Q&A: Rilla Alexander
Q&A with the 2023 Children’s Book Week poster creator, Rilla Alexander, an award-winning artist, author, and illustrator.
Rilla Alexander answers our questions about creating the 2023 Children’s Book Week poster, its theme, and her children’s illustration work, including Hippo Park Pals.
Tell us about your creative process in developing the poster art around this year’s theme.
Sparking change made me think about the butterfly effect and how, even if you’re small, you can make a big difference. As I sketched, the idea evolved into a child putting a book onto their back like a backpack, ready for a journey, taking off like a butterfly. In the process, they show a caterpillar that it can change and fly too. I went on quite a long adventure in my sketches, before I finally realized the pages of the open book could be “the spark” that helps our hero take off. I like to use rubber stamps in my work, and it wasn’t until I started testing the character in color and rubber stamping the pages, that the idea became obvious to me.
I love when you can uncover more of the idea by getting stuck in and doing it!
We know you have a background in graphic design and branding. How did that experience influence your children’s illustration work, your work on the Children’s Book Week poster, and your branding of the children’s book imprint Hippo Park, home of your Hippo Park Pals books? Or vice versa?
The way I think and solve problems is very much part of being a graphic designer. Though, come to think of it, I’m not sure which came first! Whether I am making an illustration, writing a story or designing a logo, I like to take complex ideas and represent them as simply as possible. I start everything with a lot of research, many pencil sketches and by looking at the problem from all sorts of different angles. Eventually, I resolve it into the clearest, boldest form that hopefully looks like it was the first thing I tried.
In the case of the Hippo Park logo, we decided to keep it in “sketch form,” drawn with pencil, and I love all the potential that seems to hold. We kept that look for the Hippo Park Pals books as well!
The Hippo Park Pals series has a lot of the same whimsy and playfulness as your Children’s Book Week poster. Tell us a bit about the books. Do you see a connection between the books and the poster, and if so, is this connection integral to all your work?
Once I have an idea, I love the process of bringing the characters to life and exploring their connections. You can see it in the expression of awe on the caterpillar’s face as he witnesses the butterfly zoom away.
I love those moments in the Hippo Park Pals books, too. These are four miniature hardcover books about the experiences of Herbert (who is the face behind the Hippo Park logo!) and Fiona. They are a brother and sister hippo, and each book takes place in a different part of the playground. But there are also many interactions with the other characters in the books – a bird, frog, mouse, turtle, and a teddy. They don’t always form part of the main narrative, but I know that kids notice all those little moments, and I just love drawing them.
Our Book Week theme, Read Books. Spark Change. is all about books being the start or spark of transformation. Is there a recent book that has sparked something in you?
Come On In: There’s a Party in this Book! by Jamie Michalak and Sabine Timm is undeniably adorable, and I love it, but I KNOW that as a kid I would have been completely and utterly OBSESSED with it. The illustrations would have sparked so many experiments attempting to recreate the characters and to make my own versions. That is what defines my most favorite new books – timeless ideas that would have thrilled me into action then and that have the same effect on kids now, too.
What inspirations like that stayed with you from childhood?
I will never forget the illustrations I loved because I traced over them so much that they almost fell out of the books. The ideas and stories are ingrained in me and are clear to me in my work now. Some of my favorite books were even the same teeny tiny size that we made the Hippo Park Pals books.
It wasn’t just books that have stuck in my head, though. I was so into a greeting card illustration of a polar bear hugging a little panda that I used the characters to make an entire book for my grandparents. I have been drawing that hug over and over ever since. I even drew Herbert and Fiona hugging the same way.
If you could only draw one animal forever, what animal would you pick?
I would have to choose a dog, specifically a Jack Russell because both my dog Spot, and Mr. Tom before him, are Jack Russells. BUT if it weren’t a dog, it would be a frog. For a while, I had a frog called Dog, so I am building in some leeway to cheat here!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rilla Alexander grew up in the country, in Australia, with her little sisters, Fiona and Emily. They had a sandbox and swings in the backyard, and a playhouse called Sunshine Cottage, which was made out of a rainwater tank. Nowadays, Rilla is an illustrator, author, and designer and lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Steve, and their puppy, Spot. She has written many picture books and board books, including The New Rooster, Touchwords, and Hippo Park Pals, a series of miniature picture books published by Hippo Park, an imprint of Astra Books for Young Readers.
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