Meet the Illustrator: Julie Downing

Julie Downing has illustrated fairy tales, animal stories, and realistic children’s fiction for noted authors, including Ursula LeGuin and Linda Sue Park. This year, she collaborated with Beverly Gherman to produce First Mothers, a collective biography of the presidents’ mothers. This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about the project’s evolution, her admiration for Lillian Carter, and Martha Washington’s bossiness. Click here to view a PDF that shows how she conceived the layout for the project and how she turned visual research into an engaging book about the presidential moms:  Kidsbio

Kidsbiographer: Illustrating First Mothers must have entailed a great deal of research. Can you describe some of the visual research and reading you did to paint the presidents’ mothers?

Julie Downing: Research is one of my favorite parts of any projects, and I love discovering information in all sorts of different places. I do use traditional sources, such as the library, for books about costume, period furniture, and domestic interiors. Many mothers spent a good deal of their time in the kitchen, so magazine advertisements for Whirlpool, Kenmore, and Singer Sewing Machines provided great visual reference for changing appliances. I wanted to find as much visual reference of the actual homes of the presidents, but wasn’t able visit all of their birthplaces, so I relied on Google images to give me a clue about where the presidents grew up.

I did visit Washington D.C. and Colonial Williamsburg and was able to get a good sense of everyday life for the early mothers. Williamsburg has a wonderful museum for ordinary objects, and I sketched and photographed spinning wheels, ink pots, quills and samplers.

The biggest challenge was finding actual images of the mothers. The wealthy mothers, such as Mary Washington and Abigail Adams, had portraits painted of themselves, but Betty Jackson and Maria Van Buren were too poor to afford a portrait, so I relied on written descriptions of these women. For example, Andrew Jackson said he inherited his red hair from his mother. After the Civil War, photography came into fashion, and most of the mothers had a least one very stern photo of themselves, and my portraits are based on those photos. And, of course, by the time Eisenhower was elected, there was an abundance of photo reference available. My research not only gave me insight into the mothers, but also showed how important pictures and visual images became in the race for president.

Kidsbiographer: One of the most engaging aspects of First Mothers is the inventive layout. The women, in cartoon fashion, interact with each other, sometimes across generations. The opinionated Mary Ball Washington, in particular, acts as a sort of Greek chorus, invading other profiles and commenting on the women and their sons. And some of the short biographies include short cartoon strips about the mother-son relationship in question. How did you devise this layout, and how did Beverly Gherman’s text inform your choices?

Julie Downing: The layout is one of the pieces of the book that changed the most during the process. When Bev and I started the project, I knew I wanted the book to be a combination of images, but I wasn’t sure how the pieces would go together. We tried a number of versions including small spots illustrations and a timeline before we settled on the combination of cartoons and portraits. I was lucky to be able to really collaborate with Beverly. Most of the time, I receive an author’s finished manuscript and then I do the illustrations, but in the case of First Mothers, Bev and I worked closely together. She researched the mothers and wrote biographies for each; then we would get together and look over the information and decide which facts could be shown through the illustrations and which through the text. Often, we passed the text back and worth, editing and rewriting, and Bev looked at all the cartoons and illustrations as well. It is an unusual way for the author and illustrator to work, but I really enjoyed the collaboration.

Credit for the creative way of showing the basic information such as birth and death goes to my wonderful critique group, comprised of 4 very talented illustrators: Ashley Wolff, Lisa Brown, Katherine Tillotson, and Christy Hale.

As far as Mary Washington, she practically inserted herself into the artwork. I was amazed when I learned that she was highly critical of her son and more than a little self centered. As a mother myself, I know that sometimes parents can be a teeny bit competitive about their children, and I kept picturing what Mary Washington would have to say about the other mothers and their children. In the beginning, I just doodled pictures of Mary on the corners of my sketches and soon realized she should actually appear in the finished art. After Bev showed me the text for Sara Roosevelt and it became obvious how bossy she was, I imagined she would not allow Mary Washington to be the only one to comment, so she joined the chorus.

Kidsbiographer: And here come the inevitable questions about challenges and favorites. Which First Mother was most difficult to illustrate and why? Also, which presidential mom did you most enjoy depicting and why?

Julie Downing: I found the mothers of the post Civil War presidents, such as Malvina Arthur and Ann Cleveland, to be the most difficult to illustrate. To begin with, there was not a huge amount of information available about these mothers, and they were remarkably similar. I think many women from this time period were devoutly religious, and it was difficult to find any spark in their personalities that inspired an illustration.

Even though Sarah Taylor, Phoebe Fillmore, Anna Pierce and Elizabeth Buchanan never actually sat down together, I enjoyed depicting the four mothers at the table. When working on a book with so many subjects, I wanted to vary the art so each page was different. It still makes me smile when I think of such different personalities having tea together.

Kidsbiographer: I particularly enjoyed the portraits on the cover and dust jacket of First Mothers as well as your “motherly” version of the presidential seal on the frontispiece. Can you tell about the creative process for this small, but very delightful piece of the project?

Julie Downing: I love the fact that you noticed my version of the presidential seal. I came up with the idea for the seal when I was drawing the presidential wallpaper for the books’ cover. I realized the mothers needed their own seal and had fun thinking about what would be included on it.

The portraits on the dust jacket were originally designed to appear on the end papers and include bits about the actual presidents. Although I was surprised when I received the proofs for the book and discovered the change, I thought it was such a wonderful decision. Many people don’t realize how collaborative the process of producing a book actually is. We were so lucky to work with a wonderful editor, Daniel Nayeri, and art director, Sharismar Rodriquez, who is really responsible for the final design of the book. I gave her some rough layouts, but she put them together and often had to make decisions that really improved the overall design of the book. It was a huge job for her, but I am so happy with the final result.

Kidsbiographer: Based on your research, which First Mother’s parenting style did you most admire?

Julie Downing: I thought Lillian Carter was a terrific mother, warm, no-nonsense, energetic, and independent. She and her husband had a happy marriage (not true of all the mothers), and even though they were not wealthy, had a happy family life. A number of the mothers impressed me with how hard they worked to make sure their sons were educated and got ahead. Betty Jackson, Maria Van Buren, Polly Johnson, and Hannah Nixon sacrificed a great deal to make sure their sons became successful. By the time I finished the book, I did feel that anyone can become president.

Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received about First Mothers from young readers?

Julie Downing: I loved nonfiction books when I was a child, especially books that showed the ordinary side of extraordinary people. I recently visited a school and shared the book with a group of 4th graders, and the students loved learning about the president’s mothers. One boy was really impressed that Barbara Bush had to take her son George to the principal’s office. After seeing the cartoon, this student declared that maybe there was a chance he could be president one day, too.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?

Julie Downing: I am currently working on a bedtime book for Creston Books, a brand new publisher located in Berkeley, CA. I have a wonderful book, written by Jane Feder, who is also my agent, coming out next year with Scholastic. I was a huge reader of nonfiction when I was young and am researching a few new nonfiction ideas for other books as well.

Want to learn more about Julie Downing‘s research and creative process? Click here to view a PDF about how she developed the spreads for First Mothers:   Kidsbio


    1. Thanks, Christy! I enjoyed both Julie’s artwork and my conversation with her. She recommended your book about architects to me, and I look forward to reading it in the near future.

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