Zibby Owens: I'm really excited to be here with Ricardo Cortés today who is an artist, writer, and a number one New York Times best-selling illustrator and publisher. Books of his include Party, written by Jamaica Kincaid, It’s Just a Plant, Sea Creatures from the Sky, Go the Bleep to Sleep, andSeriously, Go the Blank to Sleep. [laughs] I didn't want to say it on the podcast. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. Welcome, Ricardo.
Ricardo Cortés: Hey. Thanks so much for having me here today.
Zibby: How did you decide to illustrate Party, your most recent book with Jamaica Kincaid? How did you get started illustrating books to begin with?
Ricardo: I started illustrating books actually in a strange way. I was into doing political activism to a certain extent. I was interested in drug policy reform. Strangely enough, my first book was a children’s book about marijuana. I actually got a grant to write a children’s story about a child who finds out her parents are using marijuana. Basically, it would be analogous to maybe a book about sex education for kids. It wasn’t teaching kids how to smoke pot or that pot is for children at all whatsoever. It was talking to children. Parents can use it as a tool to explain why some adults are using this thing and what it’s about. Very strange way to get into children’s books. That's how I got into it. I did a book. It was moderately successful. I started publishing on my own. I couldn't find a publisher for a strange book like that. That was back in 2005. The cultural landscape has changed a lot since then. That's really how I got into it. I was always the illustrator. That’s how I began. That's how I got into books. I've done a couple books since then.
How I found Party, Jamaica’s story, was in a book called Talk Stories, a book of basically her stories that were the Talk of the Town pieces she’d written for The New Yorker magazine at the beginning of her writing career. It was just a collection of all these essays. I loved them. They're great little pieces. It was when The New Yorker was publishing the Talk of the Town stories anonymously. There wasn’t a byline at that point, if I recall. They were these wonderful stories and also a very interesting evolution of her early writing career. It was fascinating. Partywas one of the stories that I found especially intriguing. Once you read the story Party, as it is published right now as the children’s book we have, it’s essentially word by word exactly how it was published back in 1980, I believe. Where it was originally written, it was written for adults. This is just in The New Yorkermagazine.
It was a satire homage to the Nancy Drew book mysteries. It’s about three young girls who go to a party. It’s a literary party for a Nancy Drew book. They see something at the party that is mysterious, [laughs] really mysterious. The short story ends without a conclusion as to what the girls see. I read the story. It grabbed me. I was like, wait, what was that? What did I just read? I really had to read it again because it was such a strange little thing. I just loved it. Obviously, because it was children in the story and I've done children’s books, I started to think, wow, this would make a really fun kid’s book. It wasn’t written like that, necessarily. It could be made into that. I especially liked the idea that there wasn’t really a resolution to this weird, crazy mystery. The idea of trying to illustrate that and turning into a book, that's how -- I found the short story. In short, I reach out to Jamaica out of the blue and introduced myself and asked if she would be interested in an interpretation. She generously said yes. That's basically how the book came about.
Zibby: Wow. That's so neat. I know, I had to reread it myself. I was like, wait, did I miss what the mysterious surprise was? I was scanning the picture. Could I see it? Could I not see it?
Ricardo: That's how it was designed, definitely. I probably anticipate a question of what do I think the mystery is or what did Jamaica mean by writing the mystery? She has her own interpretations. For myself, the open-endedness of it was what made it so fun, especially thinking about writing for children and anticipating the reading of the story to kids and then the discussion afterward of, “What do you think the mystery was?” Obviously, we've read the book to kids. You get some great answers. It’s fun in that way too.
Zibby: When you're brainstorming how to illustrate a book like this, how do you do it? What's your process like? Do you divide up the words? Do you just see a series of images in your head and then sketch them out? Take me through the process of how you do this.
Ricardo: Every book is different. For this one, since the text was already defined, I basically didn't want to change anything about it. I also made the decision that I didn't want to reveal what the mystery was, again because I'm not even sure what it was. I even had a wide range of possibilities. It would've, for me, ruined the story if there was an answer in it. It was designed that I wanted it to be mysterious enough that you could think the answer is in the book. In fact, possibly, it is. I was thinking as a child reader myself. Once I read that story the first time, I'd read it again and look closely at the pictures. There's lots of things that are embedded in the story, little embellishments or different colors or different flowers. There's a lot in there, details. Hopefully, a kid on second reading or a third reading is looking for clues.
How I map out a story like this is basically on a back of a napkin. I'm doing storyboarding out of what I think are the important beats because this was just a couple paragraphs of a short story. It wasn’t broken up into segments. I'm thinking of that. In terms of illustrating itself, the way I work best is actually working with models or working with actual children. The illustrations in this book are pretty -- maybe photorealistic is a way to describe it. They look like actual children. It’s not really stylized. The kids in the story are actually some friends of mine that I did a series of photoshoots with and tried to storyboard out certain actions and emotions. To be frank, at least one of the kids was a little too young to even be given any type of direction at all. It was kind of like herding cats. Basically, hung out with these kids. We took a lot of pictures and hung out and played. Through the pictures that I have, I was able to pull out certain emotions that I was looking for.
The youngest girl in the story, Sue, she gets upset because she doesn't really see what the mystery is. The two older girls do see it. She doesn't really understand. “Is there really something there? Are they making it up? The older sister never tells me anything.” She has the lament of the youngest sibling. There were a lot of different emotions I got from hanging out with these kids. Technically, what I do is I'm taking these photographs and I'm composing them, sometimes in Photoshop or whatnot, and using those compositions that I create to ultimately illustrate. I have a pretty good idea of what the final thing is going to look like by the time I'm getting to the pencils and putting it out there. In this process, I was able to share with Jamaica where we were going. This is what I think it would look like. The girls are looking like this. Here's the surprise. What do you think? That's how it goes down until I get to the pencils. This book was done in colored pencil. I work with other mediums, but this book was in colored pencil.
Zibby: Wow. That's so neat. Then do you have in your studio -- what does it look like when you're actually working? Do you have these all up on the wall all around you, different pages? Are you really methodical and you have a whole little pile and you finish one and move onto the next?
Ricardo: For the most part, working one by one. Beforehand, I have mapped it out pretty meticulously in Photoshop which allows me to create the composition. I'm actually using the photos of the girls in the poses that they are in the book. Some of it is staged. Some of it was happenstance. There's one point where the older girl has to grab the friend by the shoulders and be up in her face. That was something we were able to stage. Even that, one of the girls faces from one take was better than another. I'm really, in Photoshop, doing a lot of this composition. Once I have that, I have these images. A lot of the background of the story is from the Schwarzman Library, the 47th Street library in Manhattan, the main library with the lions outside. There are these beautiful marble backgrounds of that library. It seemed like a really fitting stage for the story. I went there. I took a lot of photographs of those. I'm using those in the layer in the computer with the photographs of the girls to compose the images.
Once I have everything laid out and I know what it looks like in the background and even some [indiscernible] to color in the lighting, I print those pages out. I'm using those as a template to go directly onto the page. I don't use a lightbox, which is what a lot of illustrators might use. I have this real have-to-do-it-yourself thing. I put the pages over the pages. I trace them out with a ballpoint pen. It embosses these lines into the blank page. Then I use those lines to use as a sketch to do my final illustrations in. There's a lot of different stages. Once I get to just the coloring and the pencils, I've already thought out everything so much that once I get to that, it’s fun and I'm just drawing. I could listen to music. I don't have to pay as much attention because I've already done the work beforehand.
Zibby: How did this project differ? How did you end up doing the Go the F to Sleepbook, which was read by every single parent I know, basically? Tell me about that collaboration and how that project came to be.
Ricardo: Go the F to Sleep, [laughs] before that came out, I had done a couple children’s books. A guy that I kind of grew up with who’s a novelist, Adam Mansbach, I don't believe he'd ever done a children’s book before. He had a daughter at that point who was the inspiration for this story. He'd written this, basically, poem and sent it to me and said, “What do you think about this? Would you like to do a children’s book together?” I loved it. It was fun. It was funny. At least from my part, there was no anticipation that it would be a real big success blockbuster, that people would know about this book. It seemed to me, something really fun and quirky and strange. A lot of my books up to that point had been like that. It was a really small project. We reached out to Akashic Books in Brooklyn. I'm living in Brooklyn, New York. They're an independent publishing group that we both had some relationship with before. They hadn’t done many picture books or children’s books. They were doing a lot of fiction. We really liked them and sent it out to Johnny Temple at Akashic. He liked the story. Actually, I think at first he was a little hesitant. He showed it to his wife. She's like, “This is great. You've got to publish this.” He was like, “All right. Sure. You guys want to try this?”
It was a really small project, even a physically small book. We put it out there. There's been a lot of stories about how it essentially blew up. It was kind of an accident. The book became a very big viral success before the book had even been published. At first, it was just word of mouth. Preorders started raking up on Amazon. It became very close to, maybe even the number one or number two book on Amazon. We hadn’t even got the book published yet. It was incredibly strange. That summer was like, what is going on? Then the PDF went out. That's how a lot of people saw the book. The PDF started being virally shared. At first, we were really scared about this. Wait a second. Our book hasn’t even been published. Now everyone has it for free. That was a concern as well. Then it still was becoming popular. People were still preordering it. We pushed up the publishing by a couple months. When the book finally came out, it went pretty big at the time. It was amazing. It was a really strange experience.
Zibby: You must have been over the moon. That's the coolest thing to have it happen like that.
Ricardo: Yeah, it was really fun. It was funny. It was weird. It was strange to see. I remembered the feeling of watching the book climbing up, battling between -- I think it was Tina Fey’s Bossypants at the time was number one. We were number two. I can't believe this book is right next to that book. How small of an idea it was when it started, then it became a known thing. That was a lot of fun.
Zibby: I feel like that book started a whole new level of honesty that parents shared with each other. It hit at such the right time for people who are so frustrated and felt like you couldn't really talk about it. Now there was this fantastic, funny book. It’s great. It was great. What are you excited to do in the future? Do you have any dream collaborations or books you were hoping to work on or anything you're particularly excited about right now?
Ricardo: I'm sure there are collaborations in my head. Maybe. I would love to do another book with Jamaica. We’ll see. We've talked a little bit about some ideas. If that ever happens, that would be really fun. I mentioned my first book was a children’s book about marijuana. It was very strange. After that, I did a picture book for high school and up, for adults, about the history of the coffee plant and about the coca plant, which is what cocaine is made out of. It turned into a history of the Coca-Cola company and this history of the business of the Coca-Cola company. It was this whole political history. When that came out, I realized that I'd been doing these books about plants, and a trilogy of plants. In fact now, my next children's book, I have a book about tomatoes. It’s a tongue and cheek diatribe against tomatoes that I find very silly and very ridiculous. It’s basically tomatoes are the most evil thing and they make you do bad things. That's the next thing that I'm working on right now. I'm illustrating in watercolor. It looks very different from my last projects. I've done a lot of books in pencil that are very finely detailed. This is a little bit looser. That's the next project I'm working on.
Zibby: What do you think it takes to appeal to kids? You're obviously a brilliant artist in your own right. You have found a way to really connect with kids and grown-ups. The other book was sort of not a kid’s book, really. [laughs] I try to keep it away from my kids. Do you think kids look at things in a different way and need a different type of illustration? Am I being too analytical about it and it’s more a feel type thing?
Ricardo: That's a great question that I wrestle with myself and think about myself. I'm an artist. As a kid, I was very visual. I loved picture books. I think about what I loved as a kid. I loved looking at picture books. I loved the details of things. That's one of my styles. In picture books, I love making things that I think kids will have fun looking at and looking at over and over and marveling into. That's aesthetically and visually making things that are interesting to look at. Content-wise, that's even a greater mystery. What is going to be engaging to a kid? To a certain extent, I think it is something like what is engaging to myself? I'm going to understand it on a different level as a kid would. It’s not always for everybody.
I've really had a lot of fun reading Party to a lot of people. Even before the story came out, I would tell people the story. I had a lot of adult friends who were like, “What? That's the worst story I've ever heard. That makes no sense.” It makes no sense. Obviously, there was something about that thing making no sense is what grabbed me and what I really enjoyed. I also know that a lot of people aren't going to like this book. In fact, I pitched this book out to several publishers that were not interested. I was really shocked. Wait a second. This is Jamaica Kincaid. Do you all know that? [laughter] This is Jamaica Kincaid. This is going to be a children’s book. It’s going to be gorgeous. It’s weird. I know it’s weird. Don't you see the vision? Obviously, there's a lot of people that even in the state it is in now, it doesn't click.
For me, the strangeness of it and how it didn't fit into the formula -- most children’s books make sense. At the end, there's maybe even a lesson. Maybe there's a moral. In this one, it was kind of the opposite of that. It left you unsure. I really liked the idea of it. There were certain books or certain movies or certain stories that as a child when I got through them, I was like, wait, you can do that in a story too? I thought a story had to be like this. Because I read this book that was weird and broke the fourth wall or laid it out in a different way, it opens up the imagination of what is possible in storytelling. I really liked the idea of sharing that with kids. They can see anything can happen in a book. This book leaves me not knowing what even happened. I didn't even know you could do that. That's something that I like playing with as well.
Zibby: Totally. Thank you so much for sharing all your insights into Party and all your other work and for creating such great books for everybody to enjoy and that really unite everybody in a way as well.
Ricardo: Over and out. Thanks so much. It was fun talking about it.
Zibby: Great. Thanks. Have a great day.
Ricardo: Take care.