Illustrator Interview – Mike Curato

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Curato_authorpicThe first book in Mike’s series, Little Elliot, Big City, debuted on August 26th, 2014 and was the winner of the 2015 Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Honor. I had briefly met Mike a year ago in one of those crazy NYC SCBWI conference moments where you try and memorize 2000 new names and faces to match the business cards in your pockets. Lucky for me I bumped into him again at Books of Wonder last weekend and we had great fun becoming more acquainted and sharing our latest projects.

[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator?  If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?

[MC] I am an author/illustrator. I usually start with pictures, then jump back and forth between that and the writing. I often times will have images haunting my mind, and won’t really know what it’s about. I get it out on paper, then start writing about what could be going on in the picture. I discover the story slowly through this process. It can be a frustratingly lengthy process at times, but well worth the wait.

[JM] Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your work?

[MC] I grew up in the New York City suburbs in the Hudson River Valley. The magic and mystery of New York City has been quite an influence on my work, as you can see in Little Elliot, Big City. I was also charmed by the small old towns dotting the Hudson, with their original store fronts and seemingly ancient stone walls dividing up farmland. During college, I studied for a semester in Florence, Italy, which had a tremendous influence on me as an artist. My eyes soaked in the detail and precision of the Renaissance masters. Meanwhile, my work actually became looser. The freedom of living abroad allowed me to experiment uninhibited. I also spent ten years in Seattle as a grown up. I’m not sure how this has influenced my work yet. Perhaps it’s too soon to tell, since I just moved to Brooklyn a year ago.

[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.

[MC] I’ve been drawing since I can remember. I would draw on almost anything. I always knew I wanted to be an artist. After a disastrous season of pee-wee basketball, my mother enrolled me into private art classes. I took lessons all the way up to college. I studied at Syracuse University, majoring in illustration. After school, I ended up interning with a graphic design firm, and started making a living as a designer soon after. Those years after college were more about survival than fulfilling my dreams. Eventually, I made time for creating work for myself, which blossomed into my current work.

[JM] Do you have a preferred medium to work in?

[MC] For the past five years, I’ve worked almost exclusively in pencil and digital color. I definitely experiment with other mediums, primarily ink. Drawing is my first love.

[JM] What has surprised you most about publishing LITTLE ELLIOT, BIG CITY?

[MC] It’s really been a thrill to see so many people loving Elliot. I knew I loved him, but the response has been truly overwhelming and heart-warming. It’s also been a treat getting to know other authors and illustrators during this whole process. People have been very welcoming and have shared great advice.


[JM] Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of a WIP, and the process of creating them? 

[MC] Here is a brief animation showing my illustration process from thumbnail to finish. For a more detailed explanation about how I work, you can visit this post on my blog!


Little Elliot Subway

Little Elliot Subway



[JM] This GIF is awesome, what a great way to show us your process. Do you have a favorite picture book from when you were young?

[MC] My mom tells me that the books I read most when I was very young were all Golden Books: The Little Red Caboose, the Poky Little Puppy, and Hiram’s Red Shirt. I also had (and still have) a huge Golden Book compilation called Tibor Gergely’s Big Book of Bedtime Stories.

[JM] Do you have themes or characters you return to in your art?

[MC] Well, I’ve been drawing Elliot now for over ten years. We know each other well. I also have a character named Ricky Raccoon, who I have been drawing even longer than Elliot. He is making his picture book debut in a spread for What’s Your Favorite Color? by Eric Carle & Friends (I’m one of the friends!). I have a few other characters that I play around with in my sketchbook. We’ll see if/when they have their moment on the printed page. As for themes, I think it’s plain that I have a sweet tooth and a affection for city living. Friendship and family come up quite often in my writing (the follow-up to Big City is Little Elliot, Big Family, Fall 2015!). Other themes that I can think of: nostalgia, self-worth, the unnoticed, the forgotten, the outsider.

Little Elliot Plush

Little Elliot Plush

Little Elliot Big Family coming out this summer.

Little Elliot Big Family coming out Fall of 2015!

[JM] What does your workspace look like? 


[JM] What artwork do you have hanging in your house? 

[MC] Our tiny Brooklyn apartment does not have that much wall space, but I do have art hanging! Aside from my own, I also have original work by my friends Sarah Jane Lapp and Michael Lewis. There’s also a print of Sophie Blackall’s famous subway poster in our living room. In my studio there are prints by Sergio Ruzzier, Bob Staake, Elizabeth Rose Stanton, Diana Sudyka, Suzanne Kaufman, Victor Melendez/Jeff Wilkson, Chris Rollins, and a bunch of postcards from other illustrators.

Five Fun Ones to Finish?                                                                                                [JM] What’s your favorite park in the world?

[MC] The Boboli Gardens in Florence are pretty magical. 

[JM] Oh, yes, love them. You are the first to pick an Italian park.                             Cats or dogs? 

[MC] Both! I spend a lot of time with Georgie and Feta, who live with my friend and fellow author/illustrator, Ruth Chan. They are both featured in Ruth’s debut picture book Where’s the Party? (2016).

Georgie and Feta

Georgie and Feta

[JM] Fact that most people don’t know about you?

[MC] I have relatives living in 9 countries! My father is from the Philippines and my mother’s parents were from Ireland. We still have many relatives in those two places, but also England, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Taiwan, Canada, and of course the US. What’s really cool is that my book is sold (or will be sold soon) in all of those countries!

[JM] You beat me, my list just went from 4 to 3! And how awesome that you are going to be published in all these nations! One word to describe yourself?

[MC] hungry

[JM] Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?

[MC] Ha! I swear I didn’t read this question before I answered the last one! Chocolate.

[JM] Yeah, right!! 🙂

Mike can be found on his website, Facebook and on twitter.

Mike it was terrific to chat to you here on the blog and in person last weekend. I wish you all success, especially with the project you were sharing!!


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14 Responses to Illustrator Interview – Mike Curato

  1. “After a disastrous season of pee-wee basketball…” – too funny! I’m thinking that if my mother had forced me into sports, I, too, would have gotten started in art much earlier. 😀

    Once again, I have work space envy. I want to know why almost everyone has a neater space than mine. I have a huge thing for art that incorporates architectural drawings so I know I must own “Little Elliot, Big City” now.

    Thanks for another terrific interview, Joanna! I enjoyed learning about Mike and his art, and adding another illustrator to my to-watch list. 🙂

    • Joanna says:

      I would stalk Mike, if I were you, Teresa, I am sure he won’t mind!

      • LOL! Okay, am following him on Twitter. I’d Friend him on FB except that I’ve noticed that some author/illustrators don’t accept friend-adds from people they don’t know, even if we have a hundred friends in common. 🙂

        Have a great weekend, Joanna!

  2. I love “Little Elliot, Big City” And there is a plush toy! I already purchased the book for our great grandson’s first birthday in July, and now I can buy a plush animal. I am so delighted that you introduced us to Mike. I enjoyed learning about his writing and artistic process. The animation of his illustration was great. So much talent.

  3. Patricia Toht says:

    I love, love, love Little Elliott and can’t wait to see him in another book! Thanks for sharing, Joanna and Mike.

  4. Joanna you amaze me bumping into such talent. Little Elliot is darling! And working with Eric Carle next, sweet!

  5. I love this interview. The animation from thumbnail to finish was interesting and wonderful!!! Little Elliot is one of the most adorable characters ever. I just want to bring him home…but, alas, he would miss the big city if I brought him out here to West Texas. Besides…I doubt Mike would let Elliot out of his sight 🙂

  6. Erik - TKRB says:

    Great interview! You interview the best people! 😀

  7. Iza Trapani says:

    Mike’s work is AMAZING! What a talent. I loved seeing the animation of his process and learning more about him. Great interview!

  8. Pingback: Worm Loves Worm – Perfect Picture Book Friday and Diversity Day | Miss Marple's Musings

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