Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Amy June Bates

h1 November 24th, 2008 by jules

Amy June BatesAmy June Bates has illustrated many books in her career, but it wasn’t until I saw a copy of The Dog Who Belonged to No One by Amy Hest (published by Abrams this September) that my attention and interest in her work was piqued. It’s not that this is the first beautiful set of illustrations she’s ever done. Hardly and far from it. It’s that I finally realized that I’ve been a fan for years, frankly, but hadn’t quite put her name and her work together. Yes, humor me here. It was my own Amy Bates Epiphany, and I’m glad I had it.

I then contacted her to see if she’d like to show us even more of her art work and chat over a 7-Imp cyber-breakfast, and lucky for us all, she said yes. Really and truly and madly and deeply, I’m just so excited to show you her art work today. I’m rather giddy, and I haven’t even had my coffee yet.

And why is that? Well, for one, I’m a big ‘ol nerdy N.C. Wyeth fan, as well as a fan of the types of illustrators with whom he worked and from whom he learned (Howard Pyle, for one). And Amy’s work has a similar Wyeth spirit to it, if you will, in my humble opinion (and you may not be surprised to see below in the interview that she cites illustrators such as Wyeth and Pyle as influences): She manages to capture so much drama in each spread, as well as a radiance, an idealism of sorts (depending on the book, of course), and great warmth. It would be difficult, I would think, to pull off the sort of timelessness she does and the feeling that you’re reading a classic when you see her work — while, at the same time, not being too saccharine about it. But Amy does it. She manages to strike that balance — and do so engagingly. There’s certainly a place for the illustrators with a more cutting-edge and postmodern style, too, and I’ve got a long list of the contemporary ones working in that vein whose work I love, but when you want eloquence and grace—when you want realism with an illustrator who can pull off spot-on body language and facial expressions from her characters—you can go to Amy. And be quite pleased. Her work is simply beautiful, and she seems to get better with each book.

Here are some spreads from the aforementioned The Dog Who Belonged to No One by Amy Hest, certainly not the only new book Amy has illustrated — but the one new title I’ve seen that made me want to contact her. (More on her other new titles in the interview below.)

“And once there was a wisp of a girl named Lia.”

“The dog who belonged to no one spent his days quite alone, exploring the narrow streets and wide boulevards of town after town…Lia pedaled very hard…To make herself feel less alone, she thought up stories as she pedaled.”

“As day turned slowly to night, the dog who belonged to no one tried to outrun the night…run, run, run…but a small dog could not outrun the night.”

“Lia pedaled and pedaled to the edge of town, right to the porch, where her parents were waiting, and a small dog was waiting, and the soft light was on.”

And then, for this interview, Amy up and sent me these gorgeous sketches and illustrations from a publication of Swan Lake that never saw the light of day. Why? O! Why? This will remain a mystery, I suppose, but I’d gladly buy a book with these illustrations if it were to appear on a bookshelf one day:

And what are we going to have for breakfast while we chat? Well, seven cheers for Amy, ’cause she is a kindred spirit, inspired by the sheer awesomeness that a really good breakfast can be:

“Mmm, breakfast is my favorite meal of the day,” she told me. “Ideally, a cheap stack of buttermilk pancakes dripping with hot syrup and a lovely pool of fresh melty butter on top — at the diner down the street. Or how about breakfast at my place with oatmeal in or out of the bowl, possibly in your hair, compliments of my one-year-old. And a café au lait. That I am not sharing.” I get that. I really do. So, I’ll bring my own café au lait. Glad to do it. Let’s get the basics from Amy while we set the table here for our seven questions over breakfast, and I thank her for stopping by.

* * * * * * *

7-Imp: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Amy: Illustrator.

{Ed. Note: Pictured here is Amy’s version of Alice and The White Rabbit, not necessarily for publication: “My own work. [I was] playing around with time and place.”}

7-Imp: Can you list your books-to-date?

Amy: About forty books. The last five are:

Cover illustration for Martin’s Dream by Jane Kurtz (Aladdin; November 2008)

Cover illustration for Hillary Rodham Clinton: Dreams Taking Flight
by Kathleen Krull (Simon & Schuster; August 2008)

7-Imp: What is your usual medium, or -– if you use a variety -– your preferred one?

Amy: I usually use watercolor and pencil. I also like mixing watercolors with gouache and colored pencil, though I love experimenting on my own: pastels, oils, brush and ink, but I feel watercolor is very expressive for my books.

{Ed. Note: Pictured here is Wolf, an illustration for Cricket Magazine from a Russian folk tale about a wolf who turns into a prince.}

7-Imp: If you have illustrated for various age ranges (such as, both picture books and early reader books OR, say, picture books and chapter books), can you briefly discuss the differences, if any, in illustrating for one age group to another?

Amy: I‘ve illustrated early readers, chapter books for eight-year-olds, and everything in between. I just love the process of composing the visual story from the manuscript I get. I love making a visual narrative that reads as its own story. Picture books for younger children allow that best. With older picture books and chapter books, on any given page/chapter I choose from multiple events what I feel is most important or best demonstrates the characters’ emotions, although sometimes the most interesting things happen “between the lines.”

Above illustration and sketch from Speak to Me (And I Will Listen Between the Lines) by Karen English (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004)

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Amy: I live in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, right on the Appalachian Trail. I have lived in many states and even Japan. I just like being outside, discovering new things and new places.

Sketch and illustration from the The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Easy Reader Classic series, adapted by Catherine Nichols

7-Imp: Can you briefly tell us about your road to publication?

Amy: I started out illustrating books for an educational software company. A good friend of mine became my agent when I went solo. And we both have worked really hard.

Another Swan Lake illustration

Illustration from Pumpkin Cat by Ann Turner (Hyperion, 2004)

7-Imp: If you do school visits, tell us what they’re like.

Amy: I love visiting schools and meeting kids. I like talking about creating a character and doing some drawing with the kids. I love their point-of-view. They might think you are a hero and that you look like Big Bird in one breath. When I was little, James Marshall came to my school. I was really lucky. He drew lots of pictures, which I loved. It amazed me that everything he drew, even my classmates, looked like it came from the worlds he created in his books. I guess I’d just like to pass that on.

From The Dog Who Belonged to No One
by Amy Hest (Abrams, September 2008)

7-Imp: If you teach illustration, by chance, tell us how that influences your work as an illustrator.

Amy: I don’t teach illustration. My grandma and my father are artists. My uncle, Robert Barrett, is an illustrator and teaches it as well. I grew up with a cousin who loved to draw. So illustration and art run deep in my family. I don’t know that I would be a great teacher myself, but I love to think and talk about it. Over a lovely cup of coffee perhaps.

7-Imp: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell us about?

Amy: I am working on a book, The Bear in the Air, about a boy who loses his bear. Another is about a boy with a big imagination and who has a hard time discerning what is real. And also ***MY OWN PROJECT*** I am not really sure what that is but I have a lot of ideas and I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time. It is going to be GREAT!

Mmm. Café au lait.Okay, the table’s set. We’re good-to-go with our pancakes and oatmeal (I will gladly handle that wee one of hers! Oatmeal-in-hair hardly makes me flinch), and I’ve got my café au lait. Now we’re ready to talk more specifics . . .

1. 7-Imp: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Amy: After I get a manuscript, I read it through and underline crucial details. (I always hated it when there were mistakes in the illustrations in books I read or characters who didn’t look how I imagined them.) Reading the manuscript also gives me an idea of my constraints and the gist of the book. I let my impressions bounce around in my brain for a few days and get images on my morning walks. I also love doing research, which can be Internet, library, or just keeping my eyes open, watching the way people interact. I don’t usually use models; I feel like my work begins to feel too posed or photographic if I do. As my children grow up, I use a lot of their facial expressions and emotions to inform my work. Kids are great the way they just wear their emotions on their sleeve.

It really comes together when I start putting pencil to paper. My ideas flow the more I work. I like to let the gesture of the character tell the story and use the composition in the rest of the picture to emphasize that feeling.

More sketches and an illustration from Swan Lake

2. 7-Imp: Describe your studio or usual work space for us.

Amy: I work in the attic of my house, which is 130-years-old and built by a woman artist, apparently a “character.” It is bright and quiet, though I sometimes feel like the crazy lady in the attic, à la Jane Eyre. I have a place for my kids to work up here, too, so that they feel that it is their space as well. But I work best when I am by myself. I should add that it is an unholy mess absolutely always, with stacks of books that I love and use for reference.

The kids’ half of the studio

3. 7-Imp: As book lovers, it interests us: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Amy: I’ll try to make this as short as I can: One Monster After Another (Mercer Mayer); {The Story of} Ferdinand; In the Night Kitchen; Beatrix Potter. One of my favorites is Trina Schart Hyman’s Peter Pan. My dad had a book on Howard Pyle, and I was fascinated by the illustrations, trying to figure out the stories that might have gone with the pictures. Often there was a single unexplained tag line, like “The buccaneer was a picturesque fellow,” or “I thought of you as I fell.” Other things I loved: Mad Magazine. My dad had a bunch of old 1960s-era Mad comics that I pored over, with artists like Mort Drucker, a great caricaturist. Other influences include, of course, N.C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, Maurice Sendak, Charles Dana Gibson, Winslow Homer (an illustrator as well). SO SO many.

4. 7-Imp: If you could have three (living) illustrators or author/illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Amy: This is hard. Komako Sakai, Lisbeth Zwerger, Helen Oxenbury. They might have a hard time communicating, though, so we would have to draw pictures to communicate, and then I would get to keep them all.

If I could meet absolutely anyone ever? Harpo Marx, without hesitation.

Sketch for Cricket Magazine of the Nasreddin Hodja, a Turkish folk hero

5. 7-Imp: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Amy: When I am storyboarding, I can’t listen to anything. It would make my brain rupture. When I am painting, sometimes I listen to music — Blur, Beatles, Aimee Mann, Cowboy Junkies, Manu Chao. Mostly, though, I am a story fanatic, and I love listening to books. Right now I am listening to P.G. Wodehouse. I like This American Life, too.

6. 7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Amy: I haven’t grown an inch since fifth grade.

7. 7-Imp: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.

Amy: “Would you please accept this kind donation of one million dollars?”

And, yes, I would.

From Swan Lake

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Amy: “Callooh Callay,” “booger,” “punk rocker,” “scaliwag” — words that sound like what they are.

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Amy: “Tinkle.” Or “unitard.”

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Amy: A breeze, a hike, a storm, the desert, dessert, caffeine.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Amy: Being tired, people judging me.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Amy: “Frickin'” (although my husband thinks that might be a little unrealistically tame).

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Amy: Happy baby babble.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Amy: Wheezing, Styrofoam rubbing together.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Amy: Tap dancer — but only if I could be really frickin’ good.

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

Amy: A corrupt politician.

7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Amy: “Right this way. Norman Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth have been dying to meet you.” Or maybe, more realistically, “you’re late.”

* * * * * * *

Another spread from The Dog Who Belonged to No One
by Amy Hest (Abrams, September 2008)

All photos (with the exception of the café au lait and PETER PAN book image) courtesy of Amy June Bates. All rights reserved and all that good stuff.

Illustrations from THE DOG WHO BELONGED TO NO ONE by Amy Hest. Illustrations © 2008 by Amy Bates. Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

Illustration from MARTIN’S DREAM by Jane Kurtz. Illustrations © 2008 by Amy Bates. Published by Aladdin. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

Book cover ilustration from HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: DREAMS TAKING FLIGHT by Kathleen Krull. Illustrations © 2008 by Amy Bates. Published by Simon & Schuster. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

Illustrations from SPEAK TO ME (AND I WILL LISTEN BETWEEN THE LINES) by Karen English. Illustrations © 2004 by Amy Bates. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

Illustration from PUMPKIN CAT by Ann Turner. Illustrations © 2004 by Amy Bates. Published by Hyperion. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

All other illustrations and sketches, including the ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER images, published with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved, dear readers.

26 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Amy June Bates”

  1. OH, WOW. You totally nailed it — there is drama and pathos and that sort of classic feel in her artwork, a certain sweetness without being …saccharine. Exactly. I LOVE her picture of Hilary. That actually LOOKS like she must have looked as a child — sort of sweetly stubborn with freckles. I love the movement of the autumn leaves in her Dog That Belonged To Nobody cover. The little girl is adorable; the longing and loneliness and boredom shows in her face and body language, and I haven’t even read the book, but know a little of what it’s about. And the SWANS. Oh, wow.

    Thanks for sharing your oatmeal, if not your café au lait! This is very cool.

  2. Eloquence and grace indeed! Love, love, love Amy June Bates’ art. Since I discovered her work, she’s become one of my absolute favorite illustrators. And WOW – love all the sketches shared here! Thanks so much!

  3. Great interview! I love your work, Amy — your characters are really wonderful! And so funny that you live in Carlisle. My best friend is from Churchtown (off boiling springs rd.), so I have been through your hood many a times. It is such a GORGEOUS area! I will look forward to getting a copy of The Dog Who Belonged to No One — it looks adorable!

  4. Fabulous interview, fabulous artwork, fabulous answers. (Fabulousness all around.)

    The Dog Who Belonged to No One had me from the title, and sealed the deal with what I assume is the ending: “…right to the porch, where her parents were waiting, and a small dog was waiting, and the soft light was on.” I’d never imagine an illustrator could do justice to that but, duh, well, here’s Amy Bates making a dunce out of me!

    Couple of things:

    (1) Agree with you, Jules: how is that Swan Lake NOT already a book?

    (2) In describing her forthcoming work, I love how Amy just drily drops the phrase “…about a boy who loses his bear” — and then never mentions it further. Aaagh! (Exactly the reaction you want a reader of a not-yet-existing book to have.)

    [As an aside to Jules and the globe-trotting Eisha: I hope you both appreciate what an astonishing resource you’re accumulating here with the “seven questions…” series, and also with the Sunday 7-kicks “meet the illustrator” features. Is there anything else like it on the Web? Has there ever been anything like it *anywhere*?!?]

  5. Wow! What amazing art! My three year old daughter and I couldn’t stop oogling! She wanted to know what all their names were! “What’s her name? What’s her name? What’s her name?” This artist passes the kid test easily. So beautiful, thank you for sharing!!!

  6. I’m the author of Bear in the Air, the book Amy’s working on. I love her work and I’m so happy that she’s illustrating this story which is dear to my heart. The book will be published by Abrams and will be out in the spring of 2010. Amy and I have never met, so it was great to read this interview and see her sketches and photos of her studio and family. What I want to know is: with three little kids, how does she manage to do it!

  7. Thanks for sharing in my geeky enthusiasm for Amy’s art, everyone.

    JES, that is not the final, final ending of The Dog Who Belonged to No One, but it is one of the final lines. And it’s also testament to Amy Hest, the book’s author, that you were had by that line. I think it’s such a great book on many levels.

    Lindsay, yes, Amy’s illustrations are rather a child-magnet, huh? I’ve experienced that with my children, too.

    Susan, thanks for stopping by! Really looking forward to your book. And, yes, I don’t know how Amy does it with three young children either.

    And, as I was telling someone yesterday, my envy for the kids’ half of her studio borders on rabid. What I wouldn’t give for a room — or part of a room — like that where my girls could get artistic and make a big mess.

    JES, THANKS for the 7-Imp-as-resource compliment. That’s so nice to hear. Another great resource for picture book creators (both authors and illustrators, whereas the seven-questions-over-breakfast series is focused on illustrators only) is Just One More Book — with Andrea and Mark, THE hardest working bloggers in the universe and beyond. It’s a podcast, and they’re experimenting with perhaps adding more visuals. Their interviews are impressively in-depth.

  8. The Swan Lake illustrations – and her style in general – have me totally hooked.

  9. I have two of Amy’s books on my desk right now – Give Thanks to the Lord by Karma Wilson and You Can Do It by Tony Dungy. She’s one of those fabulous children’s illustrators, like Holly Hobbie, whose work I find fascinating to study, and she seems so sweet from her interview. Thanks for posting this interview!

  10. What a fabulous interview and what a fabulous artist! I just read ‘Give Thanks to the Lord’ to our preschoolers today and all of the kids loved her drawing in that book of a little one with a black olive on the end of each finger. Amy so accurately captures emotions in the faces she draws, particularly those of children. Thanks for drawing my attention to even more of her work.

  11. Wow, am a huge fan of Amy’s. She first came to my notice when my writer’s group mate, Ann Turner’s book, came out.

    But yes–sweet without saccharine, classic lines, deliciously real humans and animals that look like they have all the right parts. I would have guessed English, because there seems a direct line from Shepard and the like. But that she is here on our shores and making such beautiful pictures–wow!

    Thanks for the interview.


  12. I just LOVE your interviews. They are everything an absorbing interview should be: colourful, silly, incredibly descriptive, and bursting with great illustrations. Thanks.

  13. I’m way late on this (Thanksgiving completely threw off my routine), but, heavens, I agree we need to see that version of Swan Lake in print. The illustration of the girl turning into a swan is particularly exquisite, isn’t it? I also particularly love her unpublished take on Alice.

    Now *I* am having an Amy June Bates epiphany. Thanks, Jules!

  14. I totally wish Amy was my friend. I’d love lessons on drawing. Just wonderful, I’m going to buy her books today.

  15. […] get the same response to his art work as I do to Amy Bates’: I am drawn to the drama, the pathos, the timelessness, the emotion and adventure, his ability to […]

  16. Man, she is great. I love her work and if I had a million dollars I would give it all to her so she could draw anything and everything in this amazing world. She is the greatest in the whole world

    Hawley Barrett , Greendale, Wisconsin

  17. […] Random answer: I LOVE the new cover (artist Amy Bates). It’s beautiful and mysterious! I think it will invite those mystery-loving summer readers! […]

  18. What a great piece!
    I’m delighted to see so much lovely work by an artist I had hardly known before. To see Amy’s sketches and to find out her process is very inspiring.
    PJ Lynch , Dublin, Ireland

  19. […] Manager at the Eric Carle Museum, for her assistance with this interview, as well as illustrator Amy June Bates for helping me ponder just what to ask […]

  20. […] above comes from illustrator Amy June Bates. I’ve always enjoyed her work, as I made clear in this 2008 interview, another one of my favorite interviews, since she sent tons of art. Incidentally, she currently […]

  21. […] images were for Swan Lake and posted on the interview by Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast (Here in 2008).  Her illustrations are realistic and contain an element of fun and enthusiasm for children.  I […]

  22. […] June Bates’ interview with Julie Danielson* can be found […]

  23. […] are sketches of Julia Child from illustrator Amy June Bates. Do you love this as much as I […]

  24. […] Also, over here at Chapter 16, I talk to Deanna Caswell, the author of Beach House (Chronicle, May 2015), illustrated by Amy June Bates. […]

  25. […] by Owen Swan; and Helen Frost’s Applesauce Weather (Candlewick, August 2016), illustrated by Amy June Bates. I’m following up today with a bit of art from each […]

  26. […] Story (Abrams, February 2019), written by the prolific author Lesléa Newman and illustrated by Amy June Bates. It’s the story of a young Jewish girl who plans to emigrate to America with her mother, yet […]

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