July 26, 2022

Let's Talk Illustrators #218: Linda Bondestam

I feel super lucky that I got a chance to talk to Finnish author-illustrator Linda Bondestam about her illustration and story processes for My Life at the Bottom: The Story of a Lonesome Axolotl! I hope you enjoy our conversation about this special book, which highlights the critically endangered (but incredibly friendly) axolotl.

About the book:
In a forest of seaweed there was ME, a rare and beautiful little axolotl, going for my first-ever swim.

So graceful, and yet so lonesome--out of 987 eggs, mine was the only one that hatched.

Who knows, maybe I was the last axolotl in these waters?

At the bottom of a lake in Mexico City, our axolotl narrator goes to underwater school, collects treasures tossed away by the big lugs on land, and has dance parties with tiger salamander friends. Life is good!

But as the world gets hotter and hotter, the water gets murkier. Friends become harder to find, and the lonesome axolotl grows even lonelier. Until one day when, out of the blue, a colossal wave carries the axolotl into a surprising new future...

Let's talk Linda Bondestam!

LTPB: Where did the idea for My Life at the Bottom come from?

LB: It was a long process, but everything started in Italy many years ago when I saw a photo of a very strange creature, an axolotl. It was like a mixture of an alien and a smiling baby - very strange and almost cute. I immediately understood that I had to make a book about it. The axolotl actually first appeared in my book Good Night, Earth, but that was really just a warm up!

The axolotl from Good Night, Earth

The axolotl from My Life at the Bottom

LTPB: Can you talk about your research process for this book, including your visual research of axolotls? What challenges did you encounter?

LB: I read a lot about this little animal and it was a shock to understand that it might already be extinct in the wild. I understood that the climate crisis fitted smoothly into the story, and I read many books on the topic. The axolotl is a fantastic creature and just like our planet it has the ability to regenerate if it gets hurt.

I also watched many nature documentaries - I wanted the reader to get close to the axolotl in the book and interested in nature in the same manner as when watching a film by David Attenborough.

My biggest challenge when making the book was how to end it. I wanted the book to be hopeful and warm despite the seriousness of the theme.

I really wanted the reader to feel close to the axolotl and get more interested in nature.

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?

LB: I used a lot of different media when creating the book: pencils, watercolors, ink pens and collage etc. I always try to find a style that suits the story I’m working on at the moment. In the end I still put together my pictures in Photoshop, which I really enjoy. It’s like a magician’s hat, so many tools you can get creative with and it also helps me organize my work and control the colors in the book. 

I found some marbled papers that were perfect for making the lake in the book:

Many surfaces are hand painted with watercolours:

I really enjoy drawing my characters in sketchbooks using simple line drawing. Quite often I draw different body part separately to be able to colour in a more convenient way in Photoshop.

My daughter Milja helped me with some of the drawings. I’m so pleased with how they turned out!

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

LB: I’ve just finished a picture book by a Swedish writer named Mimi Åkesson, it’s a book that makes the reader think a lot about different kinds of groups and belonging. The book has hundreds of characters so it was a huge job!

This picture is about having siblings or something else. Här är alla andra Natur och Kultur, Förlaget 2022. Text Mimi Åkesson

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?

LB: Actually, I realized My Life at the Bottom has a lot of autobiographical elements. But it is just the first part of my life so it will have to be continued.

There are so many good illustrators out there, it would be hard to choose. Maybe I would pick Jenny Lucander or Lena Frölander-U. lf who are not only great illustrators but also my great friends. We also share a theater group and we’ve been through a lot so I think they would know what they are working on. At the same time I have a feeling I would have to do it myself because all my storytelling starts with pictures.

I love being part of a Theatre Tapir.

Thank you so much to Linda for talking to me about this book! My Life at the Bottom: The Story of a Lonesome Axolotl published earlier this year form Yonder!

Special thanks to Linda and Yonder for use of these images!

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