Today I get to share a new author-illustrator picture book with you.
Ashley Belote is the illustrator of FRANKENSLIME (Feiwel & Friends, 2021) and VALENSLIME (Feiwel & Friends, 2021). She is the author-illustrator of her solo debut early reader THE ME TREE (Penguin Workshop, 2021) and her solo debut picture book LISTEN UP, LOUELLA (Feiwel & Friends, 2022).
She studied traditional animation under the direction of Don Bluth. Ashley earned her BA from Alderson Broaddus University and her MA in Arts Administration from the University of Kentucky. Her graduate study included a children’s literature and illustration course, The Whole Book Approach, through Simmons College at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. She also serves as the Illustrator Coordinator for the Carolinas chapter of SCBWI. Ashley is represented by Moe Ferrara of BookEnds Literary Agency. You can learn more about her at her website.
LISTEN UP, LOUELLA is a fun picture book about an elephant named Louella. She is much too excited about Roar Scout Camp to slow down and listen to what anyone around her wants. This leads to a few frustrated friends not being able to communicate important things with her. I won’t spoil the ending, but the story didn’t quite go in the direction I thought it would. I love when a story surprises me. The illustrations are fun with lots of details to entertain young readers. In fact, the details need to be paid attention to, just like Louella needs to listen (as there’s a secondary storyline that could be missed otherwise). This is a book that you won’t want to miss.
Me: Can you share about your artistic journey? When did you start creating art? How did that bring you to where you are now as an illustrator?
Ashley: Thank you so much for having me on your blog, Jena! My artistic journey began when I was two years old! One day, my mom was busy preparing for a family gathering and needed to occupy me somehow. She put a crayon in my hand and drew some lines. She jokes that I’ve never put that crayon down! I have always loved art and was never interested in anything else. I consider being an artist part of my identity, and I feel so lucky and blessed to be able to do what I love so much.
My family owned an independent publishing house, so I grew up surrounded by books. I studied art in school, but it wasn’t until I attended the Simmons College program at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art that I found my place in art. I took a class from Megan Dowd Lambert called The Whole Book Approach, and that class changed my life. It showed me all that picture books can offer, how they can affect readers and the endless possibilities of 32 pages. I fell in love with the entire process. I joined SCBWI shortly after the class, and in 2019, that organization helped me launch my career after a successful portfolio review with art director Mallory Grigg. I got my first book deal to illustrate FRANKENSLIME (Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan) by Joy Keller, and my dream began to come true!
Me: Wow! That’s quite a journey. “Listen Up, Louella” is your author-illustrator debut. Yay! Congratulations! What is it that draws you to creating picture books?
Ashley: Thank you so much!! I would say…laughter!! I love to laugh, and I love to make others laugh. Humor has always been there for me. I love watching comedies, reading the Sunday funnies, and spending hours perusing funny picture books. My mom has a great sense of humor, so it’s just been something I have always been surrounded by and find comforting. If I can create a humorous illustration that makes a child giggle, I consider that a success.
I also love the challenges that arise during the picture book-making process. When working on a picture book, I’m often faced with odd problems to solve. For example, in LISTEN UP, LOUELLA, there is a scene in which Louella builds a toilet paper fort, haha. I had to figure out what a toilet paper fort would look like, how it would stand up, and how Louella would exist within that space. So, I did a series of construction drawings and finally figured out a design that worked. It was a fun way to spend the day! I loved it!
Another scene that was fun to work through was the canoe spread. Louella charges to the front of the line so she can get into a canoe before someone else takes it. I needed to show her using two canoes so that none of the other characters would be able to have one, thus showing her being a bit selfish. I also needed to show the frustration of the secondary characters to contrast with Louella’s happiness. Plus, I needed to work in Tarantula! I created my final composition through the evolution of the three sketches below.
Me: I love how you have almost a side-story going on in the illustrations of this book with the spider constantly trying to get Louella’s attention. It’s not that she’s just excited, but she’s literally tuning everyone out. What gave you the idea for this story?
Ashley: Thank you! As an illustrator, creating a B-story is my opportunity to illustrate beyond the text and add a visual narrative (mine is often humorous) that kids can spot throughout the book. Throughout LISTEN UP, LOUELLA, a tiny tarantula desperately tries to get Louella’s attention, but she is too focused on her own agenda to pay attention. I used a small character to fill this role so that readers could search through the art to find him! Exploring artwork for small details is one of my favorite things to do. As a result, when I make books, I love creating spreads that offer that experience to readers. The first spread in the book was super important to set up the rest of the story. I tried several compositions and with the help of the art director, we ended up with a loud and active introduction that features Louella and also presents the tarantula.
LISTEN UP, LOUELLA is the product of a manuscript revision. I wanted to show a bold character solely focused on their wants and needs. Listening is an important lesson for children as well as adults. I can often get wrapped up in my tasks and become completely oblivious to my surroundings. If this becomes a habit, like in Louella’s case, it can cause you to miss out on something important! It’s necessary to slow down, listen, and appreciate what is happening in your environment. PLUS! Elephants are one of my favorite animals. I’ve always, always, always wanted to make a book with one in it! This story was my chance!! Thus, Louella was born. 😊
Me: I love elephants too! Which was harder: writing or illustrating “Listen Up, Louella”?
Ashley: I would say my process of writing and illustrating happens simultaneously. I often draw a character first, then write about it. I switch back to drawing, and that back-and-forth process inspires additional plot points to help me fill in the narrative. I’m a visual learner, so while in school, I would need to see things to understand how they worked. This tendency has carried into my picture book-making process, and it’s a lot of fun! My characters are like my friends, so I’m always excited when I get to draw them because they show me a story.
Me: What did your illustration process for this book look like? Are you a traditional or a digital artist? Or do you use a blend of both?
Ashley: I’m a bit of a blender, haha. I sketch traditionally, and then once I have a solid idea, I’ll pull that sketch into Procreate and sketch more on top of the original drawing. I use Procreate for all the final sketches and color artwork.
In terms of my process, I begin with character development so that I get to know a lot about who/what I’m drawing. I need to know how their bodies move, how their facial expressions look, and how they move and interact with other characters and backgrounds. I create what’s called a character model sheet, a page of character sketches that show different positions/perspectives. Below is a model sheet of Louella that I created during the character development process.
Experimenting is part of the creative process, and the digital format allows me to work uninhibited. I can try several different techniques, work with unique and unlimited colors, and incorporate textures and effects into my illustrations. One of the best advantages of working in the digital space is color matching. When creating artwork for a picture book, many aspects must remain consistent throughout the illustrations. For example, characters must remain on model, which means the characters need to look like the same characters every time they appear in the work. One factor in this consistency checklist is color. When working digitally, it’s simple to take a color sample from your approved color and apply it to the subsequent illustrations, thus resulting in consistent tones throughout the book. It’s also efficient when choosing colors because you can simply duplicate files, change the color of your elephant, and then compare them next to each other to define what’s working and what’s not working. Below is a few examples of color tests I tried for Louella’s color.
Me: Louella’s feelings get hurt when she isn’t invited to the birthday party, but really that’s her own fault for not listening. I love all the different ways you show why it’s important to actually listen to others (their voices, their body language, their wants and desires, etc.). Why is this an important message you want to share with young readers?
Ashley: I was super shy when I was a kid, so I was often afraid to ask for help or stand up for myself. I wanted to tell a story from the perspective of a bold character to show how actions can affect those around that character and how that character can be affected personally. School and girl scouts helped me overcome my shyness, so I set the story at Roar Scout Camp so the main character would have a lot of opportunities to interact with secondary characters. Forming close friendships through scouts can be so helpful for kids who struggle in social situations, so using that type of group in the book was a way for me to pay homage to my own troop and celebrate how much they helped me grow. I hope this book speaks to all kids, especially the softspoken ones who just need someone to care about what they have to say.
Me: Any advice for other new picture book writers and/or illustrators?
Ashley: Your motivation should come from passion. In my opinion, passion is the key to success in publishing. No matter where you are on your publishing journey, your love for your craft should be able to continue carrying you through all the trials and tribulations that a creative career can entail. Just continue to make books because that’s what you love to do! And to illustrators specifically, draw what makes you happy. Don’t try to emulate what others are doing. No one can make what you can create. So, make it, embrace it, and love it!!
I love that advice Ashley. Thank you for stopping by my blog today.
Dear readers, Ashley’s book came out exactly one week ago (i.e., last Tuesday). If you haven’t had a chance yet to read it, track it down. It’s a fun story that I think every young reader will relate to with tons of fun details thrown in. Don’t miss it!