The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Simona Ceccarelli and Review of If You Had Your Birthday Part
Here is another of those, slightly longer, but no less delightful double posts. I met Simona in Italy, at the Bologna Children's Book Fair this year. I was immediately enthralled with her humor and so impressed by her illustrations.
Here is how she describes herself: “I’m a potluck children's illustrator: half British, half Italian, half Swiss and more than a quarter French. I had a different career for many years, but art eventually lured me back to follow 'the road not taken.' I studied illustration and visual development at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University. Upon graduation I hopped into children’s book illustration – occasionally straddling into advertisement and concept art for children products and entertainment. I worked for Scholastic, Sterling Children Publishing, Rizzoli/Mondadori, Rubicon and Spinmaster, among others. Because my family didn’t seem to span enough countries already, I now live in Switzerland with one German husband two kids, three nationalities and four languages.”
Simona's newest picture book, If You Had Your Birthday Party on the Moon releases TODAY!
Happy Book Birthday!
ME: Tell us a little about how you got started illustrating? Where/when do you work? What is your favorite type of book to illustrate?
SIMONA: It’s a trope, but true: I’ve drawn since I can remember. Apart from a few random gigs along the years, I had a completely different life and career until about 8 years ago, when I decided to go to art school and change direction...pretty drastically. I studied visual development for animation but after graduation focused on children’s books illustration instead. I found the combination of storytelling, design and humor was at the core of my interests and personality.
When I jot down ideas and sketches I can be anywhere and anytime - ideas flash and dash like fireflies and you have to be quick to catch them! When I’m working on final paintings I’m in my home studio, overlooking the river Rhein in Basel and generally under a pretty rigorous schedule of between 4 and 10 hours per day.
My favorite books to illustrate have a lot of action and humor, different settings, and many characters, both animals and children.
The only difference is that fireflies rarely vanish entirely, if you don't notice them right away. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
It’s not a secret but it still surprises people. I was a research scientist for most of my life: working in chemical and then medical research for more than 15 years.
Wow, that is a big change. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
My childhood was a little unconventional...we didn’t read traditional picture books in my family. My favorite authors were Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan, John Carter of Mars), Michael Ende (Momo, The Never-ending Story, Mirror in the Mirror), Russel Hoban (The Mouse and His Child), Robert E. Howard (Conan). I loved the art of Frank Frazetta, who illustrated the covers of Howard´s and Burroughs‘ books....I drew mostly heroic fantasy back then!
That's a great collection of books. What captured your attention or imagination with If You had Your Birthday Party on the Moon?
The idea for the setup is brilliant - such a fun way to introduce information about space! I loved the fact that it’s a party - many characters doing active games together. I have fun drawing both technology and characters, so the mixture was a great fit too.
Many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in If You had Your Birthday Party on the Moon? Could you share a few with us?
I had a free hand on nearly every aspect of the visual expression for the text and there’s a lot going on in the illustrations that complements the text. Each character in the ensemble has their own personality - you can see this through their expressions and actions. The little dog and its antics add humor. Originally there was an alien among the party-goers: he was the one to send out the invitation to the next party at the end of the book! In the end we felt this was pushing the fiction aspect of the book a little too far and he disappeared. But other fictional aspects remained, like the Galactic Pizza delivery and the cupcake-shaped rocket.
Interesting. I do love the dog's space suit! What's something you want your readers to know about your illustrations in If You had Your Birthday Party on the Moon?
Some children who have read the book asked "whose birthday is it“? And I answer "whose birthday do YOU think it is?“ I designed the illustrations so that it would never be evident whose birthday is being celebrated. I‘d love each reader to identify her or himself with the one character that most resonates with them.
I love the personalities of the kids, down to their individualized space suits. How much research did you have to do?
There were experts reviewing the illustrations as well as the text. I did a lot of research at the beginning about how the moon landing has been represented by other children’s artists (I now own a little collection of children’s books about the moon!), but I didn’t want the spacesuits or rocket to be too similar to the real equipment. The closest to reality is probably the moon rover, which is a mixture of different vehicles and concepts used for surface exploration. The most discussed piece of research was the shape of the pizza delivery rocket: it had to look like something that could both leave Earth and land on the Moon.
Interesting how much research and veracity are still required for fiction (or informational fiction) texts. Do you have a favorite spread in the book? Which one?
My favorite spread is the one where the children float inside the rocket on the way to the Moon. It was a delight to compose and to show each character’s personality just from the way they float.
That one is a lot of fun, especially the handstand on the wall. If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?
I would love my kids to have a better sense of the time horizon of their lives than I had as a young person. How long is a life and how many different things (roles, careers, experiences) you can pack into it, but also how fast it can slither away if you don’t hold it with both hands.
That's food for thought. You’ve illustrated three picture books with Jeffrey Dunnihoo: SOIC & SOT: The Microchips (2018); MSOP & DPAK: One Hot Day (2019); and TSSOP Gets Zapped with Static Electricity ( ? ). How did working on If You had Your Birthday Party on the Moon differ from these books?
Only the first is actually finished: the other two are ongoing at this moment. MSOP and DPAK will be released after the summer. These books are very different: the main characters are microchips, so the challenge there is to give action and expression to static objects. They are in the same category of "creative non-fiction“ in that facts and information are buried within a fun narrative framework.
I've peeked at the covers and inside Soic & Sot, I'd say you accomplished this goal. Was there anything that made illustrating If You had Your Birthday Party on the Moon more (or less) challenging than your previous picture books or projects?
Each project is its own universe for me. When I work on a book, I live and breathe in the narrative, mood, and style of that project. I find it exhilarating that each project I've worked on so far is different and opened up a different world for me. In a way, every project I take is like raising a different child.
Guess that's why we celebrate a book's "birthday." What is your favorite medium to work with? Is there another medium your itching to try?
Nowadays I work nearly exclusively digitally. I can paint quite confidently in pastel and oil, but it’s been a long time since I held a paint-loaded brush. I would love to try mixed media with gouache and digital or watercolor, pencil and digital.
What do you find is the hardest thing about illustrating picture books?
Capturing and elevating the mood of the book is probably the aspect I spend the most time thinking about. And I’m always concerned whether I can do a good job of transmitting it, sometimes even whether I’m the right illustrator. I work as art director part time and sometimes that persona intrudes with the tasks of illustrating. I start wondering which illustrator I would choose if I was art-directing the book.
That pesky "impostor syndrome" seems to affect us all. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer or illustrator.)
People and books. I’m a book-aholic and spend disproportionate amounts of time and money in bookstores. I have a relatively large collection of art, design and visual development books as well as children’s books for all ages. There’s nothing more thrilling than picking up a random book and getting carried away by all the ideas in it. Same with people - a walk through the city, a stop at a favorite coffee shop or conversations with friends and colleagues are loaded with sparks, characters, images....sometimes so strong I have to stop and sketch there and then on a scrap of paper. I’m getting better at memorizing faces and colors, so I can wait until I have a more comfortable place to draw, sometimes!
The world is so full of ideas I have no hope of capturing even a small fraction of them. A random internet search can take me down a whole new universe within seconds and it‘s difficult to resist the pull.
Ah, that fascinating rabbit hole. I've gotten lost there a few times. Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I‘ve just completed a delightful book for Scholastic Education about the changing seasons and how leaves grow, fall, and re-grow. I have quite a few projects lined up for the next few months - I‘m actually working on the schedule right now! The first one to come out will be the second book of the microchip series, which talks about why computer need to stay cool.
I'm gonna watch for these books. 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 was very naive when I started out: I admit to being among the people who thought writing picture books was easy and I would quickly be a published author/illustrator. 30 manuscripts and a few rejections later, I’m happy I didn’t know how hard it is or how long it takes...it would have discouraged me unnecessarily. Now I’m much more prepared mentally and professionally. I know I can illustrate a whole book (also much harder than I thought) and I can wait it out as an illustrator quite happily while I work on my writing skills. I love to illustrate other people’s manuscripts and enjoy the teamwork with the publishers. Writing my own books is still a goal, but I'm enjoying the journey to get there and appreciating its challenges and lessons in their own right.
I sincerely hope you accomplish that goal. What is your favorite animal? (Or maybe an animal you’re currently enamored with) Why?
The octopus - still and always. A very clever animals with strong survival skills...and I would love to have nine brains and eight arms...
Thank you, Simona for stopping by and sharing with us. It was delightful as always to chat with you.
To find out more about Simona Ceccarelli, or get in touch with her:
If You Had Your Birthday Party on the Moon - Perfect Picture Book
Loaded with lunar and space facts, this informational fiction picture book will appeal to any kid (whatever the age) that might wish to have a birthday in space or on the moon. A very ingenious way to get space facts in front of kids who "dislike" nonfiction books.
If You Had Your Birthday Party on the Moon
Author: Joyce Lapin
Illustrator: Simona Ceccarelli
Publisher: Sterling Children's Books (2019)
Ages: 7 & up
Moon, space science, & birthday parties
If you had your birthday party on the moon, what would it be like? Blast off to an extraterrestrial celebration and find out! This cool picture book combines fun and facts to help kids learn all about outer space. Have your birthday party on the moon and everyone will come! After all, who wouldn’t want to ride in a rocket and celebrate for a day that lasts as long as a month on Earth? Then, young partygoers could romp in a low-gravity playground; watch candles and balloons behave weirdly in the Moon’s atmosphere; and see why the “moon angels” they make in the thick carpet of lunar dust will last for thousands of years. With each discovery, kids learn the science behind the surprise, explained in terms they’ll understand. Complete with sidebars and a glossary, this entertaining adventure is perfect for sharing at home and at school.
How amazing would it be to have your birthday party on the moon?
Of course, everyone would want to come. Not just because it's the Moon - but who wouldn't want to ride to a party in a rocket?
You'll get to fly 40 times faster than a plane. And for most of the trip, you'll also get to . . .
Why I Like this Book:
Joyce Lapin does a great job taking facts about the moon, earth's atmosphere, gravity, asteroids, and space travel (which some kids might resist reading about in a traditional nonfiction book) and wrapping them into a story about a birthday party on the moon. Who wouldn't want to read about that?
I mean, just look at the fun:
Text © Joyce Lapin, 2019. Image © Simona Ceccarelli, 2019.
Throughout the book, Simona's colorful, energetic illustrations perfectly accentuate the information in the text and adds snippets of additional science to further encourage learning about space and space travel (for instance, the floating juice bubbles and the diagrams on the console, in this spread). Together Simona and Joyce make learning about the moon and space fun.
After the kids, and their dog, watch the earth rotate and discover why the Moon's sky is black, it's time for some serious party activities.
Text © Joyce Lapin, 2019. Image © Simona Ceccarelli, 2019.
What can you do at a birthday party on the moon? You can bounce & glide, do finger push-ups, go crater sliding, and play "freeze" tag. Then round up the rolling balloons and have a scavenger hunt for things Apollo astronauts left on the moon. Finally, one of my favorite things - make moon angels.
Text © Joyce Lapin, 2019. Image © Simona Ceccarelli, 2019.
In addition to the science, this book is chock full of interesting space facts. Did you know Pizza Hut delivered a pizza to the International Space Station? The detailed glossary, further reading, and extension ideas add to a book I think would make a great addition to any library or home.
- write a story or draw what a birthday party on Mars would be like? Can you think of any other fun and unusual place to have a birthday party?