Kelly Light is the illustrator of two children’s chapter books series, including The Quirks and Elvis and the Underdogs, as well as a mystery for children entitled Who Took the Cookbook? She has drawn for Disney, Warner Brothers, and Hanna-Barbera, and is now the author and illustrator of the delightful children’s book Louise Loves Art published in September 2014. In a virtual conversation, interviewer Gina Consolino-Barsotti and Kelly Light conversed about the inspiration for her new character, Louise, what she requires to create, and how postpartum depression impacted her work.
Gina Consolino-Barsotti: Louise Loves Art is the story of a young girl who exhibits a passion for art and drawing, but also adores her little brother, Art. How long did it take you to birth Louise’s story? What was the most memorable event for you on this journey?
Kelly Light: I created Louise in my studio with the first two sketches back in 2011. I had started to think about a little girl who was, like me as a kid, obsessed with art. It wasn’t until spring of 2012 that I mailed a postcard with an image of Louise on it to editors and art directors in New York City. I had some pages of descriptions about Louise’s life and world, and story ideas, but no finished manuscript. When I received the offer from Balzer and Bray, I put my brain into Louise and Art’s world, imagined a morning in their house, and wrote it. In total, I guess, it’s been three years for Louise and Art. The most memorable part of the journey was the day the postcard landed in Manhattan, which really was just 24 hours after mailing it from my home in Long Island. My phone rang all day and my email inbox filled up so much, I stopped answering both.
GCB: Based on my experience with the book, it appears to appeal to a wide range of children (including the grown-up kind). To what do you attribute this multi-age fascination with Louise, her brother Art, and art as a creative endeavor?
KL: Louise and Art are siblings about three years apart. I imagine Louise is about seven and Art is about four. When the book was in its earliest stages, Louise was alone and about five years old. The need to have her step outside of her own art-obsessed head and show a soft side led me to create Art, her little brother. It was one of those “aha” moments, naming him “Art.” She loves art and she loves Art. She loves to make art, think about art, look at art, talk about art, and there is always little Art, tagging along. What if the two things she loves most are not always the best combination? All stories require challenges or conflicts that lead to resolution. So, it all snapped into place. Children can really relate to that dynamic of a sibling love/tug-of-war relationship. Additionally, the act of drawing knows no gender. The most thrilling result of creating this book has been hearing children who have read it exclaim, “I LOVE art, too!”
GCB: Louise looks like she could be your daughter. Where did the inspiration for her character come from?
KL: Louise embodies traits from me, my own daughter, Maggie, and my nieces, Meghan and Cate. I was obsessed with art and drawing and I saw my own daughter falling in love with drawing. I have had work glasses since I was little and so does my daughter. They slip and slide and go crooked on our faces. (The red glasses are the visual symbol for how Louise says, “To be a great artist you have to notice everything.”) Maggie is very much in her own head and a dreamer. Meghan is very expressive. Louise has Meghan’s hair, which was so straight, shiny, and smooth that her ears poked right through. Cate marches to the beat of her own drum and she has confidence in who she is. These details are so subtle, I can never be sure that readers notice, but they make the characters feel more real to me, so I think they make the characters more real to children.
GCB: As a mother, I would be honored for my daughters to have a friend like Louise in their lives. She is observant, mindful, compassionate, and creative. What do you most relish about Louise and does she have any quirks that we, the readers, will be allowed to see?
KL: She is all of those things and at the same time, she is like many artists—a bit self-centered. Not in an obnoxious way but in a hyper-focused, creative way. She is seven and at the age when all things are possible. Self-doubt is not even a blip on her radar. That is my favorite quality about her and about kids in general at that age. They create so freely and walk up so proudly and declare, “I made this!”
GCB: In your blog, Pretty Good for a Girl, you state that your studio is located in your attic and that you share it with your dog, Jabba the Mutt, and your daughter’s cat, Jedi. Is there a specific ritual that you follow when you set out to work?
KL: I don’t have a pre-work ritual other than climbing those stairs to the attic. That is my space in the house and in my head where I retreat from the craziness of a household. The pets always follow me up and spend the day there until they know my daughter is coming home. At that point, they wait by the front door. To create, I need three things. 1. Music. I need music all of the time except when I am writing. Then I need silence and perhaps seclusion. Music is the closest thing I have to religion. I am a recovering Catholic. I think song lyrics are the closest thing I have to prayers. I will write about it from time to time on the blog. If you are down, blast some Barbra Streisand belting Don’t Rain on My Parade. Empowerment never sounded so good. 2. Coffee. I am not a huge coffee drinker but I need that one cup in the morning or I am toast. Maybe I should have toast, too? 3. A moment. What does that mean? I need a moment to pause, to center myself, perhaps to meditate. Just a moment to breathe and think about what I am about to do. Stop the world and the craziness of life in that one moment. Leave here and go there, into the story. It focuses me.
GCB: On a more serious note, you state in your blog, “If I could go back and tell the postpartum-depressed Kelly that this would happen one day … just keep your chin up and keep drawing, I would!” How do you think your postpartum depression impacted your art, both written and visual?
KL: First, I would take me by the shoulders and stare into that younger face and say, “DO NOT PUT DOWN THE PENCIL.” I had a very strong sense of self from the time I was a child because I was always drawing. When I had a child of my own, somehow, I thought this act of drawing took away from my being a good mother. Who told me this? I don’t know, but I wish I had not listened. I thought selflessness was the way to be a good mother. Selfishness was what the world would see and judge me by, and I would judge myself and deem all of those tiny new mom mistakes as failures to blame on that selfishness. I realized that for me, drawing was like breathing: I stopped and my brain screamed for oxygen. I was suffocating in my selflessness, like when you cannonball into the deep end of the pool and realize you have hit the bottom and hope you have enough air to go back. By the time my daughter went into kindergarten I was swimming like mad for the surface. I broke through and found a life drawing class. I came back to life, drawing.
GCB: What would you say to other mother writers and mother artists who also journey down this very dark road?
KL: I now believe that I became a much better mother the very second I took time for myself. I stopped all of the busy work that, as a mom, you can fall into. “Perfection” became a dirty word. I replaced it with “process” and “progress” and “persistence” and “patience” and “perseverance” and “publishing.” Time is precious, especially when you have a small child. I decided to change how I spent my time. I prioritized: child comes first and I put myself second. My husband, he’s a good guy, he adjusted. The house got messy, food got ordered, and I got to draw. I think women are somehow hardwired to be givers and nurturers but I think those wires get crossed by too much outside input. Even other mothers can be judgmental and tell you that you have somehow done the wrong thing. We are inundated with everyone else’s opinions. We have to listen to our own selves: as mothers, as women, as people. Get quiet again and listen. You are still there. You can hear that seven-year-old self inside saying, “Remember who you were? You are still that. Be.” Going through all of that? It made me a better mom and a better artist. I am hoping my own daughter never puts down her pencil.
GCB: What other things are you working on presently?
KL: I am working on the second Louise book, due out next year. Then, on to the first chapter book with Louise. Also, I am illustrating a really fun picture book by Angela DiTerlizzi called Just Add Glitter. It’s a showstopper and it comes out in 2016. All in all, there are nine more books on the schedule. I take them on as I do every day: with some music, some coffee, and a moment. One by one, set ’em up and knock ’em down, pencil in hand.