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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Christy Hale

Christy Hale has created books as long as she can remember. She studied calligraphy, bookbinding, letterpress and all other means of printing, typography, design, and illustration. After earning a B.A. in Fine Arts and a Masters in Teaching at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, Christy worked as an art educator for several years. Then decided to pursue her childhood dream by relocating to Brooklyn, New York to study design and illustration at Pratt Institute. She taught at the New York Center for Book Arts and as an adjunct professor in the Communication Design department at Pratt Institute while working in children’s book publishing as a designer and art director. During this period, she also began illustrating and has since worked on over 30 books—writing some of those too. After many years in New York, Christy moved to Northern California where she developed and taught an online course in Writing for Picture Books through the illustration department at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. She continues to work as a writer, illustrator, designer, art director, and as an educator—offering programs at museums, schools, and libraries.

Christy is the author/illustrator of Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building (2022), Out the Door (2020), Todos Iguales / All Equal: Un Corrido De Lemon Grove/A Ballad of Lemon Grove (2019), Water Land: Land and Water Forms Around the World (2018), and The East-West House: Noguchi's Childhood in Japan (2009) and the illustrator of over 30 books, including Our School Garden! by Rick Swann (2018), Antsy Ansel: Ansel Adams, a Life in Nature by Cindy Jenson-Elliott (2016), The Cambodian Dancer: Sophany's Gift of Hope by Daryn Reicherter (2015), The Forgiveness Garden by Lauren Thompson (2012), and A Safe Place Called Home by Eileen Spinelli (2001).

Her newest author/illustrated picture book, Copycat: Nature-inspired Design Around the World (2022), releases tomorrow.

Welcome Christy, thank you so much for coming by to talk about your newest book and your writing.

Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)

I do most of my writing in my office/studio, a room in the back of my house. I juggle design, art direction, illustration, and writing work, so I move back and forth from various projects throughout the day and evening. I operate using the eat your vegetables if you want any dessert strategy. I try to get on top of my design and art direction work first thing in the day to allow longer blocks of time to focus on writing and illustrating since both necessitate a deeper dive. My “work” has always been my play, so my work/life boundaries are fuzzy.

I have been writing since elementary school. In junior high and high school, I took creative writing electives. Back then, I even won an honorable mention in a California poetry contest.

Many forms of writing interest me: poetry, fiction, memoir, and nonfiction. I gravitate to picture books, but also have ideas for early readers and middle grade stories.

I was always told - "If you'd pay someone to let you do the job, you found the right career." It's great when "work" feels like play! What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

I’m the daughter of a mechanical engineer/a maker. When not at work, my father built traditional New England stone walls; he landscaped gardens; he built mid-century modern furniture, rocking horses, toys, whole worlds on train boards in HO scale, and more. He was my example. My fantasy has always been to design and make everything I need or wish to give to others.

What a great role model. Where did you get the inspiration for Copycat: Nature-inspired Design Around the World?

During a lunch with Jill Eisenberg, Lee & Low’s VP of Curriculum and Literacy Strategy, she said, “You should do a companion book to Dreaming Up about nature-inspired design.” I went home and immediately started researching obsessively. I love research! It is like being a detective; one clue leads to another, and another. I fell in love with this topic.

Oh those glorious research rabbit holes! I truly love them. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book as a child?

There are many authors, illustrators, and books I loved as a child. I’ll mention two that felt important.

I was born in Massachusetts and lived there through early childhood. My mother read Little Women to me. Of course, I loved that book, and because Louisa May Alcott’s house was not far from where we lived, we used to drive by. This made being an author seem real to me.

We moved to California when I was ten. My fifth-grade teacher read Harriet the Spy to our class. My new friend, Leslie, and I wanted to be Harriet, so we developed our own detective agency, complete with ID cards (height, weight, eye color, and fingerprints), and a spy headquarters in Leslie’s basement that was accessed through a trap door in the closet—but only after whispering our password. We dressed up in disguises and rode bicycles around the neighborhood looking for action. When someone caught our attention, we stashed our bikes behind bushes, and observed. Just like Harriet, we recorded our discoveries in secret notebooks.

Leslie and I were interested in the stories of others’ lives. Our play evolved and we began writing and illustrating original stories. Every day after school, we would rush to Leslie’s house and continue working on our stories. Louise Fitzhugh was both the author and illustrator of Harriet the Spy. I knew back then that I wanted to grow up to be a writer and illustrator too. Incidentally, Leslie grew up to be a writer and editor. We are still friends and hope to collaborate one day.

That sounds like such a fun childhood. I hope you do get to collaborate - maybe it'll be a detective early reader? Did you always plan to write Copycat as tanka poetry? What difficulties did this poetic form cause and how many drafts did it take to get the poems right?

This book is a companion to Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building. In that project, I used concrete poetry which felt appropriate to the topic. Since Copycat is about nature, I originally wrote haiku. I’m a big fan of brevity, but the haiku form didn’t allow adequate room for me to convey the connections between the item in the natural world and the related human invention.

My editor encouraged me to try tanka. The five-line structure works with the third line linking imagery from the top two lines with imagery from the bottom two lines. Perfect! My editor and I went back and forth, with some drafts related to reworking the tanka and many on refining the back matter—perhaps about eight drafts.

Here's one of Christy's wonderful tanka (5-7-5-7-7) poems from Copycat:

agile dragonfly

shifts and darts every which way

with two sets of wings

whirlybird lifts, glides, hovers

master of flight maneuvers

The tanka form works so well for this book. Is there anything special you want your readers to know about Copycat?

I am developing downloadable activities for educators which I will make available on my website. Lee & Low will follow soon with a Teacher’s Guide.

Which comes first for you, the illustrations or the text? Which is hardest? Why?

The answer to this question depends on the book. I always start with a concept or idea. I describe how I got my ideas for Dreaming Up here: For both Dreaming Up and Copycat, I use the same format of illustrations on the left-hand page facing photographs on the right-hand page. I wanted to connect both images visually, so I did my photo research first. In both these books, the images came before the writing.

I have worked in children’s book publishing since the mid-80s, both in-house and as a consulting designer and art director. I think in picture book form. Even when writing comes first, I often type directly into a 32-page layout, breaking down my story or concept right from the outset.

Which is harder? I’m not sure, but I have come to love revision and the opportunity to keep trying to improve both illustrations and text. It is a privilege to have the guidance of a good editor.

What was the toughest aspect of researching this book? Was one design or invention tougher to research than the others?

Before the book was about to go to press, we were fortunate to have the review and input of Rosanna Ayers, Director of Youth Education at the Biomimicry Institute. She showed us an image of the octopus-inspired tentacle gripper that we had not seen before. My editor, Louise May, and I both much preferred this image to the one we had been using of an octopus-inspired surgical tool. However, to make our printing schedule, we had to get photo permissions fast. All my emails to the German company were not getting through. Even my calls weren’t working. At the last hour, we made a connection in a round-about way. My husband speaks German and for years has had a weekly video session with a teacher near Munich. He told her about my problem, then she called the German company and secured the photo permission. My former emails were in a spam folder, but finally communications proceeded. I secured the desired photo, rewrote the poem, and related back matter, then created new art for this spread in record time!

Sometimes, it really does matter who you know. Which was the easiest one to write about and/or illustrate?

I generate sample art for every project. I submitted the kingfisher/bullet train spread to my editor to show the direction I wished to use throughout the book. The illustration came before the tanka, but this one was easy to write and went through minimal change.

Were there many inventions or devices you discovered which didn’t end up in the book?

I originally submitted a 48-page book, but we trimmed it back to 40-pages (similar to Dreaming Up). I just looked at my original submission and see that I included the Singapore Esplanade Concert Hall which looks like durian fruit, a sharkskin-inspired swimsuit, Morphotex fabric which mimics the iridescence of the Morpho butterfly, a LED light inspired by a firefly, the Bahá’í House of Worship in New Delhi, India inspired by the lotus flower, and an airplane wing design inspired by the tubercles on whale flippers.

Wow, these are interesting. Maybe you need to do a second Copycat book? Many illustrators leave treasures in the illustrations. Did you do that in this book? If so, can you share one or two with us? Which is your favorite spread?

Text & Image © Christy Hale, 2022.

I have long admired mid-century Japanese woodblock prints which make inventive use of woodgrain. Nodding to this inspiration felt appropriate for a book about nature and one written with a Japanese form of poetry. All the illustrations utilize woodgrain/wood knot textures to show rain, wings, sun, wind, water, fur, burrs, and more. Readers can hunt for that element throughout. I like the final cat illustration best. I’m a cat person and a blue person.

That was so fun to go back and look specifically for the wood grains. Thank you. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I have many ideas under development: picture book biographies, nonfiction, and fiction ideas, as well as concept books. My husband and I have an idea for an early reader/hybrid graphic novel series, and then there’s that middle grade novel I need to get back to.

Some ideas take a long time. The initial seed of an idea for Dreaming Up came in 1993 on a visit to La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. That book didn’t publish until 2012. The initial seed of an idea for Water Land came in 2002, inspiration from my daughter’s first grade papercut project. That book didn’t publish until 2018. I plant my seeds. There are many. I water them and fertilize them to inch their way into sunlight. I hope for many more seeds to bloom.

Good luck with your projects. What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

I have only visited a handful or so of National Parks. I would like to visit more. I enjoy the city parks of places I’ve lived: Foothills Park in Palo Alto, CA, Forest Park in Portland, OR, and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, NY. I have many happy memories in each of these places.

Thank you, Christy for participating in this interview. It was wonderful to get to know you.

Be sure to come back Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Copycat: Nature-inspired Design Around the World.

To find out more about Christy Hale, or contact her:


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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