Monday, January 30, 2012

Meet Hazel Mitchell and Hidden New Jersey

Today, I'm interviewing illustrator and writer Hazel Mitchell, also known as “The Wacky Brit.” I first met Hazel when we were both mentees in the 2010-2011 Nevada SCBWI Mentor Program. Hazel—like the sweet, energetic, whimsical art she creates—is delightful and a treat to know, so I wanted you to get to know her, too!

Hazel has illustrated over twelve children’s books, including the All-Star Cheerleaders chapter book series by Anastasia Suen (Hazel signed my copy at the SCBWI LA conference last August!), How to Talk to an Autistic Kid by Daniel Stefanski (which is a Books for a Better Life 2012 finalist), Why Am I Here? by Matthew Kelly, and Sabu & Me by Maura Lane, which was awarded Creative Child Magazine’s Picture Book of the Year in 2010. Hidden New Jersey, Hazel’s newest book, written by Linda J. Barth and published by Charlesbridge, is filled with interesting and surprising facts about all aspects of America’s third state—history, culture, nature, sports, industry, and much more.

First, Hazel, when and how did you earn the nickname “The Wacky Brit"?

Ha! Good question. A fellow illustrator in the next town coined the phrase and it stuck. (I nicknamed him the Crazy Cat Man, but we won't give away his real name.)  I guess I am quite lively and British, so it works!

Yes, you are! So, how did you come to illustrate Hidden New Jersey? 

The developer for the book, from Mackinac Island Press (an imprint of Charlesbridge) had produced two other books in this series (about Michigan and Ohio) and was looking for an illustrator for New Jersey. She saw some of my work on my Facebook fan page and contacted me. We took it from there!

That’s a great story and a good lesson for putting your best work on display. Now, tell me about your process of illustrating a book. For example, when you’re working on a book, what does your typical day look like?

I am pretty disciplined. Maybe that's one thing serving in the Royal Navy did for me. The deadline for this book was pretty short, 3-4 months. As it was the first time I had illustrated a book like this (nonfiction) and in a montage style, it took me a little while to get my head around it. The previous two books in the series were also montaged, but the style was very different from mine.

I usually start work about 7:30/8 am, when my hubby leaves for work. My studio is in my house, so I just wander in with a cup of Yorkshire tea and sit down at my computer. I check email (and Facebook) and get into the day. If I am already in the midst of a project, it's pretty easy to get started, because you have deadlines! I often make a schedule on a weekly/monthly basis of what I need to achieve daily. Of course, this can change, but it keeps me on track.

The first thing I do is read the manuscript thoroughly and make notes. In this case I sent written notes back to the developer, outlining what I wanted to do after reading the author's manuscript.  After chatting about it, I moved on to rough sketches (quite large in this case, because of the amount of detail). I also had to think about what hidden items would be on each page for the child to find and where they might be hidden. Other things to consider were the gutters (middle of the page), as we wanted the children to be able to identify everything. After approval of the sketches, I began drawing in earnest, in graphite. I worked about 150% larger on the spreads. All the drawing is done at once. Again, these went for approval after I scanned them at high res[olution]. Then I moved onto the colouring, my fav part, and I use Adobe® Photoshop® a lot for this, as it is fast and easy to make changes. I also had to design the cover to be in keeping with the other books in the series, back page image, and title pages.

The hardest part for me is the initial sketching and working out of ideas. It's fun, but challenging, especially in a book like this. You are thinking about it a lot, even when not working, so you can get a little irritable. My hubby knows I need to be left alone when this process is happening! After that it is mainly technique. My favorite part is colouring.

[I love the way British people spell. By the way, here are photos of Hazel’s studio. Don’t you love the overstuffed chair by the window?]

There’s so much activity and detail in every spread of Hidden New Jersey. I spent a long time looking at each one. How did you choose what to include, what resources did you use, and how long did it take you to create each spread?

Each page, which concentrates on a different area of New Jersey, had been carefully researched by the author, Linda Barth (who is a New Jersey native) and New Jersey historian. So I knew what had to be included! Putting it together in an interesting way was the hard part. I spent lots of time looking at reference photos and making sketches. Unfortunately I didn't have time to go to New Jersey and visit all the places. My hubby was raised in New Jersey, though, so he helped a lot. In the old days I would have been in the library, working my way through piles of books. The internet has certainly changed the way we work! You also have to be careful not to use copyrighted references and to ask permission from the owners. For the most part, I took many different pieces of reference and drew my own impression. Each spread in entirety took about 5-6 days.

Great info! [Here's what Hazel can see outside her studio window.]

I learned so many fun and interesting things about New Jersey by reading this book, such as that Samuel Morse did not invent the telegraph and General Washington’s troops were inoculated against smallpox in New Jersey. Without giving away much of the book, what were some of the most interesting or surprising things you learned about New Jersey as you worked on the book?

You’re right—there are so many odd pieces of information. It certainly changed MY view of the state! I was amazed at the diversity. For example, the greatest concentration of American Holly is on the coast.  And that the world's largest free-flying flag is in New Jersey. The surprises are endless! I hope children (and adults) enjoy finding out that there is so much more to New Jersey than just THOSE housewives.

Me, too, and I know they will. You’re also a writer. Tell me about what you write. Do you illustrate your text in the same manuscript?

I am writing, although I am not published in traditional print as a writer as yet. (I have retold The Ugly Duckling, which is available online at I have several picture book dummies that I am working on writing and illustrating. I also have a YA illustrated novel in the works and a MG novel. What I don't seem to have enough of is time!

We never have enough of that. Illustrating an art-rich book like Hidden New Jersey on a schedule must demand an incredible amount of energy and creativity from you. What do you do to refresh and refill your creative well?

I was pretty exhausted when I finished, also because I had other projects overlapping the beginning and end of this book. Taking time out is my worst thing. When I am working on a project I can sometimes work long hours 7 days a week. I do love to swim and walk my dog. I listen to BBC Radio 4 all day when I am working, and this is always full of great plays, comedy, and books, and it takes my mind somewhere else. (I can only listen when illustrating, not when writing!) When I come to the end of a project, then I read a lot, and I love to go to museums and bookshops.

What about “Hidden Hazel Mitchell”: Do you have any secrets or mysteries that you’d like to reveal? What don’t people know about you from your official biography?

Hmmm … I play the tin whistle for fun. I once painted a portrait of Princess Anne that the Royal Navy presented to her. When I was a teenager I wanted to be a veterinary surgeon. I broke my ankle parachuting. My favorite TV show is Father Ted.

Yes! I knew there was more to Hazel than meets the eye. A couple more questions: First, what is the most important thing you've learned in your career?


I agree that’s so important. And finally, what advice can you give readers who want to illustrate books?

Learn your craft, study those who have gone before you, work hard, and find your inner child. Oh, and join the SCBWI.

Great advice. Thanks so much, Hazel! I know that kids and their grownups will love Hidden New Jersey, and I wish you much success!

Thanks Marilyn! Loved being interviewed by you!

A copy of Hidden New Jersey, signed by Hazel, will be sent to one lucky reader! Leave a comment, and a winner will be drawn at random.

If you’d like to know even more about Hazel Mitchell, and see her books and art (you can even purchase her prints!), visit her website, find her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter (@TheWackyBrit).

Hidden New Jersey is available on February 1, 2012, at your local independent bookstore (if not, ask your bookseller to order it), Barnes & Noble, and And watch the Hidden New Jersey book trailer.


Kathryn Freeman said...

Great interview with Hazel. She is amazing! My husband is from New Jersey too. It is nice to see the state portrayed in a positive light! Kathryn Freeman

Jeanette Larson said...

I want Hazel's studio! It's much neater (in both senses of the word) than mine!!! I was born in NJ and lived there part of my life but still learned a lot from the text and illustrations. Fabulous book!

Molly Idle said...

Lovely interview, and a lovely studio too!

Redheaded Stepchild said...

Great interview! Thank you for more insight into the Wacky Brit!

Amy Allgeyer Cook said...

Aww--I love you both so much! :) Let's get together for tea.

Heather said...

Wonderful interview! I love hearing about how other artists work.

KC Held said...

Thanks for a great interview with a fascinating lady :). Love to you both!

Marilyn said...

Thanks to you all for taking the time to read the interview and leave a comment. The winner of an autographed copy of Hidden New Jersey is Jeanette Larson. Congratulations, Jeanette! Please email me your mailing address at: marilyn at marilynhilton dot com.