The Barn's on Fire, The Horses are Out, and Someone Has a Stinky Bum

Do cowgirl moms have guilt, too? You bet. And, we even change bums and take our kids to dance practice, between feeding critters and quading around the countryside. You've discovered my garden, now check out the ranch.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Interview from the Other Side of the PB Biz- Christine Tripp!

The Terrifically Talented Christine Tripp

photo of Christine Tripp, by her daughter-in-law Christine Tripp

When a picture book takes off, it is usually the writer that receives all of the glory, while the illustrator remains in the background. Few make it as recognizable names themselves. Christine Tripp, however, has pushed herself to the foreground with an adorable character named Penelope, of the Penelope and the Humongous Burp fame, as well as Penelope and the Monsters, and the upcoming Penelope and the Perposterous Birthday Party book due for release this Spring.

Born and raised in Ottawa, Ontario, she has been drawing her entire life. Christine is a self-taught multi-award winning artist who illustrated her first book in 1985 for “Meadowbrook Press”. She has since worked for both Scholastic USA and Scholastic Canada, as well as Lobster Press, and Groiler (to name only a few). She works in many areas of cartooning and illustration to include advertising, greeting cards, and magazines. Thankfully her true passion is children’s books!

Christine was kind enough to take time from her busy life as a wife, a mother of four and a grandmother of four, to answer a few questions about the illustration side of the picture book biz. This interview was conducted via email and Christine would like me to mention that she struggles with dyslexia. I think she did a wonderful job, and I am sure you will thoroughly enjoy it!

How did you get your start as an illustrator?

I have always doodled and made up stories for my cartoon characters for as loooong as I remember. My father loved the "Funnies" and would read them to me when I was very young.
I didn't do much with my illustration ability until my children were all grown and I looked around and thought... darn, I guess I need to get a job now. I wasn't trained to do anything, couldn't even run a cash register, so..... I started submitting samples of illustration to US publishers. It took about a year of rejection before my first REAL book offer.

Where did you study?

I have no training, other then trial and error and lots of practice on my own.

Do illustrators have day jobs like most writers?

I think most do, even those that seem successful.

Do you think it is more difficult for an illustrator to secure an agent?

I think it's just difficult for either an illustrator or a writer to find an agent willing to invest their time and money on you. You must be able to prove, either with past sales or with unique talent, that the agent CAN make a living working with you. You also need that hunger/drive to make your writing or your illustration a career. I think an agent has to sense that about you before they will be willing to take a chance on representation.

What project are you most proud of?

Hum... good question because I can't say I'm "proud" of anything I have ever drawn. I "liked" doing certain books more then others. I really enjoyed my first book project, an 18 book series with Grolier (mid way into the books it became part of Scholastic) They were Rookie Readers and the author was Larry Dane Brimner. I had never worked with a publisher before, they phoned and offered me 6 books to do over the year. Well, mid way into the work, they offered 6 more, then they turned around and gave me all 18. I think originally they were going to use 3 illustrators per batch. I was so honoured and in that 2 year period I made more money then I had in my whole life (sad huh?:)
The books are still around, still used in Schools in the US and Canada and my only regret is I wish I could draw them all over again.... I hate the art:)

What is your process behind bringing a story to visual life?

I'm not sure, I read the manuscript, I read it again and then see if there is a voice to the character. After a few readings I begin to "see" what that character looks like, what they would wear, if they would be prim and proper or a disheveled mess. Once I have their personality well established in my mind, it's easy to direct it all down and out through the finger's and the pencil on to paper.

How did you decide to make Penelope biracial?

I think there was talk of it by the publisher to some degree right off the bat. I can't take complete credit for it but, with each of the books, she has become more "obviously" biracial and her mother more "obviously" of colour, especially in book 3 of the series. I prefer not to pin point Penelope's families culture, rather I like that any child of colour can then relate to the books characters and make them their own.

What reactions have you received over it?

Great reactions, reactions that give you a really good feeling deep, deep inside. Reviewers seem to point it out and I have had parents write me to say how wonderful it was to finally have a book that their children could relate to, plus just be funny and not an "in your face" non fiction story or have the story be ABOUT the issues of discrimination etc. Just have it be very matter of fact. Sad that we are still in a time where a biracial character brings out any reaction... but we are, sigh:(
The time it really hit home for me (that I was glad Penelope was a child of colour) was during a reading I did in an area of Toronto that was made up of a large population of Somali families. The library room was awash with a sea of beautiful shinning, smiling brown faces, and bright, flashing dark eyes staring up at me. It felt so wonderful to show them the illustrations of Penelope, a little girl who COULD be them. That was my most favorite visit ever, it couldn't get any better then that.

There is a full representation of male and female genders in the other characters, as well as many different races. Were you trying to make a statement, or was that just the way you saw them?

That IS the way I draw. I'm not concious of it anymore but I think it was something that I "learned" way back. I did a lot of illustration work (before books) for many government agencies in Canada and they are extremely careful to be inclusive. After a while, it became second nature to me to include all of society in my illustrations. It just happens now, I like to imagine that this is truly where life imitates art (or at least mine anyway) and visa versa.
I also don't try to make everything EVEN because life is NOT even. So, I do not plot my illustation by saying to myself, this boy will be African Canadian, this girl shall be Aboriginal, this ditch digger will be a woman, etc. It just evolves into what is. I don't control it and I like it that way. Other wise I am sure it would look contrived in the final drawing.

Penelope’s mother is no June Cleaver and her father is no Ward. What motivated you to illustrate them in such a realistic manner?

I just don't know. I'm a mom and (even when I was a YOUNG mom) body parts CHANGE ( to put it mildly) after children. Things move north/south/east and west and pretty much remain there, no matter how many trips to the gym:) Dad's? Well I like dad's that are not concerned about their appearance all that much. I just like real is what I will say.

Did you meet with much opposition from the art director/ or editor from this?

No, which is a nice thing to say:) I think there may have been a bit of a mention about the size of mom's bottom... but obviously not an extreme reaction, cause it's there isn't it:)

How did Sheri Radclif receive your illustrations?

Sheri Radford has been nothing but supportive and my biggest fan. She has always, always said such wonderful things about my drawings, she's been such a great friend and fan! Sheri did comment the day she saw the first drawing of Penelope. I had no idea but Sheri, as a child, had curly dark hair and wore it the same way, little pig tail thingies, as my drawing. She then sent a photo and sure enough, she looked just like Penelope (or Penelope looked like her) I had no idea, before that I had not even communicated with the author, didn't even know her name.

The dog has become a signature of the “Penelope” books. There is no mention of him in the text. What made you decide to add him?

I just love drawing animals/pets, especially dogs. I add them in when ever I can. I did a dog in that Scholastic series I mentioned earlier and the publisher and author fell in love with him. So much so that they started asking me what his name was. I didn't have a name in mind for him but had just recently adopted a puppy from the pound, so I said "Jake" (as that is the name MY dog was given)

The author then wrote one of the books in the series specifically about "Jake":) I just feel that, if there is a child, there should be some sort of wonderful animal right there beside them:)

Would you agree that all great illustrators add a second layer of story, or can a great illustrator simply stick to the text?

No, in my opinion an illustrator HAS to add their story, visually, to the text. There is nothing more boring then illustrating only the words and, I assume, looking at pictures that just illustrate the words. I mean, why repeat the same thing twice? It's so much fun to find a story inside a story I think. A small child who can not read yet can open a picture book and make up the story based only on the illustrations alone. Even as the story is being read to him/her, they are "getting it" by looking at the art. Give them the story in the art but give them more then that, give them the ability to tell the story in their own way too.

Do you have much interaction with the author, while illustrating their ms?

Not usually, you often know nothing more about them then their name but with Sheri, after the first book, yes, we are now pals:)

What sorts of things are illustrators required to revise in edits?

With text revision, it's not till you begin to put the story down visually that you notice inconsistances in the text perhaps, or things that just do not make sense or words that can be eliminated, as you can best show them in the art. As for art revisions, it's most likely that the character say, on page 3, does not look the same on page 14 or you have drawn someone in long sleeves on page 9 when they appeared in short sleeves on page 3. Placement and spacing are big issues as is not leaving enough room for text or leaving toooooo much room and the page is now, visually, not interesting enough.

Most of the time, change requests by the Art Director serve to make a much better illustration (though it's always a little hard to hear and not take too personally:)

Are there any more “Penelope” books in the making? If so, when can we expect to see them?

The third book is done and coming out Spring (March?) 09. It's called, "Penelope and the Preposterous Birthday Party". I've never drawn so many monkey's in my life:)

Three books would definitely make it a series. A picture book series that doesn’t involve a licensed character seems to be somewhat rare these days. Do you think that Penelope will be made into a cartoon character? If so, what are your feelings about having so many other hands interpreting your work?

Wouldn't that be a hoot?:) I'd love it, and I don't think I would have a problem with an animator doing Penelope. Granted animation is not going to look the same, as you can not get all detailed about it but... I think that's OK. I'd love to be a little involved, just because it would be exciting! I doubt anything like this will happen but it would be cool!

Are you working on any other projects?

I'm not doing any trade books at the moment but am working on educational text book illustrations for a Korean book publisher and some small projects. I keep sending out my own picture book dummy, hoping I can find a publisher interested in it and continue to do mailers. Finding work is always a job in itself and it never gets any easier:)

What illustrators do you admire?

I love Denise Brunkus (Junie B. Jones fame), Lynn Munsinger, too many to list really. I tend to be drawn to art that is full of fun and a great sense of humour.

What advice do you have for aspiring illustrators?

Do not think it will be easy, get ready for a long road of self promotion and rejection. It may not work out that way, but if it happens faster, it will just be a pleasant surprise. Talent is not enough, it's a lot of hard work, it's not all fun and self expression. Illustration IS a job and you DO have a boss, many of them in fact. The publisher, the art director, the adults that buy and review your work and, ultimately, the children.

Often an illustrator will feel that demanding a fair rate for their work, commercializing their art, is distasteful. Examine why you want to be an illustrator and realize that everyone in the book industry thinks of it as just that, an INDUSTRY and everyone, from the publisher down to the receptionist and mail room person makes their living in this industry. Perhaps you want a different career and retain your art as an enjoyable hobby. It's serious business, just because you love what you do, be it teaching, treating the sick, it does not mean you should not be able to make your living at it as well. (off my soap box now:)

Do you have any words of wisdom to offer picture book authors, when it comes to dealing with the visual interpretation of their work?

Oh, I wouldn't want to give advise on something I know nothing about... even though that doesn't always stop me:) Perhaps to always keep in mind what you need to say in text and what you can leave out, because it can be said just as well or perhaps better in the illustration.

What is the most important ability that an illustrator must possess?

Determination, Drive, Patience and Professionalism.

Once again, when can we expect to see the new “Penelope” book in stores?

SPRING 09, horrrrrray!:)

Honors and Awards:

"Penelope and the Humongous Burp", Second Place, OLA "Blue Spruce"Award 2006. Voted on by the Young Readers of Ontario.

"Penelope and the Humongous Burp", awarded the Gold, "Mom's Choice Award", 2005 at Book Expo NYC. (Judges included, executive producer of Reading Rainbow (PBS) and the creator of Baby Einstein!)

"Penelope and the Humongous Burp", picked as one of the Top 10 books for 2004, by "The Canadian Toy Testing Council", Children's Choice

"Penelope and the Humongous Burp", nominated for the "IPPY", 2005, "Independent Publisher Book Awards".

"Penelope and the Monsters", Nominated for BC Chocolate Lily Award, to be announced in 2007.
Judge: "National Newspaper Awards" editorial cartooning division, 2001 Chief Judge: "National Newspaper Awards" editorial cartooning division, 2002

Victoria International Cartoon Festival, second place for published cartoon strip, 1985.

Learn more about Christine by checking out her fantastic website:

Or, look at some of the books she has illustrated:


Kim Wheedleton said...

Wonderful interview! And now, I need to go find her books...

Mommy C said...

Thanks Kim!Our family love the Penelope books and can't wait for the next one to come out.

The BEDBUG Blog said...

Your insights are so true. when I read a kid's book, illustrations that tell a second story always add the tale. Good illustrations make turning pages so much more enjoyable.

Laurie Wood said...

Hi - what a lovely interview! Thanks for dropping by my blog and seeing I'm still alive and kicking! I'll have to add your new blog here to my sideline. :)