Monday, November 30, 2020

Tossing Glitter for Alex Willan's 'Unicorns,' 'Jasper' Sequel, and 'Revver'

I was lucky enough to meet Chicago author-illustrator Alex Willan a few years back. It was at the 2016 Los Angeles conference of SCBWI, and when I saw his work, I knew he was destined for big things. Fast-forward to 2020, and Alex is celebrating the release of his second and third picture books AND his first middle-grade venture.

With the charming Unicorns Are the Worst! (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, September 2020), Alex has created a humorous and adorable world where magic is taken seriously but unicorns just aren't carrying their weight. It's up to a hard-working goblin to save the glitter-filled day. For the unicorn-loving readers in your life who, like me, cannot get enough of the horned heroes, this book is a must-read!

Alex's Jasper & Ollie Build a Fort (Doubleday Books for Young Readers, May 2020) is the sequel to his odd-couple story about the unlikely friendship between an impatient fox and a thoughtful sloth, Jasper & Ollie (May 2019).

And with Revver the Speedway Squirrel (Bloomsbury, October 2020), Alex teams up with best-selling and beloved Chicago-area author Sherri Duskey Rinker to illustrate the adorable story of Revver, a little squirrel with big dreams to drive a race car.

QUESTION: You’ve published three books this year! How busy has your life been lately? Can you describe your creative process, especially juggling three projects?

ALEX WILLAN: Things have definitely been busy for me lately, but I couldn't be more grateful for these opportunities. Thankfully I was able to rotate through each project without too much overlap. I could send in artwork for Jasper & Ollie Build a Fort and then, while I was waiting to get feedback on that work, I could start sketching out Unicorns are the Worst! And once I was ready to send in the latest round of artwork on Unicorns, I could switch over to sketching on Revver the Speedway Squirrel. I usually find the beginning stages of a project to be the most creative part. Nothing has been decided yet, so you can just let your imagination run wild. Whereas the later stages are more focused on execution. In that sense, I found that jumping back and forth between projects helped to keep me in that creative mindset throughout.

Q: Illustrating a manuscript must be great fun. Writing and illustrating a manuscript must be a kick! Can you compare pros and cons of each?

AW: That was actually the other wonderful thing about all of these projects was that they were each so different. The challenge in writing and illustrating a new picture book idea (like with Unicorns) is that you have a limited amount of space with which to introduce your audience to a whole new world and an unfamiliar cast of characters. Working on a follow up to a previous book (like Jasper & Ollie Build a Fort) has its own challenges because you want to write something that seems true to the characters you have already established, but still feels like a fresh, new idea that could stand on its own, even if you haven't read the first book. 

Working on Revver was not only my first time illustrating someone else’s text (which was written by the incredible Sherri Duskey Rinker), but it was also my first time illustrating a middle-grade novel. But I think that the biggest pro for each of these projects was the challenges they posed. I don't think that it would be very rewarding to work on a project if it didn't challenge you in some way.

Q: All three books are so charming. What did you enjoy most about the projects. Glitter? Cranky goblins? Studying squirrels?

AW: Thank you so much! I had a lot fun working on each of these projects. The first time I got to see the actual glitter on the cover of Unicorns are the Worst! was definitely a highlight, but I think the most enjoyable part of working on any book is having it out in the world and getting to see how kids react to it. The pandemic has obviously changed all the ways in which you would normally be able to interact with your audience, but whether it’s a virtual school visit, a socially distanced sidewalk signing, or just hearing from a parent online about how much their kid enjoyed one of your books, that is the most rewarding part for me.

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