Molly Ruttan's I AM A THIEF!

What is a lie? Are there degrees of lying? When is it okay to tell a lie, and what would be a whopper of a lie? Abigail Rayner wrote a picture book to help us address these questions with young readers called I AM A THIEF! illustrated by Molly Ruttan. Molly stops by today to tell us more about it.
e: Hi Molly! What was your creative process/medium for I AM A THIEF!, can you walk us through it?
First, I want to thank you so much for having me on your blog! This is a brand new experience for me, and it is all very exciting. Your blog is wonderful — so full of such great information! I love the idea of Julia Patton’s Style Bible that you recently wrote about— I can’t wait to start my own! And I also can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of Merbaby’s Lullaby!

e: Aw - thanks, Molly!

Molly: I approach book projects in a couple of different ways, depending on whether I’m illustrating a story written by someone else, or if I’m working on one one of my own stories. For I AM A THIEF! I began by “finding” the main character, Eliza, because Abigail Rayner had written the story from Eliza’s perspective, in the first person. I say finding, because I believe characters in stories are alive, and they often have to participate in revealing themselves to you. In Eliza’s case, I drew many little portraits in my sketchbook until one character stood out.
      One of many pages in my sketchbook looking for Eliza.
Once I found her, I set about deconstructing the story, finding the threads, exploring each character. There are a lot of characters in I AM A THIEF!, so I drew lots of portraits and took lots of notes, followed by lots of character study pages.
      Exploring Mom
I wanted to show the story through Eliza’s eyes, so I explored drawing her inner world alongside her outer one. I wondered, “if my kids had dressed up as thieves, how would that look?” This question lead me to the idea of using the cat burglar imagery, and from there I just had fun with it!

My media is charcoal, pastels and liquid acrylic paint. I love playing with and combining the textures. Each step is done separately and then scanned. I create the final compositions in Photoshop.

e: What was your path to publication?
My career as an illustrator got jump-started in 2015 when I won the Illustration Mentorship at the SCBWI Annual Summer Conference. Two years later I met my agent, Rachel Orr from Prospect Agency, at a local SCBWI event. At the time I was working on a book dummy that I had written and illustrated myself. I had started it in a class taught by Marla Frazee — a class I discovered while talking to friends at yet another local SCBWI event. Rachel Orr sold that book (THE STRAY, 2020) ridiculously quickly to Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Random House. Meanwhile, NorthSouth saw a postcard that I had illustrated as part of a Prospect Agency promotion, and inquired about I AM A THIEF. So, needless to say I have SCBWI to thank for providing the fertile ground from which I have been so fortunate to have sprung. I also wouldn’t be here without the support of my agent, my family, my friends, my writing group, my picture book club, my amazing critique group. And of course the people at NorthSouth and Nancy Paulsen Books for taking a chance with me!

e: Is there a unique or funny story behind the creation of this story?
Every time I work on a story -- especially when I get to the stage where I’m up to my eyeballs drawing it out -- the world around me starts to reflect the story. When I was drawing out a story that involved parrots, a huge flock of big tropical parrots flew in and landed in the tree outside my studio window one day. Another time when I was working on a book with bunnies, I went to a local garden and saw baby rabbits running around everywhere. I don’t even want to talk about what happened when I was drawing out a story that involved a UFO! :) In the case of I AM A THIEF, everywhere I went for many weeks, I saw people wearing black & white stripes, everywhere. Life seems to imitate art every time, and every time it amazes me.

e: What do you think makes an illustration magical, what I call "Heart Art” - the sort that makes a reader want to come back to look again and again?
Heart Art for me is art that has a WOW factor. Whether it be the technique, the message, the emotion, the medium, how it interplays with words, the composition, etc… any time I see art that stops me with a WOW, I feel like I am in a magical moment, and I want to go back and feel that again and again.

e: How do you advertise yourself?
I have a website, and I’m on social media. Prospect Agency ( has several promotions a year, and my critique group “The Mulberries” (@hellomulberries) has just started a similar promotional schedule. For my upcoming author/illustrator book I’ve joined a social media debut group (#perfect2020PBs). I also pound the pavement with my portfolio any time I can get to New York.

e: What is your favorite or most challenging part of being a creator?
My favorite thing about creating books is also the most challenging thing for me. I LOVE figuring out how the story is going to flow over the pages— it’s like a puzzle, and I often become obsessed until I figure it out. It’s a mental challenge, and I love it. I also LOVE creating the characters; filling up my notebook with sketches & notes. One thing that surprised me the most about illustrating someone else’s story was how much I fell so deeply in love with the characters, as if I had birthed them myself! Finally, I LOVE creating the art. I spend long hours alone at my drawing table and at the computer. It’s a physical challenge. So, creating books is full of love, and also full of challenges, and I enjoy every step.

e: Is there something in particular about this story you hope readers will take away with them, perhaps something that isn’t immediately obvious?
One of the things I love about this story that may not be immediately obvious, is the truth that how you see yourself is really important and can really affect the kind of day you’re going to have, to put it mildly! When Eliza takes the stone, no one sees her do it. No one calls her a thief— she labels herself, and now she has to manage her way through her own identity crisis. I think in addition to talking about stealing, which is the obvious jumping point for this book, you could take away from this book a lesson on labeling yourself. I love how Abigail chose a stone to be the thing Eliza steals, so that her journey could go from a singular label, to realizing that she had many facets, like the stone.

e: What are you working on next or what would be your dream project?
I feel like I’m already working on my dream projects! Illustrating I AM A THIEF! was an incredible adventure, I learned so much and the people at NorthSouth are a joy to work with. My author/illustrator debut, which I mentioned earlier, is coming out in May of 2020 with Nancy Paulsen Books. It’s called THE STRAY, and I am so excited about it! I want to keep illustrating all kinds of books. I love illustrating picture books, and I’d also love to illustrate chapter book series. I have many ideas for my own books as well, and I’m looking forward to bringing those into the world. All of these will be dream projects for me! I feel very grateful to be doing what I love.

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