Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Steve Light

h1 November 27th, 2012 by jules

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I’m slowly inching my way toward the holidays. I have to ease my way in, given the rampant commercialism. (Am I just a grinch for letting it wear me out? I guess that’s a question for another day.) But I do gladly share above this work-in-progress image from Steve Light’s The Christmas Giant, released by Candlewick in 2010. (I covered it here at 7-Imp a couple years ago, if you’d like to see some final art from it.)

Steve is visiting this morning in what is—triumphantly (to me anyway, since I’ve missed them)—the return of the 7-Imp breakfast interview! I got really super swamped with manuscript revisions for a bit there, so I haven’t done a breakfast interview in a while, but for now I’m back to a normal (for me) schedule. For this, I roll out the red carpet for Steve.

Steve tells me way more about his career below over breakfast (“truck-stop” eggs), and he shares lots of art, for which I thank him. His very latest picture book, also released by Candlewick (October), is the charming story of a young girl, named Zephyr, who loved airplanes and one day hoped to fly one of her own. (Yes, it makes me happy that this little girl is into planes, and guess what? Her dad also wears an apron and cooks, and her mama is the one in the shop—or maybe it’s a garage—with tools repairing things. Take that, gender sterotypes.) I couldn’t sleep at night if I gave away the entire story of Zephyr Takes Flight, in case you want to read it for yourself, but it’s an entertaining story that tips its hat to more than one kind of flight (actual flight, as well as flights of the imagination) and brings us an irrepressible picture book protagonist in the free-spirited Zephyr.

And Steve’s swirly, elongated lines and playful perspectives and proportions are perfect for this tale of flight. Let’s get right to it so that we can see more artwork.

* * * * * * *


A Giant Life

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Steve: Author/Illustrator.

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


One of Steve’s Storyboxes

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

Steve: My preferred medium is Fountain Pen!

I love ink on paper. I have old ones and new ones and some with even customized nibs or points, specially made for me to draw with. I really just love to draw. The finished art for The Christmas Giant and Zephyr Takes Flight and the book I am working on now, City Dragon, are drawn with fountain pen.

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I also love working with and carving wood. That is how I made the originals for my storyboxes. I carved them out of wood and then those wood figures were cast and used to make the molds that the finished toys are made from. There is something very satisfying about making a three-dimensional object.

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Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Steve: MANHATTAN! The greatest city in the world. This city is a constant artistic stimulus for me. I love it. It is always changing and inspiring me.

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

Steve: I showed every publisher in NYC my work and got rejected! Then I started showing some design firms my work, hoping to at least get some illustration work. One design firm suggested I show Richard McGuire my work. He sent me to Abrams Publishing to Howard Reeves who gave me my first book, The Shoemaker Extraordinaire. Then I was lucky enough to meet Joan Powers at the Licensing [Expo] in NYC, and we have been working together ever since.

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


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

Steve: Most of my school visits are me telling my Storyboxes to a group of three- to five-year olds. I am usually sitting on the floor with 20-25 kids sitting around me, and I use the props and figures inside my Storyboxes to tell the story. I have also done the big auditorium slide show-type lecture, where I show my process of working on a story. I show a lot of pictures of my sketchbooks, because drawing is where most of my stories start.

7-Imp: If you teach illustration, tell me how that influences your work as an illustrator.

Steve: I have taught illustration and drawing, and it is a constant inspiration to me. I love sharing artwork by the great masters with my students and sharing my passion for drawing. I now mostly teach 4-5 year olds, and it is the most fun I have ever had. I am always getting story ideas from the children and trying new stories out in the classroom.

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

Steve: City Dragon (Candlewick Press) is a counting book about a boy who loses his pet dragon in the city. The illustrations are mostly black-and-white drawings with just spots of color on the things that are to be counted. I have had great fun doing these complicated cityscapes.

I am also working on Diggers Go (Chronicle Books), a follow-up to Trucks Go and Trains Go. These are so enjoyable, because they are very direct simple illustrations with lots of energy and bold colors.

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My Steve Light Storyboxes have hit stores, so I am doing a lot of storytellings with those, and every time I tell one of those, I am transported into the story — a place I love to be.

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

In-progress work from Zephyr Takes Flight
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Steve: All my books start with drawing, usually in my sketchbook. It is usually something I want to draw, and it becomes a story. Zephyr Takes Flight started as a sketchbook of Flying Machines. It then became a story about a little girl who finds her Grandfather’s flying machine and goes on this great adventure.

I have the great priviledge to work with an editor who understands me, and we lay out the whole story with pictures and then write the words in a very collaborative way. I also have a great Art Director…. On City Dragon, we have used just my small sketchbook sketches to lay out the book, and from there I am going straight to large drawings. Usually, we do large, full-size pencil drawings in between sketches and finals. This has kept the big finished drawings much fresher, I think.

“She climbed aboard the FS Bessie. She flipped the switches. The engine creaked and cranked and finally started up. And then Zephyr flew!”
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“Zephyr measured and folded.”
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2. Jules: Describe your studio or usual work space.

Steve: I live in NYC, so space is very limited. I actually have a walk-in closet where I do my woodworking, and adjacent to that is a seven-foot by seven-foot little room where I have my desk for illustrating. My whole desk is a light table, so I can put approved sketches right on there to ink them.

I do a lot of my sketchbook work in museums and cafés through out the city. My wife is also an artist, so when I need the space, we sometimes roll up the living room carpet and lay down a tarp and work in the living room. You make the small space work for you.

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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?

Steve: As a young child, I loved Richard Scarry, Dr. Suess, and Jack Kent. I was obsessed with his book, There’s No Such Thing As A Dragon.

I also used to read Shel Silverstein during typing class in high school.

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? (Some people cheat and list deceased authors/illustrators. I won’t tell.)

Steve: Eric Carle, Mary Blair, and William Steig.

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?

Steve: I have been listening to Josh Pyke’s “Feeding The Wolves” and the soundtrack to The Terminal for City Dragon. I don’t know why; it just feels right.

I listen to a lot of soundtracks to movies when working. It makes me think of the storytelling in the movies.

The Christmas Giant as a work-in-progress
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6. Jules: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Steve: That I have never been to the top of the Empire State Building.

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

Steve: What is your favorite fountain pen?

A Mont Blanc 149 with “Vintage flex” nib by Richard Binder and a New Dunn filler with Vintage Flex, also by Richard Binder. (Richard customizes nibs and repairs fountain pens.)

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Steve: “Smock.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Steve: “No.”

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

Steve: Looking at art. A new sketchbook, a new fountain pen, telling stories to children, spending time with my wife.

Jules: What turns you off?

Steve: Negative people.

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Steve: A pen nib on paper, kids laughing.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Steve: Sirens.

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

Steve: A baker.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Steve: An accountant.

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

Steve: “So glad you are here. Can you tell the kids some stories?”

* * * * * * *

ZEPHYR TAKES FLIGHT. Copyright © 2012 by Steve Light. Published by Candlewick Press, Somerville, Massachusetts.

All artwork and images used with permission of Steve Light.

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

16 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Steve Light”

  1. awesome stuff! Great pics and interview, very inspiring. Thank you!

  2. Wonderful post! Loved meeting Steve and his work with these fun illustrations and questions!

  3. Great interview – and how I wish I could do half that with a fountain pen!

  4. wonderful!!! Love his answer to the question he wished interviewers would ask. It’s exactly what I would have asked him!! Amazing work.

  5. Oh, Jules, this interview with Steve is stunning. So glad your revisions are done and you are easing into the season. I’m off to see what titles I can snag of his. Thank you, thank you.

  6. Great interview, great response, love all the art work,thanks for sharing Merry Christmas

  7. This is absolutely amazing!! Thank you Steve and Jules for a terrific interview! I’m so glad you included many pieces of artwork. It’s great to see the art but also to find out more about the process it takes to create it. I am bookmarking this post so I can read it again! (and again!)

    Happy holidays!!

  8. I’ve known Steve for years; he’s a good friend, and his art blows my mind. Through his hands, what I do touches thousands of kids. That absolutely rocks.

  9. Wonderful interview!!!! Thanks to you and Steve for this.

  10. Such generosity, in words, images, roughs, process… I’m overwhelmingly inspired. The Christmas Giant – so lovingly drawn, so gently enthusiastic in each pose, from roughs to finish. I think I’m gushing here. So well deserved. Questions were spot on to take us to the next lovely vista – both inward and outward. THanks to you both!

  11. Fantastic! Thanks for sharing so many photos of your progress! Thanks for bringing Steve ‘in’!

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