August 8, 2023

Let's Talk Illustrators #256: Julie Benbassat

It was love at first sight when I saw Julie Benbassat's illustrations in the wordless masterpiece The Book From Far Away, co-created by Bruce Handy. I am so happy that I got to talk to Julie about this project because it's her debut picture book, and it feels like an honor to talk to her at the very beginning of what I know will be an incredible career in illustrating children's books. Let the conversation take you far away!

About the book:
A child busy reading in a treehouse spots a family who seems to have just arrived on Earth for a picnic. The youngest member of the alien family holds a mind-bendingly strange object. Could it be a book from outer space? At the end of this gorgeously illustrated tale, each child returns home with a book from far away to remember a kind stranger.

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Julie Benbassat!

LTPB: Congratulations on your debut picture book! How did you become the illustrator of The Book From Far Away? What were some of the first images that popped into your head when you saw the concept for the book, and how did you work with author Bruce Handy on creating a wordless book?

JB: Thank you so much! It’s been a whirlwind since my agent Rebecca first emailed me the manuscript to The Book From Far Away and now the book is coming out in a few weeks! It’s scary and amazing how fast time flies.

The editor at Minerva, Amelia Mack approached me with Bruce’s story, eager to see how I would illustrate his fantastical alien book. I was immediately drawn to the beautiful story that Bruce had written, from the descriptions of a child reading in the forest to the alien family having a picnic in a small clearing. There were so many avenues in which I could take this story and its characters and Minerva was giving me almost complete control on how the book would look. The freedom of complete creative control was entirely new to me as someone coming from an editorial background so I jumped on the opportunity as fast as I could.

I found that the first images that came into my head were the time of day and season. Bruce’s story felt intrinsically linked to summertime, when the trees are verdant green, fields are full of tall grass and kids have plenty of time to go read a book in a wooded space. I also felt like that time of day would be a fun challenge for my alien designs as many books featuring extra terrestrial friends tend to take place at night. This led me down other areas of rethinking what a sci fi book for children could really look like.

The one core visual theme I kept encountering with the brainstorming phase was the repetition of circular designs which ended up being implemented in the alien book, alien characters and spaceship drawings. Circles and round shapes fill the void of space with giant planets, glowing orbital rings and swirling cosmic galaxies, so I wasn’t being too much of a rebel for trying these ideas out. I also liked the idea of aliens having an organic, celestial shape in comparison to the popular characterization of large pale creatures with soulless black eyes. Plus Bruce had mentioned the alien child having a pet so I wanted the alien characters to give off a welcoming aura similar to a human family.

In terms of working with Bruce on hashing out the look of the story, I mainly stuck to reading and interpreting the manuscript. It was similar to how I work with editorial articles in that manner: you get an article that’s basically completed and you have to find a way to illustrate the core themes in the piece. We tended to speak to each other via edits to thumbnails and sketches I would send. Editors Amelia Mack and Maria Russo also made sure to give their input on the concept art I sent in as well as the outline sketches. At one point I gave an alternative ending to the story in my sketches but it was decided we would go with his original ending per his input. Luckily, I was able to add my own little bonus image to spice up the end scene so it was a great compromise.

LTPB: What did you find most difficult in creating this book? What did you find most rewarding?

JB: There were many challenges with figuring out the voice the story would have. One of those components actually had to deal with the human character. I found myself so drawn to the alien designs that I had to go through several iterations of human designs to match the voice of the alien one. The character that was born from all my sketches came to be this gender ambiguous child I like to call Olly. From the red jacket to the frog backpack, all of us knew this child was the one!

Additionally, another challenge came in figuring out the looks and movements of the alien book. In a lot of sci-fi books, aliens come out of techno, futuristic spaceships with tools that look rigid and metallic. I wanted the spaceship and alien book to have a sense of wonder and mystery that almost bordered on fantasy.

For the book I wanted something that didn’t follow the normal square/ rectangular shape but still had the effect of turning a page. I tried to avoid the idea of a hologram book because that seemed to resemble video too much and there’s something about the physical movement of page turning that gets the child in me excited.

Another thing to consider was how the alien would turn the page. Even amidst humans we read in different directions depending on the language so I wanted to have a book that could be read at any angle you turned the page. I kept going back

to the idea of a circle and how interesting it would be if the alien book itself had no direction of start or finish, similarly how the universe itself is so grand and ever expanding, which resulted in the sparkling circular, multidirectional book you see today!

When it comes to the most rewarding part of this book I think the alien mother design stands out for me. I wanted the parents to feel as fantastical and otherworldly as the child's design but kept wanting to impart my own life experience into the process. My mother uses a wheelchair and I wondered what it would be like if an alien had mobility issues, what would the wheelchair look like? Would it be as hard to navigate in a spaceship or would it be able to do certain things that we can’t do on earth. It became an interesting challenge to figure out how an alien would navigate having a picnic and coming off of the spaceship in an extra terrestrial wheelchair and how that wheelchair would operate. In the end I found the design to be quite animated and fluid with the wheelchair being able to float and move organically to fit the whole family for a reading session if need be. I wanted to emphasize that no matter what the unique situation, the alien mother was included in the fun and could join the family even if her mobility wasn’t the same as theirs. This was such a small detail in the grand scope of the story and I was grateful the editors and Bruce were on board for my little addition.

LTPB: It looks like you do a lot of commissioned work and side projects! Can you tell us what else you do in addition to writing and illustrating children’s books?

JB: I’m actually new to the picture book world so I’m normally used to juggling freelance work from editorial magazines like the New York Times and New Yorker with small commissions from non profits and individuals. I had done some work for nonfiction children’s titles but I was mainly working as an editorial illustrator after I graduated from art school in 2019.

Luckily my freelance career has also grown to include working on animation backgrounds, staying in artistic residencies and plein-air painting. I find that having a range of work to do helps expand both my worldly knowledge and my artistic sensibilities that I can then bring to making better illustrations.

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?

JB: The Book From Far Away was my first fictional children’s book and I had a hard time deciding the medium at first. For many of my editorial and nonfiction books before, I did a mix of traditional lineart with digital coloring. I wanted to have the same process for this book but found that the scope I was going for in my thumbnail sketches required help from digital enhancement, specifically all the circular designs would require the aid of digital shaping tools. I also knew that there would probably be edits made along the way and tools like photoshop and IPad procreate are great for those.

In the end I decided to do most of the concept art traditionally as a guide to help formulate what I wanted my digital drawings to emulate. I also made sure to do pencil line art for a few pages to make sure I had a solid foundation of what I wanted my digital lines to look like. Plus I also have a ton of digital brushes that look like traditional paints so that helps immensely with giving each page a watercolor feel.

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

JB: I recently finished up the finals for There’s That Sun Again (2024), a poetry children’s book by MK Despres Smith published by Holiday House and am now in the midst of sketching for Tove Grows a Tree (2024) a chapter book by Larissa Theule and published by Candlewick. While I can’t share anything big yet, I will say that working on both of these books wouldn’t have been possible without all the wonderful things I learned from working on The Book From Far Away.

preview from There’s That Sun Again (Holiday House, 2024)

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?

JB: I’m torn between Jillian Tamaki and Maurice Sendak. I love the narrative flow of Tamaki’s works and the way she weaves energetic line work into several mediums like paint and embroidery. I find that she’s one of the best illustrators and comic artists working today so I know if she were put to the task she’d make my life look way cooler than it is.

On the other hand, I’ve always been drawn to older artists like Beatrix Potter, W.W. Denslow, Windsor McCay and William Blake whose works seem to capture an older period in time yet remain so universal. In that vein, I’ve always been drawn to Sendak’s works from Outside Over There to Where the Wild Things Are because they capture that same antiquated feeling yet feel so real to modern audiences. I think that if he illustrated my life, he would be able to find wonder in the little things which is something very important to autobiographies.

In the end I can’t choose haha.

A cosmically large thank you to Julie for talking to me about this beautiful book. The Book From Far Away publishes next week from Minerva!

Special thanks to Julie and Minerva for use of these images!

This post contains affiliate links. For more information, visit my policies & disclosures page

No comments:

Post a Comment