PB&J Episode: Interview with Christopher Silas Neal \
Corrie: Hello and welcome to an interview series by the Picture Bookstagang Crew, Picture Books & Justice is a series where we interview a creator from the picture book world and get to know them a little better. To us there’s nothing better than a beautiful spellbinding picture book that has social justice themes. The picture book world is a big beautiful place, and we are excited to hear different experiences and opinions in a shorter time frame than our full length picture bookstagang episodes. PB&J is your afternoon book snack, so let’s dig in!
0:28 C:Hey everyone, future Corrie here I wanted to give everyone a little bit of background on our awesome guest this week author and illustrator Christopher Silas Neal. Christopher Silas Neal is an award winning author and illustrator of picture books including, “Over and Under the Snow” with author Kate Messner which was praised for its “Stunning retro style illustrations” by the New York Times. A long with “Over and Under the Pond” and “Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt” he makes books that feature animals, shapes, science, friendship and silliness. And strives to create diverse and inclusive characters that reflect the kids and parents who read his books, Neil’s author debut titled “Everyone” was praised by publisher’s Weekly as “Simple, honest, lyrical” his board book series “Animal Colours, Animal Shapes” Received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. He speaks about his books, the art making process, and his career, at schools, conferences, and book conferences across America. Christopher Silas Neil is a Mexican/European American artist who lives with his wife and two boys in Brooklyn New York. All that information I just stated can be found on his website which will be linked in the show notes. Also stay tuned for my full review of his most recent Over and Under book in the series which takes place in the rainforest, it is of course a delight and I love it. I’m also a huge fan of his illustrations in “Hurry Up!” A book about slowing down. I hope you enjoy this interview which was an amazing experience, and we even chatted for a bit after the recording was finished, telling secrets obviously. Some of my favourite bits of the episode was hearing how much Chris’s schedule has changed during the pandemic which I think will resonate with all the parents juggling their children’s education and their own careers at the same time. And also when some really aggressive birds take up residence outside my window and on that note I hope you enjoy this episode.
2:21 C: Hi everyone this is Corrie from the Picture Bookstagang podcast and today I actually have the pleasure of speaking with Christopher SIlas Neal! Hello! How are you today?
2:30 N: I’m good thanks, thanks for having me.
C: Oh my pleasure we absolutely love your art in my house so It was like a dream to be able to chat with you.
2:42 N: oh thanks for saying so.
2:45 C: Of course so I guess we’ll jump right into it, and I would love it if you could talk about why you got into art and maybe your process of when you’re creating it.
2:56 N: So how I got into art and became an illustrator is a story, and basically, well interesting to me, as a kid, like most kids I drew all the time, loved to draw pictures loved to make art even when I got into video games I would spend time drawing and creating my own video games on paper I would draw movie characters, comic book characters, so I loved to draw. And I also loved music, I’m a drummer.
N: Yeah, so I played music all throughout my child hood and high school and I ended up going to school for music after I graduated high school and studied percussion with very last semester of my final year of school, I took a graphic design elective. This was in 1999 and websites were just starting to pop up and become popular and so, on my own I had done a little bit about HTML websites, and just thought, in addition to being a musician, you know maybe I could start looking into some sort of creative field and perhaps graphic design or advertising or web design. And I took this design elective and the, the teacher of the class gave me a job after the semester.
4:30 C Woah! That’s cool.
N: Yeah, it was a really great opportunity for me, I really didn’t know much for whatever reason he saw something he thought there would be an opportunity there so I worked for him three or four years learning about graphic design on the job so that’s basically my art education.
4:54 C: That’s so cool I love that you squeaked it in right under the graduation wire that’s serendipitous.
5:03 N: And this was in Denver Colorado, that’s where I was going to school. I grew up in many places but when I was thirteen I moved to Denver COlorado, so I went to high school there. So after a few years of working at this small studio, I decided to move to new york, and there wasn’t any real reason to move to new york, I just wanted a change I wanted to try living in the big city and when I moved to new york I started meeting these creators and i thought I wanna do that, what do you do? I met an illustrator named Rachel Solomon who does a lot of work for magazines, and she’s also a painter and sculptor and she said “this is what you do. You create a portfolio based on things you putting in magazines, you send postcards to art directors, and you make a website.” And I just did all those things and became and illustrator it really happens, she just laid it out so simply. And I tried my best to emulate it and it sort of worked.
C: I Love that. I love the idea that you don’t need formal schooling and secondary education to get into a career you know? You can sort of create a community and everybody can lean on each other and mentor each other, I think that’s really cool
6:37 N: Yeah that is my favourite thing about being an illustrator and picture book author is that there are no official rules on how to do it. You don’t have to go to school, everyone comes into it their own way, but there’s no official way. Many people go to art school many people writing or literature or something at a college, but it’s not necessary it’s not like being a lawyer or a doctor or an architect where you need certifications..thankfully so for doctors.
7:14: C Seriously.
N: But yeah anyone can do it it just depends on having access to and being exposed to illustration in that way and having the space and time to work on it.
7:27 C: Would you say your family encouraged artistic expression growing up? Or is that something you found in this community after you moved to New York?
N: I would say my family definitely did. I grew up with my mom, single mom, she had me when I was really young and we moved around a lot, we didn’t always have a lot of money so there was a lot of instability in my life. But at the same time, I learned a lot of things from her and one of the things was “because we are moving around because she was younger, she didn’t have a nine to five job and she did different things to make ends meet you know? She would be a nanny, she taught at my preschool when I went to preschool, she would just do things here and there and it taught me you don’t have to have a nine to five and I think that allowed me to have that mental framework of “oh I can just be an artist and make ends meet putting things together’ and also she is creative in her own way. She is really good, I Would say, in an alternate life she oculd be an interior decorator, she makes her own furniture and decorates her house, and repurposes things, and does all of the labour too, like she’s really good at that stuff so she’s a really creative person.
8:49 C: I can draw a lot of parallels from what you just described about your life with my life as well which is really neat. And I would totally describe my mom the same way. One of the most creative crafty people that I’ve ever met and definitely not afraid to hustle to get it odne. So.
9:07 N: Yeah definitely thats’ a good word for it, there was definitely hustle going on.
C:I guess returning a little more about your art, when you’re illustrating books that are non fiction like “over and under the rainforest” that just camera out, is your process any different than when you were, say, illustrating “Hurry Up”? Or another fiction book?
9:34 N: Yeah, the process is different, and the process is basically a reference. So when I’m doing a non-fiction book there’s a lot more photographs like references happening and making sure things have a certain amount of accuracy or look a certain way. So for the books that I do with Kate Messner, the over and under series, even though my art isn’t realisting by any means at all, there’s still a lot of scientific accuracy that goes into them and we actually chronicle books has a scientist and a fact checker look over my art and just make comment on things like the body language the flora, various little nods to make sure they’re accurate within my own way of making art and so none of that happens when I do a fiction book. I just sort of do it the way I want to do it.
10:36 C: That job at Chronicle sounds so fun, I had no idea that that was an option for a scientist to work in publishing but that sounds so rad, that’s super cool.
10:48 N: Yeah, it is super cool they’re hired as a consultant, so I don’t know if they do all of Chronicle’s books, or if the consultants do other books? I should ask more about that? I am assuming it’s more of a side thing and they’re either a writer or a scientist also but these people have this expert knowledge and they consult with Chronicle books or at least our books.
11:13 C: Chronicle if you’re listening I need to know more, please tell me more. What does a typical day look like for you?
11:21 N: Ah, well, now that we’re in the middle of the pandemic.
C: It is still happening yes.
N: My typical day has shifted quite a bit. And. I would say you know, making books and making art has definitely taken a back seat to taking care of my kids and, so I’m married and my spouse also works full time and so we’re both equally putting our job on the backseat and just working when we can. A typical day for me is I wake up, I make coffee, I make my kids breakfast, they are already on their Ipads playing video games, and so I make breakfast I do a little bit of exercise, and then I hop on the laptop with my kids and I help facilitate remote learning and I have a four year old and a seven year old. And so, for the four year old that is a lot of singing and looking at shapes and things like that. And then for my seven year old there’s a few back and forth questions with the teacher and then there’s learning apps that he uses so after, the remote learning we keep pretty small we don’t often do a lot of stuff we just do the bare minimum, and then then we do our own sort of curriculum with the kids and so my spouse does an art class with the kids, I take the boys out front and we grab our skateboards and we learn how to skateboard. Sometimes we’ll research random things and learn about it so the other day we learned about how bubble gum is made.
N: Yeah so basically she and I are off and on with the kids until the afternoon then I get a couple hours of work.
N: Then I make dinner for the kids and we’re back to dinner for the kids and back to playing all that and bedtime.
C: That sounds like a very full jam packed day! I used to be a classroom teacher as well I used to teach four and fiver year olds and then ran like a science club for first and second graders so I know what you’re in, I know what you’re deep in. It sounds super fun though I like that you’re sort of following their lead with the inquiry learning, so valuable.
13:51 N: We’re trying our best, our 7 year old is very resistant to remote learning, it’s excruciating with them sometimes for them, and for us, the whole household knows he doesn’t like it so it’s a challenge and we do try to let him lead as much as possible without him just playing video games all day. Like how can we get him to engage in something else? And have it be his choice you know? For a little bit.
14:19 C: Yeah I think that’s a very common struggle across many households all over the place. When you do get that couple good hours of working do you find that it’s easier to concentrate on you know making the art and designing? Or do you feel like “oh…now I can have a break…” Sort of ?
14:42 N: Yeah that’s a good question, well it’s definitely less luxurious than in the past before the pandemic I have a studio space so I would go to the studio space after my morning routine and you know I could work on something for an hour and then take a break and then read something and then work on something else and then eat lunch and it was…you know, it was a 6 to 8 hour day but ti was broken up and I had so much alone time which for me I really enjoy. And so yeah that’s gone obviously. So now when I get that two hours in the afternoon sometimes it really is focused and easy to work and it’s like wow I really just got a ton done in that two hours a whole days worth of work, and sometimes I just have trouble concentrating and I work for an hour on something and it’s like everything I worked on is not working at all and I have to start over and I can’t even do it, I just need to watch something on you tube or scroll the internet because it’s just not working or just go see what my kids are up to. So it can be a struggle. On those days when it’s frustrating it’s just like well this isn’t working, yeah, it can be really frustrating but on the days when everything locks in and I’m in what they call flow state, and get there really quickly that’s really nice.
C: Yeah that must be really nice and really rewarding to be able to look back and have a physical representation that’s probably a little more gratifying than a giant spreadsheets, but I dunno maybe people really like looking at giant spreadsheets that they made. I”m not.l I guess just switching to thinking about talking about the publishing industry in general, do you think that we’re going to start to see shifts in what’s coming out of the publishing industry or how the publishing industry operates because of the last six or seven months?
16:44 N: Are you referring to the pandemic and people working at home?
C: I think …I mean I know, I am generally referring to both the pandemic and that we’ve seen so much social upheaval and very long overdue renewed interest in different social movements like BLM Black LIves Matter and more widespread protesting.
17:10 N: Yeah, right so that racial unrest and all the protests. That is a very hard question to answer.
17:20 C: Hard hitting journalism here.
17:23 N: I can say I think a lot of people in publishing want things to change, and are doing their part the best way they know how to make things change in terms of just specific things like having a more representation for Black readers and Black authors and African American Communities you know? That’s gonna take more structural change to make that happen. You know one of the things we haven’t seen yet is a huge shift from the top down in publishing.
18:01 N: So for instance, I would say 90% of the editors and art directors I work with are white women. So that is the demographic and so until that diversifies a little bit…I think that’s one of the next steps is adding more diversity to the publishing and the gatekeepers and the people that are buying manuscripts. Setting the course for the publishing where the books are headed you know some of those big picture things, I think that’s something that needs to happen.
C: Yeah I agree with you. I don’t know if you ever get a chance to look at Lee and Low does a survey of the publishing industry every few years and they did one last year and it’s really interesting to see the different demographics that are in the publishing industry and exactly like you said. I think this might not be the exact percentage but I think it’s 78% of the people who work in publishing are white, cis gender, heterosexual women. Similar to education you see this monolith of white women, which calling out for anyone who doesn’t know what I look like, I am a white cis woman, but I also think it’s important that we name it and that we know how to make these changes exactly what you’re referring to.
19:35 N: Yeah and again it’s not, heh, there’s, it’s not an easy answer. I mean, adding more diversity to the workplace sounds easy but it just, you know, even if we did that there would be other things that we have to unlock that smarter people are talking about to make all of the changes happen, that just one thing that, that I can name. That would be a good…but it seems like, there is a more interest in having at least in children’s book publishing there’s more interest in authors of colour, queer authors, things like that, so, and bringing all of those voices together more, that’s what it seems like to me from what I’m seeing, from the media I consume, the Instagram feed, all the books that people are celebrating.
N: It seems more diverse I don’t have any hard numbers on what’s selling, or what people are actually reading.
C: Yeah. Me neither. I would love’em. Send out the data my way I wanna investigate. So Chris what’s your biggest pieces advice to anybody about their bookshelf?
20:50 N: Wel lI would say as a dad, one of the biggest things is to let kids really decide what they wanna read and let them sort of drive you know? Drive the car. In terms of what’s on their bookshelf and of course the younger the kid is the less op[portunity they have to make those choices in which case look for those diverse lists. To get a diversity and the authors that they read, course classics, as they get older they will start to make decisions on what they wanna read and it’s not gonna look like what you want it to look like hahah ,and you know, you’re gonna it’s one of those things where kids they always Zig when you Zag so you build up the expectations “Oh I can’t wait to show them this book” Or I can’t wait to do this thing when it comes to that moment, oh check out this thing they’re like ‘oh. No thanks” and that’s it; and you kind of have to let go of some of those expectations and just let them drive.
21:52 C: For sure, so many moments in the classroom when I was the most jazzed to do an activity or read a book and instead it digress into a twenty minute conversation about something equally as cool but about something as cool but about something I did not anticipate would be equally as cool. Fascinating. I love how those tiny little brains work.
N: yeah Kids are pretty ruthless with what books they like or don’t like. So I’ll do a book festival and kids will come up to my table to look at my book and perhaps get one and have one signed and you know, they’re not afraid to say “you know. I don’t like this book, it doesn’t look good.” hah, it’s like okay. Good.
C:They are ruthless. What were some of the best books that you’ve read so far this year.
22:47 N:Some of my favourite books are books that I’ve read with my 7 year old and it’s the “Jedi Academy” Series.
C: I’ve never heard of this series.
N: So the first three books are written by a comic artist named Jeffrey Brown and the premise is that it’s kids that are middle school, maybe high school age and they’re going to jedi academy but the experience all these sort of real world things so it’s almost like if freaks and geeks met Star Wars.
C: I love that description.
N: Yeah so the kids they go to school they meet new friends, there’s a bully, there’s another kid that the main character likes and has a crush on there’s too much homework you know? There’s. The younger brother. SIbling type of stuff. You know, it’s really it’s really a fun read and I love Star Wars so it’s a fun way to bring in this geeky star wars stuff. And I love Freaks and Geeks so it was fun to bring both of those in and my seven year old loved them.
C: Nice that sounds like such a unique way to take something so embedded in our pop culture and then bring in aspects of social emotional learning and different things like that that they’re gonna experience in school.
N: Yeah and it was interesting because there are a lot of things that happen in the story that I don’t talk about with my seven year old especially when it’s like the crush develops and they’re talking about what a boyfriend is and a girlfriend and all that kind of stuff and I can ask him, well do you know what a boyfriend and do you know what a girlfriend is? I can ask him these types of questions.
C: Did you read any other awesome books this year, or are you all consumed with the Jedi academy series which sounds awesome.
N: Right now I’m all consumed with the Jedi academy series.
C: Yeah. Judgement free zone. Live your best Jedi life. So thank you Chris for chatting with me today, I won’t take up any more of your precious alone time, so you can scroll Instagram or draw a picture whichever your brain and your soul needs right now. But thank you for taking the time out of your day to chat with me, and share your thoughts with our podcast listeners.
N: Thanks for having me, it was a great time.