Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Mélanie Watt

h1 July 19th, 2011 by jules

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Here’s author/illustrator Mélanie Watt, who has brought us one of contemporary children’s literature’s most memorable characters, being stalked by said character in Florence, Italy. Okay, so perhaps he’s just hanging out with her. He is a bit neurotic after all and probably just wants some company.

Scaredy Orville Squirrel. My favorite defeatist. Children’s lit’s dearest doomsayer. A wunderkind of a worrywart. What I love about this guy is that I relate to him just a little bit. (What? Name me someone who doesn’t have a little bit of that neurosis and then a little bit of another.) And yet as a parent, who tires of the overly-sanitized, fear-of-letting-your-kids-play-in-the-dirt Age of the Antibacterial Soap we currently live in, I laugh to myself and nod my head over Scaredy Squirrel’s little epiphanies at the close of each book, his realization that leaping into the unknown at least makes life a wee bit interesting, his reminders to us all to chill out a bit when it comes to the hyper-protective parenting. Power to Scaredy Squirrel for knocking us upside the head and reminding us to take risks, ditch the fear a bit, and calm down a lot.

And if Mélanie didn’t wrap all that up with great humor, it would be a bit too heavy-handed, huh? But, nope, our petrified, panic-stricken hero with his set schedules and predetermined activities for every day of the week and map legends and ennumerated instructions to himself and Action Plans and huge host of fears (whew — no wonder he doesn’t get out of the tree very often), in a story told with a skeleton of a traditional narrative, manages to make us laugh — and nod in recognition. Just look at that cover for the second title (pictured below), Scaredy Squirrel Makes a Friend. THAT NAME TAG (”Hello. My name is Scaredy“) . . . I mean, that’s just funny. As I’ve said before at the blog, have you ever watched a child hold a Scaredy Squirrel book in his or her hands and just pore over all the images and icons and lists and flow charts and other delightfully left-brained stuff? Sure, it’s probably not for everyone, as no one children’s book is, but I say hurrah for the tongue-in-cheek cartoon illustrations and all the humor and Scaredy’s continued quest to leap into the unknown — even if Godzilla, mobs of lobsters, falling coconuts, vampire bats, poison ivy, piranhas, polka-dot monsters, flocks of seagulls, birthday party ponies, herds of sea monsters, or Bigfoot is involved.

But there’s more to Mélanie’s body of work than just our beloved Scaredy. Sure, he’s once again the star of his own new nail-biting saga—Scaredy Squirrel Has a Birthday Party, released by Kids Can Press in February—but she’s got another new title from Hyperion, released in March (You’re Finally Here!), which I actually haven’t read yet. And she’s also here this morning to discuss her other characters and titles, not to mention the most rewarding thing anyone could possibly say about her books.

Her breakfast-of-choice is “oatmeal with Quebec maple syrup on top.” Mmm. Sounds good, and I’ll brew the coffee. I thank Mélanie for stopping by.

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Mélanie: Author/Illustrator.

Jules: Can you list your books-to-date?

Mélanie: Picture books:

Jules: What is your usual medium, or––if you use a variety—your preferred one?

Mélanie: Acrylic paint, watercolor, charcoal pencil, or digital — depending on the book.

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Mélanie: I live near Montreal, Quebec.

Jules: Can you briefly tell me about your road to publication?

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Mélanie: It was in a design class taught by Michèle Lemieux at the University of Quebec in Montreal in 1999 that I created an art project entitled Léon le caméléon. This book mockup was later sent to Kids Can Press in Toronto and published as Leon the Chameleon. I was not planning on becoming an author/illustrator. I had my mind set on advertising. It all happened really quickly, and I haven’t looked back since!

Jules: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?


Jules: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell me about?

Mélanie: Lately, Scaredy Squirrel keeps me busy, but I would also like to develop a story idea I have had in mind for years and just never seem to have the time to get to. TOP SECRET INFO!

Spreads from Mélanie’s Have I Got a Book for You! (Kids Can Press, 2009)

Mmm. Coffee.Coffee’s ready, and the table’s set now. Let’s get a bit more detailed, and I thank Mélanie again for visiting 7-Imp.

1. Jules: 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?

Mélanie: I start with a message, then an animal character that I feel can communicate it best or embody the topic. Ex: Squirrels look neurotic in parks, and cats are the center of the world. This explains Scaredy and Chester.

Then, I start putting pages together on the computer, pick a font, and start writing what comes to mind. I draw and write at the same time and adjust one or the other as I feel fit. I try and decide how many pages I need to use, and I keep reworking it over and over.

I make a mock-up (including flaps and cover). Usually, the final book result is about 85%-90% similar to my original first mock-up.

The original version of Scaredy Squirrel
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2. Jules: Describe your studio or usual work space.

Mélanie: It’s all white, the table surfaces, shelves and walls.

For color, I have books displayed and famed newspaper interviews and a magazine cover and posters.

I have a few awards on a shelf with a display of translated editions of my books, like an Italian Scaredy Squirrel and Japanese Augustine, to name a couple.

My computer takes center stage. I have a scanner and printer and pens and pencils lying around. It’s not too messy, but it’s not organized either. Kiwi, my pet parrot, likes to hang out here and steal my pencils.

Click to enlarge Augustine covers

3. Jules: As a book lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Mélanie: I was definitely more interested in drawings. Like most little girls, I enjoyed the classic princess stories and elaborate puffy dresses! I would re-draw my own versions of Cinderella and make small booklets and show it to my parents.

I never imagined one day that I would be creating children’s books!

Mélanie’s childhood drawings
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4. Jules: 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?

Mélanie: I am a big fan of Patrick McDonnell (The Gift of Nothing). I love the simplicity of this book and the wit.

Kevin Henkes (Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse). I think this book brilliantly captures a kid’s emotions.

And I would love to meet Robert Munsch — to name a few. This is difficult to choose. There are so many great books out there!

The interesting thing for me, especially, would be to get their insight on how they got started and how they juggle it all.

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

Mélanie: Absolutely. I love music! I enjoy many genres. Right now I listen to classics like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, Félix Leclerc, Charles Aznavour, and Johnny Cash as I work.


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

Mélanie: I like to play the guitar and the piano, but I play by ear. As a kid, my parents tried to get me to learn to read music, but I didn’t have the patience for it. Maybe one day I will give it another try.

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

Mélanie: Yes, one question:

What is the most rewarding thing readers can say about your books?

The best is when parents and kids say they can use my picture books as a jumping off point for communication. (The book takes on a new dimension.)

I’m fascinated with the psychology of human behavior and how we communicate. I recall moments of my childhood like it was yesterday. I remember my first day of kindergarten, what I was wearing and the nervousness I felt about dealing with the unknown.

Children are really sensitive to their surroundings and experiences. These moments shape our personality and confidence as we get older and will follow us all our life. I think it’s important that books be a communication starter between adults and kids, because sharing insight and memories can bridge the gap between the generations and give a boost of confidence to kids.

Mélanie’s characters
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* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Mélanie: “Happy.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Mélanie: “Failure.”

Jules: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Mélanie: Discovering something new.

Jules: What turns you off?

Mélanie: Negativity.

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Mélanie: Hundreds of geese honking as they land on the lake.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Mélanie: The alarm clock (the screechy, beeping one).

Jules: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Mélanie: Musician.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Mélanie: Accountant. Funny story: I studied business administration for three years before changing paths and enrolling in a design program at university. Numbers were not my friend.

* * * * * * *

Note for Scaredy Squirrel fans: Evidently, Scaredy Squirrel has lost his emergency kit, but you can collect all the items in the kit and help him defeat germs, poison ivy, angry unicorns (yes, angry unicorns), and more in the upcoming Scaredy Squirrel app from Kids Can Press. It’s based on Mélanie’s book series, and I hear it’s not suitable for dragons. As I understand it, this app is coming this Fall.

* * * * * * *

All artwork and images used with permission of Mélanie Watt. All rights reserved.

Selection from Have I Got a Book For You! by Mélanie Watt reprinted from an earlier 7-Imp post. Originally reprinted by permission of Kids Can Press Ltd., Toronto. Text copyright © 2009 Mélanie Watt. Illustrations copyright © 2009 Mélanie Watt.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, © 2009 Matt Phelan.

7 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Mélanie Watt”

  1. Thank you for this interview. I absolutely love her books and so do my students. I can’t wait to share this information with them.

  2. Loved this. Melanie is so very talented!

  3. Jules,

    Thanks for this interview with Melanie. I love the Scaredy Squirrel books. They’re so funny and they appeal to both children and adults. I will definitely be sharing them with my grandchild.

    I’ll have to check out Melaine’s Chester books.

  4. What fun books!

  5. What a coincidence! We just read You’re Finally Here! for the first time yesterday and loved. The girls and I just devoured all the fun info about Melanie- thanks for sharing!

  6. Flying by to say three things:

    Hi Jules!
    Hi Melanie!
    Hi Scaredy Squirrel!

  7. I am a teacher librarian in Mississauga ON and my students love your books. I have two little boys in grade 2 who are twins and they keep telling me they have so many new titles for the next Scaredy Squirrel book. They love scaredy squirrel and have your books and puppet and the whole thing associated with Scaredy Squirrel. They wanted me to write to try and get your address because they want to write to you to share some of their suggestions. Can they do that? That would make their day. thanks so much for making us laugh. Tina Marano

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