Simply 7 with Molly Ruttan: SOMETHING WILD

When I was in first grade, a special guest came to my class to play not one, but three little violins (each one smaller than the other).  From the very first note, I fell madly in love with the sound of those strings, and it was a love that has remained strong even to this day.  That is one of the many reasons I was drawn to today’s picture book from author-illustrator Molly Ruttan.

Molly RuttanMolly Ruttan has visited my blog before. She grew up in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York and holds a BFA in graphic design from the Cooper Union School of Art, NY.  Molly lives, works and creates art in the diverse and historic neighborhood of Echo Park in Los Angeles, where she and her husband raised three talented (and now grown-up) children. She played violin as a child, and now plays drums, sings in a community choir and is currently learning to play the viola. She loves exploring all different kinds of fine art and illustration mediums, including making her own animated book trailers. Her life is full of art, music, family, friends and all kinds of pets and urban animals—even wild parrots! You can learn more about her at her website.

SomeWild_jacket_comp.inddSOMETHING WILD is the story of a girl, Hannah, who falls in love with the violin from a very early age (just like me!).  She loves the way it sounds and feels in her hand when she plays it.  Yet she hates the idea of playing in front of others.  This is the main problem of the story as a big recital is looming and she keeps hoping “something wild” will happen to whisk her away.  Boy could I relate!  This story takes many flights of imagination until the recital inevitably arrives and a performance must occur.  The conclusion is heart felt and encouraging (no spoilers), and the art work is glorious.  The use of color and light in this story helps the reader to feel Hannah’s heart soaring as she plays.

Welcome back Molly!

Me: I noticed in your dedication that you thank your mom for signing you up for violin lessons.  Is that what gave you the idea for this author-illustrator story?  Do you also play the violin?  Or where did the idea come from?

Molly: Thank you for having me Jena.  Yes, as I say in my dedication, my Mom signed me up for violin lessons when I was seven. But because of my stage fright, it didn’t work out for me. Shortly after I quit, Mom started playing the viola. I had always thought this was because she had played cello in her youth, but many years later I discovered the real reason! Apparently Mom had attended a church camp when she was young, and one night around the campfire, a violinist had led a sing-along. It was magical for her, and from that moment on she had wanted to play the violin. So many years later, she chose it for me! And when it didn’t work out for me, she decided it was time for her to fulfill her own dream. Finding out the roots of her choice to start learning the viola as an adult became a beacon for me: It’s never too late to self-reflect and act upon what you discover, especially if it is remembering a life-long dream! This is the sentiment behind the dedication.

Since the day I quit the violin, I have gone on to spend my entire life being a performing drummer and singer who has terrible stage fright. But the event that finally pulled Something Wild into being came few years ago when I was asked to do a presentation for an SCBWI mingle. I was petrified, and I lost sleep worrying about it. In the throes of my anxiety over this event, I knew it was time to make a book about my fear. I tapped into the anxiety I was having about the event and combined it with my life-long journey as a terrified performer. I chose violin because of my childhood connection, and Something Wild was born!

01_Ruttan_Playing music- 2 photos circa 70s

Left: Me playing violin with my twin sister Linda on french horn, and our friend Linda Whitehead on clarinet. Right: My Mom (Frances) playing viola with her brother Malcolm on guitar and his wife Vera on piano.

Me: Wow! What an inspiration! What made you pick the animals you did when Hannah is imagining the wild?  Why those particular ones? 

Molly: I’m so glad you asked me this question, and I love the phrase “imagining the wild”! When I first worked on the sketches for this story, I experimented with many different animals. I tried bears, monkeys and fish, to name a few! As I got deeper into the story, I realized that having the animals symbolize something would be an interesting layer to add; I just needed to figure out what that would be! At the same time, I was working on ways to illustrate Hannah’s passion for music, and the word “spirit” came to mind. This gave me the idea to pick animals that could represent three elements of nature—air, water and earth. So I chose birds (air), dolphins (water) and rabbits (earth) to accompany Hannah’s passion for music—her spirit (fire).  I loved the idea of using the four elements because in ancient philosophy they are considered the primal elements of which the universe is made—and I thought it would be a fun, intriguing (and very subtle) theme to incorporate into the book.

02_Ruttan_somethingWild_early sketch 1_rev

Sketch from an early version of Something Wild. ©Molly Ruttan

Me: The textures all over this story are so vivid and distinct.  I know you usually work in a blend of traditional and digital tools.  Did you vary any of your techniques for these illustrations?  Or did you approach this story with the same illustration techniques you usually use?

Molly: Yes, like you mention, I create my illustrations through a collaboration of traditional and digital media. I love working traditionally, so I create my final illustrations by first drawing with a charcoal pencil, and then by creating charcoal, acrylic paint and pastel colors and textures on watercolor paper. I scan everything into Photoshop and finish by compositing and painting digitally. Since all the color is achieved with scans of the pastels and textures I’ve made, a lot of overlapping textures are formed in natural and often accidental ways. I started Something Wild using these same methods that I have used in my other books, but as I worked, I experimented with adding subtle motion lines to the backgrounds, using charcoal and digital pencil. This new technique ended up adding a layer of blending and rendering to the paintings that make some of them look a little different from my previous work.


Interior spread from Something Wild written and illustrated by Molly Ruttan. Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin Random House ©2023.

Me: The violin is my own personal favorite instrument.  I love how you depicted the main character, Hannah, surrounded by light when she plays.  Can you talk about how you achieved that look in your illustrations?

Molly: I love that you love the violin! And I love that you noticed the light surrounding Hannah as she plays. I achieved this by using charcoal. In fact, the glow and light around Hannah at the beginning of the book is a perfect example of how I start with charcoal and then colorize it in Photoshop to create different effects. In this case, I used a combination of charcoal stencils and charcoal “splatters” that I created with charcoal powder on paper. I scanned them, positioned them and then colorized them in Photoshop.

04_Ruttan_Charcoal Splatter with SW page

An example of how I use charcoal “splatters” that I create with charcoal powder on paper, and then manipulate in Photoshop to achieve an effect. The “splatter” on the right is one of several that I used for this illustration. © Molly Ruttan

Me: I would not have thought you started the light with charcoal.  Fascinating!  You also have a wonderful limited color palette here that really shines.  Those blues and oranges really pop, and the purples and greens really stand out when they show up.  What made you choose only those colors?

Molly: Thank you for your kind words about the palette! I remember as a child, I once described being bored to feeling like a piece of cardboard, because it was flat and grey. (Looking back, I wonder what a therapist might have said about that—because a flat grey piece of cardboard can also be seen as having a huge amount of creative potential!) In any case, I chose blues and greys to depict Hannah’s anxious, limited world. Orange was the natural remedy for this, because it is opposite blue on the color wheel. Plus, it is the color of fire/spirit! So orange became Hannah’s inner world, and a signal to viewers that her imagination and spirit were engaged. The book ends with lighter oranges and yellows—for me the colors of sunshine, confidence and happiness.


Interior spread from Something Wild written and illustrated by Molly Ruttan. Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin Random House ©2023.

Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing and/or illustrating this book?

05_Ruttan_Molly working in her studio

In my studio, working on a charcoal pencil drawing. I begin my final illustrations with charcoal pencil drawings and use a light table to trace them onto watercolor paper, from a final sketch.

Molly: What surprised me the most about my book is that it appeals to my 17-month-old granddaughter. When I was writing and illustrating the book, I had it in my head that it would appeal to young school-age kids who understood the anxiety of an upcoming recital, or some other nerve-wracking event— which I’m sure it does. But my granddaughter, who is not even 2 yet, loves it—it’s currently her favorite book! I love putting details into my illustrations, with the hope that adults and kids will find pleasure and have fun with them. It is such a delightful surprise to me that someone so little is enjoying these details too! It’s a wonderful affirmation that all kinds of books appeal to all ages.

Me:  What is one of your favorite things about this story?  What sets it apart from your other books?

Molly: There are a couple of things that set this book apart for me. The first is that it’s an emotional and personal story, both in Hannah’s journey with stage fright, which is very much my own journey, and the violin, which as I said earlier, I briefly played when I was young. My other books have been emotional and personal too, but this one goes back further.

7-Molly Viola

I’ve recently started taking viola lessons, inspired by my history of playing violin as a child, and from all the violin music I listened to while creating the final art for Something Wild.

But what really sets this book apart is that it has inspired me to play a new instrument! When it came time to create the final art for Something Wild, I began listening to a lot of violin music to get into the mood. I still had my Mom’s viola from when she lived with us, and I became inspired to try it. I started taking lessons. My fantasy was that I would learn enough to play a short tune at my book signings, but that didn’t really come to pass—turns out it’s much harder to play than when I was a kid! Still, it feels like things have come full circle somehow, and it warms my heart to know that I am filling the world with the sounds of my Mom’s viola again as I bring my book into the world.

I absolutely love that.  Congratulations on the book AND the new musical habit Molly.  Thank you for stopping by my blog again.

Dear readers, if you have a passion for music or know a young reader with the same, this book is one that shouldn’t be missed.  It shares the joy of song, the anxiety for performance, and the strength of spirit to overcome with such beautiful illustrations that it becomes an awe inspiring work of art.  This is truly a story you will want to study for all the ways it succeeds.

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