November 10, 2020

Let's Talk Illustrators #161: Yael Frankel

Today I'm sharing an interview with award-winning Argentinian illustrator Yael FrankelYael's debut book in the United States is The Elevator, and it was such a thrill talking to her about this book and what she has in store for us next. Enjoy!

About the book: 
"Every trip changes us, even a trip on the elevator."

A girl and her dog begin their afternoon walk. But before they can get outside to the street, they must take the elevator in their apartment building. She presses the button to go down, but the elevator goes up. Who called it? Is it broken? As the reader turns the page, the girl arrives at different floors, where new friendships are made, old stories are told, and a surprise is revealed. Beautiful human connections filled with kindness and empathy happen in this elevator in what would usually be a routine encounter.

Let's talk Yael Frankel!

LTPB: Where did the idea for The Elevator come from? How did the story and images change as you got to know the characters? 

YF: I call myself “Ms. Discomfort.” Everything bothers me! I've felt that way for many years, in all social interactions, especially when the interaction happens with strangers. Imagine how I feel in the elevator, living on the 9th floor of the building! Every time I get on the elevator, I’m hoping that there is no one and that no one else will come in.

That’s how the elevator’s story was born, but the conception of the story was a very long process that I would like to tell you about it. I thought it would be very interesting to tell a story happening in a very tiny space with a lot of people inside, people of all ages and different interests (exactly like a trip on an elevator) and no other option than to exchange pleasantries with each other.

So, the first characters that I created were the girl and her dog. After that I thought, “Where can they go?” That's how the first story was defined, by the urgency of this duo to go to the street so the dog can go pee. At this moment I had also decided that the narrator would be the girl. But the elevator doesn't go where she wants, because someone has called it from upstairs!

At this point, I had a beautiful game of going up and down, and I wanted to explore it graphically. Here came the decision to illustrate the floors, both of the elevator and of the corridors of the building where the people that are going into the elevator are waiting patiently.

Ms. Paula is the first to come in. To create something interesting between the three of them (Ms. Paula, the girl, and Rocco the dog) I thought it would be fun if Ms. Paula was very afraid of dogs. Later, I would go back to the story between Ms. Paula and Rocco. 

The next time that they press the button, the elevator goes up, instead of going down. Someone has called the elevator from an upper floor of the building. It's not written, but we already know that Rocco really needs to go to the bathroom. Time is passing and they can't get out to the street. Now, Mr. Miguel comes, the oldest resident of the building. There is less space in the elevator and as if that isn't enough, someone new has called the elevator! 

Three more residents come in: Cora and her twins. I also wanted to have each character carrying something big and uncomfortable, like the ladder, Mr. Miguel's walker, or the twins' stroller. The sensation of discomfort gets to a point that you would think that it can't get any worse …

But it gets worse. The twins are hungry and crying, and obviously, Rocco cannot hold it anymore. For a moment we believe that Ms. Paula has the solution since she has something that can calm down the twins (a cake). And here is a twist for the reader, as I have decided that the illustration will show only her and Rocco: Ms. Paula has overcome her fear and invites the dog to have some cake, and a beautiful relationship between the two of them is born. Here is the first exchange in the elevator, and we already can see beautiful connections between the characters.

LTPB: What can you share about the design of this book? The tall, skinny trim size, the button numbers mixed in with the text...How involved were you in adding these details?

YF: The format of the book -- tall and skinny -- was the idea of my editors in Argentina. I had presented the project to them in a completely different format, and they suggested that we elongate the height of the book to the point that it resembled an elevator. I said: sure! I thought it was a great idea. And today, I think this is one of the most beautiful things about the book: the format. Regarding the numbers and how they mixed up with the landscape -- for example, when Mr. Miguel tells the story to the twins -- was my own decision. I wanted to show that even though we were not in the elevator, we could keep reading as if we were inside the elevator. The elevator buttons were the iconic way to make this happen. Their presence inside the text was also a fun element to include in the book, as I could mix up letters and numbers. Many of us point with our finger while reading -- I think a lot of kids do when reading a story -- and when they see buttons, they stop to touch ("press") with their own hands. 

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?

YF: I have many different styles, and I like that way. I love exploring new techniques, new materials, and being surprised by the results. So I enjoy every new project and welcome new materials. In the case of The Elevator, I manipulated photos, broke them apart, and placed them as I wished. According to what was needed to make every character, every head or elevator buttons, I assembled everything digitally. I also used pencil to complete things, like for example the walls of the elevator, the bodies, and the faces of all the characters. Let's say there was a big mix of broken photography with digital drawing.

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

YF: Right now, I'm working on a fanzine that was proposed to me by a risograph workshop from Spain. Imagine my excitement, I’ve never worked with risograph techniques! I have complete freedom, they want to promote the workshop with a piece of art. I accepted and at this exact moment that I am answering your questions, they're printing it. I created a simple short story (since the size of the print is 30cm x 40cm at most, so this allowed 6 pages.

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

YF: Oh, what an easy question. No doubt: I would call ISOL. Is she known there? She's an Argentinian author, winner of several national and international awards, absolutely amazing. Because I love the way that she interprets the manuscript, in addition to her illustrations, she has a privileged mind. It would be an honor! But... I will never publish my autobiography, ha ha ha, it's not in my plans.

A big thank you to Yael for talking to me about this book! The Elevator publishes two weeks from today from Tapioca Stories!

Special thanks to Yael and Tapioca Stories for use of these images!

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  1. What a nice and funny interview! Thanks so much for asking me such great questions.

  2. I think Yael is a genious! She will conquer the world with her stories and her beautiful, sensitive and fascinate illustrations!!!

  3. Gorgeous looking book and great questions (and answers)!
    Making picture books is such great creative therapy; we have much to learn from our characters ;)
    Good luck with that elevator challenge!