Hi! In this post, I’m going to share my creative process of illustrating The Pet Potato by Josh Lacey (Andersen Press).
The Pet Potato is a story about a boy called Albert who is so desperate to get a pet and gets super excited when Dad finally brings a pet home just to find it’s a POTATO! My family always had pets so I never needed to beg for one as a child. But my grandmother taught me to handle inanimate objects with care and respect because all objects had souls. To this day, I have a habit of naming things like my phone and plants and talking to them. So, when I read the Josh’s quirky story, I could instantly relate to Albert who gradually got attached to his potato.
I sent some character sketches and colour samples to my editor, art director and Josh. They gave me the thumbs up. That’s how the project started!
After reading a text, character design is the first thing I usually do. There was no physical description of Albert in the text and I was given free rein to design him. Because there was no obvious clue, I had to dig deep into the text. Albert was an only child. He liked reading. He was targeted by a bully. And no mention of his friends. From these clues, I imagined Albert as someone small, smart and introverted but above all with a vivid and unique imagination.
As an East Asian, I do care about diversity in children’s books. But, the main motivations behind the character design were 1) for the previous Andersen book, the main character was a white boy with black hair (to resemble a penguin chick) so I wanted to do something different to expand my portfolio; 2) I was binge-watching IT Crowd and I had a bit of a crush on Richard Ayoade. I thought mini Richard with Albert Einstein-like fluffy hair would be perfect for my introverted and imaginative Albert!
The story is set in a realistic world so I didn’t want to anthropomorphise the potato too much like Supertato with big eyes and limbs. Instead I wanted something more subtle like the face on the moon. Throughout the book, you would notice only Albert sees the face on the potato because it’s in his imagination.
As for Mum and Dad, I was inspired by (again) Richard Ayoade and his real-life wife, Lydia Fox.
Choosing a colour palette is one of my favourite processes. For this book the inspiration came from a picture of Richard Ayoade I found on Pinterest. I just loved the colour combination of his outfit. I usually create a mood board in Pinterest, then I pick 3-5 colours to create a palette. For The Pet Potato, I used dusky green, mustard yellow, scarlet and raw sienna.
I studied films at university. I like the way films can tell the story through framing of shots and I like cinematic compositions. One of my favourite spreads in this book is the one Albert searching under the bed for the missing potato. I could have done some vignettes and illustrated what’s said in the text. The text doesn’t even mention a bed. But I thought this was much more visually interesting and more emotional. My editor and art director weren’t convinced when they saw the thumbnail (rightly so), but they trusted my instinct and the spread made it to the final book!
Because the story takes a course of a year, there was quite a bit of back-and-forth between me and my editor, Sue, to plan out the timeline of the story. Luckily, Sue was a gardening enthusiast and she knew exactly when to plant and when to harvest potatoes etc. The colour map was useful for planning the changing of seasons through colours. The story begins in winter and ends in autumn so I used more pink in the spring, green in the summer and more orange and red towards the end.
The endpapers are another favourite in the book. I like when endpapers form part of the narrative (check out this wonderful blog post about endpapers by Picture Book Den). The front endpaper shows Alberts looking sad with his various phantom pets. On the other hand, the back endpaper features various kids playing with their pet potatoes. Here I sneaked in a character from one of my favourite films. Can you spot it?
I also sneaked in some fun details in the book. In the library scene, I paid a little homage to the most popular Andersen book, Elmer the Patchwork Elephant (by greatly missed David McKee). And yes it’s my pet cat Clementine that Mum is holding in the first spread!
Lastly, these are some of initial ideas for the front cover. Thank you for reading!
JOSH LACEY is a British writer born and raised in London. Josh worked as a journalist, a teacher and a screenwriter before writing his first book, A Dog Called Grk. He has written several other children’s books including The Dragonsitter and Island of Thieves.