Gianna Marino, my 7-Imp visitor this morning, debuted her picture-book work in 2005 in a book Kirkus called a “lively, engaging debut,” Zoopa: An Animal Alphabet (Chronicle Books 2005). Just when you think you’d seen every approach to alphabet books, along came Gianna with a fresh one in this wordless picture book, featuring a bowl of alphabet soup and a colorful menagerie of creatures surrounding it. In Spring of this year, Gianna followed the title up with One Too Many: A Seek & Find Counting Book, also released by Chronicle Books. This one features one flea, bouncing between farm animals, its path traced in a thin silver arc. Kirkus wrote, “Marino’s illlustrations are marvelously striking, positioning animals that are largely black and white, with a bit of sepia, against blue sky (that modulates to pink and then to night) and sandy barnyard,” adding that it’s “a rare counting book with wide appeal.” This nearly wordless title definitely holds some treasures for the eager, observant child reader.
“I LOVE breakfast!” Gianna told me when I invited her for a breakfast chat. “By far my favorite meal of the day. I like big, fluffy waffles with fresh berries and honey, or a stack of home-made pancakes with bananas and Vermont maple syrup, or breakfast burritos with avocado and salsa and cheese — lots of cheese. I like big over-sized muffins or thick bread with peanut butter and jam. Yeah, I LIKE all these things…but I usually have a small bowl of oatmeal with soy milk.”
I think, since this is a special occasion, that we should have the big, fluffy waffles. Don’t you all agree? I’ll make enough for everyone –and put the coffee on, of course. Come on over, dear readers. Let’s get the basics from Gianna first, while I make these waffles and wait for you all, too, and I thank Ms. Marino for stopping by.
7-Imp: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?
Gianna: I am both an author and illustrator. My first two children’s books are wordless, though “written” by me. Yet my first job as a writer came from travel-writing. I think in pictures, so illustration is my first love and easier for me. I tend to write very descriptively. Great for travel-writing. A challenge for picture books.
7-Imp: Can you list your books-to-date?
Gianna: Zoopa: An Animal Alphabet (Chronicle Books, 2005) was my first children’s book, a play on the word “zuppa” (Italian for “soup”). One Too Many: A Seek & Find Counting Book (Chronicle Books 2010) is my second, just released in early May.
And I just got a three-book deal with Viking for three titles I created over the last year: Meet Me at the Moon, Too Tall Houses, and Whoosh.
7-Imp: What is your usual medium, or––if you use a variety—your preferred one?
Gianna: I have been using gouache for years (for those wondering how to say it, it sounds like “squash” with a “g”). I love the chocolaty feel of gouache. I sometimes use it more like a watercolor and wash it out. Gives more intensity than watercolor.
I have also been experimenting with mixed media. I tend to get very focused on detail. A few years back I wanted to “play” more and loosen up my style. I got these wonderful hand-made papers (rice paper, mulberry paper, banana leaf, mango leaf, bark paper, etc). I layered them over canvas or watercolor paper, soaked them into the surface with gel medium, and then used acrylics on top. I tried washing out the acrylics and using them more like a watercolor than an opaque paint, layering and layering until it built up the color/style I wanted. You can see some examples in this on the Meet Me at the Moon samples (above) and on my website under Mixed Media Paintings.
I would love to try sculpture some day — or encaustic. I like to experiment. I find my style is very different with each medium I use. I don’t like to be stuck, and experimenting is like traveling.
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?
Gianna: Picture books are difficult to write. They seem so simple, but they are like poetry and every word has to tell its own story. I like to write descriptively and want to put in every detail into my story. I want to paint a picture with my words, but that is what the illustrations do. When I write picture books, I am constantly cutting out words, especially when I start the thumbnails.
7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?
Gianna: I was born and raised in San Francisco, though I think I have some country blood in me. I spent most of my childhood building walk-in aviaries and chicken coups in my backyard. I had over three dozen birds at one time — chickens, lizards, rabbits, ducks, rats, dogs. I also rode horses in Golden Gate Park everyday. I would wake up with the sun, feed my chickens, pedal my bike to the barn, ride out to the beach, gallop until I couldn’t breath, and bike home in time to feed my dog. I stole a chicken once too. Should I say this outloud? I was working at “this place” with a BIG snake that was fed chicks. I was cleaning out the chick pen and one of the little fuzzy guys had a limp. I thought it was SO unfair that he would be fed to a snake, the limp preventing him from a fair try at escaping (which he couldn’t do in the glass cage, but it still seemed grossly unfair). So I stuffed him in my pocket and took him home. A few months later he started crowing and had to be donated to the zoo. No roosters in San Francisco.
I really wanted a sheep too, but no hooved animals allowed (save for the horses at the public barn). I had this fascination with animals, and it must have been written all over my face. On another bike ride through the park, a man came up to me (out of the hundreds of people biking that day) and said, “I just found this little baby duckling and don’t know what to do with it.” Yes, I took that home too.
I now live in Northern California out in the country. I have two Newfoundland dogs, two horses, and a gigantic cat that is almost as big as the dogs.
7-Imp: Can you briefly tell me about your road to publication?
Gianna: Briefly. Is it possible for anyone to speak briefly about the LOOOONNNNGG path to publication?
I took a class over ten years ago through UC Berkeley Extension on “How to Illustrate a Children’s Book.” Our assignment was to illustrate the first page of an alphabet book. I couldn’t think in ONE-PAGE thoughts, so I had the idea for the entire book which turned into Zoopa five years later. And in the class I met Jim Averbeck, who invited me to join his writer’s group, “The Revisionaries,” with Lynn Hazen, Yuyi Morales, Maria van Lieshout, and Karen Ehrhardt. At the time we were all unpublished. We have all been so dedicated and now have multiple books, starred reviews, awards, and the best support I could ever wish for in a writer’s group.
Lynn Hazen, and Karen Ehrhardt (with little Ian)
7-Imp: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?
7-Imp: If you do school visits, tell me what they’re like.
Gianna: I do a lot of school visits, and they are mostly wonderful — with a few exceptions. For my assemblies, I dress up like an Italian chef and wave around a giant spoon, mixing a bowl of letters that the children help pick out and turn into words. My workshops are drawing classes with a little storytelling. I love to do school visits, and kids really are the best audience. The awful part is when the schools are not prepared. I was doing an assembly once in the cafeteria with several classes eating lunch and talking on tables at the far end of the room. That was bad, but I could talk over them. It was the band practice that started up behind the curtain, full on with tubas and trombones and drums, that I could not compete with.
7-Imp: If you teach illustration, by chance, tell me how that influences your work as an illustrator.
Gianna: I have taught illustration to young children only. I think teaching makes you understand better what you do, and I think for me, it helped break up complex drawings into simple shapes. Instead of trying to draw a very complex layout, I can break it down to circles, squares, ovals, etc.
7-Imp: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell me about?
Gianna: A few. I mentioned the three-book deal with Viking that I hope to be starting on soon (just very recently found out the news).
I am also working on a young adult novel about twin sisters who are complete opposites. The wilder one is sent to India to work at a home for disabled people. She hates it and runs away with a dreadlocked traveler to explore India and, ultimately, herself. She decides not to call home for months, so she doesn’t get into trouble. Meanwhile, her “perfect” twin, who is seemingly so together, learns their father is dying of cancer. She has to deal with her own demons, and the family is torn apart while dealing with death and trying to find the lost sister.
Our coffee has brewed, and we’re ready to get a bit more detailed. I thank Gianna again for stopping by.
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?
Gianna: I get ideas for books at random times. I sometimes will have a very vague idea, and I will just let it sit in my head for awhile -– days, weeks, months (dare I say years…). Sometimes they never form beyond the first thought, but more often the idea for a full story will come to me after it cooks in my subconscious. Most of my stories come from personal experiences. I love to draw animals, and they are usually my characters that have to endure my writing and re-writing.
The process, once the idea is in my head, is a bit more straightforward. I write before I illustrate. Words are quicker to change than illustrations, and I feel the bones of the story come from the words. Once the text is somewhat finished, I start spacing out my sentences, cutting out strips of paper, and making little books of words to see where I want the page-turn. Then I start off with little tiny thumbnail sketches, just a few inches tall and wide. I tend to get lost in detail, and these little sketches keep me focused on the form and flow of the drawing over the page. I fiddle with these thumbnails forever, then enlarge them and do tighter drawings. These are then transferred onto watercolor paper and the painting begins. Changes and tweaks are constant until the art is finished. I love deadlines, and I love having many projects at once. I function better when I know there is no end to projects.
2. 7-Imp: Describe your studio or usual work space.
Gianna: I work in what was supposed to be the guest bedroom in my house. (Guests are still welcome but are not nearly as comfortable as they were meant to be.) I have flat files full of sketches and different types of paper, a giant drawing table that looks out over the garden, stacks and stacks of books, and most importantly, music.
3. 7-Imp: As a book lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?
Gianna: I was a very quiet child and loved to be read to. I made my mom pause long after the words of the page were read, so I could pour over the details of the illustrations. I remember loving Beatrix Potter, especially the naughty Peter. The Story Of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, Where The Wild Things Are, Corduroy by Don Freeman, The Jungle Book, Dr. Seuss.
4. 7-Imp: If you could have three (living) illustrators or writers—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?
Gianna: Daniel Handler, because I know he would make me laugh. Timothy Basil Ering to see how he gets those wonderful textures in his illustrations. And Gary Schmidt, who I recently heard speak. He had the audience in tears and inspired me to write a novel in one day (in theory….).
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?
Gianna: I don’t listen to anything when I am writing. In fact, if anyone is even IN the house, I am distracted. I do listen to music when I am illustrating, everything from mellow world music to weird Portishead to Pearl Jam and Snow Patrol. Do I have a favorite? No, just depends on what I am drawing. If I am working on a sad piece, I will put on sad music. (Patty Griffin always makes me cry). If it is playful, something more upbeat.
6. 7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?
Gianna: I’m kinda scared of the dark and still think there are monsters under my bed.
7. 7-Imp: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.
Gianna: Do you have thoughts on how to inspire children?
Encourage them to do what they love. I feel like we are pushed around life in so many directions and since life is so short, we should enjoy what we do. Don’t push them to be someone they don’t want to. Let them find their own path, even if it is not yours.
7-Imp: What is your favorite word?
7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?
7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
7-Imp: What turns you off?
7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?
Gianna: Warm wind blowing through dry grass.
7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?
7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?
Gianna: Anything 9 to 5 in a window-less box.
7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Gianna: “You can go anywhere you want.”
All artwork, sketches, and photos used with permission of Gianna Marino. All rights reserved.
The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, © 2009 Matt Phelan. Thanks to Matt, Alfred now lives permanently at 7-Imp and is always waiting to throw the Pivot Questionnaire at folks.