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Meet mentor Melissa Iwai

When I began putting out feelers as to what illustrators would be a good fit for this contest, one name kept coming up—Melissa Iwai. My sources were correct and she said yes! Melissa is living out her life-long dream of writing and illustrating children’s books. Her detailed attention to balancing art and story truly makes her work shine, and her thoughtful approach to each project is evident in her published books. Melissa is a member of the very select group of “kidlit authors or illustrators who are married to kidlit authors or illustrators (her husband is Denis Markell).” She can also claim membership in an even smaller group of “kidlit authors or illustrators who have published a book with their spouse.” Finally, she belongs to the most elite group of all, “author/illustrators who have illustrated a Writing with the Stars mentor’s book”—Megan Bryant’s Snow Globe. Melissa is also the only mentor who has a partner-in-crime for this contest; she’ll be teaming up with her husband Denis, a brilliant writer in his own right.

Your composition is very dynamic. How did you develop your style, and which artists/illustrators were your biggest influences?

Thank you! My style has evolved over the years, and I think it keeps on changing. Some of my illustration heroes who have influenced me are Mary Blair, Garth Williams, Marc Simont, Gyo Fujikawa, Ezra Jack Keats, Bruegel, Diego Rivera, Honore Daumier, Richard Scarry and Eyvind Earle.

When you get another author’s manuscript, how do you initially approach the new project? Do you read and sit on it awhile or immediately start sketching ideas as you read?

I definitely wait and think about it awhile! I like to mull it over and live with it in my brain and let it percolate. Often my best ideas and imagery come to me when I am waking up in the morning or lying in the sauna at the gym. Then I get down to sketching.

Your husband, Denis Markell, is part of your team for this mentorship. You illustrated two of his books, The Great Stroller Adventure and Hush Little Monster. How did you both approach those collaborations? Did you work together or develop your ideas separately?

Since we live together, we are always talking about our work with each other. We eat lunch together almost every day. He is the only author I have collaborated with at the concept stage of a story! So yes, we worked on both stories together from the beginning. Denis came up with the ideas for both, and then we bounced ideas off each other when developing it further. I would sketch things and then show him and we’d discuss it. 

If you could re-illustrate any classic, what would you choose and why?

I have a fascination with the Pied Piper of Hamlin. It is such a strange, dark tale. I’ve always wanted to illustrate that story, and even made a dummy of it many years ago when I was an art student. Last year, I chose a scene from it to create for a painting that was in a group show of fairy tales at the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.

How do you choose your color palette for a particular project?

I try to capture the mood of the story with color. It depends on the manuscript. For example, I recently illustrated two books for Scholastic—one takes place in the winter and one in the spring. So the seasons really informed the color palette of each book. The winter book, My Snow Globe, by Megan E. Bryant (one of the WWTS mentors), has a lot of blues, purples and deep greens in it, with accents of red and orange. The spring-based companion book, My Easter Egg, has an array of light greens along with bright colors such as magenta, lilac, gold, and turquoise, capturing an Easter feel.

After I have an idea of the kind of color I want to include, I look at various sources of color inspiration: my own collection of swatches I keep in a folder, Pinterest, clothes catalogs, shop windows etc. Then I paint swatches of color in watercolor and scan them into the computer. I compile a specific file of my color swatches, and I use this color palette file for reference for all of the illustrations in the book. I find that when I do this, it is easier to keep my colors consistent. Also it gives the book, as a whole, a sense of cohesiveness. 

Thank you Melissa! To learn more about Melissa, and the opportunity to win a mentorship with her and Denis, enter Writing with the Stars at https://beckytarabooks.com/contest/

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