Author/Illustrator Spotlight: Margarita Surnaite
Happy Tuesday and welcome to Picture Book Spotlight.
Say, kidlit fam, what's better than a book giveaway?...A TWO SCOOP GIVEAWAY! Many thanks for the love and support shown to Suzanne Jacobs Lipshaw and her debut picture book, I Campaigned for Ice Cream. Our two winners for a signed copy of this book were:
On with today.
If you've been following this blog for any amount of time, you've probably noticed it's really important to me to ask good questions. Deep questions. Long-winded-often-rambling-will-there-actually-be-a-question-in-here-questions. I can't help myself.
Sometimes a book captures my imagination so vividly, I start writing the interview before I've even asked the author or illustrator if they'd like to be featured.
This was one such book.
I'm very glad Margarita Surnaite said yes--so my burning questions would have their answers.
And now you have the privilege to suffer through them ; )
Proceed with caution, readers. I may have broken the world record for the longest question in the history of kidlit blogger interviews (and I am not sorry about it one bit).
Paper, pencil, and quiet if I'm developing stories.
Computer, drawing tablet, and music (or podcasts) if I'm illustrating.
What’s something you absolutely must have in your refrigerator or pantry?
Dark chocolate bar.
Where do you feel most inspired and why?
I feel most inspired when I’m outdoors, especially in nature. Daily walks are great for new book ideas, insights, and problem solving. That's when I feel most relaxed and energized, and my mind is clear.
I was a child who liked drawing from an early age, but I didn’t consider becoming an artist until I was in high school. Prior to that, I wanted to become a biologist or a vet.
During my third year at Vilnius Academy of Arts, I went to Norwich, UK, to study as an exchange student for a few months. I enjoyed exploring libraries and bookshops there, and that's when I discovered a rich world of picture books. I loved children's books when I was little, but now I saw them in a new light, i.e., as a form of art. I soon discovered children's book illustrators I never heard of before like Shaun Tan, Alexis Deacon, Maurice Sendak, Isabelle Arsenault, etc.
That same year I did a Children's Book Illustration Summer School at Cambridge School of Art. I distinctly remember that when I was there, I felt a sense of belonging for the first time in my life. I knew I had to apply for the MA in Children’s Book Illustration there.
Congratulations on your book debut this year! The Lost Book is absolutely phenomenal. What has it meant for you to have your debut book out in the world?
Thank you so much. So far the most rewarding part for me has been receiving letters from young readers and their parents. It's heartwarming to hear that children connected with Henry and enjoyed the story. These letters are the best kind of compliments because, unlike adults, children are the most unbiased and honest readers.
It fascinates me how, once the book is published, it starts a life of its own and finds its readers all across the world.
I really loved The Lost Book. After reading it, I immediately looked you up and reached out for an interview (thank you!). I had so many questions about your book that I simply had to ask. How did Henry and his adventure come about? What’s the story behind the story?
One day I was presenting my new book ideas and showing sketchbook pages to the class on the MA Children's Book Illustration course. What caught my tutor's attention was a pencil sketch of a rabbit holding a book and sitting next to people absorbed in their phones. I became curious to find out if there was a potential story behind my drawing. I started sketching the rabbit character and building a world around him, and it developed into a picture book that became my graduation project.
Though The Lost Book received interest from publishers at the graduation show in 2015, it didn't lead to a book deal. A year later, I reworked both the story and the illustrations of The Lost Book and made a new dummy book to bring to the Bologna Children's Book Fair, and this time around I got lucky.
There is a major theme in your artwork that simply can’t be ignored. It’s almost a character and story in and of itself. I noticed it right away and felt a twinge of guilt as I know I am certainly part of the problem. The adults and technology. The disconnect. You have Henry the rabbit navigating the human world for the first time and it is not a pretty depiction of who we are (though absolutely spot on). Even people who aren’t plugged into something or staring into the abyss of their phones look dreadfully lonely. Like isolated little islands. It’s truly haunting. Yet it’s in this backdrop that our two main characters meet which makes their connection stronger. I know there’s a question here somewhere...oh, right. Why was this part of your story so important to include and get really right? What kinds of conversations have you had about this part of your story?
At the time when I began developing this story in 2014, I really questioned my relationship with technology. I also became increasingly aware of how distracted and disconnected people were due to their digital devices. I would observe people looking at their phones while crossing the street, cycling, eating out, checking their phones in the middle of a conversation, etc. For example, the underground scenes in the book were influenced by my own experience of using the London Underground. What I hoped to capture in The Lost Book was the lack of mindfulness and being in the present moment.
I don't see technology as evil, but I'm concerned about our unhealthy relationship with it. We believe we are in control of these devices, but we should really ask ourselves if it’s not the other way around sometimes.
I tried to avoid being didactic in The Lost Book. I didn't really target the commentary about technology towards young readers. It was actually aimed at adults reading this book to them. Children might be too young to understand this issue yet, but they can certainly enjoy Henry's adventure and friendship in the book.
I haven't had any conversations about this theme yet, but it received mixed reactions based on the reviews I saw online.
You use color very effectively to enhance the emotion and meaning of this story. The little girl pops out of the cool dreariness of the crowd in a brilliant red coat--the same color of the subway door. And then yellow. Traditionally representing joy and friendship. Were these intentional choices to help tell the story and connect your two main characters through the book and the scarf, or am I reading too much into things?
I didn't go as far as looking into symbolic meanings of colors. However, I did consider how I could use bright colors to draw the reader's attention to the specific areas in the images. I do like to make connections through color or details. For example, I gave the little girl piggy tails to resemble rabbit ears. You might notice in my sketches and storyboards that the colors kept changing. Henry had a yellow backpack, the lost book was red and the girl wore a pink coat at some point. I choose colors intuitively at first and then make more deliberate choices when I start finalizing my illustrations. I always try out different color options before I settle with the final one.
I like when colors play a role in visual storytelling and help create a mood. For instance, I wanted the human city to look greyer and duller than the bright and colorful Rabbit Town. I imagined that we were seeing the city through Henry's eyes and that these colors reflected how he was feeling.
I love the fact that Henry has to crawl through a tunnel to enter into the human world--as if it is just waiting to be discovered, hidden in plain sight. Lots of other stories use a tunnel, doorway, or other threshold as a world-traversing motif--Alice down the rabbit hole, the wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry taking a running leap into Platform 9 and ¾ to board the Hogwarts Express, etc. Was this part of your story an intentional homage to this idea or just a practical way of getting Henry into a new place to return the Lost Book?
At the beginning, I actually imagined that rabbits were alien-like creatures and lived on a different planet. But then I realized that I don't want to draw spaceships, so I changed things up. A tunnel was the most convenient way to "transport" Henry into the human world. I remember liking the idea that it was a reverse of Alice down the rabbit hole. There's something intriguing about two worlds existing side-by-side but oblivious of each other. It makes you question what is real and what is imagined.
The Lost Book is your own creation start to finish in every way. Your first book as an illustrator was Meditate with Me: A Step-by-Step Mindfulness Journey by Mariam Gates. What can you tell us about the differences and similarities between creating your own book and illustrating someone else’s story?
Writing and illustrating your own book takes so much longer! I have some stories I keep reworking that are 4-5 years old now. The best part about creating your own book is that you have full control over your creation. However, that can also pose challenges because you are faced with endless possibilities in which direction your story could go (unless miraculously a story comes to you fully formed). When you illustrate someone else's story, there's already a structure (i.e., a distilled book idea, plot, and text with page breaks) set in place, so all the hard work is already done for you. One nice thing about illustrating your own stories is that you can always avoid drawing the things that you are not good at.
Whether you're creating your own or only illustrating someone else's story, the process of visualizing the characters and the world they inhabit is the same. I like when illustrations add something new instead of repeating what is already in the text. It's even better when the text and illustrations create a new meaning altogether.
Tell us about your process in creating this book. Did it first present itself in words or images? Did you write it all out to begin with, or did the text emerge alongside the artwork?
As I mentioned earlier, it all started from a single sketch. I decided to go with a more intuitive and organic approach to come up with a story, which is through drawing rather than writing. Director and animator Hayao Miyazaki, who is a big inspiration to me, uses this approach to create his animated films.
I began by sketching my characters, Henry and the girl, and getting to know their personalities and desires.
I also sketched little interactions between them and tried to figure out in what kind of worlds they lived in.
I then progressed into making storyboards and jotting down notes.
The most difficult part was to piece all the little fragments together into a story like a puzzle. The text came in only later in the process. This wasn't the easiest way to make a book, as at times I felt lost and struggled to fully grasp what was the core message of the story.
What sorts of things have you done to celebrate and promote your book?
I made a book trailer that I'm quite proud of, as it was my first attempt at making a video of this kind.
I also had a double book launch with Carolina Rabei at Heffers Bookshop in Cambridge and made some bookmarks to give away at events.
I’ve enjoyed your artwork that you have featured on your website--I really dig your style and aesthetic! What is your go to medium as an artist? Any medium that you are currently experimenting with?
Thank you, Brian. I taught myself how to use Photoshop when I was a teenager. I've been working mainly digitally for over a decade now. I grew very comfortable with this medium.
However, I've become more and more drawn to traditional media in the past few years. I used to create all my illustrations in Photoshop from start to finish. Lately, I've been drawing them with pencil first and adding color digitally. My ultimate goal is to transition into illustrating only with traditional media one day.
I've been experimenting with ink, watercolor, and acrylic gouache in my sketchbook lately. Ironically, watercolor and ink were the two media I disliked the most in the past. I also didn't feel comfortable drawing with line before, but now I really enjoy the immediacy of it.
I've learned that I should never restrict myself to one medium or technique for the sake of "consistency" and give a second chance to art tools and techniques that I disliked in the past. As you grow and change as a person so should your work.
I’m currently working on my second picture book with Andersen Press. This book will be about a brother and a sister, and their complex sibling relationship. It’s still too early for teasers, I’m afraid. I'm also developing new picture book stories and plan to start submitting to agents soon.
What are some picture books published recently that have inspired you or had you laughing out loud?