I may be slightly obsessed with snails at the moment because of a story I’m working on, but when I heard about today’s picture book, I had to know more.
Katarina Macurova isn’t a US based author-illustrator. Instead, she was born in Bratislava in 1983. She studied under Professor Dušan Kállay in the Department of Graphics and Illustration at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava. She came to the attention of the general public with her children’s books Proč nekveteš?/ Why Won’t You Flower?, Lily a Momo/ Lily and Momo, Kde je ten pravý balon?/ Which is the Right Ball? and Jak naučit Edu lítat/ Teaching Eddie to Fly. She has an additional interest in 3D graphics. Her innovative work has already won her several prestigious awards, including the Communication Arts Award of Excellence in the USA. You can follow her on Instagram.
Her latest picture book, HENRY THE SNAIL, is a sweet story of a snail who discovers he doesn’t have slime. He is sad he isn’t like the other snails who can climb and do amazing acrobatics on all sorts of vegetation, but he doesn’t let that stop him. He’s determined to figure out his own strengths. Once he does he goes on to teach others what he’s learned. This story takes a different path at every turn than what I expected. I fell quite in love with little Henry which may have had something to do with the wonderful illustrations as well. The world at the micro-level in this story is stunningly detailed. This isn’t a story you will want to miss.
Me: Can you tell us a little bit about your artistic journey? When did you start creating art? How did that bring you to writing and illustrating this book?
Katarina: I studied printmaking and illustration at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava, Slovakia. After finishing my studies I continued with my Phd program doing research on comparison of Slovak and Mexican modern art and working mainly as a curator for a Bratislava based gallery: T-Gallery. So there weren’t many illustration projects I worked on at that time. I guess I didn’t feel like it was the career I wanted to pursue. After I successfully finished the Phd studies, my husband got a job offer in Edinburgh, Scotland and so we moved there for a while.
That was where my passion for picture books started. I visited the children’s book library quite often and bookstores became like art galleries for me; I would just spend countless hours there, browsing children’s books. I fell in love with the format, the fact it was so restrictive in a way (the number of pages and the length of text) and yet they could communicate quite profound and difficult themes, with wit and brilliant sense of humor. I started to understand the importance of pacing, tone of voice, character design, creating the right atmosphere for the story, etc. So It was in Edinburgh where I first started to work on picture book projects and the story for UPSIDE DOWN–my first published picture book–was actually created there.
Me: You have a lot of books already published. Can you talk about your art process for this book? Did you use traditional media or digital, or a blend of both? What made you decide to use this medium for this book?
Katarina: I use the same technique for every book which is a blend of digital and traditional media. It might differ in brushes, colors or textures I would use, but the process is essentially the same. I have huge sketchbooks where I make pencil drawings for every spread. Sometimes I might make several drawings for one spread and then put them together digitally. The feel of pencil touching the paper just can’t be substituted by any other digital media (at least not for me). 🙂 So once the drawings are ready, I scan them and use them as a background layer. From that point, everything is done digitally in photoshop. The outlines, coloring, textures, etc. The reason I used the same technique for HENRY THE SNAIL was because it allowed me to work with details of plants more precisely, I used several types of brushes to make the leaves and flowers look quite realistic.
Me: I love Henry! What gave you the idea for this story of a snail who doesn’t have slime?
Katarina: It was our garden actually. 🙂 A few years ago I really started to enjoy gardening. Once, in the evening, as I was watering the flowers I spotted a snail trying to get on the leaf of quite a tall flower. I observed him for a while. He did some pretty acrobatic moves to get where he wanted to. So I thought about the snail for a while and realized the only reason for him being able to climb so high is because of the slime. And then the idea struck me: What if the snail had no slime? How would he move? What would he do? How would he feel about it? These questions triggered the story, I started to make a lot of sketches of snails, flowers, slugs, bugs…trying to figure out what the theme would be.
Me: I love how Henry has a weakness, but he doesn’t let it stop him from achieving his dream. I also love that the plot doesn’t stop at him achieving his dream but keeps going. He develops his own strengths and shares them with others. Was this story always like this? Or did it go through many revisions with your critique group, etc.?
Katarina: There was a lot of editing with this particular book. I made at least seven dummy books before I was satisfied with the story. The initial version stoped with Henry achieving his dream: climbing on top of the tallest flower in the garden. But when I read the dummy book over and over again it didn’t feel right, as if there was something missing.
Our seven year old son, Teddy, helped me to spot the problem. He is autistic, which is a sort of disability in the neurotypical world we live in. I realized that by teaching him how our world works we might make his life easier in the future, but it is also up to the people who surround him to make some effort. I realized it is about some sort of compromise, where we need to find that meeting point where we can learn from one another and mutually enrich our lives. In case of HENRY THE SNAIL, I found out that the story isn’t only about him. It is also about the “society” he lives in. All the other slugs and snails are heroes too, because they accept Henry’s difference and are open minded enough to learn something new from him. Following this line of thought, I ended up adding the scenes where other snails and a slug learn to do the acrobatic stunts from Henry and later on establish their little garden circus.
Me: I love that. The garden that you have illustrated with its many plants and insects is beautiful. Did you use reference photos for your illustrations? Or did all of this come purely from your imagination?
Katarina: The garden pictured in the book is our garden two years ago. 🙂 Every plant in the book comes from a sketch of an actual plant that grew in the garden at that time. The only exception is the sunflower which I have tried to grow several times but haven’t yet succeeded.
Me: What is harder for you: writing or illustrating a story?
Katarina: I create illustrations and text simultaneously. So when I make a sketch of a scene that might appear it the book I immediately write text that would accompany it. Creating text and illustrations is a seamless process for me. The most difficult bit is the editing stage, when I already have an idea of how the story would go. I make some initial dummy books. Then I read them back and forth, trying to delete words or parts of scenes that aren’t crucial for the story itself and just try to keep the essential parts. I also try to find the right balance of text and illustration. I want them to complement each other, as opposed to conveying the same information twice for example.
Me: Any advice for new picture book writers and/or illustrators?
Katarina: Be patient. Always carry a sketchbook and walk with your eyes wide open as stories can be found literally anywhere around you. Be open to critique. When working on one story for a year or more, you might get easily stuck. Then it is important to have someone else to give you his/her opinion and possibly point you at the right direction.
Good advice Katarina. Thank you for stopping by my blog today.
Dear readers, if you haven’t read HENRY THE SNAIL yet, I highly recommend it. It’s a quiet story about a snail with a disability, and his determination to make his dreams come true.