Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Jonathan Bean

h1 December 13th, 2011 by jules

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.

“…and a dove watched over her doveling my love is bright…”

That was a rather long-ish way of saying I’m extra pleased he’s visiting for breakfast this morning and sharing sketches and artwork.

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?

Jonathan: Author/Illustrator.

“One starry night…”

“…a pig watched over her piglet wherever you are…”

“…a cat watched over her kitten caring for you…”

“God’s will be done…”

Spreads from Lauren Thompson’s One Starry Night
(Margaret K. McElderry Books, October 2011)

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

Jonathan: Picture books: I have illustrated three picture books — two books by Lauren Thompson, The Apple Pie That Papa Baked and One Starry Night, and one book I wrote, titled At Night.

(Title page)

“…and on to the roof, where the small breeze joined the cool night air.”

“…in the night, under the sky.”

Illustrations from Jonathan’s At Night (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007)

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.

(Title page spread)

“Every morning, as the sun came up, when Mokie and Bik were still in their bunks in the bow, they heard Erik the Viking’s seagull boat chug-chug-chugging out to sea while the seagulls squawk wawk rawked and Erik shouted ‘No fisk yet for pesky gulls!'”

“‘Ahoy, Bik!’ shouted Erik the Viking, chugging to the wharf in his seagull boat. ‘What have you caught?’ ‘Mokie!’ shouted Bik. Ruby came out of the wheelhouse with a bucket of water to throw over the side. ‘Twins!’ she said. ‘Don’t fall overboard while I’m sploshing!’ ‘I already did,’ said Mokie. ‘I caught her,’ said Bik.”

“Laddie barked, ‘You’re home! You’re home!’ Slow pulled his head under his shell. Their mother stopped pouring her cup of tea. Ruby stopped singing ‘Hi, ho, back again!’ ‘Twins!’ they said. ‘What have you been doing?’
‘We found a waggles,’ said Bik. ‘And a Dad,’ said Mokie.”

Illustrations (without the text) from Wendy Orr’s Mokie & Bik (Henry Holt, 2007)

Illustrations from Wendy Orr’s Mokie & Bik Go to Sea (Henry Holt, 2010)

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.

From the sketchbooks

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.

From Lynne Jonell’s Emmy series (Square Fish)

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.

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“This is the tree, crooked and strong, that grew the apples, juicy and red,
that went in the pie, warm and sweet, that Papa baked.”

“This is the rain, cool and fresh, that watered the roots, deep and fine, that fed the tree, crooked and strong, that grew the apples, juicy and red, that went in the pie, warm and sweet, that Papa baked.”

“This is the world, blooming with life.”

“…that waters the roots, deep and fine, that feed the tree, crooked and strong, that grows the apples, juicy and red, that go in the pies, warm and sweet,
that Papa bakes.”

Early sketches and final art from Lauren Thompson’s
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.

From the sketchbooks

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?


Jonathan’s cover artwork for two of Kate Coombs’ novels
(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.

From the sketchbooks

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.

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Mmm. Coffee.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!).

“The cover idea I really wanted to use for One Starry Night…”
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“…but the nativity must be on the cover…”
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“Better, but Mary and Joseph feel too disconnected…”
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“Now we’re cook’n…”
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Final cover

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.

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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.

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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.

From the sketchbooks

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?

Jonathan: I would like to have a good strong cup of coffee in a nice café with Maurice Sendak, Lisbeth Zwerger, and John Burningham. Though I don’t think my nerves could handle all three at once.

From the sketchbooks

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.

From the sketchbooks

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.

[Pictured above left is an illustration from Wendy Orr’s Mokie & Bik (Henry Holt, 2007).]

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Jonathan: “Crepuscular.”

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?

Jonathan: Composer.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Jonathan: Politician.

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.”

(Click each to enlarge)

* * * * * * *

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.

28 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Jonathan Bean”

  1. What a wonderful interview with one of my favorite illustrators! It’s been a joy to work with Jonathan and I hope to do it again. I love his note about the “gaudy gates” — I have to agree. (And I too hate that low-battery chime, which just now sounded.)

    Many thanks, guys!

    Lauren T

  2. I’m a big fan of Jonathan’s artwork! There are lots of different styles here that I hadn’t seen before though so thanks for sharing so much art. I especially love The Apple Pie that Papa Baked.
    Oh, and I agree, owls are sssoooooooo interesting!

  3. What a treat to read such a thoughtful interview and gaze at these exquisite pieces. Thanks!

  4. Wow, thanks for the insight into your work, Jonathan! I’m a big fan.

  5. I am on my way to the bookstore. After reading this interview having his book’s in my school library is just not enough. I must be able to see them on my bookshelf. Thanks to Jonathan and Jules for this wonderful interview.

  6. I especially love the vintage, classic look to his work. Many pieces remind me of Edward Ardizzone and the D’Aulaires. It’s refreshing and calming, serene in its way, exactly the kind of images I wanted my sons to spend time with and now…my grandchildren. Note to Jonathan: please keep this beauty in your work. You have a new fan.

  7. So particularly happy to bring new fans to Jonathan’s work. Isn’t it beautiful stuff? Thanks, you all!

  8. […] […]

  9. I’ve never met Jonathan, but have had the pleasure of knowing his sister, Andrea. In fact, she is quite the proud sister, which immediately endeared them both to me. 🙂 I can’t wait to check out Jonathan’s books & share them with my children. In my son’s public school library there are several rather large drawings in frames on the wall of various illustrators who’ve been to the school for a visit…what a NEAT thing if Jonathan could come to visit my son’s school! 🙂

  10. I bought 3 copies of “One Starry Night” for my grandchildren for Christmas. I have already read it to one family and their daddy read it to them again. It is so simple that it is elegant and the children seemed mesmerized looking at the pictures, thinking about the animals and the animal mother’s love for her little one. Nature set the stage for the coming of the human child, Jesus. I loved seeing how Jonathan arrived at the final cover picture for that book. I must run out and get a copy of Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat. I think those pictures are priceless!!!!

    This was a great read. Thank you for bringing Jonathan to us.

    I loved seeing a picture of his sister in the one photo with her lucky sons who have such a great mother and uncle.

  11. I grew up with Jonathan’s family, and have some wonderful childhood memories from that lovely wooden house. The images included with this interview are gorgeous.

  12. […] that show’s a lot of his work. It will also give you a glimpse into an artist’s world. His personal website is My brother Jonathan and nephew Stephen. […]

  13. Love seeing this! I am a huge fan but lost track of what Jonathan has been up to! I just told my Mom I FINALLY know what I want for Christmas this year!! 🙂

    Thank you for sharing this interview!

  14. As one of his sisters, I must say that I am so grateful to have experienced childhood in the atmosphere into which this interview gives a glimpse. I thank my parents for this.

  15. Thanks Jules (and Blaine) for this blog, and thanks Author/Illustrator Jonathan for sharing so much here, and thanks Emily for linking Linda and me to 7 Things!

  16. What a delight to stumble on to this interview through a face book post. Not having seen (or heard of) Jonathan since he was a growing boy, this was a delight to see and read what he is doing! His mother and I homeschooled our kids for a time and that is how I met the Beans.

  17. What a thoughtful, visually delightful interview. I just picked up my copy of One Starry Night last week, and have been in heaven pouring over the stunning illustrations. Bravo Jonathan!
    Jules–Thanks for sharing Jonathan with us!

  18. really enjoyed this interview… off to find the books

  19. […] Jonathan Bean (December 13, 2011): “In a picture book so much more is communicated with sequential images—in what is usually […]

  20. […] today over at the Kirkus Book Blog Network, I’ll have some thoughts on Jonathan Bean’s newest picture book, the excellent Building Our House. That link will be […]

  21. […] of all, the column is about a really great picture book, Jonathan Bean’s Building Our House, which I hope lots and lots of people see, on account of its sheer […]

  22. […] I love this post so much, and it’s all thanks to author/illustrator Jonathan Bean. […]

  23. […] listened to the lake water whispering its secrets.”(Click to enlarge)   Have you seen Jonathan Bean’s newest picture book, Big Snow? My, it’s good. This morning over at Kirkus, I write about it. […]

  24. […] Last week at Kirkus, I wrote about Jonathan Bean’s newest picture book, Big Snow (Farrar Straus Giroux, September 2013). I love this book, which also […]

  25. […] include Deborah Underwood’s Bad Bye, Good Bye (Houghton Mifflin) in that post? Illustrated by Jonathan Bean, it’s a wonderful picture book with a spare, rhyming text about the range of emotions […]

  26. […] chat with author-illustrator Jonathan Bean this morning over at Kirkus about his newest picture book, This Is My Home, This Is My School, […]

  27. […] about the debut picture book from Kate Hoefler, Real Cowboys (Houghton Mifflin), illustrated by Jonathan Bean and on shelves in early […]

  28. […] Last week, I wrote here about Kate Hoefler’s Real Cowboys (Houghton Mifflin, October 2016), illustrated by Jonathan Bean. […]

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