Often, when I do these illustrator interviews, I think I’m super familiar with the work as a whole of the artist I’m Q-&-A’ing, but then I make the good discovery that there’s a title or two I’ve missed, which sends me running to my local library or bookstore to find them. In the case of today’s interview, though, I’ve read every book author/illustrator Jonathan Bean has illustrated and have followed his career with great interest. He’s done only a handful of books and he took a bit of a break as well. But I’m so happy he’s back with a new illustrated title, One Starry Night, released by Margaret K. McElderry Books in October of this year — the second picture book by the talented Lauren Thompson that he has illustrated. I happen to think it’s beautiful—just take a look at one of the spreads, pictured here (I love that palette)—and I’m really drawn in general to his work.
Jonathan’s first illustrated book, Lauren’s The Apple Pie That Papa Baked (with artwork inspired, he noted in his back-flap bio, by both Virginia Lee Burton and Wanda Gág), got him the 2008 Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Award. In reviewing that one, Kirkus praised Bean’s “inspired use of line” and wisely called him “someone to watch.” When he put his own pen and paintbrush to work in 2007’s At Night, he brought readers the quiet, lulling, and eloquent tale of a young girl’s attempt to get to sleep. (I will quickly note here that my love for that book pretty much knows no bounds.) He’s also provided the energetic illustrations in two different chapter books series, discussed below. (I’m still a fan of the lively and wonderfully quirky Mokie & Bik chapter books.)
Let’s get right to the interview. For breakfast, Jonathan opts for “bacon, blueberry pancakes with maple syrup, and a strong cup of Pete’s Holiday Blend coffee — the really great coffee I’m drinking at this moment.” I’m down with all of that, yes I am. I thank him for visiting, and let’s get the basics while the coffee brews.
Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?
(Margaret K. McElderry Books, October 2011)
Jules: Can you list your books-to-date?
Right now I am finishing up my second authored picture book. It has yet to be titled, but it should have one by the time it appears in 2013.
I also have had the chance to work on some great YA fiction: cover and interior ink drawings for the Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat series by Lynne Jonell and pen drawings for the Mokie and Bik books by Wendy Orr.
‘We found a waggles,’ said Bik. ‘And a Dad,’ said Mokie.”
Jules: What is your usual medium, or––if you use a variety—your preferred one?
Jonathan: Watercolor and ink. I used to work in pastel a lot, but it seemed to give me too much control, and the result was stiff drawings. Watercolor and ink really helped me open up to the Unexpected Result. I also realized later that I never liked the way pastels felt in my hand or in contact with paper. Maybe it had something to do with chalk’s academic associations: blackboards and school.
Jules: 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?
Jonathan: The biggest difference I see is that there is little need, when illustrating chapter books, to worry about the sequential quality of the illustrations; so much is told with words that the illustrator has the luxury of choosing what to illustrate.
In a picture book so much more is communicated with sequential images—in what is usually a short length—that much of my time is spent simply figuring out what to include or drop. It’s more like solving a puzzle.
that went in the pie, warm and sweet, that Papa baked.”
that Papa bakes.”
The Apple Pie That Papa Baked (Simon & Schuster, 2007)
Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?
Jonathan: I am currently enjoying life in the lovely rolling hills of eastern Pennsylvania. I lived for six years in New York City and loved it but decided to take a break from the stress and expense of city life. Since I grew up in the country, I feel at home now in both rural and urban settings. They each contain so many things I love. Happily, through the simple purchase of a bus ticket, I am able to enjoy both.
Jules: Can you briefly tell me about your road to publication?
Jonathan: My first paid illustration job was for Cricket magazine in 2005:
Around the same time, I was offered the manuscript for The Apple Pie That Papa Baked and sold my first two books to FSG. This had followed two years of study at the SVA Master’s program in illustration that, itself, followed two years of unsuccessful mailings and self-promotions that I somehow found the time to send out, while working full-time at a cross-stitch design company. So, it took about five years for things to start rolling, but once they did, everything seemed to happen at once.
Jules: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?
(2006 and 2009, respectively)
Jules: If you do school visits, tell me what they’re like.
Jonathan: I must start doing more. I have done a few and really enjoyed them.
Jules: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell me about?
Jonathan: I am just now wrapping up my second picture book with FSG. It is based on a family experience and will be out in Winter 2013. Many of the illustrations depict the landscape in which I am now living. It has been a real luxury having only to lean out my window when I need to be reminded of the color or shape of something.
Okay, Pete’s Holiday Blend has brewed, and our mugs are out. Let’s get a bit more detailed with seven questions over breakfast. I thank Jonathan 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?
Jonathan: When I read a new manuscript, I first begin by imagining the “second” or visual stories within the written story. Those are the stories that I will later weave into what the author has already planned. Often my ability to sense that second story—to feel that there is a richness to the story that should be further revealed—is what will determine whether I end up taking on a project. The fun for me is figuring out how to weave the multiple stories together. It’s like solving a puzzle, and I love puzzles (particularly if they involve chess pieces!).
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At this point, my work is just a lot of scribbling, as I try to fit the puzzle I’m solving into a 32-page format. I learned early on that it’s necessary to think as soon as possible about the overall length of the book; that’s when my sketches are still very rough and I haven’t gotten attached to any one image in particular. For me it’s very frustrating and often a waste of time to start with one image I really, really like only later to discover that it simply won’t fit anywhere. So, I try as quickly as possible to see the forest. Later, I allow myself to get attached to the individual trees I am drawing.
My approach when I am doing the writing is similar. I used to do a lot of drawing while writing, but more and more I’ve found it makes sense to do the writing first. For me it helps remove the temptation to build a whole story around one favorite image. Creating a good story is difficult enough without the strain of trying to reach territory an image has already staked out.
2. Jules: Describe your studio or usual work space.
Jonathan: I like the scale of book illustration, because often you don’t need large amounts of space to work. My drawing table is right next to my bed. I like the cozy feeling of a compact workspace, of sketches and art filling the walls, and my book collection within arm’s reach.
3. Jules: As a book lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?
Jonathan: The first book I remember absolutely not being able to put down was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I still recall the cool rainy day and the warm woodstove next to which I was reading — a day, actually, not unlike the one during which Lucy first discovered Narnia. The first illustrations I can remember doing, and still have in a box somewhere, were for the Narnia stories. I think a was eleven or twelve when I drew them.
James Fenimore Cooper was also a favorite of mine. His books formed a nice bridge for me between YA fiction and adult fiction. I remember being both a little bored and thrilled by some of Cooper’s wordier sections. At the time, it had the feel of what I thought might be “serious” writing. Later, in high school, I discovered N.C. Wyeth’s luminous illustrations for Cooper’s Natty Bumppo books. I think it was Wyeth’s paintings that first triggered in me a serious interest in book illustration.
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?
Jonathan: I have been enjoying using Pandora lately. A list of my stations is probably a good indication of the mixture of genres I enjoy listening to: Bill Evans, Nina Simone, Radiohead, Thomas Adès, Chopin, and Muddy Waters. At the moment, I am listening to a symphony by Shostakovich, one of my favorite composers.
6. Jules: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?
Jonathan: Well, from an earlier comment you probably gathered that I like playing chess. I found the completely engrossing nature of the game to be helpful during a period when I was dealing with some chronic pain. My interest, however, has lasted and, though I don’t have the time right now, I enjoy reading about, studying, and watching chess games. I usually make an online game part of my breakfast routine. Really, there’s no better way to wake up than by sipping coffee, while allowing my brain to slowly settle into gear over a game of chess.
7. Jules: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.
Jonathan: What’s your favorite bird?
Oh, I’m so happy you ask! Bird-watching is one of my favorite pastimes. Among all the birds I’ve watched, owls are by far my favorite. Speaking about owls, my four-year-old nephew said, “Why do they have to look so angry?” And that is exactly what makes them amazing birds: they look exactly how you would expect for something that rules the night air. I have seen four types of owls in the wild. Of those, the Saw-whet Owl was the highlight. This owl is about eight inches long, roosts in evergreens during winter, and is bizarrely tame. My sister and I were fortunate to find one when I was in high school during our first winter of looking. It was on a low branch, and it watched us more placidly than we watched it. I haven’t found one since.
I also keep a Screech owl box on the property. It currently has a vacancy, so if you know a pair of long-suffering owls that would like to settle down, let me know.
Jules: What is your favorite word?
Jules: What is your least favorite word?
Jonathan: Extraneous use of “like.” I try to keep from using it excessively. It’s an unending, like, battle.
Jules: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Jonathan: Reading, nature, good art shows, hard-working friends.
Jules: What turns you off?
Jonathan: Stress, business, and the smell of stink bugs. Has anyone else’s house been invaded by them?
Jules: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)
Jonathan: My tantrums are rather tame and usually involve words like “rats” or “crap,” which don’t really qualify as curses.
Jules: What sound or noise do you love?
Jonathan: The song of the Wood Thrush. It is summer.
Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?
Jonathan: The low battery chime from my computer. Do I really have to go to all the work of plugging it in?
Jules: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Jules: What profession would you not like to do?
Jules: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Jonathan: “These gaudy gates actually have nothing to do with heaven.”
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All artwork and images used with permission of Jonathan Bean. All rights reserved.
The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, © 2009 Matt Phelan.