Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Anna Raff

h1 April 9th, 2013 by jules

Photo credit: Symon ChowHere’s something I’ve failed to say but have intended to say for nine days now: It’s National Poetry Month.

Know one way you can celebrate? You can grab a copy of J. Patrick Lewis’ World Rat Day (Candlewick, March 2013) and read it to your favorite child. Sub-titled Poems About Real Holidays You’ve Never Heard Of, it’s an entertaining collection of weird holidays you won’t exactly see on your favorite kitty cat or Dilbert calendar.

The book was illustrated by Anna Raff, children’s book and editorial illustrator who was once, as you’ll read below, a children’s book designer. Anna’s joining me for breakfast today, giving me and my Imp readers a look at lots of her art, rats and beyond. And what a treat it is. At turns playful, mischievous, and sweet (but never cloyingly), her dry-humored art entertains. (Case-in-point, for one: The Wild Turkey you’ll see below.)

“Most mornings at this time of year,” Anna told me, “I have steel cut oats, cooked with raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg over some yogurt and a cup of coffee and sometimes a banana-based smoothie on the side. Oh, and grapefruit. I’m crazy about grapefruit. In the brighter, warmer months, the oatmeal is replaced with homemade granola. Several years ago I started giving it to my clients as a holiday gift. Before working on World Rat Day, I called it ‘bird food’ (a reference to my bird blog), but as of last year, it has become ‘rat chow.’ Hopefully, that doesn’t effect anyone’s enjoyment.”

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I’m game for some rat chow, as long as there’s coffee involved. I’ll get the basics from her before our breakfast chat, and I thank her for visiting.

* * * * * * *

Anna’s self-doodle

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Anna: Just illustrator at the moment.

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

Anna: Sylvia’s Spinach by Katherine Pryor, published by Readers to Eaters, 2012; World Rat Day by J. Patrick Lewis, published by Candlewick, March 2013; Things That Float and Things That Don’t by David A. Adler, to be published by Holiday House in Fall 2013.

Jules: What is your usual medium?

Anna: I draw sumi ink washes, adding details with radiograph pen, pencil, and other media — and then I assemble and color them digitally.

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Anna: I live in New York City.

Illustrations from David A. Adler’s
Things That Float and Things That Don’t (Holiday House, Fall 2013)

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

Anna: I was a children’s book designer for about 15 years at various trade publishers and The Metropolitan Museum of Art before deciding to go back to school for Illustration. Once I graduated in 2009, I wasn’t getting any illustration work—especially in children’s publishing—so I decided to create a project which required me to draw every day and which would eventually build up a body of work that showed my sensibility. That became Ornithoblogical (images below), a blog where I posted an original bird drawing everyday in 2010. (I do it more sporadically now, although I did a full week of ducks a while ago.)

Wild Turkey, Ornithoblogical No. 564, 2012

Quotable, Ornithoblogical No. 479, 2012

Chicken Heart, Ornithoblogical No. 526, 2011

In General, Ornithoblogical No. 177, 2010

Seaside Nap, Ornithoblogical No. 124, 2010

The illustrations started out pretty simple without much point of reference beyond what I felt like doing that day. But as the year went by, they progressed into more visual play on words including bird breeds, figures of speech, holidays, etc. Unbeknownst to me, someone at Candlewick was following the blog and in mid-2011 sent me an offer to illustrate World Rat Day.

Meteor Shower


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


“M” is for Monster

7-Imp: If you do school visits, tell me what they’re like.

Anna: I’ve only done one so far — with a kindergarten class in Brooklyn last December. It was terrifying, exhausting, and incredibly inspiring all at once. I presented Sylvia’s Spinach and had made some coloring pages for the kids, which went over really well. We read the story, and I showed them some of the subtleties I worked into the character’s wardrobe as the story progresses — and then turned that into the coloring activity. I’ve got a lot to learn in this realm, but think I’ll always try to make it interactive, to get them drawing and expressing themselves visually. It was really such a joy. They sent me the most amazing thank-you card. I just about cried.

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

Anna: I’m working on some personal projects at the moment that I hope will evolve into my first written/illustrated by picture books, along with the usual editorial illustration projects here and there.

Recently, I finished up a series of illustrations for a lab at the University of Maryland that studies kids’ cognitive development and social interactions. And for the past four years, I’ve been illustrating the “Cooking with Kids” feature for Kiwi magazine. That’s always a challenge — to come up with something that’s visually interesting with the subject matter. For instance, last month’s assignment was to do a series of spot illustrations on how to shape a meatloaf. I try to make it fun for myself, so I created this wooden spoon man character who rolls the lump of meat — I can’t believe the stuff they let me get away with. Afterward, just for fun, I turned him into animated gif.

And this past weekend, I was at the MoCCA festival here in New York City, which gave me the opportunity to showcase some handmade stuff. For instance, those ducks from “Duck Week” became a small, hand-bound volume.

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Anna: “Detail from some kids’ t-shirts I painted”
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Mmm. Coffee.Okay, I’ve brewed some coffee, and it’s time to get a bit more detailed with seven(ish) questions over breakfast. I thank Anna 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?

Anna: Once I’ve agreed to a project, I’ll sit down to make a few notes and thumbnails. When starting out, I inevitably have a few moments—sometimes a full day—of panic. “What did they send this to me for? Don’t they know I have no idea what I’m doing?! What have I agreed to? I have ZERO ideas…” Luckily, I now recognize this as an integral part of my process. Panic begets ideas — or at least gets me into the place where they start to form. Taking a few days away from the text, a hot shower, or just an overnight works wonders to get going, but a little bit of panic is essential.

Early sketch and final spread from J. Patrick Lewis’ World Rat Day: “THE RAT IS / the mous- / tache / in / the / trache, / the / wrong- / doer / in / the / soer.”

I don’t really keep a sketchbook—too precious somehow—but I will carry around the manuscript wherever I go for a couple of days, especially on the subway (a great place for sparking ideas). Once I sit down to draw, I use crappy, recycled bond paper that has already been printed on the reverse side. This allows me some freedom to mess up and try lots of things over and over without much tree-killing remorse. Most of these drawings wind up scattered on my floor.

I start with rough thumbnails, drawn with a soft pencil (4B or 6B). From there, I’ll make cleaner drawings. Since my style is rather loose and gestural, if they’ve got enough energy, some of these elements might make it into the finished art.

Thumbnails for World Rat Day

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As the sketches begin to make more sense to me, I start scanning them into the computer and placing them into spreads. Because of my background as a book designer, I have to layout the book in InDesign in the sketching phase. I can’t visualize it otherwise, and since I like to work quickly at this stage, I’ve found this the most efficient way.

So, if all goes well and the sketches are approved, I start making ink wash drawings. Recently, I have been doing almost all of my coloring in the computer, so I keep a few jars of sumi ink mixed with water in different tonal ranges. I also like to paint with walnut ink, depending upon the situation. For instance, for World Rat Day, to offset them slightly from the other elements in the book the rat characters were the painted in walnut, while everything else was in sumi ink. I rarely paint anything once, but very often I use my earliest washes in the finished pieces, because I have a tendency to lose energy if I try too many times.

Sylvia’s Spinach as a work-in-progress
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World Rat Day as a work-in-progress
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Primarily, I paint on Stonehenge paper — again, because it is not too precious, and I need the freedom to make mistakes. Other smaller details might be done on vellum or bond paper, and then they are all scanned into PhotoShop, assembled, and colored. Sometimes it feels like I’m making digital paper dolls. This is the longest, sometimes most tedious part of my process, but it can’t be rushed.

But I do take breaks, and if weather permits, I like to go for a walk in nearby Riverside Park or have a coffee break on the roof of my building.

Riverside Park — Spring, Summer, and Winter



One day last year, the Space Shuttle flew by!


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I live and work out of my one bedroom apartment, so space can be tight. [See studio tour in video below.]

Anna’s studio
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Like most New Yorkers, I have to be careful what I bring home or, as my family says, “introduce into the space capsule.” Nevertheless, I have a collection of ephemera and funny objects friends have given me over the years.

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Toast pin

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Back at the drawing table: After everything is approved and I’ve got a little space from the finished work, there’s this great thing, called a book trailer, that has become a terrific way for me to revisit the art and get all techno-geeky, making the characters move. I’ve only made two so far [the one for World Rat Day is below] — but had a marvelous time doing it. To me, they’re kind of like the dessert at the end of an excellent, lengthy meal.

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

Anna, age three

Anna: My mother reminded me recently that I was friends with William Wondriska’s daughter from preschool through first grade. We got such a kick out of his books, and knowing him personally made it even more special for me, being so into drawing. It turned out, when we moved to a new town, we happened to live down the street from New Yorker cartoonist Donald Reilly. I loved the rare visits to his studio, and he also played trombone in a dixieland band, so I was kind of fascinated. And I was fortunate to be in a public school system with a fantastic art program. I guess all this means there were people around me who were making a living drawing pictures, so it wasn’t too much of a mystery. Neither one of my parents is an artist, so I really credit them with seeking these influences out for me. Don once drew a picture of me wearing my favorite cowboy hat.

Anna Raff, age 11, by Donald Reilly

As for authors, I loved anything by Dr. Suess, Richard Scarry, Tomi Ungerer. Uncle Wiggily, Babar, Caps for Sale were also favorites.

But I’ll lump Peanuts strips and Chuck Jones’ Bugs Bunny cartoons in there, too, as equally important influences. Once I was old enough to read on my own, I was obsessed by Garth Williams’ drawings — not the ones in the Little House books so much as the classics chapter books centered around animals: The Cricket in Times Square, Tucker’s Countryside, Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little. His line work still amazes me.

3. 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.)

Anna: Richard Scarry’s books were the first I really fell in love with. He sounds like he was such a lovely guy. But now I’ve already cheated, since he’s dead.

Anna’s own dog-eared copies of Richard Scarry’s books

At the top of my list is Jean-Jacques Sempé. I think his Petite Nicolas work was the only the reason I made it through French class in junior high. He has such a light and airy touch. If I’m finding my drawings self-conscious, he’s a good one to look at — his work seems completely effortless.

And Tomi Ungerer, definitely — for humor, craft, and fearlessness.

Illustration from Katherine Pryor’s Sylvia’s Spinach (Readers to Eaters, 2012)

4. Jules: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Anna: It depends upon what part of the process I’m in. If I’m in the middle of a lot of hard thinking, I can’t have any music on at all. The next stage up is music without vocals, which sometimes can distract me. When I’m really relaxed, the music is cranking all day. Right now, I’m loving Gary Clark Jr., Jonathan Wilson, and recently purchased a huge collection of John Coltrane. I’m also a huge Steely Dan fan, much to the dismay of my neighbors, I suspect.

Death of the Twinkie (2012)

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

Anna: I have a really great baseball swing.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Anna: “Skeewadged,” although I have no idea how to spell it. It’s a word my dad uses to describe something out of whack, or misshapen.

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Anna: “Ointment.”

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

Anna: Irony, humor, parody. I like things that seem like one thing, but are actually something else. Like this toy car/zamboni I have (below) that scoops up crumbs from your breakfast table. Or this ice cream scoop that looks like one of The Supremes:

For my thesis at SVA, I created an illustrated department store catalog (image below) where all of the items for sale were alive. (See the R.U. Fauna Dept. Store catalog section of my website.)

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Jules: What turns you off?

Anna: I don’t respond well to people who don’t know how to smile. It’s very disarming.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Anna: Nothing is as satisfying as the F-bomb.

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Anna: Kind of clichéd, but the sound of the ocean, especially when I’m falling asleep. I live just off of Broadway and sometimes try to convince myself that the traffic is really ocean waves. You can imagine how successful this is.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Anna: The sound of snowmobiles or jet skis.

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

Anna: There was a time when I wanted to be a baseball player. I used to hit tennis balls all over our backyard when I was a kid, imitating Carl Yastrzemski’s swing — we are both lefties and played first base.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Anna: I was a bank teller one summer in college and, frankly, I sucked. It became clear to me that I should never have any job that requires regular use of math and interactions with the public.

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

Anna: “Come on in, and help yourself to some pie!”

* * * * * * *

Photo credit for opening image of Ms. Raff: Symon Chow.

All artwork and images are used with permission of Anna Raff.

WORLD RAT DAY. Text copyright © 2013 by J. Patrick Lewis. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Anna Raff. Published by Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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

8 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Anna Raff”

  1. Thank you Anna and Jules for starting my day off with this upbeat and picturesque interview. Now I can’t wait to see World Rat Day. I am in awe of illustrators’ abilities; the work involved to bring us their finished work. Thanks for sharing all your artwork and giving us a glimpse into your world, Anna.

  2. What a treat to see this post this morning. I love Anna’s work, a lovely blend of humor and art skills. Can’t wait to see more in the future.
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. This was such a pleasant thing to read while I drank my coffee! Very enlightening!

  4. Proud to say: “that’s my sister”.

  5. Squee! The wooden spoon man with the little mustache :)!! My life is complete.

    I so love Anna’s work for World Rat Day and it was great to learn more about her. Anxious to see Sylvia’s Spinach now. And isn’t that just the best answer to the last Pivot question? 🙂

  6. I was just thrilled to see the wonderful work of Anna Raff on 7-imp!! I had no idea your process was so involved… how amazing to read. We fellow illustrators can find tons of inspiration in your self-promo practices. Hope to see tons more Anna Raff books in the near future- the world deserves it!

  7. Wonderful reading this..Someone I love is very lucky.

  8. Lovely to learn more about you Anna!

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