The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Kristen Balouch
Kristen Balouch is an award-winning children's book author & illustrator, artist, and designer living in Brooklyn, New York. She has illustrated picture books for other authors as well as written and illustrated her own. She is also a fabric designer and a literary agent.
Kristen is the author/illustrator of If You Are the Dreamer (2021), The Little Little Girl with the Big Big Voice (2011), Feelings (2011), Mystery Bottle (2006), The King and the Three Thieves: A Persian Tale with Omid Balouch (2000), and the illustrator of Thank You, Trees! by Gail Langer Karwoski and Marilyn Gootman (2013), Baby Polar by Yannick Murphy (2009), and The Ghost Catcher by Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss (2007).
Her newest book, One Million Trees: A True Story, releases tomorrow.
Welcome Kristen, thank you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest book and your writing.
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write or illustrate? How long have you been writing or illustrating? )
I started creating children’s books when I was in art school at Pratt. I worked on a book called Mine (It was never published)— a wordless book about two dragons fighting over a flower. It was my response to the Gulf War in 1990. I was drawn to simplicity and the room for earnestness in children’s books. That project was the beginning. I turned my creative focus to making images and books for kids. I wanted to make sure my work created space for all kids—inclusion organically became a core theme in my work. My first book was published in 1999 by Viking Children’s Books.
Creating children’s books is really something that you live with. The when and where is all the time. When I am making a children’s book I am living life while seeing through the lens of that children’s book. While I worked on One Million Trees , I studied trees and noticed how the shapes of the branches could create an emotional narrative. See those pine tree branches and how they are lifting up? See the other pine tree branches that are drooping down? What does that mean about pine trees?
I love that it is simply part of your life. What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate?
What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
When I was a kid there was a hollowed out tree near our house—The Hollow Stump—where I used to make forts and have tea parties with my sister and Wonder Dog.
That sounds like a lot of fun! Have you found anything particularly helpful in keeping you inspired and writing these past couple of years?
The way I write and illustrate is pretty secluded with a lot of alone time. Sometimes the struggle is staying in that creative bubble when the outside world is moving along and pulling for you to join them. Being forced into isolation has been good for my creative process. I wish it were under different circumstances.
It's definitely a different experience when you're comfortable with being solitary. And I wish it were so, too. What was your inspiration for One Million Trees: A True Story?
One Million Trees is a true story about my family planting trees in Canada when I was a kid. I had been thinking about making it into a picture book for a long time. Making a book about trees is important to do now. I returned to Vancouver Island (where our first camp was located) one summer, to work on the book. Other themes surfaced as the book came together. The power of what a small group of people can accomplish became a theme. I also wanted to make sure my parents atypical parenting style was portrayed in the book, as I think it’s important to see people making creative choices, that became a theme. Other themes included snippets of French and math.
You did a great job wrapping in all these themes. How many revisions did One Million Trees take from first draft to publication? As a personal story, was it harder or easier to write than your other books?
Most books grow out of an idea. I start with the idea and each time I come back to the book I add more to it and the book grows into the form it is going to take. This book was different. The process for this book felt more like creating a sculpture from a piece of stone or wood. The block is in front of you and there are so many possibilities—so many tangents can be followed. As you make choices, it’s as if the block is getting whittled down and the book starts to emerge from the block. Each choice defines the form of the book just a little bit more. So revisions were less distinct in this project—it was a continuous whittling away/decision making until it was finished. The process took about five years! Also portraying real people and a real event feels more like a collaboration than a creation.
That's such a fascinating way to describe both processes of writing. What was the toughest aspect of writing and or illustrating One Million Trees? Which comes first for you, the text idea or an illustration doddle?
There was so much to include in this book. Organizing the information was sort of like system building. You want those systems to help the reader find the information yet feel invisible to the experience of reading. Margaret was really wonderful to work with. Together, we figured out how to keep the book within the page count. Each tangent could have been a whole different book, like The Cook Shack Dessert Book. 😊
Ooh, that sounds intriguing. Maybe you'll write that one later. So, which comes first for you, the text idea or an illustration doddle?
All books are different for me. Sometimes text comes first, sometimes images. I had the basic story in my mind for One Million Trees. The most important action is to get the words or images out of my head and onto paper. I keep a book dummy. When images come to me—I sketch them—when words come to me—I write them. I also make notes of any details that I want to include. One Million trees is a compression of time on the page. Details that happened over the whole experience come together for a moment on a page through the illustrations. For example, I remember taking a bath in a bathtub in camp. Someone brought a bath tub! We would heat water from the river on the fire and pour it into the bathtub. So I put two people carrying in the bathtub as a detail on the camp set up day. The story is loosely organized in a day.
What a great anecdote! Kids in school visits are going to love that. As a child, who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book?
I have a grandma in Ohio, who sent all of the Roald Dahl books to me in California. I read them over and over. I read Nancy Drew books that planting season. If you look closely you can see I packed them in my suitcase! Visually I was a crafter and made things when I was a child. I didn’t appreciate children’s book illustration until I was an adult.
Is there anything you want your readers to know about or gain from One Million Trees?
I think it’s important that we learn to live with nature instead of trying to control it. Even when a task feels daunting, everybody holds the power to institute change.
Both, very powerful messages. Many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in One Million Trees? Could you share one or more with us? Which is your favorite spread?
I love sweets and I was obsessed with candy. You can see candy wrappers next to me as my dad sets up the tent. I have felt a sense of oneness with nature since I was a child, as if we communicate back and forth. I added a bird to watch over us through the entire book—you can search each page for it.
Text & Image © Kristen Balouch, 2022.
The cook shack is my favorite page. Many elements came together for that page. We are playing hide-n-seek—one of my favorite games as a kid. The cook shack is sort of designed like the kitchen in my apartment in Brooklyn. I’m completely enamored with the idea of outfitting vehicles as living spaces!
Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I have a book Story House—part story, part play house coming out in the fall. And Mystery Bottle is being re-issued this summer by a new publisher. Keep a look out for those.
Congrats. And that cover is intriguing. What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
Wherever I go, it’s the nature I want to explore. I care much less about what people have made. I want to see what nature has made. I lived among the redwood forests in California and visited other magnificent forests in Vancouver— Cathedral Grove and Wildwood on Vancouver Island—and Elder Cedar Forest on Gabriola Island.
Even the small green-spaces in NYC increase the quality of life for New Yorkers.
I live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where access to the East River Park creates a place where anyone can see the sunset every night. Every sunset is different and how the sunsets change through seasons helps me feel connected. If there were no East River Park, then only the people who live in places, with a view of the East River, would be able to experience those sunsets. Policy makers are still undervaluing old growth forests. The old growth forests are essential to the health of the earth and are still being deforested.
© Rick Loomis, NY Times.
Thank you, Kristen for stopping by and sharing your time and thoughts with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.
Thank you Maria!
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