Jennifer K. Mann dropped by several years ago to celebrate her book, TWO SPECKLED EGGS. I loved her work then, and I love it now - she has a new book out! It's called THE CAMPING TRIP and she stopped by to tell us all about it!
e: What was your creative process/medium for The Camping Trip, can you walk us through it?
The short answer is that it is a combination of traditional pencil drawing, digital collage, and digital paint, but that doesn’t tell you much at all about the process.
      Because this book shifted from a 32-page picture book to a 54-page picture book/graphic novel hybrid, in-progress, without a change in the timeline, I had to work really fast to complete all of the final art. (All those tiny little full color panels!) Which meant I had to invent the process and technique kind of on-the-fly.

Swimming, early sketch. This sketch really helped establish the look for the rest of the book

I decided early on that the line work would be traditional pencil, scanned in to photoshop, and the color would be mostly digital paint. But what about all of those big landscapes and backgrounds that would require lots of textures? And how would I be able to render nature in a believable but not hyper-realistic way? It was all very intimidating, but I just did not have time to fret!! So I sort of got out of the way and let the process invent itself—which ultimately was really good for the book.
In the end, each spread or image in The Camping Trip that presented a new problem got a unique treatment. Sometimes I used my early sketches (which I did on architectural tracing paper) as is—because I liked them, and because there wasn’t time to redraw everything. Sometimes I collaged in unlikely textures for the big backgrounds—old monotypes from my printmaking days, scraps of paper that I had in my flat file, the insides of security envelopes (!) photographs of forest backgrounds. For the big landscapes, I drew and painted individual elements as quickly and loosely as I could, then layered them with all of the other elements and collage materials and digital paint, and just kept tweaking till it looked right. There were no overt rules, except keeping skin and hair, clothing, and equipment colors accurate from spread to spread. I just kept my fingers crossed that all of my eclectic and disconnected choices would in the end make a cohesive whole. And it seemed to do just that. Phew!

e: Wow! What was your path to publication?
My path to publication included a Master’s Degree in Architecture and about twelve years as a licensed and practicing architect doing mostly retail design. Then, when I had kids, I was smitten by the beautiful books that we were reading together, and got a bee in my bonnet that this was what I really wanted to do with myself. So I set to learning how to write and illustrate children’s books, partly by very closely studying (and copying) my most favorite books, and partly by going to every conference, workshop, retreat, class, and critique group that I could, to learn the specifics from the very generous kidlit community. After a lot of work, lots of rejections, some awards, and with grit and determination, I connected with my agent Holly McGhee of Pippin Properties in 2010. But by then we were in a recession—and publishing was a little flat! But a little more grit and determination, some patience and more hard work finally resulted in three books being published pretty quickly—George Shannon’s Turkey Tot which I illustrated for Holiday House in 2013, and then my first two books—Two Speckled Eggs (2014), and I Will Never Get a Star on Mrs. Benson’s Blackboard (2015), both published by Candlewick Press. Since then I have published three more books with Candlewick—Sam and Jump (2016), Josie’s Lost Tooth (2019), and (soon to be released) The Camping Trip (2020); I’ve illustrated Percy, Dog of Destiny by Allison McGhee for Boyds Mill Press (2018), and I am currently working on illustrations for a chapter book series by Carter Higgins, to be published by Chronicle Books called Audrey L and Audrey W: Best Friends-ish.

e: You've been busy! Is there a unique or funny story behind the creation of The Camping Trip?
The Camping Trip came to be from the many, many years of car camping that my family has enjoyed together. We go every summer with a couple of other families, to the same place where we do the same fun things year after year, including swimming, hiking, and making s’mores, and it is bliss. A few years ago, while walking my dogs around the campground, I met an eight year old boy who was on his first camping trip ever. He was SO excited about so many things—like sleeping in a tent, roasting marshmallows on the campfire, and sitting on the boat dock. But he was also scared—of my dogs, of swimming in a lake with fish in it, and probably other things he didn’t tell me about. But his enthusiasm won out, and by the end of the weekend, he was walking my dogs all over the campground, swimming non-stop, and had gone on his very first hike--and it was a long one! Meeting that boy reminded me that there are loads of kids who have never been camping and who might find their very first trip exciting, and a little overwhelming. This boy’s enthusiasm for camping, and his fear, was so relatable and was a story I knew something about. Throughout the entire process of making the book, I could see--in my mind’s eye--real kids in real places having the experiences and emotions of Ernestine, in The Camping Trip.

The Forest, traditional collage, early technique and color study. Originally I thought I would use traditional collage and painting for the whole book, but because I needed a technique that could be fast and be flexible, I translated this early study into a digital collage that launched the technique for the whole book.

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?
Ah, Heart Art--one of my favorite things in picture books! I think the picture book art that makes a reader want to look again and again is the art that does not reveal everything at first glance, but conceals mysteries and surprises to be discovered by the attentive reader. Some of what Heart Art conceals can be seen upon deeper inspection, or subsequent viewings—sub-stories hidden in the illustrations; creatures and characters or objects that don’t need to be there but are a delight to discover; messages for those willing to linger. Some of what it conceals is revealed through the greater understanding that the reader gains as he or she absorbs and lives the story—the layers of meaning that are conveyed by the choices the artist makes. Some of what it conceals is the hand and the spirit of the artist herself. This is conveyed by the ghost lines, by the mistakes, the erasures and coverups, the spontaneous choices of color and texture, the unintentional secrets peeking out from beneath the intentional lines and colors and objects and textures. I love to see that evidence of the artist’s hand in picture book art.

Breakfast, early technique and color study. Mistakes were made…

e: Lovely! How do you advertise yourself (or do you)?
I am not the best advertiser of myself! I aim to get better, but it’s not something that comes naturally. I do keep a website/blog,, that primarily announces and talks about my newest books and events. I am very active on Instagram, (jen_k_mann) where I share all kinds of things like experiments and works in progress, ugly comics and miscellaneous bits from my notebooks and sketchbooks, along with photos of my pets, my kids, food I’ve made, random beautiful things from around my house, and, the natural world--ALL of which I love very much. I am somewhat active on Facebook (@Jennifer.K.Mann.Childrens.Books) and Twitter, (jensredwagon). Aside from that, I rely on word of mouth and wonderful blog interviews like this! Thank you so much for asking me on, Elizabeth.

I think Dad missed me, sketch study. This pose required a lot of lines to get it right, and this is only a few of them!

e: My pleasure! What is your favorite or most challenging part of being a creator?
My favorite part of being a creator is when things really get going and I can just surrender to the creative process—that rare state of “flow.” I love the feeling of surprise when, after a long stretch of really hard, hard work, I take a look at what I have created and feel genuinely surprised by what I see. Like—who did that?! Where did that come from?!
e: I know the feeling - it's a good one. Is there something in particular about The Camping Trip you hope readers will take away with them, perhaps something that isn’t immediately obvious?
The thing I want everyone to take away from this story is that nature is for everyone. And that experiencing the awe and wonder of nature helps us cope with fear and uncertainty. Plus, it’s just plain fun to go camping!

My usual studio: This is a pretty old photo but it still looks a lot like this, minus the little white dog. Or it did until recently, when my husband had to take it over for his architectural practice, because he is (temporarily) working from home. This is the back end of our oddly long garage, and I get to it by leaving the house through the back door and walking down through the yard to the garage. It’s a rough commute.

e: I agree! (Although, it's been a while since I went camping!) What are you working on next or what would be your dream project?
Currently, I am working on the illustrations for the first book in a chapter book series by Carter Higgins. You’d think she’d written the book for me to illustrate—that is how much fun it is. It’s a dream project!
      I was scared out of my skin the entire time I was working on The Camping Trip because it was all so new to me, and seemed almost impossible to do in the time I had. It turns out I really like working that way—fast and scared. So my next dream project would be something that scares me from start to finish, and challenges me to think and work fast in a way that is at least somewhat new to me.

My current studio: During this stay-home period of the Pandemic, my work space is a table in the corner of our living room, or sometimes it’s the dining room table. The corner-table-studio is a little small, but it’s fine at the moment because I am not working on any big finished art. The hardest part of working here is not being able to walk out the back door and through the yard to go to work.

e: HA! And beware what you wish for! Although, I can't wait to see it!
THE CAMPING TRIP. Copyright © 2020 by Jennifer K. Mann. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

1 comment: said...

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