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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Ioana Hobai

I love finding new books to love and exciting authors and illustrators to get to know and follow.

Today, you're all in for an amazing treat! Ioana Hobai, author of Lena's Slippers (#PPBF review here), is not only sharing with us some "behind the scenes" information about herself and her two picture books (so far), BUT she has generously invited us into her workshop and provided some amazing illustrations. I know you'll agree; she is so talented!

Ioana grew up in Bucharest, Romania and first learned to paint with in her uncle’s art studio. After becoming an architect, she discovered the joy of making picture books while taking a children’s illustration art class. Her debut book as an illustrator was Before You Sleep (Page Street 2018) and her debut as an author/illustrator, Lena’s Slippers, released June 11th!

Welcome Ioana,

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?)

IOANA: I work from a small room in my basement, mostly when my kids are away at school, and again at night, after they’ve gone to bed. I’ve been illustrating on and off for myself for a very long time, but this past May, I have celebrated (quietly) five years since I started pursuing writing and illustrating as a possible career.

I tend to write the stories that follow me around that don’t let go of me until some sort of draft is put down on paper. Some capture some deeply held emotions, some are more whimsical, and then there are those that are more humorous but a bit odd, and people give me funny looks and ask me:

“Where did this come from?!?”

© Ioana Hobai.

As an illustrator, I love stories where one can add layers of emotion through imagery. I don’t shy away from dark subjects.

I would love to illustrate middle grade fiction or a classic fairy tale. I would also love a simple story about little critters just having tea together.

© Ioana Hobai.

© Ioana Hobai.

Wow, I love the flying scene and am intrigued by that lunchroom. And I'm glad I get to make the celebration just a bit noisier! (You deserve it!) What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

When I was little, my sister and I watched The Adventures of Sindbad the Sailor, a Japanese anime series that was broadcast in the evenings. I loved it so much that I learned to sing the theme song by ear, without knowing a word of Japanese or knowing if my pronunciation was correct. I still remember it today and I wonder sometimes what on earth I am saying and if it makes any sense. For the record, I would never, ever, sing it to anyone. And I would love to learn to speak Japanese.

Got it! It's amazing what random things stick in our minds. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

I absolutely loved The Hobbit. I didn’t care much for the battle scenes, but I knew almost by heart the chapter where Bilbo meets Gollum. It was illustrated by Hungarian-Romanian artist Livia Rusz, and I think her drawings contributed to my falling in love with Tolkien’s work.

I still remember a series of picture books about the adventures of two little girls called Luna-Betiluna and Dora-Minodora, by Anamaria Smigelschi. I found some images online the other day, and it’s amazing how seeing the cover brought back so many memories.

Thank you so much for providing these covers! I have never seen them before. What was your inspiration for Lena’s Slippers?

The story was inspired by a childhood memory from growing up in Romania during communism. Luckily children have much kinder teachers nowadays; the real Mrs. Pascu was the bane of my existence as a kid. She was not my regular teacher but she was in charge of school inspections and recitals, and I was terrified of her.

On the last page of the book there’s an author’s note that explains a little more about the real story. I’m not going to spoil it for you!

Suspense! In your debut picture book, Before You Sleep, you were the illustrator. Do you prefer being the illustrator or the author/illustrator of a book? Why?

I feel that it’s such a challenge and responsibility to illustrate someone else’s words. It might also take you out of your comfort zone because, after all, you might not write the same type of stories. So, I find it enriching, always.

That being said, I love the control I have when it’s my own story. I can go back and forth between text and pictures, revising as needed. Even when I am concentrating only on revising the text, in the back of my mind I still think about the pacing of the pictures, which scene might be a double spread, etc. I am flexible and I don’t mind changing things even late in the process (within reason, of course) if the illustrations or the text require it.

What is your favorite medium to work with? (Your Instagram account seems to favor pen and watercolor) Did your style differ for Lena’s Slippers? [all four images, © Ioana Hobai.]

Lena’s Slippers was painted in ink and watercolor washes, with a bit of acrylic here and there.

I only work traditionally. A while ago a generous friend of mine let me borrow her Cintiq digital tablet, but I discovered it was too steep of a learning curve for me. I am much faster drawing traditionally, even if I have to pay the price of redoing a painting over and over. I also love the fluidity of watercolor and ink washes, and the accidents that happen along the way.

I am not set on a specific style or medium. My first book was rendered in watercolor layered with color pencils, and afterwards I ​​steered more toward ink and watercolor. I would love to illustrate a book in acrylic paint and/or collage. I think each story requires a different type of imagery, and I feel very lucky that Page Street Kids, my publisher, is open to letting me experiment and grow this way.

What a range of images and styles. Thank you so much for sharing these peeks into your process and illustrations with us! Which is hardest for you writing and/or illustrating children’s books?

© Ioana Hobai.

I am certainly an illustrator at heart, but I love to write. Of ​late, I’ve been writing first, and sketching later. Even though I learned English as a young child (my mom was an English teacher in Bucharest) and I’ve lived in English-speaking countries for the last twenty-four years, nowadays, when I think about writing—especially when revising—I feel nervous and uncertain. Is this turn of phrase correct? Is it clunky or does it flow? Am I using the right words? What about punctuation?

Oh, that poor fox. I, and I'd bet many other writers, can commiserate in trying to corral words. What's something you want your readers to know about Lena’s Slippers?

It’s like an old photograph, a snapshot of an era that it’s hard to imagine, even for me. I hope that its message still resonates with today’s readers because there are many places in this country (and also in other parts of the world) where people have to be creative to make up for scarce financial resources. We all need to cherish that creativity. What matters most is the soul you put in the work and pursuing your passion despite any obstacles.

Nurturing one's creativity and holding on to your passion, can be tough sometimes. If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?

© Ioana Hobai.

All kids create when they are very little, whether they finger paint, build with blocks, invent dances or play with sticks. As they grow, somewhere along the way, other things may become more important or they start comparing themselves with others and lose confidence in their own abilities.

Please do not forget the pleasure that free play gives you. Just play for play’s sake, in a space free of judgement. If there’s something that you love

to do, but haven’t done in a while, give it a go, it’s still there. That is your special power, and no one can take it from you. There’s magic in doing what you love and it will spill over in other areas of your life.

Love this image! Who/what is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child, or now as a writer or illustrator.)

I was lucky enough to grow up surrounded by art. My uncle’s friends were working artists and also, my best friends from school had artist-parents who produced paintings, etchings, sculptures, abstract collage, or tapestries that stayed as far away as possible from the kitsch propaganda favored by the communist regime.

On the other hand, like most kids, I loved cartoons. In the late 70's, Romania was more open toward the West than in the years that followed. We were able to watch movies made in the U.S., alongside Japanese anime, and cartoons from the former U.S.S.R. or other Eastern Bloc countries. All these different perspectives and sensibilities merged and left a mark on my view of the world.

Nowadays, I often get writing ideas while walking on the beach or when I am jogging. I love to travel, visit art museums, and read picture books published here and in other countries. I’m grateful for being able to bounce ideas back and forth with my friends from my critique group. And then, of course, there’s a long list of contemporary illustrators who are producing stunning work that I find both energizing and humbling.

© Ioana Hobai, 2019.

I love where your imagination goes. Many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in either Lena’s Slippers or Before You Sleep? Could you share any with us?

I miss my grandma terribly and I thought of her when I drew the grandma in Before You Sleep. Also, the mom is an architect, and you can see her briefcase and rolled up building plans nearby in the spread where she is reading to her son. The candy store, the dad and the child are visiting, was inspired by a candy store that used to be a much-loved destination in my own town of Lexington.

Lena’s Slippers is a bit different because it is a very personal story. I tried to convey the atmosphere by using a lot of sepia tones in the illustrations. During the mid ’80’s, a large part of old Bucharest was demolished to make way for North Korean-inspired boulevards and high rises; this included my former elementary school. It was an unusual school building because part of it was an old aristocratic family’s palace that had been converted into a school. Almost no pictures of the outside have survived and, as far as I know, none of the interiors; however, if I close my eyes, I can remember my old classroom, and this is what I tried to render in the book as best I could. ​

Lena’s parents look a bit like my own mom and dad, and the kitchen where Lena is sitting is similar to the one we had in the apartment where I grew up (although our kitchen cabinets were white).

© Ioana Hobai, 2019.

You wove not just treasures, but bits of yourself into these books. Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

© Ioana Hobai, 2019.

Earlier this year I finished my second book as an author/illustrator, A Whale Of A Mistake (Spring 2020), a story about the emotional journey you embark on after making a really big mistake. After finishing the Whale, I wrote a more lighthearted story, made two dummies, and now I am reworking an old manuscript that also deals with feelings.

I can't wait to see A Whale of A Mistake. 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?

It doesn’t get much easier. Not for me, at least, for now. I’ve changed with each book I’ve made thus far, and my expectations have changed, too. I am looking at the long-term game and sometimes it’s daunting.

I did not know beforehand how much you need to put yourself out there after you have a book published, and I think it requires a different set of skills that I haven’t mastered yet. I’m still learning.

On the lighter side, there’s such joy in knowing that a story you wrote and illustrated has become a book. In a way, it’s similar to architecture: you imagine a space, do your research, put it on paper and work out the details, and one day, people will be able to inhabit it. Then hopefully, this made up space will inspire the little readers that visit it (and their grown-ups too), to become architects of their own imaginary worlds. Maybe that’s why I like making books so much.

© Ioana Hobai, 2019.

That's such a great analogy. What is your favorite animal? Or maybe a current animal you are enamored with? Why?

I love baby elephants. And hummingbirds. This time of the year, hummingbirds sometimes hover around some bright flowers in my garden. I get to see them once or twice a year really, but those few seconds feel like something very special and precious and they make me so happy.

Thank you, Ioana for stopping by and sharing with us. I'm honored to get the chance to help you celebrate the release of Lena's Slippers.

Thank you, Maria, for inviting me to chat, it’s been my pleasure.

Check out my #PPBF post on Lena's Slippers last Friday.

To find out more about Ioana Hobai, or get in touch with her:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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