2016 Ezra Jack Keats Book Award

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New Illustrator Interview

Phoebe Wahl: Sonya’s Chickens

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It’s important to me to be thinking critically about my characters, about who they are representing and why….Keats included characters of color in a refreshingly revolutionary way that I am deeply inspired by.

Interviewed by Margot Abel, Associate Director, Ezra Jack Keats Foundation

You won an EJK Book Award for illustrating your first book! How did you react when you got the news?
I burst into tears! But I had to cry extremely silently because my boyfriend was putting his son to bed in the next room. I almost exploded trying not to bust in and tell them.
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You work in many mediums as an artist and sculptor. How did you get into children’s books?
For as long as I can remember I’ve been dead set on being an artist, and when I first realized that illustrating books in particular was a thing I could do, that was my new trajectory. I think of my sculptures as three-dimensional manifestations of my paintings and collages—they’re all part of the same world. When I was in college I really started to focus heavily on children’s books. I was in a fantastic class where we were challenged to write a new story every week, and make thumbnails and sketches and finished illustrations. It was a comprehensive lowdown on all the ins and outs of making children’s books. It gave me an incredible foundation of knowledge to draw from.

What inspired the story of Sonya’s Chickens?
It was actually borne out of that very class! For an assignment our teachers brought in an array of knickknacks, and we had to choose one and let it inspire a story. I chose a little wooden chicken figurine. The title Sonya’s Chickens came to me first, and I worked backwards from there, figuring out who she was and what was going to happen with her chickens.

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Which came first, the art or the text? Would you describe the process of integrating them?
They came kind of simultaneously, though physically I fleshed out the writing first, and sketched and drew later. I’m often struck with imagery I want to use while I’m writing, and sometimes have to take a quick break to sketch something loosely before it leaves my brain! It’s hard for me to separate writing from images enough to even know which truly comes to me first. Sometimes it’s just like one big information download I’m left wading through until it can be organized into coherent text and pictures.

What qualities do you think the illustrations in Sonya’s Chickens share with the “spirit of Keats,” that would have appealed to our jury?
I think on a physical level my work alludes to Keats’s at times through my use of collage. But also, I can only hope that Sonya’s family is integrated in as casually graceful a way as Keats’s characters of color. It’s important to me to be constantly thinking critically about my characters, about who they are representing and why, about my own background and privilege and how that informs my work. Keats included characters of color in an refreshingly revolutionary way that I am deeply inspired by.

How do you think the EJK Book Award will affect your career? Do you see many children’s books in your future?
I think it can only affect it very positively! Yes, I see many more books ahead of me, I hope I’ll be writing and illustrating for the rest of my life.

Read more about Phoebe Wahl