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Daily Inspiration: Meet Molly Ruttan

Today we’d like to introduce you to Molly Ruttan.

Hi Molly, so excited to have you on the platform. So before we get into questions about your work-life, maybe you can bring our readers up to speed on your story and how you got to where you are today?
First, thank you so much for having me! I’m so excited to be here and to have this opportunity to share my work.

My story begins when I was a kid—I was extremely shy, and I found great solace and inspiration in book illustrations. A career in art was something I knew I wanted from an early age.

I attended the Cooper Union School of Art in New York, and although I entered school as a painter, I graduated with a BFA in graphic design. I went on to have a career as a graphic designer and an Art Director of magazines and books, and although I enjoyed my work, I always held the idea of writing & illustrating children’s books in my heart. Over the years I continued to take art classes and draw, paint and experiment with all kinds of mediums. I shifted from painting in oils to painting in liquid acrylics. I embraced Photoshop! I re-discovered charcoal. As my kids got older, I found myself with more time, so I committed to taking my lifelong desire to write and illustrate children’s books seriously. Using my background in painting, my love of charcoal and my expertise in Photoshop, I found my current illustration technique, which I am still constantly and continually refining.

I have two picture books out in the world, with three more on the way. “I am a Thief!” by Abigail Rayner, North South Books (2019) is my illustration debut, has been translated into three languages and has just won a 2021 Northern Lights Award in the humor category. My second book, “The Stray” with Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Random House (2020), is my author/illustrator debut and has been listed as a 2021 Golden Duck Notable Picture Book by Core!, a division of the American Library Association.

My second book with Abigail Rayner and North South Books, “Violet and the Crumbs: A Gluten-Free Adventure” will be in stores in April 2022, and my second author/illustrator book, “Something Wild”, Nancy Paulsen Books, will be available in the Spring of 2023. “The Yowlers” by Stacy Lynn Carroll, Nancy Paulsen Books, will publish in the Spring of 2024.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
One lesson I have learned is that publishing a book can take years. Coming from a magazine background, I had to learn to have a lot of patience! But in general, looking back, I would say my road to publication has been graciously smooth. I have to say that being a member of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) played a major role in my success, as did the support of my family and friends.

Another lesson was about my own anxiety. Like so many of us, I have childhood anxieties that have followed me into adulthood. One way I manage these negative thoughts and doubts is to use them as inspiration for stories. For example, in spite of a lifetime of performing in bands (I am a drummer) and singing in choirs, I have terrible stage fright. When my first book published and I needed to promote it, this fear roared to life. I started to write and draw about it, and in the process I created my forthcoming picture book “Something Wild”, which is about a girl who faces her fear of performing at a recital. Working on this book really helped me work through my anxiety and has helped me move forward. I have learned first-hand that having a creative outlet for fear and anxiety can be very healing.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
Kids are masters at reading pictures, and I keep this in the forefront of my mind as I create illustrations. I love adding details that enhance the story — things as simple as an expression, a posture, or an interaction in the background of an illustration can really add depth. I also love figuring out parallel narratives that can be told in the pictures that aren’t being told in the text. For example, “The Stray” is about a family who finds a stray critter in a crashed UFO. The book is set up entirely as a double-narrative. I wrote the text in a way that if you were just reading it, you would think the family had found a stray dog. The pictures tell entirely different scenario!

I also love the challenge of figuring out ways to portray story themes in a way that kids can relate. “I Am a Thief!” is about Eliza, a girl who impulsively steals a shiny green gem from a display at school and then grapples with the idea that she is now a thief. I thought a lot about how to illustrate her internal struggle and guilt. I was researching ideas for how I could show Eliza seeing herself as a thief, and I came across a picture of a cat burglar. I knew kids would relate to this image—it’s so iconic that’s it even a classic Halloween costume!

“Violet and the Crumbs: A Gluten-Free Adventure” is about Violet and her struggle to adapt to a recent diagnosis of Celiac disease. One of the challenges I faced working on the book was to figure out how to illustrate the difference between gluten-free and gluten-containing food! I decided to use clouds of crumbs hovering around the gluten-containing food as a kind-of atmosphere, or weather condition, to match the rain-gear based outfit Violet creates to protect herself. I added a cape to Violet’s outfit to emphasize the superhero aspect of her heroic journey, in the hopes that it might empower kids who were going through the same, or a similar, journey.

“The Yowlers” is about a grumpy family who change as they experience the joys of goodwill & laughter under the influence of new, happy neighbors. This book has a lot of transformation in it, and I currently have my nose to the paper exploring how to show it. Transformation is a theme that has existed for all time in stories, and kids are extremely familiar with the concept, so my challenge so far in this book is to keep all the details consistent— I know if I don’t, the kids will be the first to notice!

One of the many things I love about creating picture books is that they require a distillation and simplification of thought, emotion, image, and story. To create a story arc and characters that grow and change in 500 words and 32 pages is much harder than you might think. It brings me great joy to tap into the part of my being that somehow knows how to represent things visually; and allowing the pictures and words to collaborate while solving the puzzle of how it will all come together is extremely satisfying and fun. I also love the collaborative nature of creating a children’s book. I love working with my critique group, my agent, my editors, my art directions and the publisher’s promotional staff — the children’s book publishing industry is just filled with supportive people! I look forward to a long career making books for kids, and I hope with all my heart that my books will bring delight into the lives of the kids (of all ages!) who enjoy them.

Have you learned any interesting or important lessons due to the Covid-19 Crisis?
The most meaningful lesson I learned during the crisis goes back to books. Specifically, the discovery of audiobooks. As the crisis deepened, so did my knowledge that people—including some of my family and friends—were experiencing and processing this crisis in vastly different ways. I found it very overwhelming and stressful. I was under a deadline for most of that first year, so I was working long hours as well. I desperately needed a way to ease my mind, so I began listening to audiobooks. And just like the feeling of solace I had experienced as a kid, I was again amazed how a good book is like a lifeline you throw to yourself. I’m not saying to hide from what’s happening out there in the world, but a good book goes a long way to help bring peace of mind. My advice: When in doubt, look at all kinds of art, listen to music, and read! And don’t forget—above all else, go share a good book with a child!

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Lead photo: Gabriel Moffat

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