February 27, 2024

Let's Talk Illustrators #281: Cornelia Li

I am thrilled to present my interview with the immensely talented Cornelia Li! Today we're talking about Gravity Is Bringing Me Down, written by Wendelin Van Draanen. This was undoubtedly the perfect book for me to talk to Cornelia about (talk about room for creativity!), and I hope you enjoy our chat!

About the book:
When Leda wakes up by falling out of bed, she knows that gravity is in a very bad mood. Again.

Sure enough, she struggles with stumbles and bumbles at home, trips and blips on the bus, and bashes and crashes in the classroom. But a lesson on gravity helps her understand what's really going on. And after a visit to a science center, Leda's mood is lifted...just in time for her to tumble--happily!--into bed.

And check out the endpapers:

Let's talk Cornelia Li!

LTPB: How did you become the illustrator of Gravity Is Bringing Me Down? What were the first images that popped into your mind when you saw Wendelin Van Draanen’s text?

CL: Prior to receive the manuscript, I happen to build up a portfolio of STEM themed children’s illustrations through the Glow In The Dark series I worked on with Quarto’s Wide Eyes Edition, and that placed me onto the radar as a potential illustrator for the Gravity (and another fun math-themed story coming out next year.)

At the time I didn’t want to corner myself into a nonfiction only children’s illustrator, so I was really excited when my AD Sarah reached out to my agent and I with the manuscript. I was immediately attracted to the rambunctious protagonist, Leda, and how Wedenlin has so cleverly introduced the concept of gravity via Leda’s mishap throughout her day. The first image that popped into my mind was Leda herself; I pictured a no-nonsense girl who has a passion for science, quick to action, and lives in her visions and dreams, and might ignore what’s right next to her feet.

LTPB: What is the first thing you do when you receive a new project? How do you make a conscious effort to tailor your illustration style to each new manuscript?

CL: My process from book to book differs, depending on the nature of the book. Usually I start research and jump into thumbnails right away, but Gravity being one of the first narrative picture book I created, I really took my time to design the characters and build a world around them. With Leda’s personality quite flushed out in the text of the story, I begin to think about what her parents are like, how she would interact with her friends, and so on. These information may not all be necessary to tell the story, but it allows me to include fun visual tidbits in the book for readers to discover.

Being a science themed picture book, I looked into 50s children’s illustration and 70s sci-fi book covers as sources of my inspiration for Gravity. I especially love the daring palettes, the dynamic characters against simplified backgrounds, and the use of vibrant complementary colours as shadows, all elements I incorporated into my own work.

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

CL: The most difficult stage in creating this book was visualizing gravity! How do you visualize a force that is central to the story in its omnipresence and invisibility? I knew I did not want to use the grid pattern often seen in textbooks — that would take the fun right out of the story! One option I considered early on was a personified Gravity: essentially a silent character who constantly pull pranks on Leda. Soon however, I realized that would make the tone of the book too cartoony, taking the science out of it. Eventually I settled on what Wedelin calls “cosmic sparks”, abstract fun patterns that indicates the magic of gravity, without giving too much away. I think that’s the most rewarding part in creating this book!

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?

CL: All my book illustrations are created using a combination of analogue and digital media. I create all the illustrations in black and white by hand, using acrylic, gouache, ink, graphite, charcoal, pencil crayon, and any other tools and materials that can create the desired texture of effect. I illustrate all the major components separately, then I scan them, compose them in Photoshop, and then colour them digitally. I find this techniques gives me the flexibility of digital media, while maintaining a hand-drawn look. I do adjust my approach from book for book; for example, for my next book, I’m using sumi ink, rice paper, and calligraphy brush to create the black and white painting, as it’s a retelling of Chinese legend.

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

CL: Yes! I’m just wrapping up on my next picture book, Chang’E on the Moon, written by Katrina Moore! It’s a beautiful retelling of the famous legend of Chang’E, coming out this fall! I also have two more science themed picture books coming out later which I cannot share at the moment.

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?

CL: There are so many brilliant artists out there whom I’d be so honoured if they would illustrate my life. One whom immediately comes to mind is Isabelle Arsenault. She’s such an inspiration to me, through her techniques, and her ability to convey complex emotions often presented her graphic novels like Jane, The Fox, and Me, and Louis Undercover. She would most definitely tell life stories in the most heartfelt and visually unique way.

Another odd-ball choice would be Hieronymus Bosch. I want to see my life represented in one painting.

A big thank you to Cornelia for lifting me up with her answers! Gravity Is Bringing Me Down published from Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers earlier this year!

Special thanks to Cornelia and Knopf Books for use of these images!

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