Seven Questions Over Afternoon Snacks
with The Brothers Hilts

h1 December 10th, 2012 by jules


First sketch of Mr. Insomniac

Photo credit: Jessica Chanen7-Imp readers know I like to ask Seven Questions Over Breakfast with creators of picture books here in 7-Imp Land, but today I’m having a late-afternoon/almost-evening snack with illustrators Ben and Sean Hilts, a.k.a. The Brothers Hilts. Now, I failed to ask them about their favorite late-afternoon snack, though for the record, their breakfasts-of-choice are French Toast with a side of bacon (Ben) and eggs over medium with hash browns, not home fries, please (Sean). I’m ever-so good, though, with snacking on these tonight, while we chat and look at their artwork.

Why is this a late-afternoon snack? What did poor breakfast ever do to get snubbed by us three? Well, did you see the picture book The Brothers Hilts illustrated this year, written by Karina Wolf? The Insomniacs is a delicious, late-night tale, if there ever was one, so I think it’s only fitting I post this chat with them as the sun’s slipping away and the moon is sneaking up on us.

Back in July, I wrote over at the Kirkus Book Blog Network about The Insomniacs, so you can head over there (here’s the link) if you want to read more about it. I was happy when the Society of Illustrators awarded Ben and Sean the 2012 Founder’s Award this Fall for their illustrations in this book, which Kirkus called a “quietly magnificent paean to the wonder of nighttime and the solidity of a family unit.” With their shadowy art within, Ben and Sean manage to show how darkness can be “full of life,” which is what the Insomniac family comes to realize in their entertaining, offbeat tale.

Let’s get right to it. I thank Ben and Sean for visiting today and sharing their artwork so generously.

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you illustrators or author/illustrators?

Ben and Sean: Currently illustrators but also trying on the “authors” hats for our next project.

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

Ben and Sean: [Karina Wolf's] The Insomniacs.


“But when Mrs. Insomniac found a new job, Mother, Father, and little Mika
traveled twelve time zones to their new home.”

(Click to enlarge)


“The cloud of animals roused and rushed into the night. They weren’t mice at all.
They dipped and dived and surfed the air. They squealed with delight.”

(Click to enlarge)


“Mika wrangled her nighttime pets—an aardvark, an angel shark, a bandicoot and a small-eared zorro frisked in Mika’s room. A fennec fox lived under her bed,
and she fed him night beetles.”

(Click to enlarge)

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

Sean: I like to experiment. For the purpose of books and artwork made for reproduction, I am currently enjoying drawing mediums. A few of my favorites: pencil, charcoal, pen, ink, goauche.

Ben: I mess around, too, but mostly charcoal, oil, acrylic, and collage.

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Ben and Sean: We live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and have our studio in Union Square, Somerville, Mass.


“The story of Hades and Persephone is one of the stories from Greek Mythology
we’ve been working on illustrating” (2011) …

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

Ben and Sean: We were very lucky. We saw the manuscript for The Insomniacs from our friend Karina Wolf when we were looking for a project to do together. It resonated with us so much that we immediately began work on figuring out how to illustrate it. (We had zero experience with picture books.) Once we had gotten deep into the process and had come up with storyboards for the whole book and three “finished” spreads, we made the mistake of looking up how to go about getting published.

Of course, everything we found said that what we were doing was the wrong way to go about it, and so we got worried. Karina had a friend of a friend who was “in the business,” so we decided we should ask her for advice. We put everything we had in a big envelope and sent it off. A few long weeks later, we found out that the woman who had looked at our package was Jennifer Besser, VP & Editorial Director at Putnam, and that she had loved it and wanted to make our book!

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

Ben and Sean: brothershilts.com — and we’re on the Facebook.


Prince Charming

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

Ben and Sean: Excited to find out!

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

Ben and Sean: Also excited to find out!

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

Ben and Sean: We’re working with Penguin/Putnam on our next book, which we are writing, as well as illustrating. It is as yet untitled.


“An illustration for a short story, called ‘Breath and Thunder,’
written by our sister Kate Hilts” (2011) …

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, the coffee and French Toast and eggs are on the table, and it’s time to get a bit more detailed with seven questions over our late-afternoon snack. I thank Ben and Sean 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?

Ben and Sean: Hmmm. That’s a tricky one, because we tend to change it up quite a bit. But, basically, it tends be lots of planning and sketching on the front end. Trying to figure out what the story is really about and seeing how we can build on that. How we can show things that are hiding in between the lines of text.

Then we might mock up a dummy book to see what we’ve got. If everything looks good, maybe trace our sketches on a light box, maybe just start from scratch. It really depends on what the drawing calls for.


Character cover sketches from Karina Wolf’s The Insomniacs
(Click to enlarge)





More early sketches from The Insomniacs
(Click first three to enlarge)

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

Ben and Sean: We share a work space at an old converted house with thirteen or so studio spaces. We split a medium-sized studio with a paint-spattered, wobbly wall. We’re always trying to find new ways to make it more more homey and a place in which we want to spend time.

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

Ben and Sean: Martin Handford’s Where’s Waldo?, Edward Gorey, Chris Van Allsburg, Shel Silverstein. The Choose Your Own Adventure books and You Be the Jury books were amazing. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Chronicles of Narnia, Richard Scarry, and, of course, Maurice Sendak.

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.)

Ben and Sean: John Lennon (he did write/illustrate a book), Beatrice Alemagna, Tomi Ungerer.



“Henry is a curious young wolf who lives alone with his dad” (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?

Sean: 50% Silence, 50% Music. Harry Nilsson, Fugazi, Dirty Projectors.

Ben: Paul Simon, Ahmad Jamal, and a little foreign band no one has heard of, called The Beatles.

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

Sean: I have never broken a bone.

Ben: I’m a sucker for cheesy romantic comedies.



“Robert the curmudgeonly crow” (2011) …

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

Ben and Sean: Great question! We wish more people would discuss in detail the art of picture books. That is something we think about a lot.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Sean: “Garlic.”

Ben: “Languid.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Sean: Any combination word, like “Bennifer” or “fantabulous.”

Ben: “Clump.”

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

Sean: Playfulness.

Ben: Curiosity.

Jules: What turns you off?

Sean: Manifestos.

Ben: Zealotry.

Jules: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Sean: “Shart.”

Ben: “Asshat.”

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Sean: The scratch of a record before the song starts.

Ben: The sound of waves on the shore.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Sean: My bicycle making “you left me out in the rain one too many times” noises.

Ben: Politics.

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

Sean: Sandwich-Shop Owner.

Ben: Underwater Photographer.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Sean: Waiter.

Ben: Politician.

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

Sean: “Will you sign my copy of The Insomniacs?”

Ben: I’ve always liked De Niro’s answer: “Well, if Heaven exists, He’s got a lot of explaining to do.”

* * * * * * *

Photo of Ben and Sean Hilts courtesy of Jessica Chanen.

THE INSOMNIACS. Copyright © 2012 by Karina Wolf. Illustrations copyright © 2012 by The Brothers Hilts. Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. Spreads from the book reproduced with permission of the publisher.

All other artwork used with permission of The Brothers Hilts.

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

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9 comments to “Seven Questions Over Afternoon Snacks
with The Brothers Hilts”

  1. Thanks for another superior (and fun) post, Jules! I can always count on 7-imp to inspire and inform…


  2. Terrific interview. Can’t wait to get my hands on The Insomniacs!


  3. Thank you so much for this interview, Ben and Sean and Jules. Ever since I reviewed The Insomniacs and added it to my Learni.st board as a Mock Caldcott selection I’ve wanted to know more. I absolutely love the book. So glad the friend of a friend got that package.


  4. [...] Interview with the Brothers Hilts @ the 7-Imp blog “But when Mrs. Insomniac found a new job, Mother, Father, and little Mika traveled twelve time zones to their new home.” [...]


  5. Fun interview; thanks all.

    My son just walked into my office and handed me a paper headed “Mom’s Christmas List” and I wrote “The Insomniacs”.

    : – )


  6. Wow! The Insomniacs looks amazing, and I love the Hades and Persephone one, the wolf, elephant, character sketches, and Archibald – all of it! Makes me want to go pick up some charcoal… Thanks so much for sharing this.


  7. I love the Insomniacs!! Thanks for the interview!


  8. my favorite book of the year. splendid.
    thanks for another inspiring interview, jules.


  9. The Insomniacs is a wonderful book. The writing and illustration come together to make a story that is as magical to me as an adult as it would be to a child. Perhaps even more so. It is the kind of book that makes me want to stay up late and have adventures.

    Enjoyed this interview very much. I share Ben’s most hateful noise: “politics”. :)


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