One of the great joys of writing picture books is handing words to an illustrator who absorbs the story and then, somehow, magically comes out with interpretive art that tells its own parallel journey, adding ideas, moments, flourishes and feelings that help the words take flight. I have been beyond lucky with each and every one assigned to my eight picture book biographies.
I am grateful to Jez Tuya for his bright, inviting illustrations for The William Hoy Story and to Danny Popovici, for his delicate watercolors that deepen the folkloric feel of the true story of Manjhi Moves a Mountain. John Joven’s art for Charlie Takes His Shot captures Charlie’s unstoppable spirit as well as his swing and James Rey Sanchez’ jazzy drawings and signature red scarf flowing through the pages of Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing enchant.
Luisa Uribe’s delicate brushstrokes give a fairy tale princess feel to the story of The Queen and the First Christmas Tree. And Yevgenia Nayberg’s penetrating colors and angles for Martin & Anne deepen and add insight to this story of two people of different genders, races, religions and countries whose hearts beat with the same hope that “one day all babies would be considered beautiful. As all babies are.”
My seventh book, Beautiful Shades of Brown, The Art of Laura Wheeler Waring, will go to the printer this month for a Feb. 5, 2020 release. Houston artist Felicia Marshall did the honors here. What you will see is incredible. Laura Wheeler Waring was an artist of the 1930s who dreamed of seeing African American faces in portraits on museum walls. This seemed like an impossible idea for someone growing up in a segregated America. But she studied and persisted and today, there are more than a half dozen of her portraits at the Smithsonian.
We received permission from Laura Wheeler Waring’s wonderful great-niece and heir, Madeline Murphy Rabb, and the individual Smithsonian Institute museums to reproduce the paintings in the book. Felicia not only worked the actual paintings into her illustrations, she channeled the spirit of Laura Wheeler Waring with an elaborately detailed and realistic style. Felicia’s paintings leap off the page in a way that would have made Laura Wheeler Waring proud.
To celebrate sending our baby to the printer’s, I peppered Felicia with a few questions:
What made you want to be an artist?
I have always wanted to be an artist. When I was younger, I would draw pictures for relatives and friends. I had wonderful parents that believed in me and my talents and would buy me sketch books and art supplies. I also had wonderful teachers that helped me grow as an artist and introduced me to all kinds of different art materials. I am so lucky to have had all of these people.
What made you want to illustrate this story?
Before returning to children’s book illustration, I spent years selling artwork online while I raised my children. A couple of the themes I focused on where children and museum patrons interacting with artwork. When I read the manuscript for Beautiful Shades of Brown, I thought this was an incredible story! And the story seemed like a perfect fit based off of what I had previously found interesting as a painter.
What was the biggest challenge with the cover?
The most challenging part of the cover was making sure I was leaving enough space for the title. I always want to draw things as big as possible. I find covers terrifying because that one image has to do so much. It has to hint at the story, make the story look interesting enough to pick up and read, and has to look good. Wow! The pressure. This cover was originally going to be of Laura as an adult. Over half way into painting the book, it became obvious to me that the cover should be about Laura as a child because children would be reading it.
What was the biggest challenge with all the art?
The biggest challenge with the artwork was making sure each character feels and looks like a real person that the reader likes and can relate to.
How do you settle on your images — do you see them in your head first or do you discover them in the act of sketching?
I work from reference photos. When I am reading a manuscript, I envision the character, then I try to think about friends or family members that look like the character. I am lucky because I come from a large family, so I can usually make a match easily.
How do you feel now that the book will soon be on its way to the printers and then, off to see the world?
I am excited. It feels like I have created something special, and now I am sending it off into the world.
Felicia Marshall in her own words:
I earned my BFA from Pratt Institute. As an illustrator I constantly pull from childhood experiences. Most summers were spent in the country at my grandmother’s small home. She lived in a rural community in central Texas. You can see these experiences in just about every book I’ve illustrated. In the years I’ve worked as a children's book illustrator I’ve worked on over ten books for publishers in the children's book industry. I live and work in Houston with my husband and three children.
Available now for preorder on Amazon , at Barnes & Noble, Interabang Books and additional bookstores (if it’s not there, please request). Don’t forget to ask your local library to stock a copy or two — and check them out. Reviews on Amazon and Goodreads are a great, free way to help authors and illustrators, too. Please help spread the word on how amazing Felicia Marshall’s illustrations are; she deserves recognition!
Contact Nancy Churnin for Author Visits and presentations at Authors and More.