For the month of January, we’ve had the pleasure of working with Laura Freeman, who has illustrated the children’s book version of Hidden Figures, the story of a team of female African-American mathematicians who performed a crucial role at NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program.
Freeman has built a career illustrating beautiful children’s books (as well as textiles and dishes!). As an African-American artist, she draws on her own family’s experience to imbue her characters with a strength that she witnessed growing up. She took the time out of her busy schedule to talk to us about her working life and what inspires her to get up in the morning.
Who or what inspired you to embark on a career in art initially?
My parents were always supportive, I was about five when, after looking at a beautiful children’s book, I asked my mom about the pictures and she told me that it was someone’s job to create them. I thought: ‘Wow, that’s a job?’ I immediately knew that was perfect for me and I wish I could remember the book! It’s funny, but at New York’s School of Visual Arts, where I studied, I forgot all about my very first career choice and embarked upon a career as an editorial illustrator. But, one thing led to another and I found my way back to children’s books (but I still enjoy doing editorial work!)
You’ve illustrated more than 20 children’s books, but your work also appears on products. Is it a different discipline illustrating dishes or textiles from children’s books? What gives you the most satisfaction?
Illustrating for products is a very different animal from book or editorial illustration. When licensing art for products you don’t have an authors’ words as a jumping-off point. I started designing for products during a lull in children’s book assignments and to my surprise it changed my illustration style. Since it’s purely decorative I felt freer to experiment. I started to play more with color, style and pattern – something I should have been doing all along. They’re satisfying in different ways; both are like solving visual puzzles and each one feeds the other. It’s a circle but I’m always the most excited about whatever project I’m currently working on.
What does your regular working day look like?
It really varies. During the school year I usually start working by 8 but there are days I may not really get started until noon. I hate having to wake up early and I’ve pretty much structured my life around not having to. On the other hand, some days I just can’t wait to start and I’ll be working for hours before it dawns on me that I’m still in my pajamas and I should probably get dressed! I’ve tried to work “normal” hours and stop by 5 or 6, but deadlines don’t always allow it. There are times when I just get so excited and caught up in what I’m doing that I keep going until late at night.
Before Hidden Figures, your body of work included the Nikki & Deja series and The Carver Chronicles, both about life at elementary school. Tell us a bit about those books.
The Nikki & Deja series are chapter books aimed at girls, and right now I’m working on Pizza Party, the 6th in the Carver Chronicles series, which is aimed at boys. Both series are written by Karen English and she really captures the thoughts and emotions of that age group. It’s just how I remember it. It’s been fun and challenging to work on these books that each inhabit the same world and share some of the same characters. Of course, I drew on my own memories (and childhood dramas) for the pictures.
Was it challenging drawing real people for Hidden Figures compared to the characters you normally tackle for a book project? How did you go about ensuring they were accurately rendered?
With Hidden Figures, I had so much fun researching not only what the four women looked like, but the fashions, the setting and the time in which their story took place. Lately, most of the projects I’ve been working on have been based on historical figures but there’s almost always research to do, no matter what kind of project.
In one image, Dorothy is looking up at a war plane, projecting mathematical equations on its belly in her mind. It struck me as a very neat way to convey her desire to help her country during WWII. How did you come up with that image in particular?
Thanks! Since the women were all brilliant math whizzes, I initially wanted to use the math symbols as a pattern element throughout the book. The author vetoed this idea and I realized she was right. It has more meaning when used only in specific places, like the plane.
Had you ever illustrated a subject so emotionally charged as segregation before?
I had previously illustrated a book about Coretta Scott King and it also stirred up a lot of emotions about that time in history. I wanted to make sure I showed strength and anger in the women’s faces and postures. I didn’t want them to ever look like they were giving in to the situation or like they were accepting of how they were being treated.
As an African-American artist, how did your own experiences inform your work?
My parents came up during the time period this book takes place. They were a mixed-race couple who if they had lived in the south, where my dad is from, would have been jailed for marrying each other. My mom’s family were never accepting of my dad, or of my sister and me. My mom’s brother actually beat her up in an attempt to get her to break up with my dad. He broke several of her fingers, which never did heal properly, so… I never knew any of my mom’s side of the family. My dad’s side was just the opposite and accepted my mom and us into the family unconditionally. Both my parents were active in the civil rights movement, attending marches and protests since they were young. I’d grown up hearing stories from my dad and my aunts about the way they had been treated growing up in the south. I tried to imbue the strength I saw in my dad and his siblings into the characters in my illustrations.
What’s been your favorite interaction with a child about your work?
I love to use my own kids as models for my kid characters, but as they’re growing up I won’t be able to do this much longer. I’ll have to get them to model for the adult characters instead!
Do you have a new book project you can tell us about?
I can’t talk about all of them yet but I’m honored to be working on so many exciting projects this year. In addition to Pizza Party I’ll be working on five different books based on heroic African Americans, and … Natalie’s Hair Was Wild just came out – the first ever book that I’ve written and illustrated. It’s different from the others. It’s for younger kids, a light and whimsical story of a little girl whose hair gets so wild that animals take up residence in it. The story came to me because when I was little my mom had no idea of what to do with my hair: she used to tell me that the knots were so bad it was like I had a nest in there.