Interview with Lita Judge

I am so pleased to be able to bring you an interview with Lita Judge author and illustrator of One Thousand Tracings: Healing the Wounds of World War II , which was released by Hyperion this week. 

From Booklist 5-15-07:
“Judge bases this quiet, moving story of kindness and healing on her own family’s history. After World War II, her grandparents organized a relief effort from their Midwest farm and sent care packages to more than 3,000 desperate people in Europe. In each spread, a young girl describes how she helps Mama with the packages. The stirring art in Judge’s first picture book includes not only beautiful, full-page watercolor paintings of a family making a difference but also dramatic collages of black-and-white photos, newspaper cuttings, letters that Judge found in her grandparents’ attic, and the foot tracings sent by Europeans desperate for shoes. There is no talk of the enemy. Judge focuses on the dramatic, realistic details of those in need (“We have only one pair of boots and must take turns”) and the strength of those who fought “a battle to keep families alive” after the military battles were over.”

Lita, I know a lot of this info is on your wonderful Tracings web site tell us a little about the journey you took while writing this book. What was the origin of the book, and how did the story and images evolve as you worked on it?
When I was cleaning out my grandmother’s attic, I found a dusty box stuffed with aged yellowed envelopes. I was intrigued when I lifted out the first envelope, it had a German stamp postmarked 1947 and inside were two paper foot tracings. The next envelope also contained foot tracings and the next and the next. The envelopes also contained letters, lists of food and clothing, and photographs. This is when I first discovered that my grandparents had organized a relief effort to help people in Europe after WWII.

I knew immediately that I wanted to write about this but I had a lot of unanswered questions. My grandparents were no longer alive, and my mother was a small child during the event and could remember few details. I began searching for clues.

I found friends of my grandparents who had helped, and even found survivors in Europe, through the names listed on the envelopes, who had received the packages. They shared their stories of what receiving these packages meant to them, how much they needed the food and clothing, but even more importantly, how it gave them hope after the shame, destruction and loss of that devastating war.

I wanted to write the book for young readers, so I told the story through the eyes of my mother who was a small child during the time of the event. I also included actual letters from Europeans. The letters showed the growing friendships and healing that occurred through the acts of kindness.
I began illustrating the book with watercolor paintings, but quickly decided I needed to include the actual historical artifacts I had found in my Grandmother’s attic. These items represented real people. I created collages of the foot tracings, letters and photos for the end leaves and included pictures of cans of food from the 1940’s, and other objects appropriate to the story.
As the author and the illustrator, what is your process? Does the book come to you in words or images or a combination of the two?

My books always come to me in visual images first. I see my stories rather than hear them. But I try not to develop finished artwork too early in the process. I find it can take the stories in directions that may not be the best direction, simply because I fall in love with the image. Instead I work from a rough story board, then start my manuscript. After I feel the manuscript is roughed out pretty well, I start more complete drawings.
Before illustrating for children you were a geologist and a gallery shown fine artist. Your art training is more apprentice than art school. Who were your mentors and what do you think you gained by exploring art this way?
My mentor was a fine art artist in Montana who had a background in illustration. I took a painting workshop from him the summer I decided I wanted to learn to paint. He’s now in his late 80’s and I still visit him and his wife every year. They are like grandparents to me. I didn’t really learn the technical aspects of painting from them though. They taught me to love art and believe I could have a life in the arts. They taught me to follow my dreams. They taught me to seek out great art and learn from the masters. As a result, I traveled all over the world, seeking out great museums and spending weeks on end looking at original paintings, even copying those paintings in the museums. I paid for the trips with the paintings I painted on location of European landscapes and architecture. These paintings not only paid for the trips (not trips in high style, but enough for my ticket and a place to sleep,) but they also taught me a lot about painting. I absorbed everything I saw, inside and outside the museums. My mentor also taught me to focus on drawing. I drew people, my cats, trees, skulls, anything and everything, a skill that served me well as I turned to becoming an illustrator.
For all the artists reading this, please tell us more about your medium and materials and how you work. Do you use reference photos, models?
I paint in watercolors now that I am an illustrator. When doing fine art, I painted in oils and almost always from life, which I found was a valuable training ground. Now I use models, but not to paint from directly. Because I’m usually painting small children, I photograph them doing the activities I need, then work from the photos. If doing animals, I use photos I take or find, then change the poses to suit what I need. I spend a lot of time at the zoo these days. I find I need to work with good reference to create a sense of realness. Otherwise the drawing is lousy. I’m currently working on a book set in Boston in 1914. This has led me to scrounge the archives of the Boston Public Library for reference of what the city and its people looked like.
This is your first book to be released. What was interesting about the publishing process? What would you do differently? How did your agent assist in the process?
Working in the publishing world was an extremely positive experience. I found my editor and art designer to be passionate, encouraging, and thoughtful. My agent is also terrific and kept the project moving smoothly even after it had gone through acquisition. I felt very fortunate to be working with everyone I came in contact with. Going to NY for the first time to meet my editor was incredible.

There were a lot more steps to finishing a book than I realized. It was a daunting realization that I was at the beginning of another journey- learning how to market the book and find new projects to get involved with while working on this book with a tight deadline. I learned that the publishing world is filled with some very big personalities and somehow I was going to need to learn how to find my place in it and make sure my book got the attention it needed. I found my editor helpful with this – she wants the book to succeed also.
You have a very special working partnership with your husband. How does he assist you in bringing a book to completion?
My husband is amazing. He edits my manuscripts and critiques my illustrations. He helps promote my books, contacts people we think could be helpful for getting word out about the book. Dave spends two hours every morning working with me, either editing new projects or working to promote the books I have out now, before going to his own long workday. He travels with me to signings, scans my book dummies and puts them onto a CD to give to my agent. Dave also designed my website. I could go on an on with all the tasks he helps me with, but most importantly, he dreams with me about a life of writing and illustrating children’s books. He shares in my successes, celebrates my books and puts me back together when it all feels a bit too daunting.
I’ve been to your beautiful studio. Tell us about some of the key design elements of your space and why it is important to you as an artist.
When I started my art career I painted in the kitchen for the first two years, then in the living room for the next 8 years. Finally, I was able to build the studio I had always dreamed of. I wanted my studio to look like a barn on the outside, but bright, spacious and comfortable on the inside. I have a tall north widow to bring in natural light over my work space, and a porch on the south side overlooking my garden. I wanted a place that felt spiritual as well as practical, because my work feels like that to me. I have an old salvaged door leading into the studio and a huge window that was salvaged from an old convent on the opposite wall. Most importantly, I have a large drawing board with a table next to it for my reference, my notes and my kitties who keep me company as I work.
What other projects are you working on? What other books are coming out? What events would you like people to know about?

I have a book that I illustrated called S is for S’mores that also just came out. Then a book I illustrated and co-authored, D is for Dinosaurs, is coming out this fall. I just turned in the cover for a chapter book I’m illustrating called Mogo, written by Donna Jo Napoli. I’m finishing the interior art now and it’ll be released next year. (This is the second of Lita’s books with Donna Jo Napoli. The first was Ugly. )I also have two more picture books in the works. I’ll be posting those on my website in the next few weeks.
I have a signing at the LL Bean Store (click on the 95th anniversary celebration for complete schedule) in Freeport for S is for S’mores on July 5th. I’m really looking forward to an event for One Thousand Tracings at the Owl and the Turtle bookstore in Camden, Maine on August 25. This event will have several great children’s book authors and illustrators, who I can’t wait to meet. I have a signing at the Portside store in Bernard, Maine on July 17. My other events and signings as well as times are all listed on my website.
Is there anything I’ve left out that you’d like to tell?
I’d just like to encourage anyone who is trying to write or illustrate children’s books to keep at it! I’ve only been doing this for three years, but I love this work immensely. I was told when I started how hard it is to break into the field, but there are opportunities for new people. Search for ideas that are important to you. Look for stories you want to tell. I also think it’s important to really develop an idea fully before trying to submit it to a publisher. I’ve had many people show me story dummies that were full of terrific ideas, but didn’t seem developed enough to have an editor say, “Yes, this is the book I want to publish!” That was a lesson I had to learn. Sharing our ideas with each other and getting honest feedback can really be helpful. I think if one is truly passionate about their work and willing to work hard, they can make it happen.

Thank you Lita. You are a busy and accomplished author and illustrator.  You heard it here first, this woman is bound for a Caldecott.


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