“Striking” is the word the Kirkus review for Divya Srinivasan’s Octopus Alone uses to describe her artwork. With her sleek green and blue under-the-sea palette, Srinivasan tells the story of a true introvert, someone who needs time alone to re-boot from the noise of the world. And that introvert happens to be an octopus. In the end, she re-joins her friends, whom she misses, but for her own sake, she must swim far beyond the reef where the water is “gloriously empty…no one watching, no one to hide from.” (I’m trying to prepare my generally introverted self for a similar thing today, the first day of the ALA conference in Chicago!)
Srinivasan’s debut picture book, released in 2011, was similarly, if not more, striking. Little Owl’s Night tells the story of a big-eyed young owl who explores the joys of the night. Though he’s eager to know how the night ends, he fails to stay awake for it, falling deeply asleep near his beloved mama. Filled with a dramatic black palette and eye-catching greens and oranges, it’s a lyrical ode to the night.
I thought I’d check in with Divya to ask her about these two books, as well as what’s next on her plate.
You are also an animator. Did you work in animation before making picture books? If so, how does that inform your illustration work, if at all?
I made the illustrations and book trailers for Little Owl's Night and Octopus Alone on the computer. The artwork is in layers, so elements of the scene can sometimes feel like puppets to me, with parts I can move around.
My priority is to get the illustration just right—composition, mood and details. But I spend so much time in that world I'm creating that I can't help but also imagine it as an actual place, alive and moving.
Also, as I begin working on art for a book, I think a bit about making the book trailer afterward, so I suppose that might affect how I approach an illustration. (I hadn't thought about it until you asked!) I've really enjoyed making the book trailers, putting the pieces in motion and bringing scenes to life.
Did anything in particular inspire the story of Octopus Alone?
I'd been researching a trip to Hawaii with my sister. Looking at underwater photos, I thought a coral reef setting would be fun to draw with its interesting forms, vibrant colors and strange creatures. Then I knew I wanted the main character to be an octopus, partly because I've always enjoyed drawing them.
As I learned about octopuses and their behavior (solitary, curious, observant, quick to hide when discovered), I imagined a character that I could relate to in many ways. For instance, I can be pretty self-conscious around others sometimes, but when I'm alone I feel free to be myself without worry. And though I enjoy being social, I equally need a lot of time alone.
Also, I enjoy observing others but feel uncomfortable when I realize someone is looking at me. The part of the story when Octopus is horrified to realize that the seahorses had been staring at her when she thought she was alone…I was thinking of the time I was in the 5th grade in my backyard alone, belting out Madonna's “Borderline” with such emotion. Only to find the neighbor boy had been watching me the whole time. I was mortified. I ran inside and avoided him for weeks.
Your debut picture book, Little Owl's Night, has been praised for its prose, in particular. How many drafts did you go through for that story?
I had one draft that I worked on for a month or so that I ended up sending out (along with fully-rendered illustrations) to a handful of people, including Tracy Gates, who ended up becoming my editor, and Steven Malk, who is now my agent. Both of them had similar feedback for me—that there was a section that didn't fit.
I ended up keeping the beginning and end of the story pretty much the same—and took out an unnecessary (and now, to me, cringe-inducing) section from the middle—and replaced it with just a couple of new spreads. My first draft that I sent out was 500 words, and the final draft was about 280.
I tend to be pretty wordy off the bat, but I really enjoy editing things down.
What's next for you?
My next book is a Little Owl story that will be published by Viking Children's Books.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.