Sunday, September 20, 2009

Juanita Havill Interviews Anne Sibley O’Brien

JH: When did you become aware that the main character of Jamaica’s Find is African American?

ASOB: The letter I received from editor Matilda Welter asking if I'd like to illustrate the book specified that the main character was African American. Art director Susan Sherman had chosen me as the illustrator because my portfolio featured lots of children of color, and she thought the manuscript was a good fit for my style.

JH: How do you decide what scenes to illustrate?

ASOB: I first read the text over several times, then make tiny rough thumbnail sketches of the images that come to my mind. With all the Jamaica books, these were usually just figures, because the characters and the emotional journey always come first for me. The thumbnails are my first notes, trying to visually jot down what I perceive as the spine of the story, who's in the scene and what they're doing. Later on, as I develop the storyboard and dummies, I fill out the scene by refining my first impressions, varying the distance (close-up, middle or far away), and sketching in the setting.

JH: How do you manage to keep characters consistent and recognizable throughout the book, in fact, throughout the series? There is one exception: Ossie from Jamaica Tag-Along has changed from the Ossie of Jamaica’s Find. Why?

ASOB: I used photographs of real children (and adults) as models for the characters. The model for Jamaica was a little girl named Brandy, whom I met through a friend who was a reading teacher in NH. I called Brandy's mother to ask if she'd be willing to meet and allow me to photograph her daughter. (Her mom still sends me a Christmas card every year, and Brandy, age thirty and the mother of two, recently found me online and we have an email correspondence.) Jamaica's mother and father are based on the few photos I took of Brandy's mom and dad. The difference in Ossie's appearance (which no reader or reviewer has ever commented on!) comes from the fact that I made up the character of Ossie in the first book. He only appeared once, so I didn't need a model. Then, three years later, here came an entire new manuscript, all about Jamaica ... and Ossie! I had to go on a search to find a boy who looked like someone I'd made up.

Each time there's a new book, I take out the old photos of Brandy to use as references for Jamaica's face. For her body, I find another little six- or seven-year-old girl for a body model. For the third book, it was my daughter Yunhee, who modeled for Jamaica's friend Brianna and also did Jamaica's body poses.

JH: Your images of characters are evocative portraits. How do you visualize and then portray emotion so effectively?

ASOB: I've been tuned in to people's feelings since I was a tiny child, so observing the expression of emotion comes very naturally for me. I've also had extensive training in acting, as a college theatre minor and over years of community and professional theatre and acting classes and workshops, so I've thought a lot about what emotion looks like. Sometimes I use myself as a laboratory, feeling how the emotion would affect my body, then looking at the pose in the mirror.

One of the best sources for ideas is the models themselves. I tell my child models what's happening in the scene and ask them how they would feel and what they would do if that happened to them. They often respond with wonderfully natural and original gestures and expressions.

JH: When you illustrated Jamaica's Find, did you ever suspect that you would be called upon to illustrate six more Jamaica books?

ASOB: It was the furthest thing from my mind. I thought it was a sweet, quiet story that probably wouldn't make much of a splash, but I was thrilled to have the opportunity to illustrate my first picture book. I never could have imagined that it would grow to seven titles and all would still be in print twenty-three years after the first was published.

JH: What is your philosophy of the role of illustrator of children's books?

ASOB: The role of the illustrator is to serve the story. It's wonderful to make a beautiful picture, but if it doesn't expand and enhance the text, it's not good illustration. My role is to create images that don't repeat what's already in the text but bring the story to life in multiple dimensions. I try to add bits that enrich and thicken the plot, that suggest more to the story without changing it.

JH: Can you demonstrate what is meant by "visual literacy" from your work?

ASOB: Ever since I heard author-illustrator Molly Bang talk about how pictures work at a conference I attended in the early 1990s, I've been reflecting on her ideas about how artists use picture composition to enhance meaning. Consciously or unconsciously, the illustrator creates a path for the viewer's eye to follow, and uses shapes, color, texture, line and other visual elements in ways that affect the viewer's response to the picture. Once you become aware of this potential, you can use these things in an intentional way to evoke certain effects. It's literacy when you or the viewer can read these visual symbols and effects.

JH: How do your approaches differ in illustrating your own text and a text by another?

ASOB: When I'm illustrating my own text, there's a lot more fluidity between text and images, because there's no point at which there has to be a firm determination of what will be expressed in words, what will be in pictures. When it's someone else's manuscript, the words are already set, so I'm responding to something that's already decided. It's a narrower sphere to work within, but freeing in its own way because in a sense my job is simpler.

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