Multi-published author/illustrator Airlie Anderson’s latest picture book NEITHER is filled with sweet, adorable characters and lots of glorious color. Is the book super cute? Absolutely! But the story is so much more than that.
Diversity. Acceptance. Belonging. These are the messages, both timeless and timely, shared with readers in this fabulous new book. I love it! And since I’m a fan of Airlie’s other books as well (I especially like CAT’S COLORS), I thought it was the perfect time to feature her here on the Frog. I’m so glad she agreed to an interview! Enjoy!
Q. How did you get your start as a picture book author and illustrator?
A.A. As a child, my favorite activity was drawing. I thought of myself as an artist and was encouraged to keep making art. I had lots of picture books to read, and we thought of them as an important and very special art form. I never stopped reading and collecting picture books. I always knew I wanted to be an author-illustrator, among other things — my middle school yearbook says that I wanted to be a “cartoonist and animal trainer.” I’m not sure what kind of animals I had in mind!
Once I got to art school, I knew right away that the illustration department was my home. I loved the work coming out of there, and the fact that the program included traditional art training. I focused in on children’s books and learned about the publishing business.
After graduating, I worked for a little children’s book packaging company in San Francisco and got some illustration work through them somehow. Looking back on this, I don’t know how that was possible! Two clients seemed to just “discover” me. I realize now how lucky this was. Some years later, after a dry spell, I moved to New York City in search of an agent. I got a job at HarperCollins as a freelance designer and assistant, and saw a little desktop calendar produced by an agency that I just loved. I took note of their contact info and cold emailed them. They signed me on, and I eventually got some sweet book deals that way. There was a lot of zig-zagging (and soul searching) in my progress as an author-illustrator, but my agents and editors along the way have been hugely helpful and inspiring.
Q. NEITHER is about diversity, fitting in, and accepting—even celebrating—each other’s differences. Why was it important to you to write this story?
A.A. The idea for NEITHER started with the desire to draw a combo-creature. I was teaching middle school art at the time, and we had been working on a combo-animal lesson, which was super fun. I had a dream about a creature like Neither, and the process went from there. One of my students from that middle school class is transgender, and his journey had a lot to do with the tone and meaning of this story. His classmates and everyone at school were open-minded and supportive, and the whole experience affected me more deeply than I realized at the time. After the book came out, I reflected on all this and understood where the idea really came from. If someone had tasked me with making a picture book about diversity and acceptance, I would have been overwhelmed! But NEITHER happened in an organic way, starting with that little character (and lots of coffee).
Q. Your use of color is fabulous in all of your books, but I especially love the colors in NEITHER. How did you choose the color palette?
A.A. Oh, thank you! I’m very happy with the way it turned out, too. I usually choose the colors of the main characters first, and then figure out how to make them stand out from the background. I’m very fond of saturated colors (obviously!) and my first tries at these illustrations just looked so busy and…BRIGHT. It was too much. I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong, until the designer I was working with, Jen Keenan, said “maybe the backgrounds don’t have to be so saturated.” She also suggested that I use a more lemony yellow for the ground, while the birds are a golden hue. Brilliant! It was a real a-ha moment for me. I could keep my candy-colored palette without sacrificing clarity. Thank you, Jen!
Q. Can you tell us a little about some of the other adorable creatures that appear in the book, such as the Whatnot, the Sort of, and the Either?
A.A. Yes! Whatnot and Sort Of came seemingly out of nowhere, like stream of consciousness beasts. Whatnot is a hippo-corn, I think? And Sort Of is a catbird-o-saur. For some reason, I think of Sort Of as myself. If you look on the page where it says “And all were welcome!” you can see Sort Of with a paintbrush, palette, and pencil behind her ear. I thought about making Neither, the main character, into a catterfly. But Neither just worked better as a bunny-bird, so the catterfly became Either. I love Either and so does my editor Deirdre, who has claimed her as her favorite character in the book!
Q. What do you like best about creating picture books?
A.A. My favorite part of the process is painting. That’s when I feel that all the tough work is done and I have a solid stack of sketches to work from. I just let myself enjoy choosing all the colors and feeling the paintbrush move across the paper. Overall though, I love the idea of creating a whole world inside a picture book. As a child I loved just living inside those pages, and drawing from the characters. I hope I can do the same for other children (and adults!).
Q. Where can fans go to learn more about you and your work?
A.A. Please visit my website: www.airlieanderson.com. You can find links to my instagram, facebook, and twitter accounts there. I’m proud to say that I’m represented by Kathleen Rushall at Andrea Brown Literary Agency — you can find me there, too.
Q. Is there anything else you’d like to share?
A.A. I am probably preaching to the picture book choir here, but I’m a firm believer that picture books are for every age. It makes me sad to think that kids are not allowed to keep their picture books around because they are “for younger kids.” Of course, as we get older we hope to add big old tomes to our library. (I love big old tomes.) But can’t we keep the picture books, too? I think so. Thank you so much for featuring NEITHER on Frog on a Blog, it’s been fun answering questions!
Thank you, Airlie! It was so great getting to know you!
Hi, Airlie here! I’m the author and illustrator of Neither, Cat’s Colors, Momo and Snap Are Not Friends, and many other children’s books. Feathers in my cap: the Moonbeam Children’s Book Award, the Independent Publisher Book Award, and the Practical Pre-School Award. I graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and now live in New Jersey.
I create my illustrations using gouache (opaque watercolor) on hot press watercolor paper (the smooth kind). I also doodle aimlessly in my sketchbook whenever I can.
Photo from Amazon. Bio from Airlie Anderson’s website: https://www.airlieanderson.com/