Sue deGennaro is a CAE tutor and an award-winning author and illustrator. Here she discusses her creative process and inspiration.
- What is your illustration style inspired by?
My illustration style is mostly inspired by the materials I use and this changes all the time. I have always loved poking around in art supply shops. Finding new art materials is a fantastic way to approach creating a new picture book.
- Tell us a little about your process from conception to finished book. Where does it all start?
I usually start with a manuscript. I will rework a few drafts with my publisher while at the same time coming up with character illustrations for the story. These are rough concepts, leaving plenty of room for change/editing. From this initial stage, I will move into completing a series of storyboards where I illustrate the entire book. This is the stage where ideas emerge and a visual narrative is created. These storyboards are submitted for feedback and are reworked as required. The storyboarding stage takes many months and endless redrawing. Within this time, I will also do up a series of colour roughs, giving the publishers a stronger vision of how the book will look. Once I have final approval, I will move into final art.
- Are there specific themes that you find yourself returning to every book?
Yes, I am always writing stories about being misunderstood. I am really curious about how our actions affects others and how it is so impossible to read the internal landscape of another person. The underdog in my stories really just want to be loved and seen. A very common human condition.
- What’s harder – writing or illustrating a picture book?
Both are hard. The writing of a story can sometimes take years. In truth, most of this is thinking time. It’s difficult condensing a big concept into 300 words. You really need to know what your story is about. The illustrations on the other hand are more physically labour intensive than the writing process. It involves an enormous amount of drawing and redrawing. Not only do you need to create your characters but you also need to create the world they inhabit.
- Are there any books you have illustrated or wrote (or both) that are extra special to you?
All of my books are special in their own way. It takes up to eight months to create the artwork for a picture book. I know each of my characters so intimately by the end of a book.
- What were your favourite picture books growing up? Do you think they inspired you to follow a similar path?
We didn’t have any books in my home when I was growing up. Neither of my parents went to high school. Reading certainly wasn’t the thing it is today. However, in saying that, I remember my primary school had a tiny library and I completely loved Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman and there was also a graphic picture book of Richard Adams’ Watership Down. As someone who struggled with reading, I loved how I was able to still ‘read’ the story by reading the pictures. Understanding the power of a visual narrative has definitely influenced me as a creator.
- What’s involved in being an author/illustrator? Talk us through the various things an author/illustrator might get up to in a week.
I draw and write every day, solving problems both visual and written. This takes up most of my week. I am really regimented with getting into my studio by 8 am most mornings. Toward the pointy end of the development of a book – this is usually at the completion of the final storyboard – there are usually lots of phone calls and emails with my publisher and editors. This is a perfect time to double check everything and iron out any doubts. As with any small business, there is also lots of paperwork that everyone has to do. I usually leave this to the end of the day. Another huge part of my job involves visiting and talking in primary schools. I love this part of being an author/illustrator as it gives me the opportunity to meet my audience and hear how it is that they interpret my work.
- What do you enjoy most about teaching?
I love watching my students being blown away by their own creativity. There is nothing quite like being forced to write and seeing what comes out. I also love the depth of understanding that happens over the period of a short course. People often walk into the class thinking that writing for children is super easy and usually leave realising that is so far from the truth. I think experiencing the effort needed in creating an engaging story is a more humbling place to start. That way, you will be more prepared to put in the hard work required with any creative pursuit.
- A student wants to write and illustrate their own picture book. Where do you recommend they start? Do you find there are common misconceptions about what’s involved in writing and illustrating a book for children?
I recommend starting by reading lots and lots of picture books. The form is so broad it is often good to see what you do and don’t like. This will be so helpful when it comes time to write. There are lots of websites by Australian children’s book creators that are good to look at. They have a heap of helpful do’s and don’ts. Stay away from being too moralistic and heavy handed and if you are going to write a kid’s book about bums make it really good. Just saying the word bum over and over again is not enough.And of course, if you really want to create your own
picture book then come and do one of my courses, you will learn a heap.
- What are some memorable moments from your career (teaching and writing/illustrating)?
The most memorable moments of my career so far are tied in with winning awards. In 2013, I was shortlisted for my first book The Pros and Cons of being a Frog for the Children’s Book Council of Australia and last month, Missing Marvin was awarded the 2019 Children’s Peace Literature Award. It’s a fantastic honour to have my work recognised.
Inspired to write your own picture book? Check out Sue’s upcoming course Writing Children’s Picture Books at the CAE.