Lemonade in Winter by Emily Jenkins is the latest picture book to feature artwork by G. Brian Karas, who over the course of his three-decade career has illustrated close to 100 books. In addition to doing artwork for stories by Cynthia Rylant, Diane Stanley, Charlotte Zolotow, and many other authors, he has also written and illustrated several books of his own. Karas spoke with PW just before moving from his home in New York’s Hudson Valley to a nearby hamlet, surrounded by all of his belongings – including his many books – packed into boxes.
You’ve been at this a long time. Did you always want to illustrate picture books?
In art school I knew pretty early on that I wanted to go into children’s books, and that was a great start because I was able to gear my portfolio toward that. Ironically, right out of art school [Paier College of Art in Hamden, Conn.] I got a job at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, not doing children’s books. But I had a long-term plan in my head. I was there for three years and it was great. Then I moved back to New York and started freelancing for children’s books. Because that’s really what I wanted to do.
Do you think your work has changed much since those early days?
I would say yes, it’s evolved. But I see a thread. Each time I do a new book, I look at different artists, I look at different things, and get an idea in my head of what I want the book to look like, what would best fit the text. So in my head I’m thinking, OK, this is going to look very different from what I’ve done before. And when I do it, I think people may not recognize it as mine. But they always do. I can’t escape that [laughs].
First and always, it comes down to what the text tells me the book should look like. I always want to do something different and I think that’s what keeps me interested. I feel like I can experiment a little bit, and publishers are usually receptive to what I come up with. And I think most books that I work on end up being different than what I had in mind because of how they evolve.
Was Lemonade in Winter one of those books?
I was planning on doing it entirely in Photoshop, and that program has certain limitations to it. I wanted it to look more digital, graphic, not as soft as it ended up looking, not as grainy. I printed it out and then finished it with pencil and paint on top of those prints. Whether it’s on photographs or whatever, I like combining printed imagery with my pencil and paint. It still takes me a little bit by surprise when I open it up and look at it, but I like the way it turned out. I think it’s right for the story. Hopefully it is.
This is the first time you’ve worked with Emily Jenkins, but you’ve worked with other authors repeatedly.
Candace Fleming is one of those authors – I did the Muncha Muncha Muncha books with her. I’m working on a third right now; the bunnies follow Mr. McGreely to the beach. She also wrote a fairy tale called Clever Jack Takes the Cake [which Karas illustrated], and that was really fun. I love working with her, I love her stories. When I get her books half the work is done for me because she just has such a great understanding of how a picture book should work. That’s one author I’ve done several with.
Is there a type of story that you’re particularly drawn to?
No – I have so much fun because the stories I get are all so different. I’m working on one now that’s very historical; it’s written by Lesa Klein-Ransome. It takes place in two time periods, present day and the 1800s, when whaling was an industry. And she talks a little bit about the African-Americans’ role in that industry. So it’s about stuff that really happened. I went and did research in New Bedford, and I even went on a whale-watching trip. And that excites me, to illustrate something nonfiction. But then I’d love to do more fairy tales and maybe something really fantastical. Unreal and fantastical.
That brings to mind Young Zeus, one of the stories you both wrote and illustrated. Any plans to return to those myths?
I have an idea going around my head. Actually a couple. I’m not going to say which gods, but I do like that subject very much.
Because of your Greek heritage, did you feel any pressure doing that book, because it’s a subject so close to you?
I felt pressured for other reasons, not that it was close to me. When I was growing up I didn’t think of myself as Greek because my father didn’t really retain any of his Greek heritage. His father was from Greece but he didn’t think about that. My mother’s family on the other hand was Italian, and they were all around. I think of myself as being more Italian than Greek because of that.
I wasn’t familiar with many Greek myths at all until I started really wanting to work on a myth. I looked at other myths, other cultures, and didn’t settle on a Greek myth until much later. I ended up going to Greece, which was such a great trip – I took my two sons with me – before I started really getting into the book. And that informed me in so many ways, and that’s when I really started feeling closer to being Greek myself.
Seeing as you’re also Italian, you could do the Romans next.
You know, I thought about that, but then I saw that a lot of their gods were from Greek gods. They just changed their names.
Is doing the art for your own book different from illustrating someone else’s work?
It depends on the story, but a lot of times my stories are so much harder for me to work on. Finding an idea that means enough to me to write a book about is hard. In some ways it’s great when another author’s idea comes to me, because then the wheels start turning very quickly, and I’m already seeing it. But with my own ideas, I really try to find something that’s meaningful to me.
Do you ever start with an image rather than a storyline?
Yes, yes, many times I do. But it’s how do I make that image a book? How do I write about it so that it means more than just an image? I’m writing a book right now for Nancy Paulsen at Putnam called The Oak Tree. It’s about this ancient, gigantic tree in my backyard. For months I looked at it and thought, I want to write something about this tree. It went through many changes of what the book should be about. My own texts have to live in my head for a long time before they become a story. And once I do finally figure that out, I write it like another author would be writing it, and my pictures come later. Sometimes they happen at the same time, but it’s usually the story comes first.
So far over the course of this interview you’ve mentioned three books you’re working on. How do you juggle multiple projects at a time?
I’ve got quite a few books that are on my desk waiting for me, but I’d say I’m actively involved with maybe three or four of those. And they’re in different stages. Some are in sketch stage, some are ongoing. The Oak Tree has kind of gotten off my schedule, just because it changed so many times. I work on it a little bit here and there, which is good because it lets me really think about it more. So it depends on each book, but I’ve usually got one that I’m working on right on my desk, with paint out and pencil and all that. I won’t work on two books at the same stage at the same time. That would be really hard for me.
Is paint and pencil your preferred medium?
I love collage more than anything, so I’m always trying to figure out how to work with that. Right now I’m doing a book with cyanotypes, which is an old photographic blueprint kind of technique. It’s very cool – it looks hand-done in a way. The paper gets wrinkled and it’s kind of hard to control, but that’s what I like about it. But I always like to finish up with pencil and paint. To me it’s not finished without pencil and paint on it, without my hand in some way. I’ve done two [books] in Photoshop and I’m just not as happy with how they’re finished. They’re not finished by hand, they’re finished on my computer.
Cyanotype is a homemade darkroom technique that anyone can do: you buy two chemicals and then you mix them in a solution. You coat paper with that solution and you expose the negative to sunlight under glass. And then you wash it off underwater and you’re left with the cyanotype prints. They’re a deep indigo blue. That book is one I’m doing for Candlewick right now, called Tap Tap Boom Boom. It’s a poem by Elizabeth Bluemle, about a downpour in a busy, big city.
How far into the future are you scheduled?
I’d say a couple of years. Some of those books may have a publication date three years from now, but my time with it, I’m booked out for about two years. Most take me maybe a month or two months to do sketches, and maybe three months to do the final artwork. I just got the sketches back [for the new Muncha Muncha Muncha book] with the thumbs up to get going on it. That’s with Simon & Schuster. I don’t know when the pub dates for any of these are, but I would say that one’s on my calendar next. And then Tap Tap Boom Boom. The Ransome book would be the third book, and then The Oak Tree would be the last one as far as publication.
It seems like you’ve worked with just about every publisher out there. Are there particular editors with whom you’ve worked consistently?
I am working with some of the people that I’ve been working with from day one. I love that. Cecelia Yung is an art director at Putnam, and I’ve worked with her and Nancy Paulsen for years and years and I like that. It’s important for me to have that kind of long-lasting relationship if I can. Christy Ottaviano at Holt, and Anne Schwartz and Lee Wade I’ve worked with for a long, long time.
Do you tend to have the same editor for the books that you write?
I have two or three editors that I write for, and I write a distinctive kind of book for each. The Nancy Paulsen books – Atlantic, On Earth, The Oak Tree – they’re all nature-based books that have large pictures and simple text about nature subjects. And for Christy Ottaviano, I wrote a book called The Village Garage, and we’re writing another one about a farmer’s market. Her books tend to be about things close to home for me, everyday kind of subjects. Young Zeus was with Scholastic and I worked with a freelance editor there, Leslie Budnick, but closely with the art director, David Saylor. I’d love to get another one going with them.
In all your spare time?
Yeah [laughs]. Maybe after I move.
How is the move going?
It’s going. I have the luxury of a little bit of time, but it’s still a move.
Have you been rereading Neville [Norton Juster’s 2011 picture book about moving house, which Karas illustrated]?
No, Neville is packed away right now, but the memory of that is clear enough. I’ve been moving too many times in the past few years, so hopefully this one will be a little more permanent.
Lemonade in Winter: A Book About Two Kids Counting Money by Emily Jenkins, illus. by G. Brian Karas. Random/Schwartz & Wade, $16.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-375-85883-3