Meet Amy Young!
Nursery school paste, Ivy League schools, guinea pigs, and pie-eyed patrons: author/illustrator Amy Young
Interview by Charlie Barshaw
Interview by Charlie Barshaw
You said in the bio on your website that you were an artist from the beginning. What were your art tools of choice when you started? How did they change as you grew?
|Amy as a young artist|
from her website
I was three when I first knew I wanted to be an artist. At that time I was experimenting with cut and torn paper and nursery school paste. Good fun. Then, for years, it was graphite pencil, simply because that was what I had. I drew constantly—from life, from my head.
Eventually one of my art classes introduced watercolor, which I love to this day for its luminosity. In art school it was all about oil paint, for years. I eventually realized that the toxicity of oils and turpentine was a problem, and shifted to acrylics, which had improved immensely in quality by then. I discovered gouache all on my own, which I love for its versatility and bright colors. Pen and ink is a natural to pair with watercolor.
I have dabbled in printmaking and sculpture as well, which offer their own delights. And I should mention photoshop, which I use not as a primary medium, but as a comprehensive editing tool, to resize, shift elements, touch up, tweak, etc.
Today, I do not use any one medium, but move between them to find what works best for a particular project. Sometimes I start in one medium, and then realize that is not the look I want.
You’ve worked a lot with gouache. For non-painters, can you explain what gouache is, and what it does for your artwork?
Gouache is a water-based medium, but it has a higher pigment content that watercolor paints. That means you can layer it and use it thickly, and also rework it quite a bit. You can also use it thinly, more like watercolor. The color tends to be pure and brilliant. The finish is matte (non-reflective), which can be good or bad. Sometimes it can look a bit chalky compared to acrylics.
You suggested young artists copy the work of an artist they liked. Who were you copying early on? You also suggested, for the young writers, to do what amounts to fan-fiction and write a story about a character in a book that they read. Which character did you yearn to see more of?
I went through a long period in my tweens and early teens of loving anything Renaissance. I copied Leonardo anatomy and nature studies. I also adored the way Holbein and Ingres, for two, could turn a form by the weight of line.
That grew into a fascination with gesture drawings, and how line weight could show movement and actual weight. Years of life drawing classes helped! I remember my favorite life drawing teacher, José Cintron, saying, “Everything has a gesture. Even a pancake has a gesture!”
I don’t remember feeling I wanted to see more of a particular character, but I do remember loving an exercise in English class, where we had to write in the style of various authors. It was easy and fun for me to put on that persona, and I think it was important in my development as a writer.
You studied art at Yale and painting at Indiana U. Then you decided to hedge your bets and got a law degree from Harvard. You practiced law in Grand Rapids for seven years before you chucked it all and went back to art. Was there a specific incident that drew you away from your day job?
No. It was a growing, suffocating feeling that I was in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing. I kept thinking, “This is a great life, but it is not mine.” I finally acted on it, after saving every single penny for a long time, so I had a big safety cushion.
In an interview you described “ten years of trying” to publish a children’s book. “Then I got offers on two different books from two different publishers the same week.” Can you take us back to that week?
That was a good week! To tell you about it, I have to start with all the years I went to New York with my portfolio, getting five or ten-minute appointments with art directors. From them I learned which illustrations they did and didn’t like (newsflash: they have different opinions! I hadn’t expected that.), and I learned that as an illustrator, I would get published faster if I also wrote, and that my portfolio needed several illustrations of the same characters in different settings.
So I arrived with four pages from what would become SPIKE AND CUBBIY’S ICE CREAM ISLAND ADVENTURE, along with the manuscript written by my very talented friend Heather Sellers http://www.heathersellers.com. That sold to Henry Holt.
I also had several illustrations from my manuscript for BELINDA THE BALLERINA. The Viking art director asked to see the manuscript and made an offer once they had. That really knocked my socks off, because I called that my zombie manuscript: it wouldn’t live and it wouldn’t die. I didn’t even want to show it to them because I was sick of being disappointed. It turned into a successful four book series, and it is still very popular in China.
Early in your career you illustrated books for Heather Sellers, Cori Meister and Lynn Cullen. Your most recent illustrator job was The Three Little Guinea Pigs by Erica S. Perl. You’ve gone against accepted publishing tradition and strove to share your art with the author. Why?
It has been different in each case. Heather Sellers and I worked very closely together, meeting once a week for most of a summer. We went into it with a spirit of fun, and while we were hoping a book would come out of it, we weren’t bothered either way. I knew I would get some good portfolio samples, and she, a successful and accomplished poet, wanted to try her hand at a children’s book. We laughed so much that summer, and we each learned a lot too. Even the dogs had fun.
Cori Meister and I didn’t communicate much at all, but her three books were about ponies. I researched A TON, but not being a pony person, I was terrified of getting something wrong. I asked that she be shown the artwork to vet it for anything that was off or misplaced.
Lynn Cullen’s book on Marie Antoinette was another very deep dive into research. I lost myself in books about the politics, art, fashion, and even took a trip to Versailles when I felt the reference books weren’t enough. Again, I knew I had done my research, but I wanted another expert eye to double-check everything.
The Three Little Guinea Pigs
Erica Perl and my editor Joy Peskin are both big guinea pig fans, so even though I haven’t met Erica, it sort of felt like a three-way friendship. It is very important not to step on each other’s toes, however. There were some things I might have written differently, thinking as an illustrator, but it was not my place to say so.
But it was reasonable to ask Erica to change “suitcases” to “backpacks” as the piggies leave home, because—hello—how is the guinea pig going to carry a suitcase? Likewise, it was entirely reasonable for her to say Pumpkin should not be carried upside down by her sisters, as that can hurt a guinea pig’s spine.
In general, the separation between author and illustrator is a very good thing. I could tell you horror stories from early in my career where aspiring writers tried to stage direct me, an aspiring illustrator. The writer must give the illustrator room to make the story their own.
You were commissioned by the Helen Devos Children’s Hospital to write and illustrate the book, “What Makes You Happy?” How hard was it to come up with a storyline with someone else’s idea? Grand Haven author Margaret Willey edited your work for this project. How did that collaboration work?
I used to do a fair amount of educational work, and that was not terribly pleasant; I felt undervalued, underpaid, micromanaged, and I didn’t like the kind of work I produced.
This was the exact opposite. I worked with the then president of Helen Devos Children’s Hospital, his executive assistant, and the president’s wife. They were AMAZING. They readily admitted that they did not know anything about children’s books, and let me write the story and handle most of the details. They were kind and respectful.
They made only one or two minor adjustments, which made the book better. (The biggest being: no trampoline in there, even though the kids I polled loved them. It turns out the hospitals see way too many trampoline-related injuries.)
I hired and paid for Margaret Willey’s services on my own, because I wanted a good editor. Margaret has won many awards and accolades for her writing, and she is also a trusted friend. She used to take on editing jobs as her schedule allowed, but now focuses on her own writing.
You mention the misleading sea monkey ads in the back of comic books as being an inspiration for your Unicorn Named Sparkle series. Which comic books were your favorites?
Archie and his friends! I cannot tell you why, for the life of me. Maybe because their lives seemed so normal, and mine was anything but.
|Interior pages of A Unicorn Named Sparkle|
Sparkle the Unicorn is a goat-like creature who is odiferous, has big ears and a short blue horn. And he has fleas. Not at all the unicorn Lucy planned for. There is fertile ground in addressing what a person thinks they want versus what they need. Did this lesson apply to your own life?
In the Belinda the Ballerina series, the large-footed ballerina’s origin story (Belinda Begins Ballet, 2008) is actually the last story you wrote. Was that the plan from the start?
It wasn’t the plan at all. BELINDA was the first picture book I ever wrote, and it popped into my head fully-formed. To me, the idea of a ballerina with big feet was a metaphor.
Turns out, big feet are a THING out there. I had so many mothers tell me their daughters loved this story because they felt bad about having big feet, and had to shop in the adult section of the store, and on and on. So it was natural for me to start mulling that over. The story sort of wrote itself, based on what I learned from my readers.
|Belinda the Ballerina|
In Belinda the Ballerina (2002) you relegate your heroine to becoming a waitress, a job you admitted to being your least favorite. Was that in order to make the protagonist’s situation as painful as possible? What do you remember most about your days serving tables?
I picked waitressing because it is generally an easy job to get. Also, it gave Belinda a built-in audience for her return to dance. As waitressing jobs go, Belinda had it pretty good.
In my early 20s I worked in a London-based Pizza Hut. We stayed open after the pubs closed, so all the drunks would pile in to order pizza. I was required to ask the (bollocksed, bog-faced, clobbered, fermented, hammered, legless, lubricated, marinated, mashed, pie-eyed, pickled, pissed, plastered, potted, slaughtered, sloshed, smashed, soused, stewed, tight, wasted, zombied—you get the idea?) patrons whether they wanted the crust “Thin and Crispy or Thick and Chewy?” Always a big laff, that. The fellows were harmless enough, I suppose, but you would be surprised how often I forgot to ask the question.
I also worked at a more genteel place in the Lake District of England, where elderly English people would instruct me dozens of times a day on how to make “a proper pot of tea,” a lesson I internalized deeply. You must rinse the pot with boiling water, people! Is that so hard??
In 2014 you were invited to spend two weeks in China because your Belinda the Ballerina series was so popular there. The trip must have been equal parts exhilarating and exhausting. What are your favorite memories of China?
It was an amazing trip in every single way. A few weeks before I left, I realized that was being billed not only as an author/illustrator, but as a “Literary Expert,” which included me giving a keynote address at a big literary conference in Beijing, alongside an actual literary expert. Eek! I absorbed all the material I could. (Fascinating stuff! And thank you, law school study habits.) I also learned that reading picture books was relatively new in China; the cultural approach would be to start at the beginning, read through without interruption, and then stop--not what the literary experts recommend for the littles.
* My translators from the Chinese publishing house. It was an honor to meet and get to know them, and theirs was not an easy job. All of the employees who assisted me and took me around and managed my schedule were stellar.
* At one event I read to a group of adorable toddlers, and then I was supposed to tell the parents how to read with young children. As I switched to my adult voice, the tots’ eyes glazed over. I told the parents that the idea was to get children to engage with the book, not necessarily to read it straight through. I held up Eric Hill’s WHERE’S SPOT? and started in with a smiling, excited voice,
from Moi and Marie Antionette
A hundred pairs of eyes riveted on me and that book.
“Is he in the piano?”
As one, they rose.
And then I was overrun with an adorable, tiny army of zombie children, tottering towards me on little legs, surrounding me, reaching out to touch and see for themselves.
I said, “See, THIS is what you want!” Later I was told that many of these children had never seen a Westerner, and the organizers had worried they’d be afraid of me. Not a problem; that’s the power of art and goodwill.
* A boy asked me a question, and everyone chuckled. My translator said, “He called you Grandma.” I was so touched.
* I never knew what each day would bring. One afternoon I was told I was going to interviewed for a radio program, and they were going to ask me how books got into the hands of young readers in America. It sounded like a quiet, thoughtful event, which would be a pleasant change of pace. As we approached the interview room, I heard a muffled roar of voices through the closed door. Inside were at least a hundred children and parents, and a huge banner saying WELCOME AMY YOUNG! Before I knew it, it was time for me to do a webcast presentation, on camera. And just before we went live, the host said, “This is being watched by 100,100 people!”
* The food was so amazingly delicious.
You say that you do most of your writing and early sketches at the kitchen table, the couch, or a local coffee shop. But when it comes to your final art, your well-lit basement studio is the place you retreat to. What does your studio look like when you are deep into the project?
This is a trick question, isn’t it? I have a feeling that you already know it looks like a tornado hit. I will say that at the beginning of each project, everything is very clean, tidy, and organized.
What different art techniques and tools have you used over the years for various projects. Where are you at now?
I let the project decide the medium. For ten of my books, including the BELINDA series, I used straight gouache. For the SPARKLE series, I used pen and ink and watercolor, with a touch of gouache here and there, to give it a bit of a retro look.
Don't Eat the Baby
For the last book I illustrated, THE THREE LITTLE GUINEA PIGS by Erica Perl, I used a mishmash of pen and ink, water-soluble markers and pens, and watercolor; it gave a look that was bright and exuberant, which suited to story.
Sometimes I will start a book assuming I will use one medium, but quicky realize that is not the feel I want. I enjoy finding what works best.
You play the Irish fiddle. What’s that all about?
Ha! That is a rabbit hole I fell into 15 years ago, and I just keep falling deeper. It is an art, a pleasure, and a pastime. My husband plays concertina, so it is a shared passion. We just got back from a trip to Ireland, where we had a great time seeing old friends, making new ones, and playing in sessions with other musicians.
Learning an instrument as an adult is no easy undertaking. I must be patient with myself, but keep pushing if I hope to progress at all. When I do make significant progress, it feels miraculous, like a baby learning to walk. I’m sure all of that feeds into my book work, but I don’t want to explore the connection too closely--I don’t want to piss off the sprites and fairies and wreck the magic.
What’s next for Amy Young?
I am working on several story ideas, hoping one will spark. Same as most (all?) of our members!
Please share any social media contacts:
Instagram under Amyyoungart
Previous Featured Illustrators
|Ruth McNally Barshaw|