My good friend Shadra Strickland has a new book out: White Water by Michael S. Bandy and Eric Stein. It’s available today and the illustrations are amazing! Shadra kindly took a moment out of her busy schedule to answer some questions about the book:
In the blogosphere there has been a sense of fatigue when it comes to Civil Rights Movement stories, and this is your second project from that era (Our Children Can Soar). How do you approach this particular historical moment and what strategies do you use to create illustrations that seem “fresh”?
Funny, I don’t think of OCCS being a Civil Rights Movement book. The pioneers in the book do span across that time period, but it isn’t solely about the Civil Rights Movement. When creating the Ruby Bridges painting in OCCS, I did have to focus on one moment in time which was a lot more challenging for me, especially given the fact that Norman Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With is the iconic image of that historical moment. My goal in that painting was to add to the heart of Ruby Bridges’s story. I read her autobiography, watched the movie, and read Steinbeck’s account of her first day at school. In the end, the most significant moment was when she bravely crossed the threshold of an all white school. The challenge of coming up with a new perspective is what added to the freshness I think. I was able to add my own ideas to the narrative, which is really important. I have learned that it isn’t enough to just reiterate in pictures what the author is already telling us.
My goal in every project is to visually tell an interesting and coherent story and I approached White Water from that angle first. If anything, I was hesitant to add fantasy elements in the art because I didn’t want to trivialize the events in the story. I was also against using the same linear devices in White Water that I used in Bird. But thinking about childhood and how imagination is impervious to the harsh realities of life, I felt more confident in telling the story with a few visual surprises that relate solely to the wonder of being a child. When I build a character, I think a lot about their internal world. Michael was very courageous and smart. I thought he probably read the Sunday funnies and had a hero from one of the strips. I researched the local Opelika comic strips but couldn’t find anything that I could really use in my art. I then thought of my cousin and how growing up he was never without army men or action figures. It made sense to me that Michael would look to similar symbols of courage as well.
You’ve won so many awards–the most recent being the Ashley Bryan Award–yet you’re still in the early stages of your career. Talk about the impact of earning such acclaim and the future you see for yourself in the changing world of publishing.
Awards are terrifying and exciting all at once. They are fantastic for boosting the ego and validation, but they also make me extremely competitive with myself and self-aware. I always want to see growth in my work, but the awards that I have been honored to accept give me a heightened sense of responsibility in what I do—from the type of stories I accept, to how I tell a story visually. They also make me aware of the impact that picture books have on people’s lives and how far reaching they are. When I share a book like Bird or Hurricanes with a stranger and they are moved to tears, it’s quite humbling.
I can’t predict the future. I do know that I will continue making books and telling stories for as long as I can and I will continue to grow and challenge myself as an artist. If I need to stop making books and find another outlet for my work, so be it. My mantra is simple: do good work and the rest will follow.