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April 2, 2024

Let's Talk Illustrators #286: Noar Lee Naggan

I am so pleased to share my interview with Noar Lee Naggan today! We discuss his new picture book The Storyteller, written by Lindsay Bonilla, the unique process behind making the illustrations, and the inspiration for the characters we see in the final book. Happy reading!

About the book:
Griffin's grandmother spins the most marvelous stories, from breathtaking fairy tales to fascinating family lore. These stories fuel his imagination and fill their days with magic. So when he sees her once-bright spark begin to fade, Griffin is scared to think of the future. Fortunately, though, he has her stories to guide him--and to remind him that he is braver than he could ever imagine.

Let's talk Noar Lee Naggan!

LTPB: How did you become the illustrator of Lindsay Bonilla’s The Storyteller?

NLN: I illustrated a little book called Lilah Tov, Good Night for the same editor, Nancy Paulsen, and even though Lilah Tov’s lyrics are a comforting lullaby, the story in the illustrations is quite a serious and somber one, so I think Nancy thought I would fit The Storyteller, which deals with grief and loss. It’s also about fairytales and folklore, which I have always loved, so it was right up my alley.

LTPB: What were the first images that popped into your mind when you saw the text? As you got to know the characters, how did your illustrations evolve?

NLN: So! I am very much inspired by movies in my art, even subconsciously: For Lilah Tov It was “Night of the Hunter” and “Fiddler on the Roof”; for this story, which has only two characters - A grandmother, called only “the Storyteller”, and her grandson, Griffin, it was mainly two films by Ingmar Bergman: “Persona” and “Hour of the Wolf” - not kid-friendly movies by any means but, they are both about two people living on an isolated island, and when I read The Storyteller, I immediately saw the two characters on an island by themselves, perhaps living in a summer house of the grandmother’s.

There was something very solitary and intimate in the text and I wanted them to be undisturbed. I imagined their surroundings to be sparse and nautical but very colorful: Deep blue skies, lonely rocky beaches, dark gnarly pine trees, seagulls everywhere. I thought that the fairytale elements dotted throughout the pages would shine amidst the minimalist setting.

Furthermore, I wanted to model the grandmother after Tove Jansson, mother of Moomins - she is one of the most important artists for me. I really didn’t want to create another round and soft, generic grandmother from a children’s book, with glasses and a bun. I wanted her to be like Tove, a free-spirited artist, queer, bohemian (I even wanted her to smoke a pipe at one point - a definite no-no for a children’s book these days🙂)

And, because the “Jack and the Beanstalk” fairytale is a thread throughout this book, she would also be very tall, because I wanted her to represent the giants from that fairytale. I thought she should tower over Griffin and fill the compositions.

Also, Tove Jansson had a little summer cabin on an isolated island in Finland, so that really fit what I was going for, and I looked at a lot of pictures of that island and cabin for inspiration. In the end I came up with this design:

My editor and art director wanted to find a design that would be more comforting and nurturing, because they thought the themes of dealing with death would be scary enough and wanted to avoid harshness or anything claustrophobic, and asked that I find a more lush, round, comforting settings and style. So the characters would live in a house in a comforting forest instead of on a tiny windy island, and my character designs became gradually rounder and softer:

Until we reached the final style, that I think still retains some elements of my original intentions:

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

NLN: Well, about two years before I started working on this book I lost my mother to cancer. I thought enough time had past since her death that the work on this book, with its themes of losing a maternal figure could offer solace and catharsis for me during my work - I was wrong; it was just delving back into trauma every day, and adding on to it, the pandemic was raging on, and everything was just death and loss and panic. I’m glad I did it though, because if it helps even one child deal with feelings of grief and loss, it was all worth it. I did put a lot of my mother into the character of the storyteller - her colorful shawl, for example, is very much my mom, and her artistic side, and her colorful house.

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?

NLN: I worked for years with graphite alone, coloring the sketches in Photoshop. That’s how I made my previous book. At some point I got very tired of staring at the computer screen, and decided to try and create the color myself. I returned to a medium I used all the time as a child and loved - colored pencils - and I found all sorts of ways to use them in this book: On top of a wash of watercolor base, or warmed up to softness on a special heating board; or washing layers of colored pencils with baby oil to enhance the vibrancy (that is actually a technique that works great for me) - all of these techniques are meant to speed up the process, which, with colored pencils, is extremely time consuming. I learned the hard way that you can’t really rush work with colored pencils…as with almost anything in life, the best results are achieved slowly and carefully. I’m still trying to make peace with this fact.

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

I have many ideas for children books and I’m still very interested in them. I am trying new mediums though, for example, I fell in love with wool and got into needle felting. And now I’m looking for a way to make illustrations with that technique, while also veering into the world of fine art/portrait paintings. I don’t think I will ever stop using colored pencils though, I love them too much, even with all of their idiosyncrasies. Here is a practice woolen illustration I did just for fun, for an imaginary book:

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?

NLN: When I lived in America I discovered the work of Grant Wood, and fell in love with it. In fact a lot of the style in The Storyteller is heavily inspired by him. He came from a very conservative farming background in Iowa, and it’s now pretty well established that he was gay and in the closet. I spent a long time in the closet myself and come from a religious background, so I would be so intrigued to see his take on my life.

Another choice would be H.R. Giger - his work is so fascinating and I’d love to see what dark twisted magic he can infuse into the story of my life. Ah, such fanciful indulgence to even imagine it!

Thank you so much to Noar for taking time to answer some questions! The Storyteller published from Nancy Paulsen Books last month!

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

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