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Find more Picture-Book Science
Diana Sudyka has provided gorgeous illustrations for several science-based picture books—I’m looking at you, Sometimes Rain (2018), authored by Meg Fleming; When Sue Found Sue (2019), by Toni Buzzeo; What Miss Mitchell Saw (2019), by Hayley Barrett; and How to Find a Bird (2020), by Jennifer Ward. Her newest project is Dear Treefrog, written by Joyce Sidman and reviewed in this issue, which follows a girl who just moved to a new town and the treefrog she observes through the year’s changing seasons. Here we talk about her process and the intersection of art and nature.
Smith: What about Dear Treefrog made you want to illustrate this story?
Sudyka: I was familiar with Joyce’s other books and I really loved the way that she wrote. So, when I saw this manuscript, I thought the story was unique in how it used the idea of a tree frog to communicate the feelings of a child that was lonely or isolated. I thought it was so beautiful the way that she did that.
Smith: Did you have to do much frog research for this?
Sudyka:I had to do a little bit. I quickly realized that I don’t draw frogs very often, so I had to get comfortable drawing frogs. Thankfully, Joyce is a wonderful observer and photographer of the natural world. She very graciously provided me with a lot of her photographs of tree frogs, which were beautiful and very helpful, but I didn’t feel like I had to do a lot of deep diving in terms of research.
Smith: You mentioned using Joyce Sidman’s photos. Do you sketch while you’re out hiking or observing, or do you take pictures to reference later as you begin drawing?
Sudyka: It’s all pictures now. I used to keep a nature journal and sketch, and then smartphones and Instagram came along. I take lots of photos, which are my main reference points. But also my backyard. I do a lot of gardening and I’m trying to learn and do as much as I can to create a natural habitat in our yard because that’s something I love and feel strongly about. I’ve got this land, and I’ve learned a lot from it. Everything that I do there is all over the books I’ve illustrated—and definitely in Dear Treefrog.
Smith: Generally speaking, what do you hope that kids will get out of your illustrations?
Sudyka: I really want kids to value being outside and value the environment that’s around them. You don’t have to live in the country or near a forest preserve to do this. The more children get outside and observe nature, the more they’ll feel connected to it. I believe that this is critical for us as humans, as a species. I want kids to understand that they are part of nature, wherever they live, whether they’re Black or white.
Smith: Speaking of fostering connections with nature, I love how your illustrations balance the details of the natural world with the wonder it invokes, such as when you fill a person gazing at the night sky with stars. It’s a beautiful yet child-friendly depiction of a large concept.
Sudyka: That is a space that, whether it’s my personal work or for a book, I very much try to occupy. I am not interested in making realistic, very scientifically accurate drawings. I’m not a scientific illustrator, although I’m very influenced by old-school guidebooks and nature guides like the Golden Guides. I want kids to have that balance between accuracy and wonder, as you said. But it’s also a way of envisioning something from a child’s perspective.
Smith: Can you talk a little bit about your artistic process?
Sudyka: Almost everything that I do is either in gouache, which is a more opaque watercolor, or watercolor on paper. My process, from sketching to final illustration, is almost entirely done using traditional media. But, in the last several years, digital has come into play a lot more. I use digital tools, like an iPad Pro, mainly for editing, cleanup, and enhancing things. It typically takes me around six months to complete a picture book.
Smith: What advice do you have for nature-loving kids who are interested in art?
Sudyka: Keep a sketchbook, make drawing a regular practice—even if you don’t have a concrete idea, and don’t censor yourself. Just get outside and pick one spot in your yard or some place that you like to go with your family, like the park, and observe it week after week, day after day, or season after season. And it’s amazing the changes that you can see and the things that you observe.
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