The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Jessixa & Aaron Bagley
Today, I get the privilege of talking with the husband and wife Bagley team, Jessixa and Aaron, who created the lovely and poignant Vincent Comes Home.
While you probably know Jessixa from as the author/illustrator of Laundry Day, Before I Leave, and Boats for Papa (winner of the 2016 SCBWI Golden Kite Award for best picture book text), this is Aaron's debut in Kidlit. He is the illustrator of Rocking Fatherhood: The Dad-to-Be's Guide to Staying Cool.
Be sure to check out Jessixa's earlier visit with the Picture Book Buzz last year, where she talked about her dreams coming true, HERE.
Without further ado, here's Jessixa & Aaron:
ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write/illustrate? How long have you been writing/illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate?)
JESSIXA: I’m originally from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon and I’ve been making books and comics since I was about seven or eight. I went to my first writers conference when I was in the 3rd grade - it was a writing conference for kids. So, I’m basically the same as back then - I’m just taller now. I just write anywhere and anytime I can. Usually it starts in my sketchbook, but I will write little notes in my phone, or email- anywhere I need to in order to get the idea down. I don’t have dedicated writing time because of my busy schedule so I write on the bus, on my lunch breaks at work, before bed . . . anytime I can carve out or if I’m really inspired and just have to write.
(follow-up) Has your writing/illustrating changed as your son’s gotten older?
It’s gotten harder! Having the time to make books has become even more of a time crunch. I can’t really work on stuff when he is awake, because we are mostly playing and hanging out. But it’s also gotten more rewarding because now I get to share my books with him in a much more specific way - he understands that I made my books! He often asks me to read my books to him, which feels like the highest compliment. It’s really sweet and heartwarming.
Since I’ve been fortunate enough to make several picture books now, I really know that my favorite books to work on are books with heart. I know that there is a delicate balance when making work for a young audience - I want to explore emotions but I don’t want it to seem like I am making books that kids can’t relate to or connect with. I really enjoy finding those stories and bringing them to life. I think there are kids out there that need to hear stories like the ones I want to tell - they might really need them.
I agree with you and hope you keep writing these touching heartfelt stories.
AARON: My mom likes to tell a story about when I was in first grade and I kept coming home with dimes in my pockets. Apparently, I was selling drawings to classmates for dimes (and making a killing!). Since then I’ve fluctuated between giving my art away and charging for it. My art making is all over the place, I constantly give into any whims I have – experimenting is important to me. In art college I was making noise music and video art as well as drawing and painting and printmaking. You could say that things have come full circle with this picture book coming out since I’ve always had an interest since I was young in making children’s books. Recently I’ve been getting ideas when I’m falling asleep with my son at nap time. There’s a 50% chance that my idea will be remembered if I fall asleep and then halve that number because the percent chance that the idea is any good is also 50%! Writing stories has always been something I’ve enjoyed doing. It wasn’t until recently that I started writing for picture books. Picture books are so fun to illustrate. There is a lot of opportunity to put Easter eggs in the illustrations due to the format of a picture book, and I love details that quietly enrich a story.
And we as readers love trying to locate the illustrator's Easter eggs! What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
Jessixa: Under the right circumstances, I can belch VERY loudly.
Aaron: I have a metal plate in my head. I forget why. Dain Bramage?
Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
Jessixa: I often talk about how Beatrix Potter was a big influence on me as a young child. I loved her delicate animal drawings with their soft yet bright watercolor and her fine line work. There is a sweetness and a sophistication that really resonated with me. My favorite story of hers was (still is) The Tailor of Gloucester. I loved the details of the cloth and the story is so classical. And also, the scene in Benjamin Bunny where he finds Peter Rabbit naked wrapped up in a handkerchief still makes me laugh.
Aaron: Recently my son was folding and tearing the pages of my Great Waldo Search book that I owned as a child. It didn’t really bother me since I knew that all those images from Martin Hanford’s books were stored in a special place in my heart (that and they’re easily replaceable). Despite the lack of story in Waldo books I spent more time with them than any other book as a child. I also really enjoyed The Slimy Book by Babette Cole, and The Oxcart Man by Donald Hall and Barbara Cooney. Quite varied but all containing people. People drive me nuts, but I sure do love them.
If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?
Jessixa: Give yourself permission to draw however you want to. There is no right way or wrong way as long as it’s true to you.
Aaron: I would tell my 7-year-old self to only draw with pen.
Great advice. How did you divide the work on Vincent Comes Home? (Did Jessixa write it and Aaron illustrate it? Or did you share both facets? How much collaboration occurred?)
Jessixa: We flipped a coin. Kidding. The story started off as a mini comic that Aaron made many years ago about an alley cat that loved garbage. Aaron later began to adapt that short story into a picture book about an alley cat that tried to make friends with people, but they judged him because he was an alley cat. Then at the end, the garbage man befriended him and made him his pet! We often ask each other for input on our work, and at some point, Aaron just invited me to start working on it with him… then we were writing it together and it morphed into a story about a cat who lives on a cargo ship in search of “Home.” So, the writing was extremely collaborative. And as for the illustration, we approached it in a very equal parts sort of way. We each penciled some of the thumbnails, then we’d each pencil different sketches, then we’d both ink a little on each page and both paint a little on each page. This way we were able to make each piece look like it came from one person. We’d always check in with each other and wouldn’t get upset if the other wanted to make alterations to something. And we did it without any fights!
Aaron: Jessixa and I relish in the fact that our collaborations are so selfless. When we look back on art we’ve made together neither one of us can remember who did what. We just give ourselves completely to the project, egos aside. From the beginning we both worked on the thumbnails, sketches, and final paintings equally. There were several things that only one of us painted, which was solely for consistency’s sake.
That sounds like the perfect collaboration, congratulations on still liking each other. Jessixa – Do you prefer being the author or the author/illustrator of a book? Why?
My only experience so far has been to do both- even in the case of collaborating with Aaron. I love telling stories with words and visuals. Both have their challenges and advantages, but to me they really go hand in hand.
And you do a wonderful job at both. Aaron - What is your favorite medium to work with? Your least favorite or hardest?
My favorite medium is a sketchbook. This doesn’t really make sense since you don’t make marks with sketchbooks, but they inspire me more than any other art supply, so I’ll consider it a medium. Since high school I have split my life into two realities: real life and my sketchbooks. There was a time when I used to finish a sketchbook and then give it to a friend, but I stopped doing that when I realized what a cool thing it would be to have a suitcase full of sketchbooks to mine for ideas. I miss oils, but their toxicity caused me a lot of grief, and since I loved painting on large canvas, it was inconvenient for an apartment dweller without an art studio.
What is the hardest thing for you about writing and/or illustrating children’s books?
Jessixa: Lately it’s been illustrating! This past year I’ve been going through an artistic journey. I got a bit burnt out on my painting style. I felt like the pen and watercolor application was somehow holding me back from a freedom I used to feel more when I made fine art. I had a strong urge to try something new. Fortunately, I was on the brink of starting a new project with Neal and just as it was starting, we ended up switching to a different book I’d written. I didn’t think I’d be the one to illustrate it though, because it had people in it (I’d been known for doing animals) and stylistically it needed something very different than what I had previously done. But Neal challenged me to do it in a sense. He encouraged me to find what I was missing with my art in this new project. So, I’ve spent the better part of last year reinventing a new style for myself. It’s been very exciting, frustrating, emotional, challenging, and rewarding. I’m still going through it at the moment, so hopefully by the time the art is done I’ll have found my way out of the woods!
Aaron: Finishing and fleshing out an idea is the hardest part for me. I have a ton of great starts but rarely finish any of them. This is probably why I like collaborating with Jessixa. She’s an amazing writer. She took the initial story of Goodbye Garbage and really brought it to life by actualizing themes it explored and then we finished writing the text together (Neal had amazing input on the text as well).
I'm looking forward to seeing this new art style and more of your "great starts." Aaron - How different was this experience than illustrating Rocking Fatherhood: The Dad-to-Be's Guide to Staying Cool?
The Rocking Fatherhood illustrations were all black and white drawings. It was like I was sketching aspects of my fatherhood in my sketchbook and they ended up in print. It felt very natural and intuitive. Vincent Comes Home was exciting to illustrate because it was our story and I was able to get very painterly in some of the spreads and just get lost in the clouds. I feel so lucky to have recently done two projects that satisfied such specific ways of working.
I love cats and I instantly fell in love with Vincent. Your images of his forlorn search for home are so touching. Who/what was your inspiration for Vincent?
Jessixa: Vincent Comes Home was inspired by SO many elements. Firstly, Vincent the cat was inspired by the first fur baby Aaron and I had - our cat, Vincent. He was a very special cat. More like a human trapped in a cat’s body. So, our cat in the story had to be called Vincent of course. Also, Aaron once befriended a stray marmalade cat in college and he named it Slob - after the cat in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, “Poor slob without a name.” So, he’s always had a soft spot in his heart for kitties that need a home. Vincent in our book was born from a hybrid of those influences. That inspiration grew more when we lived in an apartment in Seattle where we could see the cargo ships coming in and out of the Sound. We’d always say to each other, “A cat that lives on a cargo ship - now there is a story there.” That idea stayed with us for a long time and I guess found its way into a book!
Aaron: In my childhood home there was a piece of art hanging on the wall that had the platitude “Home is where the heart is” written on it. It drove me crazy because it seemed so obvious, like saying “You’ll find what you’re looking for in the last place you look." The art was also in the bathroom, which comically weakened its sentiment. But it turns out to be true, literally and metaphorically. Jessixa and I both moved around a lot as children and as adults. Early in our relationship, Jessixa had a difficult time letting go of our first apartment together (where we made art for our first collaborative art show), but we were able to make the next apartment our home (and my dad married us there), and the next house (where we realized we didn’t want to be homeowners), and the next apartment (where Vincent the real cat died and Jessixa got her first book deal, both in the same week), and our current apartment (where we live with our son). The common denominator with all of these places we lived was that the events taking place weren’t happening to the physical spaces, but rather, these things were happening to us. Vincent seemed like a good visual amalgam of the aforementioned since he was with us so much of the way.
That's a lot of moving. I'd say your Vincent was lucky to have such caring and exciting furless parents. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer or illustrator.)
Jessixa: I guess for writing, I’ve been looking at my personal experiences to inspire my stories, as well as relationships that are close to me. There is so much to be said about looking inward. By taking what is inside and putting it into my stories, I create work that people can connect with - for me that makes the work better. As far as illustration, I have so many inspirations. From classic artists like: Pieter Bruegel (both of them), Miroslov Sasek, Richard Scarry, all of the Little Golden Book illustrators from the 50’s and 60’s, to contemporary illustrators like Carson Ellis, Jon Klassen, and Isabelle Arsenault. I tend to really love illustrators that have a very strong design sense. My work doesn’t look like theirs in the slightest, but I am very inspired by their graphic quality and the incorporation of fine art sensibilities into their work.
With my art wandering over this past year, I looked to the art of Andrew Wyeth. I fell in love with his studies of the Kuerner Farm. The expressiveness with his dry brush and his compositions were a great inspiration for me as I was finding my way. His work contains so much emotion even in landscapes. I was so fortunate that a retrospective of his work came through Seattle recently. I went to the show four times!
Aaron: Pretty much whatever is in front of me at any given moment is my greatest source of inspiration. It might be better to ask Jessixa what my greatest inspiration is. Right now, she would answer that Adventure Time is my greatest inspiration, but if you asked her last winter she would say that early New York punk rock is my inspiration. There was a time when Jessixa’s handwriting was my greatest source of inspiration.
As for writing specifically, I would say Tom Waits. Nobody writes a better story with few words than Tom Waits. Read along with the lyrics to Kentucky Avenue and try not to cry.
Aaron - How does illustrating Vincent Comes Home compare or contrast to your comics in the Seattle Weekly?
They both center around cats, however my comic Cat City features anthropomorphic cats, unlike Vincent Comes Home. My comics use cats (and humor) to portray the best and worst aspects of humans – not always kid friendly! Cats are a good creature to represent the human race. We personify our pets to a ridiculous degree, especially cats. Dogs can be better companions, so they have the ability to transcend the personification, but cats are so aloof that we tend to create little personalities for them which are just extensions of ourselves – so what better animal to mirror society in a parallel universe? In Vincent Comes Home, Vincent mirrors our longing for a place to call home, which, ironically is sometimes a pet!
Interesting. However, I would have to argue that cats most definitely have distinct and strong personalities all of their own making. Aaron - What is the best thing an author can do to help an illustrator? The worst?
I love heavy collaboration. Chris Kornelis, the author of Rocking Fatherhood, was a great collaborator. He knew my strengths and suggested things to me to illustrate that got me really excited, and vice versa. With Vincent Comes Home we were very collaborative with Neal (our editor) and Jennifer (the book designer). I was in heaven.
I’ve learned, however, that authors of picture books don’t necessarily often have much contact with the illustrator. I suppose it’s up to the illustrator to accept work that really inspires them and doesn’t require them to adapt or change too much to satisfy the text. There needs to be a mutual understanding between text and illustration just as there needs to be between the author and illustrator. The more confident you are in what you prefer to illustrate, the easier it will be to marry image with words, regardless of whether you have contact with an author.
Jessixa - How is Vincent Comes Home different from your other picture books Laundry Day, Boats for Papa, & Before I Leave?
Vncent Comes Home was such a fun and amazing experience to collaborate on with Aaron. It wasn’t just that I was working with someone else and that’s why it was different, it was that I got to make a book with my best friend. Aaron is one of the only people I collaborate making art with, but it’s been a cornerstone of our relationship from the start. Making books on my own is much more about laboring and fretting and being in my own head but making a book with Aaron was just fun and positive! It felt effortless. I completely trust him and respect him as an artist so working with him made me feel like I always had someone there to be a confident second set of eyes and hands. He never seems to question what he does with his art and I admire that so much, I strive to be more like him in that way. We work so well together that it felt like I could quiet that part of myself that doubts decisions I might have.
What a special opportunity for you. What's something you want your readers to know about Vincent Comes Home?
Jessixa: No cats or sea captains were harmed in the making of this book. Oh, and our son Baxter is in the book in two places.
Aaron: If you read the book upside down there is a secret message revealed! Just kidding! Wow, that’s a really good idea. Seriously though – the ship is called the “Domus” which is Latin for ‘home’.
Aaron - Many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Vincent Comes Home? Could you share one with us?
There are so many! Which to choose? On the spread where Vincent is walking through an alley you can see the window of an ice cream shop. The double scoop cone is a reference to Snelgrove Ice Cream which was started by relatives on my mother’s side of the family. The company was sold long ago, but there is a giant three-dimensional double scoop ice cream cone sign still standing in Sugarhouse, Utah where my parents live. It’s quite majestic.
That's cool. Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
Jessixa: My latest project is based on an experience I had when I was in sixth grade. It’s pretty close to my heart. This project is a pretty big departure stylistically from what people have seen from me before, but it’s a story with that strong subtext and emotion that I really love. That’s all I can say about that for now. I also have an art show featuring work in my new style that is happening in May. It will be a nice lead in to showing people what they might expect to see from my next book.
Aaron: Currently I’m writing a Dungeons & Dragons adventure. It’s quite the undertaking, especially since I’m new to D&D. Illustrating maps really makes my motor run, so this is perfect. It’s also excellent exercise for character development. Since D&D relies so heavily on role playing there is strong emphasis on the characters’ motivations. Great for flexing story writing muscles! Jessixa and I also have some ideas in the works for another collaboration.
All of that sounds amazing and it would definitely be wonderful to see another collaboration from you both. Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or are glad that you did not know?
Jessixa: I wish I would have known how nice everyone is! It was so scary trying to get to past the giant wall that seemed in between the publishers and me. I think if I just could have realized that they were all awesome and inspiring people who just wanted to make really good books, I wouldn’t have been so intimidated when putting myself out there. I’m glad that I didn’t know how little sleep I’d get once I started making books!
Aaron: Jessixa was already making books when I decided to start writing and illustrating picture books, so I had so much support from her. I’ll second what she says about how nice everyone is. So true. There is definitely a business side to all of it, and everyone needs to be comfortable with a fair amount of rejection, no matter how it comes to you. But rejection builds resilience and helps us to self-examine our work. I still haven’t written a solo book that Neal has wanted to publish, but I’ll get there.
Little sleep and a dose of resilience seem like staples of a writing career. Is there something you wished an interviewer would have asked you?
Jessixa: Hamburgers or cheeseburgers? (And cheeseburgers of course!) :-)
Aaron: Not especially. I like the surprise!
What is your favorite animal? Why? Or maybe a current animal you are enamored with?
Jessixa: Badgers! Ever since Laundry Day, I see badgers everywhere! Most specifically Baxter has several Badger related articles of clothing and he seems very…connected to them. He can be pretty feisty, so it makes sense.
Aaron: The fox! They are such a wonderful example of how “good” and “evil” are not essential in nature. They’re cute as all get out, but clever little predators all the same. Dr. DeSoto had to outsmart a hungry fox who wanted to make a meal out of him, but Fantastic Mr. Fox is a hero. What a complex creature that can be written as both the hero and the villain. The same can be said about many animals, but the fox, being a trickster archetype - always has the advantage.
Oh, my goodness! You two had me belly-laughing so hard. This was so much fun! Thank you, Jessixa and Aaron for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly delightful to chat with you both. And I can't wait to see what you come up with next. Happy Valentine's Day!
Be sure to stop back by on Friday for the #PPBF post on Vincent Comes Home.
To find out more about Jessixa Bagley, or get in touch with her:
To find out more about Aaron Bagley, or get in touch with him:
If you're in the Seattle area, Secret Garden Books is hosting a launch party -
Sunday, February 18, 2018 2 - 4:00pm
2214 NW Market St
Seattle, WA 98107