Penguins! Interview with Author & Illustrator Melissa Guion
Many thanks to Melissa Guion (author of Baby Penguins Love their Mama and Baby Penguins Everywhere) for allowing me to interview her. She gives us a wonderful behind the scenes look at the making of her stories. Full interview below.
KMP: You've written and illustrated Baby Penguins Everywhere as well as Baby Penguins Love Their Mama---can you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to choose penguins as your subject matter?
MG: People often ask this, and it always surprises me. Doesn’t everyone think penguins are funny? I thought it would be smart to feature funny, lovable characters in my first books, to draw in the largest possible audience.
In all seriousness, my soft spot for penguins dates back to Opus, the penguin in Bloom County. Opus had a big influence on me. He was a really funny bird. Obviously my penguins are different, but they reflect that fondness. I’ve been pleased to learn that there are many other penguin fans out there.
KMP: Your illustrations are primarily done in pencil and watercolor. Can you tell us about the process you go through to illustrate your books?
MG: I draw and paint on rough watercolor paper. Because of my style, and because it’s hard to erase marks on that kind of paper, I do many preparatory sketches, then attack the final drawing and hope I get it right. If I don’t, I make a new one. Then I repeat the process when I paint. Watercolor is fun, but it’s easy to overwork it. It’s often best to start fresh if a picture isn’t coming out the way I’d like. I often end up with several alternate versions of an illustration and have to choose the strongest one for the book. It’s not always clear which one that is, and I rely on my editor and art director to help me decide.
KMP: Parenting is hard work! But very rewarding as we see from your stories. Is there a particular message you would like parents and children to take away from your books?
MG: I don’t love single message books. I hope people can enjoy my books without feeling they’re being told what to think. But I can tell you, I struggled with early motherhood. My mother wasn’t nearby to give me advice, and I wondered, you know, if I’m not wearing my child 24 hours a day, am I doing her a disservice? That question was in my mind when I started my first book. One of the things I learned is that a mom’s — and a child's — need for personal space is fine. That’s one thing I made explicit.
KMP: I love the dabs of color you use throughout your illustrations---can you talk about how you came up with the idea for the colorful ribbon within your stories?
MG: The palette of a penguin is black and white. And the book is set in a world of ice and snow. It’s all a bit stark. So it was nice to have the baby penguins show up with their colorful toys, which is sort of what happens when kids arrive on the scene. You’ve grown up and made a tastefully bland home for yourself, and, presto, it’s suddenly injected with everything that goes along with kids: all the noise, mayhem, and color they bring.
KMP: Your books have been a big success. Do you have any upcoming publications in the works?
MG: I’m very pleased with how the penguin books have turned out. But I’m moving on to a new animal now. My next book is tentatively titled Rabbits in Things: A Definite Guide. It’s about rabbits.
KMP: I always have to ask authors what their favorite children's picture books are---can you share some with us? Do you have a favorite board book?
MG: My favorite board book as a child — at least, that I can recall — was I Am A Bunny, by Richard Scarry. I can still picture every image in it. When an illustration from my first book was featured in a show at the Society of Illustrators, it hung next to an original from that book, and nothing could have made me happier!
The board book my daughter wanted read to her over and over was Good Night, Gorilla
by Peggy Rathmann. I wasn’t a huge fan when I first saw it but I later came to see its genius, and it’s now one of my favorites, too.