WMI: When did you get started illustrating for children? What did you do before?
Kristi Valiant: I graduated from art school in 2000 and illustrated my first educational children’s book while still in school. After graduating, I worked in the graphics department at a publisher that specialized in leveled readers for kids, and I did some graphic design and web design freelance work in addition to illustration. I illustrated about 30 leveled readers during that time. In 2009, my first trade picture book was published. Now I focus entirely on my children’s books and school visits.
Kristi Valiant: PENGUIN CHA-CHA tells the story of a determined girl named Julia, who discovers that the penguins at the zoo are dancing when no one is around. She wants to join their jitterbug, but they freeze like penguin Popsicles whenever she comes near. She tries dressing up like a penguin and enlisting the hippo as a dance partner. Will those penguins ever share a dance with Julia?
WMI: Where did you get the inspiration for the book?
Kristi Valiant: I used to perform and compete in a Latin and swing dance group called the Fourth Street Alley Cats. And I like penguins. So I combined the two.
WMI: Did you create a dummy before Random House bought the book? If so, how many changes happened between your initial dummy and the final book?
Kristi Valiant: Yes. In fact, the book was acquired by Random House because an editor happened to find my website and saw an illustration of dancing penguins with the description, “From my WIP dummy.” He emailed me and asked if I would submit the dummy to him. He loved it and took it through acquisitions. It didn’t change hardly at all from the original sketch dummy! I was asked to add a bit more text, but most of the page layouts stayed the same.
WMI: You worked on a series of chapter books for Random House. How does a chapter book’s art differ from that of a picture book?
Kristi Valiant: The story in a picture book is told somewhat with the text and somewhat with the illustrations. They combine together to tell the story, and you usually can’t fully understand a picture book if you don’t have both (unless it’s a wordless picture book). The story in a chapter book is told entirely in the text, and the illustrations are there to draw attention to the most important or the most action-packed parts of the text. The story can be understood without the illustrations in a chapter book. Another difference is that the illustrations in chapter books are usually black and white while the illustrations in picture books are in color.
WMI: What do you enjoy most about creating books for young readers?
Kristi Valiant: It’s fun! I can focus on things I enjoy, like dancing and penguins and drawing, and swoosh them all together into a children’s book. Also, the people involved in the children’s book industry tend to be some of the nicest people. And my job encourages kids to read, write, draw, and create.
WMI: What other illustration projects have you worked on?
Kristi Valiant: Outside of children’s books, I’ve also illustrated for Highlights magazine, the educational market, a bit of fashion, some greeting cards and wrapping paper.
WMI: What are you working on right now? Do you have any other art projects you’d like to talk about?
Kristi Valiant: I just turned in the final illustrations for a picture book written by Danielle Steel (yes, the famous romance writer!) called PRETTY MINNIE IN PARIS. It’s an adorable kid’s book about a teacup Chihuahua in the fashion world of Paris. My husband and I visited Paris for research. After all, I couldn’t draw Paris without first trying all those pastries… I mean seeing Paris firsthand. While there, we visited Danielle at her home and made friends with her little dog Minnie. Such a fun, surreal experience! Now I’m working on one of my own manuscripts with my agent and turning that into a dummy to submit.
WMI: What was it like meeting and working with such a famous author like Danielle Steel?
Kristi Valiant: The publisher usually keeps the author and illustrator of a picture book away from each other throughout the process so that the illustrator has the creative freedom to bring their own half of the story to the book and not be swayed by what the author thinks the illustrations should look like. This was the case with PRETTY MINNIE IN PARIS, too, even though it was a celebrity book. Danielle didn’t try to tell me what to draw or anything like that, but we did meet in person so that I could meet her sweet dog, Minnie, that the book was based on. Minnie was absolutely adorable and Danielle has been super friendly and lovely and an amazing conversationalist both over email and in person.
WMI: Do you do non-children’s book art (licensing, fine art, etc.) or art just for fun? Is that art similar or different from your children’s book art?
Kristi Valiant: My work is all focused on children’s books right now, except for one occasional client in the educational market. That work is black and white line drawings done as vectors in Adobe Illustrator. Other than that, I play with art with my little girls, ages 2 and 3.
WMI: Can you explain your art process?
Kristi Valiant: If I’m working on my own manuscript, I usually envision the story as an animation in my head before getting it down on paper. It typically starts with an image for me. Then I storyboard it out as tiny sketches in Photoshop. I increase them and refine them before sending them in to the publisher. When the sketches are approved, I move my sketch layer to the top layer in Photoshop and paint beneath it. I usually keep my sketch as part of the final painting. I like to keep the spontaneity and looseness of the sketch. I don’t always do a color mock-up before painting the final. I like to play around with color as I go, and working digitally allows a lot of playing as I paint. I upload my final illustrations to my publisher.
WMI: Did you use bling or promotional items to market the penguin book?
Kristi Valiant: Yes, I have stickers, magnets, bookmarks, and lots of fun stuff! I won a marketing grant from SCBWI for PENGUIN CHA-CHA, so I was able to do some really fun marketing things. I created a Storytime Kit pdf for the book with games, songs, and crafts that libraries, bookstores, teachers, and families can download for free. I also created this book trailer.
PENGUIN CHA-CHA had a toe-tapping, knee-knocking, rocking good Book Launch at my local bookstore. A local bakery made cakes with my illustrations on them and my husband’s sign company, www.signsoveramerica.com, made some stand-up cut-outs that kids can stick their heads through to be dancing penguins. I also taught the kids to cha-cha.
Plus, there’s lots more on the web site made just for the book.
WMI: Are you a full-time artist? What is your typical day like?
Kristi Valiant: Yep, although my work week isn’t as long as it used to be before I had two little girls. I make a task list on my Google calendar and start with whatever sounds like the most enjoyable. If I’m enjoying sketching or painting, they turn out much better. And when I start with the pages I love the most, it helps me to figure out the colors and textures for that book, so the pages I don’t love as much are quicker to paint later on. If I’m working on more than one book at a time, I schedule a block of days to work on one and then a block of days to work on another.
Kristi Valiant: I do everything on my computer, from sketches to finals. I have a Cintiq, which allows me to draw right on the screen with a stylus. In art school, I learned all the traditional mediums, but I’ve never liked cleaning up paint, and I like to fly by the seat of my pants too much to plan out a traditional painting. I like moving things around and trying out different colors for a particular part of the painting just by clicking on that layer and playing with the color controls. It gives me far more freedom to edit along the way. Digital painting has come a long way, and now some of my art directors can’t even tell that my art is done on the computer.
WMI: Do you use models/source pictures or do you draw from your memory/imagination?
Kristi Valiant: I’ll look up photos online or take my own for poses or viewpoints or references, but I don’t draw straight from photos. I always make it my own. If I’m looking too much at a photo, my drawings tend to come out too stiff.
WMI: What gets you through an illustration when you’re stuck for inspiration?
Kristi Valiant: I move on to a different spread in the book. Then days later I can come back to it with fresh eyes. It also helps to talk it over with someone else. The art director is the obvious choice, but I also use my mom and my husband, both of whom are creative, have a good art eye, and are honest with me about my work.
WMI: What one piece of advice would you share with an illustrator wanting to get into kid lit?
Kristi Valiant: READ. READ. READ! You need to read and study the kid’s books currently being published and know what’s out there in the current market. There are a lot of other pieces of advice I could give too, like building your craft and joining SCBWI, but if you want to work in kid’s books, you need to know kid’s books.
WMI: Is there a children’s book illustrator whose work you gravitate towards in the bookstore now?
Kristi Valiant: LeUyen Pham, Julia Denos, Peter Brown, Holly Hobbie’s Toot and Puddle books, Charles Fuge, Tony Fucile, Amy June Bates, and a bunch more.
WMI: If you could illustrate any writer’s new work, who would it be?
Kristi Valiant: What a great question but a tough one! Most of my favorite writers also illustrate, so they illustrate their own books already. I do enjoy Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s books, and I really think my husband needs to write a kid’s books because he’s funny in all the right ways!