Friday, September 28, 2018

Q&A with Elizabeth Lilly

Elizabeth Lilly is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book Geraldine. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Geraldine, and why did you make her a giraffe?

A: Geraldine arrived in my head fully formed as an awkward giraffe one day in my school cafeteria in art college. I had a small cup of water and wanted a straw, but could only find a huge long straw to drink it with.

I thought, the only one who would like to drink out of this gigantic straw is a giraffe. I went to my studio and drew a tall giraffe girl squished into a narrow piece of paper, bending awkwardly to drink out of a three-foot straw. Geraldine had arrived!

Only much later, when talking with a close friend, did I realize that her personality is completely based on myself. I’m Colombian, with a conservative family, and I was always in very liberal, white-American school settings, and I often changed schools.

As a result I was always the new kid in school, feeling different, awkward and left out. As I got older I figured out how to be comfortable even in places and situations where I wasn’t like everyone else.

I didn’t start with writing about myself and then go, hmm, I could communicate this better if I was a giraffe. It just happened that way!

I guess I was writing from the feelings that felt the most real and genuine to me, and accidentally sort of put those feelings into a giraffe character. Sometimes it happens that way, you stumble into a great character when you aren’t looking.

Q: Did you focus on the illustrations first or the text (or did you work on them simultaneously)?

A: I did a lot of sketches first to figure out Geraldine’s personality and find the ways she liked to move and behave. Then I developed the manuscript, and then did the preliminary sketches of what would go on each page. (This early text/sketch version of the book is called the “dummy book.”)

I adjusted the manuscript a lot at this point to fit better with what I wanted to draw. Luckily as an author-illustrator, I get to go back and forth and adjust both until I’m exactly happy with the final book.

When the sketches of each page and the text for each page are locked in and my editor and I are both happy with the dummy book, I go to make the final illustrations. In Geraldine’s case, this meant drawings made with black waterproof ink and an old-fashioned nib pen, and watercolor painted over top.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?

A: I hope kids take away that sometimes, especially if they’re in a new place, they may be different, and that’s ok. There isn’t a magic pill or trick to make you not-different when you really aren’t like other people.

But if you look for them, there are always other people around who are different too. You may feel alone, but you can always find someone with whom you can be alone together.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: I think early reader and middle grade novelists create magic. It’s an extremely tough age range to write for because the kids reading them may have just reluctantly given up picture books, and won’t take a chance on something where the plot is confusing or stilted, or the prose isn’t flowing just right.

My favorite ones at that age, which I ripped to shreds reading and rereading, were Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine, and Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan. They both have strong female main characters who have to confront extremely difficult life circumstances, and when they feel very alone, they reach inward for strength to carry them through.

As for picture book writing, it’s such a short medium that I think what’s extremely difficult is getting a strong emotional reaction (laughing, crying, huge smiles, sighs of sadness, gasps of delight or surprise) from the reader in the space of a five or 10 minute reading experience.

The worst picture books, in my eyes, are ones you flip through and just put back on the shelf without your soul being affected even the littlest bit.

Mac Barnett’s writing kills me, it’s so funny, especially in the book Extra Yarn where a little girl knits from a literally never-ending box of yarn.

Tomi Ungerer’s books are weird and quirky in absolutely the best way possible, especially Crictor, which is about a boa constrictor who loves his elderly owner and saves his town from criminals. I can’t look at any of his books without a huge smile.

Same with Serge Bloch, especially in My Snake Blake, where another silly snake helps his little boy do his homework by spelling out letters.

Gabrielle Vincent writes & illustrates the Ernest and Celestine books which are childhood classics in France, and are so genuinely sweet and tender that every single time I choke back a sigh of happiness mixed with sadness. Magic I tell you!!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I was awarded a two-book contract when I got Geraldine, and I’m working on the second book of the contract now.

It isn’t a Geraldine sequel because publishers wait to commission sequels until they hear back on the sales figures from the first one so they’ll be sure of demand. Hopefully that will be in the future! We’ll have to wait and see.

In the meantime, my second author-illustrated book (for the publisher Holiday House) is in the works, due out in 2020. It’s an autobiographical story about growing up visiting my two grandmothers, one Appalachian-American living on a mountain in West Virginia, and one Colombian living in the Hispanic palm-lined neighborhoods of Florida.

It has a lot of great images of the food they made and the houses and kitchens they cooked in. It’s been a tough, intimidating challenge to switch to something so different from the silliness of sad giraffes, but also very fun and rewarding.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: If anyone is thinking of, or hoping and dreaming of, getting into picture books as a professional, know that it’s not easy. For every single person with books on the shelves, it’s been a long, slow slog to get to that day.

If you are having a hard time of it, it’s not because you’re not good enough; it’s because that’s just how it is for everyone. Keep going!!! Children need your unique voice, the thoughts that only YOU can write, in their books and media.

I had to go on many 4 a.m. buses, spend money I didn’t have on conferences while eating ramen and beans at home, knock on doors and doors and beg for people to let me make Geraldine.

Once I had some interest from agents, I had to scrap the book almost completely and rewrite and rewrite. Finally I had the contract and went through a grueling production process. It’s said very often that nothing worth having is easy. VERY true words!

The book community is full of tryers; we all love and support each other because we know exactly how hard it is. So get into it, go to conferences, join online communities, find other people in the same boat, and keep reading, writing and drawing. It will all be worth it, I swear.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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