February 26, 2019

Let's Talk Illustrators #99: Keith Negley

I recently talked to author-illustrator Keith Negley about Mary Wears What She Wants, a quick-witted book about Dr. Mary Walker. Dr. Walker was many things –– a surgeon, a prisoner of war, a Medal of Honor recipient –– but she was also a huge champion of dress reform. Mary Wears What She Wants shares the story of Mary's experiences as a young girl fighting to reform women's dress, and it was a delight talking to Keith about how he created this book. Enjoy!

About the book:
Once upon a time (but not that long ago), girls only wore dresses. And only boys wore pants.

Until one day, a young girl named Mary had an idea: She would wear whatever she wanted. And she wanted to wear pants!

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Watch the official book trailer:

Let's talk Keith Negley!

LTPB: How did you find out about Mary Edwards Walker, and why did you decide to tell her story? 

KN: I first heard of Dr. Mary Walker while listening to The Memory Palace, a brilliant podcast by Nate DiMeo. Everyone needs to go listen to it right now if they haven’t yet. The Mary Walker episode is #76. He covers her entire life, which goes so far beyond just dress reform, but I was struck by the fact that there was a time women weren’t allowed to wear pants. It just sounded so ludicrous to me. I had to look it up and I instantly had a vision of Mary as a little girl wearing pants to school and the whole town freaking out. Right around the time I was toying with this idea there was all the controversy about trans gender students being banned from the bathrooms they identify with and it just felt like there was something similar to what Mary Walker lived through. It’s 100 years later but we’re still hung up about letting people be who they want to be. Her story still felt relevant.

LTPB: 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? 

KN: I read the biography Mary Edwards Walker: Above and Beyond by Dale L Walker and dug around the internet for reference images of the era. Because the book is technically fiction I was able to take a lot of liberties. I wanted to push the ridiculousness of the townsfolk telling Mary she couldn’t wear pants by having them dressed up in crazy patterns and colors. The idea that top hats, and bonnets were considered fashionable, but a little girl wearing pants was beyond the pale seemed ripe to be poked fun of. I used the Martin Scorsese film Gangs of New York as inspiration for the town’s clothing. It’s set in roughly the same era (1850s), and in the film they’re wearing loud patterns and crazy, tailored suits, and it was just perfect for how I wanted to depict the townspeople. I wanted Mary to look like the sane one. 

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

KN: I do all my sketching in Adobe Illustrator. It’s a great tool for designing compositions, and then when I get it where I want it I rebuild the image using traditional media like water soluble graphite pencils which I hadn’t really used before this. I also used cut paper and collaged it all together in Photoshop. I also used Kyle T Webster’s halftone photoshop brushes for some of the patterns in the clothing. 

LTPB: What can you tell me about the design of this book? How do you design your casewraps and endpapers to be extensions of the central story? 

KN: My publisher Balzer + Bray were very collaborative and let me take part in all aspects of the design. The horizontal format made sense because I really wanted the spreads of the long crowds gawking at Mary to be accentuated. All of the type treatment and design was done by the fabulous Dana Fritts, the Art Director on the book, and I couldn’t be happier with her sensibilities. I got the idea for the end papers because in an early draft I had a spread where Mary was crossing out all the unwanted parts of her dresses with a pencil, and when I realized it wasn’t needed in the book I moved it to the end pages and simplified it. As far as the case wrap, I love subtle and simple design solutions and loved the idea of a case that felt a bit like a throwback to older picture books and suggested that. Dana came up with the lovely design. 

LTPB: What are you working on now?

KN: I’m just now wrapping up my next book with Balzer + Bray. It’s similar to Mary Wears What She Wants in that it’s inspired by a trailblazer from history, but this one has a green energy angle to it. I don’t want to say any more, except that it should be out in time for Earth Day 2020!

I also just started on a biographic picture book about Keith Haring written by Tami Lewis Brown for Farrar Straus Giroux Books. It’s titled Life Is Art, and I’m so excited about it. This is my first time illustrating a book I didn’t write, and I couldn’t have picked a better subject matter. 

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

KN: That's a really tough one to answer. If I had to pick one I’d have to say Beatrice Alemagna. Her work is so alive and full of character. Everything she does blows me away.

A million thanks to Anna for taking time to answers some questions! Mary Wears What She Wants published from Balzer + Bray earlier this year!

Special thanks to Keith and Balzer + Bray for use of these images!

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