Vanessa Brantley-Newton – Illustrator Interview

I have been drooling over Vanessa’s artwork for years, and I will be reviewing her recently published picture book as author/illustrator, Grandma’s Purse, this Friday for Perfect Picture Book Friday.





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

[VBN] Since I live with a learning difference, Dyslexia, I am always feeling my way for what feels comfortable to me in the creation process. Sometimes the words come first and then the picture and sometimes the pictures come first.  While creating my new book, Grandma’s Purse, the pictures came first which made it so much easier for me to write the story. The pictures told me what the story was about.  

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

[VBN] I was born in Elizabeth, NJ and have lived in Newark, Irvington, Hillside and East Orange, NJ. Now I live in Charlotte, NC and I LOVE IT! So city people and country folk are different. Its very interesting. I am a people watcher and what I have learned is the city people talk and move so very fast. Southern folks ask you how you are doing and they really want to know. LOL!!! It’s slower and yes it does influence my artwork. Living in the city there is a different energy and vibe. Its fast paced and musical if you will. The south has a slower pace, but it’s picking up now that so many people are moving to Charlotte. It’s alive and green with promise.      

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

[VBN] I have been drawing since I was three years old. My parents knew something was different when I began school. My attention lacked badly in school because of the dyslexia. I felt different while in school like I never fit in. I was bullied really badly and teachers and student scared me. I expressed myself through singing and the art. Singing because I stuttered so bad. Drawing because I knew it was something that I was good at.

 I was such an awful student and the only subject I was good at was art! My art teachers knew it. They pushed me to look into studying illustration. They took me to F.I.T. NYC and I fell instantly in love. I worked hard to get into The Fashion Institute of Technology. I went for 3 years before I had to drop out to work. I worked as a Phlebotomist for 25 years. I was one of the best at the hospital that I worked for. Got awards for it and while working there I would explore different art supplies and styles. I would meet many amazing children and adults that would come in and out of the hospital and some that would pass. I had all these people in my heart and spirit and I had to find some kinda way to memorialize them. So I would draw them and put them into my sketchbook. They would take on a second life through my illustrations.So while working in the hospital, I would do small jobs for family and friends and I would make greeting cards or doing a simple drawing for a friend, but nothing on a professional level. Got married to a wonderful man. Had a couple of miscarriages and a stillborn and then finally we had Zoe. My husband lost his job after 9/11 and there was little to no money coming in. I really started thinking about what I could bring to the table. I got laid off as well so both of us were collecting unemployment and worried for our future.

Started doing a vision board and just daydreaming about what it would look like if I could work as an illustrator doing what I loved. So, I would take any job I could get so that we could eat and have a roof over our heads and so that I could take a course here and there in Children’s book illustration. I would take courses at SVA in NYC for Children’s books illustration. I worked really hard on my portfolio and read all the children’s books new and old. I was determined to get my foot in the door somehow. There is much more to this story, but, let’s just say, It wasn’t easy. It cost everything, but I am here by the grace of God and hard work. I am here.

[JM] What is your preferred medium to work in?

[VBN] I love collage and mixed media. It’s my favorite, but I also love working digitally.

[JM] Can you share a piece or two for us, maybe from a work in progress, and the process of creating them?

Jada Jones

[JM] Which book do you remember buying with your own money as a kid?  

[VBN] It was a book on how to draw. I forgot the name. LOL!

[JM] Do you have themes or characters that you keep returning to?

[VBN] Not really. New characters find me and I find them and we play together and then they keep moving forward.

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

Clone of Grandma

Girl transformation

The Gift

[JM] I adore these girls! What are you excited about in children’s literature at the moment?

[VBN] Since my hearts cry is diversity, I am so excited about some of the new books that have been coming out about diverse characters such as Jason Reynolds Ghost, Derrick Barnes’s Crown and even my own book Grandma’s Purse.

Five Fun Ones to Finish?
[JM] What’s your favorite park (state/urban..) in the world? 

[VBN] Central Park NYC

[JM] I lived 2.5 years in spitting distance of Central Park, and love it.       Cats or dogs?

[VBN] Cats

[JM] Please recommend a coffee shop or restaurant for me to visit in your city!

[VBN] Tupelo Honey Cafe

[JM] What was your first paid job out of high school?

[VBN] Working at a store called Casual Corners

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

[VBN] Almonds and water Red grapes and Vermont Cheddar cheese.

I love me a good strong cheddar! Thank you for sharing your journey, both the highlights and the challenges!



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We Shall Overcome – Perfect Picture Book Friday

Title: We Shall Overcome

Author: Debbie Levy

Illustrator: Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Publisher: Jump at The Sun Books, 2013

Ages: 4-8

Themes: song, equality, African Americans, slavery, freedom



I’ll be all right,
I’ll be all right,
I’ll be all right some day.


It only takes a few words to create change. It only takes a few people to believe that change is possible. And when those people sing out, they can change the world. “We Shall Overcome” is one of their songs. From the song’s roots in America’s era of slavery through to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and today, “We Shall Overcome” has come to represent the fight for equality and freedom around the world.

Why I like this book:

Music is a strong, emotional bond for most people and underlines the story about the song, “We Shall Overcome.” This book is about a song that has brought people together through its strong, courageous, and powerful words. Its roots began in the time of slavery but the actual song was transferred from the church to the people of America during the Civil Rights Movement. It was later transported across the oceans to other countries where people were fighting for equality. It became a song people sang across the world to celebrate global protests against all kinds of injustice. At the election of President Obama, Americans of all ethnicities sang it in triumph of an African-American becoming president.

It demonstrates just how powerful words and a melody are; how they can evoke change through generations. This important book, lyrically written by Debbie Levy and illustrated with the collage-style art by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, pays tribute to the heroic spirit of the famous song that pervades American history.


Great addition to your Black History Month (which is every month) shelves.

The back matter includes a timeline of the song, touching East Germans, black South Africans, Bengalis, Czechs, and South Koreans. It also contains websites which contain recordings of the song. This title will fit very nicely in a civil rights unit or one about the power of words. 

Each week a group of bloggers reviews picture books we feel would make great educational reads. To help teachers, caregivers and parents, we have included resources and/or activities with each of our reviews. A complete list of the thousands of books we have reviewed can be found sorted alphabetically and by topics, here on Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.


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Susan Rank-Pollard – Illustrator Interview

Sue has such a vibrant online presence that you feel you must have met her in real life at some SCBWI conference or other. And if you haven’t yet, and are in New York for the annual SCBWI 2018 winter conference, I encourage you to look out for that amazing hair, and engage her in conversation. 



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

I’m an illustrator doing some writing. When I’m sketching, it’s always with the thought of, “Where will this go? What happened just before? What might the overall story arc be?”

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

I’ve lived on both coasts. I’m from the East, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and moved cross-country in a mini van with a good man, three cats, and the stuff we didn’t trust to a relo cube. We spent 2 weeks doing so in order to visit family and friends along the way. If you ever really want to test a relationship of any kind, I highly recommend it!

Until leaving Pennsylvania, I had only ever known life with 4 distinct seasons, each lasting exactly three months. Talk about storybook! I don’t have that in California. I recently visited family in Ohio and got to experience winter for the first time in years and came back with winter-themed sketch work that I doubt would have happened otherwise. I’ve come to realize that the changing of the seasons grounds me and my work. I miss it, and I plan to return to it as soon as I can.

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

I always knew that visual art, the kind that was entertaining in a way that was funny and narrative, was what I wanted to do, because it’s a great bridge builder.

In second grade, starting at a new school, our Halloween art assignment was to follow directions to make a black cat out of construction paper. I asked my teacher if it was alright to design mine a little differently and she gave me the go ahead. Others were in profile, but mine faced you, holding its back feet, pink toe pads visible, smiling pink mouth, happy eyes. My teacher hung them all along the cork strip above the chalkboard and put mine first in line, right by the door! I wish I still had that cat, but I am friends on Facebook with my second grade teacher! She just retired.

Drawing has been my strength in the best of times and my refuge in the worst of times. It has been a way to share joy and laughter, fear and sadness. But mostly joy and laughter.

[JM] What is your preferred medium to work in?

Color pencil and/or ink line, and watercolor together.

[JM] Can you share a piece or two for us of a work in progress and the process of creating them?

I start with a feeling and harness it, meld it into some direction (why this emotion?), and then apply it to a character. In this case, I visited Ohio and experienced winter for the first time in a long time. I felt a sense of joy, excitement, and wonder. And decided it had been so long since I’d felt that, I’d better grab it with both hands!

Once I have a fairly tight drawing, I transfer it to 300lb hot press, watercolor paper. This is my favorite paper because it handles a LOT of water and really doesn’t need any stretching, although I still do so, because once my drawing is transferred and refined with hatch marks and indication of color (I’m using a selection of basic, muted warms and cools, keeping most of them isolated to their own planes (far background, near background, middle ground, and foreground.), I soak it into the paper for about seven minutes. I then lay it on a lightweight painting board, blot it with a non-patterned paper towel, and apply white tape to the edges in either a clockwise or counter-clockwise action. Direction doesn’t matter, but progression in this way helps the paper lie flatter.

Once the paper is completely dry, it becomes a conversation in media between the dry and the wet. I may fiddle with the drawing a bit more before I lay in the first washes.  I’ve been doing a lot of limited palette recently, really getting back to basics, so all of the watercolor here is in alizarin crimson, lemon yellow, ultramarine blue, Payne’s grey, and sepia. Again, being mindful of where I place my warm and cool tones. Then it’s back in with pencils. Then paint. Then pencils, then paint, then pencils, then… Is it done yet? *tweak tweak* How do I know when it’s done? I walk away for a few hours. Or overnight. If I come back and something sticks out, I fix it. If not, then it’s done.


[JM] How important is SCBWI to your artistic journey?

There’s nothing like finding your people when you’re in an industry that largely involves a solitary day-to-day routine. At the moment, I’m even serving my region, San Francisco South, as Illustrator Coordinator. My experiences with SCBWI, the people I’ve met and now call friends, the people who’ve given me encouragement, the people whom I’ve encouraged… I’m on the lookout for an agent and I’ve a few art directors in mind to target with my upcoming mailing. Most of whom I’ve met through SCBWI conferences. There’s no other organization quite like it.

[JM] What does your workspace look like? 

A mess! Cramped, too. Got my eye on something bigger, though it’ll be awhile. Living in a 1,000 sq ft Craftsman is a challenge. I don’t do as well in small spaces. Let’s see, the walls are a custom mixed white based on Palm White Crescent matt board, 2 combo spot lamps to minimize shadows on the work space from the overhead, which are warm/cool balanced light tubes. Windows to the left side of the table, since I’m right handed. This is the best possible setup for watercolor painting.

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

I don’t actually have a lot of wall space and the house is in renovation limbo, but here are a few. The old lady used to guard the thermostat in the farmhouse my husband rented back in PA before we were married. She comes from Spain. Over the years, I’ve occasionally given her a word balloon, and right now she doesn’t think much of the old smoke detector that the previous homeowner left behind. I love the Eggs, Cheep piece. It’s what makes that wallpaper tolerable! When we redo the kitchen, I plan to keep much of the wallpaper for art projects. So many things are art to me, like taxidermy. Here’s my otter, and my newest acquisition.

[JM] Do you have themes/characters/subjects you return to again and again?

 I do! They’re like old friends. But I do like making new friends, too.

Five Fun Ones to Finish?                                                                                                                 [JM] What’s your favorite park (state/urban..) in the world? 

My husband and I eloped in Yosemite, so that park has a special place in our hearts. I really want to go to Yellowstone. National Parks are a big deal to me. I love going camping. Any chance to get back with nature, I take. Living in an environment like Silicon Valley makes you really appreciate quiet, green surroundings all the more.

[JM] I love America’s National Parks, too, and would love to visit them all. Cats or dogs? 

Cats. Well…ex-cats. Jenga cats. I have a porch kitty who has no desire to be an indoor cat. According to neighbors, she’s at least 16 years old! I’ll have cats again. Maybe after the renovations. I’ve never had a dog. Been thinking about that. Bunnies and skunks (descented, thank you) are neat, too.

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

Unless the light is right, most people don’t seem to notice that my eyes are two different colors.

[JM] I’m gonna be looking now! What was your first paid job (besides babysitting)?

When I was fifteen, I worked at a plant nursery over the summer. Got an entire shipment of heat-scorched geraniums once. Guess who got to prune the entire truckload?

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

Coffee and a banana or a Quest chocolate chip cookie dough bar. Or 70% dark chocolate if I really need a brain chemical boost.

Thanks so much for sharing your art and journey with us, Sue, and all success in achieving your illustrator dreams.

Facebook and Instagram – Susan Rankin-Pollard
Twitter- @suerankinsays

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