CAROL GORDON EKSTER: Charnelle, what beautiful illustrations you created for Alice Faye Duncan’s text, JUST LIKE A MAMA, a lyrical read aloud celebrating adopted children, reminding them that they are chosen, cherished and loved, by Simon and Schuster, January 2020.
This is your first book but you are no stranger to illustration. You are Jerry Pinkney’s granddaughter, who won the Caldecott Medal in 2010, and many other awards. He is one of my favorite illustrators, so I was thrilled to interview you. Tell us how your grandfather influenced your path and what brought you to the world of children’s books.
CHARNELLE BARLOW: Growing up I was constantly surrounded by family members who made books. From my grandparents, to aunts and uncles, to my parents, the act of creating stories and sharing those stories was a familiar experience. I was a kid that loved to color, read, and make things with my hands. My grandad played a large role in nurturing my creativity. One memory in particular that sticks out to me as influencing my path is when my grandparents bought me a watercolor set and a sketchbook when I was 12. The sketchbook was double sided where the front was a sketchbook and when you flipped it over the back was a journal, so I could write in it as well. My grandma had a picture of an angel that she loved. She asked me to paint a version of it in my own style which gave me the chance to use the watercolor set they gave me. That was the moment I really fell in love with watercolor.
There were always a plethora of books around and grandad would pull out a few that he knew I’d enjoy flipping through each time I came over. I would hang out in his studio and read or look through the latest dummy book he was working on. Then I’d show him my sketchbook and any artwork of mine that I brought with me.
I had the opportunity to see every phase of a children’s book which was amazing. Sometimes we (this includes my brothers and cousins) would be models for books my grandad was working on. I was the model for the character in The Little Match Girl and my older brother, Leon, was the model for the character in Sam and the Tigers by Julius Lester.
CGE: Tell us about your journey to illustrating JUST LIKE A MAMA.
CB: My journey was definitely not a linear one. I graduated from The University of the Arts with a BFA in Illustration in 2010 and from there I went to the School of Visual Arts where I graduated in 2012 with my MFA in Illustration as Visual Essay. After graduating from SVA there was a two and a half year span of time where I wasn’t creating much at all. I was dealing with chronic health issues that began my junior year of undergrad and took a turn for the worse after grad school.
Once I was able to get a handle on my health, I started drawing and painting a lot more and working on personal projects. Fast forward to 2018 when Denene Millner contacted me about JUST LIKE A MAMA. She found me through Instagram if I’m remembering correctly. The manuscript was beautiful, so she didn’t have to do a lot of convincing for me to take the project.
Working on JUST LIKE A MAMA involved a lot of late nights and early mornings as I was working two other part-time jobs at the time including teaching several classes at Georgia Military College. All of the late nights were totally worth it. I love seeing how much this story resonates with children and adults who have experiences with different family structures.
CGE: What attracted you to this manuscript and what is your process?
CB: First off, the flow of Alice Faye’s writing is beautiful and pulled me in from the first page. Secondly, I was pulled in by the heart of the story. JUST LIKE A MAMA shows the intricacies of a relationship that isn’t often reflected in children’s books. I loved how Alice was able to capture the duality of the feelings Carol has about not living with her biological parents. There are no “bad” or “wrong” emotions.
My process starts with reading over the manuscript a bunch of times and dissecting it. I make notes on the characters as I go through, such as clues to their personality, the emotions they experience throughout the story, notes on the setting, and how I envision the characters. If there are any art notes from the editor or art director I make sure to write those down as well.
From there I move on to sketches. For JUST LIKE A MAMA my process was more traditional from start to finish. I did all the sketches in pencil at a size proportionate to the final trim size.
Large enough that they were close to the final size, but small enough that I could scan the sketches and final paintings in three parts or less. Quite the balancing act.
The final paintings for this book were done with watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, and gelly roll gel pen.
I went through a lot of scrap paper testing to make sure the colored pencils I had would show up over the paint and weren’t too waxy. This started my love affair with the Faber-Castell polychromos. The variety of mediums allowed me to layer parts of the image as I envisioned. Plus, you just can’t beat the opaqueness and color of those neon gelly roll gel pens (insert swoon here).
Now my process is more digital. I’ll start a sketch in pencil and then I’ll use that as an underdrawing in Procreate. The two projects that I recently finished were both started this way and then colored in Procreate as well. Once the color is where I want it to be I bring it into Photoshop and add watercolor texture to soften the image and add variety. I’m still growing and exploring, so I’m sure this process will evolve soon.
CGE: Did you have any contact with Alice Faye Duncan, the amazingly talented author, while working on her book? What do you think about illustrator notes and did you receive any for this manuscript?
CB: I didn’t have any contact with Alice Faye throughout the process until the illustrations were completed. Once the book was completed and in route to being published we connected. Feedback and direction came through Denene and the art director.
I love, love, love having illustrator notes. I find that they serve as a roadmap early on in the process. If there is an idea of the direction for the story, whether from the author or art director, having those notes at the start cuts down on time spent on revisions. They allow me the opportunity to add my own take to the illustrations while keeping the overall vision for the project in mind.
I didn’t have any written notes for this story, but I did have a few conversations with Denene about the direction for the project and how they were envisioning the vibe of the characters. I was able to take that direction and put my own spin on it.
CGE: What role do you think children’s publishing has in the Black Lives Matter movement?
CB: It’s important to recognize that anti-racism work is not only for adults. Conversations about race, racism, and diversity need to happen early and as often as possible. Books help support these much needed conversations. Children’s books have the ability to show and celebrate the beauty of diversity in a way that other modalities can’t. It’s time for publishers to step up and amplify Black stories.
Denene Millner created her imprint Denene Millner Books, an imprint with Simon & Schuster, because the publishing industry is severely lacking when it comes to sharing the stories of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). I’m thrilled that JUST LIKE A MAMA was part of her 2020 lineup.
I’m eager to see how the publishing industry evolves over the next few years.
I currently have two children’s books that are set to be published in 2021 that I’m super excited about. You can see a sneak peek for one on my Instagram feed entitled Born Ready: The True Story of a Boy Named Penelope written by Jodie Patterson. The story pulls from their family story. Everyone thinks that Penelope is a girl even though Penelope knows that he is a boy. One day his mother listens and understands and they set off to let everyone know that Penelope is a boy. Penelope is seen and heard and is given the space and love to thrive.
I’m also working on developing my own ideas to author and illustrate which I’m really excited about. Looking forward to all that the future holds for me.
You can connect with Charnelle here: