell in love with his clever and subtle writing. The text works as a riddle that guides us to the “solution” of the title’s enigma. Spoiler alert! It’s language.

This is probably my most fortunate book so far, having been selected for the 2023 White Ravens catalog and already translated into over 20 languages, and recently published in the USA by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers in partnership with UNESCO.

For me, every book is a different journey in terms of technique and conception; and this journey precisely starts with the first images that pop into mind. I usually have a very rich and detailed style, but in this case I felt that a more graphic and playful technique was needed: an approach that leaned onto visual metaphors rather than a very detailed narrative.

I also felt the need to leave a white, empty space for the text, which is quite peculiar in my practice. Now that I reflect on it, this isolation of the text - the linguistic part of the book (some call it the “adult part”, as opposed to images) - might enhance the relation to the theme of the book.

LTPB: Can you talk about your research process for this book? How did your illustrations change and evolve as you worked on this book and did your research?

AF: I often start from abstract images as a way to pull off ideas and visual concepts that otherwise would not come to mind. Associating a text or segment to an abstract sketch may trigger some unusual ideas. Most of these images are later cast aside or transformed, but some of them stay and may even become the backbone of the project.

For example, in one of these random experiments an image of a ship appeared (or at least, this is what I was seeing). It later helped me to solve one of the last scenes, and guided me to the idea of the message in the bottle, which works as a narrative thread throughout the book.

Another of these “random associations” was the image of a colorful house, with many doors to open and connections to make:

The first storyboard of What Makes Us Human came out rather quickly, but it had to be chiseled and adjusted, and in many cases I had to "kill some darlings," which is always hard.

One of the illustrations that took the longest to develop was the garden spread, here seen both in the storyboard and in the final version. A lot of effort was put on hiding different alphabets in the plants in a way that was not too obvious nor clearly identifiable.

A guide to the creative process was the rich dialogue with Victor and with Daniel Cabral, the graphic designer but also 'artistic counselor' of the whole project; so, as should always be the case (and very rarely is) the book really came out as a team work, and I'm really grateful for that.

LTPB: What did you find most difficult in creating this book? What did you find most rewarding?

AF: This is my first non-fiction book. One of the difficulties was to leave aside the usual narrative approach of fiction, in favor of a more metaphorical and alluding language. It has been a difficult but extremely rewarding process.

Another complexity was of course the reproduction of different languages and cultures - to which Victor (who is a linguist by profession) gave a huge contribution - in scenes like the following:

The most rewarding part was seeing the actress Yalitza Aparicio reading the book to children, in a video she posted on her Instagram account. That has been a huge emotion! And, in general, the reception that the book has received in many parts of the world, and especially in Latin America, thanks also to the UNESCO sponsorship.

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?

AF: To realize the illustrations, I started from hand-painted textures that have been digitally combined and drawn-upon.

It is a technique I rarely use for illustrated books (I am recently much more prone to manual techniques); I chose it because I wanted a more graphic style, not too rich in terms of details or atmosphere. I also felt that maintaining a coherent palette would have been important.

My process definitely changes from book to book. This may be a problem for many publishers, which don't often know what to expect from a commission. But it's an aspect of my personality that I have learned to accept and even cherish over the years.

Every story, every book is for me a different journey and a different adventure.

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

AF: Together with Victor and Daniel (the same team as What Makes Us Human) we have just completed another project, Before I forget, that talks about memory and its loss within a family’s history and shared feelings. If any publisher is reading, English rights are currently still available!

It was realized with acrylics and crayons - a totally different technique from What Makes Us Human - that felt more apt for this story of introspection and remembrance.

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?

AF: Hahaha! So hard to answer this one!

First of all, except for a few spectacular turns of events, it might be a pretty boring book, so I guess it should be an illustrator inclined to animating scenes a bit.

The first that comes to mind is one of my most beloved illustrators Jorge Gonzales (from Argentina, a country where I also lived). But, on second thought, I would so much like to be depicted in one of the scenes of Where the Girls Are by Nikolaus Heidelbach. That feels like the perfect place to live!

A world-sized thank you to Anna for talking to me about her books! What Makes Us Human published earlier this month from Eerdmans Books for Young Readers!

Special thanks to Anna and Eerdmans for use of these images!

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