Lita Judge is a writer and artist whose greatest passion is creating children’s books. She is the author/illustrator for over a dozen fiction and nonfiction picture books including Flight School (Simon & Schuster, 2014), Red Hat (S&S, 2013), Red Sled (S&S, 2011), Bird Talk (Roaring Brook, 2012), One Thousand Tracings, and Pennies for Elephants (Disney-Hyperion). Her background in geology, paleontology and biology inspires her nonfiction books. Lita spent several years working for the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology before turning to writing about dinosaurs and other natural history subjects. But her background with animals also inspires her whimsical fictional tales filled with characters who forge big dreams.
Several of her books have been selected as Junior Library Guild picks and they have received numerous awards including the 2013 Sterling North Award, the Jane Addams Honor Book, ALA Notable Children’s Book, the International Reading Association Children’s Book Award, Michigan Notable Book, and Kirkus Best Children’s book of 2011. She enjoys teaching both writing and illustration to students of all ages and shares much about her creative process in classrooms and on her blog and website.
Lita lives with her husband, two cats and a little green parrot named Beatrix Potter in Peterborough, New Hampshire.
Here is Lita talking about her process:
For me, creating art for one of my books involves a lot of drawing to capture a character’s gesture or body movement and expression. For example in my newest book, Born in the Wild, to be released this October, I had to draw a lot of animals. But I didn’t want my readers to just know what a chimpanzee or orangutan looks like. I want them to feel a connection to them. I want them to look into the faces of my animals and feel like there is an animal looking back at them. I also want them to get an understanding of the intimate world of animals within their own world. How does a mother panda hold her baby, or a baby orangutan curl up and feel safe with its parent? To capture all this I first do hundreds of very loose sketches, focusing on body language long before I worry about details and paint.
Once I feel like I’ve captured that intimate portrait between the animals, I start focusing on the details, which describe their faces and bodies. Slowly my drawings become more refined until at last, it is ready for a light watercolor wash at the end.
Cover for BORN IN THE WILD
Interior and end pages
How long have you been illustrating?
The first book I illustrated came out in 2006. Then my first picture book, One Thousand Tracings, which I wrote and illustrated was released in 2007.
Above: Cover of One Thousand Tracings, 2007 Hyperion)
How did you get to work at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology?
Many kids outgrow the dinosaur-crazed phase after elementary school, but when I was 14, during the summer before high school, I still had set my cap on becoming a paleontologist. I was eager to get started so I wrote dozens of letters to museums, curators and paleontologists who were working in the field, and basically pleaded with them to let me work on their dig. I had heard the Tyrrell Museum was working on a dig with literally thousands of dinosaurs in a bonebed and they were from the Cretaceous, the age I particularly wanted to study. I guess I ended up writing so many letters to Phil Currie, he eventually called and said welcome aboard. So the day after school let out the following summer, I was on a bus to Canada. I returned every year to work there and went on to graduate with a degree in Geology.
Lita on dinosaur dig
Did you do illustrating work for them?
Not really, we didn’t have much time for anything other than digging up fossils. But I did do a few drawings on my own, and they asked if they could use them for t-shirts and mugs. That was a boost, to think I could draw dinosaurs perhaps someday for pay.
Cover of How Big, released 2013, Roaring Brook Press
Did you go to School to study art? If so, when and where?
My only schooling was in Geology, at Oregon State University. I never studied art in school. I credit all the bird watching and sketching I did as a kid for teaching me how to see, how to observe. Then later, I traveled to many great museums all over the world which, painting on location, and looking at great art.
Field paintings from Europe. Above: Stockholm cemetery. Below: Paris museum.
What was the first painting or illustration that you did where someone paid you for your artwork?
I think I sold a painting of a humming bird for about $35 at a Christmas fair. Back when I was a Geologist, I started drawing notecard and bookmark designs to get into doing art. Eventually I had over a hundred wildlife designs and sold them all over the country with a homemade catalogue I ran on a xerox machine. Then I started doing shows and craft fairs. Eventually I sold the business because I was spending all my time folding and filling notecard orders rather than painting. The dream was to paint, not fill orders. So I started showing and selling work in galleries. But I didn’t find my real home in art until I turned to writing and illustrating children books. The element of story is what made my art feel complete for me.
What type of job did you do right after you graduated?
I was an environmental geologist for the Forest Service. Spent a lot of time in the mud and rain working on the Oregon Coast.
What do you think influenced your style?
I don’t really think in terms of style. My art changes and evolves each time I do a story. I think it’s because I also write them and I have a wide range of interests — science, nature, historical, fiction, whimsical — so I do a broad range of stories. Each time I create a story it needs it’s own approach to the art.
When did you do your the first illustration for children?
In 2006, my first book was to illustrate the middle grade book, Ugly, written by Donna Jo Napoli.
How did that come about?
I had sent an art dummy of a story I had written into Hyperion and my soon-to-be editor, Namrata Tripathi, called and asked if I’d like to do a cover for a book. Of course I said yes! I was so excited I illustrated several interior pieces as well, which made it into the book, so it turned into a nice project, and a lovely friendship with Namrata. When that was done I sent her another dummy and we were off and running on my first picture book together.
How many children’s books have you illustrated?
I’m working on my 20th right now. Several in the pipeline also.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate a children’s book?
I’ve always wanted to on some level but when I was living in really remote areas on the west coast it just didn’t seem possible. I had never met an illustrator and really didn’t know how to go about getting published. When My husband and I moved to New Hampshire I was able to meet people in the field and soon after I began submitting work. Once my first book was in the works, I knew this would be what I would spend the rest of my life doing, I LOVE it!
How long did it take you after that to get your first picture book contract?
I was pretty fortunate. I sent out work I think in early November and got that first project on Valentine’s Day 2005. But I had been drawing and drawing and drawing, and painting for years before then. I had built up a huge body of work before attempting to get published and I think that helped me.
I see you illustrated a second book by Donna Jo Napoli. Did you know you were doing that book when you signed to do UGLY?
No, Donna Jo hadn’t even written it. It just grew naturally from the fact that Ugly was received well and we both had fun on that project.
What was the first book that you wrote and illustrated?
One Thousand Tracings. It’s a true story about a relief effort my grandparents did to help people who had lost their homes in Europe after WWII. I found letters and foot tracings in my grandmother’s attic after she died and knew immediately I wanted to write about this amazing thing they had done to help all those families.
How did you find a home for that book?
I sent it to my editor at Hyperion about a week after I turned the art in for Ugly.
What book would you say has been your most successful?
Hmmm, I really don’t think of success in terms of how many books sold or how many editions. I think a book is successful if I as an artist got to create something I feel passionately about, and it connects with readers who also feel passionately about the same thing. Some of my nonfiction books may not sell as many books as Red Sled or Flight School, but I still feel like that little girl obsessed with dinosaurs craving to make a living as an artist when I create them and that is better than any measured success. And they solicit such beautiful responses from kids who share the same obsession, so it’s a pretty wonderful feeling. And my fiction, well that’s a dream too. To create a character that people respond to, that makes them smile or feel a connection, that is the best. I leave others to worry about book sales and things, and I just worry about making the stories I love. My career feels like a dream come true, so I guess all my books are successful in their own little ways.
What book award are you the most proud of winning?
Kind of the same feeling, I’m just so grateful when any group of librarians or teachers or reviewers gathers a group of books together that they love and decides to bestow an honor on one of my books. I treasure each nod I’ve received and am thankful because they always make me believe a little more each time I really get to keep doing this beautiful, fantastic, crazy career!
Have you worked with educational publishers?
Have you done any illustrating for children’s magazines?
No. I’ve been asked for both, but I can never seem to pull away on the stories I’m brewing up. My imagination seems to keep my docket pretty darn full these days.
Do you have an Artist Rep. to represent you?
I work with a literary agent, Linda Pratt, who I adore because she keeps life sane for me, juggling all the contracts and turn-in dates. But more importantly, she is my sounding board for stories. She always gives me a safe creative place to bounce around ideas.
What types of things do you do to find illustration work?
Nothing, other than I just keep writing stories. I work on them nearly every day. As soon as one is turned in to my editor and I’m waiting for feedback, I turn to the next. I don’t worry about projects, just about stories, and somehow that has kept me fully employed since the day I started.
What is your favorite medium to use?
Pencil and watercolor.
Has that changed over time?
My approach changes each time I launch into a new story. Sometimes I have a whimsical story that has to be light and fresh and very gestural. Another time, I may be working on a nonfiction that needs a more detailed approach. I’m working now on a book that takes place at night and has an element of mystery so things are dark with kind of magical lighting and a big beautiful moon. Another story I’m working on now is for much older kids and it’s kind of dark and at times very sad and scary, so that means a huge departure on my approach. I love not having a set style. It means I have to reinvent myself a lot, and that can take a lot of hours at the easel, but it is never boring.
What I really want to know is how did you find such a great studio? Did you buy the house because of that room? Had it been a church?
I build it. My husband and I found a piece of land and I designed it. We had been saving and dreaming for a very long time, so the studio grew out of that energy. I found a salvaged church window and lugged some niches home from France that were made out of 15th century oak and were in a church that was sadly destroyed in WWI, but they have a home with me now. And I carved ravens for the roofline outside to reflect my background. I was born on the Tlingit Indian reservation in Alaska and the ravens are my homage to their beautiful art and culture that inspires me. I’m grateful for everyday I get to create in this space!
What is the one thing in your studio that you could not live without?
Natural light and my critters!
Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?
I just work. Really I don’t keep hours. I just wake up every day eager to get back to the stories, and march on through the day and into the night and through the weekends. I hate being sick because that’s about the only time I’m not working and that for me is just plain boring. There is always at least 3 unfinished stories on my easel and a few more whispering in my ears, so as long as that is true, I’ll be working. I occasionally slip out for a bike ride, but I’m pretty much to be found with pencil or brush in hand.
Do you take pictures or do any types of research before you start a project?
I do lots of research and quite often take pictures. That is always a fun part. My parents are wildlife photographers and my grandparents were research biologists. So I think I came to love that part of the work naturally. I do a lot of photo shoots with kids and animals, whatever the need may be. Have had fun over the years, travelling to places I paint, working with elephants, taking back trips up into the back country, feeding giraffes. Research is the fun part indeed!
Which illustrated book is your favorite?
Ah, that is like asking a mom which is her favorite kid. OK, I may have a special fondness for a certain penguin (in Flight School) but don’t tell the others. And I’m working on two books now that I’m bursting to let out in to the world, but that will have to wait. I’ll just say Paris, Owlets, moons and fun!
Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?
Oh yes, it’s a wonderful way to connect with people you would never meet otherwise. I get offers to speak and all sorts of wonderful things come out of the fact that people can so easily find your website and get a sense of what you have to offer. And I’m grateful for wonderful friendships with other writers whom I rarely see but keep in touch with.
Do you use Photoshop with your illustrations?
I do a lot of planning with Photoshop. I find it a wonderful creative tool hat helps me really explore and push a composition in a way I can’t with just pencil. I love how I can really play around with values as well so that you don’t have to muck around too much in guesswork with real paint. That never works well with watercolors.
Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet in your illustrating?
I do use one a lot in the planning stages. And a little in the final art- again it really depends on the story and what effect I’m trying to get. They are wonderful for some things, but I find a good old fashioned brush loaded in paint my favorite tool.
Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?
To keep doing books that excite and interest me for the rest of my life! To never ever have the feeling that I want to slow down. And to travel to more wonderful places that allow me to soak up their beauty and capture their essence in a story. To continue connecting with kids, teachers, and parents over stories and feel in some small way your work was a part of their imagination and life. That’s all I want.
What are you working on now?
Well I have 5 books in various stages. Some I can let out of the bag, and a couple that need to stay inside where it’s safe and warm just a little longer. My next nonfiction book, BORN IN THE WILD, coming out with Roaring Brook has already gotten two starred reviews and will be released on October 21st, so that’s exciting. Then I have a picture book about my Parrot, Beatrix, coming out next spring with Atheneum entitled, GOOD MORNIGN TO ME! It’s a fun story about life with a very happy and exuberant parrot. Then I have a book I’m illustrating about a pygmy marmoset that has been a delight work on and took me on a mental journey to the Amazon, pretty fun (coming out with Boyd’s Mill). And then my owlet book set in Paris which I’m working on now (to be released with Dial), and then… oops, I can’t tell you what I’m working on after that, but it’s a big project that has pushed me to extremes and I can’t wait for it to be ready to break out of the studio and into the world.
Cover of Good Morning to Me, to be released Spring 2015, Ateneum
Do you have any material type tips you can share with us? Example: Paint or paper that you love – the best place to buy – a new product that you’ve tried – A how to tip, etc.
My all time favorite brush is an Isabey Petite Gris brush, all sizes. It’s shaped kind of flat and fat so it holds gobs of paint while still keeping a good point. I bought my first in Paris after I dropped my brushes in the Seine, and man am I glad I did, because this brush paints like a dream. I also love cheep bamboo calligraphy brushes as I do a lot of line work. My tools are pretty simple 4b pencils, arches watercolor paper, Windsor Newton paint.
Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?
It sounds kind of flippant, but I mean it in all sincerity – don’t worry about success. Just worry about the writing and/or the art. People want good stories, they crave them, if you focus on the craft, on making it the best piece of art or writing humanly possible, the “success” part of it will fall into place, at least enough so that you get to make a comfortable living at it and keep doing it. I honestly don’t think about number of books sold, etc, I’d go crazy second guessing every whisper of an idea that comes into my brain and I’d give up on it long before it had the time and nurturing from me to grow into a real story. But if you just focus on the art, and the writing, it will grow into something others can love. Just make a Utopia for yourself of your work, and the other “career” part of things will come out of that.
Sketch for upcoming book, Born in the Wild
Thank you Lita for sharing you journey and process with us. Please let us know when your new picture books come out. We’d love to see them and cheer you on. You can visit Lita at: http://www.litajudge.net
If you have a moment I am sure Lita would like to read your comments. I enjoy reading them, too, even if sometimes I don’t have time to reply to all of them. Thanks!