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May 30, 2023

Let's Talk Illustrators # 251: Nelleke Verhoeff

I am so happy to present my interview with Dutch creator Nelleke Verhoeff! Today we're talking about her Mix-and-Match board book series, which features split pages for kiddos to build in three sections. Each book has a loose "theme" and the hilarity that ensues from some of the combinations can't be matched! Enjoy our conversation! 

About the book:
Mix and match tops and bottoms of characters in these interactive split-page board books! The Mix-and-Match Series will introduce young readers to a variety of creative possibilities while building vocabulary.

Let's talk Nelleke Verhoeff!

LTPB: How did you come up with the idea for the Mix-and-Match board book series? What were some of the challenges of creating such a unique series?

NV: I've always loved the figure-match drawing game, where you draw one part of the body, and pass your paper over to someone else and he/she draws another part of the body without seeing the other parts. In the end you get such surprising and funny results. I wanted to do something with that idea. Then, during a run, the idea popped up to combine this mix and match concept with a counting concept. I went home and immediately made a drawing of a cat with 3 legs to try the concept and I instantly knew it was a good idea!

I started to create more of these characters and send them to my editor at Barefoot Books, Kate DePalma. She loved the idea and proposed to do two board books: One about counting and body parts and another about colours and clothing.

There were lots of challenges to tackle. In the first split-page counting book: 1 Smile, 10 Toes, we needed a huge variety of body parts to count, so not only arms, legs and toes, but also eyelashes, wrinkles and tails, and there had to be enough counting possibilities up to ten.

To fit everything together was quite a puzzle, some characters had arms on the upper part and others on the bottom part, so they needed to be separated from each other, left or right. Also all the characters needed to have the same waist measure to fit together, which was also challenging.

Since I made these characters in Photoshop, my friend made a little animation as a digital kind of dummy, to be able to check all the possible combinations. You can find an example here. I made a special Batch Task in Photoshop to cut the drawings in half and then added them to this animation dummy. I remember the first time I saw the combinations I had to laugh out loud :-)

For the other book: Red Hat, Pink Boots, we needed to find a broad variation of different clothes and colours, which was also challenging.

LTPB: These two books are the third and fourth in the series, how do you continue to come up with new ideas for the series? And which of the books are you most proud of (so far!)?

NV: For these first two books I used characters and parts from a collage project I did the year before. It was a daily project for myself to play with collage and try out new techniques. I posted them on Instagram to stimulate the daily challenge. I more often work that way because it gives me new ideas and many times I can use parts of it in books I create or illustrate. So I already had some rough material which I could use for these books.

After the first two board books were published I got a question from my editor to develop two new books in the series. They proposed one book about food, and I chose the subject jobs for the other book. The question to make more books in this series came as a nice surprise to me because to be honest I hadn't thought of that. I firstly developed some new characters for those new books in the same style of the existing board books. We all liked them, but decided it would be better to get a bit more distinction between the books. So for the jobs book Bruno Builder Bakes Bread we chose human characters instead of animals, which turned out to be a good idea!

The board book Ketchup on my Sundae was the biggest challenge of all. It was a process of sending ideas back and forth, and keep trying until we were all satisfied. it was a productive cooperation. The characters needed to be recognizable as food, but also they needed to make a good fit together in terms of tastes. The difference was, these characters didn't have legs as in the other books. We decided to give both the upper part and the bottom part eyes, but not too big, so they were still recognizable as real food. In the end we added the words 'on my' or 'in my' to the book and then everything fell into its place.

The first book 1 Smile, 10 Toes is my favourite in this series because of its unique concept, mix and match combined with counting. This one has won two awards: The Tillywig Award and the Mathical Award (2022 2 - 4 year old). Also the fact that there's a series now makes me happy.

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

NV: In my computer, I have a large library of scanned-in textures and self-made Photoshop texture-brushes which I can use for my books. It depends on the subject of the book which style I will choose. For example I've illustrated some poetry (haiku) books, where I have put more emphasis on image-rhyme and repeating elements. For another book which has a quite heavy subject about illness/cancer, I used more rough printing textures, which I made especially for that book. And as I said before sometimes books come from self initiated projects, like the 100 days of animals project.

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

NV: I'm currently working on a fun project, but unfortunately I can't tell you more about that yet.

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?

NV: Ha ha ha, funny question! I don't have any plans to write an autobiography, but if it would be illustrated by the inspiring Beatrice Alemagna or the great Květa Pacovská, it would be at least a feast for the eye. I was a theatre performer before I became an illustrator, so the theatrical characters of Květa could be a good fit to that part.

A million thanks to Nelleke for taking time to answer questions about this super fun board book series! Bruno Builder Bakes Bread and Ketchup on my Sundae published in April 2023, and Red Hat, Pink Boots and 1 Smile, 10 Toes published in 2021 from Barefoot Books!

Special thanks to Nelleke and Barefoot Books for use of these images!

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