New Illustrator Interview
Christian Robinson: Rain
Interviewed by Margot Abel Associate Director, Ezra Jack Keats Foundation
Congratulations on your EJK New Illustrator Award! How did you react when you got the news?
Gasp, then light chuckle to full-out laughter, then OMG! Honestly, I can’t even begin to describe how good it felt then and does right now to have the EJK Foundation acknowledge Rain! Keats is hands down one of my all-time favorite picture-book artists. About a year ago I worked with the Contemporary Jewish Museum, in San Francisco, when they had an entire exhibit on Keats [“The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats”]. I led collage workshops with families and shared some of my work and talked about how Keats illustration inspired and influenced me. It just feels like some amazing cosmic dots have been connected. I just hope I don’t wake up from this wonderful dream!
Your books before and after Rain! are children’s biographies of Florence Mills and Josephine Baker, African-American cultural figures from the early 20th century. Rain! is a day in the life of two fictional characters. Is illustrating a traditional children’s story different from working with historical material?
The process starts out pretty similar. Whether illustrating fiction or nonfiction, I have to do a certain amount of research to get an understanding of visuals for the characters and setting. I’d say the emotional connection is different when telling the story of someone who really existed. There is a stronger desire to want to allow their spirit to shine through and honor their life. Whereas the characters in Rain! were drawn more from imagination.
You’ve cited Ezra Jack Keats as an important influence. Did you read his books as a child? How has he influenced your work?
I definitely remember flipping through the pages of various Keats books as a child. His influence came later, as I was looking for my own voice in illustration. Keats work reminds me to be honest. And to share stories that mean something to me no matter how uncomfortable or gritty they may appear. Most of all, I’m inspired by the way his work represents children of all colors in a manner that is accessible to everyone.
Why do you think the EJK Book Award jury found your book to be “in the spirit of Keats”?
Well, you sent me a very lovely letter letting me know why! I operate best by focusing on what I hope will come through. Which are illustrations made in the spirit of fun and with a lot of love that represent the diverse world we live in.
How did you come to illustrate children’s books?
I studied animation, and somehow had taken on a belief that animation was the ultimate form of creative expression for someone who likes making pictures. I mean, what could be more amazing than making your drawings come to life? Funny thing is, even in animation school I found myself going to the children’s book section of the library and drawing inspiration off various picture-book artists. After college I interned with Pixar Animation Studios, where I was paired with a mentor, Ben Butcher, who was obsessed with picture books and encouraged me to trust in my own voice as an illustrator. Long story short, it’s almost as if I’ve always wanted to illustrate children’s books, but it was only recently that I opened up to the possibility, or the possibility opened up to me!
How do you think the EJK Book Award will affect your career?
I have no idea. What I do know is that it means a great deal to me personally. My dream is to be able to continue doing what I’m doing now, which is creating picture books. Having the EJK Book Award acknowledge me as a new illustrator has been so encouraging, and humbling. I feel more inspired, recharged and hopeful that I will be able to continue doing what I love.