Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Lita Judge

h1 December 8th, 2011 by jules

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:

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.

Illustrations from Red Sled (Atheneum/S&S, 2011)

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.

Spread from Born to Be Giants (Roaring Brook, 2010)

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 soon began riding beside Will Jackson, the team’s photographer. They got to talking about cameras and art. Will was impressed with how much Tom knew. ‘With my photographs and your paintings, we could make a good team,’ Will said.
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!

“Sketch of Microraptor meeting a chicken”
(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.

Title page from Red Sled

Lita: “Alfe looking at tracks in snow, holding sled”

Mmm. Coffee.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.

Sketches and final art for Red Sled

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.

“We kids had done it! All of Boston cheered.”
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.

“Visiting Beatrice Potter’s home, mecca”

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?

Lita: Shaun Tan, Lynda Barry, Lisbeth Zwerger.

Spread from Strange Creatures (Disney-Hyperion, 2011)

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?

Lita: 180° South, Bach Cello Suites, jazz, lots of Celtic music…

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!

I painted most of Pennies for Elephants while listening to Charlie Christian.

“Henry and I went to see Mollie, Waddy, and Tony right away.
‘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.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

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?

Lita: “Disease.”

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

Lita: The gesture of a happy animal.

Blue Footed Boobies from the book Bird Talk (Roaring Brook, 2012)

Baby Wood Duckling from the book Bird Talk (Roaring Brook, 2012)

“I told baby Tony about the parade, and the governor coming, and how many people would be there. I told him every detail, over and over—so he wouldn’t be nervous.”
— 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.”

With Lupine

With Porfirio the Owl

Lita with her parakeet

* * * * * * *

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.

23 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Lita Judge”

  1. Oh. My. Goodness.
    I remember Pennies for Elephants and thinking how right everything looked – and the Yellowstone book, and the dinosaurs – the animals always flow perfectly. And now the bear – so gorgeous. But what strikes me are the ocher and sepia colors in that gorgeous rendering of the owl. There’s a cave-painting vibe in that, and to find that Lita is a rock person as well – oh, that makes so much sense.

    If I had that chapel workspace, I might never come out.

    I would bet her curtains turned out that much better with that bundle of fluff helping her out.

    What a gorgeous interview. Mean people turn me off, too.

  2. Wonderful, splendid glorious interview. I too love the studio and the touches that nod to her Alaskan heritage. I have two birch branch trees in my home lit with twinkling lights and decorated with ornaments year ’round; one with eggs and butterflies and the other with hearts. I am sure she will get her wish when she arrives in Heaven. I can’t wait to hold a copy of the Red Sled in my hands.

  3. I love all the pictures of animals through Lita’s life, and seeing the connections between the photos and illustrations. I’m a fan of Red Sled, too, but I’m glad Lita in all her productivity still calls One Thousand Tracings a favorite. It’s a book I show to prospective teachers, and foreheads are always softer with thoughts of how the world can be better when they put it down. It touches me every time. Thanks, Lita, Jules — and Dave for throwing down the dish towel and helping the dream become reality.

  4. Thanks for another great profile. I especially love seeing preliminary sketches, with all their looseness and raw energy. Lita does an excellent job of keeping that energy intact in her finished work, which is inspiring.

  5. I have been loving The Red Sled for the last few weeks over at the Center and at home with my boys. As always, Julie, your interviews are such a gift to all of us. Now I’m off to find Pennies for Elephants, since I’m a new Lita Judge fan.

  6. Thanks, all. … Miranda, so glad you have it at the Center and that those students will see it. It’s just a gem all-around, isn’t it?

  7. I just love everything here — the photos, the sketches, the words. Thanks for a glorious interview, Lita and Julie!

  8. oops, and of course I love the finished art work, as well! Wow!

  9. I love seeing all of this – just so delightful!

  10. The photo that opens this with the kitten playing with the tape measure won me IMMEDIATELY, and then there’s the books and her studio and her great Pivot questionnaire. And that epic bike trip when she fell in love with her husband! I love stories like that, of how people come together.

    Lovely, lovely interview.

  11. Gorgeous interview — every single bit of it! Thanks so much, both of you. . .

  12. Hello all! Thanks for the lovely comments. And thank you to Jules for such an awesome blog for us all to enjoy over breakfast (and tea)!

  13. Such an honest, loving interview. The stories, animals, illustrations and photographs thrown into the mix make this world a place we all want to be. Thank you for sharing.

  14. […] Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast a blog about books « Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Lita Judge […]

  15. Lita showed me the first proofs for RED SLED at an SCBWI conference and I told her then it was perfect in every way and whispered (“and it will win prizes galore”) since one doesn’t dare say that sort of thing aloud.

    She is an inspiration in every way, and I’m proud to count her as a friend.


  16. Lita’s name is going straight to the top of the “favorite illustrators” list I keep on my phone. Thanks, Jules, for the focus on her. As an animal-obsessed artist myself, her work is so inspiring. I can feel her animals’ personalities- like that little mouse would totally be doing jazz-hands if he could move. And that studio with the gothic window… *gasp* Incredible.

  17. I felt like I found a gift when I discovered this post.

    Bravo all around. 🙂

  18. Great post! I LOVE the illustrations! Beautiful, all the way around.

  19. Lita’s work is exceptional and holds it’s own up there with the very best. Her work will inspire many young children to love reading as well as influence their creativity as they enjoy her beautifully crafted illustrations and paintings.

    Fabulous work Lita!!!

  20. […] Lita Judge (December 8, 2011): “I studied to be a geologist and worked on dinosaur digs, so I never imagined I’d get to […]

  21. […] You have to read the interview with Lita Judge over at Jules’ Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog. That studio! That giant cat! Doesn’t she sound like the kind of person you want to have […]

  22. […] Also in the category of Happy Surprises in the Mail, author/illustrator Lita Judge has a new picture book, Red Hat, which is the follow-up to 2011’s wonderful Red […]

  23. […] Books of 2011. Ah, 2011 was a pretty good picture-book year, wasn’t it? Oh, and remember when Lita visited me for breakfast in 2011 and her JAW-DROPPINGLY gorgeous studio? I enjoyed that interview. But I […]

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