Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Brianne Farley

h1 May 3rd, 2016 by jules


Several weeks ago at Kirkus, I wrote here about Brianne Farley’s new picture book, Secret Tree Fort, published by Candlewick just last month. When I write about picture books over at Kirkus, I always like to follow up with art about a week later here at 7-Imp. I can’t write about picture books without also sharing art; it’s a compulsion. But then I got to talking to Brianne, pictured above in her home state of Michigan, about visiting for a full-on breakfast interview, instead of just sharing a few spreads. And here we are today: She’s joining me for a cyber-breakfast — her choice, which is a small cup of strong coffee, yogurt, and granola with fruit. “Or sometimes Grape-Nuts instead of granola,” she told me. “I’m 100 years old.” I’m down with that. I’ll be 100 years old with her. Grape-Nuts it is.

The guy pictured just above here on the left, who makes me laugh, is from Secret Tree Fort. I’d tell you all about how entertaining that book is, but you can also just visit the aforementioned Kirkus link, where I went on about it. And I had a lot of fun with this interview. I like seeing Brianne’s art and can’t wait to see what she does next. She also makes me laugh, and I hope one day we have a very real, non-cyber breakfast in person.

Should I say something overreaching here about how you should join me in this treehouse of an interview? Climb up the ladder and I’ve got the s’mores inside? Nah, let’s just get right to it. Enjoy ALL THE ART!

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Brianne: Illustrator/author.


Early character sketch for Secret Tree Fort
(Click to enlarge)


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

Brianne: Ike’s Incredible Ink and Secret Tree Fort.


Jules: What is your usual medium?

Brianne: Drawings made in ink, pencil, and charcoal on paper, scanned into Photoshop and colored digitally.


“And it’s not just any old tree fort. There is a rope ladder I can pull into the fort and a water-balloon launcher JUST IN CASE OF ATTACK. I’m serious! I’m NOT making this up. I wish I could tell you more about it, but I can’t. It’s a secret.”
— Final art from
Secret Tree Fort (Candlewick, April 2016)
(Click to enlarge)


“If I stand in the crow’s nest, I can see the ocean,
so I know how many whales pass by and whether there will be pirates.”
— Final art from
Secret Tree Fort
(Click to enlarge)


Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Brianne: My hometown, Traverse City, Michigan. I moved there from Brooklyn last June after 14 years away!


“A window display in front of Horizon Books in Traverse City.
I was very happy it was staying upright.”


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

Brianne: I wrote and illustrated the first draft of Ike’s Incredible Ink as part of my MFA in Illustration at the Savannah College of Art and Design. I met Peter Brown there when he was visiting to give a lecture, and he sent my work to his agent, Paul Rodeen at Rodeen Literary Management. Paul liked Ink (thank goodness) and took me on as a client. While I was hoping and praying that Ink would sell, I graduated and got a job at Random House Books for Young Readers (loved that job!) and moved to Brooklyn and roped Peter into being my friend and introducing me to other wonderful author/illustrators to be my other friends. Mwahaha. No favor goes unpunished. I had been working at Random House for a couple months when Candlewick bought Ink. I actually jumped up and down on my bed when I got the news. It was just an amazing year.


Process images from Ike’s Incredible Ink
(Candlewick, 2013)

(Click each to enlarge)


Brianne: “The Ike’s Incredible Ink parade float! In my hometown, the Cherry Festival takes place every July, and all the local elementary schools participate in the Cherry Festival Parade and make floats on a theme. The 2014 theme was ‘Michigan authors,’ and Bertha Vos Elementary chose Ike’s Incredible Ink. They built a rocket and a giant blender that had a fan in the bottom and shot ink (black streamers) out of the top.
It was the BEST.”


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



Color tests for Secret Tree Fort
(Click each to enlarge)


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

Brianne: What they’re like for me? First I freak out and get very nervous and clammy. Then I start talking to the kids, and I suddenly remember I really truly love school visits. I love seeing the kids get excited about books and seeing the drawings they make. I also like hearing the sound of 300 kids take a “wiggle break” while I dance around like a nut to encourage wiggling. This is a very odd profession, isn’t it?


Brianne: “I’m asking the kids to raise both hands if
they like drawing
and writing stories.”


I have a great slide show where I show the kids a photo of myself and my sister as kids and a book I made when I was very young, which they think is hilariously bad. We talk about drawing and practicing and mistakes and creativity. When I was young, it was really hard to imagine the adults in my life as kids. I try to show that progression, that I was a kid like them and now I get to make books professionally — and they could too. All they need is that compulsive drive to draw all day everyday. I was that kid, the one who didn’t know what our homework assignment was, because I was too busy filling my day planner with drawings.


Top: “A book I made as a kid. There is one page inside, and it says,
‘Mom and Dad, I will never run away.’ The End.”;
Bottom: “My sister, Kristin, and I as kids at our Grandpa’s cottage.”


Anyway! Then I read my book aloud, and we all make a drawing together. All the kids have clipboards and paper and pencils, and they draw along with me. For Secret Tree Fort, we draw a tree house. The thing is, their forts are always better than mine. That’s not false modesty. It’s actually kind of humbling and infuriating. Hey, I’m supposed to be the professional! At the last visit, one student drew a tree house with a squirrel bodyguard wearing a knit cap and a “Dumpling Dropper 2000” [pictured below], which is some next level tree house design. I did a small visit where all the kids decided to use the drawing paper to make 3D tree houses. It was amazing.


(Click to enlarge the Dumpling Dropper 2000)


Jules: If you teach illustration, by chance, tell me how that influences your work as an illustrator.

Brianne: I don’t teach at a school (though I’d love to someday), but I have started a program called Workshop Social that I run out of my studio. It consists of small, once-a-month workshops that usually have something to do with printmaking. I do a demo and provide the materials, and then we spend the rest of the time making art. It’s supposedly a way for the participants to connect with new people and try new art mediums, but it’s secretly a way for me to do those things. The people who come to the workshops are people I might never meet otherwise, and I love that it carves out time for me to make art that isn’t for work. Plus, much like the kids’ tree houses, someone usually ends up making something amazing, and I get all jealous and inspired and excited about that too.


Brianne: “In the most popular [workshop], we block print tea towels, using potatoes. The very first workshop was to nine-year-olds right before Halloween (they made ghost, pumpkin, and witch hat blocks), but the rest have been for adults.”


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

Brianne: I’m illustrating Charlotte the Scientist is Squished, written by Camille Andros, due to come out with Clarion in Spring 2017.


Loose concept sketches, a sketch page, and the character design
(Click first image to enlarge)


I’m also writing and illustrating a book with Candlewick about elephants [below], which is currently a disaster but is turning into something fantastic. I believe. I hope.



Mmm. Coffee.Okay, we’ve got our coffee and Grape-Nuts, and it’s time to get a bit more detailed with seven questions over breakfast. I thank Brianne 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?


Early manuscript for Secret Tree Fort
(Click to enlarge)


Brianne: When I am writing and illustrating, the idea usually starts as a couple of notes and some scribbly drawings. I run my ideas past my agent, Paul, who has an excellent nose for an idea with legs, and he believes in (or at least lets me get away with) the odd sort of stories I’m drawn to. Some of the story ideas jump onto the page. Some of them hang around in my head for years and every once in a while say things like, “but what if this happened?” — and slowly, slowly the story is formed.


First round of character sketches for Secret Tree Fort;
Brianne: “At first, I wasn’t sure if the main characters would be girls or boys or monsters, even though the story was based on me and my sister.”

(Click second image to enlarge)


Early setting sketch
(Click to enlarge)


All this time, I picture what the finished illustrations will look like. The style of the art helps me figure out what the tone of the book will be. Then I start writing. I don’t outline, but I do revise the manuscript many times over. I have a lovely group of friends who also make picture books, and they’re a very important part of that process. We get together and hash out why a book isn’t working and fill tiny notebooks with drawings layered over each other, dead-end ideas, and bizarre segues. If we can make each other laugh or connect emotionally, we’re onto something. Eventually the manuscript is close enough to finished that I can start drawing.


(Click each to enlarge)


I do a bunch of character sketches, then move to thumbnail images. These are loose, tiny drawings; the entire book fits on two pieces of paper. In the thumbnails, I’m focused on the pacing of the book but also on the composition of each page. I also do research (visual and otherwise) at this point, which is one of my favorite parts. For example, for Squished, I wound up down an internet rabbit hole trying to figure out if a balloon could float on the moon. (I found that a hydrogen balloon released on the moon falls with an acceleration of 1.6 m/s^2, of course.) What’s that you say? This is a book about a bunny scientist, which is already stranger than a balloon floating on the moon, so what does it matter, you say? IT MATTERS, GUYS.


(Click to enlarge thumbnails)


I then scan in my thumbnail drawings, blow them up, and make sketches straight from the thumbnails on a light table. Then I fool around with the composition of the sketches in Photoshop until they’re just right, re-draw certain parts, paste those in, and print them out. That is my other favorite part, the visual puzzle-solving portion of illustration. I tape every page to the wall (surprise, studio mates!) and look at the book as a whole, just to make sure the pacing, compositions, and transitions feel right. I also use these scanned pencil sketches to create color comps in Photoshop. I reduce them to the size of thumbnails and put them on one page so that I have a bird’s-eye view of what the book will look like as a whole and can resolve tricky color issues.

All this time, I’m also refining the manuscript with the help of my editor.


Brianne: “I really struggled with trying to figure out what the final art would look like.
At first I thought everything would be black and white, except the imaginary bits,
but I ended up just making the imaginary parts way more colorful
than the rest of the setting.”

(Click each to enlarge)


Then I go to final art! Using print outs of the sketches, I’m back at the light table again. I make final art kind of like how you might prepare a screen print; I draw everything in black and white on many layers, and then combine those layers and color everything in Photoshop. This is the part where I listen to a million hours of podcasts and get into the zone and then suddenly realize I’ve forgotten to use the bathroom or feed myself for quite a while. There are usually a couple spreads in every book that kick my butt at this stage, but let’s not talk about those. They know who they are. They know what they’ve done.

Once I’ve finished the entire book, I go back and make sure the drawing style and color palette looks consistent as a whole. And then it’s off to my publisher and I wait for their expert input.


(Click each to enlarge)


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

Brianne: I made Secret Tree Fort while living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. At my home studio, I had a big glass table I turned into a light table and a big cork board covered in clippings of art. I also worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yards in a studio with fellow author/illustrator Thyra Heder. She was so helpful in making Tree Fort, and I got to see her picture book The Bear Report come together. It was wonderful. I truly miss that studio.


The Brooklyn studio
(Click to enlarge)


In Traverse City, I work at a co-working space in a converted 1800s grocery store. I love it there. It’s filled with light and plants and is just a few blocks from Grand Traverse Bay. My desk is the one with enormous googly eyes on the scanner. That’s my sister behind me; she started a company called Sable & Gray Paper Co., which makes custom wedding stationery. She’s also the one who gave me the googly eyes. There are four other creative professionals there, all fantastic human beings. I’m so lucky to get to work there and teach there and tape all sorts of things to their beautiful walls.


“My new desk in Traverse City. Mine is the front desk,
and that’s my sister sitting behind me!”

(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?

Brianne: Oh, definitely Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake above all others, hands down. I had to write a speech in elementary school about what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I said I wanted to write and illustrate just like them. The BFG was the first chapter book I read on my own. I adored that book.

Then I read The Witches and remember being afraid to touch one particular drawing of the Head Witch. It was so scary. Then I read Fantastic Mr. Fox and Danny, Champion of the World and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator and any other Roald Dahl story I could get my hands on. When I was older, I read Kiss Kiss and realized Roald Dahl was a dark dude. That darkness was in his kids’ books too. I think that bit of real danger, that his weren’t sugar-coated stories, were what I loved as a child.

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.)

Brianne: Well, definitely Quentin Blake, good golly. But can we say I get to go to his studio rather than mine? I would soak up a whole room of Quentin Blake art and never feel low again. And JooHee Yoon. What an amazing, unique printmaker-illustrator. And she’s doing some incredible stuff with color and layering I really envy. I mean Beastly Verse? Sheesh. So gorgeous and vibrant and wonderful it hurts.

And I would like to have a drink with Tomi Ungerer. I would like some of his revolutionary spirit to rub off on me. And Philip and Erin Stead! They are also printmaker-illustrators and fellow Michiganders. Hey, maybe I will really have coffee with them sometime!

If I got to cheat and list someone deceased, I would definitely pick Maurice Sendak. What a lovely, grumpy, intelligent man he seemed to be. I’ve watched as many interviews with him as I can find online, and he had such thoughtful things to say about the craft of writing and drawing picture books. He really respected his audience but also, if I remember right, said he didn’t write for children. He just wrote. I would have loved to meet him in person.

Is that three? Carson Ellis. We would talk about farming. Isabelle Arsenault. We would talk about erasers.

There, that’s three.


Secret Tree Fort dummies
(Click each to enlarge)


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?

Brianne: Yes, I do!

Well, Prince right now, of course. When I’m writing, I can’t listen to anything with words, so I listen to early jazz or occasionally classical. When I’m drawing, I want something that moves, so I listen to a mix of Nina Simone, Al Green, James Brown, Otis Redding, Beyoncé, David Bowie, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Alabama Shakes, Talking Heads, and the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. The Dirty Dancing soundtrack forever!

When it’s time for final art, I’m no longer solving puzzles, so there’s a little corner of my brain that gets a bit bored. The perfect solution is to listen to endless hours of podcasts. I prefer This American Life, RadioLab, Serial, and an occasional Planet Money. I just started listing to Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People. I’m sure I’m missing some great ones. I’d love suggestions.


“My mural at a bar/food truck place/community space, called The Little Fleet …”
(Click third image to enlarge)


Editorial ink pieces
(Click each to enlarge)


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

Brianne: I’m a decent horseback rider.


Working out story ideas


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

Brianne: What other projects would you like to take on?

I just started diving into an animation project, but I have to learn how to animate first. No problem, right?? And I’d love to do surface design and more ceramics.



* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Brianne: “Waffle.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Brianne: “Moist.” Runner-up: “Wasps.”

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

Brianne: Swimming, gardening, friends.

Jules: What turns you off?

Brianne: Fedoras.

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

Brianne: “Fuck.” Fuck! But I’m trying to cut back.

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Brianne: Waves. Laughter. Armpit farts.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Brianne: A banana being eaten in a quiet elevator.

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

Brianne: The guy that squeegees those giant sticker advertisements on the subway wall. The very happy lady moving crayons in that Sesame Street short about how crayons are made. Owner and operator of a fancy garden supply store with my mom and sister, and I tend to the herb garden that is adorably located out the back of the store. Art teacher. Biologist. Sleep researcher. Forest ranger.



Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Brianne: President of the United States.

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

Brianne: “Tada!”


* * * * * * *

All images are used by permission of Brianne Farley.

Opening photo of Brianne taken by JohnPaul Morris.

SECRET TREE FORT. Copyright © 2016 by Brianne Farley. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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

One comment to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Brianne Farley”

  1. This interview is SO much fun. Thank you, Brianne and Jules! The crayon video from Sesame Street is THE BEST. Also, check out the soundtrack for the film Happy Accidents. It definitely moves and sambas and wiggles!

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