Today brings part two of the interviews for “The Road that Trucks Built.” This second interview is with illustrator Erica Sirotich. Erica’s authorial debut, the picture book Found Dogs (a book we will be talking about here soon), was published by Dial Books for Young Readers in July, 2017. She has also illustrated picture books for publishers like Little Simon, Running Press, and Albert Whitman & Co. Children’s publications like Highlights High Five, Highlights Hello, and the Usborne Little Children’s Activity Book series regularly feature Erica’s illustrations.
Welcome to my blog Erica!
Me: What was your artistic journey? When did you start drawing?
Erica: Well, I can’t really remember when I started drawing! It was always my go-to activity as a kid. I used to draw many of the things I still gravitate toward today—dogs and other animals, little houses, dinosaurs, characters. I wrote little stories and bound them into little books. I drew with my brother a lot, and he’s a professional illustrator now too. We’ve taught each other a lot over the years, and he’s still one of my biggest art influences.
Me: Was this the first project you illustrated for another author? Did you get to communicate with Susanna Leonard Hill about the illustrations at all? Were there any illustration notes that you had to take into consideration with this project?
Erica: I illustrated a series for Albert Whitman & Co before this one, called My Emotions and Me, by Ana Crespo. The books are about a creative kid named JP who finds out-of-the-box ways to cope with strong emotions. I also illustrated a coloring and activity book for Running Press about the ocean. My regular freelance clients are mostly children’s magazines like Highlights High Five, Highlights Hello, Ranger Rick Jr, and Usborne.
As is the traditional practice in picture book illustration, I only communicated with my art director at Little Simon while the Trucks project was ongoing. I heard from Susanna after the book was finished. She was very gracious and excited about how it came out, which was wonderful to hear, because she’s a veteran author with lots of excellent books under her belt!
There were some illustration notes when I started working on Trucks, but I can’t say whether they were developed by Chani Yammer, my art director, or Susanna. The notes were pretty simple, and I like to have at least minimal direction at the outset because it helps establish a shared vision for the project, and reduces the time spent on revisions later.
Me: There are lots of animated vehicles out there in books and movies. I’m sure comparisons will abound for your construction trucks, but they still seem distinctively different from others I’ve seen. What influenced your character design?
Erica: I really only looked at reference photos of actual trucks when developing the characters for the book. In a couple cases—the grader and the scraper—I had to look at technical diagrams and videos of the trucks in action, too, because I couldn’t really comprehend how they worked! When I discussed the project with Chani, we were on the same page at the outset that the trucks should be characters in their own right, rather than machines operated by people. The trucks are the stars of this book. They are artists, and the road is their masterpiece! So I looked at photos and tried to imagine a personality and character for each one when sketching them.
Me: I can imagine how hard it was to study them, but I love the personal touches you added to the illustrations: the cranky cars, the flower in the bulldozer’s tailpipe, a missing tooth, etc. My favorite is perhaps the bird construction workers. They weren’t in the text anywhere. What gave you the idea to add the birds?
Erica: Well, my favorite things to draw are animals, both “natural” animals and anthropomorphized animal characters. While it was understood that the trucks would do the heavy lifting in the book, Chani and I also liked the idea that there would also be little helpers around, distributing cones and surveying the site, gathering debris and raking the asphalt—carrying out some of the smaller tasks you’d see workers doing at an actual construction site. Someone had to wear hard hats in this book! I sketched several different types of helpers, but wanted to keep it simple by sticking with just one—so we settled on the birds. I love them. I like how some are very productive, but there are a couple just standing around, checking the time, and goofing off—like the bird putting a traffic cone on his head!
Me: LOL! That’s one of my favorites too. Speaking of cranky cars, I was surprised to see a cranky character in this absolutely adorable and joyfully illustrated book. Why include cranky cars?
Erica: I think that was the suggestion of my art director, Chani. My initial sketches for the first two spreads, which depict the traffic jam, were actually filled with cars and buses contentedly biding their time, sitting motionless, bumper to bumper, on a too-narrow road. When I submitted these sketches, Chani suggested that the vehicles would probably be getting pretty fed up in this situation, just like drivers stuck in traffic often are.
It’s funny, because something similar happened with the other book I illustrated around this time, my authorial debut, Found Dogs. In this one, I have a page of dogs who are “wimpery, whiney.” My original sketches showed the dogs looking a little unsure, with tilted heads, but still smiling. My art director suggested that these dogs should, indeed, look sad. I resisted for a while—I felt sad for them, drawing them sad! But when I finally did, it felt just right. It’s a nice contrast, because later in the book, they get adopted, and then they are “smiling sweet.”
I think the cranky cars in the traffic jam do the same thing. We’re setting up a problem at the beginning that the trucks are going to solve. And when the road is ready, everyone is overjoyed and a celebration ensues!
Me: That’s true. The story comes full circle. What is one thing that surprised you in illustrating this story?
Erica: Well, I definitely learned more about road building than I ever had before! I was not at all familiar with graders or scrapers specifically, and had a hard time figuring them out at the beginning of the project. They are really complicated machines! Now I notice them quite often when driving past construction sites, which is really fun.
Me: Interesting. I learn something from every assignment I do as well. Do you have a favorite construction truck from this book? If so, which one and why?
Erica: Oh man! That’s a hard one! I love the bulldozer. When I was designing the trucks, I thought of them as characters with personalities of their own, and for some reason I decided, one of these is going to be a tree hugger! A zero-emissions vehicle! So I put a flower in her tailpipe, like a vase. She’s purple and has a great attitude about her very difficult task of hauling rocks off the worksite. She always looks gleeful. I like all the trucks in the book, but the dozer steals the show, I think. And my four year old niece concurs!
Aww! I think she’s my favorite truck too, though I’d be hard-pressed to pick just one favorite as well. They are all so fun. And so are those birds! Thank you again for stopping by today Erica and sharing your drawings and insight with us. This is truly wonderful work. I look forward to discussing future projects with you as well. =)
Dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance to read this book yet, you should! It’s a fantastic read and great fun. And don’t forget: there’s less than a week left for the give away. Some lucky reader will win a copy of this wonderful book. =)