- On January 10, 2018
Nancy Tillman is a beloved children’s picture book author and illustrator, whose works have sold in the millions. Her first book, On the Night You Were Born, carried the special message to children that “You are the one and only ever you.” Tillman is also the author and illustrator of the best-selling titles: I’d Know You Anywhere, The Spirit of Christmas, Wherever You are My Love Will Find You, Tumford the Terrible, and The Crown on Your Head. She worked with Archbishop Desmond Tutu to illustrate Let There Be Light.
Whether writing books that remind children of their unique individuality, or communicating lessons for living through the experience of Tumford, an accident-prone cat, her books seek to convey one fundamental message to the young: You are loved.
While Tillman’s work esteems and treasures the parent-child bond, it also lays accent on the special status and meaning of animals in our lives. That’s why it was a pleasure to pose a few questions to her about her work and the place of animals in her worldview.
Q: Animals feature prominently in your books. They are our companions, guides, or a comforting presence on enchanted journeys in ethereal landscapes. What was your inspiration to depict animals in this way?
I have a deep connection with animals. Animals add more to my world than I could ever convey in words. I marvel at the individual beauty and attributes of every species. It is just the most natural thing in the world for me to put them in my illustrations. A part of me is always participating in those illustrations… picnicking with moon bears, splashing with elephants, painting with meerkats.
Q: You grew up in the South during the 1950s and early 1960s. Do any memories from that time period come through in your writing and illustrations?
I do remember the wide open spaces we were allowed to play in when I was a child. It’s a different world now, so I often try to put children in those spaces in my illustrations…whether they are playing hide and seek with bunnies or trampolining with kangaroos…or twirling with tigers.
Q: You write in rhyming verse. While it’s popular for children’s books, it appears to be a challenging format, especially when it comes to developing an engaging plot line. Does writing in verse come naturally to you?
In a way, it does! It’s a challenging format, but I can’t imagine writing any other way. I find a special whimsy and joy in rhyming verse.
Q: Your faith is present in several books. In Let There Be Light, you collaborated with Archbishop Desmond Tutu to produce a magical creation story in which wild animals nestle at the feet of children and a lion bows down to a mouse. With its vivid imagery, this book celebrates animals as a central part of God’s creation that we should enjoy and take care of. It also makes it clear that animals bring great joy to God. How did you come to work with Archbishop Tutu, and how did you decide to represent the creation story in this way?
It is my understanding that Archbishop Tutu giggled that famously wonderful giggle of his when he saw my illustration of a child riding a hippo across a creek and that is what led him and his team to ask for me. I hope my illustrations mirror the spirit of the Archbishop’s words. He is an authentically joyous person and his voice is full of exuberance and warmth. I listened to him read over and over as I illustrated and did my best to bring the charm of his rendition to life.
Q: In The Heaven of Animals, you write, “With all of my heart, I believe it is true that there is a heaven for animals, too. Sometimes I think that they already know, all of the animals…just where they’ll go. Haven’t you noticed them drift off and stare, lift their soft noses and gaze into air? I think that maybe it’s heaven they see.” Your words are so touching and connect with so many of us who have looked into our beloved companions’ eyes, particularly towards the end of their lives, and wondered the same thing. What led you to write about the afterlife of animals?
I cannot imagine a heaven without animals. It makes no sense to me that God would create these magnificent creatures and not want to have them around him always. In my book, our animal friends remember us when they have moved on and, when angels whisper in their ears, it is our voices they hear. I depicted them this way because it was important to me to illustrate that our animal friends aren’t only happy in Heaven, but that they remember us and will welcome us. That is a comforting thought to me. While no one has a definitive answer, the Bible seems to summarize that there is nothing but joy in Heaven. I cannot imagine that joy without my animal friends!
Q: In You’re Here for a Reason, you seek to show children their ability to make a difference, on the grounds that even though they are small, they can still help others. You encourage them to undertake even small acts of kindness because those actions will blossom and spread in ways we cannot foresee and you include a few beautiful illustrations of children helping animals. I think there’s an important message for adults there, too. Although our acts to help animals may seem insignificant in light of their overall suffering, we don’t always know how such good can multiply. Another theme of this book seems to be that helping others brings meaning to our own lives. Why did you decide to tackle these heavier themes in a children’s story?
Most of my books are intended for all ages. I receive emails often from people at all stages of life who feel the words of this book were words they needed to hear. I’m so happy when anyone tells me he or she is encouraged by one of my books.
While my main goal has always been to give parents words to say what they feel about their children, it is wonderful when they apply to others. And anytime I show children interacting gently and lovingly with animals I hope it helps to shape the world view of whoever is reading.
Q: You were a finalist for Illustrator of the Year for the Children’s Choice Awards in 2011 for Wherever You Are My Love Will Find You, and you clearly are a gifted illustrator. Did you have any formal art instruction or are you completely self-taught?
Thank you for your kind words. I am self-taught, although I certainly had to learn a lot of Photoshop and other software programs!
Q: Your illustrations are rich in color with a strong naturalistic quality. You’ve mentioned that you utilize a layered approach consisting of digital imagery with an application of mixed media in the top most layers. Could you briefly describe your working process for readers with an artistic bent?
I layer hundreds of illustration elements in Photoshop, experimenting along the way as I navigate toward what I see in my mind’s eye. As I near completion I flatten the layers and paint on top. With software programs I can use oil, chalk, watercolor… any medium I like.
Q: From the photos and videos on your Facebook page, it looks like you visited a wildlife refuge at some point. Is this correct, and if so, what was that experience like?
Most of the photos and videos you’ve seen were taken on trips to Africa. A few years ago my husband and I trekked up the Virunga Mountains in Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas there. It was extraordinary. We’ve also camped with elephants and enjoyed breakfast with giraffes. I am blessed to have many amazing memories with many amazing creatures.
Q: Do you still have plans to feature a gorilla in an upcoming book?
I have to wait for the perfect book!
View Nancy Tillman’s books on Amazon.com.