10 Question Illustrator Interview with Lea Lyon

“I tried to make the illustrations be both a mirror and a window for the reader,” – Lea Lyon, Illustrator.

I really wanted to know Lea Lyon’s thought process for illustrating my story Lailah’s Lunchbox. I usually interview authors so interviewing illustrators was insightful. For example, when I first saw Lea’s pictures, I was struck by the warmth that I felt from her paintings. The characters looked genuine.

I also was impressed by the touches of home that I saw in the book. I sent Lea a few photos of my home to show how my house was decorated with Pakistani touches, and it’s really cool to see little bits of that in the story. Lea has painted some spice jars that are similar to my house, and even added an ajrak looking cushion, a common Pakistani fabric, to one that Lailah sits on.

Do you see the spice jars?! Mine are similar!

I also got to ask Lea how she pronounces her name Lea Lyon. I have been saying it the French way, but it’s actually pronounced “Lee Lion.” Good to know for future book readings! Also, another cool factoid is Lea is Jewish so she is familiar with fasting! She has illustrated The Miracle Jar, a Hanukkah story and now my story, a Ramadan one.

Interview below!
1. What was the process of illustrating Lailah’s Lunchbox like? (I know you sent pictures of which child was going to be our Lailah which was exciting. I never knew that was part of the illustration process!)

There are many steps to illustrating a book. I received the manuscript from Tilbury House Editor, Audrey Maynard, with some suggestions as to where to have page breaks. Picture books are usually 32 pages including the title page, etc., so there are parameters that make it less overwhelming to make a book out of your words.  I first did some thumbnail sketches (a story board) to get ideas for what image to put on each page. The images should enhance the words, not just show what they say. I tried, for instance, to put as many references to Pakistani and Islamic design into the scenes that were at home, rather than at school. So much of the book takes place in the school, and I wanted to give the cultural flavor of the book as much as possible. Also, since I knew very little about Ramadan and your culture, I did lots of research. Interestingly, the thing I really needed your help on was the “cream rolls,” as I had never seen that brand of snack cake here in California. Now I have found them. (Like when you get a new car, you see that kind everywhere.)

I need to paint from models, or photos of real people, rather than out of my imagination. So the next step, when the thumbnails were approved, was to find models for the book. I needed to find a 10 year old Muslim girl who does not wear a head scarf. I knew this aspect of Lailah because she says in the book “They don’t even know I’m Muslim,” and I figured that if she wore a scarf, they would have known.
2. Did you visit schools for Lailah’s illustrations? I love the diversity of the students you painted.

Once I found my model, Eshal, and her family and they were happy to be part of this project, I contacted the principal at the school Eshal attends in San Ramon, CA. I have used schools for two other books I illustrated, and it works so well. We have so much fun and I get all the photos I need. The school agreed, with excitement, to be part of this project. Each child had to get a permission slip signed by his or her parent or guardian, as I was taking photos of them. This, even though I wasn’t using the actual photos in the book.  I was not able to take any other kids in the cafeteria except for the ones in this class. I did a short presentation about how picture books are made and then had them act out the story while I took many, many photos.I also took lots of pictures of the kids going through their day. I was only there about two hours, and went back one more time for some retakes of the cafeteria scene.

In the San Francisco Bay Area it was easy to find a diverse class, as there is such wonderful diversity here. In fact, I had to add some Caucasian children to the class to make it more recognizable  for other parts of the country, specifically the Atlanta area. I told the class this and they thought it was very funny. So do I.

3. How did you discover the Lailah that you based the illustrations on?

I found Eshal, my Lailah, through a colleague of  mine (a children’s book writer) who is, herself, Muslim but her daughter is too young to be Lailah. She suggested several friends, and sent me photos. Eshal looked perfect. I later realized that she is rather tall for her age, so looks older. I had to shorten her in a few paintings and make her look younger.

4. Were you familiar with Ramadan and fasting before illustrating Lailah’s Lunchbox ?

I was not very familiar with Ramadan before this project. I mainly researched it through children’s books and some websites about Muslim books for children. That way I figured I would see how the subject is presented to kids. I also did much research on the Islamic patterns and designs. I put some ceramics in the first page kitchen scene with patterns on them.

The only fasting I know about is for Yom Kippur, as I am Jewish. I think it is so cool that a Jewish illustrator illustrated your book. With all the strife between the two groups (in the media, at any rate) this can only help.
5. I know you edited illustrations to get the look right. How hard is it to edit illustrations?

Usually publishers want the original paintings for a book and then they have them scanned into digital images. It is very hard to change something on a watercolor painting, although not as impossible as folks think. Many colors can be washed off, depending on what they are made of. But often you have to repaint the whole painting.

In this case, to save time, Tilbury House asked me to get the paintings scanned here. Once they were in digital form, I was able to modify various parts of the paintings as needed in Photo Shop.   I even added a new face here and there. I liked a whole painting, except for one face, for example. So I repainted that face and pasted it in using Photo Shop. This really
worked out well. And I’m happy with the result.

6. How long does it take to complete an illustration the way you want?
Usually an illustrator gets from 9 – 12 months to illustrate a picture book – and there are usually 14-15 paintings in a book. That gives you an idea how long it takes. For Lailah’s Lunchbox, I only had about five months, so I really worked fast. I have learned two lessons –

1) Always leave time to do a painting over,

2) Don’t paint them in order, or the end paintings will be better than the beginning ones. I paint them in a random order.

7. How did you get to be an illustrator? Any tips to those trying to make it in the publishing world?

My main tip for anyone trying to make it in the children’s book publishing world is to join SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.) There are local conferences and workshops as well as national ones, and you make new friends of people who share your interest. In my case, I wanted to be a children’s book illustrator when I grew up, but then forgot about it. About 14 years ago I saw a class at UC Berkeley extension on “Illustrating Children’s Books” which reminded me of my dream. I took the class, joined SCBWI, and learned so much. I sent samples to art directors at publishers who used similar styles to mine. Tilbury House was the first to hire me to illustrate a book. This is my fourth book with them. They have all won awards, and the first one, “Say Something,” by Peggy Moss, has sold over 70,000 copies, which is really a lot for a picture book. I now have illustrated 6 trade picture books, all still in print.

8. Anything else you’d like to share about yourself? 

I have a degree in English Lit and an elementary teaching credential. I only substitute taught, however, because they weren’t hiring teachers at the time (the “baby bust generation”) and I got involved with  making dolls and puppets which I sold through stores. Then I went to work in the greeting card business and went to gift shows etc.  Eventually (when I was 40) I went back to school to get an MBA. I worked for a while as a high tech product manager. Now I find the MBA is very useful as I get more involved in this new industry.  I have become quite involved with SCBWI as the Illustrator Coordinator for the San Francisco, South region. I organize a one-day Illustrator conference each year in SF, which has become quite popular. Over 80 illustrators attend each year.  I get to use spread sheets and other MBA types tools, as well as network like crazy.  Because it is San Francisco and SCBWI, I can invite anyone I want to speak and they usually say yes. So I have met the art directors at most of the big houses.   When they  need  my style of art, I already have a relationship with them. I’ve become a known quantity.

9. Do you think children will enjoy the illustrations & story of Lailah’s Lunchbox ?

I think this is a lovely, accessible story about Ramadan, and, really, about solving the situation of being different in any way from most of the kids around. Most kids have something about themselves that makes them feel not quite like everyone else. It is what makes us special, but they don’t see it that way. Lailah is a courageous girl who is proud of her culture and wants to not only practice the rituals, but share it with her new friends at her American school. The lovely librarian helps her find a solution, without finding it for her.

I tried to make the illustrations be both a mirror and a window for the reader. I showed a regular school with a varied student body so everyone could identify with someone in the class. I made the characters sympathetic,likeable, warm people.

10. What do you want people to feel when they see your illustrations?

I want them to feel warmth and to smile. I want them to identify with some of the kids and make this a believable story for them.


** To view more of Lea’s heartwarming illustrations, check out the Look Inside! feature on Amazon here. For those of you have ordered Lailah’s Luncbox, it should be mailed to you tomorrow or sometime this week! I hope you all like it and cherish this story!

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