Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Talking with Adam Gustavson, illustrator for The Yankee at the Seder - celebrating the Sydney Taylor Book Awards

It’s a pleasure to have a chance to talk with illustrator Adam Gustavson as part of the Sydney Taylor Award Blog Tour. Adam illustrated The Yankee at the Seder, which he infused with realism, historical details and great emotion.  The Yankee at the Seder was awarded as a Sydney Taylor Honor Book for Younger Readers.

A Yankee at the Seder is set at the very end of the Civil War, in a Virginia town. Young Jacob wants more than anything to show that the South is not ready to concede defeat to the North.  But then Myer Levy, a Jewish Yankee soldier, joins Jacob's family Passover meal.  Gathered around the Seder table, the group discusses what it means to be free.  This touching, heart-felt story shows how cultural and religious connections can stretch across many boundaries. It is my pleasure to talk with the illustrator, Adam Gustavson, about his process illustrating historical picture books, and his thoughts on sharing stories with children.

Great Kid Books: Are you an illustrator or author and illustrator? Do you work primarily with children's books, or do you also work in other fields?

Adam G: I mainly illustrate children's books.  When I started off, I looked for work anywhere.  But I always knew that I wanted to illustrate children's books.  In the beginning, I tried to get work from magazines that gave work in series, because I tended to think in a series of illustrations.  That's much like a picture book, which ends up being a series of roughly 20 paintings.

Great Kid Books: If you have illustrated for various age ranges , can you briefly discuss the differences, if any, in illustrating for one age group to another?

Adam G: Most of the work I've done is for ages 4 - 9. I have done some illustrated novels and a fair amount of work for educational publishers.  I find it helpful to remember your own childhood: what things looked like, what drew your attention.  I also try to assume that the children looking at my books are the smartest people to walk the earth.  What they pay attention to, what will have a visceral effect may stay with them over many years, so  I want to be careful with editing imagery, not to take away too many things that I worry may be over children's heads. Illustrations can resonate with children over the years.  I find that the more honest you are and the more you put into it, the more likely you'll be to hit the nail on the head at some point.

Great Kid Books: As a book lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Adam G: My great loves are the old Mercer Mayer books from the 1960s and 1970s, like One Monster After Another and Professor Wormbog in Search for the Zipperump-a-Zoo.  I think a lot of my cultural awareness came from these books.  For example, I would see an old fashioned mailbox, and I could grasp what it was in the context of the picture.

Great Kid Books: What books do you enjoy reading with your children?

Adam G.:  My sons are now 8 and 5, and we love quirky, fun, weird books, partly for the way that images sneak up on you by surprise.  I love doing voices and making reading fun.

My youngest son's favorite book is Grumblebunny by Bob Hartman.  I like the rhythm of the text, and how it's hard to discern where the pictures end and the text begins to convey the information - they seamlessly work together to create a whole sense of the story.  We also love Dirty Cowboy, by Amy Timberlake and Adam Rex - the text and illustrations have a similar relationship.  The tone of the text and the tone of the illustrations go together so well.  The text uses alliteration and other rhythmic devices, and the pictures have many rhythmic features as well, a visual rhythm with things that reappear as you go through the story.  The text and illustration blend together without doing each other's work.

Reading for me when I was little was entertainment, but it also has something below the surface, a visceral reaction.  I think that ultimately, reading has to be fun for kids to want to do it, to want to come back to it again and again. Kid's real mission is to play, but they can't help learning along the way.  The key is to find books that are fun, that make them enjoy reading, and speak to them on a deeper level.

Great Kid Books: Can you briefly tell me about the road to illustrating and publishing The Yankee at the Seder?

Adam G: It started with developing a relationship with Tricycle Press.  I do oddball promotionals, where I develop cards for holidays that nobody celebrates and send them out to potential clients.  In 2005, I did a card for Cowboy Poetry Week (a week in April each year).  I was asked by Tricycle to do a development piece for a book about a stagecoach driver in the Old West, but I was vying with several other illustrators for the project.  I had loved cowboys as a kid, and this was like being back in 2nd grade again.  I really threw myself into the research for this project - investigating the colors for the clothes, the way a driver would hold the reins for a four horse coach.  I got the project, Rough Tough Charley by Verla Kay, and had a lot of fun with all of the research involved.

So when Tricycle had The Yankee at the Seder, they called me because of the combination of character work and historical research.  When I started my research, I had to think of every angle so I could think in 1860s visuals.  I drove to towns that had 200 year old houses so that I could visualize what the porches and window moldings might look like.  I studied the immigration trends of early 19th century America, so I could know where Jews came from in the early 1800s,and what their religious practices would have been.  I discovered that most Jews during this time came from the Rhine Valley in Germany, and most would have been practicing reformed Judaism.  This was important so I could start building a picture of my characters, what color their eyes and hair might have been, how tall they were.

At the same time, I was giving art lessons to a beautiful little boy who had about the same lineage as the character in The Yankee at the Seder.  So while researching clothing, architecture, uniforms and botanicals, I also took about a hundred pictures for a character study.  I would ask him to make different faces: "smile", "laugh", "look serious", and I would capture his different emotions from, say, six different angles.

Great Kid Books: What sources of information did you use for your research?

Adam G: I used a lot of Internet research for the small details, especially sites from people who had a particular expertise in a specialized field I was interested in.  I used online Jewish historical databases to investigate the history of the Ashkenazic Jews in Europe.  I looked at the history of the Reform Movement, and how that would have affected the decor, clothing and domestic customs at this time and place.  I also looked on eBay for period furniture, rugs, wallpaper and place settings.  I wanted to put a coffee table in one scene, as a piece of furniture that was coming in between the grandfather and Myer Levy - but it turns out coffee tables wouldn’t even exist for another three years.

Great Kid Books: How do you personally connect to The Yankee at the Seder? Do you bring a personal connection to the themes, characters or story?

Adam G: We've all been invited to family gatherings where we're politically alien to everyone else in the room.  I tried to remember the feeling of being polite, keeping a smile, while feeling very uncomfortable.  I remember trying desperately not to step on anyone's toes, but wanting to be engaged and still make the most of the situation.  I think those are some of the universal themes of this book.

Great Kid Books: What is your usual medium, or your preferred one?

Adam G: I mostly work in oils for my final illustrations, but I first sketch in pencil.  I take a sketchbook with me everywhere I go, and fill it backwards. I'm left-handed, so I draw on the left side of the page with the spirals on the right.

As I do my research, I develop many sketches. Then as I start to compose the scenes for the book, I sketch in pencil on toned paper with white gouache to introduce light source and atmosphere.  I find it helpful to try to get as much of the detailed work done at the early stages, before I start working in oil. Then when I break out the oils, I can just concentrate on the color and textures of the painting.

Great Kid Books: Can you list your books-to-date?
Picture Books illustrated by Adam Gustavson
Good Luck Mrs. K by Louise Borden, Simon and Schuster 1999
Where the Big Fish Are by Jonathan London, Candlewick 2001
Bad Dog Dodger! by Barbara Abercrombie, Simon and Schuster 2002
The A+ Custodian by Louise Borden, Simon and Schuster 2004
The Day Eddie Met the Author by Louise Borden, Simon and Schuster 2004
The Last Day of School by Louise Borden, Simon and Schuster 2006
The John Hancock Club by Louise Borden, Simon and Schuster 2007
Rough, Tough Charley by Verla Kay, Tricycle Press 2007
The Lost and Found Tooth by Louise Borden, Simon and Schuster 2008
Very Improbable Story by Edward Einhorn, Charlesbridge 2008
Snow Day! by Lester L. Laminack, Peachtree 2007
Mind Your Manners, Alice Roosevelt! by Leslie Kimmelman, Peachtree Publishers 2009
The Yankee at the Seder by Elka Weber, Tricycle Press 2009
Calico Dorsey by Susan Lendroth, Tricycle Press 2010
Blue House Dog by Deborah Blumenthal, Peachtree Publishers, 2010

Illustrated Novels illustrated by Adam Gustavson
Magic by Heart by Amy Gordon, Holiday House 2007
The Mystery of the Jubilee Emerald, by Gary Alan Wassner, Mondo Publishing 2008

Great Kid Books: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?

Adam G: My blog has the most up-to-date information: The Rhinoceros Boy's Lament, http://adamgustavson.blogspot.com. (note: see many of Adam's witty cards, like National Tooth Fairy Day, or World Cow Chip Day on his blog - they'll make you laugh out loud)

My website has my portfolio, biography and client list, and is http://www.adamgustavson.com/

Great Kid Books: Are there any new projects that you are working on that you can tell me about?

Adam G: I just finished Calico Dorsey by Susan Lendroth, for Tricycle Press, which will come out in September 2010. It's about a dog who carried the mail to silver mining camps in California in the 1880s. I had a lot of fun doing the historical research and capturing this dog. Mind Your Manners, Alice Roosevelt came out last fall from Peachtree Press, and Blue House Dog, by Deborah Blumenthal, will be published by Peachtree Publishing later in 2010.

Great Kid Books: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. It was fascinating learning about all the research that goes into illustrating your books. Congratulations on your award and the recognition for The Yankee at the Seder.

Read more about The Yankee at the Seder with an interview with author Elka Weber by the wonderful Laurel Snyder at BewilderBlog,

Join us on the Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour all this week as we celebrate books that exemplify the highest literary standards while authentically portraying the Jewish experience.  Come visit these sites for more interesting interviews and insights.


April Halprin Wayland, author of New Year at the Pier: A Rosh Hashanah Story
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Younger Readers Category at Practically Paradise

Stephane Jorisch, illustrator of New Year at the Pier: A Rosh Hashanah Story
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Younger Readers Category at Frume Sarah's World

Margarita Engle, author of Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Teen Readers Category at bookstogether


Robin Friedman, author of The Importance of Wings
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Older Readers Category at Little Willow's Bildungsroman

Jacqueline Davies, author of Lost
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Teen Readers Category at Biblio File

Jonah Winter, author of You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Younger Readers Category at Get in the Game: Read! and cross-posted at Examiner.com


Elka Weber, author of The Yankee at the Seder
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Younger Readers Category at BewilderBlog

Adam Gustavson, illustrator of The Yankee at the Seder
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Younger Readers Category at Great Kids Books

Judy Vida, daughter of the late Selma Kritzer Silverberg, author of Naomi's Song
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Teen Readers Category at The Book Nosher


Jacqueline Jules, author of Benjamin and the Silver Goblet
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Younger Readers Category at ASHarmony

Natascia Ugliano, illustrator of Benjamin and the Silver Goblet
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Younger Readers Category at The Book of Life

Deborah Bodin Cohen, author of Nachshon, Who Was Afraid to Swim
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Younger Readers Category at Ima On and Off the Bima

Jago, illustrator of Nachshon, Who Was Afraid to Swim
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Younger Readers Category at Jewish Books for Children


Annika Thor, author of A Faraway Island
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Older Readers Category at Teen Reads

Ellen Frankel, author of The JPS Illustrated Bible for Children
Sydney Taylor Notable Book for All Ages at Deo Writer


  1. I loved this book so much so I really appreciate discovering the journey taken by the illustrator to provide such accurate and beautiful art. Thank you so much for adding another layer to my appreciation!!!

  2. what an excellent and thorough interview!

  3. Great interview! I'm thrilled to have worked with Adam on Yankee at the Seder. I hope all authors are as lucky as I was in having an illustrator who "gets it".

  4. What a fascinating interview! I learned so much about the illustration process. Thanks!

  5. The book looks great - will have to seek it out!

  6. Amazingly in depth interview, and I loved how you included the early sketches and the Cowboy Poetry card (clearly a holiday we all need to be celebrating.) I think I would have loved a book with Zipperump in the title, too! Thanks to both of you.