Lauren Castillo has been working steadily on picture book projects since graduating from New York’s School of Visual Arts in 2005. In between illustrating books for others, she’s found time to write several of her own. The Troublemaker is due from Clarion in June, and Nana in the City, also from Clarion, comes out in September. In The Troublemaker, a boy borrows his younger sister’s cherished bunny for a game of pirates, then gets a taste of her distress when his own stuffed animal disappears. The culprit? A woodland creature with an advanced case of kleptomania. Castillo spoke to PW by phone from her home in Baltimore about drawing techniques, the potential stress of author appearances, and rogue raccoons.
Where did the sneaky raccoon in The Troublemaker come from?
I think the book started with Central Park. I was living in Brooklyn, and my brother, who also lives in New York City, was telling me about all these raccoons in Central Park. That was in 2009 – for some reason, that year, there were a lot of raccoons. He said that every time he walked home he’d pass them on the sidewalks, and that it was really creepy at night, because he’d see these glowing eyes. So I looked around online and found this video of a raccoon reaching through someone’s dog door and stealing their doormat. Then I found a photograph of a raccoon with someone’s old stuffed animal. Those were the first flickers of inspiration.
A lot happens in the story! The boy takes his sister’s bunny to play pirate, then he gives it back, then the raccoon steals the bunny again, then it comes back for the boy’s stuffed raccoon.... Did the story change a lot along the way?
Well, first I made this tiny little dummy in 2009. I still have it. And then I made another one, in 2012, and quite a bit of it is the same. One thing that was difficult was that the text is very simple and sparse, and I wanted to have the pictures tell a lot more – because, you know, the pictures are supposed to be telling half of the story. So a lot depended on what I could get in visually.
Originally, I had the boy calling for his parents in the morning, and they all discovered the raccoon outside sleeping in the tree with everything he’d taken. My editor, Jennifer Greene, came in on that, and we decided that the boy didn’t need his parents.
And my agent, Paul Rodeen, was very helpful before we even showed it to any editors. One of my favorite spreads in the book is the one where the boy sends the bunny off on the toy pirate ship. It was Paul’s idea to have the bunny blindfolded and tied up.
It sounds as if the twists and turns of the story were there from the beginning, though.
Yes – I guess I like for the dummy to be pretty strong and rounded out before I show it to anybody. The first book that I both wrote and illustrated, Melvin and the Boy (Holt, 2011), just poured out of me. I assumed that my editor, Laura Godwin, was going to work with me on it, and that a lot of it was going to change, but in the end I think we changed maybe two words and one image.
Line is so important in your work – it’s one of the things that makes your illustrations distinctive. Can you talk about that?
Oh, sure! The lines are big because I work a lot smaller than book size. I write small and I draw small. When I enlarge my drawings they get this grainy, broken-up look, and the line also gets thicker.
I used acetone transfer for the first several books I did. I’d ink drawings with a quill pen, or a regular ballpoint, and then I’d photocopy them and enlarge them to the size of the book, but backwards. Then I’d tape the photo paper down to watercolor paper and rub the acetone over the back of the photocopy. It’s a transfer, it prints the image onto your watercolor paper. But then I stopped using acetone because my then-editor, Frances Foster, said (using a kinder, quieter voice), “I’m afraid for you! You should maybe try to find something a little safer.... I don’t want you to get sick.”
So for the next book I did a big sheet of textures with the acetone transfers and then I scanned them, and I filled my lines with that texture.
City Cat (by Kate Banks; FSG/Foster, 2013) was 100% Photoshopped. I used to be completely against computers, but City Cat was a dream project. It was a lot of time staring at a screen. But drawing cities is so much fun for me. I spent six months on it. It seems like I’m pretty slow compared to other artists. I need a good three or four and a half months to do the art for a book, and I spent two or three extra months on top of that on City Cat.
And for the book that’s coming out this fall, Nana in the City, I bought a printer that takes watercolor paper, so I can print right onto the paper with permanent ink.
The funny thing is that I use all these different techniques, but when you put the books next to each other, they don’t look that different.
This morning you tweeted that you were going to talk to a kindergarten class. How did it go?
It was the youngest group of kids I’d ever talked to, and I didn’t know long I could hold their attention, but there were giggles in all the appropriate places. They laughed a lot at the punchline spread, where the boy sees the raccoon sleeping in the tree. I think it was a good first run.
Have you been doing more public appearances?
Well, public speaking is never something I’ve been all that comfortable with – the idea of standing up in front of kids and reading them something they might not be interested in is scary. But my goal is to do at least a couple of appearances, especially with the books that are my own.
You sound like someone who might go in over-prepared.
Yes, yes I do! I don’t want to be caught without something to do. You hear stories about authors who don’t do so well – they just read their books to the kids and that’s it.
I was talking about it with a friend from my MFA program. Shadra Strickland, Taeeun Yoo, Jonathan Bean, and I all did this program together at the School of Visual Arts called Illustration as Visual Essay. Since normally out of 20 people there are only a few who are interested in picture books – the rest are all interested in doing editorial work – we got to know each other really well, and the four of us really hustled. We started taking our portfolios around, and if someone got name of an editor we passed the name to the others, and shortly after graduation we had all gotten our first book deals. I talk to Jonathan a lot especially; he’s like my brother. Sometimes he has to talk me down. But today I left the school feeling happy.
And Nana in the City is coming out in the fall?
Yes. That’s another story that just poured out. It’s got those fall colors, the umber and the yellow and the red. It’s really a love letter to the city.
The Troublemaker by Lauren Castillo. Clarion, $16.99 June ISBN 978-0-547-72991-6
Nana in the City by Lauren Castillo. Clarion, $16.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-544-10443-3