Tricia Tusa has illustrated, or written and illustrated, more than 40 books for children. Her new picture book, Is That You, Eleanor Sue?, an ode to creativity and play, features a girl who transforms herself into many different characters, delighting her mother and grandmother. Tusa spoke with PW about her artistic process, working in a variety of mediums, and finding balance in her creative life.
What was your inspiration for this story of imagination and play?
I was sitting at the dinner table with my husband. He asked if I saw the little black-and-white photo in the New York Times of the girl in the witch costume. I had been thinking about that photograph! I was so taken with it. He mentioned something about a grandmother; I had no idea what he was talking about, but instantly this story idea came to me. It started unfolding.
I am always working out ideas in my mind and on paper. My husband went out of town to visit his mother, leaving me with an entire week to put the pieces together. It’s like figuring out a puzzle in some language you do not speak. It’s so hard, but as the pieces link together, you realize that’s it.
Eleanor Sue is that little girl I was. I see her in all children who are allowed to become who they are meant to be.
Does it often happen that you bounce ideas off your husband and family?
Yes. I’m really picky about who I bounce ideas off of because it’s this precious little egg that I have not sat on yet. I’m so careful. My daughter is wonderful. My husband is incredible because he’s artistic as an architect. My oldest sister, this crazy neurotic woman, is wonderful to test ideas onON?.
How did you decide which costumes Eleanor Sue would put on and which characters she would become? Do any have a specific significance to you?
With every aspect of a children’s book, I feel it in my belly. Is this going to be fun to illustrate? I know instantly if it isn’t. I just stay true to that. That way I maintain a certain level of innocence. It’s what fuels me.
Eleanor Sue’s mother and grandmother also make an appearance. Why did you specifically choose these two characters, both women?
I hope I can word this well.... I am so deeply captivated by femaleness. I am talking about women: middle-aged, elderly, and little girls. Quite frankly, I’m not as touched by femaleness between the ages of 15 and 19 because it feels so affected by our culture, which makes me so sad and angry. I know that we all have to go through it to arrive at the other side. I love exploring the complexity of females and femaleness. To me, it feels like a limitless well of exploration. All the secrets and answers of life and love and the world are contained in that little girl on the playground. Even within the little girl I used to be. It’s all there, if you give her the time. There is so much that women have to put up with! Now I’m getting worked up. [laughs] I love and value maleness, too, but femaleness is very different to me.
This book is dedicated to seven characters from To Kill a Mockingbird; why that book? Why those characters?
I was so affected by the movie as a child. To this day, I can’t watch the movie enough. I was drawn to Atticus as a father. It taught me very early on what a father could be like with a daughter. Without going into too much detail, I thought [my own] childhood was so stressful every single day. That movie brought me so much solace.
I think [that stress] is why I write children’s books today. It’s endlessly fascinating to me to go within and explore because childhood was so difficult. In a way, I feel like I am paying reparations to that time, over and over with each and every book.
Which usually comes first: the images or the words? Do you have a standard process when beginning a new project?
It really varies. I am just not that organized or structured. But it starts with an idea or a psychological issue that I am fascinated by. Then the images come. All of the books I’ve written and illustrated are embarrassingly autobiographical, but I never realize it until months or even years later. I eventually realize it is exactly what I was going through at that time and that that’s exactly how I felt as a child.
You work in many different mediums, including clay. Do you prefer certain mediums for different types of stories or projects? How do you determine the best or most appropriate form?
I definitely try to convey a certain feeling through the medium. With How to Make a Night, I did these tiny drawings. I kept going back to those tiny postage stamp-sized pieces of artwork and how gestural they were. I decided, after a lot of anguish and trying to draw a certain way, to enlarge them and stayed true to that line. Then it was fun to glue in collage work to show the main character’s inner world. I wanted to convey that very differently from the line work I was doing to portray the character in that present moment. So yes, each book is done differently depending on the seriousness and the humor.
Does your illustration process change depending on whether you’ve written the text or are illustrating a book written by someone else?
There’s nothing like getting a great manuscript in the mail, sitting on the couch reading it, and being so touched by the words that I immediately see the artwork. I see the artwork immediately—or I don’t. That determines whether I illustrate it or not. I love illustrating other people’s work because I get that immediate visual reaction within myself. Doing my own books, it’s so much more involved.
When reading through a manuscript, are there certain elements that you are drawn to?
My bullshit radar is strong. I know when a writer is being sincere. I love doing poignant books. I love really outrageous, funny books that are just bizarre and courageous in their humor. My mother always called it having a real sense of the ridiculous.
Your website features some of your sewing projects, too. Do these textile creations influence or contribute to your character creation or writing?
I often have my characters do things that I love. Like in Maebelle’s Suiticase, she makes hats and lives in a treehouse. I love sewing. I don’t really do it well, but it’s okay. The clothes I make are ridiculous, but I feel so good and comfortable in them. They’re gigantic and never tight. It’s amazing how a piece of clothing can make you feel with regard to being really relaxed and yourself. If I had a tight outfit on right now, I would not be able to speak to you as myself.
What draws you to creating stories for young readers?
I could never write for another age group. I love distilling ideas down, which is conducive to writing for children. I love the challenge of making myself clear in simple ways, yet treating it seriously. The challenge of the parameters of picture books is appealing, fitting myself within that format. You begin on page five and end on page 32. There’s artwork and just a few words.
How has your commercial work informed your approach to writing and illustration—or vice versa?
The artwork that I do for books is so different from the work that I do all on my own and sell commercially. The commercial work is so loose. I do a lot of paintings that are silly but very seriously painted. I do a lot of ceramics. I sometimes make a decal of my work and then fire it on. Or I’ll use some of my daughter’s artwork from when she was really little and fire it onto the ceramic. I sew aprons, blankets, pillowcases, and little things which I sell in stores. It is so much fun to have complete strangers buy things that I’ve made that are so personal. It’s gratifying.
These two different outlets satisfy different parts of my brain. With the books, I have to answer to the publisher, editor, and art director. When I was younger, that used to make me so mad! Then I grew up and realized that I needed this committee to make it what it is, because it’s going out into the world and needs a certain quality. With the work that I do on my own, there’s no editing. I don’t even know what is going to come out. I need that quality in my life, too.
Can you share anything about your next book project?
I was working on an idea, trying to make it work, and beating it into the earth. I didn’t even realize it until I came up for air filled with so much frustration. Every time, I question whether I have it in me any more to come up with books. The second I threw my hands up, a sequel to Eleanor Sue appeared. I am thrilled that she showed up again!
Is That You, Eleanor Sue? by Tricia Tusa. Roaring Brook/Porter, $17.99 Dec. 4 ISBN 978-1-250-14323-5