Cátia Chien illustrates picture books and paints in her studio in Southern California. This week, we discussed her work in A Boy and a Jaguar, conservation biologist Alan Rabinowitz’s picture book about his struggles with stuttering and his passion for helping animals.
Kidsbiographer: A Boy and a Jaguar contains depictions of the Great Smokey Mountains and Central American rainforest. What sort of research did you to paint these landscapes?
Cátia Chien: It was very simple actually, I researched online and found great images that helped me understand the look and feel of the Great Smokey Mountains and of the jungles in Belize.
Kidsbiographer: The picture-book biography’s spreads show the animals in Alan Rabinowitz’s life. They appear friendlier than most of the book’s human faces, a direct reflection of the ease and acceptance young Rabinowitz felt in their presence. However, you achieve this effect without descending into anthropomorphism. How did you find this balance?
Cátia Chien: I don’t think it is ever necessary to use anthropomorphism to create animals that are friendly. An animal’s eyes and body posture can say a lot about how they feel. In the book I made the animals friendly by giving them softer eyes and a friendly stance.
Kidsbiographer: You employ different styles of illustration throughout A Boy and a Jaguar. Although most of the spreads use a more approach, some flirt with surreal or expressionist elements. For example, when the text describes what Rabinowitz did to control his stuttering, you show young Alan, his expression pained, his mouth open. Letters, some distinct, some nebulous, some upside down, float out of his mouth and hover in the reddish background. How did you compose this remarkable and unsettling picture?
Cátia Chien: I knew I wanted to frame in his face without distraction because it was such an emotional moment in the story. I also knew that I wanted the painting of him to convey a feeling of being overwhelmed by words. So, in the end, it made sense to have a profile of him with unintelligible words streaming out. The color red suggests a sense of frustration.
Kidsbiographer: In the book’s most climatic spread, a now grown-up Rabinowitz faces the jaguar who has been following him through rainforest. However, he does not look like the successful biologist he is or even an adult. In this beautiful moment, he becomes once again the little boy who marveled at the jaguar at the zoo. Can you describe how you composed this spread?
Cátia Chien: I love your interpretation. It gives this page a whole new meaning! I didn’t intend Alan to look young, but can see how he can be seen that way. I composed this spread with a couple of things in mind: I wanted the eye line of the jaguar and Alan to be at the same level to express respect. I also wanted there to be a sense of openness to reflect how both Alan and the jaguar were in the moment. This I expressed by using light and space with trees, creating a halo around the characters on each side. Lastly, I wanted a sense of ease, so I had the jaguar sitting facing Alan: the ears are soft and not pulled back. And Alan is painted here smaller in comparison to the jaguar. In this way, by making these specific decisions, I wanted to, in the best way I could, create an image that truly captured the moment Alan shared with the jaguar – a mutual sense of awe, respect, and gratitude.
Kidsbiographer: What is the most gratifying response you’ve received so far about A Boy and a Jaguar?
Cátia Chien: The most gratifying response I’ve received is to be told that by my editor and art director that my images do justice to Alan’s story. It is truly an honor.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
Cátia Chien: I’m finishing a picture book called Things to Do and a comic book story for an upcoming anthology. I’m also writing and illustrating a new picture book and creating a series of paintings for a gallery show later this year.