Illustrator Interview – Sergio Ruzzier

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Sergio and his former intern.

If you ever get a chance to go to the Princeton Children’s Book Festival, do go. Illustrators and authors come from far and wide, not just the New York/New Jersey region. Amongst many other  fabulous creatives I got see Segio Ruzzier this year, reading from his two most recent books, BEAR AND BEE and HAVE YOU SEEN MY NEW BLUE SOCKS? I was giggling along with all the kids at this whimsical humor. You all know my love of illustrators and Italy, so I just had to invite Sergio onto the blog today.

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

[SG] Sometimes I write and illustrate, some other times I illustrate other writers’ stories. I don’t have one invariable way of beginning: it changes from book to book. Most of the times, the two things develop together. I make picture books, after all, in which pictures and words should complement each other in a harmonious way. When you are illustrating someone else’s text, then you have to interpret the story so that it couldn’t exist anymore without your drawings. You want that book to be a new, indivisible creature.

[JM] What’s your nationality and how has this influenced your work?

[SG] I was born and grew up in Milan, Italy. I’m not sure how that influenced my way of drawing. For sure much of my reference comes from Italian medieval frescoes and miniatures, but I have been influenced by so many other works as well, like Flemish paintings or early American comic strips.

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

[SG] As a kid I loved comic strips. That was what I wanted to do and what happened to be my first published work, when I was 19. But, even if I did that for a few years, I wasn’t able to make a living out of it, so, still in Milan, I worked in bookstores and libraries.

In ’94 I came to New York for a brief vacation, brought some of my drawings along, and went to visit Paul Davis, the famous illustrator. He was incredibly kind and welcoming, and set me up an appointment with the art director of The New Yorker magazine. To my delight, she asked me to do an illustration for them, which I did in my rented room in the Upper West Side, borrowing a friend of a friend of a friend’s watercolors. A few months later I came back with a more focused portfolio and was able to get a few more commissions from magazines and newspapers. At that point, I decided to move here and managed to survive as an illustrator. Breaking into the children’s book world was a bit more difficult: my personal work made a lot of editors uncomfortable. I still keep some of the rejection letters. Here’s an excerpt from a typical one: “I want to be frank with you: I don’t feel that your work is suitable for children. It is powerful material, no question about that. But there is a disturbing, violent quality to it that precludes children’s books, in my opinion.”  It was quite discouraging, as one can imagine. But one day I showed my stuff to Peter Sís, who generously sent me to Frances Foster, the wonderful editor who started my career in children’s books.

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

[SG] Pen & ink and watercolors. I very rarely experiment with other techniques. I just wrote a piece for the Horn Book (it will appear early next year), in which I tell of my relationship with that medium.

[JM] How does the approach to illustrating nonfiction differ from illustrating fiction?

[SG] When you are working on a non-fictional text it’s very difficult to be original and personal, I find. There are glaring exceptions, of course: I think of Robert Byrd or John O’Brien, who both do dazzling, very imaginative work, or, in a more subtle but highly sophisticated way, my friend Brian Floca.

[JM] What does your workspace look like? 

[SG] I share a studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn, NY with four other author/illustrators: Sophie Blackall, Eddie Hemingway, John Bemelmans Marciano, and the above-mentioned Brian Floca. It’s a big, open space that we have subdivided with bookshelves and desks. I work very well there.


A panorama of the shared studio. From left: Sergio, Brian Floca, Sophie Blackall, Edward Hemingway, and John Bemelmans Marciano.


Sergio and his Victorian inkwell stand, gift of his girlfriend Karen.


Gowanus! Sergio on the rooftop of his studio.

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


The dummy sketch of the snow spread for “A Letter for Leo,” published by Clarion Books (Fall 2014).


Pencil drawing.


Finished and designed spread.


The Cover

A LETTER FOR LEO will be published by Clarion in the fall of 2014.

[JM] How is your worked received in other nations?

[SG] Two of my own books (“Amandina” and “The Room of Wonders”) were recently published in Japan, which makes me very happy. Other books I have illustrated have been translated into French, Catalan, Portuguese, Chinese, German…

[JM] Who are some of your big influences?

[SG] In random order: Hieronymus Bosch, Maurice Sendak, George Herriman, Alfred Kubin, Simone Martini, Arnold Lobel, Charles Schulz, Edward Gorey, and old prints.

[JM] Any tips for those just setting out in this field?
[SG] Such a tricky question. I don’t think I can give a generic answer that would work for everybody. Maybe this: keep the rejection notes. They are painful when they are fresh, but after a few years they might become amusing.

Five Fun Ones to Finish?
[JM] If you could live anywhere for a season, where would you go?

[SG]  Moominland in midwinter.

[JM] If you could spend a day with one children’s book illustrator, dead or alive, with whom would that be?

[SG] I have had the great fortune of spending a month with Maurice Sendak as one of the four 2011 Sendak Fellows [Link: ]. Only a few months later, he passed away. It would be wonderful if I could spend a few more hours chatting and walking with him.

[JM] Cats or dogs?

[SG] Cats, dogs, mice, rabbits, marabous, bears, bees, ducks, worms, cockroaches, weasels, camels…
[JM] Which literary bad guy do you like the most?

[SG] Ignatz the Mouse, maybe.

[JM] Where can we find/follow you and your work?

[JM]  If you ever make it to Moominland in the winter, please contact me and I will join you. How wonderful that you were able to spend time with the likes of Maurice Sendak, Peter Sis and your colleagues in your studio. New York is just amazing isn’t it for such encounters. Segio, thank you for sharing with us today and I wish you continued success in your writing and illustrating. Thanks for persevering beyond the rejections!


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12 Responses to Illustrator Interview – Sergio Ruzzier

  1. Julie says:

    This is a phrase I will plaster on the wall – “you have to interpret the story so that it couldn’t exist anymore without your drawings” – great stuff! I have admired Sergio Ruzzier’s work since I first saw a New Yorker illo, can’t remember when that was, but it reminded me of the art from a PB I once picked up in the former DDR (wish I’d had the smarts to get more at the time). Anyway, if I find the book in my stacks, I’ll post a msg to you both! Great interview, Joanna and Sergio!

  2. Joanna says:

    Yes, do, if you find that old PB. I love hearing an illustrator’s perspective on creating a picture book! Thanks for your comments for Sergio.

  3. I would love to read the Horn Book article about Sergio’s relationship with his medium of choice. I have a long, ambivalent history with watercolors myself. 😉 I would also like to know how he feels about everyone (practically) around him using digital media.

    I just want you to know, Joanna, that your illustrator interviews feed my creative soul! Thank you! xo

  4. Joanna says:

    Thanks so much for your sweet words for Sergio and my illustrator interviews, Teresa.

  5. It’s that Italian medieval frescoes and miniatures, Flemish paintings, American comic strips have had such an influence in Sergio’s work. As well as authors like Sendak. Can’t imagine what it was like to spend time with Sendak before he passed. Great interview — I always love reading them. It’s awesome that he shares space with other authors/illustrators.

  6. Sergio R. says:

    Thank you very much for the kind comments!

    As I said, pen&ink and watercolors are my personal favorite, but I don’t have anything against any other techniques. The only thing about digital work, is that it’s very easy to abuse the medium, as many illustrators unfortunately do. At the same time, some artists handle it beautifully. I think of Lane Smith, for example. It’s never the medium’s fault!

    The article I wrote for the Horn Book should appear in their March/April issue, I think.

    One thing I forgot to add, is that the designer of “A Letter for Leo” is Christine Kettner at Clarion.

    Thanks again to Joanna and everyone!

  7. Great interview, Miss Marple! I learned a lot about Mr. Ruzzier! 🙂

  8. Pingback: Bear and Bee – Perfect Picture Book Friday | Miss Marple's Musings

  9. Rhythm says:

    This is a great interview. I really like Mr Ruzzier’s work. And I’ll bet that studio is a fun place to be!! I think they need a dog under one of those tables!

  10. Pingback: A Letter for Leo – Perfect Picture Book Friday | Miss Marple's Musings

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