February 6, 2018

Let's Talk Illustrators #58: Cori Doerrfeld

When you're upset, sometimes the most valuable thing someone can do is simply listen. No judgement, no "Here's how you can fix your problem," or, "Here are my thoughts." Cue The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld. Whether readers identify with the book through grief, anger, or fear of failure, it is immensely powerful in every word it doesn't say, and I'm very honored that I got the chance to chat with Cori about it. I learned a lot!

About the book:
When something terrible happens, Taylor doesn't know where to turn. All the animals are sure they have the answer. The chicken wants to talk it out, but Taylor doesn't feel like chatting. The bear thinks Taylor should get angry, but that's not quite right either. One by one, the animals try to tell Taylor how to process this loss, and one by one they fail. Then the rabbit arrives. All the rabbit does is listen, which is just what Taylor needs.

Let's talk Cori Doerrfeld!

LTPB: Where did the idea for The Rabbit Listened come from? 

CD: In the past few years, two of my friends experienced losing a child. It was so clear from my own struggles, and those of everyone around them, that nobody really knew what to say or do during these difficult times. Emotions are tricky, especially uncomfortable ones, and it left everyone feeling very alone and helpless at times. It made me remember a letter I got from my high school boyfriend. When he was eight, his older brother was killed in a car accident. The letter described how comforting his pet rabbits were in helping him process his brother’s death. Unlike the well meaning people in his life, the rabbits were simply quiet, calm, and there for him. The rabbits simply listened to him talk, cry, or whatever he needed to do to move through his grief. I have often thought of these rabbits over the years, and have made lots of art and rabbit stories. But as my friends described how frustrating it was to feel unheard as they grieved, for the first time I realized the perfect wisdom in how the rabbits were there for that little boy. With that in mind, and my desire to do something, anything that could be helpful to my friends and others, the idea for The Rabbit Listened was born. 

LTPB: How many evolutions did this book and the illustrations go through? How did the visual story change as you explored the topic of listening? Did you always plan to have a human child and supporting animal characters? 

CD: So the truth behind creating stories, is that sometimes you have to sketch, and write, and think, and sketch again, and there is a real back and forth as you finesse the idea into existence. Other times, for me at least, a story feels like it was always somewhere inside you, like it was just waiting for you to discover it. Sometimes, all the prep work was done without you even knowing by your heart, your thoughts, and your collective experiences. Sometimes, it even feels like you are just a channel that story chose to come through, in a way that you yourself have a hard time understanding. This was so true for The Rabbit Listened. I had been feeling so helpless and sad, so I went on a long walk with my dog to think. I’ll never forget that as I walked, the story, the little child, the animals, the blocks all just kind of formed. The story was so clear right from the start. I literally walked home as fast as I could, wrote a quick manuscript, and thumbnailed the book from start to finish. 


That same weekend I put together the entire sketch dummy. By the next week it was out for submission. As I worked on the finished art, I did play around with how color and backgrounds could enhance the emotions and scenes, but for the most part, the finished version of The Rabbit Listened is exactly the same as the initial dummy. This is the only time this has ever happened to me! 

LTPB: This book feels like a huge change in tone for you. How did you create these illustrations? Why did you choose to explore a new medium? 

CD: Yes, there definitely has been a shift in tone with how and why I make illustrations. I do feel like I’ve never had one exact style, but have always switched up what I am doing to fit the book I am working on. I do finally feel, however, that I am finally settling into my groove. To create the illustrations for The Rabbit Listened, I used a digital Wacom pen and Photoshop. I always start with really loose pencil drawings. Once those are scanned, I use them as a guide to create the final art in Photoshop. 

For a long time, I really had to juggle being a full time stay at home mom of very young kids with my career. I didn’t have as much time, or even the mental energy, to really create the way I wanted. But, in my efforts to become more efficient, I did make that initial switch from hand painting illustrations with acrylic paint, to creating digital art. I never had any formal training with digital art or Photoshop so it was a process that evolved over years of practice. Fast forward to a couple of years ago, and my youngest was at least old enough to go to preschool a few days a week, and I suddenly felt I finally had the time to really explore who and what I want to be as an author-illustrator. By the time I wrote The Rabbit Listened, I was very comfortable with using a digital pen and creating a looser, ink wash type feel on the computer. It always felt like the right way to make this book, and I really tried to keep the looseness and energy of the original pencil lines. Some of my older work is more rigid and tight. I think it was really all just timing. By the time I wrote The Rabbit Listened, I finally had the time and focus to let myself loosen up. This book really helped me find my home in illustration. 

LTPB: Tell me about the color purple in this book. Aside from three spreads, the entire book exists in a void of white space. Why did you choose the color purple to highlight emotional moments? Why did you choose to highlight those emotional moments with purple, specifically? 

CD: The three moments when Taylor builds the tower, 

loses the tower, 

and then reimagines building the tower again are crucial scenes in the story so I always knew I wanted to use some kind of background element to highlight them. 

Even in the sketch dummy, theses scenes were the only ones with an implied background, even if it was just gray wash. I knew I had to figure out a way to make sure the right emotion and impact was felt by the reader. How do you represent that moment when you feel like your life is coming together, and you’re proud of what you created? When it’s all taken away? Purple always seemed like the best choice because it is a pretty emotionally neutral color. Because purple is so rare in nature, it also has a kind of magic quality that makes you pay attention. Purple can make you recognize that something special is happening, just like in Harold and the Purple Crayon. As I worked on all of the final art for The Rabbit Listened, I did explore using background colors or elements in the other scenes. 

I even tried using red instead of purple in the tower destruction scene.

In the end, background colors didn’t seem necessary in the other scenes, and only using purple kept a cohesiveness to the arc of creation, destruction, and imagination. 

LTPB: What are you working on now? And what can you tell me about Good Dog

CD: I love Good Dog! While I had many pets growing up, it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I adopted my first dog from a local rescue organization. He is a little dog named Rufus who came from unknown circumstances of neglect. Despite that, his love, loyalty, and devotion for me were there from day one. It was love at first sight! As Rufus and I walked the neighborhood, or friends and family learned that I had him, it became so obvious that so many people feel the same way about their dogs. Dogs seem to have an innate goodness that speaks to so many. Good Dog is about that goodness. It has a very diverse set of characters that includes many of my friends, family, and neighbors. The entire book is written with adjectives, and I really hope as people read it, they pay attention to what makes the dog a good dog. In this current political climate of division, I hope Good Dog is a way for people to remember the good things that unite us.

I also just finished up the final art for a book called Wild Baby which is an ode to my daughter and her wild ways as a toddler. It follows a mama orangutan as she chases her child through the jungles of Borneo and so captures how I felt as my daughter ran fearlessly through stores, parks, and everywhere when she was little. I got more than one annoyed, judging glance from other moms. Which, by the way, was really fun to recreate as various annoyed jungle animal moms. My daughter is still a force of nature, but just like when she was little, her creative spirit and drive to explore everything and anything can lead to the most beautiful experiences. 

LTPB: If you could choose any illustrator to illustrate your picture book biography, who would it be and why? 

CD: Probably because I grew up reading so many Roald Dahl books, and because I see myself as a quirky outsider, it would be so amazing to have Quentin Blake illustrate my picture book biography. He so captures that perfect mix of humor and heart, and isn’t afraid to draw ugly where ugly is due. (My mom gave me a lot of bad perms as a child.) I’m sure he’s just waiting for the opportunity! ; )

A million thanks to Corifor taking time to answers some questions! The Rabbit Listened publishes February 20, 2018!

Special thanks to Cori and Dial Books for use of these images!

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