Fall in Love With Bella’s Fall Coat (exclusive interview)

Bella’s Fall Coat is a wonderfully smart addition to the children’s picture book genre. Children will love the ways that author Lynn Plourde comes back to familiar sounds and words to tell a story they can relate to. Artist Susan Gal illustrates the book with a visual flair that conveys what it must feel like to wear Bella’s fall coat or to dance through the fall leaves. Together they weave a story that hints at loss and endings in a way easy to understand for children and yet comforting at the same time.

bellas-fall-coat

Title: Bella’s Fall Coat
Author: Lynn Plourde; Illustrations by Susan Gal
Cost: $17.99
Age: 3-5
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Genre: Children’s picture book

Thanks to Disney-Hyperion, I had the chance to interview the pair through email to ask them a few questions about the book and about their careers.

Thank you both for taking the time to share with our readers about this cute new book, Bella’s Fall Coat. I have a couple of young nieces who I think will love it.  Lynn, as the author of numerous children’s books, you’ve covered quite a broad range of stories. What inspired you to write this particular book?

Fall, simply fall. I live in Maine where the season of fall bursts into our senses with its vibrant colors like Nature’s fireworks finale before the whiteness of winter and the mud-brown of spring. Fall air is chilly enough for fleece jackets in daytime and fleece blankets at couchtime. Simmering cinnamony cider is a whole-house potpourri. I adore fall, always have, always will—it brings out the kid in me every year. Just look at the color of these Maine blueberry barrens in the fall!

lynn-blossoms

Wow. That’s beautiful!  I noticed that you did a series of seasonal books earlier in your career – Winter Waits (2001), Spring’s Sprung (2002), Summer’s Vacation (2003). But never a book on autumn until now. Was this book intentionally written to fill that gap or was it just a happy coincidence?

Actually, the first book in my earlier season series started with the fall book (because fall is the best!), Wild Child (1999). You probably missed it because the season isn’t part of the title as in the others (that’s true – I totally missed it). It’s the only one of that series that’s still in print; and my current Disney/Hyperion editor Stephanie Owens Lurie was the editor of both Wild Child and Bella’s Fall Coat. Bella was actually more about coming full-circle with my writing and returning to my happy place. And my happy place is even happier now since I am a new grandmother and I have my own grandson to share this multi-generational story with.

Lynn's two Fall books - both published by Disney-Hyperion
Lynn’s two Fall books – both published by Disney-Hyperion

I thought this book was much more thoughtful and deep than the average children’s book. I love how you juxtapose the desire for things to stay the same FOREVER as Bella likes to say with the realization that things change. What do you hope children come away with after reading or listening to your story?

Part of me hopes both kids and grown-ups have a take-away from this book. I hope kids savor the here-and-now (they are so good at that) while also realizing the new-and-the-next might be just as good or even better. I hope grown-ups think about pausing and being spontaneous and joyous in the everyday moments rather than always rushing to get things done and ready for the future. But, really, it’s up to readers of all ages to get out of this book or any book what it “whispers” to them. And it might simply say, “Put this book down and go jump in a pile of leaves”—which would make me, as the author, very happy.

Susan, as a huge Disney fan (as are all of our readers), I have to ask what animated projects you worked on while with Disney Animation in Florida? And what compelled you away from animation into doing illustrations for children’s books?

I was very fortunate to be one of the in-betweeners hired to work at the brand-new Disney MGM Animation Studio in Orlando. There was a renaissance in animation at that time and Disney sent out a nation-wide call for new talent to train and work at the Florida studio. I was one of twenty artists selected for an intensive internship at the Los Angeles studio. Upon completion of the internship most of us were hired to staff the Florida studio. Our first project was Roller Coaster Rabbit, a Roger Rabbit short cartoon.

Susan - "Roller Coaster Rabbit was one of three shorts created to screen before a Disney feature film."
Susan – “Roller Coaster Rabbit was one of three shorts created to screen before a Disney feature film.”

Although I loved working with the talented artists in Orlando, I missed working as an illustrator. My childhood dream was to illustrate picture books. In my personal life, I had met my future husband and we started dating cross-country between California and Florida. With each visit to my native California it was becoming more difficult to return to Orlando. I terminated my contract in good-standing with Disney and returned to California. I had a new fiancé and a passion to reinvigorate my freelance illustration career.

You have a very distinct style of art. I don’t know if I’m correct, but you seem to highlight patterns and texture throughout your work. How would you describe your unique way of illustrating? What inspires you in your technique?

Yes, you are correct! I enjoy working with pattern and texture and have spent a lot of time experimenting with ways of incorporating it into my work. I currently work with a combination of both traditional and digital mediums.

If I write and illustrate a picture book then the images of the characters usually come to mind before I put a word upon the page. If I’m illustrating another author’s text I look for key phrases to ignite my creativity. For example, author Lynn Plourde thoughtfully chose words like “whoosh” and “whizz”, “flapped and flew”. It seemed obvious to me that Miss Bella had to be an outdoorsy, exuberant little girl.

I began working with a series of gesture drawings, trying to capture the spirit of Bella. The sketches then began to “talk” to me and take on a life of their own. Perhaps its my Disney animation training, but I can’t illustrate a character unless that character becomes real to me.

 

Gesture drawings that Susan develops at the beginning of an art project

Next, I scan my sketches and place them in a layout in Photoshop. Working digitally allows me the freedom to experiment with the composition. Once my design is established I begin adding layers of color, like brushing paint onto canvas. I also digitally collage both patterns and textures into the illustration.

susan-2nd-stagesusan-3rd-stage

When you chose the look for Bella’s old coat and her new coat they are distinctly different. What choices went into that decision? Why did you pick the textures and patterns you did for each?

I selected a rich blue color for Bella’s coat so it could stand apart from the warm reds and golds of the leaves and grasses. Like Lynn Plourde’s Mémère, the loving, older women in my life wore a lot of patterns so it seemed natural to represent the lush patterns that I fondly remember from my own childhood.

Did you each have a “Grams” in your life that was an inspiration to you in creating this character? And who is the “Bella” in your life? Was Bella based on someone you know or even yourself?

From Lynn . . . I grew up in a house right across the street from my Mémère and Pépère, those are the French names for grandmother and grandfather. My Mémère never let us leave her house without feeding us a homemade treat or candy. She was very doting. It makes me smile, too, that Susan Gal has such wonderful patterns throughout the book because my Mémère was the Queen of Patterns—one on her apron, a different one on her dress, on her couch, a different one on the chair next to the couch. As for Bella, she probably is the child in me who still adores fall, but I am thrilled to now have a grandbaby to share this book with. And one final thought . . . today there are many grandparents raising their grandchildren. We don’t often see multi-generational families such as these in books, but they need to be in books without fanfare or hoopla, but simply because they are one kind of family and we should celebrate all families.

Lynn’s Mémère (check out the pattern on that dress) and Pépère
Lynn’s Mémère (check out the pattern on that dress) and Pépère

From Susan…Sadly both my maternal and paternal grandmothers passed when I was a young girl. Fortunately, I did have my great aunt Marie and she was very much like “Grams” in the book. She taught me how to bake, sew, and knit. Aunt Marie didn’t get angry if my brother, sister, and I made a mess cooking in the kitchen or littered the dining room table with art projects. We saw her often and spent a lot of time with her and my great uncle Andy. They had no children of their own and they doted on us. Aunt Marie’s kitchen always smelled of good things to eat and she never said “no” to mischievous fun. I adored her and still cherish my sweet memories of Aunt Marie and Uncle Andy.

Susan with her Uncle Andy and Aunt Marie.
Susan with her Uncle Andy and Aunt Marie.

It was easy bringing Bella to life; she was inspired by my vivacious, creative daughter. Although our parents live miles away from us, my husband and I made sure that our daughter spent her childhood knowing her grandparents. The relationships between the generations in families is very special and I’m grateful that I was able to illustrate a book that celebrates those relationships.

Thank you both so much for taking the time to share your thoughts with all of us. Bella’s Fall Coat is a beautiful book and I wish you both much success.

We thank you for your kind words and the chance to do a joint interview. We, Lynn and Susan, have never met and we live on opposite coasts so this is the closest we’ve come to spending time with each other—in the same blog =)!

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