by Julianne Black
“I wanted readers to be able to make up their own minds about unicorns and magic. Children so often hear the word “No.” This book asks, “What do you think?”
Do you believe in magic, like when you see something fantastic out of the corner of your eye? Was it a horse in a hat … or was it a unicorn? I was fortunate to have caught up with Bethanie Murguia, author of Do You Believe in Unicorns? (Candlewick). She had some words of wisdom on imagination superpowers, the creative process, and yes, finding unicorns!
Q: I received a copy of Do You Believe in Unicorns? to review and was immediately excited to share it with my 6-year-old! Tell me about how the idea for the elusive unicorn came about, but also about the concept of finding what you expect to see making its way from idea to print.
A: It began with the image of a character in a hat. It could be either a horse or a unicorn—but there’s no way to be sure. I love that the hat creates possibility. Because it’s ambiguous, our own beliefs, experiences, and knowledge become a big part of the story. I wanted readers to be able to make up their own minds about unicorns and magic. Children so often hear the word “No.” This book asks, “What do you think?” It was a vague idea in the beginning, though, and it took many, many revisions to get to the final book. I have 52 versions of this story on my computer. It’s daunting to work on a project when you don’t know where it’s headed, but seeing it work out well is also a good reminder to have faith in the creative process.
Q: Many of your books, including The Too-Scary Story, I Feel Five! and Princess! Fairy! Ballerina! are centered around creativity and imagination like little reminders about the power of wonder and enchantment. Can you tell us your earliest recollection of when you realized your imagination was your superpower?
A: I love this idea of imagination as a superpower. As an adult, I recognize the power of imagination and what a gift it is to be immersed in creating or reading a book. As a child, I don’t know that I paid much attention to it, but I realize now that I definitely had an active imagination as a child. When I was seven, we moved into a house that was over 150 years old. It was so magical to me, with stairs that went nowhere, secret spaces behind tiny doors, and hatches in the wood floors that I was sure led to treasure. I spent years trying to talk my parents into ruining the floors to pull up those nailed down hatches, but they never agreed. It was probably a favor in the long run because it kept the possibility of treasure alive in my mind in the same way the hat allows for the possibility of unicorns. I think possibility is really powerful.
Q: Your illustration style has been described as ”Self-assured pen, ink, and watercolor illustrations….” by Kirkus Reviews. I have to say the description “self-assured” must be music to your ears. As an artist myself I know how intimidating it can be to put your work out there! Tell me about this style of hard and defined line paired with soft shadow and minimal detail. What kind of background can you give us to how your technique evolved?
A: I’ve been playing with pen and ink since I was in elementary school. I was obsessed with calligraphy and I attribute any perceived “self-assuredness” to years of repeating letterforms over and over and over. But I also adore watercolor because it’s so unpredictable. Combining the two gives control of important details while also allowing for looseness. With that said, I’m always trying out new ways of working. My first books were done with nib pens, but I’ve been experimenting with bamboo pens and brushes because they have very different line qualities. I used both a nib pen and bamboo pen for Do You Believe in Unicorns?.
Q: Your website is absolutely adorable. I love that your ”About” section is told in snapshots and text and reminds me I need to journal more in my sketchbook! Do you think on paper in doodles and half-created scribble ideas or do you create the ideas in your mind prior to them ever seeing paper? What is your preferred method of harnessing all those loose possibilities?
A: I always doodle! I wish I had a clear picture in my mind, but that’s not the case. I just keep drawing until characters or ideas begin to gel. And sometimes, it takes months or years. I keep files of ideas that haven’t come together … yet. I draw and write and do thumbnails in sketchbooks until I have words and images for a few spreads at least. Then, I start trying to make a book. I also have a giant corkboard in my studio where I hang bits and pieces to see how they might fit together.
Q: One of your blog posts states, “Whenever I have the opportunity to speak about the creative process—whether to children or adults—I usually offer up two pieces of advice: 1. Be a collector 2. Be an experimenter.” Can you elaborate a bit about how this relates to daily life and give an example of a major win in your life to which you can attribute those two points?
A: I think all creative wins require some form of this—collecting raw materials from the world around us and then experimenting with how to put them together to convey what we want to say. I’m always looking for ideas, keeping sketchbooks of moments that are interesting to me—sketches, snippets of conversations, etc.—anything that makes me feel something. These become building blocks for stories. In my case, it’s rarely a lightning bolt that strikes, but rather, continuing to gather little pieces of inspiration.
Q: Any projects in the works for which we should be on the lookout? Do You Believe in Unicorns? was just released in September, but what’s next?
A: Yes! I just finished the final art for The Favorite Book, another collaboration with Candlewick Press. It’s a picture book that explores how we make choices, allowing readers to pick all sorts of favorites along the way. I’m very excited to see this one in print (Fall 2019). And, I recently launched a site, findmoremagic.com, that’s an extension of Do You Believe in Unicorns?. I wanted to create an experience that would expand on the themes of the book. The site has fun DIY activities, a unicorn mystery, and a UnicornCam app for spotting unicorns (iOS).
Julianne DiBlasi Black has written and illustrated several books, including Sleep Sweet, the multi-award winning Augmented Reality picture book. bookturnip.com.