Isabel Roxas will be a panelist at the 2017 Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, Virginia. She was born in Manila, Philippines. In addition to her career as an illustrator, Roxas is a designer, aspiring ceramist, and avid reader. Her beautiful and entertaining artwork fills the pages of many books, including Minh Lê’s Let Me Finish! (Disney-Hyperion).
When did your interest in art begin?
I’ve been drawing since I was a young person, as soon as I could hold a crayon. My interest in storytelling started when I was watching a lot of Jim Henson and started reading Shel Silverstein. They continue to be really big influences in my work.
How is the publishing industry in the U.S. different from the Philippines?
I think things move a lot faster in the Philippines. Here [in the U.S.], there’s a whole year dedicated to marketing the books. There’s more time spent color proofing and coordinating with libraries. Whereas in the Philippines, some of my paintings are still wet and I’m bringing them to the printer. [laughs] Quickly, print! Then you have the book in less than a month. There’s that immediacy to the work. A lot of the topics have such a tiny market that a lot of the work is very specific, very local.
I worked on a book that was called 100 Questions Filipino Kids Ask. It’s not just any random kid. Nobody is going to write the books for us, if we want to have books that reflect our reality, our environment. Another book that I did was A Day in the Market. It’s in like a wet market, where you can get fish. It’s a Palengke, really. Only a few other countries, like the Southeast Asian countries, have them.
I’ve noticed that the books are also bilingual, with English and Filipino languages on the same page.
Right, that’s because we use them both as national languages at the same time. The most widespread language is Visayan. A lot of the major publishing houses are based in Manila and the language spoken there is Tagalog. There are a few publishers working towards broadening the languages covered. There are so many languages in the Philippines. They’re not just dialects and they are all different from one another. I can’t understand Visayan myself, but I can speak Tagalog. Tahanan Books is a small publishing house back home. They’re trying to create books that cover indigenous tribes and other less popular languages.
How challenging was it to make Let Me Finish! have such an integrated feel with the text and illustrations?
I have a background as a graphic designer, so I think it really helped that I generally think of typography as also part of a composition. It’s an element in the drawing process as well. It’s not something that’s separate. I got really lucky that the designer for the book, Maria Elias, gave me so much freedom. She said, “Well, if you want to handwrite the type, go ahead.” I was like, “Really?”
It was a nice boost of confidence to be able to integrate my handwriting and play with the letters in the book. That was more or less the first time I was able to do that in a children’s book. Going forward, I have a few other projects where I’m playing with type as part of the drawing.
Was there an animal that you really loved drawing?
I’ll give you a guess. Which one did you think I enjoyed drawing the best? [laughs] The rhino had the most distinctive personality. He was grumpy in some scenes and sheepish in others. He also had the most unusual shape and so he was definitely the most fun to draw.
I thought all of the animals had a lot of love and attention from you. I loved the owl.
I really like drawing animals! I’m really fond of the snail in the back. I like the overlooked animals.
Do you have a favorite illustration technique that you use?
I really like working in collage. I love the elements and surprise in the process: putting things together that you never expected would work. It can be really stressful, especially when you’re under the gun, like “Ah, I need to make this work!” You can’t just force it. It takes time to put itself together.
I saw these sort of manuscript pages with typewriter font. I don’t know how best to describe it…
That’s very good spotting on your part! I was surprised by your question.
One was a thesis from 1969.
Yes! Those are from library card catalogs. I love libraries! One of the libraries I frequented was giving them away because they didn’t need them anymore. I kept them for a rainy day. I was like, “This is perfect, I can use this in something later on.” Then this book happened and I had a way to literally and symbolically represent the library. It’s a book that is about loving books. It’s a great way to pay tribute to my love for library books and add more texture to the book.
Let Me Finish! is a very family-friendly book because adults and kids have things they can notice and enjoy together.
That’s part of the experience I’ve had in making books over the years. Kids really do see a lot of things that sometimes even I’ve overlooked, as someone who’s worked on these for half a year. They’ll notice something that I kind of did offhand. They paid so much attention to it.
Now I’m more careful about all of the little elements that I put in, knowing that the reader is going to spend so many hours. It’s not like they read it once! They read it over and over again. You have to make sure there’s always something for the second, third, or fourth reading.
Thank you, Isabel.
You’re welcome! I hope to see you at the Festival.