The cover for Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland

The cover for Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland


“A very brief history of the computer before 1975.” A final spread for Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland. “Throughout the book I have spreads that show what was new for the younger generation. (Click to enlarge.)

“In the early 70’s powerful computers are huge. The ginormous computer shown here would hold only eight megabytes of memory. In 2015 64,000 megabytes fit in a cell phone. So wild, huh?” (Click to enlarge.)

When we visited Jessie Hartland’s home and studio a little over 2 years ago, she was working on a picture book biography of Steve Jobs. Well that book just came out a few months ago, not as a picture book but as an accessible and engaging 240-page graphic novel for adults and teens called Steve Jobs: Insanely Great. We met up again recently to discuss the process.

Robin: When did you decide to write a biography of Steve Jobs?

Jessie: Two and a half years ago. I was trying to think of who I wanted to write about and then he died. I just decided right then and there. I went out to the newsstand and picked up everything about him that I could. I got the Isaacson book which of course I’ve used. It’s a great book. There’s this one chapter about Silicon Valley, growing up in the 60’s, and the whole music of the era and it’s so great.  


“I did a lot of visual research with primary sources.”


More research materials.

Robin: Did you pitch the idea to your editor first or did you show her a dummy?

The original Apple 1 computer created in 1976. Photo by Ed Uthman

The original Apple 1 computer created in 1976. Photo by Ed Uthman

Jessie: I just pitched the idea to Schwartz & Wade and they went for it. I think they pictured it as being like the Julia Child book, in color and much shorter. They wanted me to end at the Apple 1. I was struggling with that because that’s not what he’s famous for. I really looked into it and found out in detail everything he had done. He had like five careers in one relatively short lifetime. There was some back and forth and I said, you know, I really want to write about his whole life.

We decided to do a graphic novel for teenagers but the book just kept growing and growing. An editor at Pantheon, which is also part of Random House, suggested it should be for adults and that it would trickle down to teenagers and middle graders.

Schwartz & Wade is a children’s imprint and this is the first adult book that they have ever published because it started as a children’s book but turned into an adult book. I like that we’re aiming for adults actually. I’m hoping this book will be for people who are interested in Steve Jobs but don’t want to read a 600-page book.

Robin: Did you have to rewrite much of the text to change the voice from middle grade to adult?

Jessie: Not that much changed. I wasn’t dumbing it down so much. Some definitions came out, like defining “CEO” and “bootleg.”

Steve Jobs: Insanely Great covers in French and Dutch.

Steve Jobs: Insanely Great covers in French and Dutch. (Click to enlarge.)

Robin: So this is a complete biography?

Jessie: Yes, from beginning to end. It’s been licensed in 13 foreign markets.  

Robin: That’s fantastic. The book is all hand-lettered. Do they have artists who are redrawing your words in different languages?

Jessie: No, they had a typeface of my handwriting created. John Martz did it and he did a really good job. He had me do many versions of each letter. Originally I had offered to handwrite all of [the different language editions] actually but they thought I was nuts.

Robin: Did you start with a manuscript and then do the drawings?

Jessie:  I hear about how other people write first but that’s not the way that I think. I think in pictures and words at the same time because I want to also think about what makes the best image. It definitely goes hand in hand.

[CAPTION: I work with a book like this, this is a really great kind of book because you can move the pages around so when I need a little bit more about his childhood I can add more pages.]

Sketches from Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland. “I work with a [3-ring] book like this because you can move the pages around. When I need a little bit more about his childhood I can add more pages.” (Click to enlarge.)

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My two new favorite erasers: dust-gathering (red), light-erasing (blue).

I was recently ordering some of my favorite nibs. As every online retailer knows, I’m going to fill my cart to get the free shipping. So I still had a ways to go and noodled around the website thinking of all the future art supplies I could possibly need. The “dust-gathering” listing intrigued me so I clicked on this Pentel Ain eraser. Somehow, my scans are always covered in erasures that I fail to brush off before scanning — even when I think I really took my time and did a good job. When I see the scan it somehow looks diseased with all the microscopic debris leaving me with a lot of cleaning up to do in Photoshop.


The Pentel “dust-gathering” eraser. Can you see the few large clumps? (click to enlarge)

Excited by the possibility of a dust-gathering eraser, I thought, what more can I be missing? And then I found this Pentel Ain eraser described as “light-erasing”. Sometimes I get carried away erasing and press too hard trying to get rid of every stubborn pencil mark peeking out from under an inked line. Often times I damage the paper. When I tested this light-erasing one out I was amazed by how little pressure I needed to effectively remove the line without damaging the paper.

I find the dust-gathering and light-erasing both do the trick. The dust-gathering really works, there are few clumps that are easy to brush away and often the clump just remains on the eraser head itself. Both erasers are inordinately better than any erasers I used in the past and I liked my old Staedtler!

Oh and I also bought scissors with a special coating so they don’t get sticky and weird when you cut tape! Japan really is ahead of the game with these art tools!

After all that erasing, here's my final piece: Bounce!

After all that erasing, here’s my final piece: Bounce! (Thanks to SCBWI for the new illustrator prompt!)


The cover for A World of Your Own by Laura Carlin.

The cover for A World of Your Own by Laura Carlin.

Laura Carlin’s work is sensitive, thoughtful, and beautiful. You’ve probably seen her illustrations for The Promise, by Nicola Davies and for The Iron Giant, by Ted Hughes. She also creates fantastic editorial work for publications like The New York Times and creates beautiful ceramics. With her author-illustrator debut, A World of Your Own, Laura adds a nice dose of humor to the mix. Today she tells us all about it.


Hometown: Hertfordshire

Now lives in: London

Tools of the trade: colored pencils, watercolors, acrylics. I’m inconsistent with what I buy. It depends on my finances as to the quality of the tools!

Illustration idols/creative influences: Picasso, Andre FrancoisClementine Hunter, Paul Klee, Alfred Wallis, Barbara Hepworth, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Gone with the Wind, West Side Story…

Workspace: At home and in a studio in Camberwell, South London.

Pets: In my head I’ve got about 40 kittens.

Favorite children’s book
…as a child: Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs
…as an adult: Would You Rather? by John Burningham

Favorite thing to read: Slightly depressing American books written in the 40s/50s.

Favorite thing(s) to listen to while illustrating: Radio 4/Magic FM

A World of Your Own by Laura Carlin.: A final illustration for a building filled with

A World of Your Own by Laura Carlin: A final illustration for a building filled with “rooms for all of the people and animals I’d want to live near.” (Click to enlarge.)

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Endpapers from Sweaterweather (click to enlarge)

Endpapers from Sweaterweather (click to enlarge)

Author/illustrator Sara Varon is one of my all time favorites! From her color palette and quiet humor, her touching characters and story lines, her books welcome us into her world which is a pretty great place to be.

I’m so happy she agreed to be my first face-to-face interview. One chilly night we met for snacks in Brooklyn. Here is what we talked about:

The Dirt on Sara Varon:

Caffeine of choice: Iced tea (I hope that’s not too old lady-ish of me)

YouTube video you can’t stop watching: I’m a Luddite and I rarely watch YouTube

Hometown: Suburban Illinois

Sara Varon's tools:  ink, eraser, pencil and brush

Sara Varon’s tools: ink, eraser, pencil and brush

Now lives in: Brooklyn

Tools of the trade: Ink, brush, paper, Photoshop

Favorite thing to read: I just love a great story, in any form – novels, picture books, short stories, fiction, or non-fiction

Favorite food: Baked goods!

Most prized tchotchke: Oh, there are too many to list.

Cat or dog: Uh, dog, hands down.

 Favorite children’s book
…as a child: the Frances books by Russell Hoban, Richard Scarry books

…as an adult: Some favorite graphic novels are the Aya books by Clement Oubrerie and Marguerite Abouet, The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar, and Moomin and the Golden Tail by Tove Janssen

Ruthie: What technique do you use to do your final color?

Sara: I draw on paper, with a brush and ink. Then scan it and color with Photoshop.

Ruthie: What kind of paper?

Sara: Whatever is cheap. For freelance work and thumbnails, I just use Xerox paper. But for books, if it’s something important, I use Bristol, but nothing fancy. For the ink I always use Dr. Ph. Martin’s Black Star. It’s the best.

Ruthie: Are you drawings little?

Sara: I usually draw at 150%. I think most people draw bigger and reduce. Then you don’t see the mistakes. It looks really clean at the smaller size. And the math is easy. Read More

Robin Rosenthal Rooster Wakes up

A new piece for my portfolio, based on feedback from SCBWI-LA. ©Robin Rosenthal

For the past few months I’ve been working on new pieces for my portfolio based on the amazing feedback I received at the 2014 SCBWI LA Summer Conference. (I was one of six illustrators who received the SCBWI Mentorship Award, and I got to meet individually with six mentors who each gave me guidance on my work. It. Was. Awesome. Read more about my experience here.)

More than one mentor told me to forget about words for now. I should think in pictures and create wordless stories. Don’t think about a whole book. Think of an episode or a paragraph. This concept of letting the images lead the storytelling, and of choosing smaller stories to tell with those images, has been very liberating for me.

I do not currently have a particular story dummy in the works so I need to come up with some smaller narratives to illustrate. To get myself going, I’ve compiled a list of ideas—collected and expanded upon from past class assignments, fellow illustrators, and published picture books—and I’ve shared them below.


Illustrate a few scenes from a historical or current event that interests you.
Some books for inspiration: Shackleton’s Journey by William Grill, Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum and City Hawk: The Story of Pale Male by Meghan McCarthy, How the Meteorite Got to the Museum by Jessie Hartland.

Make a mini-biography of a friend or famous person.
A while back, I wrote about Mark Todd and Esther Pearl Watson who created these really cool ‘zines of their family and friends. Some more inspiration: The “I am…” series, including I am Rosa Parks, and I am Amelia Earhart written by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos, Malala, a Brave Girl… by Jeanette Winter.

Think about your own childhood and illustrate an important memory or feeling. In The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children, Nancy Lamb includes a great page of prompts to get you thinking about your past.

Eavesdrop on your kids and write down what they say. Illustrate those quotes.

Find a picture in a magazine—like National Geographic or a travel magazine—that inspires you and create a story around it. What happens next? (idea via Jeslyn Kate Cantrell.)

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(click to enlarge) page spread illustrated by Emanuele Luzzati from Italo Calvino’s: Il visconte dimezzato.

I recently went back to Italy, almost ten years after I had left it. That’s a long story I won’t bore you with now, but one of the things I missed most was browsing in European book stores. Books feel more beautiful over there, the thick paper (often textured), well-illustrated covers of every kind of book (no photos from movies that came after the books), and many different sizes and shapes of paperback novels. Every book is begging for you to touch it and flip through it, which is probably why they often come sealed in plastic wrap, with just one copy unwrapped in front for me to play with.


(click to enlarge)

I was on the hunt for children’s books by Italian authors illustrated by Italians. Something I noticed in the children’s book section was that there were few picture books but many shelves of chapter books (of all reading levels) with lush illustrations. I have theories on why this is: with all its idiosyncrasies, English takes much longer to form than Italian; that fact plus a mix of cultural and publishing practices provide for some pretty great chapter book options. I love how many illustrations are included in these books, how the texts melds with them, that they are in color and often harbor glorious full page spreads.

At a delicious dinner at our friends’ home, I was lucky enough to spend some time with Sofia, a very bright 9 year old who patiently showed me all her books from when she was young to what she is currently reading. She answered all my questions and introduced me to several books I didn’t know, including ones by the author Roberto Piumini. C’era una volta, ascolta is a lovely collection of stories by Mr. Piumini, illustrated by Nicoletta Costa. I love the texture she creates with her patterns and the humor Ms. Costa conveys.

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Recently I got a chance to talk with Dan Santat about his latest picture book, The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend. There are so many things I love about this book and Dan generously gave me some serious inside scoop. Scroll on for a detailed behind-the-scenes look into the making of this beautiful and thoughtful story.

Robin: I saw the book trailer for Beekle before I saw the book and loved it. Beekle is totally ready for the movies!

Dan: Thank you! My agent, Jodi Reamer at Writers House, shopped Beekle around and DreamWorks actually optioned the book before I got the book contract. A lot of film companies inquire at Writers House to see what kind of properties they have. They requested to see me because they had seen a picture book I had done a few years back. We finally had a chance to meet and I pitched the idea for this book. They liked it and then two weeks later they made an offer.

Robin:That’s so cool!  What is your role going to be in the movie?  

Dan: I’m solely a creative consultant. I know quite a few guys that work there and I know the beautiful work that they do. I’ve gotten advice from other friends who have said the best thing to do is just take the option and then stand back and let them do what they do.

Robin: Tell me more about creating the book.

Dan: This was one of the most intimidating projects I’ve ever done. There’s a metamorphosis from uncertainty to knowing exactly who you are which was very personal to me. The main character, Beekle, is a blank slate. His purpose isn’t entirely clear. As he goes on this journey, he’s worried: am I doing the right thing? In the first version of the book, I focused on how life experiences define who you are. My editor thought that was more of an adult theme and that we should talk about friendship, about making your first friend. I loved that idea.

On my son’s first day of preschool he had all of this anxiety. What are the other kids going to be like?  Are they going to like me? Am I going to find anybody that wants to be my friend? I remember telling him: be yourself. You don’t need everybody to like you, you just need to start with one friend. I hope a kid reading this book gets the idea that friendship is out there. You don’t have to really look for it because chances are someone is also looking for you.

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