Author/illustrator and editorial illustrator Sergio Ruzzier is here for breakfast this morning, and I greet him with my best, though certainly Appalachian-twinged, “Ciao!” You can spot a Ruzzier-illustrated title from here to Milan, where he was born, and back again, what with his wry humor and the delicate pen-and-ink lines of his intimate, subdued watercolors. And talk about an illustrator extending the text of a picture book written by someone else: Anyone else remember Emily Jenkins’ Love You When You Whine from ’06? Back then, Esme Raji Codell aptly called it a “very subversive look at the parent-child exchange…The great charm of this book is that page after dastardly and unrelentingly recognizable page, for all of the antics and subsequent parental pain so cheerfully and colorfully described and indicated, we have not a moment’s doubt that this mother is telling the truth.” Anyway, yes, back to Ruzzier’s extension of the text through his very whimsical watercolors: “Love you when you pour cereal on the floor” becomes the feline protagonist covering the floor with piles and piles of cereal; “Love you when you interrupt” becomes the cat yanking out the phone cord from the wall as her mother’s talking on it; and here’s what “Love you when you hit someone” became in Ruzzier’s world:
I still say, if you’re going to select a love-you-forever-type parent/child book, you can’t go wrong with the honesty and humor in this one. “In the brave tradition of Lore Segal and Tomi Ungerer, this…, for all of the naughtiness, is the mark of a truly fine and honest ‘mommy mommy’ book,” continued Esme.
Sergio’s other books exhibit this same truth-telling, wonderfully-askew humor, and rather quiet whimsy, and he never once condescends to child readers. His latest, Amandina (Roaring Brook Press), tells the tale of one terrifically talented pup. Amandina Goldeneyes dances, sings, acts, and performs acrobatics, but no one knows this. And that’s because she is painfully shy. Still, forging ahead, she decides to rent an old theater and give her best performance—from building the sets to creating the costumes—and she invites everyone in town. When the curtains open and Amandina sees no one there, she performs anyway. And…well, I won’t reveal the ending so that this lovely tale will unfold for you when you find your own copy, which I highly recommend. Publishers Weekly wrote:
Ruzzier…creates a haunting intimacy with his watercolors of a centuries-old Italian town (the theater is a tiny Umbrian jewel) and its strangely human-eyed animal citizens, as well as his unvarnished language (“Nobody had come. Sometimes these things happen, and nobody can say why”). Showing a magical insight into the imagination of small children, he allows Amandina an intense sweep of feeling before granting her no less-but no more-than her wish. The mood he casts will resonate, particularly with introspective readers.
And Betsy Bird wrote in her September review, “If you’ve never read one of books before, this is an ideal place to start,” adding “harm is impossible to teach, ridiculously hard to learn on your own, and money in the bank. Amandina also happens to have it in spades (doggy puns unintended). I don’t go for the whole ‘be yourself’ motto unless you can sell the idea to me in a beautiful tale. Sergio Ruzzier has done just that.”
Here’s the one and only heroine, showing us her many talents:
I’m so pleased Sergio has stopped by to chat and let me ask him seven questions (plus some) over breakfast. (Pictured here is one of his line drawings from Moon, Have You Met My Mother? by Karla Kuskin, Laura Geringer Books, 2003.) When I asked him about his breakfast-of-choice this morning, he responded, “in general I like to change every time. A constant is sweetness, though. It’s difficult for me to start the day with something that is not sweet. When I still lived in Italy, I liked to have breakfast standing at the bar, with cappuccino and a custard-filled croissant (which in Milan for some reason we call “brioche” alla crema.) Here in New York, I got used to donuts, scones, and muffins. Good and correctly-spelled cappuccino is hard to find, so I’ve settled for coffee with milk and sugar.” I vote for the standing-at-the-bar breakfast in Italy, complete with the correctly-spelled cappuccino. Having experienced this kind of breakfast myself for a bit on a honeymoon visit to Italy, I understand this reverence he has for this particular meal. So, cappuccinos it will be! Let’s get the basics while we set the table here — er, I mean while we stand at the bar and wait on our order . . .
Frances Foster Books/FSG, 2005.
7-Imp: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?
7-Imp: Can you list your books-to-date?
- Amandina, Neal Porter Books, 2008.
- The Room of Wonders, Frances Foster Books, 2006.
- The Little Giant, Laura Geringer Books, 2004.
- Love You When You Whine by Emily Jenkins, Frances Foster Books, 2006.
- Why Mole Shouted by Lore Segal, Frances Foster Books, 2004.
- Moon, Have You Met My Mother? by Karla Kuskin, Laura Geringer Books, 2003.
7-Imp: What is your usual medium, or -– if you use a variety -– your preferred one?
Sergio: Pen & ink and watercolor.
7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?
Sergio: I live by the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.
7-Imp: Can you briefly tell us about your road to publication?
Sergio: I came to New York from my native Milan in 1995, and my goal was to enter the picture book world. For many years, I found all the doors closed, as most editors and art directors considered my work too sophisticated and “European” (which I understand is a curse word.) So, I went on doing illustrations for magazines and newspapers (The New Yorker, The New York Times, etc.), almost giving up my children’s book hopes. But then I had the fortune to meet Frances Foster at FSG, who kindly believed in me and helped me enormously, working with me on my ideas, giving me good books to illustrate, and introducing me to other editors and publishers, like Laura Geringer who published my first book, The Little Giant.
7-Imp: Can you please point us to your web site and/or blog?
Sergio: ruzzier.com. I don’t have a blog, I would be too lazy to keep it up…
7-Imp: If you do school visits, tell us what they’re like.
Sergio: I like doing school visits. According to the age of the kids, I can just read the book and answer questions about the story and the characters, or I can talk more about the way a picture book is made, including drawing techniques, the role of the editor and the designer, and so on.
7-Imp: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell us about?
Sergio: I am working on the final drawings of my next picture book, Hey, Rabbit! It will be published by Neal Porter (Roaring Brook), who also just published my latest book, Amandina, that is now on the bookshelves. It’s great working with Neal. He has a gently pushy way in directing me.
Okay, our order’s arrived. We’re going to have a seat with our croissants and cappuccinos. And we’re ready to talk more specifics. Many thanks again to Sergio for the visit!
1. 7-Imp: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?
Sergio: When I am illustrating another author’s text, the process is pretty much always the same: while I read and re-read the manuscript, I draw little rough sketches on the edges. Then I make them a little nicer on a different paper, and I use these more refined sketches to build a dummy. When the dummy is approved by the publisher, I start working on the preparatory drawings, in pencil on plain paper. When I’m happy with the composition, including characters’ expressions, backgrounds, and all the details, I trace the drawing onto a watercolor paper, with the help of a light box. Then I ink the drawing, erase the pencil, and watercolor it.
It’s much more complex and variable when I’m working on my own story. I don’t really have a standard process, and I could start by sketching a character, or writing all or parts of the text, or putting on paper the whole sequence of roughs, spread by spread. Normally, I keep going back and forth between words and pictures. I also waste a lot of time, and often I am at my desk for hours without accomplishing anything. More often, anticipating that I wouldn’t accomplish anything, I go for a walk. Research is always a great excuse to navigate the internet aimlessly. But once I get to the dummy, or at least to a thumbnail storyboard decent enough to be shown to my editor, then I am ready to start with the final drawings, the same way I’ve described above.
Notwithstanding my time-wasting habits, I’m usually able to deliver by the scheduled deadline.
2. 7-Imp: Describe your studio or usual work space for us.
Sergio: My studio is basically a desk. It’s full of useless stuff, sitting there for months, and the space left for drawing is so small I often end up going out for a walk instead of working. But I do that even when the desk is clear. If it’s sunny I say: it’s a pity to stay inside with this nice weather, I’ll go for a walk. If it’s rainy or grey I say: with this grim weather it’s too depressing to stay inside, I’ll go for a walk.
3. 7-Imp: As book lovers, it interests us: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?
Sergio: As a kid, I was not a good reader, but I did love books. I loved looking at the spines on the shelves, the combinations of types and colors. And, of course, I loved to look at the pictures inside the books, good or bad. I remember a badly-illustrated edition of the Bible; in one of the pictures, it must have been the massacre of the innocents, one of the soldiers’ feet looked like they had two large toes instead of five. I was disturbed and fascinated by that image, much more so than by the babies been horribly killed!
One of my fondest memories is of a small picture of two little brothers on a rowboat: you could only see the top of their round heads, looking down into the dark water. I don’t know who the illustrator was, or in what book this drawing happened to be.
4. 7-Imp: If you could have three (living) illustrators or author/illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?
Sergio: Sometimes you like an artist’s work so much that you are actually afraid of being disappointed by the person, even though you wish to meet him or her. Luckily, I’ve already met many authors and illustrators whose work I like and who, at the same time, are very nice and interesting people, including Lane Smith, Karla Kuskin, Peter Sís, Richard McGuire, Uri Shulevitz, Steven Guarnaccia… There are a few others that I would have loved to take the risk of knowing in person, but it’s too late: Arnold Lobel, William Steig, Edward Gorey, James Marshall. Alright, I know who I would like to meet, to answer your question: Tomi Ungerer .
Sergio: I can’t listen to music if I’m writing or sketching the preparatory drawings of the characters or the compositions: it’s too distracting for me. But when I’m inking or coloring the drawing, than the music is a necessary, deep pleasure. I listen to many different things, including Tom Waits, Paolo Conte, Lucio Battisti, Talking Heads, tango, Mahler, and second-rate Italian singers from the ’70s.
6. 7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?
Sergio: That I like to eat liver, tripe, entrails, and all that stuff.
7. 7-Imp: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.
Sergio: Q.: Do you know how to make potato gnocchi from scratch?
A.: Yes, I do.
Laura Geringer Books, 2003.
7-Imp: What is your favorite word?
7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?
7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Sergio: Walking on the city streets or in the countryside. A good book, movie, or art work. Good food. My daughter.
7-Imp: What turns you off?
Sergio: Litter. Unnecessary noise. Moralism. Chauvinism.
7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)
Sergio: A variety of Italian expressions. I have a hard time cursing in English.
7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?
Sergio: My girlfriend Karen’s voice.
7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?
Sergio: Cars honking.
7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Sergio: I would like to be a fresco painter in the 14th century.
7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?
Sergio: Prison guard.
7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Sergio: I would like him to tell me where the hell is Saint Peter.
Photos of Sergio, his school presentation, his book dummy, and his studio—and all featured illustrations here—reproduced courtesy of Sergio Ruzzier. All rights reserved.