by Lisa Railsback, Sarajo Frieden

Noonie’s Masterpiece + an interview with the illustrator Sarajo Frieden

Today I am excited to share a wonderful new young adult book about an aspiring artist named Noonie. The book is illustrated by one of my favorite illustrators Sarajo Frieden. Throughout the book, Sarajo’s artwork brings color and fun to each and every spread of the book. It’s rare to find a novel that is illustrated throughout. I’m actually not sure why it’s not done more often because it makes reading much more exciting. I wanted to hear more from Sarajo about the making of this book, so I’ve asked her for a short interview which you can see below. Pick up a copy of this book here.

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First, thanks so much for sharing insight into creating such a beautiful book.
Julia, I want to thank you for your interest in “Noonie’s Masterpiece”, and for your wonderful site which is a delight to book lovers everywhere!

Who is Noonie and what is this story about?
“Noonie” is the debut novel from author Lisa Railsback. I borrowed this synopsis more or less from the jacket: “Ten year old Noonie Norton is a brilliant artist—the rest of the world just doesn’t know it yet. She misses her father who is working on the other side of the globe as an archaeologist. She doesn’t belong with her actor/postman uncle, dental hygienist aunt, and super dork cousin, who clearly don’t understand her genius. If she wins the art contest at school, her dad will come home. Pronto. The only problem is she has to create a family portrait. The story is a reminder that sometimes the greatest masterpieces are the bonds we unexpectedly forge with the people in our lives.”

How did you come to be the illustrator for this book?
Victoria Rock, the editor of children’s books at Chronicle Books, sent me the manuscript (via my agents).

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Each spread of the whole book is so different and fun, full of your illustrations. How much did you work with the Chronicle designers on the actual page layouts?
Thank you, Julia! I worked with Amelia Anderson, a senior designer at Chronicle. It was great working with her and I thought she did a fabulous job. There were many stages of layouts and lots of back and forth throughout the project, most all done electronically.

How long did it take you to make all these drawings?
The initial brief called for 50 black and white drawings—almost doodles. Something you might draw in the margins of your notebook while not paying much attention in class! I began working on it in 2008, but the book was put on hold for various production reasons. After a hiatus of many months, I met with Victoria and Amelia in early 2009 to kick start moving forward. At that point they were pricing out doing partial signatures or sections with full color, but I still didn’t know if the book would be mostly two color with some full color, or how it would all work. I started on the drawings again, and it was a luxury to be able to come back to something.

At some point, the project took on a life of its own. What started as a smattering of journal-like doodles evolved into something more. I began drawing the main characters in the book, deciding what they would look like. I combed the text for descriptive details as Chronicle didn’t want the art to contradict what was written, but fortunately (for me) there wasn’t a lot. Noonie also has an active imaginary life and conversations with her favorite famous artists. I went the portrait route initially, but we decided kids wouldn’t necessarily know what these artists looked like. I decided to draw them as brushes, while giving them defining characteristics.

I must have been told at some point that the writer, Lisa Railsback, was a playwright, but while I was working on the book I had completely forgotten this. It wasn’t until I had turned the project in and googled the writer’s name that I discovered that in its original incarnation, “Noonie’s Masterpiece” had been written and performed as a play. Even though there wasn’t much visual reference online, I’m glad in retrospect that I hadn’t known this. When I was little, I loved making up whole towns and drawing the people that populated them, giving them jobs, identities and so on. I loved doing that as a kid, and “Noonie” was a bit like that. Getting to create a whole little world from scratch.

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It seems like you worked in a variety of mediums for these illustrations. Can you tell us a little about your process of creating the artwork? Were there sketches first?
Because the book is written in first person, in Noonie’s voice, I began drawing as though I was Noonie (channeling my inner Noonie, as it were). The sketches were to be the final drawings. It was great to work this way, to keep the freshness of drawings–they were either used or not. The deadline for artwork was the end of August 09 and the final decision to use color throughout the entire book wasn’t made until June. I wanted (and Chronicle wanted this too) to be able to use the drawings that had already been placed into the layout by Amelia, but find a way to add color to them. The book is 200+ pages and I still had a lot to do. That really defined the process. At first I thought I would only use color on some of the pages, but once color became an option, it changed everything. In my personal artwork, I cut up my paintings and reconfigure them and have lots of elements lying about in the studio. These turn up throughout the book. Original drawings, collage elements and paintings were all scanned and composed in photoshop with an eye to the text (which I could use as a layer for reference). Creating the final artwork this way allowed it to always be a surprise because ideas occur in that process that I could explore. There was a lot of tweaking back and forth with Amelia. I’d upload the artwork and couldn’t wait to see the layouts she would send back in return.

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You’ve illustrated a couple other books. How was the Noonie experience different from those?
Working on “Noonie” was different than anything I’ve ever worked on. Partly this was because of the length of time I worked on it– coming back to the project after a hiatus and being able to approach it with fresh eyes, and partly because it was long, so there were lots of drawings to do. It also has (for me, and I hope for the reader) an emotional component that builds within the story. When I finished this book, it took awhile before I could remember who I was when I wasn’t working on Noonie! I had to undergo a “de-noonification” process.

You’ve had such a prolific career. Your illustrations and designs can be found everywhere: on bags and in galleries, in books and on stationery. What have you not done yet that would be a dream project for you?
And this coming from the woman whose work could cover the Empire State Building! As for my images being seen, I have my agents at Lilla Rogers Studio to thank for that! My dream project would be to continue doing what I love and be a creative person in this world. There are many things I think about doing but I don’t plan much ahead. The problem is almost never a vacuum, the issue is almost always that there’s only so much time. Sometimes we challenge ourselves directly, but the best challenges can also sneak up in unexpected ways because we remain open to them. That keeps things interesting.

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Thanks so much to Sarajo! I think she’s done an amazing job bringing this story to life and I look forward to what big projects are next up for her. Get this book here

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