Having illustrated more than 60 picture books—from “The Great Reindeer Rebellion” and “What Does Cow Say?” to “Road Work Ahead” and “Bunny and Bird Are Best Friends”—Jannie Ho describes her style as “fun. It’s very character driven. I’m inspired by a very graphic look and a vintage look at the same time.”
The Needham artist and author favors anthropomorphic animal characters and creating spaces and filling them with all sorts of characters and things. “I do like all the little details because I do love books where you can stay in a piece of art and get immersed in the world,” she says.
Ho has two new books: “Bear and Chicken,” which was published by Running Press Kids in November (“When Bear finds a chicken frozen in the winter snow, he brings it home to try to defrost it. As Chicken thaws—um, awakens—he fears that Bear is actually prepping to eat him.”) and “Chicks In the Barn,” out Jan. 16 from Little Bee Books (the children’s song “The Wheels on the Bus” rewritten to sing about barn animals).
She reads from her work at Brookline Booksmith in Brookline at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 14, and then with Cambridge author Alison Goldberg (“I Love You for Miles and Miles”) at Newtonville Books in Newton at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 27.
Ho was born in Hong Kong, moved to Philadelphia when she was 9, then went to New York to study illustration at Parsons School of Design, graduating in 1999. Her first job was designing textiles for a children’s wear company. Then she worked as a graphic designer for Nickelodeon Magazine and Scholastic Book Club and as an art director for Time Magazine for Kids.
“In the meantime, I was working on my illustration again,” Ho says. “I got an agent and that’s when I was kind of leading a double life—art director by day, illustrator at night.” That was until about a decade ago, when her first two picture books were published—“The Penguins’ Perfect Picnic” (“It’s the perfect day for a picnic, so the penguins pack their things and go. But when the weather turns bad, the penguins find out what it really means to have the perfect picnic.”) and “The Mixed Up Alphabet”— and she left Time to pursue illustration full-time.
I recently spoke to Ho about how she created “Bear and Chicken,” the first book that she not only illustrated, but authored as well. “It’s my baby,” she says.
Among the first steps in creating “Bear and Chicken,” Ho says, was drafting “little thumbnails I did using pencil and paper.”
“The two characters came to me when I still had a Blogspot account on my blog and I made a header with these two characters,” she says.
The bear and chicken resonated with her audience. She’s long had a thing for chickens (“I love chickens,” she says), including naming her website ChickenGirlDesign.
When she needed to create a new header, she featured the critters again. “A lot of people commented again: “These characters need to have their own story,” she recalls. She expanded the idea in her contribution to a sequential art exhibit and then this book.
Why was the Chicken out in the snow? “When I was writing this story, I spent a lot of time trying to explain that situation,” Ho acknowledges. “It actually made the story very complicated.” So she got rid of the setup, but if you want to know, her idea is that Chicken ended up in the snow because she was “visiting a friend and this not being her place to be, so she got lost.”
Much of Ho’s work is done digitally. But she likes to begin in pencil, which gives her the flexibility to make changes if needed and to try to keep her art from getting too precious.“Author-illustrators, we just love to jump into the art,” she says. “We will work the art to death and if it doesn’t serve the story we don’t want to let go of the art.”
Ho’s next step is to make a sketch in grays directly in the Adobe Illustrator graphic design program. “Illustrator is all vector based,” Ho says. “It’s basically a series of shapes, shapes building on shapes building on shapes. The great thing about illustrator is I can scale things up and down and it’s not going to lose it resolution. … You can easily move things around. To that helps me with the layout, the composition.”
“The trees are not well developed,” she notes. But it’s “a little bit more polished and a sense of what I want to do.”
Grayscale Book Dummy
As Ho develops the grayscale sketches for the book, she prints out a dummy, or model of the planned book. “To assemble an actual book really helps” she says. It gives her sense of how the images relate to each other as one turns from one page to the next. “It’s very rough, but obviously somewhat worked out.”
Color Book Dummy
“As I move to color, I make another mockup with the color pages, with the Post-its on top because I’m still rewriting the text,” Ho says. She’s beginning to add tree bark and shadows.
“Bear and Chicken” is an example of her “trying to age up my work, to do a little bit older books.” For books for the littlest kids, publishers tend to want green grass and blue skies, she says. Basics. “They want everything very bright.”
A sign of how she’s trying to speak to a bit older kids here is her color palette, “a little bit more muddy colors, a little bit more neutral colors. … A little bit older. Like Bear’s shirt on the cover is a little bit more muddy blue. If it was for a board book, it would be this bright blue, this clearer blue.”
In the final page artwork, Ho has changed the color of the sky and added a cardinal perched in the tree.
“I like to add a little bit of detail that’s not mentioned in the text,” she says. “The fun part of being an illustrator is adding something not in the text that doesn’t take away from the story. … Kids like to find the little details. They like to find out. It’s like a little secret.”
Why is the chicken so afraid that the bear will eat her? “The bear’s a lot bigger than the chicken, but it’s a happy story in the end.” (Spoiler: They become friends.)
Is the chicken in the story a sort of alter ego for Ho?
“It was before. But I don’t know if she is now,” Ho says. “It’s very comforting to draw myself as a chicken. I’ve done a comic in the past of my experience of moving from New York City to Michigan for three years. I drew myself as a chicken and my husband as a rooster.”
Also, the couple’s daughter has just turned 6. Ho says, “We call her nugget”—as in chicken nugget—“or nuggie for short.”
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