SWING SISTERS: The Story of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm
A Conversation with the Illustrator
Q: Joe, tell us how you first heard about the book SWING SISTERS. What made you want to be the illustrator?
A: I was fortunate enough that Grace Maccarone at Holiday House contacted me and introduced the story to me. I’m always attracted to working on a manuscript that differs from previous projects, and SWING SISTERS filled the bill. More importantly, though, I knew I wanted to illustrate it after I first read it. I had strong ideas for several of the illustrations right away. That's a good sign.
Q: Your illustrations were praised in Kirkus Reviews as "colorful and richly textured full-bleed acrylic-and-oil paintings [that] match the mostly upbeat mood with illustrations of the women happily playing various instruments, joyfully askew compositions evoking the big-band beat." Tell us about your creative process for illustrating SWING SISTERS.
A: There was a lot of sketching to do for this book. That is, the designs needed to be sound and nudged until the choreography was just right. For example, there are plenty of scenes with a full band and instruments and such. It was important to make good compositional choices so that pictures didn't get too busy and get in the way of efficiently telling the story, especially the emotional part of the story. From an execution standpoint, I wanted to keep the brushwork loose enough to keep the pictures kinetic and fluid.
Q: SWING SISTERS begins in the early 1900s and takes place mostly in the 1940s. Did you do any research or special work to make sure your illustrations were accurate according to the time period?
A: I certainly wanted to be sensitive to the historical accuracy of the story. However, it's essential for me to keep a balance between reference and invention. I believe a picture book needs to have a level of magic and universality. I enjoy depicting the feel of something as much as I do being specific about it. I suppose it's about maintaining the emotional thrust so that things don’t become clinical, especially with a story like SWING SISTERS. I research, but I try not to be a slave to it. I try and maximize my opportunities for invention.
Q: What do you hope young readers will take away from this story?
A: First, I responded to the notion that if one is courageous enough, like the young women in this story, one can go wherever one wants to go, in spite of any adversity or obstacles. Also, the goodness of friendship and camaraderie can be a powerful thing.
Q: When did you decide you wanted to become an illustrator?
A: I really didn't decide on being an illustrator until I decided to pursue art after pursuing engineering. It was a bit of a serpentine route getting here. The truth is, it’s still changing. How I saw myself as an illustrator when I started is different from how I see it all now. It's not just a question of proficiency and mastery of skills, but a lifelong development and discovery of learning and sharing. . . . It’s poetry and science and bravery.
Q: What advice would you give to young illustrators?
A: Story first, style second.
About the IllustratorJoe Cepeda is the illustrator of more than twenty books for children and has received a Pura Belpré Honor Award. He lives in California.
Books by Joe Cepeda
¡Vámonos! Let's Go!: An adaptation of “The Wheels on the Bus” in English and Spanish, Paperback
Swing Sisters: The Story of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Reinforced
Up: An I Like to Read® Book Level B, Reinforced
Up: An I Like to Read® Book Level B, Paperback
¡Vámonos! Let's Go!: An adaptation of “The Wheels on the Bus” in English and Spanish, Reinforced