One of the books Jambo sent to 3-4 year olds in June was Over and Under the Pond, written by Kate Messner and illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal. Chris was kind enough to do an interview with Jambo Books in July. Our conversation with him ranged from how he got started in illustration, his hobbies and inspiration, as well as how the family in Over and Under the Pond ended up being people of color.
Jambo Books (JB): Hi Chris. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where do you live?
Christopher Silas Neal (CSN): Thank you for having me on your Blog. I live in Brooklyn in a section named Bed-Stuy and my studio is close by in Greenpoint.
JB: How long have you been illustrating?
CSN: I’ve been illustrating for about 16 years. My first assignments were editorial – making art for magazines and then I expanded to making posters, book covers and advertising. I started work on my first picture book Over and Under the Snow around 2010.
JB: How did you get started as an illustrator and author?
CSN: I studied music and then advertising at the University of Colorado and my last semester of school, I took a design elective. The teacher of that course gave me a job and I spent the next three years learning the ins-and-outs of graphic design on the job. When I moved to New York, I met a few illustrators and decided that’s what I REALLY wanted to do. I quit my design job, started drawing, built a website, and lugged my portfolio around the city showing it to whomever would look at it.
JB: You moved from being a musician to being an illustrator. Do you still jam when you have time?
CSN: I played the drums which can be difficult to maintain without room and space to make a lot of noise. I play a little guitar every now and then but for now my music days are over.
JB: The characters in Over and Under the Pond portray a universal experience. How was the decision made to make the characters in Over and Under the Pond an African-American family?
CSN: Over and Under the Pond is the third book in a series. The first two books feature girls and I think readers, parents, teachers and librarians appreciate that in both books, girls are in nature, getting their hands dirty, learning about their environment and science, and in general just moving beyond how girl characters have typically been portrayed in picture books. With this third book, I wanted to continue that spirit of expanding and broadening the picture book space to more people and featuring a black family just felt right for the story. Kate Messner and I have signed up for two more books and I will continue to deepen those connections with readers and add diversity to my characters. I’m mixed race and I’d like to feature a mixed race family in one of the next books. Kate doesn’t typically specify gender or race in the manuscript so its up to me to add identity to the characters.
JB: There is a softness in the way your characters relate to each other. I can see in Over and Under the Pond and the process drawings for The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues (among others) that there are strong bonds between your characters. How do you draw characters that convey that relationship of closeness? Do you study people when you’re out and about?
CSN: Thank you for saying so. My work is often described to me as soft, quiet, empathic and feminine. I see these as my strengths and I keep that in mind when I’m making an image. But to be honest, it’s just how the work comes out. Even if I tried to do something different, the colors, lines and shapes just come out that way. So I think that closeness, softness and connectivity between my characters is just part of my visual language. It’s somewhat intuitive.
JB: How do you meet the authors you work with?
CSN: The way it works for most picture books is that the author submits a manuscript to a publisher and then the editor and art director at the publisher find an artist to pair with the story. That’s the way it has been with all of my collaborations so far. In most cases, the author and illustrator don’t meet until after the book is finished. Everything is done through the publisher. The author writes, I draw, there’s little back and forth, but for the most part we do our own thing and then put it together.
JB: How do you decide on the feel for the illustrations for the book? As we read more children’s books we see that some are bright and busy while others are calmer and flow softly. Is that an iterative process with the author or publisher?
CSN: It’s all about how I respond to the manuscript. What I get from the publisher is a plain word document with nothing but the words and from there, I try to envision how it will work as a book. I think about the size of the book, the layout and type face, and of course the art, too—the colors and shapes. I think about how the words make me feel and follow suit with my images. As I mentioned above, I have a particular visual voice. There’s some room for movement within that—a picture could be busy or loud or soft or quiet—but once the publisher and author have agreed to work with me on the book, they pretty much know they will get a certain kind of vibe. That being said, my work slowly evolves with each new project—new textures, new drawing techniques—so it’s not static.
JB: Was writing your own children’s books always in your plan?
CSN: When I first started as an illustrator, I wasn’t sure I wanted to try picture books. The picture book space was different 20 years ago and I didn’t see how my style fit with in it. Chronicle books was already aware of my work in magazines and book covers when they approached me about doing Over and Under the Snow. After that I was hooked and started writing down my own ideas for books. There are so many more types of picture book styles now than 20 years ago and I’m grateful I’ve been able to carve out my own little nook.
JB: Who are your favorite Instagram/FB/Twitter follows?
I really enjoy learning about new books and appreciate all of the picture book bloggers/instagramers who really love books and put their hearts and talents into celebrating picture book makers. There’s too many to list all of them but to name a few: @readingninja, @readingisourthing, @hereweread, @book.nerd.mommy, @pragmaticmom, @secretsocietyofbooks, @picturebookblogger, @fabbookreviews, and so many more.
JB: Who are your favorite artists that you look to for inspiration?
CSN: From when I was a kid until now my favorite picture book is Frederick by Leo Lionni. It’s simple, poetic and beautiful. All of his work is.
JB: Chris, thank you for your time and for creating a beautiful book that all families will be able to relate to and cherish.
CSN: You’re welcome. It was my pleasure.
~~~~~~ Learn more about Christopher Silas Neal and his work below~~~~~~
Author of I Won’t Eat That!
“Requests for repeated readings are inevitable.”—School Library Journal
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Books and Illustration