The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Leah Gilbert
Leah Gilbert grew up just blocks from Lake Michigan in a small Wisconsin town, with a deep love of art, books, and The Lake. After earning her bachelor’s degree in illustration and graphic design, she moved to Colorado where she spent 10 years working as an illustrator and designer at a greeting card company. She now lives back in Wisconsin with her husband, son, and a fluffy pup where she writes and illustrates books for kids while daydreaming of the mountains.
Her debut picture book, A Couch for Llama, released in 2018.
Her newest picture book, The Perfect Plan, released July 6th, 2021.
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write and illustrate? How long have you been writing and illustrating? How did you get started? What is your favorite type of book to write and/or illustrate?)
I like to think I've been writing and illustrating my whole life! I loved art and writing as a kid and always dreamed of one day being an illustrator. Books were always big in our house and I can't remember a time when I didn't love reading for fun.
While it's always been a dream that I've been working toward, I started seriously pursuing writing and illustrating kids' books around 2013. At that time I worked fulltime as an artist at a greeting card company, so I spent my days drawing butterflies and rainbows and my nights and weekends working on creating picture book dummies, building up my portfolio and website, and researching agents, publishers, and the market. I started querying agents in late 2015, signed with my first agent in 2016, and sold my first book shortly thereafter.
Now, I'm lucky to be able to stay home with my son and write and illustrate. I have an office/studio in our house—a room off the dining room that's filled with windows and natural light and just a wonderful, inspiring place to be creative. Our house was built in 1901 and on the original blueprint, my office is labeled the solarium. I have a toddler at home, so I work whenever I can—my amazing in-laws watch my son a couple mornings a week so I have some dedicated time to work, and I also just try to squeeze things in whenever I have a chance—afternoons, evenings, and weekends depending on deadlines and what projects I have going on.
I only do picture books, and so far have only done ones I've both written and illustrated. I love funny books so I'd have to say those are my favorite to work on, though The Perfect Plan isn't particularly humorous and I really loved illustrating the beautiful woodland scenes.
That office space sounds amazing! What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
I'm not a morning person. I feel like I see a lot of writers who get up extra early to get some writing in before the kids get up or before their day job which sounds nice and productive, but my mind just doesn't work that early. I don't mind staying up late to work on things though (or to finish a particularly good book ;) )
I'm with you there, fellow night owl. Sometimes it's so hard not to read just one more chapter...until you check the time - woah, 2 am already? Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
I really loved Beatrix Potter's books, especially The Tale of Miss Moppet. The way she illustrated adorable animals and the uniquely small size of her original books appealed to me when I was young, then as I grew older and dreamed of being an author and illustrator myself, she was really inspiring to me. Other childhood favorites included Peter Spier (Oh, Were They Ever Happy and Bored, Nothing to Do) and Jack Kent (Round Robin).
I didn't know these three. Thanks for the introduction! What was your inspiration for The Perfect Plan?
Well, who doesn't love tree forts? They are so magical and fun and kind of represent part of the magic of childhood to me. I'd always wished for a fort as a child, as I'm sure many (most?) kids do at least at one point or another. While I didn't ever end up getting one, we did have a large birch tree in our front yard growing up. It had 4 big trunks coming off of it which made it perfect for climbing, and my sister and I would perch in to read sometimes. The tree Maya selects for her fort is inspired by that one.
I wrote this story during a particularly difficult time in my life, when things weren't turning out how I had hoped and planned they would. This story just kind of came out of that and is the story that my heart needed at the time... the story that I needed to write and also to read. I needed the magic of a woodland tree fort and to see hope and beauty and life and dreams coming true, because deep down I believed in those things but I was having a hard time seeing them in my life.
I love that it was what your heart needed. That makes it even more special. Is there something you want your readers to know about The Perfect Plan?
My hope is that this book is inspiring to all who read it. I hope it inspires kids to be creative and build and design, to get outside and explore in nature, to build their own forts, to follow their dreams, and to ask for help when needed. I hope it also inspires adults to have hope even in the midst of difficult or bleak circumstances (2020, anyone??) and to follow their dreams as well, no matter how impossible they may seem.
A little dreaming, creating, friendship, and hope - just what we all need this year! What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child or now as a writer.)
In addition to the authors/artists I mentioned above that I liked as a child, I also was enamored with Norman Rockwell as a teen and still find his work inspiring to this day.
Which was the harder book to write and/or illustrate, The Perfect Plan or A Couch for Llama? Why?
Probably The Perfect Plan, though I think they were both challenging in different ways. A Couch for Llama was my first book so everything was super new to me and I was just trying to figure out how to do it all. It had relatively few changes editorially and art-wise though.
The Perfect Plan has a lot more detailed illustrations that took me forever to do—it was really important to me to try and capture the beauty of the forest as best as I could. Painting all the trees and getting the lighting and shadows right took a long time and was challenging, though also really fun and satisfying at the same time. It was also a little harder editorially and had more changes and back and forth with my agent and editor to get to the final version.
For The Perfect Plan, which came first the illustrations or the text?
Kind of both... I wrote the words first but had a pretty clear idea in my head of what the illustrations would be for each spread. It's hard to separate the two for me.
Since they are visual creations, that's probably a good thing. Is there a spread that you were especially excited about or proud of? Which is your favorite spread in The Perfect Plan?
Text and Image © Leah Gilbert, 2021.
The final two spreads! I don't want to spoil the story for anyone who hasn't read it yet, but those are definitely my favorite and I am really proud of how they turned out! I think my next favorite would be the first spread. I wanted it to set the tone for the book and have the fort that she dreamed of look pretty neat too—that she had some pretty ambitious goals. It was a challenging spread to work on, making sure the fort looked like she was imagining it, but I like how it turned out.
So do I! I also like the "hidden helpers" in the image, too. What is your favorite medium to use? Is there one you don’t like to use or one you are excited to try in the future?
I work digitally with a variety of brushes. I have favorite brushes that I typically always use, but also try out new ones to fit the style of each project. For this book, I used lots of watercolor brushes to help give it the woodsy feel I was looking for.
I like the light and "magic"/imagination you were able to capture, too. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I always have lots of ideas... the tricky thing is figuring out which ones are worth pursuing and what to prioritize spending my time on. I have one more book (at least? Fingers crossed...) coming out with Bloomsbury, but I'm still in the process of working with my agent and editor on exactly what that will be—so stay tuned for more info on that coming soon!
We'll have to keep our eyes out for your next book(s). What have you been doing to stay creative? Anything in particular that “primes the well”?
Being outdoors is always inspiring to me— taking walks and going on hikes, or even just being out in the yard. We planted a garden right outside my office windows and looking out at it and watching everything grow this summer has been fun and satisfying!
Reading other picture books is always a source of inspiration to me as well, especially studying the illustrations. This is one of those things that everyone is told to do as a writer and I've done for years and years but reading them out loud to my book-loving toddler now (instead of just paging through them myself) and also reading them over and over and over again has been teaching me a lot and inspiring me to push my work to be even better.
*Smiling* Okay, last question. What is your favorite animal? Or one that you are enamored with. Why?
I love anything cute and fluffy, so basically any baby animal, haha! Our dog is a Cavapoo (Cavalier King Charles spaniel and poodle mix) named Camden who's also pretty great.
Thank you so much for coming by to talk with me Leah. It was a pleasure getting to know you.
Thanks so much for having me on your wonderful blog, Maria!
Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on The Perfect Plan.
To find out more about Leah Gilbert, or get in touch with her: