December 19, 2023

Let's Talk Illustrators #274: Balint Zsako

If you can believe it, I'm on my last interview of the year! And I'm so excited to round-out this incredible year of interviews with creator Balint Zsako. We're talking about his debut picture book Bunny & Tree, a wordless, 184-page picture book about friendship and home. Enjoy looking more closely at this masterpiece, and I'm excited to share more illustrators in 2024!

About the book:
Bunny and Tree first meet when the tree observes a ferocious wolf threatening the bunny and comes to its protection. From that moment on, there is a bond of trust between the two, which flowers not only into friendship, but amazingly, into a road trip adventure, when Bunny, who's looking for his rabbit friends, convinces Tree that it's time to uproot and see the world. Compelled by sympathy and a shared purpose, Bunny and Tree hit the road, becoming another tremendous and memorable picture book odd couple. Depicted in bright colors in a world of lavish skies and so much to see, Bunny and Tree share in wonder, adventure, misadventure, solidarity, and a sense of homecoming.

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Balint Zsako!

LTPB: First, a HUGE congratulations on your debut book Bunny & Tree earning a A New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Book spot for 2023! Where did the idea come from?

BZ: Thank you! It’s makes me very happy that Bunny & Tree is finding an audience. It's fascinating to see how a wide range of readers (in age and interest) are picking it up and finding their own meaning in the work.

I am a fine artist and most of my career has been making paintings and showing them in art galleries. I have always read stories to my son, who was four years old when I started making Bunny & Tree. That experience made me want to try and see what my version of a picture book story would be like. I also noticed how dependent the pictures were on text in most books and I wanted to see if I could create an emotionally satisfying story with a complex narrative without using written language. The series of artworks I was making at the time had a lot of trees being transformed and metaphorically standing in for humans, so turning that into a sequential picture story wasn’t a huge leap.

LTPB: Did you always know it would be wordless? And how long did you work on it before you decided it was ready for submission?

BZ: Wordless was the main direction. At some point I played around with adding a narration, but it was clear that since it was such an image driven experience the words took you out of that flow.

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

BZ: Bunny & Tree is my first book and I made a lot of final art without storyboarding. This meant that when we started editing the book, and I had to go back to make changes, I had to re-paint a lot more final artwork. I think all of this extra unused work shows up in story through a feeling of care and attention, but it is definitely a lot more labor than figuring out the story, and only then painting finals.

Claudia Bedrick and the team at Enchanted Lion Books (Emilie Robert Wong, Emma Vittoria and Eugenia Mello) were amazing to work with. Having thoughtful, talented people to collaborate with was my favorite part of the process. We would go over art and story and really fine tune and craft all the details to make sure the story is both accessible and sophisticated. Bunny & Tree is my story but it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good without their work.

LTPB: Can you tell us what else you do in addition to creating children’s books?

BZ: I make watercolor and ink paintings on paper for exhibition in galleries and museums and occasionally I make editorial illustrations for magazines.

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

BZ: Bunny & Tree was made using acrylic ink on paper. I know it looks like watercolor but the skies were painted with thin washes of overlapping ink. The characters and elements were then added with an opaque version of the same inks. I cleaned up the artwork in Photoshop, but also left in most of the smudges, overpainting and corrections in the final art. I like that it has moments of imperfection to make it feel human.

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

BZ: I am making a new series of paintings for a gallery, just trying a few things out, working out methods I haven’t used before. I am also thinking about what kind of picture book I can make next. For me having a satisfying question is very important, so it's very unlikely that it will be a long wordless book. Also, I love written language, so I might have to find a way to approach that world.

I dont have anything picture book related but here are some images from my last show in Toronto this past summer. I wanted to see what it would look like if I drew as if I was making lace.

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?

BZ: A Taro Gomi picture biography would be magical.

A big thanks to Balint for taking time to answers some question about this wordless jewel! Bunny & Tree published earlier this year from Enchanted Lion Books!

Special thanks to Balint and Enchanted Lion for use of these images!

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