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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Jessica Lanan

Today I have the privilege to talk with the second half of the creative genius of Just Right: Searching for the Goldilocks Planet - Jessica Lanan.

Jessica is a self-professed “illustrator of stories, creator of worlds, partaker of coffee, tanguera of tango, baker of scones, eater of scones, lover of mountains, and hater of lawnmowers.” This newest picture book of hers releases today!

Happy Book Birthday!!

Welcome Jessica,

ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (How did you get started illustrating? Where/when do you work? What is your favorite type of book to illustrate?)

JESSICA: I kind of fell into illustration by accident when one of my professors encouraged me to apply for a program called the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. The program funds graduating college students for a solo year-long travel project of their own design. I was interested in the way that art enables people to communicate across language barriers and I had always loved illustrated books, so I designed a project where I would travel and learn about folk tales in different parts of Asia and illustrate the stories and my journey with a sketchbook and watercolors. A few years later I joined the SCBWI and I met professional authors and illustrators for the first time and realized that illustrating picture books could be a career. I have a studio set up at home. My work schedule has been a bit of a puzzle over the last few years since my daughter arrived in the middle of making Just Right. I worked during the naps and at night and in between feedings and such. Now it’s back to a more ordinary schedule.

Congratulations on your daughter! What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

I’m afraid of dogs. When I was a little kid I was attacked by a rottweiler that escaped its yard and I never completely got over it. I was also attacked as an adult when I was traveling alone in India. A feral dog ran up from behind and bit my leg with no warning whatsoever. I had to get five rabies shots after that incident.

How awful. I am so sorry you've had such bad interactions with dogs. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

My grandfather would send the most beautiful book he could find for Christmas every year and those became quite a nice collection. I especially loved Trina Schart Hyman. My favorite book was Saint George and the Dragon. I remember trying to copy the exciting dragon illustrations. I also loved The Moon’s Revenge by Joan Aiken and illustrated by Alan Lee, which incidentally also has a dragon-like sea monster in it.

Am I sensing a theme here? Looking for a book on dragons to illustrate, perhaps? What captured your attention or imagination with Just Right: Searching for the Goldilocks Planet?

I had a phase when I was a kid when I wanted to be an astronomer. Maybe it was from reading too much National Geographic, or from watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Regardless, I eventually learned that my talents rested elsewhere, but I never stopped being interested in the topic. With this project I was particularly excited by the prospect of depicting the surface of other planets and alien life.

It is so cool when a childhood love melds with your present career! Many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Just Right? Could you share a few with us?

If you read the text alone you’ll see that Curtis covers a ton of the science and history of exoplanet discovery, so my challenge was to come up with a secondary narrative that would dovetail with all that information and help kids connect with the material. I tried out a few different ideas but finally settled on the visual side story of a character who goes to the planetarium and gets her own telescope at the end. I also enjoyed choosing the different historical figures to include and selecting the planets that the character discovers during her visit based on my own research. (I wrote the copy for them as well, so if there are any errors there you now know who to blame.) It was great to feel like Curtis and I were really a team in creating this book.

It was exciting to see your story of the girl dovetail with Curtis' science text. It really made it fun and accessible for young kids to follow the story. Was it your decision to add the young girl (and her family) to the illustrations?

My editor said from the very start that we needed a character to guide the reader along, which I think was an essential idea. The character was one that had been in my sketchbook for a while without a story, and I knew right away that this was where she belonged. I prepared samples for her to take to acquisitions, so I did some of the character development before the project was official.

What was the hardest portion(s) to illustrate? Which one was the most fun?

The hardest spread was the page that describes the different ways that we can detect exoplanets. A lot of what we know about exoplanets is inferred from small variations in data, so it was challenging to make the concepts visual. Hopefully it makes sense.

© Jessica Lanan, 2019.

[These are initial drafts of this scene that Jessica shared with us. Hope you enjoy this peak into her process.]

I most enjoyed working on the alien landscapes and creatures. I put a lot of effort into trying to design entire ecosystems and thinking about what kinds of planets could harbor life.

Text © Curtis Manley, 2019. Image © Jessica Lanan, 2019.

What if it had very low gravity--how would that affect the life forms? What if it were tidally locked? Could life develop on a gas giant? There are so many incredible planets out there and so many mysteries. It’s infuriating to know that I’ll never be able to visit them and learn about their secrets, but at least I can imagine them.

Your imagination made this so interesting and tantalizing. Thank you. What's something you want your readers to know about your illustrations in Just Right?

Sometimes the final paintings don’t turn out the way I want and I have to do them over again a second or third time. I think if I didn’t have a deadline I would just keep doing them over and over trying to endlessly fix things, so it’s a good thing to have a deadline.

Do all creatives wrestle with perfectionism? Bless those deadlines. If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?

Time is the most valuable thing, so try not to waste it.

You’ve illustrated three previous picture books: Out of School and Into Nature: The Anna Comstock Story (2017); The Story I’ll Tell (2015); and Good Fortune in a Wrapping Cloth (2011). How did working on Just Right differ from these books?

I had to do a lot more research for Just Right. It was my first book with a larger publisher which also meant that the process was a lot slower than I was used to. There were more people involved and we had more phases of revision and proofs and so forth. With each project I learn a lot about how books are made and I get the opportunity to try new things and improve my artistic skills, so it’s always a new experience.

I can't wait to see what you do next. Was there anything that made illustrating Just Right more (or less) challenging than your previous picture books?

It was challenging to visually balance the real and imaginary elements of the story while still explaining the scientific elements clearly. It was also a much bigger book at 48 pages, so there was more art to do.

Thinking about this, and looking back through the book, I am even more impressed with the dual story you created. What is your favorite medium to work with? Is there another medium your itching to try?

I like watercolor because it’s like trying to tame a wild beast. I’ve recently started painting with oil again, which is something I haven’t done for years.

What do you find is the hardest thing about illustrating picture books?

In terms of the illustration work itself, the hardest phase for me is the thumbnail sketching. Some parts of the story fall in place immediately while others can leave me baffled for weeks. More generally, I think illustrating picture books can be really hard financially, especially when you’re starting out. I’m grateful that I have the opportunity to devote most of my time to this today. It’s a privilege.

You share that with the authors. Picture books are definitely a labor of love. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer or illustrator.)

I have to credit the SCBWI for the role it has played in my path to writing and illustrating picture books. I’ve never seen a professional organization more devoted to helping others to succeed. I’ve learned a lot at the conferences and the faculty have always been generous and inspiring.

Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

My first book as an author-illustrator, The Fisherman and the Whale, is coming out this May from Simon & Schuster, about a whale that gets entangled in fishing gear.

I have another nonfiction title with Roaring Brook coming out in November called Finding Narnia: The Story of C.S. Lewis and his Brother Warnie by Caroline McAlister, who you may know from her similar biography of J.R.R. Tolkien. I also illustrated a book called A Kid of Their Own by Megan Dowd Lambert which will be coming out in spring of 2020 with Charlesbridge. It is essentially a story about sibling rivalry, but with these wonderful farm animals for characters. I’m currently working on a new project with Roaring Brook called Lost by Richard Ho, about a package that gets lost and follows a rather unexpected route to its destination. And, if my agent is reading, of course I’m working on writing my next book and I’ll have that updated draft done soon.

Ha! And congrats. I can't wait to see your debut book. You have been very busy. 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?

I wish I’d been more patient with myself. I had no idea what I was doing starting out and it was so painful to compare myself with people who were doing such better work. I still do that, though, so I guess I haven’t really learned.

I'm afraid that's human nature. What is your favorite animal? Why? (Or maybe a current animal you are enamored with?)

There may be some readers who will cringe, but I think spiders are great. They are just these fantastic predators, and some of them are incredibly colorful, like tropical birds. There’s one species called the “Bolas Spider” where the female doesn’t make a web, but rather uses her silk to make a sticky ball at the end of a long thread. She waits for an unsuspecting moth to fly over and then she uses her front leg to essentially lasso the moth. It’s pretty amazing.

Honestly I don’t understand why people hate spiders. They’re wonderful, and the idea that they frequently bite humans is a myth. They’re tiny and they’re scared of you. That’s the truth.

Thank you, Jessica for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.

Be sure to stop back by on Friday for the #PPBF post on Just Right: Searching for the Goldilocks Planet.

To find out more about Jessica Lanan, or get in touch with her:

If you missed it, Curtis Manley discussed Just Right yesterday (here).

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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