Nicole Tadgell, , is the award-winning illustrator of over thirty picture books. Her radiant watercolors capture the heart and emotions of characters from a variety of cultures and eras. Her goal is to bring stories to life while advocating for diversity in children’s literature. A winner of the Christopher Award and the Children’s Africana Book Award, her books have also been included on the Bank Street College, Smithsonian, and the New York Public Library’s notable lists. Her forthcoming title, Leaves to My Knees, written by Ellen Mayer, will be released this fall by Star Bright Books.
I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of this exuberant book. Camille, the main character, is determined to rake a pile of leaves big enough for jumping. Comparing her pile to her dad’s and her little brother’s as she works, she’s frustrated when a vagrant wind blows some of her leaves away. Will her pile ever be big enough for jumping? This sweet book gently supports math concepts of size comparison and measurement.
I was approached through my agent, Christy Tugeau with this project and was so excited as New England in the fall is spectacular!
After receiving the author’s text for a book like Leaves to My Knees, how do you approach planning out your illustrations? How do you determine where the page breaks will be? Do you use thumbnail sketches? Do these have to be approved by the art director along the way? I like to plan, and I have a method that works well for me. First I read the story many times, often with a sketchpad and draw thumbnails of what I see in my head. I can see page breaks where they make sense, and often the publisher has notations as to what they would like to see. In this book, they definitely did because of the leaf pile sizes. Yes, the team at Star Bright and I worked together throughout the project, it was a good process!
’s characters will look like. What is your
method for creating characters? Do you use models? How do you manage to capture emotions so well? I’m inspired by kids I know or memories of my siblings when they were young. I did use models for this book! My sister’s friend had two kids the right age. Their Dad was wonderful - instead of taking pictures of the kids playing in leaves, he shot video so I could pause and sketch. They were perfect! Original down to Camille’s double pom-poms and Jayden’s dinosaur coat. As for capturing emotions, that is hard to describe! I like to immerse myself into the world of the book, feel what the character is feeling.
What is your technique for varying your illustrations? Are you
conscious of plot arc and pacing as you work? Yes! I feel following the energy of the story and the author’s intent is key in finding what the story needs. In this book, showing the leaf piles clearly was a core intent, so I did my best to be sure everything stayed clear.
I’ve seen some of your
amazing fine art portraits. How is illustrating a book different from creating
a piece of fine art? There’s more of a wandering,
explorative process in my portraits. I don’t need to be concerned about many of
the things I do in a book - like whether the character looks the same on each
page. Or making sure there’s room for text, or being careful about color
choices for reproduction.
Early mornings and weekends are my time for studio art! Sometimes I’m lucky enough to be able to create watercolors for clients at the agency, which is always fun.
Many of the books you’ve illustrated are nonfiction or have a strong nonfiction component. What is your research like for books like In the Garden with Dr. Carver, With Books and Bricks: How Booker T. Washington Built a School, or Fatuma’s New Cloth? How do you ensure that your illustrations are historically accurate? Do you visit the settings of books like Liberty’s Civil Rights Road Trip or Follow Me Down to Nicodemus Town? I love doing research! It’s hard to pull away from it to start those nonfiction titles! Accuracy is important to me. I use libraries, the library of congress has an extensive image library, and I’ve even reached out to professional historical costume designers to check on clothing. I visit as many locations as I can, such as Nicodemus, Kansas.
Looking back at all the books you’ve illustrated do you see a theme or thread that ties them all together? Love! Connection. Family. Friendships. A character with relentless curiosity and determination. These are what pulls me to each of these books.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our
readers? Knowing the season, I began with fall colors: reds, oranges, yellows. I felt that contrast would help our family stand out, so I chose cool colors for Camille and Jayden. I chose earth tones for Dad to make the kids stand out even more. Interestingly, in the images I used for reference the real leaves had lost their color, so I just painted them colorful. I did make our Jayden a bit younger than the model’s age. I found a place nearby that had an interesting fence and small leaf-filled yard. I watched as cardinals flit between branches and squirrels chased each other – inspiration came for the animal antics in the background! And finally, my partner Anthony was kind enough to pose as the Dad in the book!