When Melissa at Peachtree Publishers contacted me about participating in a blog tour for Carmen Agra Deedy’s new book 14 Cows for America, I immediately said yes. Although I was unable to interview Ms. Deedy, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing the book’s very talenting illustrator, Thomas Gonzalez. All (two!) of my previous author interviews have taken place via email, but this one was different. I actually had the opportunity to speak to Mr. Gonzalez by telephone! I was a bundle of nervous anticipation, and while I’m pretty sure I didn’t get everything down that we talked about, I did my best to capture the spirit of our conversation. Conducting this interview certainly made me regret the day I dropped out of that basic reporting class back during my freshman year of college! Seriously, though, Mr. Gonzalez couldn’t have been nicer or more accomodating to this little ol’ book blogger. Many thanks to him and Melissa for this awesome opportunity! And now, without further ado, a little peek into our conversation:
Hope Is the Word: Hi! Welcome to Hope Is the Word. This is my first illustrator interview, and I am extremely excited about this opportunity! First of all, tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
Thomas Gonzalez: I’ve been drawing since I was a child. Growing up in Havana, Cuba, I would visit the zoo or attend baseball games and I would always draw pictures of what I saw. It was easier to draw pictures than it was to talk about them. When I moved to the United States in 1970, I did not know the language, so I drew instead. I took a high school art class, but I just took it for an easy grade. I wanted to go to college for advertising and design. Ironically, I used my painting portfolio for a scholarship.
Hope Is the Word: Is this your first picture book, or have you illustrated others?
Thomas Gonzalez: No, I’ve never illustrated a picture book before this one. My background is in advertising. I’ve done art directing and project design for Coke, Delta, and other companies.
Hope Is the Word: Can you tell us a little bit about the process of illustrating a picture book in terms of how an author and an artist come together? Did you and Carmen Agra Deedy actually collaborate on the book, or was the writing process already complete before you began your work?
Thomas Gonzalez: I left my job at Coke in 2007, and I met Carmen after this. We were actually discussing another project when I saw the draft for 14 Cows for America. Carmen already had another artist for the book, but that fell through, and I really wanted to opportunity to illustrate it.
Hope Is the Word: 14 Cows for America is set in Kenya. Did you actually go to Africa to experience what you’d be illustrating first-hand? What was this process like?
Thomas Gonzalez: I did not go to Africa, but I did a lot of research to illustrate this book. We talked to representatives of the Kenyan Embassy, and Carmen actually tracked Kimeli [Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah, whose story is told in the book] at Stanford. I worked really hard to understand the Masai mentality. My wife and I watched a lot of movies about the Masai.
Hope Is the Word: What art mediums did you use for this book?
Thomas Gonzalez: I used a little bit of everything for this book, so it’s really a mixed media presentation. The illustration process went like this: I did pencil sketches to achieve a frame of reference so that everything would be very precise and the relationship between the objects would be correct. After the line drawings came pastel drawings, in which I worked in the shapes and shadows. After this process, I used colored pencils, then airbrush, and finally, ink.
Hope Is the Word: I usually ask authors I interview about their favorite children’s authors. However, since you’re an artist, I’ll ask you about your favorite artist and/or your favorite children’s book illustrator. Who inspires you?
Thomas Gonzalez: I really don’t have a favorite illustrator. Instead, I have favorite ideas or concepts. I am inspired by Maxfield Parrish, an artist and illustrator from the turn of the century. When you die, his illustrations are the place you’d want to go. He did some children’s books, stories.
Hope Is the Word: Can you offer any advice to any young person out there who is interested in pursuing a career in art or illustration?
Thomas Gonzalez: It’s not technique, it’s idea. The best program you learn is your head. Everything starts with a sketch, so what’s in your head is way more important than learning a program. For example, I’ve heard that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were first created on a napkin in a restaurant.
As Mr. Gonzalez and I chatted at the end of the interview, I asked him if there was anything about the book he wanted to share with my readers. He related this about the ending of the book, which is the stunning portrait of half of a boy’s face with a reflection of the Twin Towers in his eye: ”No one could come up with a way to end the book, but I had done the sketch that they used as the ending first.”
He also said that he incorporated symbols of the Twin Towers throughout the book. For example, on one page which details the Masai tribe coming together under an acacia tree to hear the story of September 11, the illustration shows the acacia tree blurring into a brush of color–fire orange, smoky grey, etc.–all the colors we might associate with that terrible day. In the book, there is a woman (a part of the Masai crowd) on the far right hand side of the page, but Mr. Gonzalez said that originally there was an illustration of the Twin Towers there, connected by the smoke and fire to the acacia tree. He went on to point out that on many of the pages, on the right hand side of the two-page spread, there are two obvious objects sticking up (usually two sticks). These objects represent the Twin Towers. I told him it is sort of like Where’s Waldo?
There you have it folks–my first live interview with a real, live artist! I am excited beyond words! I am really amazed at the creativity and talent involved in something that seems so simple–a child’s picture book. Once again, I am truly honored that I had this opportunity.
Don’t forget to come back tomorrow to read my review of 14 Cows for America to learn how you can win a copy of this awesome book!
Oh, and one more thing–if you’re interested in hearing Tom Gonzalez talk about the book for yourself, as well as seeing some of his artwork, here’s a little YouTube video clip (hat-tip to Natasha at Maw Books Blog for this!). You can even see the illustration with the fire and smoke beginning at 2:24 that I mentioned above. It’s really interesting to see the sketch that Mr. Gonzalez began with beside the final illustration that is in the book. The clip is a little slow (it has to reload or something every few seconds), but it is most definitely worth it! This, and a wealth of other information about this amazing story, is also available at 14 Cows for America.