Amanda Hall

The next best thing to actually travelling across the globe is travelling in your mind’s eye. In fact, sometimes it’s more fun to take a journey in your imagination: you can control where you go, what you see, and — something impossible via plane or train — which period of history you travel to.

Many of the books I get asked to illustrate have exotic and historical settings. Occasionally, I’m lucky enough to be able to visit the country where the story takes place, but usually it’s not practical. For me, then, the journey usually begins when I’m sent a great story and my imagination gets on board and embarks for a new world.

When I begin work on a new book, my favorite thing is to read the text at night, when I’m in bed and relaxed, with a sketchbook and pencil nearby. Creativity is a magical process; for me, a good story stimulates memories, associations, images, and colors from somewhere deep in my imagination. Those initial impressions get transmitted through my hand onto paper as little sketches and notes. My first job, therefore, is to capture these precious responses as they bubble up in my mind’s eye, before they can escape.

Brother Giovanni's Little Reward
Brother Giovanni’s Little Reward

My next task, when working on a new book, is to do some research on the context for the book. For example, Brother Giovanni’s Little Reward: How the Pretzel Was Born my new book for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, written by Anna Egan Smucker — takes place in medieval Europe, most likely in Italy (I thought — with a name like Giovanni!). I already had a wonderful store of memories from visiting Italy as a child. These impressions added to my imaginative mix: fabulous old churches, clanking bells, the smell of warm Cyprus trees, wonderful food, a particular memory of having the top of my six-year-old head kissed by a kind adult, just because I was a ‘bambina.’

I started to hunt out art from medieval Italy. I have always loved pre-Renaissance Italian paintings, with their early sense of perspective, decorative plants, and buildings with the front walls opened up like dolls’ houses so that you can see right in. Having enjoyed playing with scale when I worked on The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau, I responded to the fantastical sizes of things in these early Italian paintings too. I was particularly drawn to the paintings of Fra Angelico for many reasons — their clarity and detail and their joyful coloration as well as the architectural structures the artist conjured. The scenes Angelico painted were often intimate in scale, even when he was dealing with epic subject matter. Like other painters of that era, he also worked on illuminated manuscripts. I thought I could have fun using those kinds of visual devices for Brother Giovanni.

I chose a very strong orange and turquoise color scheme for Brother Giovanni’s Little Reward, a rich, warm palette, to reflect the warmth of the Italian climate and the warmth of this story, which is full of love and laughter and evokes the smell of baking bread.


I really like the contrast of the strict but exasperated Abbot and the anarchic, irrepressible children, with big-hearted Brother Giovanni caught in the middle. I gave Brother Giovanni a cat, so he could have a friend to relate to. I only realized later, looking at early paintings of the time, that of course bakers had cats — to deal with mice! The cat evolved as I worked on my rough ideas. I thought I might be getting a bit carried away with him, but I was told firmly by the lovely people at Eerdmans that they really liked the cat. When they suggested more occasions when the cat could show up in the book, I agreed eagerly.

Giovanni Roughs Page 1
An early rough sketch for Brother Giovanni. (Notice the cat bottom left.)

I decided to use watercolor inks with gouache paints for Brother Giovanni’s Little Reward, as the colors achieved with gouache are vivid and clean. This is the third book I have illustrated using gouache. One of the great benefits of this paint is that you can keep reusing it once it has dried on the palette. While I was working on the book, I ended up with about twenty plates of mixed gouache sitting on every surface in my small studio. This made it easy to keep my colors consistent throughout the book.

So, in conclusion: when I illustrate a book, whether it’s set in medieval Italy, 19th century France or the mythical Arctic, the writer takes me on a journey with their story. I add to that journey with my visual contribution — my illustrations. Together, we (the writer, myself and, of course, the publisher) create the whole package, a book for people to enjoy. It is a journey that readers can share with us, the creators, and with others, and one that we all hope will continue to live in their imaginations. I suppose that’s what books are all about!

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Amanda Hall has illustrated a number of picture books, including The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau, which won the PEN/Steven Kroll Award. Read her
Eerdlings Five Questions post and visit Amanda’s website at