Author/Illustrator Interview: Peter Brown

Woohoo! I am excited about our guest today, Peter Brown, the author and illustrator of The Curious Garden (Little, Brown Young Readers, April 2009). Check out that picture of Peter up a tree. Isn't it amazing? I love that picture.

The Curious Garden is the inspiring story of a curious boy named Liam who discovers a few scraggly plants on an abandoned railway. Liam lives in a city devoid of nature and color, so he decides to nurture the plants. Soon the plants grow into a very pretty garden. The garden is curious like Liam, so it decides to spread and explore the rest of the railway. The garden's curiosity doesn't stop there. With the help of Liam and more "gardeners," the garden spreads throughout and explores the rest of the city, turning the city into a truly wondrous place. The plants end up covering almost everything!

I love how The Curious Garden celebrates beauty in nature and how it encourages both big and small readers to try to make a difference - to try to make the world a better place. But what really impresses me about the book are the illustrations. There are bright spring colors and really interesting shapes and details. The illustrations of the garden lovingly taking over the cityscape are stirring. My favorite illustration in the book is of Liam all grown up and with his own family. The first tree Liam tended on the railway has grown along with Liam and Liam is tending it while his family is tending the rest of the original garden patch.

Peter has kindly answered my questions and shared pictures of himself and sketches for and final illustrations from The Curious Garden. For more illustrations from the book, please check out this post from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast and Peter's website. And you really must check out the book itself. It's lovely and charming.

I think this is the most number of questions I've ever asked an author or illustrator for a blog interview. Thank you so much, Peter! I just couldn't help myself. I was... curious. :o)

I hope you all enjoy my interview of Peter! Here it is:

What was your path to publication as an author/illustrator for children?

I've been drawing and dreaming up stories since I learned how to hold a pencil. For a while I thought I wanted to work in animation, which would also involve storytelling and making art. But when I was in art school at Art Center College of Design, I realized that I'd have more creative freedom making children's books. And so I've been focused on kids books ever since.

When I moved to New York City in 2002 I began working on my idea for a picture book about flightless birds finding a way to fly. And around that time I was fortunate enough to meet a great children's book editor named Alvina Ling. Alvina loved my idea, helped me get Flight of the Dodo published at Little, Brown and Co., and has been my editor ever since.

What is your creative process when writing and illustrating a children's book? And what are your chosen mediums?

Every book I make comes about in a unique way. But usually I start with a little nugget of an idea, a few words, or a quick sketch. If I can't stop thinking about that idea, and if I find myself adding to it more and more, I know that I've got something. I'll usually go back and forth between planning the overarching theme of the story, and writing down specific details, and designing characters or scenes. The words will inform my sketches, the sketches will inform my words, and slowly but surely the words and pictures will start to look like a picture book. Once I feel good about it, I'll share it with my editor who will help me polish it off. When we've agreed on the words and sketches for each illustration, I'll use Photoshop to create color studies for each illustration. Eventually I'll sit down to paint the final illustrations and I'll have the sketches and color studies to use as reference. I usually paint the final art with acrylic paint, but I'm starting to use pencil drawings and Photoshop on some new projects.

{sketch for meadow illustration in The Curious Garden}

{final sketch for meadow illustration}

{color study for meadow illustration}

{final meadow illustration in The Curious Garden}

What motivates, inspires, and influences you as an author/illustrator for children?

Motivation is a funny thing...there are times when I'm motivated 24 hours a day, and then there will be whole months when I just don't feel like creating much of anything. But overall, I'm motivated by the idea that one of my books could be part of a child's journey to falling in love with reading. The world needs more voracious readers! Inspiration is also unpredictable, but I always find inspiration at art museums, or beautiful natural settings, or places with lots of fascinating history. I sometimes find inspiration in things as simple as scraggly wildflowers growing from the cracks in a sidewalk, or memories from my childhood, or a particularly quirky personality. Lately I've been inspired by kids themselves.

My writing and ideas are most influenced by unique and wondrous and humorous stories, like those of Hayao Miyazaki or Roald Dahl or James Marshall. My art is very much influenced by folk art, illustration from the 1950's and '60's, and 3D animation.

Why did you write The Curious Garden? What's "the story behind the story"?

The Curious Garden was very much inspired by a place in New York City called the High Line. The High Line is an old abandoned, elevated railway that has become completely overgrown by wildflowers and plants and trees. They've just turned it into a spectacular park, but I first fell in love with it when it was untouched and wild. I began discovering other places similar to the High Line in cities all over the United States and Europe. I loved the idea that nature could spontaneously grow in unexpected places, like in the middle of a "concrete jungle." And imagined what a young city boy would do if he discovered wildflowers and plants growing in the middle of his grey, dreary city.

What do you want young readers to take away from The Curious Garden?

More than anything, I want kids to feel a sense of wonder and amazement with nature. I want them to imagine a world where people and nature lived more harmoniously, and to realize that such a world is possible.

How do you handle any criticism about your work? How do you handle praise for your work?

It can sometimes be frustrating hearing criticism of my work, but that's usually because the critic hasn't put much thought into their comments. A thoughtful criticism is a valuable thing, even if it's negative. But a thoughtless criticism doesn't help anybody. On the other hand, hearing someone say "I love your book" is always nice, but I'd rather have a thoughtful explanation as to why that person loves my work. I think most artists (even silly ones like me) just want their work to be taken seriously, regardless of what people think of it.

What is your favorite response to The Curious Garden from a critic? What is your favorite response to The Curious Garden from a young reader?

Well, the New York Times called it "quietly marvelous," which was incredible. The most important critics, of course, are the kids who read my books. I've received a lot of wonderful responses from kids, but I guess one that sticks out in my head was from a boy in Seattle who said "Now I see Curious Gardens everywhere!"

The Curious Garden is available in bookstores in Asia! How do you feel about the book being read in different parts of the world? Was having international readers one of your dreams when you started writing and illustrating for children?

I LOVE the idea that my books are available in other countries and in other languages. I hope that my books are universal enough to appeal to kids in a wide variety of cultures. I could have easily designed The Curious Garden to be an "American" or "New York City" book, but I thought people outside of the US might also enjoy it. So I made sure the story took place in an unspecific place and time.

Do you have your own garden? What plants do you have in it?

I have a very small "garden" on my windowsills in my Brooklyn apartment. I have a basil plant (I love cooking with basil) and a jade plant, and some kind of palm tree, and several other mysterious plants. It's not much, but it helps add life and color to my apartment. I look forward to someday having a yard where I can design my very own garden.

What is your strongest memory from when you were Liam's age?

I grew up near Princeton, New Jersey, in a lovely rural area. I spent a lot of time playing in the fields and woods. Deep in the woods, my friends and I discovered a stream, with little waterfalls and frogs and fish and crustaceans. We felt like it was OUR stream! We went there every chance we could. Sometimes we'd race through the woods to the stream, and once we got there we'd just sit quietly on the big log that stretched across the water. I wish every child had the chance to find comfort and peace and adventure in a natural setting like that forest stream.

What children's books would you like your own books to match or surpass (in terms of writing, illustrations, impact/influence, popularity/sales, or awards)?

I actually don't think I'd want to surpass my favorite books, but it'd be an honor to have my work compared to them. As an adult, some of my favorite children's books are: Where the Wild Things Are, The Stinky Cheese Man, the George and Martha books, the Toot and Puddle books...I could name many favorites.

What were you like as a young reader? What were your favorite books? Who were your favorite authors?

As a young reader I liked adventure and fantasy and mystery and humor. Some of my favorite children's books were: Where the Wild Things Are, Green Eggs and Ham, the Frog and Toad books, James Marshall's books, Richard Scarry's books and Golden Books.

Do you have new favorite children's books/authors as an adult?

I now love the books of Emily Gravett, Brian Floca, a French children's book called Big Rabbit's Bad Day, and the books of Oliver Jeffers.

What children's books are you reading now?

I'm about to finally read the last book in the Harry Potter series. Then I'll read The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart. I'm always looking at new picture books in stores and libraries, too many to name.

What were you like as a young artist?

My grandfather was an amateur painter. So at a young age I would see him hunched over his desk painting abstract landscapes, and I realized that making art was a fine use of one's time. I loved inventing characters. I would take a big sheet of paper and divide it up into six boxes. In each box I would draw a different monster, alien or other bizarre creature. And below each creature I'd list their name, favorite food, hometown, personal motto, etc. I had a lot of fun imagining all the details of those characters and the worlds they lived in, and now I do the same thing for my career.

Who are your favorite children's book illustrators? Why are they your favorites?

John Burningham's variety of techniques and materials work together seamlessly. Holly Hobbie makes her gorgeous watercolors look effortless. W. W. Denslow's quirky designs and drawing style are an inspiration. I love Anthony Browne's compositions, drawing style and use of pattern. Lisbeth Zwerger is a master of composition and design. Alice and Martin Provensen's flat painting style is comforting and beautiful. Mary Blair's sense of color is uncanny.

If you were to visit the Philippines, would you a) visit white sand beaches and underground caves, go sailing, go snorkeling and scuba diving, etc.; or b) check out the natural wonders above ground, like the Taal Volcano, the Banaue Rice Terraces, and the Chocolate Hills. Why?

I would want to do ALL of those things! But since I get bad sunburns, I would probably prefer to stay away from the beach and instead explore volcanoes, rice terraces and hills. I do love mountains and forests.

Do you have a message for your readers in Asia?

Be Curious!!!

Thank you again, Peter! I learned so much from your answers and the photos and art you shared. You are awesome.

Yes folks, I'm a fangirl. :o)



Jules at 7-Imp said…
I love Peter's work. Thanks for the interview. Gotta read The Curious Garden already.

And I LOVE LOVE John Burningham's books. So much. I can hardly say.
Tarie said…
Jules, yes, you gotta read The Curious Garden! :o)
alvina said…
Great interview! I hadn't seen that photo of Peter in the tree--pretty cool. Maybe we should use that as his author photo in reprints of the book!
Tarie said…
Hi, Alvina! You did a beautiful job editing The Curious Garden. :o)

And re the picture of Peter up a tree: I knowww. It's to die for!
jama said…
Totally fab interview -- such great questions and thoughtful answers. I love The Curious Garden and want to see the High Line.
Charlotte said…
Thanks for the great interview. This book has been on my look for list for ages, so thanks also for kicking it up quite a few notches!
Doret said…
That was great. I am going to read Curiour Garden, the next time I am at work
Tarie said…
Jama, I think the Sky Garden here in Metro Manila was inspired by the High Line. But our Sky Garden has a waterfall and amphitheater!

Charlotte and Doret, thank you! Let me know what you think of The Curious Garden? :o)