Back in high school, award-winning author-illustrator Shadra Strickland read The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison’s 1970 debut novel. Strickland describes it as one of the most powerful books she read in her teens and a story that’s stuck with her throughout her life.
Fast forward to the present day: Shadra has illustrated the newest picture book penned by both Morrison and her son, Slade. Toni and Slade aren’t new to picture book collaborations; this marks their fifth one together. But it’s their first to be illustrated by Strickland.
Please, Louise tells the story in rhyme of a young girl, “sometimes lonely” and “sometimes sad,” who heads out on a rainy, gray day to her local library. On her way there, she has her share of frights—thunder, sheets of rain, birds of prey, menacing junkyards, dog and scary houses—but they are quickly forgotten when she walks through the library doors. “Here is shelter from any storm. In this place you are never alone,” write the Morrisons.
Strickland’s illustrations for the book are what the Kirkus review describes as “delicate, detailed and beautiful.” They are watercolor and gouache paintings, though—when I asked her to chat about her experience creating the artwork for this book—Strickland tells me that she enjoys playing with other materials that are a good match for the dramatic action of the story, as well as the character. “In projecting Louise's imagined fears,” she explains, “I used a wax resist technique with crayon and watercolor washes. [Author-illustrator] Bernadette Watts was a great source of inspiration for me.”
Strickland acknowledges the self-imposed strains of illustrating a story told, in part, by a Pulitzer Prize- and Nobel Prize-winning author, especially for a text that intentionally left the specifics up to her. “Because the narrative was ambiguous, the challenge for me was coming up with a visual narrative to help energize the text. The anxiety was twofold: collaboration with another author's text is always nerve-wracking, and I try to deliver a solid product that everyone is happy with. It only made matters worse knowing that the authors were TONI AND SLADE MORISSON. (No pressure there.)”
She certainly makes it look easy, though, having succeeded in creating a vivid visual storyline. Strickland goes on to explain that the initial visual concepts for her illustrated books tend to come quickly to her. “Once I nail down a concept to hold everything together, I go on scavenger hunts to reveal references that I wouldn't actively seek out online or in my head. Between lots of trips to the library, walks around my neighborhood, working with models and using the Web for supporting details, it all develops steadily from start to finish. When I started working on Louise's story, I had just moved to Maryland, so everything in the world was new and exciting to me. It made it easy to collect imagery that I might use in the book.”
To boot, the protagonist—the timid yet curious Louise—came fairly quickly to Shadra’s mind too. “I wanted to stay true to the expression I began with in the initial sketches, so I used chunkier drawing tools. Since the first half of the story is told in purplish grays, her bright yellow rain gear and polka dot dress make her spot of sunshine on each page. Her little red wagon wasn't even a question!”
Please, Louise hits shelves in early March. And for other reasons, it’s a busy time for Strickland. This weekend, she’ll be co-presenting on the Art of the Picture Book for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ 15th Annual Winter Conference. “I'll be sitting next to Oliver Jeffers, Marla Frazee, Raul Colón, Peter Brown, and Arthur Levine, trying to sound intelligent about which brand of crayons I prefer,” Strickland says.
But something tells me she’ll do fine. After all, speaking about illustration is not at all new to her. For the past several years, she’s been teaching illustration at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Teaching brings her joy, especially sending her students off, she tells me, to the picture book section of their campus library or the children's section of the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore to explore the rich picture-book tradition.
And what’s next for someone who wears so many hats—illustrator, author, professor, designer and consultant? Well, she has a logo to design! Her own first manuscript, Jump In, was sold last year, and Strickland is now using that title as a brand and guide for her own business structure—all in the name, she says, of keeping her organized. “The philosophy behind [Jump In] is very much how I live my life. Until now, I hadn't thought of my business practice as being very separate from my personal life, but as things grow and as I become more involved with my community and try on other creative hats, it makes sense that all of my artistic pursuits be contained in a neat, tax-friendly box.”
She’s also trying her hand at digital collage for her next book with Lee and Low, called Sunday Shopping, written by Sally Derby.
And that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Strickland’s plans. Something tells me a peek at her schedule book might be dizzying. It’s a lucky thing for us picture-book readers, not to mention her students.
Jump in, indeed.
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.