'A Boy Like You'
The illustrations blew me away.
The lighting. The composition. The details.
I was delighted to discover that the illustrator, Kayla Harren, lives near St. Paul.
The 30-year-old Minnesota native is an incredible talent whose eighth book, A Boy Like You, is being released today.
Written by Frank Murphy, a longtime teacher, coach and father of sons, the book reads like a handbook showing a child how to be uniquely himself: a good kid and a good citizen.
In the author’s note at end, Frank describes the book as a response to “confusing” and sometimes “toxic” messages about masculinity.
Kayla brings his words to life with the most vibrant illustrations.
"Here's a secret that not many people know. Fear and bravery are partners.
You can't be brave without first being afraid."
She was happy to field my questions about the new book, her career and its profound Minnesota influences.
What attracted you to the story of A Boy Like You?
I am lucky enough to have some wonderful men in my life, men who are sensitive, kind, and thoughtful. I know that growing up wasn’t always easy for them in a world that told them to hide their emotions. I love how Frank’s words encourage compassion, empathy and kindness.
I think the messages in this book are important for all kids to hear, but especially boys that may be struggling with harmful expectations of masculinity.
What impact do you hope it has on young readers?
I hope this book reminds boys -- and the parents of boys -- that there are many valuable ways to be a boy.
How important was it to show diversity in these characters?
The story speaks to all types of boys, so it was really important to show a diverse crowd. I wanted to emphasize that each person is unique. It is impossible to pack into one book all the beautiful characters I see walking around the Twin Cities, but I hope that each reader sees someone they identify with in this book.
Tell me about this illustration.
The boy reading with his dog on a rug is my favorite illustration in the book. It is hard for me to keep track of how much time I spend on each illustration because the whole book is done in stages, but if I had to guess, I probably spent six hours on this illustration. Not much changed from the first sketch to final color, this was one of those special illustrations that just felt right and was approved in the first round.
The dog is based on my childhood family dog. I also snuck the cover of my first picture book, Mary Had A Little Lizard, on one of the boy’s scattered books.
Describe your typical work setting.
I work in my house on my computer, my dog sleeps in her bed right under my glass desk with her head resting on my feet. I listen to podcasts -- Radiolab, Comedy Bang! Bang! and Judge John Hodgman, to name a few -- and when my husband is home we draw side by side.
Your preferred medium is digital. How do you draw via Photoshop?
I have a Cintiq tablet and use a stylus pen to draw right on the screen. Making marks with the stylus feels very close to drawing with a pencil on paper, except erasing and moving things around is much easier and cleaner. Sometimes I post videos of me drawing with a tablet to my Instagram stories.
I love how you draw images from different angles -- aerial views, looking up, upside-down reflections in the water, etc. Do you hope that approach stirs a sense of wonder?
I try to change up compositions and perspectives throughout a book to make it interesting for viewers. If it makes them feel a sense of wonder, that is beautiful. I mostly just don’t want them to be bored.
Where in Minnesota did you grow up? What brought you and your husband, Peter, back to Minnesota after meeting at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and then living in Pennsylvania?
I grew up in a suburb south of St. Paul and went to Rosemount High School. Peter and I met in New York City and knew we couldn’t live in the city forever. It was expensive, and for a couple of introverts, New York was lacking the privacy and nature we craved.
Minnesota has beautiful parks and open spaces that make us so happy. I love that we can live in the country on three acres of land, and yet we are only a 15-minute drive from the culture of the cities. It is a perfect balance that we just couldn’t find on the East Coast.
How has Minnesota nurtured you as an artist?
I go for walks in the woods with my dog almost every day. Sometimes we can walk for an hour and only pass one or two people. The serenity of these secluded walks allows my mind to wander. It is during these peaceful times in nature that I work through the projects on my to do list, visualize new images, and develop story ideas. Minnesota nature is endlessly inspiring.
What are a few of your favorite spots here to enjoy nature?
Minnehaha Falls Dog Park along the Mississippi River is amazing. I regularly visit Lebanon Hills Park and Schaar’s Bluff at Spring Lake Park Reserve. I also really enjoy the wildflower fields in my own backyard.
Can you recall a place or person in Minnesota that influenced a drawing or book?
I wrote my first book [Mary Had A Little Lizard] while walking the trails at Lebanon Hills Park with my dog. Hiking always helps me figure things out.
How does time in nature influence you an artist?
Nature is full of amazing compositions and textures and colors. I never run out of things to draw because all I need to do is go outside and everywhere I look I see perfectly designed pieces of art.
And to flip the question, how does being an artist influence how you approach nature?
Being an artist makes me pay attention to details. I am always looking for things that I can use later in an illustration. Every day I discover something that I’ve seen many times but never truly appreciated.
Right now I am paying attention to how many different leaf shapes there are and all the different layers of clouds. Before that I was really focused on memorizing bark textures on trees.
You’re also a noted lover of animals, who factor prominently into you books. Do you ever hit up a local zoo for study?
I love the Minnesota Zoo and the Como Zoo and Conservatory. I go to the conservatory with my husband and other local artists to sketch the plants and animals. I usually bring a pocket-sized sketchbook and some colored pencils.
The penguins at the Minnesota Zoo are so fun to watch. I love that I can get so close and see so many details.
The giraffes at the Como Zoo were very helpful in teaching me about how giraffes move when drawing Juma.
You’ve noted that Minnesota has a great kidlit community and that you attend the monthly Picture Book Salon at the Loft. Can you share a few of your favorite kidlit artists in Minnesota?
I am so inspired by many Minnesota artists, some that I am still too shy to talk to, and some that I am lucky enough to call friends. I love the work of Jennifer Bell, Cori Doerrfeld, Michael Hall, David Huyck, and Mike Wohnoutka.
You’ll be reading aloud on the Storytime Trolley in Stillwater on July 27. How fun! What impact does spending time with kids have on you?
Spending time with kids reminds me why I make books. Most of my time is spent drawing at a desk, emailing my agent and art directors about contracts and budgets and revisions, and generally getting lost in the business of publishing.
But when I read with kids I get to see their pure wonder and joy of books. I need to remember what it is like to be a child and think like a child so I can better communicate with my audience.
What’s the best compliment you’ve received on your drawings?
I was doing a drawing demo at a bookstore and one of the young boys was really impressed with a lizard I drew. During the whole coloring time I watched him try so hard to reproduce the lizard himself. His drawing was way, way better than mine! The fact that he wanted to copy my drawing was a lovely compliment.
Do you draw every day?
Absolutely! I draw every day. Most of the time I am working on my computer for specific book and magazine projects, but every once in a while I will squeeze in a little drawing just for fun. I like to play around on my iPad pro, or use watercolors and colored pencils on Strathmore paper.
What do you do when you're stuck? How do you drum up inspiration?
I go outside and play with my dog. I talk to my husband, who is also an artist. I read books. I read through the notes I have taken from various writing classes and author lectures.
You’ve enjoyed big, well-deserved success and won prestigious awards as an artist. And so much has happened at a fast pace! You published your first book recently -- in 2017 -- and are now out with your eighth book! It sounds like you’re in great demand! Is this overwhelming?
Whoa, thanks for saying that! However it doesn’t feel so big and it certainly doesn’t feel fast.
It took me five years of making book dummies and sending them to publishers before I sold my first book. Those years were packed with rejection. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities I have had so far, but I still have so many more career goals I want to meet.
Freelance is a bit scary because every time I finish a book I wonder if anyone will ever hire me again. I need to keep my schedule busy and filled with projects to ward off the fear and self-doubt.
What’s next for you?
A couple books I am illustrating are in the works, but I’m not sure if I can talk about them yet.
I’ve been writing my own stories, too. Hopefully I will be the author and illustrator of another book in the near future.
My daughter Maria, who is 6 and loves to draw books, wants to know how much money you can make from drawing a book.
Great question! I have noticed other artists being very secretive about how much money they make, so I feel like I have to be secretive too. Let’s just say: I don’t make books for the money. Ha!
I’m very lucky that my husband also works and my parents were very supportive and helpful when I first started.
What’s your advice for a young aspiring artist?
There isn’t one thing I can say that applies to all artists, but if I have to choose something, I will say this: Successful artists aren’t successful because they never got rejected, they just didn’t quit after being rejected. If drawing brings you joy, draw! Proficiency and recognition will come, but only when you keep drawing.
Christina Ries is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and four children in Inver Grove Heights. Read all her posts at mnparent.com/charmed.