I really love books. I really love trees. And I don’t have to go too far out on a branch to admit I love finding beautiful and meaningful books about trees, and our relationship to them. So I’m happy to report I’m adding a new one to my collection, Beatrice Was a Tree (Greenwillow Books, 2021) by Joyce Hesselberth, which I’ll certainly use in my art room and highly recommend to other teachers. I caught up to Joyce to learn more.
Me: How did you get into creating children’s books?
Joyce: I kind of took the long path to get here. I remember thinking how great it would be to work on children’s books when I was in college, but I realized I didn’t have the skill set. I was studying graphic design, which turned out to be a great skill to have, but wasn’t what I ultimately needed to make book content. After I graduated, I slowly migrated over to illustration. I started doing a lot of work for newspapers and magazines. In my thirties, I still had that itch to make a children’s book, so I decided to dedicate some time to it each day. When I made my first dummy, I sent it to anyone who would accept un-agented submissions. That book never got published, but I kept making dummies. Many rejections later, and after I managed to get my wonderful agent, Erica Rand Silverman, I sold my first book, Shape Shift.
What inspired Beatrice Was a Tree?
Well, first, trees are amazing. Who doesn’t love trees? I like drawing plants and nature, so that was part of the inspiration. But ultimately, this book was based on a little tiny sketch in my sketchbook. I was flipping through it, looking for ideas, because I didn’t have any at the moment and needed something to pitch to my editor. The sketch was a picture of a kid wearing a tree costume, like they were in a school play. It was something I drew for an editorial job about summer camps, but it got me thinking about what it would be like to be a tree. That’s one of the things I love about keeping a sketchbook. They are records of ideas you have and once you draw them, you can go back to them later and they can inspire other projects.
Beatrice has a great intuitive connection with nature and if every kid could relate to just one tree on that level, I wouldn’t have too many worries about the future. Was this you as a kid? How do we help more kids see the world this way?
I definitely spent my fair share of time playing in the woods as a kid. I still do actually. There’s a trail near our house where I love to go running. I don’t think I would be a runner if it weren’t for that trail. Just being in nature is so healing.
I think having unstructured play outside is so important for kids, but really for everyone. Also, another thing that definitely connected me to plants as a kid was my family’s garden. They planted acres and acres of vegetables (I’m kidding, but their gardens did tend to be large). I think having that experience of planting something and watching it grow is really special.
Your art is stunning. Can you share a little about your process?
Thank you! I started the art for this book by creating a lot of messy paint swatches. Although I love creating art digitally, there are some things that are better with traditional media. Plus, it’s really fun to just paint and experiment! When I had a little library of textures that I liked, I started cutting into them digitally.
Color is really important to me, and this book was a little tricky because it has a broader palette than some of my others. I needed the palette to really change from season to season, so having that library of textures helped me unify the book too.
What are you working on now?
I’m just finishing up the artwork for my next picture book, When Molly Ate the Stars, (Chronicle Books, expected Fall 2022). This is the first story I’ve written that is completely fiction and I’ve been having so much fun working on it.
I’ve also been writing my first chapter book. It’s not far enough along to share yet, but I’ve been obsessing over this story for about a year now and I’m really excited to bring it out into the world.
Any advice for young artists, naturalists and storytellers?
Sure, I like that grouping! I think keeping a sketchbook or journal is a really great habit to start. And give yourself room to be messy/silly in it. It doesn’t need to be precious. The important part is to keep drawing, and observing, and writing!
Perfect advice. Thank you so much, Joyce!
Learn more about Joyce and her books at joycehesselberth.com and on Instagram and Twitter: @hesselberth