Interview with Christopher Silas Neal!

Christopher Silas Neal is an award-winning author and illustrator of picture books including Over and Under the Snow with author Kate Messner, which was praised for its “stunning retro-style illustrations” (New York Times), was a 2011 New York Times Editor’s Choice and an E.B. White Honoree in 2012. Neal’s author debut titled Everyone was praised by Publisher’s Weekly as “simple, honest, lyrical”. He creates book jackets, art for magazines and posters, and occasionally directs and designs animated videos. He speaks about his books, the art making process, and his career at schools, conferences, libraries and book festivals across the country. He lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.” (excerpted from author’s website)
Thank you so much for joining me to answer some questions about your work, Christopher!
Your illustrations have been featured in many different media and settings ranging from advertising to art galleries. Your collaboration with Kate Messner in Over and Under the Snow took your work into the world of picture books. How did this collaboration began?

I was extremely lucky in this case. I had been working as an illustrator for about 7 years—mostly making illustrations for magazines, posters for bands, and art and lettering for book jackets—when I got a call from Chronicle Books about Kate Messner’s manuscript. They saw Kate’s story as an uncommon and poetic version of science for young readers and were looking for a nontraditional take on the art. Based on my book covers and posters, the art director (Amelia Mack) and editor (Melissa Manlove) were familiar with my work and thought I would be a good fit. We did a test piece and then moved forward with the project. I hadn’t thought about a career in picture books before working with Kate and Chronicle Books; the industry was less open minded back in 2009 about the type of pictures that fit into the picture book market and I didn’t see my work fitting into this space. I feel blessed to have received this opportunity and it goes to show that if you put work out into the world that is personal and honest, unexpected opportunities can follow.


After Over and Under the Snow came two more very successful follow-up collaborations –Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt and Over and Under the Pond. What do you think is the key to such a successful collaboration?

Kate’s writing is beautiful and unique within the space of science-based picture books, and Chronicle is really conscious about making sure the design details such as the paper choice and printing lives up to that. Parents, librarians, and teachers want books that teach kids about the natural world in a way that is entertaining, emotive, and sparks curiosity. The Over and Under concept is just so much fun and there’s so many possibilities. Our books certainly leave the door open for more learning. Kate and I have signed on for two new books in this series.

In 2016 your author-illustrator debut, Everyone, was published. How does the illustration experience differ when illustrating for a self-authored book?
c398c229-cd24-49b2-992c-1ec68c0575d0-17410-00000e65aad52195In most cases, there isn’t much back and forth between author and illustrator. The author writes the story and the illustrator responds with sketches and then final art. Maybe the pictures will spark a word change or two, but other than that the author and I work separately. When making my own books, the story and art are much more interconnected. Sometimes the writing process begins with an image, sometimes with an outline for a story, and then every new drawing changes the words and vice-versa. It becomes a big puzzle or a series of little puzzles that I’m trying to solve and it’s not always clear wether it’s the words or the pictures that will be the solution. Collaborating with talented authors elevates my work. I miss that boost working by myself. With my own books, it’s just me, and that can feel intimidating. On the other hand, when I see my name on the final cover of my books, it feels like I’ve accomplished something special.
What advice would you give to an illustrator looking to branch into an author-illustrator role?
If you’re like me and writing doesn’t always come natural, start with an image. Look through your sketchbook and illustrations that you’ve made for other projects. Is there a possible story or journey within those pictures? Also, you don’t always have to do a traditional narrative. You can think about how reader’s interact with pictures (like finding hidden images, looking for patterns) and see if there’s a series or concept that can be packaged as a book. If you already have a book idea and just need help sending it to publishers, get an agent. I love my agent, Stephen Barr. He’s like a best-bud, therapist, writing partner, and publishing expert all rolled into one.
Can you say a little bit about your newest books Animal Shapes and Animal Colors?

Yes. Speaking of concept books, Animal Shapes and Animal Colors are board books that combine shapes with animals, and colors with animals to teach kids about shapes and colors. The best way to explain it is to give an example: “When a leaping Frog meets an Octagon they make a… HOP-TAGON!” And you’ll have to imagine what a “Hoptagon” looks like. Both are available for pre-order and release at the end of March on Little Bee Books— you can find them here: Animal Shapes & Animal Colors.


If someone could only read one of your picture books, which book would you most want them to experience?
My hope is that they would read all of them, share them with everyone they know, and buy multiple copies of each.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I’m really fortunate to make art, stories, and books as a living. I truly appreciate every single reader of my books. Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart.