Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Stephanie Graegin

h1 October 21st, 2014 by jules

Pictured above is the title page illustration from Nancy Van Laan’s Forget Me Not, released by Schwartz & Wade Books in August. This is the poignant and lovingly-rendered story of a young girl whose grandmother is experiencing significant memory loss. It slowly builds in the story — to the point where she is placed in an assisted living center, while her granddaughter watches with concern. The illustrations were rendered by my visitor today, Stephanie Graegin, pictured below.

As you’ll read below, this is Stephanie’s fourth picture book. (Three were released last year.) She’s also illustrated middle grade novels and is working on her own picture book. Graegin’s warm palettes capture the small moments of life, and I wanted to have her over for a cyber-breakfast to discuss her work and see even more art. Normally, she tells me, she’d have a bowl of cereal. But today we are going to splurge by taking a walk to pick up a bacon and egg dub pie from the Dub Pie Shop across the street, along with a coffee.

I thank her for visiting.

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Stephanie: Illustrator.

I am in the early stages of working on a picture book that I also wrote (although it has no words), but it feels too soon to call myself an author.

Chicken Soup with Rice Sendak tribute

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



Picture Books:


Middle Grade Novels:

Jules: What is your usual medium?

Stephanie: I draw in pencil (mechanical 2B .5) on paper (Moleskine sketchbook, usually). I draw very tiny and scan the drawing in very high-res to blow it up larger, as I have found I just can’t draw as well large. I make many layers on duralar (a clear paper) of texture, shading, and patterns — using colored pencil, watercolor, and ink. I scan everything into the computer, then compile and color everything digitally in Photoshop. Drawing in pure pencil is my absolute favorite, though.

From the sketchbooks
(Click third image to enlarge)

Jules: If you have illustrated for various age ranges (such as, both picture books and early reader books OR, say, picture books and chapter books), can you briefly discuss the differences, if any, in illustrating for one age group to another?

Stephanie: I have done both picture books and middle grade novels. While I love both, I’ll admit that illustrating a picture book is more challenging — but also more rewarding. A picture book’s text is less specific than a novel, and you are given much more room to explore and to create the world inside the book. A picture book is wide open; almost anything can happen. At times the multitude of options for a illustrating picture book can be overwhelming, but I love the challenge of it. It can be a nice balance to be working on both formats at once — to be able to go back and forth between working in color and in black & white.

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Stephanie: I’m in Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY, right outside of Prospect Park (the park the book Water in the Park was inspired by). I lived in various neighborhoods in Brooklyn for the last 10 years. I came to Brooklyn to go to graduate school at Pratt Institute. Before I lived in Brooklyn, I lived in Austin, Texas, and Baltimore, MD (where I went to undergrad at The Maryland Institute College of Art). As a kid I lived in Houston, TX; Fort Wayne, IN; and Chicago IL.

“But ever so slowly, like a low tide leaving the bay, a change came along. Grandma was becoming more and more forgetful. First, it was names—of places she’d been or books she’d read or people she knew. Even us. We would joke and tell Grandma she liked to scramble our names for breakfast instead of eggs. And she’d laugh as much as we did.”
(Click to enlarge)

“When she called me Sally or Harry instead of my real name, Julia, I pretended it was a game that Grandma liked to play. After she called out all my wrong names, I’d say, ‘No, silly, my name is Julia!’ Then she’d laugh and clap her hands and say, ‘Oh, silly me! Hello, bright-as-sunshine Julia!'”
(Click to enlarge)

“‘Smells like rain,’ Grandma would say sometimes on a perfectly clear day. ‘Better get out the umbrella.’ Then, a couple of minutes later, she would say, ‘Smells like rain.
Better get out the umbrella.’ And Grandma’s head kept getting worse.”

(Click to enlarge)

Pictured above: Spreads from Nancy Van Laan’s
Forget Me Not

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

Stephanie: I studied Fine Arts, focusing on printmaking in college and graduate school. I made a lot of artist’s books with etchings, which looking back, were essentially hand-printed picture books. Illustrating children’s books was something I have wanted to do since I was about five, but it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I focused all my energy on making it a reality. Everything fell into place around the same time. I changed the way I was working — I had been making Edward Gorey-inspired work using pen and ink, but it wasn’t right for me. I started drawing only in pencil and adding the color digitally. Something clicked, and the work became so much better.

When the work was in a place where I felt ready to show it, I spent about a year making children’s book portfolio pieces and then about three months putting together a hand-bound mini portfolio booklet, which fit into a 4×6 envelope.

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I sent these out to around 250 editors and art directors, and the calls for book work started happening. Around this same time, I was extremely fortunate that Nate Williams posted a blog post of my work on illustrationmundo, and literary agent Steven Malk at Writers House saw it. Steven reached out to me, and he’s been my agent since then.

[Pictured below are sketches and final art from Emily Jenkins’
Water in the Park (Schwartz & Wade, 2013)].

“Very early thumbnail sketches of the first two spreads in the book.”
(Click to enlarge)

“An early sketch of the playground scene.”
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“A later sketch of the same spread, with a new composition and lots of people added.”
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Sketches that became part of the final artwork …
(Click each to enlarge)

“On very hot days, as the sun rises, an orange glow shines in the water of the pond.
Just before six o’clock, turtles settle on rocks. They warm their turtle shells in the light.
Good morning, park!”

(Click to enlarge spread)

“By seven o’clock, two babies have come to the park. One has a bagel in a brown paper bag. The other has a plastic box of apple pieces. The babies want drinks from the water fountain. They point their baby fingers and jump.
Their grown-ups lift them. Up and up.”

(Click to enlarge)

“It is seven o’clock. A stripey cat creeps from beneath a bush and laps a quiet puddle. Tup tup. Tup tup. And now the dogs come.
Rouw! Rouw! Rouw! Time for an evening swim.”

(Click to enlarge)

(Click either image to see spread in its entirety)

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






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

Stephanie: I’m very thankful that there are a lot of books on the way!

I illustrated a picture book for Penguin (Dial), titled Peace Is an Offering [pictured below], coming out in March 2015. Written by Annette LeBox, the text is a beautiful poem about finding peace in your community.

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

I’m currently working on a second picture book for Farrar, Straus and Giroux about two young, adorable brothers. The first picture book in the duo is titled How to Share with a Bear and was written by Eric Pinder. It comes out in Fall 2015.

There are three other picture books I am newly working on, including the book I am writing — but its still too early to give details on those.

Character studies and sketches from
Nancy Van Laan’s
Forget Me Not
(Click each to enlarge)

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

Stephanie: The very first thing I do when given a manuscript is break up the text into pages. When I’m given a manuscript, it’s a Word document with no page breaks. I make very tiny thumbnails (about an inch big) to figure out the page count (32 or 40 pages) and what goes where.

Early sketch
(Click to enlarge)

I keep working slightly bigger as I revise. In the early rough sketch phase, I draw the whole book around 3×3 inches a page. After revising these, I draw larger, more refined sketches. I then send these sketches to the editor or art director. They make suggestions, and then I revise again — usually, a few times before going to final art. During the initial sketch stage, I also do a lot of character studies, drawing them in my sketchbook, which I take everywhere, to get to know what these characters look like before I start the final sketches.

Final art: “And she still smelled like cinnamon and lilac when we cuddled up close.”

The final art stage is the most time-consuming but can be the most rewarding — with the book finally coming to life in full color. I usually spend three months on final art. Those three months are filled with very late nights working, and I pretty much become a hermit. I start with very loose color studies over the final sketches in Photoshop to get an idea of the palette for the entire book. Nailing down the perfect palette for the mood of the book, for me, is one of the more difficult steps in the finals process. Once I have a palette that I’m comfortable with, I start making the layers of texture and shading with watercolors and colored pencil. Those are scanned in, and I start the assembly and digital coloring process. I pretty much keep working and reworking the art until the deadline day.

Studio sketchbooks
(Click to enlarge)

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

Stephanie: I work out of my apartment, and it’s small. So really my whole apartment is my work space. My favorite spot to draw is at my kitchen table.

(Click to enlarge)

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With studio assistant, Bustopher
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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?

Stephanie: I was obsessed with the Richard Scarry Busytown books and What Do People Do All Day? He was a major influence in how I learned to draw animals.

I also loved Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books and Maurice Sendak’s The Nutshell Library; they are still my favorite children’s books to this day.

As for novels, I loved Beverly Cleary, especially the Ramona books. I had the same haircut and attitude as Ramona and felt she was written just for me. One of my prized possessions is a postcard Beverly Cleary sent me when I was six. My older sister and I had written to her to tell her how much we loved the books.

Another favorite chapter book was The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. I reread that book multiple times a year for many years. My copy is held together with tape.

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.)

Stephanie: A glass of wine with Renata Liwska, Isabelle Arsenault, and Benji Davies. I’m very fond of all of their artwork.

[Pictured below are sketches and final art from Liz Garton Scanlon’s
Happy Birthday, Bunny! (Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster, 2013)].

“Early thumbnails of spreads.”
(Click to enlarge)

Sketch that became part of the final artwork.
(Click to enlarge)

“Thumbnails of jacket ideas. The final cover ended up being
a combination of the two at the top.”

(Click to enlarge)

Final art
(Click each spread 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?

Stephanie: I listen to many podcasts — Radiolab, This American Life, Freakonomics, Matthew Winner’s Let Get Busy podcast, along with listening to music. Music favorites at the moment are Beirut, The Dodos, Boards of Canada.

(Click to enlarge)

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

Stephanie: My family called me “Bird,” instead of Stephanie, until I left for college. My older sister gave me the nickname when I was a baby, and it stuck for 18 years.

(Click to enlarge)

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

Stephanie: I think I’ve been asked this before, but its something I’m asked often by students, so it’s good to repeat.

Advice to students/young illustrators starting out? Keep drawing and drawing and drawing. Practice is the only way to get better. Drawing skills are really the most essential thing to being an illustrator; there’s no way around that.

Also, don’t give up! The road to becoming a working illustrator is a long one — expect to still have work a day job for a while, even after you get those first projects.

(Click to enlarge)

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Stephanie: “Caddywhompus.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Stephanie: “Vomit.”

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

Stephanie: A great story, a new sketchbook, a long walk.

Jules: What turns you off?

Stephanie: Negative people.

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

Stephanie: “Crapola.”

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Stephanie: My cat Bustopher’s happy meow.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Stephanie: Annoying street noise I can hear from my apartment — sirens, car alarms, car horns, and the loud movie theater air conditioner next door to me.

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

Stephanie: Something outside — gardener or vegetable farmer.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Stephanie: Retail. I spent too many years doing that already, and I’ve had my fill of it.

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

Stephanie: “The library is right over there.”

All artwork and images are used with permission of Stephanie Graegin.

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

15 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Stephanie Graegin”

  1. Huge fan over here! Loved this – thanks Jules and Stephanie! Can’t wait for PEACE IS AN OFFERING – it looks beautiful – 2015 is shaping up to be an amazing year for picture books. Cheers! GP

  2. I love Stephanie’s work, such beautiful artwork! Looking forward to the ones to come!

  3. what a fantastic article. So thorough with lots and lots of illustrations. I loved that there is finished art and all stages of process. What a rich resource.

  4. Wow!! Her art is so playful and wonderfully gorgeous! Thank you for sharing.

  5. It’s so fun to see the Scarry influence, yet made entirely new! “Forget Me Not” has a companion in this year’s wonderful middle grade novel, “Half a Chance”, by Cynthia Lord. Thank you both, Jules and Stephanie.

  6. Dear Stephanie & Jules,

    Splendiferous, invigorating & nourishing interview – appreciations.
    Just this wk. I ordered Happy Birthday, Bunny & can’t wait.

    Also neat to peek ahead at Peace is an Offering with Annette LeBox. And Stephanie’s under wraps other new ones in percolation.

    Halloween-season treats to you!

  7. Oh how I love Stephanie Graegin!!!! 🙂

  8. Wow! What truly beautiful work, Stephanie! Thank you for sharing so generously with all of us!

  9. I enjoyed the interview with Stephanie Graegin. As the author of Peace Is An Offering, it was wonderful to get to know more about Stephanie and how she works. (Since I live in Canada, Stephanie and I have never met). A great blog, by the way!

  10. I LOVE Stephanie’s sense of space, color, and light. She has such an endearing quality to her work that can be applied to such a range of story. LOVE IT.

  11. Love Stephanie’s new style, although I have to admit I really did love her Edward Gorey style too! But I think this one is much more marketable; better to be unique!

  12. Your illustrations are beautiful. So glad you are doing what you love. That is what life’s about. Merry Christmas!

  13. […] Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast — Wonderful Interview with Stephanie Graegin […]

  14. […] Sources: Illustrator website Illustrator interview: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast […]

  15. Stephanie, I love your drawings so much that it made me do my own countdown to Christmas with your cute little characters. I can’t wait for you to publish more books. YOU CAN DO IT!

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