January 22, 2019

Let's Talk Illustrators #95: Jessie Sima

Jessie Sima's books are consistently hilarious, well-designed, and full of heart. They evoke a sense of warmth as her characters discover how they fit into the grander scheme of things, and I was thrilled to get a chance to chat with Jessie about her fourth picture book Love, Z. If you thought narwhals and penguins were cute, wait until you meet Z!

About the book:
When a small robot named Z discovers a message in a bottle signed “Love, Beatrice,” they decide to find out what “love” means. Unable to get an answer from the other robots, they leave to embark on an adventure that will lead them to Beatrice—and back home again, where love was hiding all along.

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Jessie Sima!

LTPB: In your own words, what is Love, Z about? What inspires you to write these types of stories wherein your characters explore themes like belonging, acceptance, and self-discovery?

JS: Love, Z is an exploration of how “love” means different things to different people (and non-human animals, and robots). I’m very intrigued by robots (real and fictional) and how they’re used as a way to talk about humanity. Robots are often portrayed as not being capable of understanding or feeling love, and I wanted to use this trope to talk about how maybe we all struggle to put “love” into words. Love is difficult to explain, but that’s ok.

My stories evolve a lot as I work on them. I usually come up with a character and a loose concept/scenario, and the themes come along later. In the case of Love, Z, I didn’t start out trying to tackle the complexities of “love.” If I had, I probably would have given up immediately, cause how does one even do that? The early drafts of Love, Z dealt with a more superficial idea of “love” and never really explored the word/feeling/concept. It took for granted that the audience knew what “love” meant, as if the definition was obvious. Eventually my editor and I had a conversation about the issues the plot was facing, and I realized what the story needed to be about.

As to why I end up being drawn to themes like belonging, acceptance, and self-discovery, presumably those are the topics that occupy my subconscious. Not to make it sound like there is no thought that goes into all of this, but the themes in my books tend to evolve organically. I guess I’m inspired by issues that seem both universal and personal, and then I try to talk about them through a certain character or scenario.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book?

JS: The illustrations for Love, Z were created completely in Photoshop, from sketches all the way to final art. I sketch using Kyle T. Webster’s Animator Pencil brush, and use a variety of brushes that imitate traditional media for the final art.

I started working digitally because I had limited space and was working on art that would eventually need to be digitized anyway, for use on the web, t-shirts, etc. Now it’s what I’m most comfortable with and it allows me to easily edit my work for publication. I’m interested in bringing some mixed media into my work, but for now fully digital is working for me.

My process doesn’t change that much from book to book. I start out with some character exploration sketches and move onto dummying once I have a manuscript or at least a general idea of how the story will go. I do some color exploration, which is one of the hardest parts for me, and eventually I create a strict color pallet for the book. I go back and forth a bunch with my editor and art director, and once we’ve agreed on my sketches and a sample final spread or two, I move onto final art. For final art I tend to outline the whole book before going back in and coloring. Usually, I’ll color all of one character throughout the entire book (in an attempt to keep things consistent) and then move onto the next character. It sounds very methodical and I’m sure it wouldn’t work for everyone, but it’s the way I like best so far.

LTPB: What can you tell me about the design of this book? How involved were you in adding in details like the different casewrap/dust jacket? How do you design your casewraps and endpapers to be extensions of the central story?

JS: I like being as involved with the design of my books as possible. My amazing art director, Lizzy Bromley, always takes the time to talk through decisions with me, and I’m really happy with everything we’ve made together. I think the case cover and endpapers are great places to put extra content that may not make sense to include in the central story. I usually present a few options for both the case cover and the endpapers to my editor and art director and we go from there. For Love, Z the case cover we ended up using was my first idea and the only one I sent them. I really liked it (and thankfully they did too) because it was sort of interactive. If you hold the case cover facing out in front of you, it’s almost like you are wearing Z’s sweater.

In Not Quite Narwhal I used the back endpapers to tell a joke that had nothing to do with the rest of the plot. I could have left it out, but I’m glad we found a place for it. I get a lot of questions about that rhinoceros. Even when my endpapers are just patterns, I try to do something to make them reflect the story. In Snow Pony and the Seven Miniature Ponies the front endpapers have an apple pattern, and in the back it is the same pattern but the apples are eaten. Creating this stuff is a fun exercise in trying to expand the world you’ve created.

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

JS: I recently put finishing touches on my next picture book, Spencer’s New Pet, which is slated to be published in August 2019. It’s very different from my past books (in both style and tone), and I’m excited to see how people respond to it. Stylistically it’s inspired by silent film, so it is nearly wordless, and the art is grey scale with splashes of red and pink. I’ll be doing a cover reveal in early February, but until then, I think I’m safe in sharing some sketches.

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

JS: I’m going to cheat and pitch two ideas for this:

#1: 32 randomly chosen 5 year olds. Each of them could work on a page and bring a bunch of energy and spontaneity to the book.

#2: Edward Gorey. I have always loved his work, and it amuses me to imagine him drawing me drawing Kelp. I want to see how Edward Gorey would draw Kelp!

A huge thank you to Jessie for answering my questions! Love, Z published last year from Simon & Schuster!

Special thanks to Jessie and Simon & Schuster for use of these images!

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