Illustrator and author Katie Brosnan has two new picture books coming to North American readers this spring and we were lucky enough to interview her in spite of various quarantines! Thank you, Katie, for sharing your work and words with your North American fans.
PubSpotlight: You have two books coming out this year which you both wrote and illustrated. Tell us about the process for each, how they were different and how they were the same.
Katie: I developed Keith Among the Pigeons (Child’s Play International, 2020 in the US) during my masters studies. It started as a spontaneous short book which then became a comic and finally a picture book dummy. It really came together as I started screen printing images for the story, and this was how I worked out the color palette and my way of working. After receiving the MA I developed the story further with my publisher.
With Gut Garden (Cicada Books, 2020 in the US), I was approached to create a book about microbes, I have always loved writing and research, so I knew it would be a fascinating subject to explore and very fun to illustrate. The process started with lots of research. I learned a lot about planning the layout for text in nonfiction books and reigning in some of my more narrative ideas for the illustration.
The challenges and focus in making both books were very different because in Gut Garden it was about allowing the information to come forward and keeping the content engaging and fun. With Keith Among the Pigeons it was trying to find the magic in the text and image relationship and showing Keith’s journey of discovery and self-acceptance.
Both books started with the same process of drawing from life which always helps me to spark ideas.
PubSpotlight: How did you do the research for Gut Garden? How did you decide what to include and what to leave out?
Katie: I started research with reading lots of books, I listened to podcasts and radio shows, took a trip to Micropia, a dedicated museum for everything microbe in Amsterdam, and visited the Superbugs exhibition at the Science Museum in London. I also started making my own kombucha and kimchi. I discovered a lot of incredible things and it was starting to feel like a huge topic that would be difficult to condense into an illustrated book for children.
The large intestine being the heart of the gut microbiome (where 99% of your gut microbes live) caught my imagination and made me imagine a diverse garden, giving me the title and the main steer of the book. My initial idea was to have a main tour guide microbe and a sidekick who could lead the reader through the body, and this evolved into a journey through the digestive system with lots of microbes informing you along the way. It was really important to keep zooming back out into a human context to try to keep the information relevant to the reader. The editing process was hugely important. It was tough to decide what to include and what to leave out, but sticking to the journey through the digestive system helped and luckily my editor was brilliant. The subject area is changing all the time with more research so there’s new information coming out all the time, but we kept to facts. I would really like to work on another nonfiction book as learning about how important symbiosis and balance are in nature has definitely inspired me. I would love to explore this further in a book.
PubSpotlight: What fact did you learn in your research about the microbiome that most surprised you?
Katie: I found it very surprising that our microbiomes are completely unique, even if you live in the same house, are part of the same family and share the same diet. Your microbiome will be different from the next person, so it’s a bit like a fingerprint!
PubSpotlight: Your other title, Keith Among the Pigeons, is quite the opposite of Gut Garden. What interests you about playing in both realms of fiction and nonfiction?
Katie: I love learning and nonfiction books allow you to go on a journey of discovery with the research. Fiction is more personal and the research goes through a more subjective process so they do feel like quite different experiences. I really love artists like Shaun Tan who are able to work in different forms, across genres, and push their visual language. I believe it really helps you grow if you push yourself out of your comfort zone and try new things because otherwise it could be creatively stifling.
PubSpotlight: How did you first think of the idea of a cat who wants to be a pigeon? Are there any more adventures for Keith on the horizon?
Katie: I got the idea after meeting a cat called Keith who I always passed on my way to work. He was often in comical positions lying on top of cars or on fences and he was very friendly. I had become interested in Leo Lionni and Bruno Munari and their approaches to making books in a very spontaneous way so I made a very short book about Keith on scraps of paper and just allowed the idea to unfold, and in a few short pages after asking Keith what he had done today, he appeared dressed up as a pigeon and talking to one. As I worked more on the story, it became quite personal for me and I hope it will connect with anyone who has ever felt like they don’t quite belong where they are supposed to. I would love to make a new book about Keith as he has received a lot of love so far from children and adults.
PubSpotlight: If you had to pick your favorite spreads from both Gut Garden and Keith Among the Pigeons what would they be?
Katie: This is tricky. I think anyone who makes books sees all the flaws in their own work and I often just see the things I wish I had done better. In Keith Among the Pigeons, the spread where he loses his feathers in the rain and the pigeons are staring at him from the tree was one of the first spreads I tried with screen-printing. I like the composition and I think I got his expression right in the end!
In Gut Garden I think the ‘In your body’ spread worked well and I was pleased with how it
communicates your body being a home to microbes while also giving enough room for the information to breathe.
PubSpotlight: Do you have a favorite moment with a reader?
Katie: One little boy loves the bit where Keith has poop on his head and insists on pointing out the orange feather in the endpapers each time. With Gut Garden, I had a message from a nutritionist who was so happy to find a children’s book on the subject. I love hearing responses from readers and finding out which bits they enjoyed!
PubSpotlight: Your art school (Cambridge School of Art) consistently turns out graduates who excel at picture books. Why do you think that is and how did they nurture your talent?
Katie: The course was developed by Martin Salisbury and his advice and knowledge on children’s books is pretty much gold dust! All the tutors are brilliant and there is a real focus on observational drawing, thinking carefully about the image and text relationship, and finding your genuine visual language and voice. It’s busy, intense, and you’re surrounded by so many great illustrators so you can’t help but push yourself that bit more. Being an illustrator is sometimes seen as a very lovely job—which it is—but beneath it there is a the need for stamina and willpower. I think the course definitely helps develop and prepare you for that too. I feel very lucky because the course was life-changing for me. It helped me to meet the brilliant publishers I’m working with and some amazing lifelong friends.