Thursday, July 7, 2022

Q&A with Vanessa Roeder




Vanessa Roeder is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book The Stack. Her other books include The Box Turtle. She lives in Austin, Texas.


Q: What inspired you to create The Stack?


A: The Stack actually developed accidentally when I was at my wit’s end with another book. I had been revising a story about pigs for months and months, but it wasn’t working.


I was extremely frustrated and couldn’t seem to get past this mental block I had, so I knew I needed to set the pig book aside for a little while and do something completely different to give myself a little break. This way, I could return to the story with fresh eyes.


I wanted to write something just for me, something fun, and something that rhymed because I love writing poetry. Looking for a prompt, I went digging through old illustrations for inspiration and came across a picture I painted years ago of a girl who had stacked up a bunch of different things to reach a cookie jar.


The opening line, It started with a single chair…” popped into my head right away, so I sat down and planned to write a Shel Silverstein-esque poem based on this illustration.


My approach to writing in rhyme I’m sure rivals any other expert poet… I’ll write a line and then look up words that rhyme with the last word in the line hoping to find something that fits the narrative and cadence. If not, I change the line. See? Expert.


I had written a line about the cookie jar and searched “words that rhyme with jar.” The results offered words like car, seminar, guitar, crowbar, and when I came across the word “star,” it hit me… this little girl’s goal should be much bigger and much higher than just a cookie jar. She should be reaching for a star!


I ended up writing the whole story in one night. I threw some sketches together and sent the entire dummy book to my agent. When she read it, she basically said, “Forget the pigs, this is your next book.” It snowballed from there.


Q: The Publisher’s Weekly review of the book says, “Roeder’s mixed-media art combines a miniaturist’s precision with a playful sense of scale and perspective.” What do you think of that description, and how did you create the art for The Stack?


A: I made the art for The Stack with a mix of collaged paper, acrylic paint, colored pencil, and digital elements. I painted the backgrounds separately from all of the foreground elements and assembled them in Photoshop. The backgrounds were created by first covering the page with torn pieces of paper and then adding multiple washes of acrylic paint to create depth and texture.


As for all of the foreground elements, the characters and objects were painted, cut out, and stacked much like Luna stacks them in the book. Every shingle, brick, dragon scale, pirate ship plank, and book were individually cut and collaged onto the page.


It was maddening at times, but also very cathartic, plus we were in the midst of lockdown, so I had a lot more time on my hands to make ridiculously complex art.


I love the description from Publishers Weekly because I’m obsessed with anything miniature and felt as if I was creating my own miniature world with which to play.


As for the “playful sense of scale and perspective,” I have to credit my art director and editor for helping me to break out of my flat, eye level approach to illustration.


At first, I shied away from illustrating any extreme perspectives thinking that one: there was no way I could make them work within the dimensions of the book and two: how can I make my crazy collaged elements work when perspective is involved.

However, with a little nudging to break out of my straightforward box, and a lot of fudging of anything related to physics, perspective, and scale, it somehow fit within the confines of the page. (Just don’t look at the bricks too closely.)


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


A: First of all, I hope this book gives kids and adults a good laugh. The main story is written in rhyme, but there are a lot of little interactions between the characters told through speech bubbles that I hope will make kids giggle.


The core of the story, though, is about a child overcoming her fears and persevering to reach a goal, even when the quest seems “insurmountable.”


I hope kids will see that it takes work to achieve their goals, and to not give up when things get a little tough. We’re all going to face obstacles, and sometimes those obstacles will require a bit more thought, time, and effort to overcome.


Q: How did you first get interested in creating children’s books?


A: I started out my art career as a muralist and painted a lot of rooms for kids, which led to creating and selling custom artwork for kids’ rooms. During this time, my mom, who’s a writer and librarian, kept encouraging me to get into children’s book illustration.


I’m not a formally trained artist and wasn’t very confident in my abilities, so the idea of illustrating a book overwhelmed me. I didn’t know where to start, how a book was made, or how to make connections in the publishing world.


Eventually, though, my mom dragged me to a conference for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and hearing all of the wonderful speakers talk about their passion for making children’s books flipped a switch in my brain. I started studying books about illustration, taking illustration classes, attending conferences, and building my portfolio.


The key to creating good illustrations is that you have to make pictures that tell a story. As I was painting these narrative illustrations for my portfolio, I was flooded with ideas for books, so I began writing these stories down. My first book came out almost eight years later. It wasn’t an easy road, but much like Luna, I persevered to overcome the obstacles.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m currently working on my fourth book, which has been quite a bumpy road. I had to shelve a project that I was really excited about because a couple of other books were hitting the market with a similar theme. After that, my editor suggested I write a companion book to The Box Turtle using a different type of animal.


I don’t know how much I can reveal at this point because it’s in the early stages, but I will say that it’s about a king penguin who thinks very highly of himself. I’m super excited because I don’t think I’ve written a book that has made me snort laugh as much as this one. It’s set to come out next fall.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: 1. I love what I do, and I love sharing books with others. It’s one of the perks of the job to get to talk to kids about making books.


I grew up in a very small town and I never had the experience of hearing an author or illustrator speak at my school, so becoming an author or illustrator was a foreign idea. I thought authors and illustrators were these magical unicorns that lived in this fantastical world called New York City. I didn’t think a kid from a small town in south Texas could even dream of being an illustrator.


Now, one of my goals as an author-illustrator when I speak to kids or even adults is to let them know that this is an attainable dream. If I can make it happen, anyone can.


2. I like to hide little Easter eggs in my books… either nods to my family, or hiding characters from my previous books somewhere in the story.


For The Stack, the dog riding in Grandpa’s station wagon is based on my dog, whose name is Trixie. The fellows in the neighbor’s house are my brother and brother-in-law, who have struggled with their own critter problems, hence their mention of squirrels.


3. If I ever make a stack to the stars, I probably wouldn’t climb it. I’m terrified of heights.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Vanessa Roeder.

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