Interview with Lynne Avril

If you have walked into the children's book section of a bookstore lately, then you have probably seen at least a couple of picture books illustrated by Lynne Avril displayed prominently. Lynne is an amazingly prolific (in the best possible way) and talented illustrator of more than 50 books for children and the young at heart, including the new Amelia Bedelia picture book series (Amelia Bedelia's First Vote comes out next week), Wagons Ho!, Every Cowgirl Loves a Rodeo, and The Pirate of Kindergarten.

I had the chance to meet and make some art with Lynne this winter when in Montana for the holidays and I can tell you she is just as fun and sweet as her artwork. I think you will see what I  mean . . .

Ben (B): It feels like whenever I'm in a bookstore I see at least 10 of the books you've illustrated prominently displayed. But how did you get started? What was your road to publication?

Lynne (L): I never intended to become a book illustrator! I considered myself a painter, but was often at a loss for a subject I felt worthwhile  of painting. In the late 80's, I was doing  freelance graphic art after my second child was born, and I responded to a call for children's illustration. I had very few things in my portfolio that fit that genre, but there were some pieces that  had been done for birth announcements that had kids and animals. I showed those to the art director, got the job, and BAM that was it. Never to worry about subject matter again, I sat down and let my imagination go on a story that was handed to me and I knew I'd hit the jackpot. And to get PAID for it too? BINGO. I did about 18 little black and white books for them, then started sending samples off to NYC publishing houses and two years later, I was working on my first book with Simon and Schuster.

B: What have been a couple of your favorite projects?

L: I have enjoyed the books that I have had to research on the subject matter - let me say especially "Tiny and Bigman" by Phillis Gershator, which is set in the Carribbean. That, of course, necessitated a week's worth of study on the islands of St Thomas and St John.  Another book is "Wagons Ho" about two families trips along the Oregon Trail in the years 1846 and the present.

On the other hand, books that have allowed me to be very free in my style are always fun too. I was able to use a lot of collage and mixed media in "Changing You",  a book by Dr Gail Salz about the changes in adolescents. Books that have a lot of humor, such as that one, are always favorites of mine!

B: Do you have an interest in writing?

L: I do, and I am working quietly away on it.

B: What are your favorite tools of the trade? Feel free to be specific!

L: I have never made my art on the computer. I am a real scissors, tape, and pencil girl. I love the smell and feel of real paint and I love the process. I don't think one is better than the other, I just think they are two ways of doing the same thing.  I love gouache paint because the colors are so vivid, and it's opaque, so if you screw up you can fix it easily. I love a good toothbrush for spattering paint and I like Prismacolor pencils for their nice waxiness.

B: What is your usual process when illustrating a book?

L: Well, I start out with little tiny thumbnail sketches, sometimes right on the manuscript as I read it. Then I enlarge those on a copier to about 50% of the final size, refine them, and make a dummy. I scan those to my art director, who sets them into a PDF with the type. She sends me a hard copy of that and I go from there to final art. I develop my characters and their families, often by refering to family or friends, or kids I have seen and sketched in a sketchbook I keep in my purse.

B: What is your studio/workspace like?

L: My house has become my studio. After my kids grew up and left home, I tore out the carpet, put in acid stained cement floors. So now I can drip paint wherever I want. In fact, the floor around my desk is absolutey beautiful  - a Jackson Pollock masterpiece! Where I work used to be the living room. It has a lot of light and an open feeling.

(the backyard)

B: What books did you love as a child? Today?

L: When I was a kid, I loved the real Mary Poppins (before Disney), Heidi, Black Beauty, the Jungle Book (again, before Disney), Misty of Chincoteague and a lot more. We didn't really have picture books then, in the 50's. It was more story books. But I read a lot. These days, I spend two months of the year in Paris and I get lots of inspiration from the children's illustration done in Europe. My favorites are the Larousse anthologies of children's tales. I have three volumes and they are magnificently illustrated.

B: What is something most people don't know about you?

L: Probably that at night I turn into a musician and play bass in blues bands! I have played with one band for 20 years now. I play once or twice a week regularly. I am going out tonight - meet me there!

B: What inspires you?

L: What inspires me is some inner drive - I am only happy when I am working. It is what I am supposed to do here in this life. I feel so lucky that I was given this job!

B: What is a typical day like for you?

L: I get up early every morning and enjoy the sunrise. This morning I had a beautiful little fire in my chiminea outside on the front patio and sat there drinking coffee with my dog watching the sun come up. I read the paper, knit, read a book, write, and organize my day, then start working.  I like to save the middle part of the day for errands, when the light isn't as pretty in the studio. I pretty much work all day, but  from 9 to midnight is a really productive time. I like to take a walk in the desert late in the afternoon when the light is golden.  I work 7 days a week - one day is like another, but there is a certain freedom in hours which is what I love about working for myself - I feel I own my time.

B: Any favorite art games?

L: This is my favorite: when you're out to dinner with friends, you take out your sktechbook and draw a rectangle representing the table. Then each person draws the person on his right, and you pass the sketchbook around until everyone has been drawn.Then you pass it back the other way and every person makes a comment about the person on his left. Hilarious!

All Illustrations in this post are copyright © by Lynne Avril Cravath