May 15, 2018

Let's Talk Illustrators #70: Mike Curato

If you've seen any of Mike Curato's illustrations, you know just how special they are. They have a way of transcending the page, taking you right into the world you're reading about, and Samantha Berger's What If... is no exception. If the gorgeous purples on the cover don't immediately capture you, other purposeful design elements like the case cover and endpapers will, and I was thrilled to get to chat with Mike about his latest illustration work, particularly because I know just how special this book is to him. Enjoy!

About the book:
This girl is determined to express herself If she can't draw her dreams, she'll sculpt or build, carve or collage. If she can't do that, she'll turn her world into a canvas. And if everything around her is taken away, she'll sing, dance, and dream...

Peek underneath the dust jacket here.
Watch the official book trailer here.

Let's talk Mike Curato!

LTPB: Let’s start by talking about your newest book What If....From what I can see, you and author Samantha Berger worked together pretty closely on it. Can you tell us about that? 

MC: After reading Samantha’s text, I knew that I wanted to create something with mixed media. Not only does the story lend itself to multiple creative solutions, but the story behind the story is that Samantha, who always makes art for herself and others, was flooded out of her home while she was working on this book. Without any art supplies, she still managed to create something everyday using found objects. She inspired me to do the same thing that inspired her to write What If…


LTPB: You’re basically on fire right now with lots of books coming out! 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? 

MC: When I get a new project (that I didn’t write), I take notes and doodle while I read the manuscript. I don’t really approach each project wanting to illustrate it differently. I keep experimenting to find the right visual solution that fits the story. I’d like to think that all of my work looks like I made it, though I do sometimes take different approaches if that’s what’s called for. 

LTPB: Can you talk about the Easter eggs (little hidden jokes) you plant in your books? How did this tradition start? 

MC: Most of the Easter eggs are little shout outs to the people in my life. I don’t have a lot of books with which to dedicate to everyone I care about, so I started sneaking in a name here and there on background signage, or inserting something that is a symbol of our friendship.

LTPB: I can’t even put into words how much I love the case cover and endpapers here. Just incredible. How involved were you in the design of the book? How do you set about creating a set of endpapers? How do you use the endpapers as extensions of the central story? What about the case cover? 

MC: The art director, Saho Fujii, and I had a very collaborative relationship when it came to the design of the book. I came up with the endpapers as a way to lead in and out of the story. It’s hard fitting a whole story into only 32 to 40 pages, so I like to take advantage of any available real estate. I love a good case cover. For What If…, we leveraged an existing spread that we felt really encapsulated the magic inside. 

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? 

MC: Ha! What didn’t I use to make this book? I used about 50 different mediums or objects to illustrate. I don’t know if I have a “preferred” medium, but I usually default to drawing on paper and coloring digitally. So, this project was a departure for me. It was fun to switch things up! 

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

MC: Well, I thought it was kind of funny that you said that I’m “on fire right now,” because I am working on my first graphic novel, which is entitled Flamer. It’s very different from my other work in both style and content. It’s a YA story about a kid at scout camp the summer before high school who is grappling with his sexual identity. There isn’t anything I can show you right now, but spoiler alert: there’s a lot of fire in it.

LTPB: If you were to write your picture book autobiography, who would you want to illustrate it (dead or alive!), and why? 

MC: Oof. That’s a hard one. I’d say it would either be Tibor Gergely or Arnold Lobel, who both had such a huge impact on me. When I was really little, I had mostly Golden Books at home, and most of them were illustrated by Gergely. So, his art makes me nostalgic for my childhood. Meanwhile, I didn’t actually read any of Lobel’s work till I was a teenager. My little brother had his books, and I remember reading them and being incredibly moved. It was one of my earliest memories of being inspired to make children’s books. Lobel continues to be someone I look up to as a book creator.

A huge thank you to Mike for chatting with me! What If... published in April from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers!

Special thanks to Mike and Little Brown for use of these images!

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