Shennen Bersani's ONCE UPON AN ELEPHANT - Guest Post
e: What is your creative process, can you walk us through it?
Shennen: The very first thing I do with any new book, whether I'm the author/illustrator, or illustrator, is "hands on" research. I want to experience what I'm about to create, I feel this brings an extra level of reality to my work. I've traveled all corners of the country visiting creatures in their habitats. I swam with Florida manatees, crawled in Carlsbad Cavern, held: bats, snakes, jellyfish, squid, spotted salamanders, seals, turtles, frogs, sea slugs, octopus, lobsters, fish of all description, insects of every kind, birds, and more I'm probably forgetting.
From there the creation begins.
I spend countless hours "painting" pictures in my head. While I'm cleaning, driving, catching up on my to-do list, my mind is running though an illustration or piece of art - step by step. By the time I sit down to work I have every stroke and color mapped out ready to execute. Before I begin I will clear out the day's stresses; tend to my plants, meditate on who and what I am grateful for, drink six cups of coffee…. kidding, well not really kidding, five cups minimum. (After a few hours of work I move to mugs of tea. My creative process involves a lot of caffeine.) I also love listening to something while I'm working, usually audio books. Any genre! I've just started illustrating my 26th book, so over the years I've listened to every topic under the sun! It all fuels my creative energy.
Shennen: My usual "go-to" medium has been colored pencils on Arches. I scan this art and create a digital file to send to the publisher. Each book has its own voice, with some books I stop there. With others such as, Achoo! Why Pollen Counts, I added a coating of pollen covering the characters in Photoshop. When using Photoshop I have a Cintiq monitor I draw on. I would have to say though, that over time I am going more digital and I love having a variety of tools to choose from. The Shape Family Babies (written by Kristin Haas) was illustrated only using Photoshop. The fire scenes in Once Upon an Elephant (written by Linda Stanek) were created digitally. It is nice not being constrained by one medium.
Shennen: My most recent release, Once Upon an Elephant, came about after I illustrated Animal Partners (written by Scotti Cohn). My editor and I got together at the NSTA Conference in Boston to be on a panel discussing researching non-fiction books. While in Boston she mentioned the elephant book, and how it would work well with Animal Partners. I loved the idea, I had secretly been hoping for an African safari type book to come my way! I didn't get a chance to visit Africa for my research, but I did go to see three very lovely African girls (elephants) at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, RI.
Shennen: My first paid illustration assignment was in the Boston Sunday Globe Magazine back while I was still in art school... It was many years down the road, and thousands of illustrations later, when I got into illustrating trade books. I had illustrated many book and magazine covers, articles, numerous educational assignments, and corporate stuff, and on and on. I had shown my portfolio at the Boston Graphic Artists Guild's (GAG) See Party. Each year I passed out post cards to art buyers and I received plenty of work. So when the NYC GAG had their version of the "see party" I figured I would go BIG for their event! I had tri-fold brochures printed showing many images of my published work. I went off to NYC with these colorful promotional pieces, happy as could be... only to be crushed when no art director took them!
The box of unused brochures sat in my basement. It caused me sadness to look upon it. I shoved the box further and further into the cobwebs until it was out of sight. Years passed by. When the spring of 2002 came along I found myself illustrating Androcles and the Lion, a second grade reader for McGraw Hill. One day I picked up my son from the commuter rail. He was attending Boston College High School in the city and took the rail home each day. He was studying Ancient Greek and Latin, he was the perfect model for Androcles! Ryan hopped into the car all excited saying, "Mom, MOM, I got you a job today!!!” I said something flip like, "Oh what, they need a cafeteria worker at BC High? Or maybe a gardener?"
"MOM, MMOOOMMM YOU'RE NOT LISTENING," Ryan belched. He handed me a baseball card with author Jerry Pallotta on it. I looked at it and instantly commented we had some of his alphabet books, that he was famous... how could Ryan have met him?
Ryan recalled how Jerry was an alumni and how he had gone to the school that day to discuss his writing career with the students. Jerry had mentioned he was interested in an illustrator who could draw a lion. So Ryan simply raised his hand and asked how he hired his illustrators. "Oh, why kid, you know someone who can draw a lion? Let me know."
Unbeknownst to me Ryan was super proud of his "famous" mother. Months earlier he had taken those discarded tri-colored brochures and used them as bookmarks in his textbooks. After Jerry finished speaking to the group of boys, Ryan went up to him, handing him a brochure he said, "You should hire my mother. She is perfect for your books!" Jerry then (surprised? shocked?) asked if I was busy, which Ryan replied, "Not after she finishes Androcles and the LION".
Two weeks later I was assigned Jerry's, Icky Bug Shapes, published by Scholastic. I haven't had a moments break since. Today I am illustrating a new alphabet book for Jerry, and a Hawaiian seal book for Arbordale.
e: LOVE IT!!
e: What is your favorite or most challenging part of being a creator? Shennen: My most challenging part is wearing multiple hats. As an author I want to spend my time out in the public promoting my book. I love sharing it with school kids! But, as a creator who makes her income from illustrating books, I need to be hunkered in my studio for weeks on end alone illustrating. It's very challenging balancing both.
e: How do your creations invade your reality?
Shennen: In a literal sense, I've taken up all the spare space in two houses, filling them with rooms of framed art, floor to ceiling stacks of boxes of my books, and art supplies. On a spiritual level I end up imagining what the characters I've created are doing, how would they respond to a situation. I jot these thoughts down, with hopes of writing new manuscripts.
Shennen: The book's message is pretty straight forward, elephants are important for the African landscape - from providing water pools for tiny insects - to creating large swaths of trails to break fires. My hope is that the book, and my illustrations, will ignite a child's interest in pachyderms and get kids excited to research more about the creatures.
Shennen: Wow, what I'm working on next IS my dream project! Research for my newest book just brought me to Hawaii, where I spent long days in the surf, in search of wild seals. It was a totally amazing experience leaving cold, snowy Boston in the morning, and arriving to walls of sunny blossoming flowers in the afternoon. This trip, I made it over to the Kilauea Volcano - something I have always dreamt of experiencing. But that didn't come close to being off the beaten path and walking on lava among monk seals and sea turtles basking in the sunshine. Paradise.
Shennen Bersani is an award-winning children’s book illustrator with 2 million copies of her books cherished and read by children, parents, and teachers throughout the world. Her art delivers a unique blend of realism, heartfelt emotion, love of nature, and life lessons for children of all ages. She has illustrated Once Upon an Elephant, Salamander Season; Sea Slime: It’s Eeuwy, Gooey and Under the Sea; The Shape Family Babies; Animal Partners; Shark Baby; Home in the Cave; The Glaciers are Melting!; and Astro: The Steller Sea Lion for Arbordale. In 2015, Shennen made her debut as an author with Achoo! Why Pollen Counts. Shennen lives with her family near Boston. For more information, visit her website at www.shennenbersani.com.