My 5 year old daughter was genetically designed to be a Princess. But at times all that genetic engineering goes askew and she has to be a super hero while at the same time maintaining royal propriety. Or she’s a mermaid. All this multi-tasking of identities is why my daughter found such a kinship with Princess Super Kitty by Antoinette Portis. Her books are so soothing to look at while at the same time twisting what is in the norm of children’s publishing. For that reason all of my kids have found an Antoinette Portis book that resonates with them. For me, I look at her books and think “Now why didn’t I think of that??”
This Mini Interview may give you some perspective on why Antoinette Portis is beating us to the punch!
Please describe your career as an author-illustrator in 5 words:
My favorite job so far.
Which books, that were your favorite when you were little, have had the greatest influence on your work?
I am not the kind of illustrator I admired most when I was little. I liked complicated illustrations. My grandmother had an amazing collection of books illustrated by Arthur Rackham and he was my idol. I wanted to draw pretty princesses and fairies that looked like his, but that desire didn’t stick.
But I also loved the Provensens. The book Animal Fair has images in it I’ve remembered forever. I think the graphic look of Mary Blair’s work has stayed with me, too.
I went to Japanese language school on Saturdays for a few years in elementary school and I developed a life-long affinity for the traditional Japanese less-is-more aesthetic. The mountain in Not A Box is a reference to a Hokusai woodblock of Mt. Fuji.
Please share an instance in which you had an idea or experience that started out small, but took root and grew to become a book.
The book I’m illustrating right now started as a little observed moment. I was sitting in a café and a mom walked by holding her small boy’s hand. He broke away from her to come over to see a ladybug sitting on the windowsill in front of me. His mom grabbed his hand and tugged him back on their way. He staggered along next to her in that toddler way, just barely keeping up.
I was struck with the tension between a grownup’s agenda and a child’s. A child’s desire to wander, imagine and explore–and the grownup world’s impingement on this desire, is a continuing theme in my work.
Do you ever hide little images, names or personal details in your illustrations? Please give us a peek
I don’t hide personal details, necessarily, but I do add things for children to discover.
In A Penguin Story, the penguin is bored with her limited world. So, to not make it boring for the reader as well, there are visual clues, jokes and hidden details to keep things interesting.
It’s a game to find the large, little and twin penguins on every page. Not something you would notice on the first reading, but there to discover.
There are other little surprises, too. The reader sees hints that the main character doesn’t—we see the orange plane before she does. Kids love this. There’s also a scene that looks like the rising sun between two mountains, but the page turn reveals it’s not.
Daily routines are important for both writers and illustrators. Could you describe your typical work day, and tell us the one little thing you absolutely cannot begin your day without (besides caffeine)?
I have an unstructured way of working. I kind of roll with the day’s demands. The one thing that’s pretty consistent about my routine is that I often work till 2 or 3 in the morning (or 4 and 5 as a deadline nears). The world is quiet, there are no email or phone calls coming in. It would be more convenient to be a morning person but I seem to be bio-rhythmically set up as a night owl.
My year divides into two sections: the thinking up new ideas part (writing texts and making book dummies) and then the other part when I have a book illustrations due and I kick into full-time illustration mode.
It’s hard to have a well-rounded life when pushing to get a book done. To finish my first few books I was a total hermit—I barely left my studio for months. Now I’m getting better at keeping my whole life going even when I’m on a deadline. I’m less terrified now, and have more confidence in my process.
Your books are so amazingly different – do you ever talk yourself out a of good idea because it skews the mainstream industry?
Since I make a living writing and illustrating books, whether a book is viable in the marketplace is certainly a consideration. I don’t write to the market, but I do decide which of my many ideas to pursue based on some sense (experience and intuition both) of what my editor might be interested in from me.
I have lots of ideas. I’m not overly precious about them. I spent years in advertising. There, your brilliant ideas can be tossed out because the strategy changed—then it’s go back and try to be brilliant again. This was good training. I got used to not-taking-personally an ever shifting set of demands.
I run new ideas by my writing group. Some ideas die there. Or at least go into hibernation.
It takes a lot of commitment to bring a book to fruition so it’s necessary to have at least a glimmer of hope that other people will respond to it. Nevertheless, there are points when I get obsessed with an idea and work on it, knowing it probably won’t go anywhere. Sometimes I just have to get an idea out of my system.
I have folders full of ideas that I hope will make it out there someday. (But if they don’t, there are always new ideas coming down the pike.)
In the end, no one really knows what will sell and what won’t, so you can’t edit yourself too much. I waited a long time to make picture books, and I’m doing it for the love of it.
I work on ideas that fire me up.
Antoinette Portis made her picture-book debut with the best-selling Not A Box, an American Library Association Seuss Geisel Honor book, and one of the New York Times Ten Best Illustrated Books of the Year. She was a recipient of a 2010 Sendak Fellowship. Antoinette graduated from UCLA with an art degree, then worked in advertising and graphic design. She was a creative director, then a VP, at Disney before she bolted to do what she had always wanted: be alone in a room making picture books. She lives in Los Angeles. Froodle, her newest book, comes out in spring 2014.