I can’t imagine that anyone reading this isn’t familiar with the work of creative whirlwind Lita Judge– one of those rare folks equally gifted at both art and storytelling. If you don’t yet know of her, this post is definitely a case where showing is more effective than telling. So settle in for a treat.
Jill: When did you first fall in love with picture books … and decide to try creating them yourself?
Lita: I didn’t have much exposure to children’s books when I was young, but I remember the day I saw my first picture book. It was a copy of THE TOMTEN by Astrid Lindgren that I found in a basket on my grandmother’s porch. It was in its original language, so I couldn’t read it, but the pictures captivated me. That story filled my heart in a way that no book had before.
But it was still a long journey to picture books. I trained and worked as a geologist long before I became an author and illustrator. Partly because I never had art in school and I could never really visualize being an artist as a career. But I carried a journal when I was a child and wrote and drew in it constantly. I was helping my grandparents with their work as biologists, and my journal was a means of recording the birds I saw. Eventually that led me to consider wanting to be a writer and artist.
It was on a holiday in Europe when I was drawing in my sketchbook and I realized I had no desire to go home, because that meant putting my journal down. So I resolved to try to write my first children’s book. Over the years my love for picture books had only grown. I went home from that trip and wrote my first book. It was about my grandparents, titled, ONE THOUSAND TRACINGS, and I haven’t stopped creating books for children since that day.
Jill: I’m a longtime fan of the warm and touching ONE THOUSAND TRACINGS, especially because it originated with a lovely family story. And thanks so much for sharing with me a PDF of your latest, EVEN THE SMALLEST WILL GROW ahead of its April 20th pub date. When I finished clicking through it, I sat back and sighed, Lita. It feels very like an instant classic. Please share the story behind this gorgeous book
Lita: Thank you! EVEN THE SMALLEST WILL GROW was such a joy to create. It was inspired soon after I adopted my Maine coon kitty, Pulina. I had been feeling kind of rundown and at a creative low — partly because I had been traveling a lot to promote my YA book, MARY’S MONSTER. Time on the road and speaking can be very rewarding but creatively draining. I had also recently lost my dear cat of many years and I was feeling sad and overwhelmed. And then when I brought Pulina home, this beautiful, soft, gentle soul came into my life. I fell in love instantly. But I also felt creatively renewed. Every day I would wake up to find she had discovered something new in her world. And each day she grew she could do new things. For example, jump on a table that was previously out of reach. I found myself re-discovering the world through her eyes and felt a sense of wonder rekindled. And I realized one of the things I’m most thankful for when I do school visits is it allows me to see the world through the eyes of children. I suddenly wanted to write a book that empowered kids to believe in themselves, and to see all of their potential, while at the same time exploring my own sense of wonder. For me the natural world is a constant source of renewal and creative inspiration. The story of EVEN THE SMALLEST takes place within a dream of a small child, and I chose to set that dream within a world of nature. And like myself, as I was creating the book, the little girl has a young kitten at her side exploring the world with her. It’s a book celebrating the wonder children have for the world around them and all that is remarkable within them. Of all of my books, this one holds the most joy for me. While working on it I went from a starting place a feeling sad and empty, to ending up in a place where I felt I had grown artistically and personally.
Jill: I’m guessing that what you just said about growing artistically and personally through this project will strike a chord with many of us readers. As a kid, I remember thinking that, as an adult, I’d be “finished.” What a happy discovery it was to learn that growth opportunities NEVER end, that each new project can teach us something new about ourselves.
I’d like to know about your work beyond picture books, Lita. Could you tell readers what else you do to stretch yourself, creatively?
Lita: Thanks for asking, I do love to do a lot of creative work outside of children’s books. Though picture books remain my first love. A lot of things inspire me that don’t necessarily fit into that format. Because I learned to paint by drawing from life, particularly drawing wildlife and painting landscapes on location I continue to do that. I find the practice keeps me fresh and brimming with ideas. And I love having an Etsy shop (LitaJudgeShop.etsy.com) where people can find my paintings, prints, cards, and books. Creating for me is connecting, and creating a sense of community. It gives me great joy when people connect with my work and can find pieces of art on my shop that speak to them.
I have an open studio once a year and hundreds of people come to visit. But since it’s impractical to do that more often (as I live in the woods of NH) an Etsy shop is my little place where I hope people can stop by to see pieces of nature, and whimsy. The paintings I list there are often the seeds to ideas that later become books. EVEN THE SMALLEST WILL GROW actually began with one painting that blossomed into an idea large enough for a book. A lot of my stories begin that way. I also sculpt, working mostly in ceramics. Though I don’t put these pieces for sale, they are a huge part of my identity as an artist.
Sculpting in between books gives me a period of rest to think about the next idea. It also stretches my mind and skills. Working in three dimensions is a wonderful way for an artist to explore.
Jill: I’ve just been to your Etsy shop, which literally made my jaw drop. The beauty (and range!) of your work available there is astounding. So, career-wise, do you have any specific, long-term goals? Or are you more about growing into those organically?
Lita: My goals definitely grow organically. I never imagined I would write and illustrate 30 books. It just started with a deep desire to write the first one, and grew from there. Now it feels like such a gift to spend my life creating. But I only want to do ideas that speak to me. I never want to just make books because it’s an income. For example, I never imagined I would write a young adult graphic novel in verse, but several years ago the right story came along and I felt compelled to create MARY’S MONSTER. After that project I returned to picture books. Now I am working on a nonfiction book that requires a lot of research, but is pushing me and gives me a daily “WOW, that is cool” feeling. I’m also recently finding myself longing to do a long form project. It’s at the early stages and I don’t know what will come of it but I am a big believer in saying yes to yourself when it comes to what projects to create. I always want to explore new things that I find creatively exciting and even scary. Whatever I end up doing it will provide me something that feels compelling, and a little bit overwhelming. I guess, creatively, I like to feel like I’m sitting at the edge of my seat.
Jill: I have to say, hanging out with you is very inspiring, Lita. Makes me want to take my own creativity up a notch or three. With that in mind, my last question: What one piece of advice about stoking creativity could you leave with our readers?
Lita: My biggest advice is try to work at something creatively every day. For me, consistency is key to keeping the wheels turning! Don’t wait for inspiration. Go out and hunt for it. A life of creativity is both a joy and difficult. By difficult I mean that it can so easily be upset by the grind of daily life. You have to protect it, and nurture it. You have to develop a practice where you work at it daily. And you have to allow yourself time to just explore. I draw and write outside of books, because it allows me to find my way into books. If you only worry about producing something that’s fit to share with others, you’ll never give yourself time to ask questions and to search for things that really kindle your inspiration. I work very regular hours. They are long hours, but they give me a consistency of practice that allows me to feel creative and inspired. Sometimes it means sacrifices, like not having time to do normal life things all the time. It’s a tough balance, but make sure there aren’t a list of “to do’s” that come before creating.
Jill: Yes, those darn “to-do’s” can certainly be road blocks. Let’s all just NOT let them! Lita, THANK YOU for visiting with us today. Readers, don’t miss Lita’s other 2021 book, THE WISDOM OF TREES-How Trees Work Together to Form a Natural Kingdom. It’s stunning and feels very much like the accumulation of a lifetime of tree love/knowledge. It deserves a post all its own! Be sure to visit Lita’s website, here, and her Etsy shop, too.