Another title that exerted a strong visual pull on me at the ALA Convention Floor last July was a fun-packed book called Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child, published by Schwartz & Wade (a division of Random House). It was written and illustrated by Jessie Hartland.
What was the je ne sais quoi for moi?
There’s the combination of ebullient art, alongside wickedly funny text: “…She is a hearty partier and still a prankster. She is famous for painting a toilet seat in her dormitory red…“ Simply irresistible.
Then I discover that author Jessie Hartland was the creator of another book that tugged at my heartstrings previously at ALA Mid-Winter 2011, How the Sphinx Got to the Museum (published by Blue Apple Books).
Besides having illustrated eight picture books, Jesse is a commercial artist whose work appears on ceramics…
and in advertisements.
Why did both the Julia and Sphinx books jump out at me? I think it’s because both books underscore the act of process.
It’s as if Jessie wholeheartedly takes us along for the ride, while she researches her subjects. We get blow-by-blow commentary, at a fast clip.
Playfully rendered, and partnered by lively hand-written text, each page feels like notes shared by your BFF, who happens to render doodles into color. Mais oui!
[A tangental note for my students: Much of the fun in creating picture books is derived from uncovering all the back story of your subjects. We gather all the juicy parts; the nasty bits; the settings; the unexpected gems. It's the resource of inspiration. —JC]
For Julia’s story, Jessie combined her own love of cooking with travels to Paris. I had to find out more.
Joy Chu: Tell us about the genesis of the Julia Child book. Whose idea was it?
Jessie Hartland: It was my idea. I love to read biographies and I wanted to do a series of “graphic biographies” for children, my own way.
I pitched Julia Child as the first in the set.
[However] the film revived interest in Julia, and I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to do the book.
JC: Did you do many preliminary character sketches of Julia herself?
JH: I looked at lots and lots of photographs of Julia and watched all the DVDs I could find, then started sketching — from my head. I did a lot of doodling in cafes, and other odd places.
JC: Was there much back-and-forth on the progressive dummy? How many versions — including the ones you did for yourself?
JH: Yes—of course. Lots of back-and-forth. Many scenes needed to be clarified for the wee ones.
Some images I had as full-page got shrunk to a small panel.
Some tiny panels got blown up to full-pagers.
My two editors, Anne (Schwartz) and Lee (Wade), were wonderful to work with, the whole way. They would prod me with, “tell us more about…”
JC: Favorite medium? And do you work same size, or up-size?
JH: I tend to work up-size, just a bit. I paint in gouache, which is opaque watercolor.
JC: Did you provide your own scans? Back and forth on color corrections?
JH: They [the publisher] did the scanning. I don’t remember much in the way of color correction. However, there was lots to fix and clarify, what with all the hand-written text, made more complicated by the bits of French sprinkled in.
JC: Are you a foodie yourself?JH: Yes, I love to cook. I grew up watching “The French Chef” on TV. My mother did not like to cook and it was fun to watch someone cooking who enjoyed it. At home we ate frozen vegetables, canned fruit and dreadful things made with soup mixes and such. As a teenager I got an after school job in my town’s only fancy-foods shop where I had my first croissants, baklava and French cheese.
While in art school I worked weekends and summers as a restaurant cook. Nowadays our family eats a lot of seafood caught by my 20 year old son, Sam: tuna, sea bass, bluefish, porgies, mahi-mahi and cherrystone clams. I grow tomatoes, cucumbers and raspberries and have a thriving herb garden.
JC: How did you get started, in brief — from school to the field?
After graduating, I worked briefly at a high-tech start-up, then moved to NYC and worked freelance doing production work for independent animators.
During lunch, I took my portfolio around and began getting illustration jobs and was able to quit the animation work.
As an illustrator, I found the assignments I most enjoyed were those asking for some writing and coming up with ideas.
You could say moving on to writing and illustrating children’s books was a natural transition, but I think it’s really what I wanted to do all along.
JC: Biggest influences?
JH: Saul Steinberg, Robert Crumb, Roger Duvoisin, and old Graphis Annuals from the 50s. I grew up reading and loving Babar, Madeline and especially the collaborative books of Margaret Bloy Graham and Gene Zion (Harry the Dirty Dog). My mother made fabulous felt puppets and adapted the stories of Maurice Sendak and poems of Ogden Nash for puppet plays, and I put on the shows for my school.
JC: What are you working on now?
JH: Another biography, this one of Steve Jobs. It will be targeted to older kids, though—and in black and white. A smaller format, and with many more pages. More focus on the writing and drawings—and I’m up for the challenge! He’s another fascinating character: rebellious, intuitive, ingenious…
I also have 4-5 other ideas in various stages of development. . . And I just found out for sure that there will be a third in the “Museum” series of books — How the Meteorite Got to the Museum — about the Peekskill meteorite.
[Inspiration can sprout from anywhere: "... thanks to my mom, Dottie Hill Hartland, for fabricating for Xmas 1965 the brilliant French café dollhouse (complete with tiny food and menus in French!), which got me started on France, cooking, and Julia Child." — Jessie Hartland, from her Acknowledgments note on the copyright page]