In her career as an author/illustrator—not her first, by any means, since she once dug dinosaur bones, as well as worked as a geologist for the Forest Service—Lita Judge (pictured above, making curtains with help from her cat, Pu) has brought readers a handful of insightful nonfiction picture books. A visit to the web site devoted to her debut title proves her devotion to high-quality nonfiction for children, not to mention I’ve seen an early copy of her upcoming Spring 2012 Roaring Brook Press title, Bird Talk: What Birds Are Saying and Why, which is beautiful. (No doubt she was inspired by her ornithologist grandparents, as well as her parents who were, as she notes below, wildlife photographers.)
But her latest title, released this November by Atheneum, is a work of fiction. Red Sled (my thoughts on it are over at last week’s Kirkus column) has been met with starred reviews across the board, the official Kirkus review even calling it nothing less than “pure genius.” There are so many well-crafted 2011 picture books for the current Caldecott committee to pore over and discuss, and who knows … perhaps this one is at the top of their stack. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me at all if it were.
This isn’t Lita’s first visit to 7-Imp (see here and here), but it’s a treat to have her sit down at the breakfast table today. I do quite a few of these cyber-breakfast interviews, but I have to say this one was a particular pleasure to format, given Lita’s thoughtful answers, the artwork and images she shares, and her obvious passion for illustration and picture books. I am also struck by how much of her life is so truly entrenched in the natural world — not mostly separate from it, as it is for so many of us. (Well, I guess I should speak for myself here.)
I thank her for visiting. For this morning’s breakfast chat, she chooses her “favorite little cottage in the Lake District. We’re all dressed up in our warm woollies and about to head out on a ten-mile hike over the green hills. We’ll light some candles and load up on poached eggs with mushrooms, beans, toast and marmalade, fried tomatoes, and lemongrass tea.” SCORE. She has got this all planned out, I see. Wonderful. We’re off on our hike, and let’s get some basics from her first …
Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?
Lita: To be honest, I wrote my first story in order to create an illustration job for myself. But in the process I found that I love writing as much as illustrating.
Jules: Can you list your books-to-date?
Lita: My favorites are:
- One Thousand Tracings, 2007 (Hyperion)
- Pennies for Elephants, 2009 (Hyperion)
- Yellowstone Moran, 2009 (Viking)
- Born to Be Giants, 2010 (Roaring Brook)
- Strange Creatures, 2011 (Disney-Hyperion)
- Red Sled, 2011 (Atheneum/S&S)
Jules: What is your usual medium, or––if you use a variety—your preferred one?
Lita: I love a 4B pencil and watercolors.
The longer I work, the simpler my paintings have become. I used to bury my pencil lines in paint, but now I like having the pencil show through. I love the quality of line that pencil gives for showing expression.
Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?
Lita: I have a bright red house in the woods outside Peterborough, New Hampshire. It’s my favorite place, and I know I’ll live here the rest of my life. I was born on a little island in Alaska and spent my childhood moving all over the remote back-country of the west. So, it’s really nice to have a home and good friends and a place to belong to.
Jules: Can you briefly tell me about your road to publication?
Lita: I studied to be a geologist and worked on dinosaur digs, so I never imagined I’d get to be a writer and illustrator. But after dinner one night I was washing the dishes and said one too many times to my husband that, if I could do anything in the world, I’d love to write and illustrate children’s books. He threw the dish towel down and said, “just do it.” I began working on my first book the next day. That book never got published, but the dummy got me my first illustration job. When I finished, my editor suggested that we should start looking for another book. I had been writing many stories in the meantime and sent her my favorite. That book became my first picture book, One Thousand Tracings.
Jules: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?
Tom smiled, glad to find a friend.”
— From Yellowstone Moran: Painting the American West
(Click to enlarge)
Jules: If you do school visits, tell me what they’re like.
Lita: I do many school visits and feel very fortunate to meet some of my readers that way. One of my upcoming books is an idea I got after talking to a classroom full of dinosaur enthusiasts. Kids really keep you connected to who your audience is. And they hold no punches when telling you what they think about a book!
(Click to enlarge)
Jules: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell me about?
Lita: I’m working on a book with the characters that are introduced in my most recent book, Red Sled. Both Red Sled and the upcoming book, Red Hat, were inspired from my childhood musings. When I was a little, I often lived with my grandparents in their old farm house in the Wisconsin woods. Our family had a tradition. If someone left the barn light on by mistake my grandfather proclaimed, “Alphonse must have done it.” If a mitten went missing or a door was left open, we all proclaimed, “Alphonse did it!” I grew up thinking this mischievous little character lived in a mythical cottage near our home. On wintry mornings, I’d race outdoors to find tracks left in the snow by woodland animals and I’d search to see if I could find Alphonse’s tracks. I never did, but instead my imagination found a story. These two books have been the most joyous for me to create, because they finally bring Alphonse to life.
Okay, we’ve made it to the cottage, and both tea and coffee are on. Let’s get a bit more detailed with seven questions over breakfast. I thank Lita 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?
Lita: I find inspiration for stories everywhere, but especially from watching and drawing animals. I draw almost every day and constantly test out new ideas by drawing characters. Usually, it’s a visual idea that comes first to me for a book; a character pops into my imagination and begins to pester me. Once I decide I want to create a story around that character, I begin writing and drawing the story together. I never illustrate a book after the words are finished, but tackle both at the same time, going back and forth to get the rhythm right.
I work in pencil mostly, pinning rough sketches to a storyboard, working on the story arc and pacing. This is my favorite part of a book. I create hundreds of rough sketches and color studies during the course of getting the story right. If I don’t know how to do something, I just start exploring, and the answers usually present themselves.
At last, I reach final art stage when everything comes together. All the revisions and wrong turns fall away, and I have smooth sailing with watercolors for the next three months (hopefully). I confess: I’m a perfectionist, and I may paint a painting almost a dozen times, if necessary, to get everything the way I envision it in my mind.
Sketch and final painting for Pennies for Elephants
(Click each to enlarge)
2. Jules: Describe your studio or usual work space.
Lita: From the outside my studio looks like a big red barn attached to the house. On the roofline, I have ravens, which I carved in cedar as a fond remembrance to the Tlinkits (the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast). I was born in Ketchikan, Alaska, and immersed myself in their culture.
The inside of my studio looks more like a church — with a giant gothic window that I found and salvaged. I painted in the kitchen of a small house for years, so I went a bit nuts when I finally built my studio.
My favorite thing in the studio is a birch tree, draped in white lights and covered with painted blown eggs. I love painting eggs, or gourds, or any other natural thing I can get paint to stick to. Basically, I just love painting!
3. Jules: As a book lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?
Lita: When I was about ten years old, the bookmobile came to our small town, and I checked out The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. Over the course of the next several weeks, I read the book over and over, re-checking it each time it came due. Finally, I checked it out so many times, the lady in the bookmobile gave me a copy for keeps! I still have it.
At first I think I dreamed of being Kit and living in a small town in New England, but I soon realized what I really wanted was to be Elizabeth George Speare. I grew up in the West but eventually moved to New England and started writing children’s books just like I imagined — so I guess she’s my biggest influence.
My passion for Beatrix Potter also knew no limits.
4. Jules: If you could have three authors or illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?
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?
I do listen to music when I create books, but I have to select carefully because once I start final art, I usually listen to the same thing while working on the entire book. It just breaks my rhythm to listen to something else. So, I better like it — A LOT!
‘We can’t let the circus take them,’ I told Henry. ‘We have to do more.'”
6. Jules: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?
Lita: I fell in love with my husband while we rode bicycles across the country. We pedaled 3,300 miles in 33 days – Tacoma, Washington to New York. We were just friends at the beginning of the trip — but engaged by the end!
7. Jules: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.
Lita: Question: Tell me about your muses.
My favorite muse is my cat, Pu. She is the inspiration behind many of my characters!
And then there is the grizzly bear I grew up watching with my parents. (They are wildlife photographers.) I knew some day I’d have to do a story with this bear.
Since the bear lives out in the wilds of Montana, Pu finds it necessary to supervise my projects.
Jules: What is your favorite word?
Lita: I can’t think of just one word, but as an artist I sure know my favorite color. I love the red, red earthy hue of burnt sienna.
Jules: What is your least favorite word?
Jules: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Lita: The gesture of a happy animal.
— From Pennies for Elephants (Hyperion, 2009)
Jules: What turns you off?
Lita: When people are mean to each other.
Jules: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)
Lita: “Fudge.” Guess I’m not much for swearing.
Jules: What sound or noise do you love?
Lita: My cat, Pu, purring. And the song of Mourning Doves. And the playful cackling of Ravens.
Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?
Lita: Leaf blowers.
Jules: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Lita: Anything where you get to play in mud.
Jules: What profession would you not like to do?
Lita: Anything that involves cleaning supplies.
Jules: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Lita: “Every animal you’ve ever loved is waiting for you.”
For those who want to see a bit more of the artwork from Red Sled, more illustrations can be seen in the book’s trailer:
All artwork and images used with permission of Lita Judge. All rights reserved.