Simply 7 with Barbara Davis-Pyles and Justin Hillgrove–“CliFF the Failed Troll”

Today I get to share a book with you from one of my dream presses: Little Bigfoot.  They’re part of Sasquatch books based out of Seattle and publish a lot of the books sold here in the Pacific Northwest (including Alaska).  I have interviewed both the author and the illustrator of today’s featured picture book.

BDP.Author.PhotoBarbara Davis-Pyles is a former psychologist who went out on a limb (a very long limb!) to pursue her passion for writing. Over the years, she’s created poems, a pipe organ demonstrator, and hundreds of stories and articles for the children’s education market. She is the author of GRIZZLY BOY (illustrator Tracy Subisak), STUBBY THE FEARLESS SQUID (Carolyn Conahan), and CLIFF THE FAILED TROLL (Justin Hillgrove). You can learn more about her at her website.

CliFF.COVER.CORRECT“CliFF the Failed Troll” is a delightful story of a quirky character who doesn’t fit in.  I admit I love these kinds of stories but this is a trope I’ve seen a lot in picture books lately.  However, this book manages to stand out in the market place for quite a few reasons. I haven’t seen many picture books with a loveable Troll, nor have I seen one that makes the jump to piracy.  Yes, you heard me right.  A Troll Pirate!  What an unlikely pairing and yet … it’s so simple I’m surprised no one thought of it before now!  It certainly helps that the illustrations by Justin Hillgrove are pitch perfect (more on that later), but the story is adorable all on its own, including unexpected sidekicks like an adorable banana slug.  Yes, I said adorable and slug in the same sentence.  I’m not kidding.  Trust me when I say you do NOT want to miss this one.  It’s incredibly fun and very unexpected.

Welcome Barbara!

Me: From growing up in a tree nursery to getting your doctorate in psychology, you have quite an interesting background. What is it then that draws you to writing picture books in particular?   

Barbara: Picture books hold a very special place in my heart. I was born into a house without books, so my first exposure to picture books happened at school (Thank you, school librarian superheroes!).

By the time I became a good reader, my sister and brother were two monstrously adorable toddlers—exactly the right ages for picture books. So, I’d borrow books from the school library and read to them. Oh, what magic! Suddenly, their bedtime battle cry was no longer “Pillow fight!” It was “Please read!” 


And what joy! My sibs had a particular fondness for funny books. I could read the same ones over and over to the same uproarious effect, and those nights are some of my favorite childhood memories. As I recall, “Stand Back,” Said the Elephant, “I’m Going to Sneeze!” written by Patricia Thomas and illustrated by Wallace Tripp was a hands-down favorite. It slayed them every time.

When I grew up and became a psychologist, I dealt with whole bunch of human sadness on a daily basis. That kind of work made me very sad, so it wasn’t a good fit. Trust me, nobody needs a sad therapist! After I left that career to write, I found myself circling back to picture books and those childhood memories. I imagined if I had the chance to throw a wee bit of that kind of joy out into the world, well, that would be the BEST THING EVER (as my kid self would say). Today I feel so grateful and lucky to have the opportunity. 

Me: I’ve got to say that I haven’t seen a lot of books about Trolls on the market, especially Trolls that want to pirates. What gave you the idea?  As I know you live in the Northwest of Washington, I have to ask, was it at all related to the Fremont Troll under the bridge in Seattle?

FremontTrollBarbara: Indeed! (Excellent research, by the way!) I lived just north of Freemont for a few years in the 90s, and I’m pretty sure you can’t live in close proximity to a troll without being under its spell. I’m sure it’s what gave me the idea that trolls are Northwest creatures. So, when I wanted to pitch a third story to Little Bigfoot, a publisher with a Northwest focus, trolls seemed an obvious choice. 

Me: This isn’t your first book published with Little Bigfoot, but your third.  Congrats!  Several of our Alaskan authors have also published with them.  How did you get established as one of their authors?

Grizzly Boy COVERBarbara: Back in 2015, Ben Clanton announced in the SCBWI newsletter that he was the new acquiring editor for Little Bigfoot and called for submissions. At that time, I had a quirky banana slug manuscript that seemed to fit the bill, so I sent it to him. He really liked it, but alas, it didn’t make it through acquisitions. Thankfully, Ben was willing to look at another manuscript, and that one became my first book, Grizzly Boy.

I consider it a super-fortunate accident that Ben and I share a similar sense of humor. As a result, he acquired four of my manuscripts (publication date is yet to be determined for number four). 

Me: With three published books already out in the world, what does your writing process look like?

Barbara: Well,  I’m a much more of a pantser than a plotter. That said, I have systems in place that are far more organized than “pantsing” suggests. I wake up awfully early (4ish), walk my dogs a couple of miles, brew the world’s strongest coffee, and hit my writing desk by 5:30. This way, I can guarantee two to three hours of work before the world even knows I’m awake. When I’m working on a particular manuscript, those hours can be quite productive. If I’m between projects, the muse will know where to find me, should she decide to show. To generate ideas, I use freewriting à la Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones.

The remainder of the day is a mixed bag, so to capture ideas or good lines, I always carry a tiny notebook. When I’m in deep with a particular project, and the ideas are flying in fast, I’ll stop everything to capture them on the page. Apologies to my family for all those burned dinners.

Me:  That is one of my favorite writing books! The illustrations in this book by Justin Hillgrove are a perfect fit with his monster and troll work.  Did you communicate with the illustrator him about his work at all?  Were there any illustration surprises for you?

Barbara: I was absolutely over the moon when Justin was chosen by the Little Bigfoot team, and he agreed to take on this project. I’d been a fan of his work for years.

I had no contact with him whatsoever as he illustrated the book. I work under the assumption that the last thing an illustrator wants is author micromanagement, although I’m always available if questions arise. The executive editor at Little Bigfoot worked as a go-between and would pass on illustrations and ask for feedback on occasion. But mostly, CliFF was Justin’s baby during that span of a year or so. I couldn’t wait until he finished so that I could meet him in person. Note: Justin is as delightful as his art. This month, we’re doing a couple of virtual launch events together, and I’m really looking forward to that.

swashbuckle2As far as illustration surprises, I have to say that I was blown away by the adorableness of Justin’s CliFF. What is this strange artistic magic he wields? Justin has this amazing ability to make monstery things so cute that you either want to squeeze them or cry (I can’t decide). Another delightful surprise, in a more personal way, was the swashbuckling pirate who bears a remarkable resemblance to my fencing daughter. 

Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?

Barbara: The surprise for me occurred after I had CliFF’s character pretty fleshed out in my mind. I knew he was hyperactive by troll standards and struggled in troll school, but I had no idea where he’d be happiest. And believe me, I wanted this little guy to be happy! As luck would have it, my daughter was working as an educator and deck hand on the Adventuress at the time. The Adventuress is a century-old schooner that sails all over Puget Sound providing environmental education and sailing instruction. Anyway, I had the opportunity to spend a day aboard and participated in the many tasks involved in sailing a tall ship. By midafternoon, I knew exactly where CliFF would thrive, and his story came together quickly after that.


Me: Any advice for new picture book writers?

Barbara: First off, be very kind to yourself! The path to publication can be long (27 years for me) and, at times, frustrating, so do whatever you can to keep yourself strong and happy.

Regarding strategy, I lean on the quote often attributed to Seneca— “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

So, set up a system that works for you. I’d suggest going for consistency. If you can write most days of the week, that’s your best bet. However, the goals you set for this daily task should be TINY— like maybe one line or one minute of writing. The key here is setting the habit. Eventually, the one line a day will become many more, and the time you spend will extend. Then, when the muse shows up and that BIG IDEA hits you (and I assure you it will), you will be prepared!

Want opportunity? Join SCBWI. I really can’t say enough about this organization. It is chock-full of the most helpful people on the planet. SCBWI is where you’ll find all you need to improve your craft and unravel the mysteries of the submission process.

I wish you all the best magic (since now you have the luck bit covered)! I can’t wait to read your books!

I love that!  Great advice.  Thank you for stopping by my blog Barbara.  But wait, dear readers!  There’s more!  I also interviewed the illustrator!

Justin headshotJustin Hillgrove is a Pacific Northwest artist who loves painting monsters, robots and other such nonsense. Mostly self taught, he spent a decade in the design industry before setting out on his own to spend his days painting. Since 2005, Justin has worked on everything from comics and toys, to board games and children’s books, though he is most well known for his own original fine art. Some memorable projects have included painting murals for Facebook in Seattle and London, participating in the Schulz Museum’s artist-in-residence program, and creating covers for Boom Studios / Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time comic.  You can learn more about Justin at his website.

Welcome Justin!

Me: What was your artistic journey? When did you start drawing or painting? How did that bring you to where you are now?

Justin: I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember.  I painted a little bit in high school, but I wasn’t very good at it.  I just loved to do it, so I did it a lot.  I decided then that I wanted to be an artist, but I went the graphic design route, as it seemed like a more attainable goal for me. 

At the time there was no internet; you couldn’t look up “how do I become an animator or illustrator?”  There weren’t any resources.  You had to know someone if you wanted to know about certain things, and I didn’t know anyone.  So I took a year of Graphic Design and Illustration at Seattle Central Community College and that was fun.

I lived out in the sticks and I took the bus into the city every day.  My bus ride was two hours there and two hours back. There were all these characters on the bus and I used to sketch them in my sketchbook.  They would actually sit there and pose for me.  It was awesome.  They’d be like “is this okay? is this okay?” while posing for me.

thumbnail_Cliff Cover RoughFrom there I did a little bit of illustration here and there, small jobs really.  I started working on collectible card games (nothing that’s actually out any more) and I was eventually able to get a job as a graphic designer.  I did that for about ten years.

While doing that, I met someone who is now one of my best friends and he got me into painting, which I really hadn’t done much of before.  He worked at Funko back when it was a tiny little office, instead of a city block.  I walked in with a good friend of mine and went “there’s tons of toys here, this is awesome, what are you guys doing?” And the conversation boiled down to “hey are you an artist? Because we need an artist right now to do some freelance.” 

I started doing freelance toy design for them.  I did a little bit of bobble heads, looney tunes, and some other stuff too.  I kept doing illustration stuff as well and got really excited about painting.  I left my job to paint full time and do gallery shows while also doing just a tiny bit of illustration work.

That’s when I met Ben Clanton (who was an editor at the time) at one of the art shows and we would chat when he would come by once a year for a few years.  He sent me many manuscripts to illustrate over the years and “CliFF the Failed Troll” was the first one that appealed to me.  It was the first one that made me go “yeah, I can see myself doing this.”

2020 changed my job though.  Everything I’m used to doing is very event based and face-to-face with a little bit of online.  And when I lost that, I took a job doing toy design again.  I’m now working full time on a licensed toy line (not my own) that I can’t really talk about because of NDAs.  And it’s not for Funko.  Around the Seattle area, if you say you’re working in toys, everyone assumes it’s for Funko.

Me: I love that you’re drawn to imps and monsters.  You also have comic books about these characters and have done murals with them.  What draws you to them?  Do you have a favorite character you’ve created? 

Justin: I’m drawn to them for a couple of different reasons.  They’re very approachable, they don’t look like anyone and because of that they can be anyone instead of a specific type of person or a person that looks a certain way.  It’s easy to just grab the emotion, or gesture, or moment instead of just saying “hey that guy kinda looks like me.”  I like that.

The second reason is that I don’t like having to worry that I’m drawing or painting something correctly. You look at something real and go “oh I didn’t quite do that right.”  When I paint monsters, however it is that I finish it, that’s what it’s supposed to look like.  And that works for me.

As for favorite characters, I did a piece called “The Rescue” that has this turtle-y looking guy that has all these rescued puppets and toys and broken things.  He’s been in a lot of my paintings.  His name is Cedric and he shows up in a lot of my work.  He even shows up briefly in my comic with his sibling.


Me: How wonderful that your first picture book project would have trolls.  What a perfect fit!  You’ve worked in a lot of different genres, from comics to toys to board games.  What is it that draws you to picture books?

Justin: I’ve always wanted to do a children’s book.  I’ve done others things (comics, etc.), but for the most part I’ve always done it myself, published it myself, and I thought it would be fun to let someone else take care of that part for once.  It was also fun to get a story and realize that there was enough room there for me to create a world within this.  Obviously the story is the author’s, but I get to do the character creation and design.  That’s the part I love the most.  I like coming up with characters.


Me: I love watching your process videos.  Is your preferred medium acrylic paints?  Did you also use that for the illustrations for the book?

Justin: Yes, I love acrylics.  They are definitely my preferred medium, but they take a really long time.  It’s also really difficult to make changes to an acrylic painting.  So, knowing what the illustration process is like, especially as a first-time illustrator, knowing that they would be sending me a lot of changes, I actually went digital with the whole thing.

I’m fairly new to digital though.  I’ve only done a couple of games and of course sketching in digital on my iPad Pro.  I used Procreate as it’s practically industry standard at this point.  It’s far more intuitive for me doing design in illustration.

I like the medium.  It’s nice because I can do it anywhere, and I was traveling while working on the book.  There’s also ways to make it look and feel like a natural medium.  I went after a colored pencil-pastel soft texture with earthy tones, things that mimic what I do when I’m not working digitally.

Cliff and TrollsMe: What is one thing that surprised you in illustrating this book?

Justin: The amount of changes I did end up needing to make.  I don’t want that to sound like a negative thing, but I was surprised by how many changes were needed to make it work.  Having worked for myself for years, I’m not used to having people tell me what to do.  That was a challenge for me.

Me: What did your illustration process look like as a first time illustrator?

Justin: I think it was pretty standard really.  I submitted thumbnails first to determine page breaks.  I was allowed to determine where those would go.  Once those were approved, I did pretty loose drawings of each of the pages and then tightened them up (or deleted pages).  Then I submitted finals and then there were several rounds of changes after that.

Me: Any advice for other new picture book illustrators?

Justin: I think it’s important to take the time to hone your craft so that it’s something you’ll be proud of when you see it.  When I was a college student, I wanted to be a children’s book illustrator, but I’m glad that it took me until now to do one.  My art style has changed and it took me a while to really find out who I was as an artist.  You need to be okay with the fact that it takes a while to land a job as a children’s book illustrator.

Wow.  I need to hear that repeatedly.  Great advice Justin and thank you for stopping by my blog.

Dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance to read this book yet, take my advice and track it down.  Here there be trolls, pirates, slugs, and fun a’plenty.

One thought on “Simply 7 with Barbara Davis-Pyles and Justin Hillgrove–“CliFF the Failed Troll”

  1. Thank you for that wonderful interview. I used to live in Redmond and love the WWA SCBWI. And congratulations to Barbara and Justin!!! CliFF is wonderful.

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