In approximately 2 month’s time, I’ll be heading down to Singapore again to attend the Asian Festival of Children’s Content 2014 – it’s a fantastic conference and workshop for writers and illustrators who are involved (or are looking to involve themselves) in creating works for the children/tweens/teen market. Actually, I think that for those who are keen to learn more about the industry as a whole would be able to learn a great deal just be attending the event. I was an attendee last year and I look forward to this year’s lineup!
As a way of showing my support to this incredibly enriching event, I’m so thrilled to introduce Frané Lessac to you, dear readers; and she’s an illustrator who will be conducting one of the masterclass sessions during the AFCC! I’ve wanted to cover topics that are more in depth on the blog through artist interviews, and the opportunity to chat with Frané via email was one that I couldn’t pass up! She’s published over 35 books for children and has won numerous awards for her illustrations, and I get to dig more into how she got started (she wrote and illustrated her very first book – and was turned down by 30 publishers before she met one who believed in her!)
I hope you’ll enjoy the interview!
Hi Frané! We know that you were born in 1954, and that you’re based in Australia at the moment. Could you tell me what you just had for breakfast, and perhaps you can share a random tidbit about yourself?
This morning I had peanut butter and jelly on toast. Very American, but normally I try and eat healthy by having plain yogurt with fresh blueberries. After breakfast, I move to my studio, which is located in the garden. Inside I’m surrounded by mementos from my travels, family photos and books. Bright flowers grow outside the windows and the walls are adorned with art painted by my friends.
Where did you learn how to draw? Did you study art at college/university, or are you a self-taught artist?
I always loved art and it was a dream to one day become an artist. When I was five years old, a neighbour started up art classes in their attic on Saturday afternoons. It was the first time I was able to work on one piece continuously over a period of time. I was the youngest participant and the instructor let me paint whatever I wanted. I remember my finished painting to this day. I took art as an elective in high school, but I was pretty useless and the teacher let me create whatever I wanted during the hour period. I believe this freedom was essential to finding my own style.
I read that you originally wanted to be a film-maker (you studied at a film school at California). How did that influence your decision to turn to illustrating children’s books? Do you see an overlap between the two?
I studied Ethnographic Film at the University of California in Los Angeles – this is a combination of anthropology and film. My interest was in producing documentaries about cultures from around the world. I cherished my studies and everything I learned I eventually incorporated into my paintings. When I moved to the island of Montserrat, it was difficult to work on films and realized I could share the same stories about people from around the world by using paper and paint. You love to travel – can you tell us how has traveling inspired your illustrations? One of my greatest passions is traveling. Seeing new places, meeting new people and learning about their lives. I gather ideas that I think children would enjoy finding out more about. I try and view the world through a child’s eye: What intrigues me? What stories would I take home and share? There are so many stories that need to be told. When putting together a book, I choose topics that I’m passionate about. That passion hopefully shows in the words and the art and is contagious. I like to add in lots of detail in my illustrations for children to discover as they read a book over and over again. Sometimes I use certain colours to convey subliminal messages.
Your first book, The Little Island (UK) was conceived while you were in Montserrat in 1981. In it, you illustrated and also wrote the book, which you’ve shopped around to 30 publishers before being accepted. In the children’s book market, usually the pairing of artists + writers are done by the publishers.
Since you were the writer and illustrator, was that the reason why you were rejected initially? How did you manage to convince the book’s publisher to take you on?
When I first approached publishers, all I had was an idea and a series of paintings of Montserrat. A hard sell when you’ve never been published. I wasted a lot of time approaching the wrong publishing houses. In the process of publishers passing on my concept, I gained invaluable knowledge and by the thirtieth publisher, I had a solid proposal. Having a face-to-face meeting with the publisher was helpful and I was able to plead my case when they hummed and hawed whether they’d publish my idea. Macmillan UK finally released it, and the following year by HarperCollins USA with a slightly different title – “My Little Island” which has now sold over 350,000 copies.
Could you tell us a little bit more about the process of illustrating a children’s book – from start to finish?
Story always comes first – whether one tells it in illustrations or words, or the collaboration of both in a children’s picture book. The initial spark to write or illustrate a story might be generated by a character or a setting. The publisher will send along a brief on the pagination, book’s dimensions and time frame for the delivery of a dummy book and final artwork. Many children’s picture books are 32 pages long and the first thing is to break down the text to fit into a 32-page book including title, dedication and imprint page. What I’ve learnt over the years was not only to sketch a first impulse, but also to explore how many different ways you can draw the same scene. Next, the publisher likes to see a dummy/mock up of the book. This helps show the flow of the story and is vital to see how the words and pictures work together. If all is well, then it’s onto the final art.
Between illustrating and writing your own book; and illustrating for other writers, can you share with us the difference between the roles? Is one more fulfilling than the other?
Many of the books I choose to illustrate, whether I write them or someone else, is all about the story. If I can visualize the story, I’m keen to paint the pictures of other people’s words. I haven’t met all of the authors of books I’ve illustrated. Some authors I know very well and in one case, I know the author very very well. My husband, Mark Greenwood, is a children’s author and we’ve created over a dozen books together AND two children. For my projects with Mark, he keeps me in mind when he writes. He predicts how I will use the text and knows that I will paint a lot of detail from his words.
How long does it take for you to finish illustrating for a children’s book?
The majority of my projects take three to fours years from the original concept to the finished book. This includes traveling for research and then waiting for a finished manuscript. The actual paintings take three – four days for each spread and a whole book can take up to four months. Once I deliver all the art, it can take up to a year to get a copy in my hand.
What do you think of the children’s book market today? Are the themes very different from what you were working on before?
The children’s book publishing market has changed over the years. More styles of art are acceptable and many young art students are now creating art on the computer. The shelf life of books in shops are shorter and more people are self-publishing and selling online. The market competition is greater and with eBooks, changes are happening that will alter the way we interact with books in the future. As far as themes, there’s a saying, “There’s nothing new under the sun, but the sun itself”. In other words, new ways to tell old stories will continue to happen. What is different today, are books for older readers with complex issues never explored before in a picture book format.
[quote] Reality check: You need a lot of books out in a lot of countries to make a living just as an illustrator. [/quote]
While you were illustrating children’s books – were you also holding down other jobs to support yourself, or were the commissions enough to sustain you financially?
When I first started out I struggled to make a living but I was always optimistic and held onto the belief that I will get published and I will make art and illustrating a full time career. All along the way, I exhibited my art and made postcards and prints of my work to supplement my income. Reality check: You need a lot of books out in a lot of countries to make a living just as an illustrator.
What was your most challenging project to date?
Every project has its challenge and that what keeps it fresh and interesting. With every book you discover something new. This is why it’s a fabulous career, you’re always learning.
What advice or tips would you give to an aspiring children’s book illustrator?
Create a portfolio showing a diversity of work. Include animals, children, landscapes and anything else you love to draw. Make sure it’s your best work. Send out sample postcards and/or A4 sample sheets with several images to editors and art directors. Update the images and resend at least once or twice a year. Research what’s appropriate for their lists. Don’t be a closet illustrator – share your ideas. Join organizations like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). It’s the best way to keep your finger on the children’s book publishing pulse. You’ll make firm friends and enjoy the generous support of a global network on your journey to getting your first book published.
Thanks so much Frané!
Check out more about Frané’s work via her website, and come on down to Singapore in May 2014 for the AFCC to say hello! More info about the AFCC, including the whole conference schedule over at their website.