When you’re a picture book author, you know all about why you wrote the book you wrote. What inspired it. What you were trying to convey.
And then … then … your words go off to an illustrator, and that person brings a whole new level of talent and skill to the eventual book.
That’s why I always like talking with illustrators about why they did what they did when they illustrated a book. And, today, I’m talking with Katie Kath who illustrated a book I wrote — WHAT CAN YOU DO WITH A ROCK? that comes out today from Sourcebooks.
I wrote this book because I was inspired by my youngest daughter’s childhood love of rocks. She’d come home from almost anywhere we went with a pocket full of rocks.
And, we had her rock treasures lined up on nearly every windowsill and staircase in our house. (If you want to hear the full story of why I dedicated this book to my daughter, check out this video interview I did with Chris Barton and Jennifer Ziegler.)
I wanted the book to be an ode to a kid’s love affair with rocks. And, then, Katie Kath added her art that cemented that vision. Here’s our conversation about what inspired her.
What was your first reaction when you read the text for WHAT CAN YOU DO WITH A ROCK? What made you agree to illustrate it?
Well, when I saw the manuscript was authored by you, I remembered SOPHIE’S SQUASH and thought to myself, “Ooo, Pat Zietlow Miller! This’ll be a good one!” And, it did not disappoint.
I think my reaction to the text itself was just that it was very well written. Beautiful and lyrical, and lots of room for imagination in terms of illustration (which is a great thing for a manuscript). I also thought the subject matter would be a cool thing to illustrate since I do not normally paint a whole lot of rocks — I love a challenge.
What’s your relationship to rocks? And, how much research did you have to do to draw those amazing illustrations? What was the most interesting thing you learned?
My relationship with rocks actually goes way back. Growing up, my family took a lot of road trips to so many geological areas: The Carlsbad Caverns, the Badlands, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, the Arizona Petrified Forest … the list is too numerous to go on.
Not to mention that, living so close to the mountains, our elementary school classes took many field trips to do gold panning near the Smokies or hike around the Linville Caverns. Later, in my last year of college, I had one more science elective left, and found there was a specialty course being given in the Geology Department on oceanography. It was one of my favorite classes I took during undergrad. One of the folks to whom I dedicated the book is Dr. Bollinger, who taught that class.
In terms of research I did for the book, let’s just say that, after awhile, Google began to think I either wanted to start collecting rocks or take a geology course! Actually, I prefer to research and sketch “in person” as opposed to just relying on the internet, and I sometimes will take “sketchbook trips” out to places where I can draw and learn what I need for a book.
Of course, that was prior to COVID. Unfortunately, the virus brought plans I had made to go out to some university rock and mineral museums to a screeching halt. So, I had to turn to books and the web!
One of the most interesting things I learned (there were so many things!) is how the splash pattern of a rock skipping underwater looks. Everyone knows what those ripples look like above water, but I certainly had no idea how they looked when observed beneath the water’s surface, and the rainbow trout spread shows an underwater view. The water under the skipping rock actually makes an interesting parabola-type shape — who knew?
Tell me more about the end papers. They seem like they might have taken a ton of time to create. Did they?
Yes! It was actually a bit of a last-minute idea I came up with, I was thinking about the main character’s rock collection and how readers might like to get a “closer look,” labels and all.
The spread was not only just plain fun to paint, it was also very meditative. Slowly mixing colors and applying the washes rock by rock, while listening to soft piano music (I love Scarlatti) just seemed like a wonderful way to finish out this lovely book I enjoyed working on so much.
I love that the main character has blue hair. (I once had purple streaks in my hair, so I can relate.) How did you come up with that idea?
Ha! Fun story: When I was a freshman in college, my friend and I wanted to see what would happen if she cut my hair. (What were we thinking?!)
Well, long story short, she gave me a terrible cut that I had to get modified into a pixie cut. (This time by a real stylist, of course.)
After that, I figured, “Hey! I’m in art school. Now is the time to dye my new punk-looking hair all sorts of crazy colors! So, I dyed my hair almost all of the permanent colors they had at Hot Topic, and then I grew my hair out and stopped all of the coloring because it was way too much work to keep up. All of this is to say, I think I was channeling my former, younger, art student self into the character, and so she ended up with blue hair!
Fun fact: The girl who cut my hair so badly is now a professional stylist.
What else should we know about the art in this book? Any fun facts, backstory or interesting tidbits?
On the spread where the girl has her rock collection spilled out over the pages, I tried to get in a little poster of Frank Zappa saying, “Help, I’m a rock!” in the corner, but I think the editors might have thought that a little too off-color. I like to see what silly things I can get away with, if I can.
Want to learn more about Katie and her work? Visit her website!
Want to buy a book?
Mystery to Me. (Copies signed by Pat are available.)
Or, visit your favorite local bookstore!