The title of her blog says it all: LIVING THE DREAM. A dream born many years ago, when she was just a child. A dream nourished by a supportive mother. A dream guided through instruction at Syracuse University. Polished at the School of Visual Arts. But Shadra Strickland’s dream didn’t end there.
Soon after graduation, she was offered an opportunity to illustrate her first book, an emergent reader called BIG OR LITTLE, written by Fonda Bell Miller. It was published by Lee & Low Books in 2002.
In 2009, Shadra became the recipient of the American Library Association’s John Steptoe Award for New Talent, given by the Coretta Scott King Task Force, and the Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Award.
Shadra was a contributor to the book Our Children Can Soar: A Celebration of Rosa, Barack, and the Pioneers of Change, published by BloomsbuyUSA in 2009, which has also received major accolades, including an NAACP Image Award nomination for Outstanding Literary Work for Children. With Our Children Can Soar, she paid tribute to Ruby Bridges, who became the first African American child to attend an all-white school in the South. Her illustrations are full of emotion and successfully capture the quiet strength of Ruby Bridges, using soft colors and delicate line work.
Please note: I interviewed Shadra about a year ago, and I just realized that most of my questions here are repeat (same photo and everything). My apologies, but don’t go away. New things are a-poppin’ in the land of the dream. Check it out:
Please talk about your most recent book.
My next book is called A PLACE WHERE HURRICANES HAPPEN. It’s the story of Hurricane Katrina told through the voices of four neighborhood friends. “Hurricanes” was challenging for me for a couple of reasons. First, it featured four main characters, and second it was the story of Hurricane Katrina. I had never been to New Orleans before working on the book. I tried to be very careful not to make the images journalistic.
What is the primary medium used in your work?
Right now I primarily use watercolor and gouache. I studied illustration at Syracuse University where I experimented with a few different mediums, mainly oil and acrylic, but I didn’t learn how to “play” until years later in graduate school at SVA.
The next few spreads are from her upcoming book A PLACE WHERE HURRICANES HAPPEN:
Why did you choose to illustrate for children?
Storytelling comes naturally to me. When I was young my family (grandma, cousins, aunts, uncles, etc.) would sit around my grandmother’s kitchen table and tell stories for hours on end.
Making picture books just made the most sense—I get to read great stories and create world for the characters in which to exist. I also need my work to function in some way. The idea of people learning from my work and living with the images for years and years amazes and excited me.
Are there any particular illustrators or fine artist who have inspired you, past or present?
I am a fan of many many artists. If I could visit anyone’s studio, I think I’d like to watch William Kentridge work on a film, Jerry Pinkney draw, Tom Feelings do anything, Pat Cummings paint, Jon Muth compose, and Walton Ford paint.
With BIRD, you’ve collected many accolades, including the Coretta Scott King / Johnsteptoe New Talent Award, and the Ezra Jack Keats (New illustrator award). What was the biggest change, unexpected result, or interesting observation you’ve noted since receiving the awards?
For me winning the John Steptoe and Ezra Jack Keats Awards for BIRD was surreal. The most interesting and unexpected result was the amount of work that came flooding in. I also underestimated the amount of celebratory cupcakes I could consume.
As an illustrator who happens to be African American, do you ever feel any special pressures, or unique challenges?
I try to pick projects that I connect to emotionally and that align with the way I see the world or wish the world could be. For BIRD I loved how Zetta portrayed her male characters. They were supportive and loving to each other so I just added to that in the imagery. I also try to be careful not to villanize people, even if they are making bad choices for themselves and the people around them.
I love painting different shades of African-American people. My family is made up of many different shades of black and I feel that’s important and true to life in painting pictures.
So, I guess, no, I don’t really feel any “special” pressure. I just try and make the work as sincere as I can and as strong as I can. The rest will fall in place.
From Our Children Can Soar, BloomsburyUSA April 2009
Please talk about your process of illustrating a book.
I start with an 8.5 x 11 “Cheap Pad”. As I read, I fill up the sketchbook with many many possibilities for the story. As I thumbnail, I scan each image, blow them up, and drop them into a mechanical. Once I am happy with the look of the rough dummy, I make a pdf and e-mail it to my editor and art director with any notes I may have embedded in the file. This is the most I do with a computer in making the books. Once the dummy is okayed, I print out the sketches to size and refine the drawing.
Unfortunately, my finishing process is never cut and dry. Each story is different and requires something different from me. For example, BIRD’s world was ballpoint pen and charcoal against some airier skies. HURRICANES paired the brightness and energy of New Orleans against an impending storm. In OUR CHILDREN CAN SOAR I needed to go back in time and make things look aged and bare.
I try and go straight to finish if I have a strong vision for a piece. Because I experiment a lot; sometimes…most times I have to do a piece many times before it’s right. For Bird’s rooftop scene I had to paint it eight times before I got what I wanted out of it.
If you could wave a magic wand and completely change professions, what would you be doing today?
I’d be Beyonce.
(Don, waving magic wand…zing!)
For our aspiring children’s book illustrators, talk about your path to publication.
My road, like my work process, was long and crooked. I stumbled many times, but I never gave up.
I finished my first emergent reader book with Lee and Low right after college. I was teaching with Atlanta Public Schools then. After the first project I worked on some smaller e-books and some projects with local authors. After three years of teaching art I applied to SVA. While in grad school I befriended three other illustrators and we showed our work to as many art directors and editors who would see us.
During that time I also worked at an after school program in Chinatown and interned as a design assistant with Penguin for a semester. After graduation all of my friends landed book deals, but I still kept getting close but no cookie. My graduate advisor, Pat Cummings, recommended me to Chris Myers and I became his assistant for a year. She also introduced me to an old student of hers who was leaving Bloomsbury and that connection turned into a four year freelance design position at the company. That first year after grad school I illustrated a book with a Korean publishing house, Tantani Media. I kept making work and sending it out to people who liked my work via e-mails and postcards and one night at the Society of Illustrators’ Original Art Show I ran into my very first editor at Lee and Low, Jen Frantz. She asked me in for a meeting and the rest is….history.
If you could do it all again, what would you do different?
I can honestly say that every experience I’ve had has contributed to the work I do now. I wouldn’t change a thing (except win the lottery).
From The Dancing Shoeshine Boy, written by Hae-Da Lee, Yeowon Media June 2008
What do you find most challenging about the book creation process?
The biggest challenge for me is balancing truth and fantasy. For a book like HURRICANES, I needed to stay true to the look and feel of New Orleans, but I also had to make art out of it. Learning how and when to take artistic license is a challenge.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I had a bunch of educational books and books with play along records that I’d read and listen to over and over again. My favorite “high art” picture book was THE SNOWY DAY. I can still remember the smell of the paper.
How do you find balance in your busy schedule?
I’m still learning how to balance everything. I recently moved back home to Atlanta for a few months after leaving my job at Bloomsbury and that has given me great peace of mind with more time to work. I go through cycles of getting everything done and not sleeping and getting very little done and not sleeping. Eventually I will clone myself so one of me can get some shut eye.
Do you visit schools? Is there any particular message you like to leave with children when you speak?
I love visiting schools. I try to give kids as much positive energy as I can about life. My main message for kids is that it’s okay to make mistakes. If you believe in yourself and what you want to do in life you can do it in spite of the small missteps along the way.
What would be your dream manuscript?
This may sound like a cop out, but my dreams are already coming true. I am a part of some truly phenomenal projects (that I hope I can live up to). My wish for the future is that I continue bringing outstanding stories to life alongside some of my own.
Who are your cheerleaders, those who encourage you?
My mom is my biggest cheerleader. She works in education so she gets to have bragging rights in her school. In addition to her are my friends, librarians, kids, and people who love art and books!
What’s on the horizon, what can your fans expect?
Ha! Fans. There are so many books in the works, which is amazing, but wow, I need to start taking my vitamins! My next book is with Candlewick, called WHITE WATER. It’s a story of segregation in 1950s Alabama.
********* Just For Fun **********
Favorite M&M color: blue
Favorite TV show: The big bang theory (when I get to watch it)
Favorite food: spinach
Favorite sport: football
Favorite ice cream flavor: rocky road
Favorite American Idol winner: *crickets*
Favorite Pop culture personality: Sheldon Cooper
Favorite Day of the week: the day after a great night’s sleep
Favorite social network: “the book”
Favorite genre of book: magical realism
Here’s the thing: I have an ARC of Shadra’s newest book, A PLACE WHERE HURRICANES HAPPEN. I’d planned to keep it all to myself, but then realized it wouldn’t do Shadra much good buried here in my studio. So, I’d like to give it away. If you’re a librarian or teacher who’d like a sneak peek of Shadra’s newest work, and wouldn’t mind posting some nice comments (Twitter, Facebook, blog) after you receive it, then post a comment in today’s highlight. I’ll close my eyes and draw a name, then send you the copy.