Debut author-illustrator Mike Curato is visiting for breakfast this morning to share lots of art and talk about his new book, Little Elliot, Big City (which I think actually comes out today — I swear I don’t plan these things, but I just get lucky with my timing sometimes). Clearly, based on the sketch of Elliot above, we must have cupcakes for breakfast. Actually, Mike agrees, when I ask him what he’d like on his plate. “If I could choose whatever I wanted without consequence,” he told me, “I’m sure I’d start off my morning with a cupcake. (Aren’t muffins just really boring cupcakes anyway?)” He went on to say that he usually starts his day with something a bit healthier, but I’m all for this cupcake plan (healthy schmealthy), so let’s just DO IT.
Little Elliot tells the story of a tiny (cupcake-loving) elephant, who heads intrepidly into the big city and eventually makes a new friend. Booklist praises Mike’s “almost cinematic artwork,” and the Kirkus review notes “the meticulous beauty” of the illustrations. Mike’s here today to show us some of that, as well as some other illustrations. I’ll get the cupcakes and coffee out, and I thank him for visiting.
Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?
While thinking about this question, I started wondering if I should just go by “storyteller,” since I love to tell stories whether it’s visual, written, or spoken. But then people might roll their eyes if I say that, so let’s stick with Illustrator/Author.
this is a spread from Little Elliot, Big City
Jules: Can you list your books-to-date?
Mike: My very first book, Little Elliot, Big City, comes out August 26th. It’s the first in a three-book series with Henry Holt Books for Young Readers (Macmillan), starring my favorite polka-dotted elephant.
(Click to enlarge)
Also, before that I illustrated a self-published book called Mabel McNabb and the Most Boring Day Ever by Amy Jones [pictured below].
Jules: What is your usual medium?
Mike: Usually, I draw in graphite-on-paper, then scan and color in Photoshop. For a super detailed explanation, click here.
Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?
Mike: I currently live in Brooklyn, NY. I actually grew up in the NYC suburbs, then went to college upstate at Syracuse, then lived in Seattle for ten years, and I just moved here last November. I think what I like most about Brooklyn is that you could throw a kneaded eraser and you’d hit two or three illustrators.
Jules: Can you tell me about your road to publication?
Mike: You mean aside from wanting to do this forever?
Well, in 2012 I attended my first SCBWI Winter Conference here in NYC. I entered the portfolio show and won. Everyone was smitten with Elliot, who appeared throughout my portfolio. The week after was filled with emails and calls from agents and publishers. I signed with Brenda Bowen, a literary agent at Greenburger (who is now officially my favorite strawberry blonde person). I worked on a manuscript for several months. We took it to several houses, and then it went to auction. I signed with Holt for a three-book deal and have been blessed to be able to work with my editor, Laura Godwin.
Jules: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?
Jules: If you do school visits, tell me what they’re like.
Mike: I just had my very first school visit this July at a preschool on the Lower East Side. In addition to reading Little Elliot, Big City, we wrote our own Elliot story: “Elliot woke up. Elliot ate breakfast. Elliot brushed his teeth. Elliot went to the beach. Elliot ate ice cream.” The kids told me what to draw in each scene, and some details were quite interesting. It was super fun, and I can’t wait to do it again!
Jules: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell me about?
Mike: I just finished the second book in the Little Elliot series, Little Elliot, Big Family, which comes out Fall 2015. Soon I’ll start working on the third, and I honestly have no idea what it’s going to be about yet.
Meanwhile, there are two projects I just agreed to illustrate, but I can’t talk about them just yet. (Eep! I can’t wait to shout them from the rooftops!)
I have also been working on an idea for a YA graphic novel, but it will be some time before it’s ready to be shown to anybody.
Okay, I’ve got coffee and more cupcakes, and it’s time to get a bit more detailed with seven questions over breakfast. I thank Mike 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?
Mike: DANCE. My “process” isn’t sequential. I jump back and forth between writing and illustrating, almost like a dance. Doing one will inspire the other, or sometimes when I’m feeling stuck, I’ll switch to get back in the rhythm. So, I start with sketches, then do some writing, then back and forth.
KEEP IT LOOSE. The initial dummy is very loose. The sketches just show enough to convey what is going on in the spread; that way I don’t get too hung up on the details. However, I did start out both Little Elliot, Big City and Little Elliot, Big Family with one finished piece of art that I made before the book deal.
RESEARCH. When you’re illustrating a non-abstract scene, you need reference materials. Little Elliot is set in the late 1930s/early ’40s, so I had to do my homework on the look and feel of the time period. One of my favorite parts of the research was going to the MTA archives to look at photos of the subway and then going to the MTA museum to see vintage subway cars. (High-fives to my fellow history nerds!)
DRAW, DRAW, DRAW. Once my thumbnails are approved and I have all the reference materials I need, I create a detailed comp for each spread. Sometimes I’ll create a mock-up by stitching together all of my reference materials in Photoshop. I check in with the editor one more time with the comps before taking everything to finish, giving me a window to make adjustments to the drawings. Once all adjustments are made, based on feedback, I will finish the drawing.
COLOR. After I scan, I touch up anything that sticks out, then start coloring. Each color is a separate layer in Photoshop with different opacities, almost like a glazing technique one would use in painting.
2. Jules: Describe your studio or usual work space.
Mike: I have a workroom in my apartment. It’s a pretty easy commute! It’s spacious (by New York standards) and gets good light. I love being there.
(Click to enlarge)
(Click to enlarge)
(Click to enlarge)
3. Jules: As a book-lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?
Mike: My Mom says that my favorite books when I was little were The Little Red Caboose and The Poky Little Puppy. She used to read to me all the time from a Golden Book compilation entitled Tibor Gergely’s Great Big Book of Bedtime Stories, which I still have and I still love. I think Gergely’s work still influences me today. I also loved Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day?, Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham, and Mabel Watt’s Hiram’s Red Shirt (illustrated by Aurelius Battaglia?).
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.)
Mike: Since moving to Brooklyn, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting so many amazing illustrators, but I have yet to meet this handful of heroes. (Okay, okay. I know I’m only supposed to choose three, but who do you expect me to cut from this list?)
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?
Mike: I often listen to music while I’m illustrating (or I have a movie playing in the background). While working on the latest book, I listened to a lot of Fiona Apple (The Idler Wheel), Robyn (Bodyrock), Mark Ronson (Record Collection), Gossip (A Joyful Noise), MS MR (Secondhand Rapture), and everything/anything by Vampire Weekend and Rufus Wainwright. I’m also really into soundtracks such as Amélie, Chicago, Pride & Prejudice, Sleepless in Seattle, and Pina. And when I really want to burn the midnight oil, I usually default to either my ’80s pop or ’90s grunge playlists. Oh, and Weezer’s Blue Album is always playing at some point when I make art. It’s a tradition that my former college studio-mates and I share.
6. Jules: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?
Mike: One thing I must confess is that I was not a voracious reader in my teens. I’m not sure what happened, but once I grew out of picture books, the idea of reading seemed like such a chore. It was cutting into my drawing and TV time! Thank goodness for comic books. They are pretty much all I read from the ages of 12 to 15. I was very passionate about my X-Men collection from then into my early 20s. I did dream about making my own picture books when I was very young, but for the duration of middle and high school, I aspired to be a comic book artist. Though my interest in classic superheroes has diminished, I am hoping to break into graphic novels one day.
7. Jules: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free
to ask and respond here.
Mike: One question I’d like to hear is: “Aside from other children’s books, is there anything that influences your work?” And the answer would be: “YES!”
I am really inspired by film. Good cinematography, like picture books, can tell a story with very few words. My favorite movies (and picture books) have both amazing imagery and compelling narrative. Movies like Amélie, The Last Emperor, American Beauty, Inception, Marie Antoinette, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Lord of the Rings are not only riveting stories; everything is also visually stunning. There is attention to detail in every scene. Every object is carefully placed — and the color adjusted to convey the feeling in the atmosphere. The framing of each scene is dynamic and directs the eye. I could watch any of these on mute and just revel in their beauty. I try to take the visual lessons I learn from films like these and apply them to my work.
Jules: What is your favorite word?
Jules: What is your least favorite word?
Mike: “Literally.” When it’s misused.
Jules: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Mike: See: What is your favorite word?
Jules: What turns you off?
7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)
Mike: I couldn’t possibly choose one.
Jules: What sound or noise do you love?
Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?
Jules: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Mike: Maybe acting. Or ice cream-taste-tester. (That’s a thing, right?)
Jules: What profession would you not like to do?
Mike: Anything involving customer service. Been there. Done that. Next.
Jules: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Mike: “Don’t worry. You can still keep making books.”
All artwork and images are used with permission of Mike Curato.
The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, © 2009 Matt Phelan.