Sarah S. Brannen has illustrated more than a dozen books for children. She is the author and illustrator of Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008). Uncle Bobby’s Wedding has received extensive publicity since its publication; it was the eighth most-challenged book in the US in 2008.
Sarah also illustrated The Pig Scramble, The ABC Book of American Homes, Digging for Troy: From Homer to Hisarlik and Mathias Franey, Powder Monkey, as well as several educational books. Forthcoming books include The Very Beary Tooth Fairy (Scholastic Press, 2013), The Ugly Duckling (Sterling Publishing, 2012) At Home in Her Tomb (Charlesbridge Publishing, 2013), Sarah’s Journal (Teacher Created Materials, 2012) and Feathers (Charlesbridge Publishing, 2014).
As a journalist and photographer, Sarah is a regular contributor to Skating Magazine and icenetwork.com. Along with figure skating, Sarah’s other interests include opera, Italy, sailing, insects and astronomy.
Sarah received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Visual and Environmental Studies from Harvard University and her Master of Fine Arts degree in Printmaking from the University of Pennsylvania. She has been writing and illustrating children’s books since 2001. In 2007, Sarah won the Ann Barrow Scholarship from the New England chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She was the runner-up for the 2006 SCBWI Work-in-Progress grant, and the runner-up for the 2003 Don Freeman Grant.
Here is Sarah sharing her process for one of the spreads in UNCLE BOBBY’S WEDDING.
I started with a storyboard, with tiny sketches of each spread. I knew that this spread would show Bobby and Chloe in a rowboat, but I wasn’t worried about details at this point.
This is one of the thumbnail sketches – I tried various views but I wasn’t committed to any of them.
Here’s the sketch from the dummy. At this point I had made a lot of decisions about the composition and text placement but hadn’t thought about color yet. All these sketches were done in pencil.
This is a color study, done before I had finalized the composition.
The spread from the finished book. These are both watercolors.
When did you first realize you were interested in the creative process?
My father started giving me drawing lessons before I could write. When I was little, I was always happiest when I was drawing. Or reading.
Were you involved in art in High School?
I took all the art classes they had in high school – I was fortunate, there was a large, active art department. I also took drawing classes at various museums. I started going to life drawing classes, drawing from nude models, when I was 14.
What are you training for when you go to college and major in Visual and Environmental Studies?
Harvard University, which prides itself on its academic standards, doesn’t feel that “art” is academic enough. So they call the studio art department “Visual and Environmental Studies.” I took drawing, sculpture and printmaking courses.
What sparked your interest in wanting to get your masters in Printmaking at the University of Pennsylvania?
To be brutally honest, I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I finished college, so I went to grad school. I had taken a printmaking course with Dmitri Hadzi at Harvard and I loved it, so I decided to study printmaking.
Can you share what it was like going to U of P? Did you go full time? Did you take other classes that weren’t about Printmaking? How long did it take you to complete?
I went to Penn full-time. They didn’t really offer classes in the graduate school of art. We all just had studios in an old building and a lot of seminars. I audited a course in architectural illustration in watercolors, which was very useful from a professional standpoint. I got my MFA degree in three years.
Did you take Photography classes?
I have never taken a photography class.
Do you think your talent in photography has helped you illustration work?
Quite the reverse – I think the only reason I can take decent photos is because I have a good eye for composition. I know a good photo when I get one. And of course, as an artist, I’m very aware of light.
How did you get interested in doing children’s books?
When I was a child, I used to illustrate all the books I read – in my head, anyway. Gradually, my skills caught up to my imagination and I started to wonder if I could actually illustrate real books. In my 20s, I investigated the possibility of becoming a children’s book illustrator, but I was discouraged from attempting it by the purported difficulty of breaking in, and, to be honest, the low advances. The dream never died, though, and in 2001 I realized I wouldn’t be happy unless I really tried to do it.
You say you have been writing and illustrating Children’s books since 2001. What was that first book?
2001 was when I quit my other jobs and started working on writing and illustrating full-time. I got my first book illustration contract in 2004, for a story by Tiger Woods included in Thanks and Giving: All Year Long.
How did that contract come about?
I got the contract for Thanks and Giving through my professional connection with author/illustrator Lisa Kopelke. She was illustrating a story by Ray Romano and the editors asked her if she knew an illustrator who could work quickly. They had an emergency and needed the illustrations immediately – I got the call at 10:30 on Saturday night and they picked the art up by courier at 4 the next afternoon.
What was the first book you did, where you were both the author and illustrator?
I wrote and illustrated Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, published in 2008.
How did that happen?
I had written several picture books and done dummies and sample illustrations and sent them to publishers, but without success. I had gotten an agent in 2004. I sent her the manuscript and a few character sketches and she showed it to Tim Travaglini at Putnam; he made an offer on the book in January, 2006.
Do you think that writing and illustrating Uncle Bobby’s Wedding and having it end up being the 8th most challenged book, helped your career?
Being on the most-challenged list leads to a lot of publicity, that’s certainly true. The book had already gotten a lot of publicity, though. But the book was mentioned on The Huffington Post yesterday, because of the challenges, and that doesn’t happen to picture books much!
Where did the spark for that book idea come from?
I had been wanting to write a book about a little girl who got to be the flower girl in a wedding, because my young niece was fascinated by the notion of being a flower girl. I live in Massachusetts, where same-sex weddings became legal in 2004. As I thought about who would be getting married in the book, I just started visualizing them as two little animals in tuxedos. I knew there was very little out there for children of same-sex parents and I hoped the book might help accustom children to the idea of same-sex marriage. Mostly, I wanted to write a good story.
I see you are a regular contributor in Skating Magazine. Were you involved in figure skating growing up?
I skated on ponds as a child, but mostly I was just a fan of skating at the Olympics. I started taking lessons as a young adult and kind of got sucked into the whole crazy, dramatic, fun, rhinestone-bedazzled world of figure skating.
Did you formally study photography and journalism?
I did not. I have never taken a photography course or a journalism course. There, it’s out.
How long have you been represented by TLA? How did you make that connection for representation?
I have been represented by Transatlantic Literary Agency since 2004. I contacted Karen Klockner and sent her some work. She was interested, and we actually share a connection to figure skating. I am immensely grateful for her support and encouragement when my career was just getting started. She has left the agency for Namelos, but I am still very happy with my representation by TLA.
What materials do you use to illustrate your books?
I sketch in pencil and do the finished art in watercolor.
How long does it take you to illustrate a picture book?
It takes much, much longer than I ever have. I have done more than one book in two months, which is not enough time! I’ve never had more than four months. I crave six.
I notice that you have done a few educational books. Do you change your style or materials when working with an educational publisher? Do you feel you have less freedom with this type of publisher?
Well, educational books are always done on a very, very tight deadline. Usually you have from two to six weeks. The scope of the illustrations is usually very limited – they tell you exactly what they want on each page. So I just try to do the best work I can, given the limitations.
Do you use Photoshop? How and where do you use it?
I use Photoshop a lot while I’m working on sketches – I sketch, then scan the sketch and put the text in, and I make minor changes. I don’t use Photoshop for my finished art. Of course I use it for my photography work too, mostly just to crop and resize.
Did you set up a studio in your home?
I am lucky enough to have a wonderful studio in my house. The whole upper floor is my studio and office space, with a big skylight, great light and plenty of room.
Have you used any of the printmaking skills you learned in grad school in your children’s books?
Do you follow a daily routine?
I usually exercise and do housework and chores in the morning. I work in the afternoon and evening, until about 11. Sometimes if I’m in the midst of writing I write first thing in the morning though. It seems like the mind is freshest then. I can’t do artwork until I’m all exercised and stretched out.
Out of the children’s books you have published, which one is your favorite and why?
The next one.
Are there any marketing things you have done that helped you get additional work?
I have done everything I can think of. I advertise on childrensillustrators.com and picturebookartists.org. I get postcards printed and send them out. I use Facebook and Twitter.
Do you have any words of wisdom for your fellow illustrators that might help them become more successful?
Always think about where the eyes of your characters are looking. Make sure your characters are relating to each other in some way. Put lots of interesting details in your illustrations.
Read hundreds of books. Draw every day – it makes you powerful. Never give up.
Sarah, thank you for sharing your wonderful illustrations and process with us. It was a real treat. You can visit Sarah at: http://sarahbrannen.yellapalooza.com/
Please take a moment to leave Sarah a comment. I am sure she would appreciate it.