Meet Dianne Ochitree and Betsy Snyder, creators of IT’S A FIREFLY NIGHT
Dianne Ochiltree (http://www.ochiltreebooks.com/) is a picture book author, a mentor to countless writers, a yoga instructor, and a good friend. She also is the proud owner of a therapy dog named Sally, and the two of them can often be found making school visits. Dianne’s latest picture book, IT’S A FIREFLY NIGHT, was just released by Blue Apple Books (ISBN 978-1-60905-291-1, $12.99 hardcover, Ages 3-6). This book is sure to be a summertime hit!
Dianne recently sat down the illustrator of IT’S A FIREFLY NIGHT, Betsy Snyder (http://www.betsysnyder.com/). Being the friend she is, Dianne was kind enough to share the interview with Picture This! The interview will help every picture book author see why leaving room for the illustrator to tell his/her half of the story and to leave room for the illustrator’s vision (instead of imposing our own ideas) is so important. Enjoy!
NOTE: Post a comment about the interview and be entered into a drawing for an autographed copy of IT’S A FIREFLY NIGHT!
DIANNE: Betsy, I’ve loved your artwork for IT’S A FIREFLY NIGHT from the very beginning. This book’s illustrations are getting woo-hoo’s and high-fives from reviewers, parents, grandparents, teachers, librarians, and booksellers. What was it about the story that first sparked your imagination?
BETSY: I grew up spending time at my family's rustic cabin in the Appalachian mountains of Pennsylvania. I have fond memories of warm summer days and nights spent with my dad and grandparents—fishing, stargazing, camping out, and of course, chasing fireflies. That childhood experience gave me an early appreciation for nature that influences much of my work today. Dianne's manuscript was something I connected with instantly because it really spoke to the nature-lover in me.
DIANNE: The book’s color palette of deep blues, vivid greens, glowing yellows, and purple-pinks really bring the magic of a summer night to life. Did you see the colors first before you began to sketch, or did the palette evolve as you worked through the black-and-white dummy?
BETSY: Hm, probably a little of both. I always begin a book with black-and-white thumbnail sketches to generate ideas and explore composition, scale and pacing, so I don't focus on color right from the start. But since I am more of a visual thinker and this is a bedtime book, I did naturally envision the colors of twinkly night skies and glowing fireflies right from the beginning.
There were certain places in my sketches where I knew I wanted to incorporate dark, graphic silhouettes against the sky, so I had to consider how nighttime values would read against each other. The palette really came to life when I started to paint all the textures—adding color is my favorite part, so I'm always excited to move on to that stage of the art!
DIANNE: In IT’S A FIREFLY NIGHT, the summer night sky is almost as much of a character as the little girl, the daddy and the fireflies. Could you tell us a little bit about how you develop your vision of how a story character looks, acts and feels?
BETSY: The publishing team and I discussed the child character upfront. We quickly settled on a girl—it felt more personal to me. The girl was originally supposed to have darker hair, but I ended up making her hair a lighter brown so it would read better against the dark skies. I explored what she should wear—a nightgown seemed comfy and nostalgic. And of course she had to be barefoot!
While the presence of the dad is established in the beginning, I opted to not reveal all of him until the end—I wanted to mostly zoom in on the girl discovering fireflies so we get a sense of her independence. The end reveals the bigger picture (and Dad), showing us the girl's place in the world and leaving us with a feeling of togetherness.
For the fireflies, I experimented with how realistic I would make them, and how they would look close-up vs. from afar. The fireflies are the real stars of the book, so I gave them deep, rich backdrops so they could really shine on the page.
DIANNE: The illustrations in IT’S A FIREFLY NIGHT are so expressive and textural. What tools and techniques did you use to create these wonderful effects?
BETSY: My final art is digital, but I always try to give it a handmade feel. I start by getting messy and painting large sheets of textures and colors that feel like all the parts of my pictures—grass, trees, sky, fireflies. I use whatever works and fits the mood—watercolor, dyes, acrylics, pastels. Then I scan all my textures into the computer and build my collages in Photoshop, using my sketch as my guide. When I'm working on the computer, I use a drawing tablet, which gives me a lot of control and helps me make the final details feel like they were done by hand.
DIANNE: How long does the creative process typically take when you’re illustrating a picture book, from first sketches to final art? How do you determine when it’s ‘final art’ that’s ready to go to the publisher?
BETSY: I usually have about 9 months to a year to complete sketches and art for a picture book. It sounds like a lot of time, but it really isn't when you mix in promoting other books and juggling other work. I work on multiple projects at one time, so there is some overlap and stop-and-go throughout the process, especially when the publisher needs time to review sketches and art.
I like to collaborate closely with my editors and art directors and really respect their expertise. I share progress often and always do a few finishes early on, so we can agree on a direction for the art and so there aren't any big, scary surprises for the publisher (or big, scary revisions for me) at the end. When I get really stuck on the art, or I start to waste too much time noodling, it's usually a good time to ask my publishing team to weigh in—sometimes a fresh perspective helps me finish things up.
DIANNE: You’ve added so many lovely details in this book’s illustrations---like the cute family dog---that augment the text so well. This makes it more fun for readers, having these extras to look for, as they read the story (hopefully) again and again. How did you decide what to add? And, was it fun for you?
BETSY: I like when the pictures have smaller stories tucked within them, giving readers little surprises to discover along the way. The details keep it fun for me too—making books can be a tedious and lengthy process, so adding extras keeps me engaged and interested as well.
I created the dog as a secondary character to give the girl a curious little buddy to explore with. I liked the additional relationship that it brought to the book. To emphasize nature's interconnectivity, I also added other night friends to find—an owl keeping watch, a red fox, a bird, a skunk, and tiny critters like a caterpillar, and inchworm and a ladybug.
DIANNE: Thanks for answering my questions, Betsy! Is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask you about your artwork and creative process that you’d like to add here?
BETSY: My favorite spread? All ten fireflies, of course!