The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Molly Ruttan
Molly Ruttan grew up in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY and holds a BFA from The Cooper Union School of Art. Upon graduation she moved to Los Angeles and established a career as a graphic designer and illustrator. Molly and her family currently have the pleasure of caring for five strays and rescues (three dogs, a cat, and a rabbit) in their home.
In addition to her work, she plays drums & sings in the eclectic-folk rock band New Garden, creates artwork for, records and performs in the art rock band Phideaux, and sings in a community choir.
Her debut picture book as an illustrator, I am a Thief! by Abigail Rayner (2019), earned a star in Kirkus Reviews. A member of SCBWI, Molly holds the honor of being a 2015 SCBWI Illustration Mentee. She is represented by Rachel Orr at Prospect Agency.
Her debut book as author/illustrator, The Stray, releases tomorrow!
First, I want to say thank you, Maria, for featuring me on your excellent blog! Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to share!
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?)
Molly: I have been writing and illustrating books for as long as I can remember. I started drawing at a very early age, and one of my favorite activities was writing and illustrating books that I would make out of folded paper. At first, before I could write, my mom would write in the words; then as I got older, I wrote them myself. At one point in my childhood, I hardly drew anything unless it was in a book!
To me, picture books, in addition to being an essential part of childhood, are wonderful forms of creative expression. I am also a musician, and I see many parallels between music and picture books. Both can be an intimate experience but are even more wonderful in collaboration. Both can have a lot of intense emotion; but both can be playful and silly! And both have rhythm, repetition, pacing, crescendos, and movement, to name a few! When I am working on a picture book, sometimes it feels like I’m making music.
I love your comparison of picture books to music. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
I love puzzles! I love Sudoku and logic puzzles, and my husband and I do the crossword together every morning at breakfast. I love the puzzle-like nature of paginating a picture book.
That sounds like such a fun morning routine! Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
There are so many! Some of the picture books I loved when I was a kid were written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey—Make Way for Ducklings, One Morning in Maine, and Homer Price are among my all-time favorites. I loved the Beverly Cleary books, especially Ribsy and Ramona the Pest, with illustrations by Louis Darling. I discovered Garth Williams in The Cricket in Times Square by George Seldon, and Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban. And of course, I loved everything Maurice Sendak did! Some of my most vivid, cherished childhoods memories are during times when I was read to— curled up on the couch with my mom at night, or story time at school.
What was your inspiration for The Stray? I love that the text “could” refer to any ‘found’ animal. Did you always intend Grub to be an alien?
Yes! From the very beginning Grub was always supposed be an alien. The spark for this book was ignited while I was attending a UFO conference with my twin sister, a few years back. Around the same time, my brother and his wife were fostering a dog that was wreaking havoc in their home, so I put the two ideas together! The idea of telling two parallel stories—one in the words, one in the pictures—was developed in an early draft, and stuck.
I think a lot of the fun with this book comes from the way the images play with the text. Do you prefer being the illustrator [I Am a Thief!] or the author/illustrator of a book? Why? (Or do you like doing both?)
I love doing both! Working with the text and the pictures at the same time, as an author-illustrator, feels natural to me, and knowing the history of the story and the characters makes these projects feel very personal.
But getting a manuscript to illustrate is also wonderful! Not being able to touch the text brings its own inspiring challenges in finding ways to play with the narrative, and in finding ways to create effective page turns. I also love the inner process of discovering and bringing forward my own personal vision to someone else’s words.
Sounds like they almost use two different skill sets. Many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in The Stray? Could you share one or more with us?
Here is one that I will share: but first, some UFO history! There is an incident that purportedly took place in 1947 on a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico, when a “flying disc” crashed and was recovered by the air force. The story goes that along with the alien occupants, an “I-beam” was found in the wreckage and recovered, and it had symbols on it. (A replica of this piece of metal has become a popular souvenir).
Near the beginning of the book, there is a picture of Grub with a frisbee in his mouth. Since frisbees are also called flying discs, I thought it would be funny to put the symbols from the I-beam on it.
© Molly Ruttan, 2020.
That's such a fun "Easter egg." Thanks for sharing the inside story of it with us. What is your favorite medium to work with? Your least favorite or maybe one you’re itching to try?
My favorite medium at the moment is charcoal—the rough quality of the line keeps me loose and I can create interesting textures with it. I also love paints—I painted with oils in school, but now I love liquid acrylics; I find them really flexible when used in a layering process, like watercolors or oils. Recently, I was inspired by a video of Axel Scheffler, and so I tried working with colored inks, but I haven’t found my feet with them yet. One of these days I’ll try them again!
Do you have a favorite spread in The Stray? Which one?
© Molly Ruttan, 2020.
There is a special place in my heart for the UFO crash spread. It was the first scene that I sketched out after I got the idea for the book, and it became a touchstone. I also like the two “before and after” spreads of the neighborhood because I had so much fun creating the chaos. Imagining kids flipping back & forth between those pages to find where all the stuff had gone made me smile as I created those two spreads.
I think kids (and adults) will have a blast with these spreads. I especially like the swirling water slide. [*spoilers*] What's something you want your readers to know about The Stray?
In addition to this book being about a stray from another world, this book is also about the family. They are very close-knit, and they start, travel, and finish the story together as a unit. I created them this way in order to portray a feeling of comfort and security in a story that could be seen as a story about loss — the family thinks they have found something great, and then in the end, they lose it. While I was working on the book, I myself was moving through a time of loss. But I was feeling the support of my own close-knit family, and the act of reflecting that support in my book really helped me process what I was going through. The family’s loss of Grub in the book is balanced out by the fact that the family goes through it together, and in the end they know Grub is happy, they know they did the right thing, and they still have each other.
What a heartfelt, realistic, and encouraging message. If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?
I would tell kids today to remember that imagination as just as important as knowledge, (to quote Albert Einstein) and to keep on creating things! Life is a creative process, and it’s important to stay in touch with your creativity, even if it’s in the way you clean your room.
Now, I'm intrigued. I want a recipe for "creative room cleaning"! Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
Yes! I am currently working on my next author-illustrated picture book with Nancy Paulsen Books, called Something Wild. It is about a little girl who imagines all the wild things she wishes would happen, to keep her from having to perform at her violin recital.
Stage fright is something I have battled my entire life, so it is a very personal, somewhat autobiographical story! Publication is set for Spring of 2022.
I am looking forward to seeing this one, Molly! What is your favorite animal? Or maybe a current animal you are enamored with. Why?
My current and long-standing favorite animal are cats, but I really love all animals. I even love spiders, snakes, and rats! All animals are beautiful to me.
Thank you so much, Molly for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.
Thank you for having me! The pleasure is all mine!
Be sure to fly back by on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on The Stray.
To learn more about Molly Ruttan, or to get in touch with her: