Artist Spotlight: Derek Sullivan on Zombie, Or Not To Be
Working as a professional illustrator since 2006, Derek Sullivan’s first children’s book, Party Croc!: A Folktale from Zimbabwe, was published in 2015 by Albert Whitman & Company. Since then, Derek has published exclusively with Hazy Dell Press with a prodigious output including 5 board books, a picture book (The Cyclops Witch and the Heebie-Jeebies), and most recently, the Hazy Fables series of middle-grade chapter books including Hobgoblin and the Seven Stinkers of Rancidia and Zombie, Or Not to Be.
Derek recently (virtually) sat down to chat with Hazy Dell Press about his most recent publication, Zombie, Or Not to Be, his approach to illustration, and the ways his background in animation informs his approach to children’s books.
HAZY DELL PRESS: Thanks for taking some time to chat with us today. We’ll start with what is hopefully an easy question: What aspect of being an illustrator brings you the most joy?
DEREK SULLIVAN: No problem! Happy to be here, virtually speaking. I’d have to say I enjoy the sketching phase of any illustration project I work on the most. It's fun to loosely sketch out ideas and try different things without worrying too much about the final product. If all goes well, this phase is where a lot of the "problems" are solved so it can be satisfying when things come together. Plus, I've found that the more time I spend in this phase the easier it makes the process later on.
HDP: In general, what is your process to progress your illustrations from sketch to finished product for a book like Zombie, Or Not to Be? Do you start on paper, or does it all take place digitally?
DS: I tend to start on paper when I'm first exploring character design or layout. From there I'll take photos with my smartphone of sketches I like and I'll redraw them and iterate on them with my digital tablet in Photoshop. Then when I'm happy with the final sketch I'll take it into Adobe Illustrator to create vectors of all the shapes. From there, I take the vector shapes back into Photoshop and paint and shade them, at last creating the final illustration.
HDP: Did you always know you wanted to be a professional illustrator? Do you remember when you decided to make it your career?
DS: I think knew I wanted to be a visual artist of some sort from a young age. I would draw a lot as a kid and then went on to study animation and graphic design in college. Illustrating board books and picture books (and middle-grade chapter books) is a natural extension of those two fields since they're both ultimately about visual storytelling.
HDP: How does your background in animation inform your approach to children's book illustration?
DS: Both art forms are similar in the sense that they tend to be dominated by characters, so it's very important to spend a lot of time upfront drawing the characters in various positions and conveying different emotions, so that there's a consistency to them. Animation is much more labor intensive, but I take that philosophy of drawing the characters over and over into children's books.
HDP: Your most recent middle-grade chapter book, Zombie, Or Not to Be (published September 2020), is an adaptation of Hamlet. As you dived into the source material, what ended up resonating the most?
DS: I've always loved Hamlet because in it Shakespeare deals so eloquently with the basic questions of mortality and existence. I think Hamlet is a perfect fit with the zombie genre because they both deal directly with those themes.
HDP: As you know, we at Hazy Dell Press are big proponents of encouraging empathy in young readers. How does your sense of empathy inform your approach to illustration?
DS: Empathy is important for illustrating children’s books because you have to be able to depict characters in various emotional states. To depict what a character is thinking, you have to be able to put yourself in their shoes and imagine what it would be like to be them, even if that character doesn't necessarily have shoes—like Rick the floating skull in Zombie, Or Not to Be.
HDP: Speaking of secondary characters in Zombie, Or Not to Be: which did you enjoy illustrating the most? Why do you think you responded to this character in particular?
DS: There were a lot of fun secondary characters in Zombie, Or Not to Be, but I think I enjoyed drawing [brain-hunting zombies] Squeak and Gibber the most. I was instantly struck by the idea of one zombie carrying the other on its back and had a lot of fun drawing them. Overall, I liked leaning into the more outlandish zombie characters and I think Squeak and Gibber are arguably the most extreme.
HDP: Did any of the characters in Zombie, Or Not to Be give you a particularly difficult time? Or did any of them take longer to figure out the best approach to their character design?
DS: I don't know if I'd use the word “difficult” to describe her, but it took me a really long time to figure out Nerida and her flowing pink locks filled with sea weed and organisms. I wanted to get her just right because to me, her relationship with Edda is the heart of the book.
HDP: Thanks again for answering some questions! We just have one more for you: If you could give one piece of advice to a young, aspiring illustrator, what would it be?
DS: My advice would be to draw and write as much as possible. Have fun exercising your creative muscles and don't worry too much about the outcome!