This is How I Grow by Dia L. Michels was beautifully illustrated by new talent Wesley Davies whose digital art skilfully depicts various species of young mammals. This fifty-two-page book tells the story of eight diverse mammals – how they are born, nurse, wean, and then forage or hunt to feed themselves. Their mothers help them survive from birth until they are “all grown up,” as the refrain at the end of each section notes. The art is carefully rendered, warm and colorful.
Most scenes include additional forms of native wildlife, birds or insects and depict a range of environments from forest to sea in different parts of the world where these animals are endemic. From blue whales to kangaroos, Davies’ illustrations dramatize close relationships between babies and their mothers and complement the simple straightforward text. Several pages at the back of the book provide additional information on each species and there is a map indicating where each lives. Details about resources for teachers are included and content aligns with Next Generation Science Standards, adding to the educational connections this picture book offers. It is intended for children 7 to 10 years old in grades two to five.
JAZ: Congratulations on your first picturebook, Wesley! (they/them or he/him) Now that the illustrations for This Is How I Grow by Dia Michels are complete and the book will be released on March 3rd do you feel relieved, excited, or both?
WD: Thank you! Definitely both – it was a lot of work, but it taught me a great deal about illustration and the publishing industry. I’m a very hands-on learner and like to jump into new things, and working on this book was a very valuable learning experience. Mostly right now I feel proud that I was able to finish this project and hopeful that children who read it will enjoy it. I have a baby cousin who was born this last year just a few months before I finished the illustrations and he’s just starting to get more interested in picture books, and thinking about him someday reading it was great motivation to get it done.
JAZ: You had previously done back matter illustrations for Babies Nurse, published by Platypus Media, who are also publishing This Is How I Grow. How did you initially hook up with them? Do you have an agent or Artist’s Rep?
WD: I learned of Platypus Media when I chanced upon a call for artists by a woman I attended college with. She and I both worked at the same Kenyon college organization one year apart from one another and when I saw her post online looking for artists for an upcoming kidlit project, I reached out to apply and submitted some sketches I had made of Asian elephants from a 2013 ecotourism trip to Thailand. I don’t currently have an agent or rep at the moment but will be querying agents this year.
JAZ: Did you use digital or traditional media for the illustrations? Can you describe your process?
WD: These days I’m primarily a digital artist, although the first step of my process is always to do practice sketches and studies, usually using a pen or pencil on paper. It feels easier to understand the form of something – a person, an animal, an environment – when I can make quick, messy sketches of it, which I usually do from reference pictures or from life if possible, although that was a bit more difficult with this project. I like to do enough sketches that I can imagine a 3D model of whatever I’m drawing in my head, and then move on to planning composition through thumbnails.
After blocking out each piece with basic shapes, I make more detailed roughs to plan out the layout, background, and light, and once I’ve cleared those with the writer I begin digitally painting, laying down basic underlayers of color and adding detail one layer at a time.
For this project, I usually started with the animals first and painted the environments behind them, balancing light and color with the animals in each one as I went. The nice thing about digital painting is that working with layers can be very forgiving and easy to adjust if I keep them organized enough, so I’d usually paint with that in mind and try to keep my work as flexible as possible.
JAZ: Since most of your portfolio is digital work, what type of tablet and other equipment/programs do you use?
WD: I use a Wacom Cintiq 12WX tablet from 2012 and primarily draw and paint in Clip Studio Paint EX, although I painted the illustrations for This Is How I Grow using Adobe Photoshop. I’ve been moving away from Adobe products this last year and working on learning new, more intuitive programs for drawing and painting, and in my opinion Clip Studio Paint is a great and affordable alternative that makes it easy to personalize your digital workspace. I love to work in other mediums, however, and try to vary what mediums I use when I have free time so I don’t fall too out of practice with any of them. One of my goals is to make more traditional work this year, just to feed my soul.
JAZ: Do you nibble a lot as you work? What’s your favorite snack? Do your houseplants sing to you?
WD: It definitely can be a struggle working from home and having my kitchen about fifteen feet from my desk. As someone who also struggles to take breaks at regular intervals, I find myself using mealtimes to remind myself to get up and stretch. My favorite treat is to nip over to a café called Dave’s Coffee across the city and grab a steamed coffee milk, which is the excessively sweet, caffeine-free state drink of Rhode Island. Sometimes if I’ve gotten enough work done that day, the weather is nice, and I’m feeling decadent, I’ll sit by the river to drink it before I head back home to finish working. And I definitely sing to my houseplants, but as of yet I haven’t heard them sing back. Clearly I haven’t read enough Jeff Vandermeer aloud to them yet.
JAZ: What was the most satisfying part of this project? And the most difficult?
WD: I learned a huge amount about digital painting while working on this project, so much so that I returned to many of the pieces I finished earlier in the project’s timeline to revise certain aspects so they would appear more cohesive with the later illustrations. Perhaps the most satisfying parts of this project were when I had finished a draft of a piece and could take a step back from it; then, when I returned to it for more revisions, I was able to look at it with fresh eyes and see what clicked, what didn’t, and to remind myself that even though it may not be finished, I had already gotten this far in it. I feel like a lot of my workdays I’m fighting imposter syndrome which can make it difficult to acknowledge my own accomplishments, and working at making a living as a freelance artist can come with a lot of baggage and hardship. I feel extraordinarily lucky that art is something I’m able to pursue as a career, but it’s difficult as an artist not to feel hounded by the need to always be producing work at an extraordinary rate when we define both our self-worth and our literal worth through the art we create. This project taught me a great deal about how to handle burnout, how to budget time, and how to be in conversation with what my art and the time it takes to make it means to me on a personal level.
JAZ: What have you been working on since you completed the book? Do you have ideas for picturebooks of your own? Wordless or with your own story?
WD: I enjoy making comics and would like to do more work in kidlit and picture books as well as graphic novels now that I have some experience. I believe that the line between a picture book and a comic can be a very thin or even nonexistent one; they feel like natural neighbors to one another as mediums that have enduring appeal. I’ve been working on a lot of different things since I finished TIHIG, including setting up a small online store to begin selling more of my work and recently starting a volunteer position providing art and materials for a local organization that uses tabletop games as empowerment tools for queer youth. My primary project, however, has been a medium-length YA comic featuring a teenage transmasculine protagonist living in a world in which transgender individuals grow antlers. The comic explores how over the course of his first year out of the closet, our protagonist learns to be in conversation with his own self-image as he struggles with loss, self-doubt, and personal growth while coming to terms with the quite literal growth of the eye-catching antlers atop his head.
JAZ: Perhaps your YA comic will lead to more comic-style or YA graphic novels?
WD: Absolutely! I knew I wanted to make comics ever since I was a little kid reading Jeff Smith’s Bone and Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes at the local library. My grandmother has a collection of very well-loved copies of Pogo that I still covet to this day, and I was always drawn to books that combined text and illustration, like Gurney’s Dinotopia or The Edge Chronicles. I often wish that I’d also been able to read such amazing comic authors as Jen Wang, Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, and Melanie Gillman when I was younger – I’ve always felt that the media we consume as we grow up can be very formative, and it makes me wonder if I could’ve been able to accept and understand my own queerness from a younger age if I’d been able to read more queer YA stories. The boom currently happening with LGBTQ kidlit, YA comics, and YA novels makes me hopeful that each medium will continue to grow and provide more opportunities for marginalized artists and authors at the same time that we’re seeing more diverse and varied stories, and I believe that the way comics combine story and illustration is a very fun and accessible means to encourage kids and young adults to read more.
JAZ: Will your experience being trans inspire you to create more LGBTQ sensitive art projects for kids? That is an area that publishers look to publish. Your perspective could be valuable, if that feels right for you.
WD: It’s very heartening to me to see how many kid’s books have been published in the last couple of decades that focus on helping young people understand gender and sexuality in a greater societal context. While I believe that representation can be fraught with misinformation and should never be the be-all, end-all goal for diversity in media, it’s important to me that marginalized readers feel seen, especially when we’re often invisible, villainized, or buried in most stories. It was hugely helpful to me as a trans person to see positive trans and nonbinary representation in books, games, and television around when I came out, and I would love to pay that experience forward to kids and young adults by writing and illustrating more stories that have LGBTQ, and black and brown leads. That’s primarily what the goal of my current comic is, and my hope for the impact of my future work.
Wes, it has been fun speaking with you! Your future graphic novels, comics, and picturebooks will surely inspire your readers. Meanwhile I look forward to your success with This is How I Grow, coming March 3rd!
This Is How I Grow is published by Science Naturally! an imprint of Platypus Media LLC.