Friday, April 26, 2024

Q&A with Lita Judge





Lita Judge is the illustrator of the new children's picture book Bless Our Pets: Poems of Gratitude for Our Animal Friends, which features poems selected by the late Lee Bennett Hopkins. Judge's many other books include Dogs. She lives in New Hampshire.


Q: How did you come to illustrate Bless Our Pets?


A: The wonderful folks at Eerdmans sent me the manuscript a couple of years ago and I fell in love with the project instantly. I’ve been such a huge fan of Lee Bennett Hopkins for as long as I can remember. I was even lucky enough to meet him, and our conversation is a cherished memory.


I’ve also had so many furry and feathered family members throughout my life, so the focus of the poems was a topic I could relate to. It felt like an honor and a treat to create the illustrations for this collection of poems.


Q: What do you think of the selection of poems chosen by Lee Bennett Hopkins?


A: They are wonderful. The collection is varied, and collectively they give so many wonderful examples of the many different kinds of relationships we have with our pets.


I also love how the language is simple and clear and invites young readers to think about the perspective of the animals we keep in our care. I think they give thoughtful insight into the lives of pets and can give guidance with how we can be the best kind of caregivers to our animal friends and family.


Some are poignant and some are delightful, and together they bring a diverse range of emotions and ideas. 


Q: Did you base your illustrations on particular pets you know?


A: So many of the illustrations are based on my own pets, both past and present.


The mouse for the poem "Mouse Dreams" by Lois Lowry is a depiction of my dear Pantalaimon, a rescue mouse I raised from a tiny hairless pup who needed care after his nest was disturbed. Pan lived a very long life on my desk in an aquarium, though he spent much of his life sleeping in my sleeve.


He traveled on vacations with us, went on hikes in the woods, and got along well with his kitty sisters who also shared my desk.


One of those kitty sisters, Willow, is depicted on the back cover of the book. She’s grown to be an enormous 21-pound Maine coon cat now, but I have hundreds of sketches of her as a kitten (and thousands of photographs) that I used as reference for that illustration.


She delighted in watching me bottle feed Pan with a tiny syringe filled with milk when he was a baby, and the two grew up together to be best friends. 


The old calico depicted for the poem "Old Calico" by Prince Redcloud has different coloring than my first cat Mo Mo, but the contented sleepy expression is all him. The art is based on a sketch from my sketchbook that I kept in college.


Mo Mo was a stray tom cat who adopted my family when I was very young. He was living in the same woods as us, and he won me over instantly with affectionate and trusting head butts.


He started out as a tough scrapper, used to fending for himself in a harsh world, but he adjusted easily to life with us. He never minded that we moved a lot and even lived in a car during some of his early years. He camped with us, lived in a crowded van with two kids and big dogs, and even canoed with us.


As he grew older, his big adventures mostly behind him, he lounged comfily on a soft bed in a puddle of sun like I depicted in the art. Painting that one brought the memory of his dear soul all back to me. 


Other pets include my bunny Heidi, my gerbil Alfonse, my guinea pig Elizabeth (who gave birth to two babies in my sock), my hamster Wilbur, and my first bird Tweetie. It is her likeness and energy I used to illustrate the poem "A Prayer for a Parakeet" by Ralph Fletcher. 


Tweetie and I visited my grandparents a lot, who, because of their work as biologists, shared their home with eagles, hawks, and owls. Though Tweetie was small in size, being a little blue budgie, she was large in spirit. She spent much of her life perched on my shoulder, never minding she was so petite compared to all the other birds around her.


Lastly, it was only right to include a dog that Lee and his partner Charles loved. It is their beloved dog Duke depicted on the dedication page.


Q: What do you see as the importance of the human-pet bond, and what do you hope kids take away from this book?


A: We are so incredibly fortunate to share our lives with pets. They love us unconditionally and give us comfort and loyal companionship.


But with that relationship comes a huge responsibility to not only care for them the best we can but also to respect their individual personalities and needs. A pet bird needs much different care than a pet dog or goldfish or gerbil.


When choosing to adopt a pet, we must consider our lifestyle and whether it is a good fit for an animal. And also consider their lifespans.


I have a parrot now, for example, that will live for about 35 years. I wasn’t in a position to give her the love and attention she needed when I was younger, because they are very social and need consistent care.


Only when I was old enough to have a lifestyle well suited for living with a parrot, working from home and no longer moving from place to place, and had learned parrot behavior well enough to be a good companion to her, could I contemplate adopting a bird that needs so much attention.


I hope kids will see from the poems how different each pet is, how special those bonds between human and animal can be, and how much we have to respect and care for the animals we bring into our lives. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have a lot of projects in the works. I have a book titled Old Blue Is My Home about the time in my childhood when my family lived in an old blue van. This book is deeply personal, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with young readers. The illustrations also include dear Mo Mo and our dog Keyair.


I also have a whimsical fictional tale called Wake Up Moon coming out. It is set in a winter woodland and features a bear, a squirrel, a fox, and an owl. My grandmother used to take us for walks when the moon was full, and her love of the moon inspired this book. It’s kind of a thank you to her in the form of a story. But it’s a whimsical romp on a snowy moonlit night, kind of like my book Red Sled


And there is another fictional tale in the works about a unicorn and a girl set in a time long ago. It’s in the very early stages, so I’m having a ball creating the art and exploring how to create this fantastical setting loosely based on a historical place.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’ve spent my entire life loving, caring for, watching, and drawing animals.


As I mentioned, I was lucky that my grandparents were wildlife biologists and shared their home with countless kinds of birds and animals. It not only taught me much about how to care for them, but also to watch and learn their behavior. So much about my art now is based on my childhood experiences closely watching wildlife.


I never expected that I’d grow up to be an illustrator and writer. I studied geology and worked on paleontology digs when I was young, but my childhood summers were spent working with my grandparents out in the field, and that eventually led me to creating art.


We took copious notes about the things we saw, and I kept a nature journal filled with drawings of my observations. My art just naturally grew out of that.


I wrote as well as illustrated most of the books I’ve created, but each one started with drawings in a journal before I ever wrote a word.


I used to think I couldn’t write a book, because I am such a visual person. My memories are all held in visual images, and my thoughts come to me in pictures. But that is a form of storytelling in its own right, and drawing can be a wonderful foundation to creating a story.


Only long after I’ve drawn characters, settings, and developed a visual arc to a story, do the words begin to grow for me. Just thought I’d share that for anyone reading this who loves books as much as I do but comes at creating from the visual side. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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