Happy Thursday Critters! Today we have the incredibly talented illustrator Christopher Denise stopping by to chat with us! I’m a huge fan of Chris’s books and I’m thrilled to share his work with all of you today! I was lucky enough to meet Chris and his lovely and talented wife, Anika Aldamuy Denise a few years ago at a writer’s retreat in Vermont. You can read Critter Lit’s interview with Anika here. Their newest book, BUNNY IN THE MIDDLE came out earlier this month with Henry Holt and has received wonderful reviews:
"This sweet picture book acknowledges the special place each sibling occupies in a family. . . Kids will savor adorable details, such as children's artwork on a bedroom wall and winsome animal students lined up for school in a tree. Charming and comforting."―Kirkus Reviews
So without further ado, please welcome Christopher Denise!
Where do you live?
We live in Rhode Island in a little bayside community just outside of Providence. We love it here! We found an old beach house, fixed it up (most of it), and built a studio out back. The best part is that we can walk barefoot to the beach.
How many years have you been in publishing?
I started in publishing before my graduation from Rhode Island School of Design in 1990. So, about 29 years ago. My first book, The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, was published in 1994.
How many books have you published?
Bunny in the Middle just published this July. It is my twenty-fifth book in trade publishing. When I first started out I published a number of books for the educational market.
Do you illustrate full-time?
I do! But it’s not necessarily like most full-time jobs. My wife, Anika Aldamuy Denise, is a kid lit author so in addition to our careers, we share responsibilities for taking care of all the house and family things. If I am on a deadline, she will step in and make sure all the home things happen. If she is in the thick of a project, I will take over. It’s not uncommon for either one of us to be back at work on a Sunday night.
What inspires you to create picture books?
I am inspired to create picture books that I like to read. Humor is big for me. I love to laugh and I love surprising and funny picture books! I also try to keep myself in a state of wonder. Children are fascinating and have such a truthful and amazing way of seeing the world. If you can tap into that, there is always inspiration.
What surprised you the most working as an illustrator?
The degree of tenacity that is required to stay in the field surprised me. While at RISD, I was fortunate enough to study with David Macaulay (Cathedral, The Way Things Work). Just before graduation, we had a long chat and he told me that it is not always the most brilliant or the most talented that make it in this business. You need the grit to stick with it, day after day, year after year.
What is your favorite thing about being an illustrator?
The ever-changing challenges of each book. Every author that I work with has a distinct voice and requires me to start over, to start fresh. I try to get myself into a beginner’s mind at the start of each project so I that I can respond to what is in front of me and what that particular book is asking for in terms of pacing, character development, and even the look of the book. It’s a wonderful way to be constantly in a state of growth and exploration.
What do you find difficult working as an illustrator?
The hours can be tough but I have gotten much better at managing production schedules. Even more difficult is managing the uncertainty of the market. You never really know how a book is going to land and if it will find its audience. That can make it difficult to plan and can be a challenge when raising a family.
What do you do to shake the rust off or get new ideas?
Spending time with my family is hands-down the best thing I can do to generate new ideas or get a fresh perspective. It gets me out of my own headspace. The dinner table at our house is like a brain trust and the perfect place to beta test ideas.
Anything you are habitual about when it comes to creativity?
This sounds odd but I am habitual about routine. I need to show up in the studio and get in my hours. After so many years at this job, I know what works. I’m very good (an expert, actually) at breaking routine when I want to, but if I have too many days of distractions that take me out of the studio, I get very grumpy. Also exercise! It’s another way to get out of my own headspace and come back fresh.
Can you share a positive experience you’ve had in the kid lit community?
A few years ago I was asked to speak at Kindling Words East as a guest illustrator. I really didn't know what to expect but it was such a good fit for me, I ended up joining the committee and being their Resident Illustrator — and in many ways, finding a family. It truly is a safe and trusting place where we can discuss kid lit and the real nuts and bolts of living a creative life.
What is your favorite picture book?
A very tough question. I am going to skip listing the classics. But I can’t choose just one! I have so many favorites in different sub-genres of picture books and they change all the time. I do love I am Small by Emma Dodd. Swan by Laurel Snyder and illustrated by Julie Morstad, is a big favorite. Also Good Night Owl by Greg Pizzoli, and Days Like This by Simon James.
What has been the highlight of your career thus far?
Hmm, another tough question. In a way, living as an artist and spending my days in the studio, I am living the highlight every day. I’m grateful for the good reviews, the stars, the acknowledgements, and certainly when something happens like your book lands on the NY times list! But looking back at highlights can be tricky because comparison is inevitable. Comparing what was then, to this day in the studio. It just doesn't not feel right to me. There are things I am proud of. Firefly Hollow was a journey that required me to grow and change in different ways. Recently, I completed and sold my first picture book manuscript and I feel great about it. But really today, with all the possibility it offers, is the highlight.
What is something you wish someone had told you when you first started illustrating?
Don’t spend too much energy trying to prove yourself or working towards becoming something that you think that you should be. Allow the work to grow and to change. Just relax and have fun with it! Work hard at refining your tools but focus on allowing your individual, authentic voice to emerge.
Tell us about your newest book?
Bunny in the Middle written by Anika Aldamuy Denise!
We created Bunny in the Middle to celebrate the unique (sometimes challenging), but ultimately very special experience of being in the middle. Our middle is fearless but wise. She holds a unique place in the family. So we wrote a book to celebrate her — and all the middles out there.
What’s up next for you?
Oooo, I wish I could say more! Just last week we reached an agreement to publish my very first book that I have written and illustrated. Check the PW rights report-it may be in there this week!
Anything else you’d like to share with aspiring authors and illustrators?
Yes, the standard advice is true. Read tons of picture books. Your local librarian should be your best friend. If you can, volunteer to read at a story hour at your local independent bookstore. Reading aloud to an audience is one of the very best ways to really understand what makes picture books work. Once you get going, avoid the comparison game. I know that we all seek recognition for our efforts and award time can be tough for many. Don’t fall into that trap, it will not serve you. Celebrate great books and achievements by your fellow authors and illustrators — especially if they are underrepresented in the industry.
And last, but not least, favorite 80s movie?
I guess Star Wars falls in the wrong decade so I would say Back to the Future with Raiders of the Lost Ark being a close second.
Huge thanks to Christopher Denise for stopping by Critter Lit today! Congrats on all your success and your first author/illustrator project— we can’t wait to check it out!
CHRISTOPHER DENISE is an award-winning illustrator of many critically-acclaimed books for young readers including Alison McGhee’s Firefly Hollow, Rosemary Wells’ Following Grandfather, Anne Marie Pace’s Groundhug Day, as well as several in Brian Jacques’s Redwall series. His books have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list and have been recognized by Bank Street College of Education, Parents' Choice Foundation, and the Society of Illustrators. Christopher lives with his wife and collaborator, Anika Denise (Baking Day at Grandma’s, Bunny in the Middle). They live on the coast of Rhode Island with three exceptionally nice people who happen to be their daughters.
FOR MORE INFORMATION about Christopher, visit him online at http://www.christopherdenise.com/ or follow him on social media:
TO ORDER Christopher’s books, ring up your local bookstore or click here.
Want a chance to win a copy of BUNNY IN THE MIDDLE?! Comment on this post or share it on Twitter. One lucky winner will be selected Thursday, August 1st! US addresses only please.