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Behind-the-scenes peek into picture book writing & illustration process with Hazel Mitchell (SWEET PEA SUMMER, Candlewick)

Hazel Mitchell has helped create more than twenty children’s books, including her award-winning picture book Toby (Candlewick Press). Her illustrations appear in books by Cynthia Lord, JaNay Brown-Wood (Imani’s Moon was mentioned on the Stephen Colbert show!), Lynn Parrish Sutton, Liza Gardner Walsh and others. You can find out more about Hazel and her work at HazelMitchell.comFacebookInstagram and Twitter.

Synopsis of SWEET PEA SUMMER (Candlewick):

During her mother’s absence, a young girl discovers the joys of gardening—and the rewards of persistence and a sharp eye—in a sweet intergenerational story. With warm, child-friendly illustrations and a simple narration, Hazel Mitchell tells a timeless story about holding on to hope in hard times and finding the strength and determination to see it through. A brief author’s note at the end offers a bit of history and a few details about sweet peas for aspiring gardeners.

Q. What inspired you to write Sweet Pea Summer?

My inspiration for the book were memories I have from staying with my grandparents when I was little (4-6 years old). They lived in a row of mill cottages in a Yorkshire town called Huddersfield. The town was born out of the wool trade and had many factories and tall towers, but was surrounded by beautiful countryside. I started to sketch my memories of staying with them – the cottage, the garden, the countryside with the moors and mill chimneys, the cats that were always scampering around, the long road that stretched away up a sloping hill to the town itself.

My granddad was an excellent gardener. I suspect this came from the war years in Britain when everyone grew their own food as much as possible. In my memory the garden was so, so long with a little greenhouse and was stuffed with veggies and flowers. Of course, my memory exaggerated everything. I was seeing through a small child’s eyes. I even googled the road on Google Streetview and the cottage and the garden are still there, just much smaller than I recalled.

I decided there was a story in these sketches and my rememberings. I find that I’m often inspired by childhood memories, places and real life things, like my own dog who is the main character in the book ‘Toby’, also from Candlewick Press. I’ve even been known to use my house in books, or feature the landscape of Maine, where I live, and sometimes I draw objects from my home. it gives authenticity I think.

Q. What was the writing and illustration process like?

After some note making, more doodles and musing I decided on the main character of a girl. She’s not exactly me. My sister also went to stay with my grandparents when my mother was ill and that was really the nugget that set me rolling. The girl is sad and missing her mother, so Grandpa invites her to help in the garden and, in particular, to look after the sweet peas. (My own grandfather grew chrysanthemums, but I decided children would relate more to sweet peas. Plus it is easier to say!).

The grandparents do not look like my grandparents and even though the child is not really me, I guess she shares some of my personality characteristics and DO I love gardening! (Although I always fail with sweet peas, which is ironic). I found I had all the inspiration I needed to get started on roughing out a story.

Writing and illustrating Sweet Pea Summer was a long process, as most books tend to me. There are a lot of images in the book, which is kind of graphic novelish in a way, with multiple images on some pages that follow a grid layout. Although I did preliminary character and setting sketches, I then spent time writing scene progressions and story boarding before I was ready to do the first full dummy.

I’ve found this saves me time in the long run, when I finally start to sketch I can be pretty certain I have the rudimentary story arc and length of book down. We had 2-3 edits and rehashes before my editors, art director and myself were all happy to go to finals. Finals are always the very long and arduous stage of the book for me. The first spark of story and hashing it out is the inspirational bit.

I did all the art for Sweet Pea in pencil and watercolor (usually I colour an under painting digitally), but I felt this book needed a traditional watercolour feel. It was a longer process for sure! Along the way I did a good amount of picture research especially on the landscapes and the flowers – plus the process of growing them, which features in the story. The parallel between the illness of the m/c’s mom and the flowers failing to open was important to me. didn’t want it to be too obvious to the reader.

My editor, Liz Bicknell at Candlewick Press, was very helpful, as always, keeping the story on track. Pam Consolazio was my art director, and her nickname was Sweet Pea as a child! it is lovely when you find unexpected connections. I scan my own artwork, which gives me the luxury of making any tweaks to the final art. I think the whole book took about 2 years, including edits etc.

It’s wonderful when your book finally arrives in your mailbox! (Just like any birth, the pain recedes!) It was especially concerning in this time of the pandemic, but everything went well and the books arrived in time for publication.

Q. What advice do you have for young writers and illustrators?

My advice to young writers and illustrators is always work on stories that you love and feel an emotional response to whether, happy, sad, funny or just that you just love and know the subject. It will always show in your work!

For more insights from book creators, see my Inkygirl Interview Archives and Advice For Young Writers And Illustrators From Book Creators.