It’s not often you see a picture book biography about an American legend that concentrates on that person’s relationship to his/her pet. Sure, it’s been done before, but more often than not, pets aren’t part of the picture.

In an April release from Harcourt, Amy Novesky shines the spotlight on Billie Holiday and her love for dogs—“Lady Day’s dogs were her best friends of all”—in Mister and Lady Day: Billie Holiday and the Dog Who Loved Her. She had many dogs in her life, but one was special to her: a boxer, named Mister. Mister even waited for her in the wings when she performed on stage.  

Paired with Amy’s profile of the illustrious singer and her favorite pet are Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s playful mixed-media illustrations, rendered in primarily gouache and charcoal. Also to come from Newton this September (from Nancy Paulsen Books) are her illustrations for Marie Harris’ The Girl Who Heard Colors. This is a picture book that not only manages to explain the five senses to children, but it goes a step further in introducing them to synesthesia, the “very special extra sense.” The young girl in the story sees “the colors of everything she [hears].”

Here, Vanessa chats with me about both books, as well as her love for music, reflected in more than one book she has illustrated.

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What was your research like for the illustrations in Mister and Lady DayBillie Holiday and Dog

Billie Holiday’s life was very interesting. I felt like I knew her better as a singer and as a person when my research and illustrations were complete. I too am a singer, and I come from a family of musicians and singers. I've come to know there are things that we experience in life that can determine what you sing and even how you sing. 

Billie sang many sad songs. Many were based on the highs and lows of her life's experiences. I’ve faced a lot of challenges in my life, which have caused me to sing. Sad songs have gone to songs of joy. But life itself can cause you to sing those sad songs, and Billie sang the interpretation of her life very well. So, I do understand firsthand what it’s like to sing from your soul and to have it interpret where you are in life.…Music and song are ways to release a sea of emotions. 

Billie reminded me of my mom. The way she dressed and wore her hair was a lot like her. The scene where she walks Mister, with both of them in fur coats, was taken straight from a memory of my mother’s dress style, right down to the powder blue shoes. 

There were challenges in finding consistent photographs, because she had many looks. Some of her images show weight gain, and some were thin. There was little to draw from that showed consistency. 

Finding out that Billie loved dogs more than she loved people was a fascinating surprise. I too am an animal lover, so there is another piece of her life that reminds me of my own. I found this truth regarding Billie’s life through the manuscript and some other research. I had only heard of her singing career.

In the movie Lady Sings the Blues, we hear of her hard times and the musicians that she gigged with. But, in the film, there is no mention of her dogs. The movie didn’t hint of her love for animals, especially her dogs. I was able to find many images through my research, which included readings and other images in Google. In the end, I found the research to be very insightful. 

 Do you, by chGirl Who Heard Colorsance, know firsthand about synesthesia?

Yes, I do know and understand synesthesia. I see and hear in color. Words like “soft” appear to me in pinks and blues. Music and musical notes can come in purples and oranges.

With Marie’s text, I heard words and music in my head. I listened to a lot of Billie Holiday’s music while illustrating the book. They ranged from “Pennies in Heaven,” which appeared as bright oranges and yellows, to “Summer Time,” which was seen as a very bluesy purple. There always seemed to be a range of emotion and color going on at the same time. 

Many books you've illustrated have been about music. What is it that appeals to you about such picture books? Is part of it having grown up in a musical family?

As a lover of music, I long to share what I see through illustration and color. What would that scene look like with music? What kind of character would come out of the music? What kind of people would groove to the music? I believe these books come to me, because there is a mutual attraction to sound and color.

Being a part of a musical family could be part of the reason, but it’s not the only reason. I am attracted to sound: the sound of my mother’s voice, the sound of a baby crying, the giggles of a child. These sounds excite, inspire and move me to create.

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.