Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Christopher Denise — And a Visit from Author Kristy Dempsey

h1 May 15th, 2009 by jules

Illustrator Christopher Denise and author and poet Kristy Dempsey are visiting this morning, but let me get something out of my system first, in all my excitement here:

I love love love this illustration from Chris. It comes from Jane Yolen’s The Sea Man, published back in 1997, a book I’ve never seen but really want to find now. This image is both wonderful and positively terrifying to me:

Okay, back to Chris and Kristy (and more art work from The Sea Man is below): They have a brand-new picture book out, entitled Me With You, released this month by Philomel. This week, Kristy is spearheading some online activities to celebrate the release of the new title. When I told her that I had tried to connect with Chris last year—I had wanted to feature some of his art work, but we somehow lost touch—she was just as excited as I was at the idea of me attempting to reach him again to do an interview and feature more of his beautiful art, including some spreads from their new title. Told in warm, simple rhymes, it celebrates the bond between grandparent and grandchild. Here is how Chris brought Kristy’s words—and the beloved duo—to life:

If you can’t already tell from that opening Sea Man illustration, Chris’ art work is not only precise and emotionally vivid, but he has a way with landscapes. Click on this below spread from Me With You to check out the rain. And the clouds. And the sky. And the spot-on composition. And the beautiful splash of yellow. And…And…And. Oh my. (Do yourself a favor, and click to enlarge the spread.)

“On days when being me feels like / the sky was painted black, /
you and I both together roll / along a brighter track.”

I 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 impart a classic feel to his illustrations — yet without being too saccharine about it all. You can see more of this in action in the art work below. And he sent LOTS of it, hurray.

Before we get to his seven-questions-over-breakfast illustrator interview, I’d like to share what Kristy sent me about the book:

Kristy: Me With You began as a love letter to my husband, and all the scenes are metaphors for different aspects of our relationship. It’s truly lovely and appropriate, though, that it ended up as a tribute to the grandparent/grandchild relationship. I think it shows, at the core, that the nature of our emotional connections holds true, regardless of the relationship. And, in our own family, the relationships we had with our own grandparents—and the relationships our children have with their grandparents—are dear beyond measure. I want my children’s connections with their grandparents to be nurtured. I don’t know if it’s the wisdom that comes with age and time, but grandparents often have a way of allowing a child to simply be themselves without expectations. And I’m not talking about the way grandparents spoil children. I’m talking about the way they express unconditional love.

When I first saw the illustrations for Me With You, I think my heart stopped and time suspended for just a moment. Oh my! Chris got the emotion just right. If you look in the eyes of the grandfather bear in each spread, you see his unconditional love for the granddaughter bear. I am extremely happy with the way Chris brought these two to life. Even if I hadn’t written it, it is a book I would treasure for its marriage of words and images.

It can be disconcerting to allow someone to take your “child” and give it face and form. But it’s necessary if I want to see my words brought to life. I am not an illustrator. And it pleases me that the images Chris created show the value he placed on my words.

Chris is going to join me and Kristy this morning with a “bagel with a big shmear and a couple of clementines.” And, fortunately, he also wants “coffee — lots of it.” Well, he came to the right place.

Thanks to Chris for stopping by, and thanks again to Kristy for joining us during our seven questions over breakfast. Without further ado, let’s get the basics from him while we set our table…

Note: Some of these images/spreads have been re-sized to fit within the blog’s template but are linked to the original file. Click on those to see them larger and in more detail. Really, for Chris’ art, you’ll want to.

* * * * * * *

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

Chris: Illustrator, for now, but I have a wordless book in development that no one has seen. That might need some words.

Christopher Denise

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


Spreads from Kristy Dempsey’s
Me With You (Philomel; May 2009):

“We’re a pair beyond compare, / a rare and special two, /
in all the ways that I am me / and you’re completely you.”

“When I am me, I’m swinging / over puddles from a rope, /
and you stand ready with a sponge / and bucket full of soap.”

“I’m me when I am sick in bed, / all feverish with flu, /
so you stay close to care for me / and watch the whole night through.”

“When you are in the garden, / I’m prepared to tip the spout. /
Together we know how to grow / a rainbow from a sprout.”

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

Chris: I like to mix it up. I usually end up at the same place, but being challenged by my tools and technique somehow keeps me focused on exploration and open to happy accidents. These days, I am enjoying the speed and flexibility of Photoshop CS3 and my Wacom tablet (digital painting), and I am very open to being sponsored by Cintique and working right on the screen. They can contact me through the website! But seriously, when I taught illustration, I always said I could care less about the actual medium, as long as it supports the intent of the work.

Sketches and illustrations from Brian Jacques’
The Great Redwall Feast (Philomel, 1996):

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?

Chris: My books over the last seven years have leaned toward younger readers — probably because of my kids. My approach to different types of books has less to do with the age of the intended readers. I try to let the material guide the execution.

Illustrations from Phyllis Root’s
Oliver Finds His Way (Candlewick, 2002):

Title page

“. . . under a twisty tree, and all the way to the edge of the woods.”

“Oliver looks for the leaf. No leaf. Oliver looks for his house. No house. ‘Mama? Papa?’ Oliver calls, and he begins to run.”

“From far away, under a tree, around a bush, and up a hill, Oliver hears Mama roaring back. Oliver hears Papa roaring back.”

“All the way to Mama and Papa with tumble-down hugs . . .”

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Chris: We live in Barrington, Rhode Island. You can walk barefoot to the beach from the porch. I have a studio in Providence but would like to move it out to the garage and give up driving for a few years.

“If I could, I’d swim the deep in search of treasures for you to keep.”
— From Susan Milord’s
If I Could (Candlewick, 2008)

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

Chris: Short story: luck.

Longer version: I discovered that a friend/acquaintance worked at Philomel books in New York as an assistant editor, so I sent her a few examples of my work. I don’t think she was expecting much, since I was young and inexperienced, but—as it turned out—she liked my work and encouraged me to submit my portfolio to the Art Department for review. They rejected it and told me to come back in a few years. This person, now a friend and a fan, then hung one of my promotional mailers on the wall of her office, where it was spotted by Patricia Gauch, a senior editor at Philomel, who worked with artists and writers like Eric Carle, Ed Young, Patricia Polacco, Jane Yolen, Brian Jacques, and John Schoenherr. When Patti saw the mailer, she picked up the phone right there and called me. She asked me when I could be in New York. I borrowed the cash to take the train down and we sat in her office drinking mint tea and eating cheese sandwiches. Just talking. Can you imagine this today?

I visited her office at least a dozen times over the next year-and-a-half and just talked about books. She would go off to meetings and I would sit and look at her books, drink tea, and come up with ideas. She really took me under her wing. I was the same age as her son and she knew how to talk to me. One day she said, “I want you to go down to Books of Wonder and pick up a copy of The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship. I think you could do a great job with this story.” Well, I picked up the book and discovered that the last person to illustrate the story was none other than Uri Shulevitz. The guy who wrote the definitive book on writing and illustrating picture books, Writing with Pictures. But Patti put her full confidence in me and fought for me every step of the way. We made a beautiful book, and—though it didn’t sell many copies—it started me on my way.

Patti is now the President of Philomel Books, and she is still my editor/art director/mentor (my wife’s editor, too) and a very close friend of the family. She still fights for me, because she believes in her books. Old school!

7-Imp: Can you please point us to your web site and/or blog?


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

Chris: Fun! It is different every time. I didn’t grow up with younger siblings or have much contact with younger cousins, so I learned how to be completely present with kids by watching my wife and really listening to my own kids. So, when I do visit schools, I have a few things in mind, but I try to just let it go where it goes. In all honesty, I usually resist committing to them — but always end up having a blast.

From Jane Yolen’s
The Sea Man (Philomel, 1997):

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

Chris: I taught for a few years at RISD in the illustration department, and I can honestly say that I came back to my studio after every single class a better artist. I was very fortunate to have worked with some incredible young artists, and the atmosphere that we developed was one of trust and openness. In effect, they taught the classes, and I moderated. It gave me the chance to live outside my own head, while we explored the various ways to communicate these very abstract ideas in a visual medium. And it was really, really fun. Lots of laughs — often at our own expense. It reminded me, and still does, to stay present, stay loose, have fun with it, and not take myself too seriously. It also reminded me that ANYTHING is possible. I miss it sometimes, but the politics of academia (at that time) became tedious.

Sketches and spreads from Anika Denise’s
Pigs Love Potatoes (Philomel, 2007):

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

Chris: I am creating the art for my wife’s second picture book and chomping at the bit to make some art for her middle-reader chapter book that is almost complete. I did some work on an animated film for Blue Sky Studios and would love to keep going on it, because I think we only scratched the surface of an incredible story. Hopefully, the film will be made someday, and I can say more and show some of my development work from the film.

Sketches and spreads from Brian Jacques’
A Redwall Winter’s Tale (Philomel, 2001):

Mmm. Coffee.Our table’s set. Time for our breakfast chat. With lots and lots of coffee. Once again, I thank Chris for stopping by and, in particular, for all the wonderful art work.

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?

From Little Raccoon Catches a Cold
by Susan Canizares (Scholastic, 1998):

Chris: I read the manuscript and usually sketch a bunch of thumbnails right on the page. I also collect a great deal of reference. Mostly, I spend time with my dead painter friends, waiting for the voice of the manuscript to suggest a direction.

When I used to have fewer responsibilities, I was very good at pure procrastination, but now I do a lot of thinking while I am wasting time. I keep sketching until I get hooked. Usually, it is on a character. While I play around with the drawings, very often a few key pieces show up like a special delivery — I love that. Then I focus on the structure of the book. As with a piece of music, I find the high and low points, the pauses, the big finish. It’s like a puzzle that I need to figure out. By that point, I’m usually pretty fried, and I need a few days away from it.

When I get back to it, though, I’m eager to see it come together, and this is where the computer is a great tool for me. I can put together color roughs super fast and see how the book feels as a whole {and} find the mood, the color passages over the course of the book, the size and shapes of the characters, and the message of each composition.

Sketches from Kristy Dempsey’s Me With You (Philomel, May 2009)

Sketches from Phyllis Root’s Oliver Finds His Way (Candlewick, 2002)

I used to get antsy, thinking that I was investing too much time and energy in a piece that was not right for the book. Or I would fall in love with a particular drawing and struggle to fit it in the book. Now I can get in and muck around, see the whole thing before I build walls that need to be torn down.

After a go-round with my art director and editor, I start in on the finished artwork. Finish work used to be a bit of a bore for me. Because of deadlines, there wasn’t time for fortuitous mistakes and changes in direction. I would have “x” many paintings to make in “x” amount of time. But the digital work helps a great deal in that respect. Flip a character? No problem. Change the point of view and still keep some of the elements? No problem. Although my Mac has not replaced my pencils, papers, and paints, it has become another tool that makes the creation part easier. I like easy. Suffering as an artist is vastly overrated.

Sketches and final illustrations from
The Fool of the World & The Flying Ship (Philomel, 1994):

From If I Could
by Susan Milord (Candlewick, 2008):

From Oliver Finds His Way
by Phyllis Root (Candlewick, 2002)

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

Chris: Far less cluttered that it used to be. I used to have more stuff. Maybe I thought that having stuff would create the space, but now I realize your mindset is what creates the space, so I let that go — and that was liberating. My studio is more about comfort and openness now. Much of the research and painting is done on my computer, so I need less stuff. I do use my sketchbooks and drafting table every day, so they are still here. I would like to have more space for my landscape work — but soon…

From The Wishing of Biddy Malone
by Joy Cowley (Philomel, 2004)

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

Chris: Richard Adams (author), N.C.Wyeth, E.B. White, Ernest Shepard, Arnold Lobel.

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

Chris: Tough to say, because I have been so fortunate to have met many that I really connect with, like my good friend H.B. Lewis — I guess it is a “birds of a feather” type of thing. I met Peggy Rathmann once and liked her instantly.

As far as people I have not met…yet…Ralph Eggleston at Pixar. He’s considered more of a film guy, but he’s also an incredible artist/illustrator. Just look at the art from Finding Nemo. The guy is an amazing visual communicator.

Maurice Sendak, for tons of reasons, but mostly because he is doing whatever he wants now, and yet his artistic road was not easy.

J.K. Rowling, because of the integrity of her work. Being around that kind of mind, one that can create such intricate and creative worlds, would be inspiring.

From The Redwall Cookbook
by Brian Jacques (Philomel, 2005)

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?

Chris: Depends on the part of the process. When developing a book: The Bach cello concertos (Pablo Casals); Brian Eno; Manuel Blancafort, complete piano music. When finishing the art: This American Life, Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Penguin Café Orchestra, anytime. And if things are really moving along: G. Love.

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

Chris: Although I draw mice with clothes on for a living, I am not ninety-years old and living under a mushroom.

More spreads from Dempsey’s Me With You:

“I’m me on an adventure, / digging treasure from the sand, /
and when the path is rocky, / you are there to hold my hand.”

“If I decide to run away, / then you come running too, /
to talk me into going back / before the day is through.”

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

Chris: Q: What is wrong with the publishing industry?

A: I am not at liberty to answer that question at this time.

— From Susan Canizares’ Little Raccoon Catches a Cold (Scholastic, 1998)

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Chris: “Yes.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Chris: “Can’t,” “Them,” “Fault.”

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

Chris: Unstructured time, my kids and wife, long and lively dinners with friends, painting, great conversation, honesty.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Chris: Prejudice, arrogance, obstinacy, rushing.

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

Chris: “Jackass.”

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

Chris: The almost inaudible sound my girls make when they are smiling and standing next to our bed first thing in the morning. Or the sound of the two of them chatting away. The cello, the piano, the ocean. Oh, and crickets. They only chirp when everything else is quiet.

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

Chris: Trucks, phones, alarms of any kind, people talking over each other.

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

Chris: Hmmm, tough one. Directing/art directing and film making, if I had the chops, because it is like books — but you get to use music.

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

Chris: So hard to say. Coal mining or ER doctor.

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

Chris: “You were right; we are already here. So, keep painting. You have the whole afternoon. I have invited your friends over for dinner in the garden later, but there is no rush.”

* * * * * * *

Linky Goodness:

* * * * * * *

All photos and sketches and illustrations—with the exception of the coffee-cup image and book cover—courtesy of Christopher Denise. All rights reserved.

And….closing with miscellanous art work from Chris, in case you didn’t get enough . . .

14 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Christopher Denise — And a Visit from Author Kristy Dempsey”

  1. Every time I see this book, the words to the Turtles “So Happy Together” come to mind, the song that begins, “Imagine me and you, I do…” I love that song, and I love how… happy all of Mr. Denise’s work looks — not in subject, no, but in movement and shape and shading and completion. I love that his sketches remind me of old Disney animation stills and I think the things he does on the computer are amazing.

    I think I like best that HE is so happy, doing what he does. Which is the thing that shines forth best of all in his work.

    (And yes: Our Lady Jane is SO PROLIFIC that sometimes I miss a few of her books and several of them went out of print before I figured out who she was. The Sea Manlooks and sounds amazing.)

  2. Christopher’s range is amazing, and when Patti asked me what I thought of him for SEAMAN I only knew his adorable, munchkin style. So I hemmed and hawed and then she showed me some of his sketches for the Redwall book and I was absolutely hooked.

    I love what he brought to the book, an old-fashioned Old Master look, that has both darkness and an underlying beauty. It is NC Wyeth incarnate.

    And shouldn’t that be E. B. Lewis? Or is there another
    initialed Lewis person I have missed.

    Oh, and I believe I may have some extra copies here, Jules. Send me an address and I will get one out to you.
    Always, if you can’t find an OP book, start with the author. He/she may have copies for sale.


  3. This interview totally made my week and has left me breathless! Wow!

    What a beautiful job he did on ME WITH YOU. Also love his Redwall stuff, Oliver Finds His Way, and those pigs and potatoes!! Now that I know he’s not 90 and living under a mushroom, my life is complete :). Thanks so much!

  4. Now that’s a good way to start off a Friday morning, with my latte and LOTS of art.

  5. Christopher Denise is one of my favorite illustrators. He captures such emotion; I can’t wait to see Me With You in person.

  6. Thanks everyone! What a nice way to start my weekend! The Lewis I mentioned is in fact the esteemed H.B. Lewis.Well known for his books “Can I have a Stegasourus”, “The Winnie Mae”, the “Osbert” peguin (as in the bird) books, and his film work.

    Jane, those are pretty big shoes to fill! Lets make another book soon!

  7. What a great interview. I love Chris’s work, and to see this much WITH sketches is amazing! I love the color punch in the new work! Thanks so much guys!

  8. Jules, such a great chat with Chris! Thanks so much for sharing it with us and for convincing Chris that it would be impossible for him to send too many images. I agree with Jane. What range! You can probably guess that I’m feeling like a pretty lucky girl, huh?

  9. Breath-taking!

    All of a sudden I want to go stomping around in the rain.

    Thanks to all of you for putting this interview together. It was a gift!

  10. I had been feeling uninspired all week. :o( Then I drank in this interview and the illustrations from Christopher Denise. I feel inspired again!

    Christopher’s art is so realistic and so cute at the same time. I love his animal characters. They are so ALIVE. :o)

    Kristy Dempsey’s poetry combined with Christopher’s illustrations in Me With You is so beautiful that I got teary-eyed!

  11. WOW! Wonderful.

  12. This is just an overwhelming amount of generous beauty in one fell swoop!!!

  13. I have not purchased too many children’s books in the last few years, but realized today that after buying my copy of You With Me, I also bought the Oliver book for the wonderful art a few years ago, both by the same man. I also had been intrigued by the Redwall books from illustrations I’ve seen only on the net. Chris is a truly special artist and a classic. I have been thinking that digital, although people have been putting out some pretty amazing work with it, still is not as respected and originally creative as manual art. I guess I have to open up my mind much more now. What an amazing artist!

  14. I absolutely love Chris’ work. My children and I love Oliver Finds His Way. I will be purchasing Me with You. It reminds me of the special bond my children have with my dad. I love the emotion you give your characters and I lose all track of time when looking at your work. Just love it.

Leave a Comment

Should you have trouble posting, please contact Thanks.