In this issue’s WD Interview, Jamie Lee Curtis credits her illustrator, Laura Cornell, with helping her add the “secret sauce” that appeals to children and parents alike. Learn more about how their partnership works in our exclusive extended Q&A.
—by Marcy Kennedy Knight
Has the success of your books surprised you?
The success of these books is so surprising to me. … These have been gifts. They are the purest expression of what I think and feel and the way I look at the world. And my partnership with Laura is the perfect partnership. I chose her because she looked at the world not as polished stones but as this mulch, you know? I grew up with these Little Golden Books with these cherubic Aryan blonde children with chubby cheeks and perfect clothes. And Laura Cornell’s illustrations in the book Annie Bananie [are of] the world filled with people with uneven ponytails, and Band-Aids on their knees, and missing teeth, and the absolute validity of life in an illustration.
What type of illustration suggestions have you made?
There have been moments when I have wanted the emotion of the intent of the illustration to be more evident, usually between a parent and a child. It’s just [Laura’s] nature to want to make it funny. And so the only times I’ve ever wanted her to make a change is when I wanted the illustration to be more emotional between two people.
But, having said that, these books come back to me as a gift. I receive an illustration and I go, “Oh my gosh.” So the success of these books—I really feel I owe it to our true partnership.
I don’t know if you saw the image in our last book, the photograph of us, where we’re riding the two-wheeled bike? The joke was she does all of the work and I get all of the glory. Here she is pumping the bike up the hill and I’ve waving at the fans. There is unevenness in the work that we do because my work is over very quickly, and she works for two years on a book.
Do your books have a universal theme, and if so, what is it?
The bottom line is, I want to relate. I want my readers to relate, [on] both sides. I want the parents to relate. I want the kids to relate. I want them to relate to each other. The tools I use are language, color and humor. I produce the language and a little bit of humor, and Laura Cornell produces all of the colors. So much of the humor is from her twisted sister mind.
Here’s the greatest one of all. In the process of the illustrations, I get an email from [my editor] Joanna. Joanna will say that art is starting to come in. It’s amazing. You’re going to love it. You’re mind is going to be blown. … And then I’ll open them up and go, “Oh my God! They’re so fabulous.” So, I got the illustration for the section in [My Brave Year of Firsts] when Frankie found a little beetle and made it a little condo—“I found a small beetle who was missing a leg. I got him a box and I named him Greg. I punched a few holes to save him from cats. I added some grass—my first bug habitat.”
And there’s the illustration. Frankie used a cardboard box. She used her dog’s bowl as a swimming pool. There are all these funny things inside the illustration. And it’s colorful and green and gorgeous. I am completely in love with it. And I call her up and I say, “Laura, this is crazy. I love this. And I loved the little brother—the pirate.” And by the way, Laura is the one who chose to make the little brother a pirate. … Then I say to her, “What’s he holding, by the way?” And she says, “The leg.” Why is the bug missing a leg? Here is the genius of my partnership. My illustrator decides that the little brother of the heroine is the perpetrator of the missing leg. Now, that’s dark. That’s dark and funny. That’s slightly subversive. But it’s funny. Of course, no one’s going to see that unless I tell them! That’s how she thinks. I doubled over laughing. … That’s why these books are so magical.