In author-illustrator Mariana Ruiz Johnson’s dreamy picture book While You Are Sleeping, people and animals wine, dine, dance, bike, bathe, paint, and take flight—all through the night.

Told entirely through images, this tale of what happens while a yellow-haired child sleeps in a seaside city won the 2015 Silent Book Contest at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. At once realistic and surrealistic, colorful and commotional, it is an “alluring, wordless enchantment” that demands rereading, Kirkus writes in a starred review.

Ruiz lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with her husband and son. For this condensed interview, she corresponded with Kirkus via email.


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In the jacket copy of While You Are Sleeping, it reads: “While you are sleeping, does the rest of the world sleep, too?” Did you write this book as an answer to that question? How did this book come to be?

When my first child was very small, we were once walking back home after attending a party, and night fell. To us as adults it was something normal, but my boy was amazed by the city lights and all the life that happened at nighttime, when he usually was at home, fast asleep in his cozy bed. A few months later I travelled alone to another city for work, and I myself discovered I hadn’t seen the nightlife for so many months...because the night for a small baby and his mom is usually a very homelike thing. I thought of Pedro sleeping in his bed, while a lot of things happened in the city. So then the idea of the book came to me.

How would you characterize your artistic style? What materials and processes did you use to make these illustrations? And who are your artistic influences?

I work with what I call digital collage, as I use handmade textures and put them together using digital software. I studied fine arts. I love modern art in general, and as I travelled a lot around Latin America I found inspiration in folk and popular arts and crafts, especially in the colorful palettes, perspective-free compositions, and the profusion of ornamental elements, such as plants and animals. Watching movies and series also gives me great visual resources and ideas for stories.

As an illustrator of children’s books, do you find it limiting or freeing to tell a story without words?

To me, silent books are a unique opportunity for illustrators to put in action all their capacity of storytelling with images, to express their visual poetry and narration in a pure, universal way. Everyone can relate and understand images. Nevertheless, it isn’t easy to develop a silent book, because when your illustrations are anchored in words, the written text is of great help. When images have the whole responsibility of creating sense, the illustrations and the sequence have to be very clear in order to be understood and enjoyed.

In While You Are Sleeping, readers see a host of exciting and fantastical things that people and creatures are doing while a child sleep. Are you a night owl? What do you do late at night?

As I said before, motherhood takes you away temporarily from outdoors nightlife (also, you are so tired!) but I really like going out at night when Ruiz Johnson Cover possible and enjoying all those exciting things. But While You Are Sleeping is also about dreams and fantasy, and this is a personal trip we all have when we go to bed. Night is always magical and mysterious, whether you are partying in the city, rocking a baby to sleep, silently watching the stars, or dreaming peacefully in your bed.

Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.