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Kristina Swarner Interview with Kristina Swarner, March 2005
Before You Were Born

Retold by Howard Schwartz
Kristina Swarner, Illustrator
Ages: All

Once, long ago, the angel Lailah, who knows all the mysteries of heaven, shared her secrets with you. The moment you were born, you forgot everything. But don't worry, in this book, you will lean about all those wonderful secrets again. And you will even know how you got that indentation above your lip! Noted folklorist Howard Schwartz elegantly shapes this legend. Matched with luminous art, Before You Were Born is the perfect book for bedtime - and all the time.
ETC: Kristina SwarnerYou have illustrated everything from advertisements to note cards. What inspired you to illustrate children's books?

Swarner: I've wanted to be an artist since I was a baby, I think. When I was about three years old, my grandmother made me a little book. Each page had a nature stamp on it, and she wrote a caption under each one that sounded almost like a fortune cookie, for example, "Before long you will see a little frog in your yard." I owned picture books, but that was when I realized that you could actually make one.

When I was old enough to read, I found that my other grandmother had a cellar full of musty old children's books up through the 1950s. The cellar became the most enchanting place on earth to me. My grandmother would hunt me down on sunny days and make me go outside, but I just wanted to stay downstairs and look at books. I still love the smell of mildewed paper!

ETC: Your latest book, Before You Were Born, is the tale of Lailah, the guardian angel, who shares all the mysteries of heaven with children before they are born and helps them to forget the secrets when she places an indentation on their upper lip. What drew you to this project?

Swarner: I liked the way Howard Schwartz told the story as a folk tale should be told-simply, almost conversationally, but still retained the mystery and poetry that the story deserves. And the imagery was beautiful, like the angel telling the child all the stories in the world.

ETC: In Before You Were Born, you used a combination of linoleum printing, watercolor, gouache, and colored pencil. What inspired this combination of media?

Swarner: It took a long time to evolve this technique. I like to do a black-and-white print, very basic, for the graphic quality and the texture of the paper, and then fill in the details and colors more subtly on top of the print.

ETC: How would you describe the angel in the book?

Swarner: I liked how the angel Lailah is more than anything a force of nature, helping the child to develop and grow, rather than being an angel in the typical sense. That is why I portrayed her partly as a mother figure, nurturing, and partly as always evolving, with the landscape behind her showing through and becoming her body and her wings, changing from page to page.

ETC: How did you decide to depict the Book of Secrets as pages of symbols?

Swarner: I think I was partly inspired by my old Larousse dictionary, which seems to have everything in the world in it. But an angel wouldn't use anything as prosaic as a dictionary, and I also wanted children looking at Lailah's book to be pulled in by the images. So I drew symbols that a child would probably recognize but that looked arcane enough for an angel. The feathers sticking out of the pages are where angels marked places in the book.

ETC: Why did you depict "the history of the soul" as half night and half day?

Swarner: Partly to show the passage of time, and partly because the day could represent the growing consciousness of the child. Also, Lailah is conveying all her knowledge to the child, and that knowledge inevitably includes the shadow side of things.

ETC: Who are some of your favorite illustrators? What inspires you?

Swarner: There are so many great illustrators working now. Some I really like are Maira Kalman, Vivienne Flesher, Peter Sis, and Nicholas Wilton. Some of my favorite classic book illustrators, and my children's, too, are Beatrix Potter, William Steig, and especially, Ludwig Bemelmans. And I love Tintin comics. Also, I like to look at Henri Rousseau, Japanese prints and textiles, Joseph Cornell, old postage stamps. Being out in nature inspires me more than anything, but that takes some planning, since I live in Chicago. I often have good ideas when dreaming, but with two young children, I don't sleep nearly as much as I used to, so that source has kind of dried up for a while!

ETC: What new project are you working on now?

Swarner: I've been writing and illustrating another children's book, the first I've written myself. It's still in process, changing all the time, so I don't want to tell too much about it yet, except I'm 99% sure there are no angels in it.