I was so excited when I found out my former RISD classmate Julia Sarcone Roach had illustrated Incredible Inventions last year. But now not only has she illustrated, but she has also authored, her very first children’s book, The Secret Plan, which I can’t rave enough about. It’s the story of three young kitties and an elephant who only want to play. They finally decide to come up with a plan so they can avoid having to end their fun at bedtime. Every kid can relate to this story! Julia has a gorgeous painterly style where you can see every brush stroke. Her paintings feel soft and warm and her characters are incredibly love-able. I’m so impressed by her creative use of light sources in her illustrations. When there is a lamp in the room it creates a beautiful glow on everything around it. On another page, a flashlight lights up a cool blue room revealing the sneaking kitties. I asked Julia if she wouldn’t mind answering some questions about the making of her book:
Tell us a little about your background in art.
Ever since I was a kid I’ve loved painting and drawing. I studied animation at the Rhode Island School of Design. While I was there I made a short animated film called ‘Call of the Wild‘ about animals in houses connected by a phone line. After I graduated, it screened in film festivals around the world and inadvertently helped get me my first illustration job.
I grew up loving picture books and I worked at an independent children’s bookstore in high school and college. So my picture book appreciation goes way back. I like sequential art, and when I first sketch a story I usually visualize each action from various angles or in several stages. For me, making picture books feels like a good combination of what I enjoy from both animation and painting.
Where did you get the idea for The Secret Plan?
I love things that are out of place. Wild animals in domestic settings are a lot of fun. And it was a good opportunity for some funny pictures.
Originally I used some of the ideas that I cut from ‘Call of the Wild‘ as jumping off points for picture books. One of these was a scene with a kitten wrapping himself mummy-style in toilet paper and terrorizing other kittens before bed. From this came an sketch of kittens in a bathroom preparing for bed – two brushing their teeth while a third unfurls toilet paper onto the floor. Next to it I wrote “Time to brush teeth and use the bathroom.” And from there came a bedtime book. The picture actually made it all the way into the final book too.
Three cats and an elephant are such an unlikely foursome! What made you decide to choose that cast of characters?
The elephant and kitten match up was actually a suggestion by my first editor, Martha Mihalick at Greenwillow (HarperCollins.) When I was pitching the jumble that was the first draft, it was a herd of different animals doing various bedtime things. At that time I had made two pieces of art as examples – which were of elephants and cats. I didn’t have a huge illustration portfolio so those characters were the only ones really visualized at that point. Martha did a great job focusing the book and suggested narrowing it down to just them.
I love the painterly quality of all the illustrations. What medium did you use and can you tell us a little bit of your process behind creating one of these illustrations?
All of the illustrations are done in acrylic paint on paper. I work larger than the size that the book will be which lets me stay a little more rough with the brushwork. I like painting light and shadow and I try to use the brightness of the paper beneath to keep the colors vibrant. The painting is definitely my favorite part of the process. I like building the story, figuring out the illustrations and I really enjoy doing research. But for me, painting is really the fun part.
While I was making the first book I regularly consulted the How a Book Is Made by Aliki when I encountered some publishing phrase or step I didn’t understand like color correcting or ‘mechanicals’. It’s a children’s book, and not intended as an adult reference book, (all of the characters are cats,) but it simply explains how everything comes together. When the story went to the copy editor and I’d get out the book and say, ‘Ok, that’s the cat with the bow tie and he checks all the spelling…’
How did you go about getting your own book published? Had you made the entire book before finding a publisher? Can you tell us a little about the steps it takes to find a publisher?
When I started out I didn’t know much what I was doing. I had a rough sketch version of the first draft of The Secret Plan (which was about 5 inches square and drawn in ballpoint pen,) and two pieces of finished art. I had only taken one illustration class in school so I’d put together a portfolio on my own.
I was working at a bookstore with some great people who also worked in the children’s book world who had great advice. They tipped me off to portfolio drop off days (where art directors review art submissions,) and names of editors to submit to. I got great feedback and encouragement through the portfolio drop offs and a meeting at Greenwillow through the editor connection. A week after the meeting they called to ask if I’d like to illustrate a collection of poems about inventions called Incredible Inventions and to say that they were interested in developing my bedtime book.
Greenwillow also sent my portfolio on to Lee Bennett Hopkins, the author of the poetry book to make sure he liked it too (particularly since I’d never illustrated a book before,) and it turned out that he had seen my film at a film festival. He was kind and enthusiastic and I think they were a little impressed that he knew of me already.
So while I worked on the art for Incredible Inventions I was also revising and reshaping ‘The Secret Plan.’ I had a great experience, learned a lot and the book came a very long way. But after a year of working on it, when the fifth revision of the book was turned down, I decided to try another publisher. Many people were interested right away and after working on it for so long, it was great to have this sudden excitement and enthusiasm. I signed a three book deal with Knopf (Random House) with another great editor, Cecile Goyette. She first read the story while sitting on the floor of her bathroom, surrounded by kittens that she was fostering and felt a little like Milo the elephant right away.
Lastly, what’s next for this crew? Will they go on another adventure together? And what’s next for you? What are you working on now?
I’m not sure what’s next for these guys. I’d be happy for them to go on another adventure. I found that a lot of the sketches that didn’t end up in The Secret Plan involved the cats helping Milo the elephant float, fly, or be flung into the air. So I could imagine a group attempt to conquer the skies.
Right now I’m in the middle of finishing the art for the next picture book that I’m writing and illustrating, called ‘Subway Story’. It’s about a subway car who arrives in New York City in 1963 for the World’s Fair and her life on the tracks in the city. Years later after she is no longer useful, she ends up being sunk off the coast of Delaware and becomes a home for fish as an artificial reef. It’s based on a true story (and a real subway car) and was inspired a lot by the classic Virginia Lee Burton books (like Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and The Little House) that I grew up with. It will be released next year.
Thanks so much to Julia and we look forward to seeing Subway Story. Don’t forget to pick up your new favorite bedtime story here.