Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Valeri Gorbachev

h1 May 29th, 2012 by jules

Over the years, I’ve found Valeri Gorbachev’s picture books (both ones he’s written and illustrated, as well as those written by others that he’s illustrated) to be a breath of fresh air. To be sure, I think he has a contemporary Richard-Scarry vibe—more than any other illustrator working today—but his artwork still possesses, at the same time, a style that is all his own.

(Pictured left is his self-portrait, which won me over right away.)

As I’ve written previously here at 7-Imp, when Valeri, who immigrated to the United States from the Ukraine in 1991, illustrates a new children’s title, I always go running to get a copy. (If you do the same, you stay busy, huh? He’s illustrated over fifty books in his career. Well over that number, I would bet. And I should have clarified this, but let’s carry on.) What do I love about his work? His pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations are terrifically kid-friendly — without being condescending to child readers. His colors are always cozy and warm. His expressive, detailed character work—always anthropomorphized animals who are endearing, yet never saccharine—always wins me over, and there’s a subtle humor in his work as well. There’s also usually a real sense of community that pervades his titles, and he creates original cumulative tales that really work.

With the recent release of a new title he both penned and illustrated, Catty Jane Who Hated the Rain (Boyds Mill Press, April 2012), I invited Valeri over for a 7-Imp cyber-breakfast. I’ve wanted to do this for years, and I’m pleased he’s here. “I’m not very creative in my breakfast,” he told me. “Usually, I like sausage. In my life, I’ve probably eaten enough sausages at breakfast that they can be looped around the world a few times. And, of course, I have to have my cup of coffee. Or two. Or three.”

Three cups of coffee always works in my kitchen, so let’s get right to it. I thank Valeri for stopping by.

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Valeri (pictured right): I’m an author/illustrator, and these two really work hand in hand to help one another.

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

Valeri: Okay, I’ll mention the five from my career that ended up being my favorites. My favorite is Nicky and the Big Bad Wolves, which I credit with starting my career here in America. Next, I’d go with Turtle’s Penguin Day. Christopher Counting is a favorite as well. Then I’d say my retelling of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. And, lastly, The Giant Hug.

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

Valeri: My favorite medium is watercolors and ink on watercolor paper.

Images from Nicky and the Big, Bad Wolves
(NorthSouth, 2000)

(Click on each image to enlarge)

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?

Valeri: I write primarily for younger children, but I do both picture books and chapter books. I look at picture books as a sort of theater, with its own stage…and each picture should be like a scene in a play, leading into the next one.

For chapter books, the illustration usually doesn’t take up that much room and, therefore, the characters and the action become much more important.

“Or maybe he forgot to turn off the faucet in his bathroom! Goat was still thinking.”
— From
That’s What Friends Are For (Philomel, 2005)
(Click to enlarge spread)

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Valeri: I currently reside in Brooklyn, NY.

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

Valeri: I started out as a cartoon artist, and after the art academy, I began working for magazines in my home country of Russia. This was vital to my later career as a children’s book author and illustrator, as it taught me how to bring images to life. Working as a cartoonist didn’t particularly excite me, because I liked to combine stories with humorous characters and specific storylines.

I was lucky to start working for North-South books, who published several of my first books in America. It was a great start, and I met many great editors from Penguin, Random House, and other companies. Step by step, I began to build my career.

Spread and cover from Carol Roth’s Little Bunny’s Sleepless Night
(NorthSouth Books, 1999)

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

Valeri: Believe it or not, I don’t have one. Once you take away the paintbrush and throw a keyboard in front of me, things get kind of complicated…

Illustrations and cover from Sandra Horning’s The Giant Hug (Dragonfly Books, 2008)
(Click first two to enlarge)

Jules: If you do school visits, tell me what they’re like.

Valeri: I haven’t done school visits, but I’ve done several readings at local libraries. I’ve enjoyed this greatly, because I got to meet a lot of the children that enjoy reading my books.

From Big Little Elephant (Harcourt, 2005)

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

Valeri: I don’t like to give too much away, but I am working on a few new books. I just finished illustrating a chapter book for Candlewick Press, called Squirrel’s Fun Day by Lisa Moser. It should be in stores by spring of 2013. After this, I’ll be working on illustrating Rufus Goes to School by Kim T. Griswell. Then I’ll be doing my own book, Me Too, for Holiday House. Lastly, I’ll be doing Happy Day For Katty Jane for Boyds Mills Press. All three will be out in the not-so-distant future.

From Carol Roth’s Who Will Tuck Me in Tonight? (NorthSouth, 2006)

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, the first three cups of coffee are on the table, and it’s time to get a bit more detailed with seven questions over breakfast. I thank Valeri 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?

Valeri: I begin by drawing small sketches, like a tiny storyboard. I usually fit all thirty-two spreads onto one or two sheets of paper with the text next to them. I write the text both in English and in Russian at the same time, so anyone looking at the storyboard is likely to think I’m crazy.

At meetings with the publisher, I present the soon-to-be book in rows of tiny pictures on cardboard and then create a first draft. Then I work on the text, and lastly, the final art appears and the original version of the book is created.

“‘Why don’t we read a book until the rain stops?’ said Mama. ‘Or we could play a game. Would you like a cookie? I just baked some.’
‘No, thank you,’ said Catty Jane. ‘I don’t want any cookies. I don’t want to read or play a game. It’s no use trying to cheer me up. I can’t do
anything when it’s raining.'”

“‘I love to dance and sing in the rain,’ said Goose. ‘I’m not even afraid of thunder and lightning.’ ‘I’m afraid of thunder and lightning even when I’m inside,’ said Catty Jane.”

“Look, the rain has stopped!’ cried Froggy. ‘Now we can play outside.’
‘Hooray!’ shouted the others. ‘Let’s go!'”

“‘But I do love a rainy-day party!'”

Early images, early cover, final spreads, and final cover from
Catty Jane Who Hated the Rain
(Boyds Mill Press, April 2012)

(Click each image, except last two, to enlarge)

2. Jules: Describe your studio or usual work space.

Valeri: It’s hard for me to describe my studio, because it’s such a mess that words fail me when I try to explain it.

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

Valeri: I grew up in Russia, so most of the books and illustrators that influenced me were Russian. I loved the work of Yuri Koval (pictured right), and my favorite Russian artists were Yuri Vasnetsov and Vladimir Konashevich.

4. Jules: If you could have three (living) authors or illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Valeri: I would go with John A. Rowe, Maurice Sendak, and John Burningham.

[Ed. Note: Valeri sent me these interview responses before the sad day we lost Sendak.]

“When my baby brother sleeps, I am very quiet. I don’t jump around.
I don’t ride my horse. I don’t even sing. I walk on my tippy-toes.”

(Click to enlarge)

“But when my baby brother wakes up . . .”

“The train leaves the station with a loud whistle and the pirates fire their cannons.”

“‘Please don’t fly your buzzing plane,’ I ask the pilot. ‘Shhh!'”

Illustrations and cover from Shhh! (Philomel, 2011)
(Click each image to enlarge)

“It was Christmas Eve, and all the bunnies were busy baking cookies and decorating the tree. One by one, Little Bunny was taking ornaments out of the box until finally he found the one he was looking for. The fire engine. Just holding it was exciting.
Riding in a fire engine, that would be the best, thought Little Bunny. …”
— From David Martin’s
Little Bunny and the Magic Christmas Tree
(Candlewick, 2011)

(Click to enlarge spread slightly)

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?

Valeri: To be honest, I don’t really listen to music often. I prefer to write and draw in silence, so I can really concentrate.

“Have you seen my chick?” she asked.
“No,” they said, “but we will help you look.”

From The Missing Chick (Candlewick, 2009)

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

Valeri: I’d be interested to know that myself!

Spread and cover from Turtle’s Penguin Day (Knopf, 2008)
(Click spreads to enlarge)

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

Valeri: I think I’ve answered enough. Don’t want the readers to get sick of me.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Valeri: “Good.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Valeri: “Bad.”

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

Valeri: Simply life — and all the wonderful things that happen in it.

Jules: What turns you off?

Valeri: Nothing.

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Valeri: I love hearing the voices of my friends and family.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Valeri: My alarm clock going off in the morning.

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

Valeri: I’d like to try my hand at working on films.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Valeri: Any paperwork-based job that doesn’t allow for creativity.

Jules: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Valeri: “Wow, Valeri! How did you find the time to visit us?”

* * * * * * *

All artwork and images used with permission of Valeri Gorbachev — with the exception of the picture of Yuri Koval, which Jules took from this site.

CATTY JANE WHO HATED THE RAIN. Copyright © 2012 by Valeri Gorbachev. Published by Boyds Mill Press, Honesdale, PA. Images reproduced by permission of Valeri Gorbachev.

LITTLE BUNNY AND THE MAGIC CHRISTMAS TREE. Copyright © 2011 David Martin. Illustrations © 2011 Valeri Gorbachev. Published by Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA. Image reproduced by permission of Valeri Gorbachev.

THE MISSING CHICK. Copyright © 2009 Valeri Gorbachev. Image originally published in this 2009 7-Imp post—reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA—and re-posted here.

SHHH! Copyright © 2011 by Valeri Gorbachev. Published by Philomel Books, New York, NY. Images originally published in this 2011 7-Imp post—reproduced by permission of publisher—and re-posted here.

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

18 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Valeri Gorbachev”

  1. What a feast! Really enjoyed reading this, and looking at those wonderful expressive animal faces. Specially love the rabbit on a pogo stick in the snow…

  2. I love his statement about looking at picture books as theater. His artwork is glorious, playful and full of life. Thank you both for this wonderful interview.

  3. Some illustrators who are mostly pen-and-ink and watercolors tend to have a very ethereal, floaty palette and it tends toward pastels. Not so here! The darkness – wide, frightened eyes, bedazzled-by-the-moon, dismayed, gleeful, and shy faces are rendered in the most brilliant and wonderful colors.

    This has been a wonderful read. There’s no way we’d get sick of this gentleman! No way! ☺

  4. His characters are so wonderfully expressive! Thanks for featuring Valeri — so much art to pour over. There are books herre I didn’t know of.

  5. I love his work! Thanks for interviewing him!

  6. “Who Will Tuck Me in Tonight?” was a bedtime staple for years in our house. I was delighted when my daughter quickly ‘recognized’ Wooly, Mrs. Cat, Mrs. Horse, and Mrs. Goose in other books illustrated and/or written by Mr. Gorbachev! His singular style of anthropomorphic animals is delightful, and although I had not considered his work similar to Richard Scarry’s, I will go back through our books and ponder it. Thank you for the interview with this talented illustrator!

  7. Like the little glow of white light.

  8. What a great interview with so much amazing art work. And how fun that Valeri does not have a website… So rare these days…

  9. Terrific interview! No disrespect to Richard Scarry, and kudos to him for a very successful career, but if you compare Gorbachev and Scarry side-by-side you may notice that there really is no comparison. Valeri’s work is alive, his characters move on the page and express heartfelt emotion. They live and breathe and make me want to hug them! And now that I’ve seen Catty Jane, I can add her to my list of favorite Valeri Gorbachev characters! One of my favorite things to do when I get one of Valeri’s books in hand is to look at the small details that make his work so kid-friendly and homey, such as the bedroom slippers or glasses on older characters, or the well-loved stuffed animals clutched by the anthropomorphic characters (note Catty Jane clutching a stuffed bunny on the cover of that book). Wow! Those touches are a big part of why I love this highly-accomplished illustrator’s work.

  10. Great timing! My 5yo checked out all the Valeri Gorbachev books from our library last week and we really enjoyed them – I caught that Richard Scarry vibe, too.

  11. Thanks for this interview Jules. And a thank you too to Valeri Gorbachev for being so generous with his time and his artwork. I found his self-deprecating modesty endearing and quite funny!

  12. I love Valeri’s art, and I think “It’s hard for me to describe my studio, because it’s such a mess that words fail me when I try to explain it ” may be my new favorite answer to the work space question.

  13. thank you Jules to bring many nice interviews of great artists. It’s always very inspiring!

  14. Very enjoyable interview, so glad I stumbled across it. Valeri’s work is detailed, but loose energetic and such great expressive faces! Fun to see preliminary sketches, too 🙂

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  18. […] of my favorite children’s picture book authors is Valeri Gorbachev (here’s a charming interview with the Brooklyn-based author/illustrator). If you see his name on the book, chances are […]

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