Today I get to share another friend’s author-illustrator debut!
Blythe Russo has visited my blog once before to talk about her debut illustration project. Well today, on her book’s birthday, we get to talk about her turn as an author-illustrator! In my humble opinion, this day was only a matter of time. If you’ve seen her sketches on social media, you’ve probably loved her work just like I do. Her animals and friends are adorable! I knew when I saw her 100 day project sketches on Twitter a few years ago that one of those pairs was destined for a book. And here we are!
Blythe Russo is an illustrator who also makes amazing puppets, loves to bake (and makes amazing cookies too!), loves dogs, and was one of the moderators of the Thursday night Twitter illustrator chat for #kidlitart. If you haven’t met her yet, I’m SO glad I get to introduce you to her work! You can learn more about her at her website.
Her debut author-illustrator picture book SLOTH SLEEPS OVER is every bit as cute as the cover makes it look. Sloth gets an invite from her friend Paloma to her very first sleep over. She’s convinced that she’s got this in the bag as she LOVES to sleep. Until she discovers that sleep overs aren’t for sleeping! It’s the perfect plot for an adorable sloth with a built-in dilemma. Genius, right?
Welcome back to my blog Blythe!
Me: This book is absolutely brilliant! I’m surprised no one has thought of a sloth at a sleepover before. There’s automatic conflict! What gave you the idea?
Blythe: Thank you, Jena, that is so kind of you to say!
I came up with Sloth as a character in 2016 and then spent what seems like forever trying to figure out her story. For the longest time the story centered around Sloth-in-a-unicorn-onesie, some garden gnomes, and a truck full of glitter. Aren’t you shocked I had a difficult time making that work? Ha!
I eventually added a friend (Paloma) for Sloth to play off of, which finally set me in the right direction. And then I remembered that sloths sleep a lot and that I went to a lot of slumber parties as a kid. *There* was my story. The journey getting to that point was much messier, but it’s nice to look back and pretend I subconsciously knew what I was doing all along.
Me: I love the look of sloth. ALL of those fur strokes! Can you talk about your artistic approach for this book? What medium did you use? Did you paint all of Sloth’s fur strokes by hand? Or did you create this book digitally?
Blythe: Yes, all of those little lines to make Sloth’s fur were hand-painted. It was therapeutic *and* added much needed texture. A win-win.
The illustrations for SLOTH SLEEPS OVER were done both digitally and traditionally. I did all the lineart in Photoshop and then printed it out onto watercolor paper to paint. After that, I scanned all the watercolor paintings back into Photoshop and touched everything up digitally.
Sloth’s design went through a bit of a makeover when the dummy was acquired. I was a little hesitant to change her look, since I had gotten attached to her initial design. But ultimately I am incredibly grateful the team at VIKING encouraged me to push the appeal in Sloth’s design, because I think her final version is so stinking cute (if I do say so myself) and much improved.
Me: This is your picture book debut as author-illustrator. YAY! How does this book feel different from others you’ve only illustrated? Was this book harder to create? Did it take longer? Or was it a cinch?
Blythe: I aim to be proud of all the work I do, but I am *so* incredibly proud of this book. As someone who feels more comfortable as an illustrator, the writing part is a bit scary. But the great thing about creative work is that there is always something new to learn and there is always room for improvement. So hopefully I can only go up from here.
As for other projects where I’ve only been the illustrator, I can’t say they’ve never been challenging, but since illustrating is in my wheelhouse, there is definitely a level of comfort that the writing side doesn’t provide.
Me: The writing in this book is SO good! I love how it gets to the heart of Sloth and how it comes full circle at the end with the perfect last line. Did writing come naturally to you? Or were there many revisions to get to this state?
Blythe: As I said above, I am a less confident creative writer. I always loved writing in school, but that was more thesis papers and citing my sources than picture books.
There’s always a bunch of revisions, but I feel like I spent more time trying to figure out Sloth’s story than I did once I settled on the concept of the sleepover story.
Me: As you both wrote and illustrated this book, did you find any unique challenges you weren’t expecting? What was your favorite part of the process?
Blythe: The final book is actually not too different from the dummy I submitted. I worked closely with my incredible agent, Molly, to put a lot of effort into polishing the dummy. I wanted to put my best first foot forward since I was submitting for the first time as an author/illustrator. So, most of the challenges I faced were as I developed the story (as in, it took a million years). Another big challenge was that SLOTH went on submission during the beginning of the pandemic (April 2020), when everyone had just started working from home and no one knew what was going on. That was super interesting.
I won’t lie and say making the dummy is my favorite part; HOWEVER, even though making a dummy involves a lot of hair pulling, whining, and, more often than not, copious tears, it is the most satisfying part of the process. When you arrive at some sort of final version of a story, it’s an amazing feat (even if it doesn’t always feel like that because we all know not all dummies should see the light of day). But it’s still a win. Congratulations, you did a thing! And that’s pretty darn cool.
Me: I love that! I empathize with Sloth SO much in this book. I was always the kid that fell asleep first at sleepovers and I wasn’t really sad about that. Which character do you empathize with more in this story, Sloth or Paloma?
Blythe: I am a little bit of both. As a kid I was more like Paloma, always thinking I would miss out on something once I went to bed. I longed to stay up late, so I would sometimes – okay, often – stay up late reading (and always got caught). However, like Sloth, I would get a little anxious when I attended sleepovers at my friends’ houses, but that was more because I was away from home and less because I was afraid of falling asleep first.
As an adult, I am 100% team Sloth.
Me: What other projects can we look forward to from you in the future?
Blythe: I am working on some more wonderful Posie the Pika comics (written by Paige Braddock) with Epic!, which have been fantastically fun to do. Hopefully I’ll be able to tell you about other projects soon!
Yay! I can’t wait to see those. Congratulations Blythe on such a wonderful author-illustrator debut.
Dear readers, today is this book’s release into the world. This is such a wonderful story with sweet characters that are well worth reading and studying. Don’t miss it!