Today, we're sharing this fantastic interview between two picture book Musas: Zara González Hoang and Marissa Valdez. Scroll on to learn more about Marissa Valdez's NYT-bestselling book, AMBITIOUS GIRL!
Hi Marissa! Thanks for taking the time to talk to me about AMBITIOUS GIRL! Congratulations and happy Book Birthday! I thought we could talk a bit about the process of illustrating a picture book, something that I think many people find very mysterious…
First off, what did you feel like when you first read the manuscript? Did you immediately know this was a book that you wanted to illustrate?
Oh yeah! One of my wishlist items for a book is having a strong girl as the main character so AMBITIOUS GIRL checked that box immediately. The “you can never be too ambitious” message also spoke to me on a really personal level as well, so this project was a no-brainer to work on.
Authors and illustrators then to work separately on picture books, but because this book was written by an author who was more in the spotlight, did you have more communication with her while working on the book?
I get asked this question a lot!
Meena and I had a pretty normal children’s book relationship where we communicated mainly through our editor, Farrin. But because this was the first picture book I illustrated for a major publisher, I was happy to go the traditional route to help ease into the process. Farrin would also send over comments verbatim sometimes, so it was great to see exactly what Meena was thinking during the process.
Did you know who AMBITIOUS GIRL was as soon as you started drawing? Or did it take you a while to find her?
Meena had a pretty specific idea in mind for the main character before I started the project so it made the character design process pretty easy. Because the story is based on an experience her aunt, Kamala Harris, had, some of the very first character designs I made were based around photos of Kamala as a kid, sporting outfits from the 70’s. In the end, we went with a more contemporary design for AMBITIOUS GIRL including Kamala’s signature black converse!
I love hearing about other illustrators’ processes….so let’s talk about yours! How did you approach the book? Did you do thumbnails? go straight to sketches? How do you tackle a project as big as a book?
Sure! I love to share my process. Character design is something I love to do, so the first thing I created was the character sheet for all the main characters. For me, it’s a lot easier to build up the environment and illustrative story if I have those character designs set in stone. I also wanted to make sure that Meena and the publishing team were good-to-go with the main character before drawing her into all of the scenes. In the end, I think that helped cut down on precious revision time as well.
Then I went to really rough thumbnails where I blocked out all the major shapes. I usually make these reeaaally tiny because it becomes obvious if there are any issues with the composition at that size. From there I did rough sketches with value, then finished sketches, then finals. The timeline for this book was pretty tight, so there were times when I was revising sketches while also turning in final illustrations. Sometimes I forgot what needed revising and what didn’t! It was definitely a learning process in organization.
Also when tackling a big project like a book, I suggest starting small and then working your way up. A book is a lot so giving yourself little tasks to accomplish, like drawing 1 inch tall thumbnails, makes the project more manageable.
What was the most surprising part of the process?
The most surprising part of the process was how supportive everyone was! It was a really encouraging working environment and any time when I was unsure of myself or the work I was sending in, I was given a lot of helpful feedback to guide me in the right direction.
The hardest part?
The hardest but most important part of this book was that I made sure to represent everyone accurately and respectfully in this book. As a Latina illustrator, I understood that it was important for girls of all backgrounds to see themselves in the illustrations. This was something that Meena and the entire publishing team pushed as well, which made working on the book even that more meaningful.
Is there anything you would do differently process-wise on your next book?
This was something that couldn’t really be helped with AMBITIOUS GIRL because the timeline was very tight, but I would make sure I don’t start the finals until I’m completely done with the rough revisions. Working in two different head spaces - revising and finishing - ended up slowing down my process a lot and made it difficult to revise the book as a whole. Oh well! That’s the thing I really love about creating picture books: it feels like you can always try out new things, new processes on the next one.
Ok, just a few more questions, first, I am always curious, what was your absolute favorite part of working on this book?
Best part of working on this book was working with a team of industry professionals for the first time. When I sent in my roughs to the editor and art director, it was amazing to see what notes I got back. I think some of the most powerful illustrations in the book were the result of the team working together and figuring out what would be the best solution for the book. It was always a great feeling when we had a “go team!” kind of moment!
On thing that I love about Las Musas is that we try to help others who are just starting out, so in that spirit, do you have any tips for illustrators trying to get into illustrating picture books?
Sure! My #1 advice for all new illustrators is to take risks. Whether that means querying agents or sending postcards to art directors or trying out a new art style and completely redoing your portfolio, take the risk. To work on AMBITIOUS GIRL, I had to quit my day job, which was really terrifying because I had gotten comfortable knowing exactly what would come next. With freelance illustration, I didn’t know what was going to happen, but it ended up being 100% worth it. I also find that a lot of illustrators doubt themselves and think they’re not good enough to be in the industry, but you never know until you take the risk. So make sure to give yourself the chance to succeed, you’re worth it!
Ok, so now, I just have to know, how amazing did it feel to have your book on the NYT bestseller’s list? Were you surprised? Did you scream? (I would have!)
Haha, yes!! I was very surprised! But I did the opposite of scream: I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t talk! I just laid down on the floor of my apartment, with a big goofy grin on my face for a long, long, looooong time. It has been a huge honor to be up on the NYT bestseller’s list with so many amazing authors and artists and I have to say that I’m still sporting that goofy grin!
And finally, anything you are working on now that you can tell us about?
Sure! I’m illustrating an early chapter book series, Esme’s Birthday Conga Line, written by Lourdes Heuers, for Tundra Books. I’m completely in love with Esme, the spunky Latina main character, and Lourdes and I are really excited to share her with the world! Esme is scheduled to be published Spring 2022.
Buy AMBITIOUS GIRL now!
Marissa Valdez is a Latinx author–illustrator who grew up on the South Texas border dreaming that one day she could draw for a living. She moved to Boston where she received a BFA in Fine Arts, and then came back to Texas where she currently resides with her two extremely vocal cats. She loves to illustrate stories that are overflowing with humor, wit, and totally out-there situations, like Who Wet My Pants or Stuck. If there’s a tough and lovable female lead, that’s a huge plus!
Zara González Hoang grew up in a little bungalow in the frozen tundra of Minnesota. Surrounded by snow she spent her days dreaming, doodling and listening to the colorful stories of her Dad’s life growing up in Puerto Rico while trying to figure out where she fit in as a Puerto Rican Jew in a sea of Scandinavians. (She’s still figuring that out.)
These days, she lives outside of DC in a magical suburban forest with her Mad Man husband, human-shaped demons and curly coated corgi. She still spends her days dreaming and doodling, but now instead of listening to stories, she’s starting to tell some of her own.
Buy A NEW KIND OF WILD now!
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