1. Gottika is based around a family’s movements in a dystopian world – how do you begin visualizing and drawing that world?
You start, of course, with the information that the novel gives you. Helaine did a very good job building a complete universe, with numerous descriptions of characters and settings. However, there is a lot of information that’s still subject to imagination, and that is where I come in and try to fill in those ‘gaps’. In Gottika’s case, the city itself plays as important a role as the characters. Defining a distinctive and coherent type of architecture was one of the most fun challenges to tackle. It was very liberating to be able to create a city from scratch! Devising a way to distinguish Stoons and Gottikans through clothing and hairstyling was another key moment. I can say I had a lot of fun translating Gottika onto paper.
2. Are any of the main characters based on anyone you know or remember, or are they entirely inspired by Helaine Becker’s text?
Overall, I relied on Helaine’s depictions of the characters. However, yes, for the Golem I tried to find a ‘friendly giant’ look and it helped a lot to remember some characters from Hayao Miyazaki’s early films and TV shows. In them there is often a tall and corpulent secondary character that also happens to have a sort of kindness and calm attitude. In fact, part of the clothing that Gol wears is loosely inspired by Heidi’s grandfather and one of the characters from The Castle in the Sky.
3. How long does each illustration take you to plan, sketch and complete?
It took a lot of time and work, yes. Especially because there were panels. You have to thoroughly plan to make sure the action is clear, and also fit the text into each panel in such a way that the whole thing doesn’t feel ‘busy’. That’s why you have to go through several stages of sketching before being able to tackle linework or lights and shadows, a.k.a. the fun stuff. I could not calculate how long it took exactly, but it was a lot of hours!
4. Do you display all your illustrations on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook? Or do you give your followers sneak previews?
Yes, of course. Illustrations are meant to be shown to people! In my case, I mostly use Instagram (veronavarro.ig) and Twitter (@pepper_pan), as well as my own portfolio at veronavarro.com. And, yes, I sometimes upload videos of the process or do small sneak peeks of projects that are underway.
5. Are there any books or other works that you are particularly proud to have completed?
Fortunately, I have been doing this for a few years now and the corner of my house displaying the books I’ve worked on is starting to look a bit crowded. I can honestly say that I am proud of all of them since I’ve learned something from each one. I especially enjoy working with independent authors, who sometimes ask me directly to work on their self-published books – just because they like what I do. It leaves a very warm feeling in my chest and that’s really nice.
6. Which stories do you remember from you own childhood?
I always loved witches and magic stories. In fact, my favourite book from my childhood was The Witch’s Handbook by Malcolm Bird. I was obsessed with it! I also had all sorts of picture books around that were either given to me or that I inherited from my brothers and cousins. I could say that I grew up surrounded by stories and illustrations.
7. What would be your dream illustration project?
Well, I would love to illustrate a picture book for younger children. You know, with pages full of illustrations from top to bottom and colours everywhere. I am generally sought out for jobs aimed at teenagers or adults, but I think I would do a good job illustrating for children too and I would have a lot of fun!
8. What advice would you give to aspiring children’s book illustrators?
Draw. A lot! Whenever you can, whatever you feel like drawing. And enjoy doing it. With enough time and practice, your illustrations will evolve and catch the eye of potential clients. And style or theme won’t matter. There’s plenty of room for everyone since there are all kinds of public. You just have to persevere and, I insist, have fun! Illustration is a profession that doesn’t make sense if you don’t have fun doing your job.
9. There’s an ongoing ‘Own Voices’ debate: for a Jewish folktale – do you think it’s important to have a Jewish illustrator? Do you need an intrinsic understanding of the topic or can you research everything? Did you research the golem figure?
That is a complicated question. Is it possible to work on a Jewish tale without being Jewish? Yes, but only up to a point, and always with the help of the original text, relying on the author’s instructions and advice and trying to do your own research and learn along the way. In my case, it was about creating an imagined universe, so I tried to contribute something of myself without producing unnecessary noise that would hinder the original message. I focused mostly on the visual part, filled the gaps left for me and went no further than that. And, yes, I had to do a lot of digging for the golem!
However, I believe that research work cannot make up for everything. I am Spanish and my point of view will always be ‘approximate’ or ‘external’ to Jewish culture. I am sure that a Jewish illustrator would have contributed with a different angle to mine. Perhaps closer to the real culture and less imagined. I feel that there can be different approaches to a subject, and I’m not sure that we can – or should – talk about a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’ way to go. In any case, the decision to choose one or the other is taken by the publisher and author. I can only do my best.
10. There’s also a lot of debate about diversity in the text and illustrations of children’s books – do you think there’s enough diversity at the moment?
I don’t think there is enough right now. There is still a lot of work to do in that regard. However, it is true that in recent years that debate has started to take place little by little, which makes me very optimistic about the future. I’m sure that in the coming years we will see more and more voices, characters and stories different from the traditional canon, starting to populate the shelves.
Gottika is a compelling story and your illustrations give it something extra-special – thank you!