The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Jonathan Voss and Review of The Wishing Balloons
Jonathan D. Voss was a portrait artist and graphic designer before becoming a children's book illustrator. Jonathan loves art, music, and beautiful things. He’s always been hugely inspired by others who bring this beauty to the world around us. Whether it’s well-crafted words in a book or a painting in a gallery, there is something stirring about it all. He lives in North Carolina with his family.
He’s the author/illustrator of Imagine That: A Hoot & Olive Story (2019) and Brave Enough for Two: A Hoot & Olive Story (2018) and the illustrator of Whoo-Ku Haiku: A Great Horned Owl Story by Maria Gianferrari (2020) and Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh by Sally M. Walker (2015).
For more information on Jonathan see our earlier interviews [here], [here] and [here].
His newest book, The Wishing Balloons, released May 3rd.
Welcome back Jonathan!
What inspired you to write The Wishing Balloons?
When I signed on with Holt for the second Hoot & Olive book, Imagine That, I already had an existing illustration-only contract with them. My editor was very generous and turned that illustration-only contract into a third full-book contract. That’s what opened the door for The Wishing Balloons.
It actually took quite a while to nail down the final storyline. The idea, though, goes all the way back to something I was working on way back in 2012—a young girl in an apartment building begins sending up wishes attached to balloons while another person, just a few flights up, is collecting and granting those wishes. It seems pretty straightforward, but I had a heck of a time bringing all the pieces together. It was hard enough that it took me almost ten years to make something work.
Wow! I'm so glad you kept working on it and I love how it morphed. Your illustration style in The Wishing Balloons is so different from your other books. It’s got a very soft, almost chalk-like feel to it. How did you devise and produce this approach?
As far as painting goes, oils were my first love. But when I began thinking about doing children’s books, I felt pen & ink and watercolor might be a better fit. Fast forward a number of years and a few books later, I really wanted to do something different. So I broke out the oils. It was refreshing. But there was another side to the look as well.
When I create a dummy book, I do these small sketches that ultimately get scaled up in the PDF I send to the editor. I’ve always loved this effect—the freshness and spontaneity of it. It seems to capture so much of the original thought and energy. I wanted to duplicate this with oils. To that end, I created the original illustrations smaller than the final printed versions would be. Now, when the image is blown up, the reader gets to see some of the story behind the story—the accidental marks or a bit of the under-drawing showing through. I love that stuff.
Stylistically, I did make some effort to minimize hard edges, but I wasn’t trying to achieve a particular look. Rather, I was more focused on making interesting and intentional brush strokes. In larger paintings, the strokes are almost sculptural. When translated to something very small, using brushes that are verging on too big, strokes have a tendency to blend.
The atmosphere you create in these illustrations is simply stunning. The etherealness is amazing. What was the hardest part of illustrating this book?
The hardest part of illustrating the book was just the sheer number of illustrations. That seems like a silly thing to say in light of how many illustrations are in some other books. But for me, it was by far the most I had done for a single book.
I can only imagine. By the way, I love the scrapbook feel of much of the narration appearing taped or pasted on jagged scraps of different colored paper. How many drafts did it take to design/figure out this layout?
This actually came about pretty organically. Once I had completed all the illustrations, I started popping them into a book layout with the text. It was immediately clear that I wasn’t going to be happy with just text and pictures.
In addition to illustration, I also have a background in design. So I started playing around with ideas. The first thing I went to was texture. All the illustrations were created on textured paper. I love that, so I wanted to find a way to introduce it into the book. And, since the story is told from Dot’s perspective, it made sense to treat the whole thing like one big scrapbook. I pretended like someone had handed Dot all these pictures and asked for her help putting it all together. The idea was reenforced when I went into my daughter’s room one day and saw something she had put together. I loved that the scissor cuts were crooked. I loved that she didn’t worry about hiding the tape. It was perfect.
Once I had fleshed out the idea, I completed a couple spreads to show the editor and art director. They loved it and gave me the green light. This part was fun. I love the detail stuff. It took a little time to get things right, but I don’t think anything was really changed from the finished design I gave them. After hitting so many walls in the storytelling phase of this project, it was a relief to have things go so smoothly.
The scraps and font really made it feel like Dot's story. Do you have a favorite spread in The Wishing Balloons? Which one and why?
Text & Image © Jonathan Voss, 2022.
Gosh, this is a hard one… I really want to walk away from the design phase feeling good about each page. But if I have to pick, I’ll give you five of my favorites. 1) The spread where Dot finds the first balloon. 2) The fence spread (Dot is holding a toy truck). 3) The tree-climbing spread. 4) The DAD spread. And 5) The changing seasons spread. I love them all for basically the same reasons. I was really happy with the colors, the characters, and the way the design elements came together…. I could also give you a list of my favorite individual illustrations, but I will refrain.
Talk about hard to choose! But I can't help smiling every time I see Dot's padding. So, what’s your favorite thing to do outside?
I’m assuming this could be creative or otherwise… I think I’ll go with hiking. I love the mountains. I love the views. I love the small sense of accomplishment and the larger sense of awe I feel when I pass the final switchback, round the last corner, then walk out into a clearing and see something new and magnificent. It’s pretty great… I will note, though, after the sense of awe, I get a very different and distinct sense—more of a common sense. Something like: “Maybe I’ll just tie myself to this tree right here so I don’t trip on my shoelace, summersault in humiliating fashion, then fall over the edge to an unfortunate and untimely demise.
Ha! Remind me not to hike with you. Okay, you’ve said that I’m responsible for the treasure you tucked into the illustrations? Will you share with us what this treasure is?
Ah, yes. This. The whole time I was working on the final design, I was thinking about you… In the very kindest ways of course. In our last conversation you asked about easter eggs. From that moment, I determined to put some in the next book… just for you.
In all but two of the 4-up panels there is a letter—a very small letter—hidden in the art. If you start with the first panel and find them all in order, write them out. It will tell you something. Not any deep, dark secret. Just a fun game.
Did I mention that the letters are small… and hidden? You might want to use a magnifying glass.
Wow, I'm honored. And I have to say I'm glad it wasn't making you swear at me. I found them all! That was fun and I hope those who read this or stumble on the letters play along. Is there anything special you want your readers to know about The Wishing Balloons?
As much as this is a story about empathy and friendship, I think it is also a very informal ode to dads. Of course, I may be a little partial, but I definitely have the best one… Okay, fine. My dad can be tied for the title with all the other best dads.
This is a wonderful ode to dads! Are there any upcoming projects that you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us? (Is there another Hoot & Olive book?)
I’ve got two books—one is mine, one is illustration only—both at the beginning stages. I don’t have the green light on title or specifics. But I will definitely keep you posted.
As for my good friends Hoot & Olive, there is a non-book-related thing in the works. I’m excited about the possibilities. I will keep you posted on that as well.
Ooh! Oh I hope I am right in my guess. If so - FINGERS CROSSED! What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
A couple years ago we took a northeast tour in the fall. We flew up to Maine, rented a car, then meandered our way back down to North Carolina. It was amazing and beautiful!
In Maine, we visited Acadia National Park and several of the more famous lighthouses. The coastline really is stunning. Sometimes pictures of a place make it look more spectacular than it is. Not so much in this case. The actual thing met and exceeded our expectations. [© NPS/AYTT]
In New Hampshire, we drove to the top of Mount Washington. If you have a thing about heights, this drive may not be for you. There are no guard rails, and there are many places where I’m pretty sure you would just roll right off the edge if you didn’t judge the distance right. I do have a thing about heights. At one point, I literally had to stop in the road and collect myself. Next time, we will take the train.
I think our next trip will be out west. My aunt and uncle recently took a round trip from Michigan, through the Upper Peninsula, then out to all the major parks out west and along the way. I think something like this is on the radar.
I suggest you ONLY drive west through Glacier NP, where you're up against the hillside. Thank you, Jonathan for coming by again. As always, it was wonderful to chat with you.
Thank you! It is always my pleasure.
To find out more about Jonathan D. Voss, or contact him:
Review of The Wishing Balloons
This stunning and touching picture book released last month. I am so glad I have the opportunity to introduce you all to this book. While there will always be a soft spot in my heart for Jonathan's Hoot & Olive stories, I was immediately intrigued by this book's premise and its different art style. Softened with a sprinkling of humor, this is a wonderful book for Father's Day - as a tender ode to fathers - and a great book for everyone - as a reminder that sometimes we just need to let our friends (and ourselves) experience all of our emotions.
The Wishing Balloons
Author/Illustrator: Jonathan Voss
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co. (2022)
Friendship, kindness, sadness, patience, and dads.
For fans of Be Kind, Come With Me, and Waiting, Jonathan D. Voss’s stunning new picture book, The Wishing Balloons, is a timeless story of the struggle, wonder, and power of making a new friend.
A young girl named Dot is overjoyed when the moving truck arrives at the house down the street, and even more excited when a boy her age steps out, offering the prospect of a new friend.
But Albert looks sad, and he won’t reveal why. After many attempts to cheer him up, Dot walks away defeated.
That night, a balloon with a note tied to its string taps her window. Unfolding the note, Dot finds a wish that Albert has written. This is her chance to make Albert happy―she will (creatively) grant his wishes.
Though as each wish becomes harder to grant, Dot learns the powerful lesson that sometimes being a friend means waiting until the people you care about are ready to reach out.
A new boy moved in to
the neighborhood today.
"I'm Dot," I said. "What's your name?"
"Albert," he said back.
He looked sad.
I asked him if he wanted to play.
What I LOVED about this book:
Using a wonderful looseness & texturing with oil paint and a fun kid's scrapbook design, Jonathan Voss brings us immediately into Dot's world as she shyly watches a new boy move in and tries to make friends. Note the sale sign for a wonderful bit of foreshadowing.
Text & Image © Jonathan Voss, 2022.
Albert's forlorn face and slumped figure exudes such deep sadness we aren't surprised when he walks away. That evening, as Dot mulls over why Albert might not want to play with her - he's sad at moving, doesn't play with girls, or "I don't have good enough toys," a four-panel wordless spread shows Albert tying a note to a gold balloon, which he sends soaring into the night. Jonathan masterfully uses numerous such panels or vignettes to slow the reader, giving them space and time to accept the emotions, breathe, and fill in some of the story.
Text & Image © Jonathan Voss, 2022.
Perhaps not as he intended, but as Albert ultimately needed, the balloon taps against Dot's window. Revealing Albert's wish to "fly far far away and maybe never have to come back." Albert's notes are delightfully handwritten in a perfect child's voice. Mulling over the wish, Dot remembers when she almost flew away. The next spread with her father is so full of love...
Text & Image © Jonathan Voss, 2022.
Determined to make Albert happy, Dot leaves her kite by his window. Though he smiled, he still didn't want to play with her. Leaving her standing with her cat, holding an awesome truck. Be sure to watch the cat throughout, as it patiently offers quiet companionship and comfort to Dot. Over the next couple of days, Dot finds two more wishes tied to balloons. One next door guarded by a "bear" and one at the very top of a tree. Her determination to read the wishes, despite her fears, results in some wonderful exercises of ingenuity.
Although demonstrating an impressive degree of empathy and selflessness (giving Albert a treasured stuffed dog), Dot remains focused on making Albert happy - so he will want to play with her. Until she finds that his last wish is something "too hard for me to do." You'll be torn between heartbreak and joy as you watch Dot explore a myriad of emotions caused by Albert's final wish. When she herself is too sad to play, notice what her cat does. Leading to Dot's discoverery that sometimes we just have to be sad and what friendship really means.
You'll love the final spreads as Dot and her cat companionably honor Albert's sadness and ... Well, you're gonna have to check out the book. But suffice it to say, like the rest of the book, the ending is absolutely stunning. This is a wonderful book for sharing with a special father and helping kids navigate emotions, empathy, and friendship.
- how do you make wishes? A penny in a well, on a shooting star, or maybe blowing on a dandelion? Make a shooting star airplane, write a wish on it, and send it into the sky. Or maybe make a wish mobile with a couple of wishing stars.
- make a wish box. Decorate a box (or a can) and fill it with your special wishes.
- what do you do when you're feeling sad? How about when a friend or family member is feeling sad?
- pair this book with The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld, I’m Sad by Michael Ian Black and Debbie Ridpath Ohi, and When Sadness is at Your Door by Eva Eland.