August 8, 2017

Let's Talk Illustrators #35: Suzy Lee

Suzy Lee, illustrator most recently of This Beautiful Day, has won the Gold Medal for Original Art by the Society of Illustrators, the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature (Picture Book Honor Winner), and her books have been featured as New York Times Best Illustrated Books and Best Illustrated Children’s Books. So it's easy for me to say that Suzy's an incredibly gifted picture book creator. But what's the fun in saying when I can just show you? Join me in chatting with Suzy about This Beautiful Day and what she has in store for us next!

About the book:
Why spend a rainy day inside? As three children embrace a grey day, they seems to beckon the bright as they jump, splash, and dance outside, chasing the rain away. The day's palette shifts from greys to a hint of blue, then more blue. Then green. Then yellow. Until the day is a technicolor extravaganza that would make Mary Poppins proud. A joyous homage to the power of a positive attitude!

Let's talk Suzy Lee!

LTPB: In This Beautiful Day, Richard Jackson's text starts off full of action words that lend themselves well to visual interpretation, but as the story continues, Richard leaves more and more room for you to experiment. What was your process like for illustrating Richard’s text? What kind of illustrator notes did Richard give you (I’m thinking specifically of all the umbrellas!)? 

SL: Richard Jackson's manuscript is simple and poetic, and I feel that it offers lots of space to wander around. And as you pointed out, it's full of "action” words are so inspiring. But most of all, I was attracted by the word "beautiful." When I received the manuscript by email, I was at the hospital sitting on a visitor's bed next to my father. My father was waiting for his surgery. It was hard time for all of my family, and I felt desperate for my father.

When I saw the word "beautiful" -- which is an everyday word and really nothing special -- I felt pain in my chest. I kept thinking about the days that made me smile which will never come back once they've passed. There will be children and there will be laughter in this book. There will be beauty, and that was enough. I took the project.

Richard Jackson didn't give me a lot of notes. The author and the editors told me they wanted to see me breathe my "life to be explored" way of thinking into the book so I could add more dimension and fun to the text. 

When I illustrated Bernard Waber's Ask Me, there was only one note, that it was a conversation between a father and daughter. In the middle of the manuscript, the daughter says, "I like the color red. I like red everything." That reminded me of a fiery red park filled with maple trees. Great. Then I would make the dad and the daughter stroll in red forest. As they walk in the park, the daughter asks her father, “Ask me what I like!”

The word "red" made me start off Ask Me, and this time it was the word "beautiful" for This Beautiful Day. But I thought, if I keep following the visual suggestions I get from titles, it will be a series of endless beautiful scenes and that must be boring. Children don't care rain or shine when they play. They invent their own games in any circumstances. So, then what if I put the most challenging weather with dark clouds under the text in "this beautiful day..."? I thought this twist was off to a nice start. Once I'd decided to start from the rainy sky, the next scenes just flowed, and all I had to do was just wait to see what happened next.
Rain heavily pours outside, the children at home are bored to death at first. They've already done everything they could do indoors.
But they start to perk up, and then their fun grows as they venture out into the pouring rain. 

Rain is visually an interesting subject because I can draw a lot of straight lines. And that leads to the lovely umbrellas. An umbrella is a really funny-looking object, and it's a favorite childhood toy. It is not just for the rainy days, of course!

LTPB: What media did you use to create your illustrations? How do you find your style evolving over the course of your career as an illustrator? How do you decide just how much color to inject into your illustrations (sometimes it’s just one color throughout the book, other times, like This Beautiful Day, it’s a slow increase in color)? You are a master of using gray scale and a pop of color (in the case of This Beautiful Day, lots of blues).

SL: I draw with pencil, add watercolor wash, and ink in black. Then I pour the colors digitally in Photoshop -- it is easier to set the color scheme and to adjust the variation of colors. Often, the colors are not just for the purpose of decoration but also have a voice in my picture books. They are part of the story. In Wave, the girl's dress becomes blue, and it shows the girl has been influenced by her experience in the wave's world. It also means everything didn't just happen in the girl's imagination, but in real life, too. 
In Shadow, yellow -- the only color besides black lines -- represents the area of fantasy. 
In Open This Little Book, each color of the books-inside-the-book stands for the owner of the book. The red book belongs to the ladybug, who is reading the green book that belongs to the frog, and so on. And the colors are added in the background as well as the story develops. At the end of the book, the colors explode, and that shows the readers how the reading experience makes our life rich.
In This Beautiful Day, turquoise blue gradually tints the children's clothes, jewelry, and umbrellas, and eventually it spreads out to the space and atmosphere where children are running around. Bit by bit more colors are added, and all the colors make their days really "beautiful."

LTPB: I love that the names of the creators are on the back, and that the endpapers continue the story! How involved were you in the design process for this book? 

I was surprised, too, when I saw the back cover design. What a challenging design it is! It was entirely up to the designer, and I love it. I also loved that there was nothing but the title on the front jacket. That makes the title really stand out, and it builds more anticipation about what will happen.


I did the same thing when I made Wave. That was a wordless book, and my editor and I decided to make the front cover as wordless as possible: we regarded the hand-written title as an image of waves ,too. So we removed the author’s and publisher’s name from the cover, and the result was neat. That is still my favorite cover by far.

LTPB: What differences do you find between illustrating someone else’s text versus illustrating your own stories?

SL: I think I become more experimental when I do my own books. I never decide first whether the new project is going to be wordless or not, but it usually ends up as a form of wordless book when the idea is more conceptual and formal. The power of images and the visual logic push the story forward. There’s no author’s voice to tell readers what or how to read the stories in wordless books. In order to read a wordless book, readers need to find all the clues scattered around the book and need to focus on every element. They need to see not only the visual narrative but also even the physical elements of a book (e.g. the shape of the book or the gutter between the double spread pages). And those clues get more attention when the book is silent, not pointed by the words.

On the other hand, I take authors' manuscripts that have subjects I would never think of by myself. They broaden my view. And also I can work with light heart because there is already a starting point that the author created. Sometimes it's better to have some limits. It's like solving a puzzle: I find it challenging and it’s fun

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us? What can you tell us about Lines, coming out this September?

SL: The jacket cover of Lines tells you many things about the book. The handwritten type of the title and the name of the author are part of an image. Half of the front jacket is UV-coated paper just like the surface of ice, and there’s a girl skating and making a line on it. And the other half is textured paper just like a sheet of drawing paper. And there’s a tip of a pencil drawing and making a line on it. 

The book is about skating on the ice, as well as about drawing on the paper. Like my border trilogy books (Mirror, Wave, and Shadow), this book also talks about two different worlds going in parallel, happening in the same space at the same time. It’s for those who can see both worlds. A skater carves sinuous lines on the surface of pure white ice with graceful movements. She seems to enjoy every line she creates. 

She spins, turns and jumps. But then she tumbles and falls to the ground. Then the crumpled piece of paper appears on the next pages. It’s also about mistakes and imperfection. I hope you find out what happens next after her fall on the ice! Lines will be available this September.

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?

SL: I would like to say Edward Gorey. Why? He makes every subject unique in his style. Simply, I’d like to be part of his collection! 

Thank you so much to Suzy Lee for answering all my burning questions about her body of work! This Beautiful Day published last week from Atheneum.

Special thanks to Suzy Lee and Atheneum for use of these images!

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