Ryan Hayes: A Most-Marvelous Art Director
When Melissa brought in Phil’s submission, titled Trashcan Wizard at the time, I remember being taken aback by the liveliness of Phil’s depiction of Cornelius. It was clear that Cornelius had an extremely vivid personality. Despite his very humble and blue-collar line of work, he brought the energy and passion you would expect from a Broadway performer! In particular, his HOOTIE HOO’s or RAT-A-TAT-TAT’s seemed to be begging to be large, colorful, and hand-lettered (which John did!). Add to that the already colorful backdrop of New Orleans, and you have such an incredible visual bank to withdraw from.
Another very unique aspect of this text to both Melissa and I was how it felt and read like the famous tall tales of American literature. Marvelous Cornelius seemed larger than life. And so we set out to capture that visually.
When it came to choosing an illustrator for this text, what style or voice were you looking for?
When thinking about that folklore / tall tale angle that Melissa and I were hoping to find, we wanted an illustrator whose style would match that. So, someone who had a folk art motif but could still handle full scenes (in particular, many people and buildings) was paramount in our art selection process. Also, because of the grave nature of Katrina, it was important that there was a sincerity and reverence to the tone of the artwork.
How did John Parra's work come to your attention and how did his style fit your vision for this project?
Luckily for us, Melissa had worked with John Parra on a few other picture books, and she immediately suggested that he illustrate the book. After looking up his work, and hearing “John is a dream to work with” from one of our other Children’s Designers, it was an easy “Yes.”
How did you and John work together to create the narrative flow of this marvelous picture-book biography?
John was extremely touched by Phil’s story, and made it apparent in the early-going that he had a very clear vision for the story. Since John was a familiar artist to us, we entrusted him with a simple layout of the text and the freedom to sketch and bring Cornelius to life as he envisioned him.
When we received that first round of sketches, Melissa and I were blown away. Naturally, first sketches are never perfect, so she and I worked together with John on adjustments to help the pacing of the story from page to page. By that, I mean we encouraged John to vary the scale / perspective on each page to help create a contrast from spread to spread. But more importantly, those changes in scale and perspective can create emphasis at pivotal moments of the story. For instance, the moment when Cornelius rises up after feeling defeated by the destruction of Katrina, John shifted the perspective to zoom in on Cornelius. This cued the reader to the shift that was happening both in the story and in our protagonist.
When picture books touch on tragic events like Hurricane Katrina, why do you think the illustrations should, in the end, offer kids hope, as they did in Marvelous Cornelius?
Tragic events are a harsh reminder of reality, and picture books on the whole tend to live far beyond that reality. So when picture books address these events head-on, it can be jarring for a child.
But what’s amazing about children is that they have this intrinsic ability (read: superpower) to find hope, wonder, and possibility in almost everything they encounter. Offering that hope in the illustrations reaffirms and strengthens those feelings, which is incredibly important to maintain. At some point, as we grow up, we begin to focus way more on the reality of life and that superpower dissipates. So, in that way, it feels just as important to offer that hope to the parent / teacher / adult who is reading the book to a child or children. Maybe it will rekindle that superpower.
Ryan Hayes is a Senior Designer at Chronicle Books. Long story short, what started as drawing super heroes and video game characters with Crayolas soon turned into designing books and hand-lettered type with Chronicle Books. Ryan is a single-speed cyclist, an avid gastronomist, and an eternal optimist. A Philadelphia expat, he prefers hoagies over cheesesteaks, admires grit over talent, and is still waiting on his call to play second base for the Phillies.