Today I get to share the cutest little octopus with you from author-illustrator Vern Kousky.
Vern Kousky is a children’s book author and illustrator currently residing in Amherst, Massachusetts. He is represented by Elana Roth Parker at Laura Dail Literary Agency and can be found on the web at vernkousky.com. You can also follow him on Instagram.
“Milo is Missing Something” is his fifth picture book as author-illustrator. It’s a really fun look at life under the sea as seen from the point of view of a young octopus named Milo. Yet the whole time Milo is exploring and having fun (introducing the reader to life in the ocean), he knows he’s missing something but can’t quite figure it out. I have this feeling a lot these days just walking into the other room! But this is NOT that book. The ending is unexpected and still the perfect conclusion you should’ve seen coming all along. This is what the best picture books do.
Me: What was your artistic journey? When did you start drawing and/or painting? How did you get to where you are now as an author-illustrator?
Vern: My journey was a bit of a roundabout one. I stopped drawing quite young, convinced I wasn’t an artist because I had no gift for imitation – my band logos and cartoon characters were always horribly malformed. I carried this prejudice with me for a long time, until about twelve years ago when a friend gifted me a sketchbook and pen. As a fan of modern art, I no longer considered imitation as the be-all end-all and so began aimlessly doodling. These doodles soon turned into cartoons. And eventually the cartoons became longer stories, one of which (Otto the Owl Who Loved Poetry) another friend suggested I submit to an agent. Luckily, it got picked up and then sold. Soon after, I learned there is a wide gulf between small pen and ink drawings and finished art. So I began studying the classics I grew up with and trying to figure out how to work with color. After about a year and a half of very uncomfortable labor, Otto had at last taken shape, and a year later, I had a book in hand. I had thought it would get easier after that, but to this day, I still don’t feel like I know what I’m doing. Each book is like starting over.
Me: I love that. Can you talk a little bit about your process? How did you create the illustrations for this book? Do you use traditional media or do you create digitally? Or do you use parts of both?
Vern: I’d say my approach is something like improvised collage. I start with physically created parts in a variety of media, and then, on the computer, slowly piece them together into larger forms. For example, in Milo many of the fish body and fin shapes are cut out with scissors. Pencils are used to create a number of eyes, mouths, and eyebrows. Colors are created with colored pencil, which I lay over the silhouetted fish and fin shapes. Each layer is then digitally manipulated and arranged until I have a complete fish. Backgrounds and other details are built in a similar fashion, some with cut outs, some with free-form watercolor shapes. Once I have a library of forms created, I place some of them on the screen, move them around, change their colors and sizes, and create new elements as needed until a world begins to take shape. I don’t generally work from sketches, instead I try to keep a playful freedom active even in the finished art.
Me: You have several picture books published now as an author-illustrator. Any plans to illustrating someone else’s text? Or do you have any interest in doing that?
Vern: At present, I don’t. Story and image are wedded in my mind, and my approach means that I often spend months or years working on ideas before I attempt to turn them into books, which would make collaboration difficult. But who knows? I still hope that one day I’ll figure things out and be able to work more fluidly and flexibly.
Me: I’ve noticed that all of your stories involve animal characters. When you were first starting out, did you have a portfolio with children in it? Did you find any difficulty having “just animals” in your work?
Vern: I’ve tried stories with children once or twice, but so far it’s never worked out. Most of my characters these days come from improvisations in which I don’t know what I’m drawing until I finish. It’s easy to read a creature (or a tree, rock, or cloud) into an odd shape. It’s harder to do that with humans and their world.
Me: I love the character of Milo and how you’ve drawn everything related to the ocean. I love how his search for something that is missing comes to a natural conclusion as octopi are naturally solitary creatures. Why is family and togetherness an important message you want to share with young readers?
Vern: To be honest, I’m not sure I can say, other than what I’ve said in the story. When I look at Milo’s journey now, it seems simply to reflect childhood experience. Milo does all the things small children do: he explores, plays games, makes mischief, takes naps, and is, of course, very curious. Importantly, social awareness is not something he’s born with, but develops along the way. What he does with this awareness in the future is up to him, just as any message gleaned will, I hope, be up to each individual reader to decide for themself.
Me: What is one of your favorite illustrations or moments from the book?
Vern: The coral reef spread for sure. I struggled mightily with that one.
I also like that Milo shushes the reader when playing hide-and-seek with the sharks.
Me: That coral reef scene is one of my favorites from the book too! Any advice for new picture book authors or illustrators?
Vern: Find works that you respond to and then study them at length. Good illustrators are thoughtful not just with the essential elements, but with ambient details. Jon Klassen’s work is a great example of this. He seems to see each spread as a canvas much as a painter would. Even if there are numerous scenes, they all form a pleasing unity that goes beyond the illustrative information they convey.
As for writing, concision is important, but, for me at least, lyricism trumps it. A single word, well placed, is like a note in a song. One may remove that note and keep the meaning, yet the melody is lost. With this in mind, try reading and recording the text, then playing it back. Concentrate on the sounds. Are they pleasing?
I love that. I sense a fellow poet. Thank you for visiting my blog Vern.
Dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance yet to track down this book, I cannot recommend it enough. It’s a fresh and playful look at life under the sea, as well as introducing a great character who is sure to win every reader’s heart.