Gerald Purnell has illustrated picture books as well as twenty covers for the Bluford series, a set of young adult novels set in an inner-city high school. Last year, he illustrated A Home Run for Bunny, a picture book about a baseball team from Springfield, Massachusetts who defied segregation in the 1930s. This week, Purnell opened up to Kidsbiographer about engaging today’s readers, composing complex illustrations, and communicating with young artists.
Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to illustrate A Home Run for Bunny?
Gerald Purnell: Because there were only a couple of photos of Bunny, and not many photos on-line about the subject. I began buying old baseball books, and checking libraries for reference photos. I then brainstormed rough ideas and made multiple sketches for each page. Most are a composite from different photos.
Kidsbiographer: In this book, you use a few different styles of illustration. Some spreads have a collage-like effect: readers see Bunny excelling in different sports, and he seems to have different texture than the illustration’s backdrop. In one picture, he emerges, in color and holding a football, from a black and white newspaper photo. Even without the text, readers understand that Bunny’s talents were undeniable. How did you conceive this approach?
Gerald Purnell: As compelling a story as Bunny’s is, I felt that my challenge was to create a picture book that’s visually engaging and fun. I used color and contrast to make Bunny pop out of his background. All pieces were done in soft pastels on paper; no over ays or computer enhancements were used.
Kidsbiographer: Later in the book, when Bunny and his teammates attend the tournament in North Carolina, the illustrations become visibly darker and grimmer. The boys and their coaches confer in beige and dark grey hotel rooms that mirror their troubled minds. How did you compose these spreads?
Gerald Purnell: I thought that a traditional approach, where all the paper is of one or two colors, and all pages maintain the same look, while that might be functional in telling the story, with all of the media, games, 3-D movies of today, that would lack excitement and surprise, so I wanted to be a little out of the box in the telling of this story.
Kidsbiographer: A Home Run for Bunny’s front and back inside cover contain illustrations as well. The inside front cover depicts African Americans, including Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Jackie Robinson, who changed American life in the decades that followed the events discussed in the book. The inside back cover contains a poignant image of memorabilia from Bunny’s American Legion team: a group photo, a glove, a ball, and a small framed picture of Bunny himself. Can you describe how you composed these images?
Gerald Purnell: Thanks, I love this question. Both were done on tinted paper, which I used as the mid-tone, meaning that I drew the black of the shadows, and used white pastel pencil to draw the highlights. The desired effect was somewhat like an old photo. The inside back cover is a composite of images that I layered to look like one old picture.
Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying response to A Home Run for Bunny you’ve received from a young reader?
Gerald Purnell: That would be from a smart and talented young man named Gillis MacDougall, age 9. Not only did he write me a heartfelt letter of appreciation and call me one of his heroes; he also drew, in color, his interpretation of one of my painting.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
Gerald Purnell: This is the third picture book that I have done; the first two, Am I A Color Too? and God’s Promise, together won ten national and international awards. I have also illustrated twenty bookcovers for The Bluford Series, which have sold over ten million copies. Now I’m ready for a new publisher or art rep to take a look at what I’ve done so far and challenge me with new work. I may be reached at email@example.com .