January 23, 2018

Let's Talk Illustrators #56: Laura Freeman

I was lucky enough to get a chance to chat with Laura Freeman this week about her work in children's illustration. Wondering why that name sounds familiar? It's probably because Laura is everywhere right now! In the same month, she's coming out with Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race, written by Margot Lee Shetterly, and her author debut Natalie’s Hair Was Wild. Pretty impressive, right?? I sat down with Laura to chat about Hidden Figures (though don't worry, there's a lot of Natalie here!), a book I found to be particularly impactful with Laura as the illustrator, and I'm happy to share that conversation today. Cheers!

About the book:
Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden were good at math…really good.

They participated in some of NASA's greatest successes, like providing the calculations for America's first journeys into space. And they did so during a time when being black and a woman limited what they could do. But they worked hard. They persisted. And they used their genius minds to change the world.

Let's talk Laura Freeman!

LTPB: Let’s start by talking about your newest book Hidden Figures. What kind of research did you do (factually and visually) to get the images right? How did you mix in the realities of your research with your own unique art style?

LF: The first thing I did was to read the original book that Margot Lee Shetterly wrote for adults to get a deeper feeling for the characters and the time period. I had already seen the movie, but only three of the four women were featured in it, and there are always dramatic liberties taken in a movie. The publisher sent me a few images, one of each of the women and one or two of one of the computer rooms at Langley base in VA (where the story takes place). Thank goodness for Google and for NASA’s website! I found hundreds of photos. Pictures of the base, including blueprints and plans for it, including a blueprint that shows a plan for separate bathrooms and dining rooms for white and “colored” employees! I incorporated that blueprint into one of the illustrations. I also found pictures of the town and more photos of the women at different ages.

I’ve been incorporating patterns into my work lately and wanted to include the mathematical symbols and equations into some of the illustrations as patterns. I had to research this too! I couldn’t just use any equations. Lucky for me I found a photo taken for an old Life magazine that had a group of NASA scientists drawing equations on a huge blackboard. Apparently, at the time the actual equations used were very hush, hush on account of the space race with the USSR so their equations were somewhat generic, but still specific to the lunar landing - worked for me.

LTPB: You’re basically on fire right now, with Natalie’s Hair Was Wild and Hidden Figures out in the same month! What is the first thing you do when you get a new project? Do you make a conscious effort to create different types of illustrations for different types of books (fiction vs nonfiction, for instance)?

LF: I know, I’ve been super busy and these two books couldn’t be more different! 

I wrote and illustrated Natalie which is basically a fun, silly story aimed at younger readers. The story came to me because when I was little my mom had no idea of what to do with my hair, she used to tell me that the knots were so bad it was like I had a nest in my hair. (Natalie’s hair gets so wild that animals start moving into it!) So, she’s me, but a much more confident version! . . .  and since Natalie had been percolating in my brain for more than 20 years, I pretty much knew what the whole book would look like. 

Hidden Figures, on the other hand, being nonfiction required lots of research. I’m always very lucky if the art director, (bless those who do!) will give me a pdf of the laid out manuscript with font size and page layouts, since I never know how much space to leave on any given page for the text! Then the first thing I usually do, especially with nonfiction is to start researching. I consume hundreds of photos, of the characters (if I can find them), fashions of the time period, hairstyles, makes of cars, whatever I think might be important. Only after being immersed in the characters and the time period, do I start sketching.

LTPB: What medium to you prefer and why? What have you learned from it? What media do you hope to explore in future books? 

LF: I work completely digitally in Photoshop. I used to scan in pencil sketches and work in Painter, switching to Photoshop to make adjustments, but now with their improved brushes (thank you Kyle!) I don’t have to scan or switch back and forth from one program to another. It saves me a lot of time! I’m still really enjoying Photoshop and still exploring making my own patterns and textures . . .

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

LF: Lots! At the moment I’m so excited, I’ve got FIVE projects going on, all at different stages! I’m working on the sketches for Follow Chester!, a book about Dr. Chester Pierce for Charlesbridge Publishing. Dr. Pierce broke the color line in college football when he was the first African American player to play against a Southern team (Harvard vs. The University of Virginia in 1947). I’m also getting ready to start on the final illustrations for the 6th book in The Carver Chronicles series, The Carver Chronicles: Pizza Party, for Clarion by Karen English. It’s too early to mention the others, but they’re all based on heroic African Americans!
LTPB: If you could choose any illustrator to illustrate your picture book biography, who would it be? 

LF: Wow, that’s a tough one, I’m a fan of so many wonderful illustrators! I can definitely visualize my childhood being portrayed by Shadra Strickland or Gregory Christie, (two of my favorite illustrators!) . . . but I don’t think my biography is quite exciting enough to ever be made into a book!

It was so special talking to Laura about her books! Thank you for stopping by, Laura! Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race published earlier this month from HarperCollins!

Special thanks to Laura and HarperCollins for use of these images!

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