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October 3, 2023

Let's Talk Illustrators #263: Susan Gal

I recently talked with Susan Gal, illustrator of Kristen Hubbard's book Dear Stray. The subject of this picture book is particularly near and dear to my heart, so I was very pleased that this is the book we got to discuss. Take a closer look at this special story below!

About the book:
When a little girl adopts a tigerish stray kitten from the shelter, her family isn't sure about her choice. But she can see that she and the kitten have lots in common as they both have a tendency to lash out when they're uncomfortable. The little girl does her best to be patient and give her kitten plenty of space, treating it the way she likes to be treated. And in doing so, somehow they figure out just the right ways to help calm each other.

Let's talk Susan Gal!

LTPB: How did you become the illustrator of Dear Stray? What were the first images that popped into your mind when you saw Kirsten Hubbard’s text?

Editor Nancy Paulsen and Art Director Cecilia Yung contacted my agent with a book they thought I would be interested in illustrating. They were right—I instantly fell for Kirsten’s passionate story about a feral kitten and a feisty but sensitive child. The child character was as fierce as the kitten but filled with emotions that she didn’t quite know how to manage. Kirsten perfectly captured the struggles that many children face when learning how to deal with their intense thoughts and feelings. I knew that the child in the story had to have messy, spiky hair and mis-matched socks. 

LTPB: Can you talk a little bit about the visual evolution of the illustrations? As you got to know the characters and the kitten, how did your illustrations evolve?

The story mentions that the kitten is a “tiny tiger” so I knew it had to be an orange striped kitten.

As for the child character, I saw her as incredibly sensitive and filled with passion. My daughter had a friend that was a sweet little girl but she was stand-offish and did not like to touched or hugged. Many moms were put off by this child but I liked her individuality and her determination to stay true to herself. I also admired how her family let her be herself. I remembered that little girl as I was sketching the child in this story. 

In order to capture the girl’s fiery spirit and the energy of the kitten I worked really hard to stay loose and expressive. I tried to draw a range of emotions and keep the drawings as simple as possible. 

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

I have a habit of over-working a spread as I’m painting the finished art. After a frustrated day of painting sometimes I will start over and re-paint the spread if it begins to look too heavy-handed. It sounds like a lot of work (and it is!) but more often than not the repainted spread will look fresh and more expressive. Its very satisfying when a painting looks effortless—despite the fact that it took me several attempts to get it just right. 

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium?

I like to use newsprint and pencil when sketching out a book. At this stage I don’t want to be intimidated by good quality paper so I can work fast and loose. As the sketches evolve I draw over them in ink and scan them digitally. I also use charcoal pencil and watercolors, scan those paintings, and collage them together digitally. I like changing my approach with each book I illustrate. I find that I’m going back to traditional painting on paper and letting accidents happen with paint and ink. 

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

I just completed a book written by Lesléa Newman for Levine Querido. This is my third book collaboration with Lesléa. Her writing inspires me and I love creating characters and environments for her stories. I experimented with a different way of working with this book and I’m really excited about the results. 

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?

What a wonderful question! It would be a toss-up between Brian Wildsmith—he was such a master of color and expressiveness or the illustrator M. Sasek. I’m always inspired by how these artists beautifully designed and rendered their picture books.
A million thanks to Susan for taking time to answer some questions! Dear Stray published last month from Nancy Paulsen Books!

Special thanks to Susan and Nancy Paulsen Books for use of these images!

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