Leeza Hernandez: Illustrator, Author, Stranger-Hugger

Some first encounters are memorable.

I was attending my first conference of the New Jersey Association of School Librarians in Long Branch, NJ. Authors were set up in an “authors alley,” my own seat precariously near a conference-hall door that attendees  kept swinging open with the kind of great force that could, on occasion, send a wee author flying into the air.

I left the table for a moment and when I returned an adorable woman with an awesome accent asked, “Are you Audrey?”

I was.

She asked, “Can I hug you?”

Her response to reading IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN?: must hug author.

We hugged before I learned her name.

I was especially smitten with this illustration.

Which, it turned out, was Leeza Hernandez.

I sat across the alley from her for the next two days, staring at her adorable illustrations. And now, less than a year later, I’m delighted down to my marrow that she will be illustrating my picture book EDGAR’S SECOND WORD, to be published by Clarion in 2013. I am also delighted that she agreed to answer some questions about her art, process, and literary friends.

How do friends factor into your process? Do you share sketches/brainstorm ideas, or are you primarily a solo flyer?

Friends, peers, pets, mentors, professionals and family all play an important part in my process. I’d be incredibly lonely without them—not just as support and for hashing out ideas, but as inspiration, too.

Is it weird to know the writer of a book you’re illustrating?

It’s exciting for me to be able to illustrate the work of an author whom I admire and know personally. An honor, actually. But I will confess that it comes with a different level of pressure, because I’ve also caught myself mid panic: “What if she doesn’t like my sketches or interpretation? Eek! She might not talk to me again!” Realistically, I can’t let those fears hold me back from my work but I hope I don’t disappoint the author, either.

Tell us about your forthcoming books.

There is a book coming out on July 1st that I illustrated. It’s called EAT YOUR MATH HOMEWORK: RECIPES FOR HUNGRY MINDS (Charlesbridge). The book is a nonfiction, 48-page, math book, cookbook and activity book in one. The author, Ann McCallum, has an amazing ability to turn what might seem a boring or uninspiring subject—math—and make it fun and engaging for kids. Ann and I didn’t have any contact during the making of the book, but boy have we made up for it since! She’s a tour de force when it comes to working on a marketing campaign, which is a blessing. We teamed up with the publisher and figured out what everyone could take care of to help push the book. We’ve worked really hard on promoting the book; I hope all our efforts pay off. The website is underway and should be ready by July: www.eatyourmathhomework.com.

The other book I am excited about is what I’d consider my debut picture book. (Yay!) DOG GONE! is coming out next year with G.P. Putnam’s Sons. I wrote and illustrated this one. I can’t wait to hold it in my hands. I recently delivered the final art and I know the editor is working on jacket copy … it’s very exciting! The book is about a rambunctious little puppy dog who wants to get his paws on his boy’s toy as opposed to playing with his own. He then embarks on a wild and scary adventure. The character sketch you see here is the sample from my portfolio that the publisher, editor and art director zoned in on during a meeting. It just so happened that I had a copy of the manuscript with me, which they read and here we are!

studio image from early stages of sketching out DOG GONE!

Do you prefer to work as a one-man talent show? What are some differences between illustrating your own text and illustrating others’ texts?

Ooh, good question. I don’t have a preference to working either way—I love both. When it comes to my own projects, writing is a struggle for me. I have all these ideas for stories in my head, but I’m often frustrated because I can’t always execute them into words, so it takes longer. Some of the stories I write come from a sketch or visual idea of a character. I spend time with that character and then a background starts to form, but maybe not a story. I write as many notes as possible then I put them away until the story hits. That can take a while—months, sometimes years. Other stories that I write come from a title that pops into my head and I build from there. But whichever way the ideas germinate, text and illustrations play a dual role when I eventually develop a dummy. I am constantly rethinking/editing them both simultaneously to make them work together.

That doesn’t happen with someone else’s manuscript! I don’t know what I am going to get in terms of a story but it’s my job to interpret it just visually. I’ve had images flood through my mind upon the first read of one manuscript, where I couldn’t sketch them fast enough—and with another story I had to read it several times before the illustration ideas became clear. The process is more unpredictable.

What children’s literary character would young you have wanted for a best friend?

A: That’s easy! Danny in Roald Dahl’s DANNY, CHAMPION OF THE WORLD for a boy; Lewis Carroll’s Alice for a girl and Fantastic Mr. Fox for an animal best friend — each of these characters have remained heroes for me since I was a child. I always imagined what we’d get up to if we hung out together—plotting to get the better of the villains in some curious, clever or splendiferous way!

Were there any friendships in books you admired? Which ones and why?

I don’t recall one particular friendship from my childhood books that stood out, just a lot of distinctive relationships between characters. That’s probably why I love Roald Dahl’s stories so much. However, there is a book that I read recently: BINK & GOLLIE by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee, illustrated by Tony Fucile. I admire the complexities and oddities of Bink and Gollie’s relationship, their support for each other and strength of the bond between them. Even when they’re in disagreement, they manage to successfully navigate their way to a wonderful compromise—socks, pancakes, fish, doesn’t matter. Isn’t that what best friendships are all about?

Isn’t it fantastic the way all my interview subjects seem to end on a perfect note? You can learn more about Leeza by visiting her website.

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About Audrey Vernick

Audrey Vernick writes books for young readers.
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2 Responses to Leeza Hernandez: Illustrator, Author, Stranger-Hugger

  1. Mary Z says:

    I love Leeza and her work! Plus all she does for the NJSCBWI. She deserves this success: She’s a talented artist, and also an articulate voice for children’s books. Have great fun, Audrey and Leeza, with your collaboration!

  2. Wow, Audrey, you have some great friends. I hope someday to have someone hug me in response to a book–that’s about as good as critiques get! Leeza sounds like an amazing person, and I love her art!

    I am also very intrigued by the cooking/math/activity book! What a fun idea!

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