I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by Jena Benton on her blog, Of Tea and Mermaids/Simply 7 Interviews. It was such a treat! Being relatively new to all of this, one of things that struck me was the way in which Jena’s questions organized me, forcing me to think about my process and how to best share and show that process. Luckily for me I tend to take a lot of photos to document my progress and evaluate a page as it springs to life; they really came in handy!
So thank you, Jena, for the thoughtful questions and lovely article. You can find more fascinating interviews on her site, jenabenton.com.
Simply 7 with Susan Novich–“Guess Who is Behind the Door”
I don’t always talk about board books on my blog, but when I do, you can be sure that they’re special!
Susan Novich finds inspiration in the tiny scraps of paper that other (perhaps more sensible) people would likely throw away. A graduate of Simmons College, she also has a certificate in Children’s Illustration from The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). In 2012, Susan founded Susabean Studios, where she creates greeting cards, designs licensing for the home goods market, and works with clients on custom illustration and calligraphy projects. The mother of three grown children, Susan lives in Providence, RI with her husband, Bruce, and their dog, Coco, a rescued Havanese. Susan is represented by Anna Olswanger at Olswanger Literary. You can learn more about her at her website.
“Guess Who is Behind the Door” is Susan’s debut as author-illustrator and it’s also a board book that sets out to do a LOT. It teaches counting, colors, animals, and FOUR different languages. It also uses vibrant cut paper art work to do so, while managing to be a fun “peek-a-boo” kind of read. It’s astonishing to think of one book doing all of that successfully, let alone in a board book which has a much more limited page count than a picture book. Yet it does succeed and even better, it’s not didactic. This is a book that can be read over and over again with a young reader taking away something different each time. Wow!
Me: This is your debut as an author-illustrator. Yay! What draws you to writing for children?
Susan: Yes — it is so exciting to be debuting as an author-illustrator. It’s been a long road and I couldn’t be happier to see GUESS WHO IS BEHIND THE DOOR launched into the wild. I have always been a reader (I was one of those kids who would burrow beneath the bed covers with a flashlight to read surreptitiously in bed) and I’ve always loved being around children. When I became a stay-at-home mom after my third child was born, I enjoyed introducing my kids to my favorite childhood books. I loved seeing them react to a really good story and loved hearing their laughter when something struck them as funny. I wanted to use my art and writing to help kids understand and make sense of the world around them. It is an amazing gift to have the opportunity to do that.
Me: Your book teaches colors, counting, language, and animal facts. Wow, that’s a lot! What gave you the idea to squeeze all of that into a board book?
Susan: It does seem like a lot for a board book, doesn’t it?!! It’s true that there are a lot of seemingly disparate elements. I wanted to make a book that would combine multiple ideas, and layer them in a way that the reader could grow along with the book. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to combine the concepts of colors, numbers, and unusual animals, and was also toying with the idea of a bilingual book. A conversation with my agent led to the idea of going multilingual. It then became a question of how to take these various elements and blend them together so that they could be enjoyed individually, yet also work in a way that enables kids of varying ages to take away whatever piece(s) they are interested in and able to absorb. I wanted to create a book kids would enjoy coming back to over and over again, discovering something new each time.
Me: That’s such a great concept and I love the fact that it has back matter too! Can you talk about your art process? Do you work with cut paper? What made you decide to use this as your illustration medium?
Susan: Sure. Regarding my process, each piece starts out as a simple pencil sketch, usually done in one of my square sketchbooks. (I love a square format!) I refine, refine, refine and then break down each character and element into several pieces that get traced onto whatever paper I’ve selected for that particular project. Once I’ve completed tracing each individual part, I get out my X-Acto knife and the cutting begins. If a character is particularly complicated, or if there are multiples of that character, I’ll number the pieces so I know where everything belongs. I then assemble the pieces into individual characters and scenes using medical grade tweezers (some of the cut paper pieces are quite tiny) toothpicks, glue, and thick, double-stick tape. I go through a lot of X-Acto blades! I think I used well over 100 making GUESS WHO IS BEHIND THE DOOR.
As for using cut paper as my medium, I came to that somewhat serendipitously. Even though I’d always loved bright, bold color, I was a black and white line-work kind of girl when it came to illustration. Working traditionally, I often felt I ruined illustrations when trying to add color — it didn’t matter if it was watercolor, gouache or some other medium. While working on my certificate in children’s book illustration from The Rhode Island School of Design, I had real “AHA!” moment when one of my instructors, Judith Moffatt, introduced me to the art of cut paper. Suddenly, I could switch out a background color or other element of an illustration without ruining the whole thing! I could hold up different color combinations beforehand and get a clear idea of how they would – or would not – work together. Cut paper became the perfect medium for me. As an added bonus, I also found that I could become inspired simply by the color or pattern found on piece of paper, no matter how tiny it might be.
Me: I love that! The illustrations are absolutely adorable. Did you envision this as a concept book from the beginning (a porcupine painting)? Or were there changes in the character and/or plot along the way?
Susan: Thank you so much! Yes, I did envision it as a concept book from the start. I was dreaming up ways to introduce colors and numbers, and also wanted to introduce kids to an assortment of different animals. I thought a painting porcupine would make an entertaining guide. There were still a few revisions along the way which discussions with my agent, Anna Olswanger, brought into focus.
Me: I love animals and the variety you have included in this book is delightful. Is there a favorite animal that you’ve included? If yes, which one and why?
Susan: I love animals – the more unusual the better. When I made the first dummy for this book, I had it set in Australia. I’d just been there to visit my son and I really got into the variety of unusual animals there – koalas, quokkas, kookaburras, and so on. When I discovered short- and long-beaked echidnas, I was smitten — both with their name and their features, and wanted to use an echidna as the main character. When the setting moved to North America and North American animals, I switched the echidna out for a porcupine who shares some of those same delightful, spiky features.
Me: Aww! I love echidna’s too. What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Susan: I was probably most surprised by how many iterations the book went through from initial concept to final product — and by how one seemingly small revision can move things into a very different but ultimately more satisfying direction.
Me: Any advice for new picture book writers and/or illustrators?
Susan: Keep learning, be persistent, and believe in yourself. Seek inspiration from the world around you and keep some sort of a journal – whether written, drawn, or photographic. Write and draw about things you both love and enjoy, because you are going to spend a lot of time in those places and with those characters!
I love that advice. I heard someone else say not too long ago that if you don’t love what you’re creating for a picture book, you will regret the hours and hours you have to spend illustrating the same thing over and over again until the book is completed. So true!
Dear readers, if you haven’t yet had a chance to track down this book, I highly recommend doing so. This is a unique offering in the world of board books and definitely worth studying. Plus adorable cut paper art in a board book is a rare find! Don’t miss this one.
November 20, 2020, Kirbylarson.com
I was lucky enough to connect (through Dana Sullivan, an Olswanger agency sibling) with Kirby Larson, a Newbury Honor winning author who hosts a wonderful blog called Friend Friday. You should check in on it frequently — she always has a slew of interesting authors lined up, with great stories to share! Thanks for hosting me, Kirby!
I love it when my friends help me make new friends! Thank you Dana Sullivan for connecting me with Susan Novich. And thank you Susan for sharing your book creation story with us today; while I needed a reminder of its message, I especially love its happy ending: a brand new (debut!) board book, Guess Who is Behind the Door (Schiffer Kids).
Would you like an adventure now, or shall we have our tea first?
Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie
There were copious cups of tea involved, and a winding, round-about adventure before my debut book, GUESS WHO IS BEHIND THE DOOR, got out the door.
I’ve always had an interest in illustration and children’s literature, but it wasn’t until my three kids were older that my picture book journey began in earnest. Our family had recently moved to back to New England after several years in Pittsburgh, and I was thrilled to discover that the Rhode Island School of Design was in my new backyard — and that the school offered a certificate in children’s book illustration.
I began the program in 2003 and while there was introduced to the art of cut paper and found my perfect medium.
Halfway through the program, I joined SCBWI and began going to conferences to gain a better understanding of the publishing industry. One conference that turned out to be fortuitous took place at the Society of Illustrators in NY, where I participated in an editor and agent roundtable. Although my book would not happen until twelve years later, it was there that I met the person who eventually became my agent. [Note 1: Persistence is key. Note 2: When cleaning out your desk, never throw away those business cards.]
After taking a fork in the road to start my own art studio, I wanted to get back to children’s books and illustration. I packed up for another conference — this time to a small one in Oceanside, Oregon. After the conference, I dug up the old business cards and submitted my newly revised picture book dummy to one of the agents I’d met years ago at the roundtable. Rather than pursue this new story, she suggested I consider moving in a different direction – to board books – instead.
Inspired by a recent trip to Australia to visit one of my kids, I had a sketchbook filled with drawings of Australian animals – quokkas, koalas, kookaburras, and more. I knew I wanted animals to be the basis of this new board book.
I also knew that I wanted to introduce multiple concepts — colors and counting — in addition to animals. I was interested in a multilayered approach. Further thought and discussion led to the addition of a language/multicultural component and to introducing the numbers 1 to 10 in four different languages. Now the question to answer was how to pull these layers together. An artsy echidna became the springboard. When the setting changed to North America, the echidna became a playful porcupine who liked to paint.
Written in rhyme, Pinky Porcupine toddles through town, painting every door a different color. Peeking over each freshly painted door, she discovers a new group of animals to count.
In the end, my goal was to create a board book that would entertain and help the youngest of readers (or listeners) make sense the world around them. I wanted this to be a book that kids could grow with, offering content that they could keep coming back to for further discovery. Ultimately, the book came full circle for me. The book is built layer by layer, revealing a reading experience based on learning in layers, and my artwork is built up in much the same way.