This interview makes me giggle just a smidge. Jen and I have been confused for each other in the past a few times because our names are SO similar. Jen began to refer to us as “name twins.” I was even more delighted when we got to meet in person in LA at the SCBWI conference this summer. (I recognized her by her hat.)
Jen Betton was inspired to follow her dreams by Debbie Ridpath Ohi as well! (ANOTHER thing we have in common!) And SCBWI helped to change her life as well.
She has a BA in English, and a BFA and MFA in Illustration. She lives in Dallas with her husband and two children. You can learn more about her at her website (and get some REALLY amazing tips on her blog too!).
Her debut as both picture book writer and illustrator is the very same book we will be talking about today: “Hedgehog Needs a Hug.” It is an adorable story of a cute little hedgehog who wakes up needing a hug (been there little buddy) and his quest to find one. The watercolor illustrations are GORGEOUS! But see for yourself.
Welcome to my blog Jen!
Me: Can you tell us a little bit about your artistic journey? When did you first start drawing and/or painting?
Jen: Like most folks, I started drawing and painting very young, but a turning point for me was when I was ten – my mom got me lessons with a local artist and I learned how to watercolor. I started to see the world around me differently – learning to draw and paint made me notice so many details, and the beauty of those details in the subtle color shifts, shadow patterns, light quality. Doing art changed my perception. From then on, watercolor was a regular creative outlet for me.
Me: Wow! I love that! What draws you to writing and illustrating picture books?
Jen: I’ve always been a story addict. When I was a kid, my mom would hide my books as a punishment. In particular I write children’s stories because those are the kinds of stories I love the most. C.S. Lewis said he told stories for children because that was the best medium for the stories he had to tell, and Neil Gaiman and Maurice Sendak have made similar comments.
I love immersing myself in the beauty and wonder of a new world, both as a reader and as a creator. I tend to think of the story as separate from the medium in which it is told – it exists on its own and then takes form in either words or pictures, or both. The picture book is this wonderful alchemy where you share the story between two different languages – the verbal and the visual.
And finally I create picture books because I enjoy sharing them with kids!
Me: I absolutely adore your art work in Hedgehog Needs a Hug. Can you talk a little bit about your method? You mentioned using watercolor, colored pencil, and pastel. What do you start with?
Jen: About 98% percent of the image is watercolor, and some paintings I do are 100% watercolor. After I’ve taken the watercolor stage as far as I can, I might add some colored pencil or pastel. There are certain things that are easier to do in pastel or pencil, like adding light-colored highlights on a dark image. I add these elements after I’ve taken the watercolor stage as far as I can. For example, I used pastel to add more color variation in hedgehog’s spines, and lime highlights on some of the leaves. Finally, I’ll scan the image and touch up any mistakes in Photoshop.
Me: I saw your blog about your favorite illustration from the book and LOVE that you also use photo reference (I do too!). Do you always use photo reference? Or are there times when you wing it with your illustrations?
Jen: I always collect photo reference, it’s like fuel for my imagination. Whenever I can I take my own reference so I can get exactly what I want, but lots of times I have to rely on other reference and I have to change it (for copyright reasons as well as not wanting to simply reproduce a photo). My goal is to absorb the imagery enough so that I instinctively know how a leaf or leg or sunset should look in the specific image I’m working on, and can wing it if needed.
Q: You also talked about struggling with the writing of this story. That is a very common complaint I hear from illustrators. Where did you start with the writing process once you decided you wanted to do it? Any tips for illustrators who struggle to think of stories?
Jen: For finding ideas: I think illustrators get stuck on “having the idea” but I think that the more ideas you try, the more you write them down and hunt for them, the more you find. I really encourage everyone to try Storystorm, which now runs in January. Not every idea will be good, but I think idea-generation is like a muscle that gets stronger the more you exercise it. When you’re really looking for story ideas, you’ll find them!
Once I have the idea I’m all set, right? Nope. I have lots of ideas that are just a situation. An idea is not the same as a story. Here is an example. “A hedgehog needs a hug”: that is a concept – there is a character, and a goal, even potential conflict, and that’s a good start! But there is no beginning, middle or end. Figuring out the story arc, having a good structure, is essential. This is the part I often get stuck on, because you can’t move on to polishing it until the structure is really sound.
Once I had the structure for Hedgehog Needs a Hug solidified, then I could work on all the other pieces: the page turns, composition, expressions, adding emotive language, word-play. There was still a lot of work to do, but the core of the story was there.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing and/or illustrating this story?
Jen: One thing that helped me figure out part of my structure was understanding the heart of the story. This is the essential, core theme of the story, beneath the surface-level action. I was brainstorming trying to figure out the ending and I had to decide how Hedgehog would finally get his hug. Hedgehog could have hugged another hedgehog (someone just like him) or a turtle (someone who would not be hurt) but I had an “aha” moment where I understood that empathy was important to the story, and I quickly realized that Hedgehog needed to give Skunk a hug.
Me: Any additional advice for other aspiring picture book writers and/or illustrators?
Jen: Read LOTS of good, current picture books. Seek out the kinds of stories you want to write yourself, and absorb as many as you can. Read so many picture books that the story structure filters into your subconscious. Study picture books: draw out the storyboards for them, write down the text. Then sit and look at the manuscript by itself and think about what stands out to you and why. ReFoReMo is a great resource for finding good mentor texts. This is true for illustrating as well: draw, draw, draw as much as you can, and make sure you are drawing subject matter relevant to picture books.
And finally, don’t get discouraged. Hedgehog Needs a Hug was not the first manuscript I wrote, nor the first dummy. But it was by far the simplest story of the ones I’d come up with. It can be really tempting to over-complicate your manuscript, or get stuck on a cool visual. Simplify – picture books are very short, very simple stories.
Excellent advice. I’ve been discouraged quite a few times in this journey. It’s important to remember to NOT give up! Thank you SO much for stopping by Jen and for taking a selfie with me (to prove we REALLY are two different people!).
Dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance yet to read this wonderful book, I cannot recommend it enough! In fact, I have GREAT news (as you might have guessed by the title of this interview). Jen has offered to give away a signed copy of her book! Just enter the rafflecopter here. Good luck!