Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Super Star Interview: Shirley Ng-Benitez

Welcome to my monthly interview feature! I’m so excited to be interviewing all the fabulous artists, illustrators and designers I’ve meet over the years (both personally and virtually!) and sharing their artwork and experiences here on Bird Meets Worm. Look for a new interview on the first Tuesday of every month.

This month I’m thrilled to bits to be catching up with my fellow Tugeau2 artist, the sweet Illustrator, Shirley Ng-Benitez! I am a huge fan of her absolutely adorable artwork! Shirley loves to draw! Since ’98, she’s owned Gabby & Co., a design/illustration/handlettering firm and has worked with wonderful clients in the technology, greeting card, medical, toy, design and publishing industries. She creates with watercolor, gouache, pencil & digital techniques and is living her dream, illustrating and writing picture books in the Bay Area, California with her family. You can view more of her artwork here!

Who doesn't love pie?! Especially when it comes with friends!

Q: Expressive characters are at the heart of picture books that connect with young readers. And your characters are SO adorable and convey a lot of emotion! Take us thru how you develop and design a character for a children’s picture book.

A: Thank you Jane, I appreciate your kind words about my characters! 
For picture books, I first start with thinking about the main character’s personality and emotion. If the character is scared, then I start visualizing what it would feel like to be scared. I will do a combination of things before and during my sketching of the character, which include googling images that represent “scared”, and “acting” scared and looking at a mirror while doing so. Sometimes I will ask my youngest to “pose” for me and it’s great to be able to just do a quick free-sketch while she’s holding a pose. I sketch and sketch until a gesture or expression, or the feeling comes through. If it’s for personal pieces, I tend to randomly sketch and move the pencil until something pops up…it’s quite fun when there’s a face or some kind of shape that starts developing into something or someone recognizable! :)

A winter wonderland indeed!

 Q: I absolutely LOVE your black and white pencil sketches! They capture a sense of place and character so strongly, they really tug the heartstrings (so to speak!!)! Dish with us about all things “your sketchbook”: habits, practice, materials, inspiration, everything!

A: Thanks so much Jane! I started my daily sketching about 6 years ago after I attended a SCBWI Illustrator’s Day in San Francisco and heard Amy June Bates speak about her own practices. Her advice to all of us was to “draw, draw, draw, and then draw some more.” I really took it to heart and have found that I really find such relaxation and enjoyment from sketching each day. I use plain white copy paper on a clipboard and use Ticonderoga #2s. 

Through the years, to help provide prompts on what to sketch, I’ve made personal challenges, such as “sketch-a-day-for-a-year-and-post”, or “animal alphabet”; or I participate in Inktober, “the 100 day project”, and “Illo Advent,” which all have stretched me to sketch with different goals in mind. I’ll focus on light & shadow, composition, and more recently, narrative-driven illustrations. 

Inspiration comes from so many sources, but I must say, my daily walks at the park with my dog, Zsofi, help me to clear my head and think through project issues, and other concepts for personal and agent projects. The park is also home to cattle, so it’s been such a treat to see the newest members of the herd every season. Living in California, especially with all of this rain, has made for some beautiful green hills, creeks and cloudy skies and sunsets...it’s been truly wonderful.

So sweet & cozy!

 Q: You’ve illustrated numerous books for children, ranging from picture books to early readers. Tell us all about your favorite projects: one from the past and one from the present.

A: I have to say that my favorite project from the past was Emily Lost Someone She Loved, by Kathleen Fucci, 2015. Kathleen Fucci, wrote a beautiful story, which became an award-winning grief book for kids, and continues to help so many who have lost a loved one.

My favorite latest project is How Do You Say I Love You?—an upcoming board book from Little Simon by Hannah Eliot, which I thoroughly enjoyed illustrating as it introduces very little children to different ways to say “I Love You” from all over the world.

I must say that I have really enjoyed illustrating all of the projects I’ve had the honor of illustrating and have found so many in this industry (publishers, authors, printers, marketers, editors, art directors, book designers, my agent, her staff) who have really been wonderful working with while creating books with purpose. 

Doesn't this just give you the warmest warm fuzzies?!

 Q: In recent years, the movement to inspire, create and support more diverse books for children has become a force. What efforts in the children’s book publishing community would you praise? And what changes would you like to see?

A: I’ve been very inspired by this movement and wish to praise the incredible efforts of Lee and Low Books. From their site, their mission: “To publish contemporary diverse stories that all children could enjoy. We decided to steer clear of folktales since they tended to be about people who lived a long time ago. In contrast, we wanted our books to emphasize the richness of today’s cultures. We also avoided talking animal stories, since there was nothing new we could bring to this genre. And we pledged to make a special effort to work with unpublished authors and illustrators of color.”

I am so honored to be working on their latest imprint of early chapter books called “Dive Into Reading,” which have cast a diverse group of children called the Confetti Kids. Also from their site, I love the message to parents, educators, and guardians: “We also believe that books should inspire young readers to imagine a diverse world that includes them, a world in which they can see themselves as the heroes of their own stories.”

I’d also like to praise the efforts of the We Need Diverse Books organization—and for the incredible resources found there. 

In my personal efforts to share the new Dive Into Reading imprint with my local schools and libraries, I found it very difficult to break through the established bureaucracy of book purchasing in my public school district. The decision to include new books is left to the purchaser, who makes purchasing decisions based on established booklists, which may not have the very latest offerings of diverse books. I’m unsure how much public schools know about where to find diverse books and their interest to include them in their libraries, though I am hopeful that they do and are. Ultimately, I would love to see these books in the hands of all public school children, and it would be great to have an easier method to get the books to them by furthering the need for diverse books and information on where you can go to find them.

Q: What is your dream project?

A: My dream project is actually two dream projects: 1) to author/illustrate a story that resonates and touches people of all ages; and 2) illustrate a Golden Book. Wowee—that would be so amazing!

Q: Describe your most perfect Sunday.

A: Sleeping in an extra hour or two at most, then fixing my cup of Peets coffee, I’d open up the blinds to reveal a beautiful sunshiny day in Poipu, Kauai; or the Bay Area, California. I’d work a few hours on my story, sketching, and painting, and then take a long walk with my girls, hubby, and pup; eat a great late lunch or early dinner; and then settle into a painting at night…perfection!

Thank you so much, Shirley, for chatting with us here at Bird Meets Worm! We love your artwork!