June 6, 2017

Let's Talk Illustrators #27: Greg Pizzoli

At this point, author-illustrator Greg Pizzoli hardly needs an introduction. But he gets one anyway! Greg has won the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award, his work has been featured in dozens of places, including The New York Times, and he's won not one but two Portfolio Honor Awards from the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). A loose follow-up to his 2015 book Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower, Greg's latest book The Quest for Z: The True Story of Explorer Percy Fawcett and a Lost City in the Amazon walks the fine line between beautifully illustrated, impeccably informed, and super duper creepy (because when a whole line of people walk into the Amazon and never walk back out, that's creepy!). Let's dive Percy Fawcett-style into this book!

About the book:
British explorer Percy Fawcett believed that hidden deep within the Amazon rainforest was an ancient city, lost for the ages. Most people didn’t even believe this city existed. But if Fawcett could find it, he would be rich and famous forever. This is the true story of one man’s thrilling, dangerous journey into the jungle, and what he found on his quest for the lost city of Z.

Let's talk Greg Pizzoli!

LTPB: First off, thank you so much for stopping by!

GP: First off, thank you for featuring my new book on your site!

LTPB: Let’s start by talking about your newest book The Quest for Z. Why did you choose to tell Percy Fawcett’s story? How long did it take you to create this book? 

GP: I first heard about the explorer Percy Fawcett by listening to the audiobook version of David Grann’s excellent novel, The Lost City of Z. I got it from the library, listened to it twice, and then went and bought the book. Fawcett’s story has everything I loved as a ten year old – adventure, dangerous animals, maps, treasure, and mystery. I was looking for a topic to make into another picture book biography, something that would sit well with Tricky Vic, but not repeat it, and Fawcett’s story was perfect.

It took almost two years to make the book. Fawcett was a very complicated figure – and he had so many fascinating experiences that it was tough to edit down everything I wanted to include.

LTPB: What kind of research did you do, factually and visually, to bring this story into picture book form? How did the visual narrative change as you researched the story?

For visual research, my first stop was the Royal Geographical Society in London. I went there in January of 2015 and saw many of Fawcett’s letters, reports, and maps firsthand. In one of the letters, he had transcribed letterforms from an unknown language that he had found carved into rocks in the jungle, and these shapes come up a lot in the pictures I made for the book. People will probably notice first that the jungle foliage in the book was made using collaged newspapers – these are real newspaper articles about Fawcett from his lifetime – I photocopied them and cut them up and collaged them into plant shapes. For the drawings of how Fawcett may have imagined Z, I based much of that on travel photographs I took of the pyramids in Tikal, in Guatemala, and the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

endpapers for The Quest for Z

I wanted the overall look of the book to sit well next to the Tricky Vic, so the sidebars and human forms are similar – but it’s a very different setting for most of the book, so the colors and more vibrant, and more dense.

LTPB: You used a LOT of media to create The Quest for Z. Can you walk us through your process?

GP: Sure – as mentioned above, I did photocopy and collage a lot of newspaper reports on Fawcett to create the jungle scenes. Everything ends up in Photoshop, which is where the final images were composed. I have a treasure trove of old Zipatone sheets which I collaged to create some of the jungle scenes, for example on the page with the winding river and the snake. Often I will assemble things on the computer, print them out, photocopy them to sort of blow the linework out, and scan them back in. I like the rough halftoned look I can get this way.

LTPB: You’ve illustrated over 15 picture books and board books in 5 years. How do you come up with new story ideas? How do you keep your stories and illustrations fresh and evolving? How has your process changed since your 2013 debut The Watermelon Seed?

GP: I think new ideas just come from writing everyday and reading books with kids at school visits and seeing how excited they get to find a book that makes them laugh or look at the world in a different way. As for keeping things fresh, I hope I’m doing that and can continue to do so. I’ve only been doing this for five years or so, and I’ve got a long way to go. The big thing that’s changed since when I was writing The Watermelon Seed is that I wrote that book while working full-time at a job I did not love. I’m very lucky in that making books is all I do now, and I can really dig into something and see where it takes me.

A small sampling of Greg's many books

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

GP: The next book I have coming out is The Twelve Days of Christmas – my picture book version of the classic Christmas carol. It’s my biggest picture book ever – 56 pages of spot color chaos. I love Christmas, and I’m super excited about this one. I have read it at school visits recently, and it’s a ton of fun as a read/sing aloud. I have a new nonfiction that I’m writing as well, slated to be published in 2019, but right now I am just pumped to have everyone discover the crazy story of Percy Fawcett’s life, his adventures, and his obsession to find the lost city hidden deep in the Amazon in The Quest for Z.

LTPB: The last question I’m asking all illustrators who participate in the series is, if you could have one illustrator (other than yourself!) illustrate your picture book biography, who would it be and why?

GP: If she were still alive, I’d ask Tove Jansson do it. I’ve always loved her linework, and she’s got enough of both light and dark in her stories that she could handle my childhood well.

LTPB: Thanks so much again for stopping by, Greg!

GP: Thanks again for featuring my work!

A million thanks to Greg for taking time to answers some questions! The Quest for Z publishes June 13, 2017 (NEXT WEEK!!) from Viking!

Special thanks to Greg and Viking for use of these images!

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