Illustrator Spotlight: Dana Wulfekotte
Happy Thursday and welcome to this cozy little nook of the internet. If nobody has officially wished you a happy Spring yet, let me be the first. Happy Spring. Unless of course you're one of our southern friends. In which case...happy Fall. If you live in Westeros...happy probably-forever-Winter. Good luck surviving the inevitable and all-consuming wrath of the Night King.
Thank you to all who participated in the Jessie Oliveros' giveaway contest! Congrats to Phyllis Harris who won a signed copy of The Remember Balloons! We had 36 people participate. Not bad odds if you ask me.
Isn't The Remember Balloons such an amazing story? It's very rare that I find myself recommending a picture book to so many people. But the reality is that we're all impacted by Alzheimer's in some way. It's encouraging to reflect on the healing potential in every picture book. It reminds me that they aren't just for kids. I don't know about you but that makes me want to write them even more. So let's keep telling stories that need to be told, kid lit fam. We need more books like The Remember Balloons in the world.
Alright. Today we have ANOTHER in-depth interview and GIVEAWAY! I am so thrilled to feature Dana Wulfekotte, illustrator of The Remember Balloons, and the sole creative genius behind Rabbit & Possum. Here we go!
What’s something you absolutely must have in the refrigerator or pantry?
My boyfriend has been making a lot of jam lately, so probably that. I didn’t even think I liked jam that much, but now I can’t go without it. I also always have a large selection of tea in my pantry.
Name three things you can’t do your job without.
Pencils, paper, a good idea!
Where do you feel most inspired and why?
I feel most inspired when I get to travel or just being out in nature. Any time I can get out of my usual routine it helps me to come up with new ideas.
Give us a little bit about your background and your journey into animation and kid lit. Why picture books?
As a kid, I would say that I wanted to be a Disney animator when I grew up. I stuck with this idea all through college, but my goals shifted once I started to actually work in the industry. There were a lot of ups and downs and after a while I found that I wasn’t really satisfied with the work I was doing, so I started to branch out into illustration. That was also around the time I met my boyfriend, Sean McCarthy, who happened to be a literary agent. Before we met, I hadn’t given much thought to writing or illustrating books because I had been so focused on animation. But I realized that what drove me to animation was a desire to tell stories for children, so picture books turned out to be an equally good fit.
I’ve seen you post a few times about your bunnies. Adorbs! I had a pet rabbit (a mini rex) named Pixie growing up. I love bunnies more than A LOT of animals. They’re the best! What’s your favorite part about raising rabbits?
Rabbits are the best! They have so much personality and make really great pets, even if they chew through all your phone chargers. Chewy demands a lot of attention and will run up to you to get pet, and Woodstock is very bossy and thinks she runs the apartment (which is funny because she’s so small).
(Chewy is the black & white lop, Woodstock is the tan lionhead)
Talk to us about your studio space and were you make the magic happen.
I live in a very small NYC apartment with my boyfriend and two rabbits, so my “studio” is split up between our office and the kitchen. I have my computer/Cintiq set up in the office and when I’m working traditionally I go to the kitchen. It’s not ideal but I make it work!
I really love the children’s illustration you have on your website. Particularly the image of the fox and the girl with the fox tail (above). What is this from?
Thanks! There’s no real story behind that one, it’s basically just a combination of my three favorite things to draw (kids, animals, and nature).
Your demo reel from 2017 on your website is phenomenal! I am blown away by the eclectic style you jump in and out of and the diversity of medium you seem to use. I assume a lot of it is digital? As an artist, what medium do you prefer to work with the most?
It’s all digital. Most 2D animators work almost entirely on the computer now because it’s so much faster than paper, and you can mimic the look of traditional media really well. We’re usually under pretty tight schedules to get these projects done, so we need to save time wherever possible. When I’m working on a picture book, I normally do a combination of traditional and digital work. I really like to get away from the computer when I can and get back to drawing on paper. I love working in pencil but I’ve also gotten really into watercolor.
Talk to us about your debut picture book, Rabbit and Possum. How did this book come about?
I had been playing around with these two characters for a while. They originally started as animal versions of me and my boyfriend (I’m Rabbit, he’s Possum) but they kind of took on their own personalities after a while. It took about a year to come up with a story for them, which was inspired by the time we spotted a possum in the tree outside of my apartment building (a rare sighting in NYC). Winnie-the-Pooh was also a big influence on the story, which I loved as a kid. I like to think of these two as my versions of Pooh and Piglet.
(One of the earliest Rabbit and Possum drawings I could find.
Inspired by a trip to an outdoor movie screening where we sat on an old car)
(some early character studies)
(The original sample art I sent out on submission with the dummy)
(What the final art ended up looking like)
Collaborating with an author to provide artwork for a book is probably it’s own unique animal. What was it like to be the sole creator of your own book? When this story first popped up, what came first, words or images?
I love collaborating with authors on picture books, but being able to tell your own story is really great. I had never thought of myself as a writer before this, so it showed me that I shouldn’t put limits on what I’m capable of doing. For Rabbit & Possum, I started thumbnailing and sketching out images before I wrote any actual text. I would jot down phrases or sentences as I worked, but most of it was plotted out visually first.
What practical advice do you have for illustrators just starting out in kid lit?
Study as many picture books as you can, especially ones that have come out more recently. Have a portfolio site that clearly shows your kidlit-related work and make sure your email address is easy to find. SCBWI can be a really helpful resource, but there are also lots of kidlit pros offering advice for free online (Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s site is full of great tips: http://debbieohi.com/pbcreation).
What are you currently working on that you can tell us about? More adventures with Rabbit and Possum?
Right now I’m working on writing my second book, which will be a totally new story. It’s still in the revisions phase, but it involves a little girl and her favorite stuffed penguin who runs away to have an adventure on its own.
What are some recently published picture books that have been inspirational or had you laughing out loud?
Stumpkin by Lucy Ruth Cummins
(who was also my fantastic art director on The Remember Balloons)
Saturday is Swimming Day by Hyewon Yum
Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal
Crab Cake by Andrea Tsurumi
Thank you, Omu! by Oge Mora
I could keep going but I’ll limit myself to those!
Let’s talk about The Remember Balloons. Looking back on this project, its impact, and its success, what does this story mean to you?
We’ve gotten so many amazing messages from people who have connected with the book, and a lot of them point that it’s just as meaningful for adults as it is for children. It’s really wonderful to know that it’s helping so many people process their feelings during a difficult time.
Take us back to when you first read the manuscript for The Remember Balloons. What went through your head?
To be honest I was a little surprised to get a manuscript like this. I’m still fairly new to publishing and I didn’t expect to illustrate a book with such serious subject matter. But I was thrilled to be given the opportunity because Jessie’s text was beautiful and I thought the story approached the topic in such a creative way. I loved that Jessie manages to find hope and happiness within the story without sugarcoating the reality of Alzheimer’s in any way.
The final artwork is incredible. I love the use of color for individual memories and how the emotion of the memory is communicated through the color in each balloon’s scene. Talk to us about the process of bringing this story to life through images.
Thank you! We decided early on that the characters would all be in black and white, while the balloons would be in color. Figuring out how to portray the memories within the balloons proved to be the most challenging part. I went back and forth with the art director and editor a few times before landing on the right look.
(from left to right: The first to final versions of what the memories
within the balloons would look like)
Jessie’s manuscript was originally 32 pages, but we eventually expanded the book into 40 pages. I think this made a huge difference and gave the story the room it needed to breathe.
I was working on the thumbnails, I thought a lot about what kind of life the grandfather might have had and what his memories would look like. I really wanted the images to match the words in terms of the emotional impact they had on the reader.
You get to share the Schneider Family Book Honor with Jessie. I was so pleased to see this book get the recognition it deserves. What has this achievement meant for you?
It’s such a huge honor and I just feel really lucky that the book has gotten so much love and support. It’s especially meaningful because it’s an award given for the portrayal of a disability. When dealing with subject matter like this, I would never want to come across as irresponsible or insensitive.
Tell us more about the collaboration between Jessie and you for The Remember Balloons.
Like most picture book authors and illustrators, Jessie and I had very little contact with each other while I was working on the art. I worked with the art director and editor, and if any we needed to make any changes to the text along the way, they would reach out to her. Thankfully, she was happy with how the book came out! We’ve been keeping in touch since the book came out and even got to meet in person a couple of times. I’m really happy I got to share this experience with her and we’d love to work on another book together in the future.
On a more lighthearted note, if your rabbits’ had memory balloons, what would their memories be? What color would their balloons be?
I think my rabbits have pretty short memories, but they always know when it’s time to eat. So they would have a green balloon filled with parsley and various kinds of lettuce, and a yellow one filled with banana (their favorite treat).
What is something upcoming that you are looking forward to and would like to promote?
My third picture book will be coming out later this year! It’s called One Snowy Morning and it was written by Kevin Tseng (published by Dial Books for Young Readers). It’s a really fun winter book that follows a chipmunk and squirrel in the woods after they come across a snowman in the woods. The book is about creativity, imagination, and seeing things from different perspectives. It’ll be out 11/5/19!
Thank you so much for opening your process and sharing so much with us, Dana! We will definitely be on the watch for One Snowy Morning this fall.
Dana's "Extra Credit" Art Challenge:
I offered Dana the option to create an original piece of art inspired by the words: lemon, cello, moon. I think what she came up with is ADORABLE! Check her mad illustration skills!
To thank you for reading this interview, Dana has generously offered to giveaway TWO signed copies of Rabbit & Possum! You could be one of our two winners! See details below.
To enter this giveaway contest for your chance to win a signed copy of
Rabbit & Possum, do one of two things:
1. Retweet this post with a comment.
2. Share a comment below AND subscribe to Picture Book Spotlight.
The deadline for this contest is Monday, March 25th at 9AM CST
The winner will be contacted on Monday, March 25th and announced on Twitter
About Dana Wulfekotte
Dana Wulfekotte (wolf - kah - tee) is a freelance animator, comic artist, and children's book author-illustrator. She was born in Seoul, South Korea, raised in New Jersey, and currently lives in Queens with her boyfriend and two rabbits.
As an animator/designer, she has worked on various animation projects for HBO, PBS, Google, and many others. Her debut picture book RABBIT & POSSUM came out in February 2018 and was published by Greenwillow/HarperCollins. She also illustrated the 2019 Schneider Family Honor picture book THE REMEMBER BALLOONS (written by Jessie Oliveros, Simon & Schuster).
Other Interviews with Dana Wulfekotte
Brian Gehrlein is an educator and youth services librarian living in Kansas City with his wife, Katherine, and son, Peter. He is represented by Melissa Richeson of Apokedak Literary Agency. He thanks you for reading this post. He thanks you for reading this sentence. He thanks you for reading the chorus of Toto's "Africa:""It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you! There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do! I bless the rains down in Africa. Gonna take some time to do the things we never had! (ooh, ooh). Now that song is in your head. You can't deny it. You must listen to Toto's "Africa." Or it will simply drive you mad. You're welcome. Free your mind here: Africa by Toto