Illustrator Spotlight: Tricia Tusa
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No, not books about hips. I mean awesome picture books that rock.
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On a more serious note, I'm excited to share another Illustrator Spotlight! Today's Spotlight features a very prolific author-illustrator...40 books under her belt! Tricia Tusa is a talented author and artist, eager to share her hard-earned wisdom from many years of creating picture books for children.
Tricia will be doing a giveaway with today's post, so watch for details below on how you can enter!
Make sure you avoid reading my bio at the end of this post. It's just a normal bio and there's really no reason to read it. So maybe just skip it altogether. I'm just a boring mid-western unpublished author, so what could possibly be interesting or hidden within its mundane biographical content? Nothing. Whatever you do...DO NOT READ THE BIO.
I get nervous if my refrigerator is not full of a variety of vegetables! All colors and leafy greens. At least one onion and fresh garlic. Quinoa, avocado and tahini. One lemon. One sweet potato. Freezing cold Perrier. If so, I am set for that day.
Name three things you can’t do your job without.
I can not do my book-making job without a sharp pencil, a manual pencil sharpener, scotch tape, a gummy eraser and a pad of tracing paper. I feel very at ease starting the whole thing off with a pencil. Something about pencils. Both a pencil and tracing paper are forgiving. You can erase and you can rip away and tape on new body parts, if you want. I love the smudgy effect of pencil on trace. Always, my goal is to be loose and expressive. I find that a pencil on tracing paper allows for that glide and quick drawing I want. I draw this way when I am figuring out what each character looks like. I draw this way when putting the dummy together to show the editor and art director. And I draw this way when I am just drawing for my own entertainment. The art tightens up some when doing the final artwork for the book. I xerox the pencil art and trace from that onto watercolor paper by using a light box.
I feel most inspired in my studio, especially with the curtains drawn. I feel inspired if ever alone in a hotel room, away from all life distractions. I feel fairly inspired in random churches I might go into spontaneously. (This is not a religious thing. It is the quiet environment, the history and the smells and the light coming in.) And, I feel inspired listening to anybody! Other people’s words feel good going into my brain. Almost like rearranging furniture in my brain. Something very new to chew on and understand. Whether they are telling me or someone else the "truth" or not, I have a pleasant feeling in my brain listening. Deeply entertaining. A deep feeling of satisfaction in understanding what others are telling me about themselves. And, yet, I do not think I would have enjoyed being a therapist!
Tell us a little about you and your journey into kid lit. Why picture books?
I think about stories all the time! Always sparked by things I see or hear around me and I then write them down in my very large binder of book ideas. I do not do this in a desperate way at all in order to develop that next idea. It just feels good to walk around and take note of the world in this way. If ever I look through that big binder, I am delighted by what I wrote down - even ideas from 30 years ago! But, not often do any of those ideas develop into anything meaningful for me in that present moment.
My favorite thing about writing for children is just that. I am very interested in the major role that childhood plays for all of us. I am so touched by children. I write to that little girl I used to be. What would she have wanted to hear about? How would she have wanted this story to end? How would she have wanted her mom to respond? What clothes would she have wanted this little girl character to have worn? And the bedroom - what would have delighted me as a child?
You have 40 books! Wow! What have you learned about this business after producing so many titles? When you look back on all of them, what do you think about? What does that mean to you?
I have learned a lot from this book-making business. There is a majority of females in the publishing world. Really wonderful, sharp and funny women. Especially the older ones. I was given a lot of freedom to be myself before the economy did what it did in 2009. In these last ten years, I can feel the tightness that has set in with publishers. Small-name companies were especially brave in publishing unique books with unique takes on life. But many of those small publishers were bought by big-name ones due to the economic downturn. So, now it is about publishers looking for the next big-bucks bestseller. Therefore, many books out there are these touchy-feely books with “messages.” I keep waiting for things to return to how they were! I assume this places much pressure on editors and art directors. Hence, marketing has way too much power to determine what will sell. We are not sheep. How can anyone determine what will sell? ugh.
I really have no favorite book I have made. I feel proud of all of them. A few of them whose covers were changed or titles changed at the very last minute (by marketing) are painful for me to look at. But, I open up the book and recall what it took to make each page and I feel a bit better.
Let’s talk about Eleanor Sue. I really enjoyed this book! Eleanor Sue’s playful spirit is truly endearing and I think encapsulates so much of what is wonderful about picture books. There is a timeless element to this book. You have a kid going great lengths to play with her mother. To become other characters and take dress up to fantastically fun levels. Why is this sort of imaginative play so important for kids to engage in?
I feel the way Eleanor Sue plays is exactly how all kids play naturally - when allowed quiet time and down-time … because the parents allow this for themselves. I cherished all that time I had as a child, deep inside my head, in my bedroom with my door shut. Or even in my closet. There seems to be a historical need in me to feel contained in some private space for me to fly around that delighting world just behind my forehead! Such a good feeling for me - to this day! Feels more real than “reality.” Just plain fun. So, I make a living daydreaming. How lucky!
One of the best parts of this story is the mother-daughter dynamic. The mother is clearly used to this ritual and totally goes along with everything. When Eleanor is the kitty, her mother even challenges her by telling her she is going to talk to Eleanor Sue (who is supposedly in her room). This forces Eleanor Sue to run around the house, and climb in through the window to become “herself” again and not break character. And I love that she gets in on the play in the end! Why is it so important to not only let kids play this way, but to also enter into their pretend worlds, and treat them seriously as an equal participant of the game?
It was important to me that mom and grandma were reflections of Eleanor Sue’s similar playfulness. We can see how if it is allowed, it will evolve from generation to generation. Females inherently knowing how great they are with no effort or need to prove anything.
For those who haven’t read your interview in Publishers Weekly, give us some background on how this particular project came about. What’s the story behind the story? How long did it take from initial idea to finished form?
Eleanor Sue came from a lovely and funny photo in the Sunday NY Times of a little girl in a very large witch hat. Both my husband and I were struck by it and mentioned it over dinner. Almost immediately, a rough idea came to me. I wrote it down. I put a dummy together of thumbnail sketches along with words. I worked it and reworked it until it felt smooth and seamless. I then sent it to my agent and she sent it around. Neil Porter, from Roaring Brook Press at the time, grabbed on.
What does Eleanor Sue mean to you? (pardon my rhyme) And what is this story’s connection to the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird that you dedicated the book to?
To me, Eleanor Sue is a relaxed little kid who enjoys herself. She has an inexhaustible mother!! I dedicated the book to the characters in To Kill A Mockingbird only because that is and was my favorite movie of all time. It made a deep impression on me as a child how a father can be with a daughter. I appreciated the representation of darkness as well as the humanity throughout the story - even as a child.
I have done nothing to promote Eleanor Sue. However, I did buy a large stack of books that fills the back of my car. I hand copies out to random people. When we lived in Texas for awhile, I did many school visits. That was a great way to sell books. The best part was interacting with the kids in the audience.
I saw on your Publishers Weekly interview that you are developing an Eleanor Sue sequel! Where are you at in that process? Any more info you can share?
I love the Eleanor Sue sequel. There is no agreement yet for publication, however. Sales of the first one will determine that.
I love the whimsical aesthetic in your books. Particularly in your characters. There is always so much packed into each scene and they really help tell the story in their own unique way. What advice do you have for artists still seeking their style, medium, and voice?
If I have any advice to fellow illustrators, it would be to draw in a loose and fast way to discover how you like to draw. You can always go back in with more defined line or paint. But, it does seem that moving quickly allows for us to get out of our own way, sometimes.
Recently I’ve been obsessing about picture book structure. The spine of a story. And the meta narratives within a story. When you are working to make a story work, is there a go to structure that you like to use? What happens when we ignore a story’s need for structure? And finally, if there is a known “formula” for story structure...why is it still so difficult to write a great book?!
I have no structure or formula in mind at all when constructing a story. It is “easier” for me to stay focused on what my gut is trying to tell me. I can tell when I derail from self because it becomes less fun and fluid.
In your Publishers Weekly interview you mentioned throwing your hands up while working on a new project. When you stopped and let go, the idea for a sequel to Eleanor Sue came to you. I am simply fascinated by this, and I have conversations with other creative types about it all the time. Something extraordinary happens to our brains when we allow ourselves to “take a break,” or, at the very least, when we intentionally allow ourselves to focus on something else. The answer to a creative problem seems to jump out of nowhere. Why do you think that is and how can we use this principle to our advantage?
I find when I hang on to some idea that I do not want to let go of because it feels seductively clever, I get hard and stuck! When I get stuck, I reluctantly let go of (what feels like) that do-or-die, cliff-hanging situation and, inevitably, another very fresh idea pops up. One that was waiting patiently for me to notice. One that is usually pertinent to something I am going through at the time.
What are some picture books published recently that have inspired you or had you laughing out loud?
The older I get, the less I look at others’ books. Especially right before beginning one of my own. More and more, I feel the value of just checking in with myself. I don’t want to distract myself. However, please know I love looking at children’s books and admiring others’ way of making art and stories!
I am working on illustrations for a book about a house. The editor has asked me to do my very painted style. No line. So, this should be an interesting challenge! After completing this project, I look forward to getting back to my own paintings and ceramics. I also love to sew!
Complete the following sentence: “the world needs picture books because…”
“The world needs picture books because …” Because there is just something about a book! Nothing as satisfying has or ever will replace the book. Thank goodness this age-old thing is still exciting to hold and look at repeatedly, endlessly.
Thank you so much for sharing your time and insight with us, Tricia!
And thank YOU, kidlit fam for stopping by to read about Tricia. She would like to thank you for hanging out with us today by offering a book giveaway! See details below on how you can win a copy of her book, Is That You, Eleanor Sue?
One signed copy of Is that You, Eleanor Sue? is up for grabs!
To enter this contest:
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The deadline for this contest is Tuesday, June 4th at 9AM CST
The winner will be contacted on Tuesday, June 4th and announced on Twitter and Facebook
About Tricia Tusa
Tricia was born in 1960 as a baby years ago in the swampy parts of Texas. She passed her rite of passage in New York City throughout her 20's and now lives happily ever after in northern New Mexico. She loves to make things, loves to draw and paint and print. She loves to then make all this into 3d using clay. She loves to sew.
Tricia has had over 40 children's books published that she has either written and illustrated, or illustrated. She is proud to have received many book awards and honors. Her commercial work also includes illustrations for various magazines, posters, labels, jacket covers, graphic design, (even) bus stop shelter art, etc.