The Town that Fooled the British:
An Interview with Children’s Book Illustrator Lisa Papp
“One of the greatest things about illustrating children’s books is using my imagination. I get to imagine how a character looks; how their ears sit when they cry, or how their hair blows when they discover something. There’s so much storytelling with pictures and I love to get into the nitty gritty of it.”—Lisa Papp
Lisa Papp has illustrated numerous children’s books including, Eve Bunting’s My Mom’s Wedding, Kristin Earhart’s Patch, Steven Layne and Deborah Layne’s P Is for Princess: A Royal Alphabet(co-illustrated with Robert Papp), Jane E. Gerver’s Penny, and Robert L. May’s Rudolph to the Rescue and Rudolph Shines Again. She is the author of The Town that Fooled the British: A War of 1812 Story which was illustrated by her husband, Robert Papp (who is also a children’s book illustrator and cover artist for Cook’s Illustrated magazine).
WRR: Explain your road to becoming a children’s book illustrator.
Papp: It was a windy road. I did not start out wanting to become an illustrator. I loved my fine art; painting what I wanted, when I wanted, and how I wanted. It brought me so much joy; the baskets and quilts I painted then are things I would still enjoy painting today if I had the time. Robert and I showed our work together on homemade stands sometimes driving hours up and down the Jersey shore and inland. We had a lot of fun, except getting up at the crack of dawn, and for the most part did very well. This was the era before printers were good for anything except sketchy address labels, so to have prints made of your work was a major financial undertaking and you needed to order quantities in the 500’s to make it affordable. Hardly anyone did it, unless you were prematurely wealthy. Therefore, our days were spent painting new artwork for the weekend shows. In the evenings I worked as a valet, parking cars for weddings and such. Our uniforms were hideous and I once ran over a purse, but I loved being outside and I was thrilled anytime I got to drive a Saab!
It wasn’t until the fine art scene began to take a hit in the early 90’s that I looked toward illustration. During my studies at duCret School of Art, my other love was fashion illustration. Great illustrators like R & B Herrmann and Richard Holliman were the kingpins then and I had stacks of their amazing work from the Lord & Taylor newspaper ads. This was a time when fashion illustration was classy and not just a means to show how many buttons a shirt collar had. I spent several years working freelance for companies like VanHeusen, Nautica and Limited Too, mostly doing the shirt collar thing. But alas, the camera was quicker and more accurate, at least if you’re talking buttons. But as the saying about the door goes, when one shuts another does open. There were plenty of advertising jobs and Robert and I took any that came our way from illustrating toasters to stretch-pants and even creating storyboards and backdrops for Blue Cross & Blue Shield (I was never any good at toasters). In my spare moments, I painted fairies and other earthy things hoping to break into the greeting card business or some other magical thing that would let me paint what I wanted.
As illustrators, Robert and I have learned to plant our feet lightly and to keep our ears open. It’s a very changing business and you’ve got to be ready to change with it. But we’ve been lucky.
During a photo shoot where we were costuming a job for another illustrator, we met our agent. My mother is a wonderful seamstress and had been making a few costumes for the book covers Robert was illustrating. Word spread and soon we were renting these pieces to other illustrators. At this particular job, the illustrator couldn’t show, so his agent did. That’s how we got hooked up. It was soon after that, maybe a month or so, when I was driving home and Robert called me on my cell. “Hey, you’re illustrating Rudolph!” Huh? I didn’t even know I was up for the job. I was ecstatic!
WRR: What is your process from the time you receive a children’s picture book manuscript to the finished product.
Papp: Illustrating a picture book can take 10 to 12 months or longer, of course, depending on your style. It’s a lengthy process that requires pacing in order to keep it fresh.
When the manuscript arrives in the mail, it’s always exciting. On my first read through I am mainly interested in the feel or message of the story. On second and third reads I begin to imagine the characters visually; how she wears her hair, how she dresses or, as in the four-leggeds, do they dress? Remember, the author has told the story with words. Now it’s my job to tell the story with pictures. I make tiny sketches testing all these things out until I find someone who really fits the story and, since we’re going to spend the next year together, someone I really like.
It’s about that time when the page breaks arrive in my email box. These pages show the manuscript broken down into sections indicating which words go on which page and where. With this information, I can see how much space I have for the illustration and whether the painting is to be a single or a spread. Now the good stuff begins….and, consequently, the hardest. This is where the most planning takes place. And must take place in order to create a successful book. How am I going to tell the story visually and keep the reader turning pages?
Undoubtedly there are some scenes I get excited about right away. It may be on page 10 for instance, and so I use that as a starting point and from there I can work both up to it and after it. Quite often, the scenes I thought I knew end up completely changed. The illustrations must work hand-in-hand to build the story, not just be interesting pieces on their own. It’s a time of not being afraid to waste paper and not being married to ideas. This is also where it’s extra handy to live with another illustrator. Since Robert and I are both working on books at the same time, we constantly bounce ideas off one another. This planning and sketch stage may take a couple of months and, finally, when you’ve got 30 or 40 sketches sprawled out on the kitchen floor and you don’t think you can spend another minute with it, it’s time to send them off to the publisher for review.
While clients peruse the sketches, a couple of weeks or a month depending on their schedules, I catch up on finishes for other projects. After a long day, a phone message that says, “Well, we had a chance to look everything over… Why don’t you give me a call,” can either warm your heart or leave you shivering. Depending on the complexity of changes, a new set of sketches will go out in another couple of weeks or so. When final approvals come in, it’s time to take a deep breath. At this point, it’s just aim for the deadline, but the path is my own. I used to wait till the end of a project before buying myself a hot fudge sundae. I’m more generous now and do it in intervals; when sketches are approved, ¼ of the way through finishes, ½ way through, etc. The motivation works well for me.
The size of my finished paintings depends on the size of the book. As illustrators, we were taught to work twice the size of the finished reproduction. That was perfect for single book covers, but when you’ve got 27 paintings to complete it’s just not realistic. For picture books, I work exact reproduction size unless the deadline gets really tight, then I go smaller. As for the order in which I complete the finishes, I have only one rule: never do my favorite painting first or last. First, because I will not know my character well enough yet; I need to get a few paintings under my belt to really nail down color and expression. Last, because I will undoubtedly be rushing at this point, and hey, that’s never good for any piece of art!
WRR: What research is involved in this process?
Papp: I enjoy the opportunity to research my topic dujour whether it’s the style of dress a little girl wears in 1876 or the subtle way a polar bear sleeps next to his mother. I have loads of reference pictures of animals because, of course, deer legs jump differently than frog legs, which are completely opposite from kangaroo legs, and it’s all stuff I need to look at and understand before I begin. I get to investigate a great many things, from chunky locomotives to the underbelly of a water lily, so my job is rarely dull.
WRR: You stated “nature has always been a friend to [you] and continues to be one of [your] best inspirers.” Explain.
Papp: Without nature, I really don’t know where I’d be. I have spent so much of my life browsing through woods and breathing in meadows that I can’t think of anything I do that doesn’t come from there. There is so much resilience in a tree, so much faith in a heron waiting for his fish, so many possibilities calling to you, and I find it all so friendly and welcoming. To look at one of my cats, for instance, is to look at a bottomless well of love and wisdom.
In my difficult times, I have always felt welcome in the company of a forest. I once wrote that a forest is a symphony of patience, and I’m really beginning to understand it now and to see that in my own life. I seem to learn all my lessons through nature. Forgiveness, letting go, trust, and it just keeps going. The more I learn the more there is to know. If I could do anything worthwhile, I would love to share the beauty I’ve found in nature and help others to see themselves as that same beauty. That, to me, is the message from Mother Nature: we are the same, come have a look at how beautiful you are! It is always about including, not separating. I like that, and if I can show that in my work, either writing or illustrating, I will have done a good job.
WRR: What happens to your original artwork once the book is completed?
Papp: Original art always remains with the artist, or at least, it should. Unless a special agreement has been signed, which would include a significant financial incentive, after publication of the book the original paintings are always returned to the artist.
When it comes to rights, the publisher retains first North American rights. They have the right to publish the book and use the artwork for promotion of the book. As creators of the art, we may sell the original paintings or, if we’re sentimental like I often am, we can make prints and sell those.
WRR: The publishing industry has changed over the years. Today, authors and illustrators are expected to help promote their work, often without help from the publisher. How has this affected your career?
Papp: I wasn’t in the business during the heyday of limos bringing illustrators to book signings though I have heard the glamour stories first hand. So to me it’s just a novel story like banks giving you coffee makers just for coming in. It would be amazingly rewarding to have someone love your book as much as you, but the truth is they often have a hundred more on their desk needing both their attention and their funds. I don’t suppose they prefer it much either. Some of my publishers have more of a budget and interest than others. Still, once you know you have to do it, it can be very creative.
As far as self promotion goes, one of the benefits of working on children’s books is that the audience I get to meet is kids. It’s fun because they have wonderfully clever questions and they really love books. I also have to thank their parents for buying a hand signed book in lieu of a Barbie doll or video game for the same price. Another benefit of do-it-yourself-promotion is getting to know the independent booksellers. They’re gracious and open-minded and know so much about the books in their stores. They are true treasures in the industry; just go into one and you’ll immediately see what I mean. I spend as much time buying things there as I do selling books.
WRR: What are some of your favorite children’s books, and why?
Papp: Anything Winnie the Pooh captures my imagination. I adore both the writing and the illustrations equally. The musings of Pooh and Christopher Robin are so authentic; I never tire of reading them or lingering with the images. Another favorite is Anne of Green Gables. I only read it recently when I was asked to illustrate an early reader version, and I immediately fell in love. L. M. Montgomery’s writing is fresh and full of movement; never dull, even for a second. I admire that kind of consistency.
Kate DiCamillo’s Tiger Rising is another favorite along with Katherine Hannigan’s Ida B. The purity and honesty of those books inspired me to begin my own first novel. I also greatly admire the works of Jennifer Donnelly and Heather Gudenkauf.
There are so many fantastic illustrators, but if I had to choose, Rien Poortvliet, a Dutch artist, would sit at the top of the list. His work in the Gnome books is so outstanding it sets the bar matching technical skill with creativity.
WRR: What advice do you have for someone interested in pursuing a career in children’s book illustration?
Papp: If you love to paint or draw and you like telling stories, it’s a wonderful way to spend a day. True, illustrating picture books is a lot of work, but it’s also extremely rewarding.
In the beginning, take any job. Clients want to know that you can pay attention, follow guidelines and, for heaven’s sake, hit a deadline. One of the first illustration jobs my husband and I did was to illustrate a nose-hair clipper: yes, that’s right, we took reference photos and everything. We did a superb job contrasting the shiny, blue hued clippers with the soft muted skin of the nose. And do you know what, we were lucky—they liked it so much they asked us to do a toe nail clipper next! What did we do? We high-fived and got to work! You have to start somewhere so best to get painting and start racking up the printed pieces.
SCBWI is a great resource for anyone interested in writing or illustrating for children. They provide opportunities to meet established authors and illustrators as well as agents and editors, not to mention a meeting ground to really learn about the business.
From where I stand now, I would say paint what you love and trust the path. Remember, if I got here, you can too. And, by the way, keep imagining the day when you open the door and find a box of your latest book sitting on your porch; it’s very rewarding!
WRR: What’s next for Lisa Papp?
Papp: Robert and I have been busy! We just completed a year long project co-illustrating a six book series for American Girl due out in September 2012. And I’m proud to say our recently released historical fiction picture book, The Town that Fooled the British: a War of 1812 Story, has been well received with honors, including a 2011 National Parenting Publications Honor Award (NAPPA) and the 2012 Storytelling World Award. You can read more about the War of 1812 and how a small boy’s big idea helped save his town at The Town that Fooled the British. Robert and I really enjoyed working together as author and illustrator and have several exciting concepts on our drawing (and writing) boards.
I’ve discovered I enjoy telling a story with words as much as I do with pictures….conveying mood, emotions, triumph, despair—really it’s just another format. I truly adore the indepth story telling of novels and look forward to exploring that market. I love diving into a character and watching her words paint the page!
Janice Gable Bashman is the Bram Stoker nominated author of PREDATOR (Month9Books 2014) and WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE (w/NEW YORK TIMES bestseller Jonathan Maberry) (Citadel Press 2010). She is publisher of THE BIG THRILL (International Thriller Writers’ magazine). Her short fiction has been published in various anthologies and magazines. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Mystery Writers of America, Horror Writers Association, and the International Thriller Writers, where she serves on the board of directors as Vice President, Technology.
All Articles by Janice Gable Bashman:
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From Tragedy to Triumph: New York Times Bestselling Author L.A. Banks
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Connie Dover – Singer-songwriter and Trail Cook: Home on the Ranch
Kathryn Ball – Fire Watcher: On Buck Rock Lookout
Thrill Ride: The Dark World of Mysteries and Thrillers:
Thrill Ride: An Interview with Lawrence Block and Steve Hamilton
Thrill Ride: An Interview with Barry Eisler
Thrill Ride: An Interview with Bill Kent
Thrill Ride: An Interview with David Housewright