It is my extreme pleasure to welcome multi-published author/illustrator Sarah Kurpiel to Frog on a Blog. You may be familiar with Sarah’s other books, including her debut Lone Wolf, which received a starred review from School Library Journal and was a Summer 2020 Kids’ Indie Next Pick.
Today, we get to celebrate the birthday of her brand-new book Snake’s Big Mistake! Sarah has a knack for creating adorable animal characters and kid-relatable stories with lots of heart. She’s shared a lot in this interview, and I know you’re all going to love learning more about her, her new book, and her art process. You may even be inspired!
Congratulations on your new picture book Snake’s Big Mistake! What inspired the story?
Thanks so much for welcoming me on Frog on a Blog to talk about my latest picture book, Snake’s Big Mistake! The story is about a young snake determined to make the best, most spectacular, positively greatest clay pot in art class. But when disaster befalls his clay creation, he makes a terrible decision that just might ruin his friendship with Turtle forever. The story was loosely inspired by true events—sort of. Way back when I was in kindergarten, my class made little clay pots (nothing like the grand sculptures created by the kids in Snake’s class!). I don’t remember much about my kindergarten days, but I distinctly remember this project—how excited I was to sculpt and paint my clay pot, how impatient I felt waiting for it to be fired in the kiln so I could take it home and show my parents, and how disappointed and embarrassed I felt when I saw my finished clay pot sitting alongside all the much better ones. At the end of the day, we each went up to the table at the front of the classroom to find the clay pot marked with our initials on the bottom. I remember thinking: “Mine is so bad. Maybe I should take someone else’s instead.” Now, in the end, I did not. But what if I had? That’s how the story got its start. This small event in my life—making a little clay pot—was the source of so many big emotions for me as a kid—both good and bad. No wonder this project has stayed with me when most of my memories of kindergarten have not. The ups and downs of the experience felt like something plenty of kids could relate to, so I ran with the idea, and the result was Snake’s Big Mistake.
The characters in Snake’s Big Mistake are adorable! Tell us a little bit about your art process when creating the illustrations for the book.
Thank you! I love drawing cute animal characters. A few years ago, for no reason at all (which is the best reason to draw, in my opinion), I drew a “portrait” of a very serious snake sitting in a chair with perfect posture. It made me laugh. I knew right then that I wanted to draw more snakes in the future. So, I included an argyle sweater-sporting snake in my picture book Elephant’s Big Solo, which was published last year. When it came time to make a follow-up book, who better to take the lead this time around than Snake? I had a blast doodling him. I already knew what he looked like, so I focused on experimenting with creative ways a snake might express emotions through body language. Then, I thumbnailed the story, which is my favorite part of the picture book making process. I draw digitally in Photoshop using a Wacom tablet, so it’s easy to make adjustments and move things around as I change my mind. From there, I worked with my agents and editor to finalize the story. For the final art, I mostly used digital dry media brushes, and I applied overlays I created to give the characters added texture. While I needed to stay stylistically consistent with Elephant’s Big Solo, I also knew this book called for a brighter, bolder color palette to match Snake’s bright, bold personality. I’m pleased with the way the colors pop on the page.
As both an author and an illustrator, which comes easier to you, writing or illustrating, and which usually comes first when you get an idea for a story, the words or the art?
Illustrating comes much easier for me—not because I’m particularly confident in my drawing skills (I’m not), but rather because I enjoy it so much. If I wasn’t drawing for publication, I’d be drawing anyway. I tend to think about picture books wholistically from the start—including the cover, endpapers, title page, and so on. If I can’t envision the whole thing, then that’s usually a good sign I’m not ready to make the book. Writing the words, on the other hand, is a slow process for me. So, when I have a story idea, I usually start with a loose outline and maybe a few key lines, doodle the characters and thumbnail the story (which leads to new ideas), and then work out the precise words. My process isn’t always so straightforward as that, but it’s generally what happens.
Since you’re a librarian, you obviously love books. What are some of your favorite picture books? Or who are some of your favorite picture book authors or illustrators?
Oh, this is a tough question. There are too many to name! A few of my favorite picture books are Birdsong by Julie Flett, Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen, A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip Stead and illustrated by Erin Stead, Small in the City by Sydney Smith, and Truman by Jean Reidy and illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins. A few of my favorite picture book creators are Julie Flett, Rebecca Green, Lucy Ruth Cummins, Christian Robinson, Sydney Smith, Ebony Glenn, and Kate Berube.
Why do you feel picture books are important?
The books we love as kids have a way of staying with us all our lives. That’s a powerful thing. Picture books can help kids see themselves in the world, learn about people different from themselves, face complicated emotions, grow their imaginations, learn something fascinating, descend into a fit of giggles—or, in many cases, some combination of these things. I think no matter what age we are when we read them, picture books can have a lasting impact on us. When I come across a picture book with that just-right combination of words and pictures needed to express something authentic, it reminds me all over again why I love picture books so very much.
You’re not shy about sharing that you have a disability and use a power wheelchair. In what ways do you hope to inspire other authors and artists who may be struggling with disabilities too?
Every disabled person experiences disability differently, so I can only ever speak from my own lived experience. In my case, I’ve always loved to draw, but for most of my life, I considered it just a hobby because my disability significantly limits my arm strength and range of motion. But about seven years ago, I realized something important that changed everything for me: my limitations are my style (or, at least a big part of it). I can’t use most traditional media, so I work digitally; I can’t naturally draw a straight line, so I embrace the wobbly line; I don’t have the stamina to do study after study or draw all day, so I lean into simplicity and only spend my energy drawing things I truly want to draw. Once I reframed my mindset on my style, that’s when things started happening for me. I wish I knew earlier in my life that you don’t need to go to art school or use certain media or draw certain subjects or follow certain rules or wait for permission from anyone in order to make art and share it with the world. As long as it’s authentically you who is making the work, there’s no right or wrong way to make art.
Where can fans connect with you online?
You can find me on Instagram (@sarah.kurpiel) and Twitter (@SarahKurpiel) or visit my website at sarahkurpiel.com.
Sarah Kurpiel is a librarian by day and self-taught picture book author/illustrator by night and weekend. Her stories are inspired by animals, nature, and everyday life. Sarah’s debut picture book, Lone Wolf (Greenwillow Books, 2020), received a starred review from the School Library Journal and was a Summer 2020 Kids’ Indie Next Pick. Her latest book, Snake’s Big Mistake (Greenwillow Books, 2023), was a May/June 2023 Kids’ Indie Next Pick and a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection. A few of Sarah’s favorite things include libraries, elephants, the ocean, drawing, flannel shirts, iced coffee, miniature books, summer, new pens, sci-fi stories, and the color green.