The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Julie Downing
I'm so excited to interview the amazingly talented Julie Downing. I'll try not to 'fan-girl' too much, but I'm making no promises. 😊
Julie Downing was born in Denver, Colorado, graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and currently lives in San Francisco, CA, where she can see a corner of the Golden Gate Bridge from her studio window.
She teaches watercolor and Children’s Book Illustration to both graduate and undergraduate students at the Academy of Art University.
Julie's work has been featured at The Society of Illustrator's Original Art Show in NYC and has been exhibited at galleries throughout the United States and England. She has won numerous awards for her work, including a Parent's Choice Award, the New York Public Library Best Books Award, APAAL Best Illustrated Book, and the Irma Black Silver Medal. She was selected to appear in Talking with Artists Too, a book about 12 of the nation’s best Children’s’ Book Illustrators.
Julie’s the author/illustrator of Hello, Moon (2021), White Snow, Blue Feather (2013), No Hugs Till Saturday (2008), and the illustrator of over 45 picture books, including Baby Moses in a Basket by Caryn Yacowitz (2021), Cubs in the Tub: The True Story of the Bronx Zoo's First Woman Zookeeper by Candace Fleming (2020), Tessa Takes Wing by Richard Jackson (2018), Lotus and Feather by Ji-li Jiang (2016), Don't Turn the Page by Rachelle Burk (2014), Spooky Friends by Jane Feder (2013), First Mothers by Beverly Gherman (2012), and The Firekeeper's Son by Linda Sue Park (2009).
Her newest author/illustrator picture book, Night in the City, was released on March 28th.
Welcome Julie, tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you illustrate and/or write? How long have you been illustrating and writing? What is your favorite type of book to illustrate and/or write?)
My studio was originally built to watch the SF 49’ers football team play at Kezar Stadium. The studio is a small house on top of a three story apartment building. I have an amazing view of the stadium and if I lean my head out way out my window, I can see the Golden Gate Bridge. My first book came out in 1986 and I have illustrated 1-2 books a year ever since. My favorite books involve research. The book can be a nonfiction biography, like Cubs in the Tub by Candace Fleming. I spent hours finding information about Helen Martini and life in NYC in the 1940’s, I even took a trip to the Bronx Zoo to take pictures of the zoo.
I spend a lot of time researching things in all of my books. Night in the City involved a trip to the hospital, to see what happens at night. I visited a film set, went behind the scenes at a bakery, and took hundreds of pictures of taxi cabs and fire trucks. All this visual information inspires my art. Sometimes it’s hard to stop doing research and actually draw!
That's an amazing studio! I definitely understand the lure of those research 'rabbit holes.' Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book as a child?
When I was young, I loved all the books written and illustrated by Tasha Tudor. I was fascinated by the worlds she created in her art. The characters and setting were so different from my suburban Denver childhood. Her books transported me to a different time and place, and this magic is one of the best things a picture book can do.
She was an amazing author/illustrator. What was your inspiration or spark of interest for Night in the City?
The idea for Night in the City really started when I was in the second grade. Every morning, I watched a mother drop her son off at school. He kissed her cheek and said, “Good night, sleep tight.” I thought, why she was going home to sleep? It turns out she was an emergency room nurse and worked from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. At that age, I had no idea people worked all night long.
I thought about that emergency room nurse when the pandemic hit. In fact, I thought about all the people who work while we sleep and how important they are to our lives.
Interesting how that event and curiosity percolated in your subconscious all these years. How long did it take from the first draft and/or first doodle to publication for Night in the City?
It took a long time between my first doodle and publication of Night in the City. The book took many twists and turns before I found the story. I started the project by making lists of all the different people who worked at night. The list included waiters and theater people, musicians, and delivery van drivers. Finally, my editor suggested that I narrow the story to just people who work all night long. His advice helped give me a direction.
When I began writing Night in the City, I scrolled through career websites, watched YouTube videos, and read lots and lots of blogs by different night-shift workers. I read a blog about how lighting technicians often have to wear extra layers of clothes because they stand around a lot and it is cold outside. I read a step-by-step article about a bakery and learned all about the process of making bread. In one blog, I learned that taxi drivers might wear red so they can be seen more quickly. I interviewed nurses and 911 operators. I wanted to know what a typical night at work was like. I kept notebooks full of stories and facts about different people and their jobs. I also started sketching thumbnails, small drawings that help me plan my compositions. I like to draw on post it notes so I can easily move the art around while I think about the story arc. Altogether, the writing, the sketches and the final art took about 4 years to finish.
Interesting. Hooray for post-it notes; they're so useful for authors & illustrators! What was the toughest aspect of writing Night in the City? What was the toughest part of the illustrations?
The toughest part of writing Night in the City was shaping the story. I like playing with word choices, it’s a little bit like testing out different colors, but if the story arc doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter if the words are perfect. A picture book needs to be all meat and no fluff, and it takes me such a long time to work out the mechanics of the story.
Text & Image © Julie Downing, 2023.
The toughest part of the illustrations was the sheer number of people I decided to draw. One spread had over 100 people in it, and they were all doing different jobs. Most spreads take about a week to finish, but the spread of the whole city took almost twice as long.
I have to admit, I am in awe of your talent! There is so much detail in these illustrations. What is one of the most fun or unusual places where you’ve created an illustration or written a manuscript?
Text & Image © Julie Downing, 2023.
About 10 years ago I illustrated a book about a little mummy and a vampire called Scarlet and Igor by Jane Feder. (Scholastic Press) I was teaching at the Academy of Art University in downtown San Francisco, and I had to figure out a way to create the sketches for this book while balancing a number of other things. I ended up doing all the sketches for Scarlet and Igor on my bus ride to work. Every morning, I got on the bus with my sketchbook and a ballpoint pen. My commute was about 30 minutes long and I did the commute two times a day. I sketched all the art for the book while sitting on the #21 bus. After I came home from work, I scanned my art and created a final dummy from these drawings. The whole dummy came together in about 6 weeks. It was a good lesson for me to learn. You don’t need a perfect set up to create a book. Sometimes the bus is the perfect place.
Good lesson for all of us. Thanks for sharing it and the sketch. Is there anything special you want your readers to know about Night in the City?
One aspect of the book that surprised me is the color palette. I paint with watercolor and planned for the art to be very colorful. At the beginning of the book process, I usually send black-and-white pencil sketches to the editor and art director, and we discuss them. For Night in the City, I added two colors, yellow and blue, just to help show the differences between inside and outside scenes. In the end, we all loved how the color worked to tell the story, so I used the same color scheme for the final art.
I love the color palette; especially the deepening and lightening of the blues and the color switch. Which is harder for you – writing & illustrating your own books or illustrating others’ manuscripts? Which has been the toughest book for you to illustrate? Why?
It is definitely harder for me to write and illustrate my own books. I think of myself as an illustrator who writes as opposed to a writer who illustrates. I imagine the story in pictures, so I draw and write simultaneously. Often, I plan out the sequence of images before I finish the text.
Each project is different, so it’s hard to decide what was the toughest book to illustrate. One of the things I like about my job is the challenge that comes with creating each new book. The process can be frustrating, and difficult, but it is never boring.
Something to be said for always having a new challenge. Many illustrators leave “treasures” (or Easter Eggs) in their illustrations. Did you do this in Night in the City? If so, can you share one or more with us?
I have lived in a city for most of my adult life. I love the diversity of people I meet and how we are all connected in small ways. The idea of community is important in this book. There are many small stories and connections between all my various characters. Readers can discover a romance, find a lost dog, see a movie star, and welcome a new baby.
Following all the threads was so fun. Is there a spread you are most proud of in Night in the City? Why?
Text & Image © Julie Downing, 2023.
One of my favorite spreads takes place in the museum. My favorite book as a child was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. I loved the fact that the characters spent the night in the Metropolitan Museum. I have always wanted to spend a night in a museum, so I drew myself as the museum janitor. She gets to spend all night in the Natural History Museum.
AWESOME! I loved that book, too. And it's so cool you got a 'cameo' in the book! Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I am currently working on a new book titled Elsa’s Chessboard by Jenny Andruss. The story is inspired by the author’s grandmother. Born in Vienna in 1906, Elsa took her chess board everywhere. Chess helped her bridge the divide when she was forced to flee her home in the 1930’s and start a new life in San Francisco. I was lucky to visit Vienna last summer and have a chance to see where Elsa lived. It was a wonderful experience to immerse myself in Elsa’s world.
Text & Image © Julie Downing, 2023 (instagram).
Ooh, what an intriguing premise. We'll definitely need to keep our eyes open for it. What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
I am really looking forward to visiting Mount Rushmore this summer. I have never been, and I can’t wait to see all the presidents carved into rocks. I also love Point Reyes National Seashore, an area that is about an hour north of San Francisco. There are hiking trails, beaches, and Tully elk. My husband and I love hiking at Point Reyes.
Last question, what is the best advice you’ve ever gotten - whether it’s regarding writing, illustrating, publishing, or not ?
I am a BIG procrastinator, especially at the beginning of a new project. I thumb through books, collect images on Pinterest and scroll through Instagram. It seems like I am working hard. But sometimes there is no substitute for sitting at a desk and working out a problem, even if you throw everything away at the end of the day. The best advice I have gotten came from friend and fellow author/illustrator Martha Weston. She told me, the best way to start a new project, overcome writer’s block and move forward is to “put your butt in the chair.”
In other words, there is nothing better than sitting down and doing the work. Martha finished a whole novel in 30 minute chunks. Every morning she sat at her desk, set a timer, and wrote. If I start to procrastinate too much, I try to follow Martha’s advice. I give myself 30 minutes (which often stretches into hours) and try not to overthink things. I just draw and write. Sometimes, everything I produce is awful, but often I come up with ideas that end up in the final book.
Thank you, Julie for sharing about yourself and your new picture book with us.
Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Night in the City.
For more information about Julie Downing, or to contact her: