Illustrating Tolly: Behind the Scenes

Posted by Liz Pilcher on

Author Maryanna HoggattTolly Love March



Photo Credit: Overcup Books Instagram

One of the best parts about children’s books is that they can be enjoyed by all ages. They attract us with their colorful and imaginatively designed covers, draw us in with their adorable stories and enjoyable illustrations, and give us a moral or new insight about the world. And they have to be read in one sitting. With all the ways that a children’s book can be written and illustrated, the possibilities for creative expression are endless. Maryanna Hoggatt, author of Overcup Press’s upcoming title Tolly, used her unique artistic skills to write and illustrate the story of a brave raccoon named Tolly. We asked Maryanna to share her creative process about making a book as unique as Tolly.

As an artist that works in sculpture, painting, illustration, murals, and comics, what were your inspirations for writing and illustrate a children’s book?

Making my own children’s book has been a longtime dream of mine. I was a voracious reader as a kid and was making up stories in spiral-bound notebooks at a very young age. I never thought I would end up sculpting or painting murals or drawing comics or illustrating commercial work. All those endeavors were times where I wandered off the path to explore something else. My first children’s book, “Tolly”, ticks the box at the top of my list. The fact that I have my own actual book in my hand is something I don’t think has fully sunk in yet.

What was the pre-production process behind the Tolly illustration process like? What gave you the most grief? What was the most rewarding?

I never shy away from a big job, but making this book was a massive amount of work in a short amount of time. I could have illustrated the whole thing, but instead I decided to design and construct 3-Dimensional sets and puppets and photograph a different scene for each page. The entire experience, aside from sculpting Tolly’s head, was totally new to me. I’ve never written a book, built a poseable puppet, constructed sets, or photographed miniature stills.

After four months of work, with the book nearly finished and ready to print, I decided to scrap more than half of it and start over. The learning curve was evident. All in all I completed the work in about 8 months. It was insane. I literally fell off the face of planet. I grew a beard. My social skills atrophied significantly. Note to future self: don’t do it like that again.

Holding the finished book in my hand was rewarding enough, but putting it out in the wild will be an entirely different experience.

One of the most unique aspects of the illustrations in Tolly is the use of mixed media. With a combination of photography, sculpture, puppetry, and set building, how did you decide which media to incorporate? How long did the average scene take to design and shoot?

I followed my instincts for almost the entire creative process. After sketching out thumbnails and penciling a rough draft I had a 2D guide to follow, but there was no game plan for translating those images into three dimensions. Sometimes I foraged items from my backyard to include in a set. I cut up used clothing from goodwill for Tolly’s bedspread and rugs. I used tiny LED lights I purchased from a model train store. I needed sets and poses to hold together long enough for one solid shot, so there was a lot of trickery going on with tape and bits of string and post-editing.

I thrive under rigid production schedules and work pretty fast. For both versions of the book I was completing about 2 images a week. Despite the time crunch it was pretty fun and every once in awhile I’d marvel at how playing with puppets somehow became a job.

Tolly includes vibrant and varied color schemes and use of lighting to illustrate changes in time, space, and mood. Which was your favorite scene to design and why?

Towards the end of the final version of the book I’d become a lot more comfortable with lighting and photographing the sets. One of my favorite scenes is actually the last one I shot, where Tolly finally believes in his own ability to face down fear and leaps into the air with his wooden sword thrust towards the sky. I shot this scene last because I was dumping glitter and styrofoam “snow” on the puppets, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to clean them up enough to use in other scenes. By this time the puppets were absolutely thrashed. After I photographed them I left the puppets suspended in their moment of victory for a few days.

What was the most valuable thing you experienced during the process of designing Tolly? What advice would you give yourself for any potential future book illustration projects?

This book was my first rodeo, so the entire learning experience was valuable. I kind of answered the question for future advice to myself already, but if I were to make another book, I’d like to challenge myself to exploring new ways to tell a story. It’s an art I’m still learning.

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