If you’re not familiar with today’s author illustrator or his series of “worst” books, you should be!
Alex Willan is the author-illustrator of UNICORNS ARE THE WORST!, DRAGONS ARE THE WORST!, YETIS ARE THE WORST, and the JASPER & OLLIE series, as well as the illustrator of Got Your Nose, written by Alan Katz. Alex lives in Chicago with his dog, Harley, who is the absolute best. You can learn more about him at his website.
YETIS ARE THE WORST! is the hilarious follow-up to UNICORNS ARE THE WORST! and DRAGONS ARE THE WORST! In this story, the main character, Gilbert the Goblin, is determined to find the legendary yeti, but the creatures elude him at every turn. Or so he thinks. Readers will delight in noticing what Gilbert the Goblin does not. It’s a great hide and seek game that kiddos are sure to love.
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?
Alex: Art has always been very important to me. As a kid I carried a sketchbook with me everywhere I went. That eventually led me to getting a BFA in Illustration from Savannah College of Art and Design. I always wanted to make picture books, but I was so afraid of failing at it that I ran away from it for several years. Thankfully, my love for picture books persisted and I eventually joined SCBWI, where I gained the knowledge and support that set me on the track I’ve been on ever since.
Me: This is your fifth author-illustrator picture book. Yay! Congratulations! What is it that draws you to creating picture books?
Alex: Thank you! I can’t believe it myself! I loved picture books growing up. I would spend hours pouring over every detail of every page. To me, picture books are such a wonderful balance of words and illustrations. They both play an equal role in telling the complete story. Plus you get to encourage kids to see reading as something that is fun and whimsical.
Me: This is the third book in your super fun goblin series. Did you always intend for it to be a series? Or did a series evolve out of successful sales, etc.?
Alex: I did always hope that it would be a series and I’m so grateful to continue working on these books. I just really love the character of Gilbert the grumpy goblin so it’s fun to put him into new scenarios and imagine how he would react. And working on a series allows me to slowly grow the world that Gilbert lives in with each new installment, while also making references to the previous books; a unicorn, a sock slug and Gilbert’s friend, Chicken, appear in every book in the series.
The challenge that comes with working on a series is making sure that you aren’t just retelling the same story. One thing that I really enjoy with YETIS ARE THE WORST! is that the audience sees the yetis long before Gilbert does. I think it can be so fun for kids when they know something that the main character does not, and hopefully they will be able to giggle at Gilbert’s obliviousness.
Me: Which is harder for you: writing or illustrating?
Alex: One benefit that comes from going to a visual arts school is that your work is constantly being critiqued. You develop sort of a thick skin which has always allowed me to present my illustrations with a certain amount of confidence. It is much scarier for me to share my writing with people. I’ve always loved writing, but since it isn’t what I studied I always have that fear in the back of my mind that my writing success so far has been a fluke and that at any moment people are going to catch on that I don’t know what I’m doing.
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?
Alex: This book was created digitally on my iPad using the Procreate App. The first book I published, JASPER & OLLIE, was a hybrid of the two mediums. I made acrylic underpaintings of every illustration and then finished them digitally. I was convinced that the illustrations would be “missing” something if I created them completely digitally, but when pressing deadlines lead me to ditching the underpainting approach, I found that no one could tell the difference.
In addition to being a much faster process for me, I’ve found working digitally to be very freeing as well. It’s much easier to experiment when anything can be undone with a few clicks of a button.
Me: I love how Gilbert always starts out hating a fantastical critter, but slowly learns that they’re not as bad as he imagined. Why is this an important message you want to share with young readers?
Alex: I always like characters who teach a lesson by showing the audience what NOT to do. I think that Gilbert is understandably jealous that goblins are never celebrated the way certain other mythological creatures are, but he allows that jealousy to skew his impression of the world around him. I hope that at the core of each of these books is empathy. Not only does Gilbert learn to be more empathetic, but the reader can see why Gilbert behaves the way he does and how he could improve. In UNICORNS ARE THE WORST! Gilbert complains that you never hear of anyone having a goblin themed birthday party. Since that book has been out, several people have reached out to me to let me know that after reading the book, their kid insisted on having their next birthday be goblin themed. How wonderful is that? Despite all his faults, these kids felt bad for Gilbert and wanted to include him in their own birthday parties.
Me: Aww! I love that! You could have a whole line of Gilbert birthday party-ware. Any advice for other new picture book writers and/or illustrators?
Alex: I would say to try to not be too precious with anything you create. Everything you write/illustrate will go through so many changes by the time it becomes the finished story. So I think it’s important not to take feedback personally, but rather as simply another part of the process that leads to making the best book possible. Gilbert the goblin was originally Gnelson the gnome, but after seeing the initial sketches of Nelson, my agent (the wonderful Lori Kilkelly) wasn’t happy with his overall look. People tend to think more negatively of goblins than they do of gnomes, so it made more sense to switch the main character to a goblin and now I can’t imagine it being any other way. So I would say to not only be open to change, but to look at it as an opportunity to have your work grow in directions that you never would have initially imagined it would.
That is great advice Alex. Thank you for stopping by my blog today.
Dear readers, this book is released November 22. Keep an eye out for it, just like you would for yetis! It’s a hilarious fantasy picture book that will keep kiddos laughing and searching every picture read after read. You won’t want to miss it.