Author and illustrator Elizabeth Lilly made her debut in children’s book publishing with “Geraldine” (Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press). Growing up outside Washington, D.C. with three sisters in a multiethnic household, Lilly decided early on that she wanted to become an artist. A resident of Baltimore City, Lilly writes and illustrates, produces animated films and teaches drawing and illustration. Learn more about Elizabeth and her work in children’s literature.
I am an author and illustrator, so I go back and forth between writing and drawing. A lot of times, I start by just doodling in my sketchbook, drawing animals I like, people I know or maybe a kid I noticed dropping eggs at the supermarket. As I draw, these animals and people become characters. They start to have personality and feeling in my drawings. Sometimes characters show up who are special, and I know they have something to say. Then I get to know them more by drawing them in different situations and listening to find the story that they most want to tell.
Sometimes it goes the other way around. I want to write about a certain situation or feeling for a book, and the theme comes to me before I draw any characters. In that case, I might journal or talk with my therapist or a loved one to figure out more of my own feelings about the subject. I think I like to make work for children because children’s stories wear their hearts on their sleeves. If the mood is sad, zany, funny or tense, it’s out in the open, not hidden or coated in irony.
A good children’s story cannot be vague or generic about how a character feels. Once I have a handle on the nuances of how a new story feels, I start to write more specifics for the story, figuring out the plot and simultaneously drawing the characters for the first time. The specific lines of narration and dialogue are the last things that I write once I know what all the other components are.
I like to write about tough emotions in my books. A lot of kids deal with sadness, separation, anxiety, loneliness and loss in their everyday lives. Adults think of those emotions as things only they themselves experience, but kids understand and feel them deeply. An editor gave me very good advice when I was in the process of rewriting my first book: “Write the book that would have helped you as a kid.”
I moved a lot as a kid and I was very shy. Every time I got to a new school, I had to make friends all over again. One particular move was just so hard. I was so sad and lost all the confidence I had had in my old school. I was mourning the loss of my old friends and the loss of the person I was when I was with them. No one at my new school seemed to notice me, and for a while, I stopped trying to connect and tried to do my work and be invisible. Things turned around when I made one good friend; with her, I remembered that I was still the funny, bubbly girl I have always been. That real-life experience from my childhood became the central plot of “Geraldine.”
When I was writing that story, I tried to be insightful and truthful about the specific small ways that the situation was painful. In the process, I wrote the book that would have helped me then. If one person reads Geraldine and thinks, “I’m not alone. Geraldine feels just like I do,” then I will have done my job.
I consider myself a writer first. For me, drawing is another mode of writing—just writing with line and color instead of words. I never really draw or paint for the sheer joy of making an image. My drawings and paintings are functional; I use them to tell my own stories and make the worlds and characters I care about come to life.
In a lot of my personal artwork, I have an obsession with houses and the idea of home and family. Maybe it goes back to moving a lot when I was growing up. Even when I felt alone and out of place, I would take note of the physical things that surrounded me and embrace them as part of my new home. I was always looking for a place to anchor myself.
I moved to Baltimore as an adult to go to college and made my home here. Again, I was alone and out of place, and I started to go around Baltimore and take note of all the neighborhoods and the historic buildings. By embracing the place and my physical surroundings, I was able to adopt it as my home and eventually feel like it adopted me back.
Elizabeth’s advice to aspiring children’s book illustrators: “Be observant and take note of moments or time periods in your life that made you feel something—maybe they made you laugh until you fell down, made you cry while hiding your tears, made you yell when you didn’t mean to, made you stay up at night worrying, made you smile every time you thought of it. It’s very likely that at the heart of it is the root of a story waiting to be told. Crack open your heart into your work. Maybe someone else will read it and for a moment feel a little less alone.”