Meet the Illustrator: Julie Paschkis

Illustrator Julie Paschkis captures the magic of real lives and the extraordinary people who lived them. In 2010, she illustrated Summer Birds, a picture-book biography of naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian. This year, she illustrated Pablo Neruda, a picture-biography of the Chilean poet.

This week, Paschkis chatted with Kidsbiographer about travel research, the interplay between text and images, and the joy of illustrating real and unreal worlds. A slide show of her work appears at the bottom of the entry.

Kidsbiographer: I see you traveled you to Chile to research Pablo Neruda’s life. How did your experiences in the country shape your work in this picture-book biography? 

Julie Paschkis: Chile was so important to Pablo Neruda that I knew I had to see it before I could illustrate the book. Visiting Chile helped me a lot in a general sense, and visiting Neruda’s homes in particular helped me with particular illustrations. For example, here is a picture of the beach outside of his home at Isla Negra which helped me to paint the illustration of him on the beach.

Kidsbiographer: Throughout Pablo Neruda, English and Spanish words flit over the illustrations in a way uniquely suited to a visual poet’s biography. What led you to integrate words and images this way?

Julie Paschkiss: I had been doing some paintings that incorporated a similar kind of wordplay. I showed one to my editor at Holt, Reka Simonsen. She sent me Monica Brown’s manuscript, suggesting that I use that style. I thought it was a great idea because of Neruda’s love of language. I had to learn Spanish though! I started studying it then, and I am still studying it. The words chime off of each other because of their meaning and their sound, and they bounce back and forth between English and Spanish. Sometimes I used words from his poems; sometimes the words arise from the imagery and sometimes from his memoirs. For example, in this painting, the names on the train tracks are the stations on the train line leading from his childhood home. He listed them in his memoir.

This painting includes many objects that I saw in Neruda’s homes; he was a passionate and quirky collector. The words name the objects and also reference his poetry collection called Odes To Common Things.

Kidsbiographer: In Summer Birds, you painted some stunning images of insects, especially butterflies and moths, and amphibians. Can you tell me about the zoological research you did for this book? 

Julie Paschkis: When I first started working on the book, I was more interested in the illustrations that depicted the wrong ideas about science – the fantasy pictures. But, as I did more research, I got greater and greater pleasure from painting the real wonders of the earth. I used books from the library and internet searches as reference. This was my favorite illustration to paint in the book because I got to paint the real and the unreal together:

Kidsbiographer: Maria Merian was herself a very gifted entomological artist. How did her paintings influence your illustrations?

Julie Paschkis: I was inspired by her close attention to detail and her elegant line. I used her illustrations as my first source of reference whenever possible. The endpapers are where I most copied her art because they are in black and white as were most of the examples of her work that I had access to. Here is one of her drawings  and the endpaper art that I did.

Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from kids about Summer Birds and Pablo Neruda?

Julie Paschkis: It is most gratifying to me when kids make a connection to their own lives and interests. For example, a girl showed me her amazing drawings of a dragonfly. She had drawn all of the veins in its wings. I saw that she could connect to Maria Merian’s love of the real world and her close observation of what she saw.

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