June 16, 2020

Benjamin's Blue Feet: Q & A with author-illustrator Sue Macartney

Benjamin's Blue Feet
Written and illustrated by Sue Macartney
Pajama Press
32 pp.
Ages 3-7
June 2020

Today is the release of the picture book Benjamin's Blue Feet, reviewed here on CanLit for LittleCanadians yesterday. To help launch Benjamin's Blue Feet,  I had the pleasure of interviewing author and illustrator, Sue Macartney.

Sue Macartney, author and illustrator of Benjamin's Blue Feet

HK:  What was the germ of an idea that started your writing of Benjamin’s Blue Feet? Was it finding a mirror on the beach, a trip to the Galapagos, reading a news story, or something else?

SM:  Working with young children as an art educator I’ve been struck by how early they can start comparing themselves negatively to others. This was one of the little sparks that got me writing Benjamin’s Blue Feet. I’m also passionate about nature and knew that I wanted it to be central in my storytelling.

HK:  There have been lots of books recently published that deal with the plastic problem in oceans and the colossal environmental problem of ocean garbage, but most of those books have been non-fiction. Why choose to tell your story as a picture book and not an illustrated book of non-fiction?

SM:  I was particularly drawn to the picture book format because of its amazing versatility. As a picture book author-illustrator I get to play with plots and visual subplots and can write about things like self-awareness and pollution for a very young audience. In picture book format, Benjamin’s Blue Feet is intended as a gentle and humorous exploration of these issues but can also be discussed in more depth depending on the child’s level of understanding.
         Incidentally, I started out in biology and I’m also really attracted to writing non-fiction books for children.

HK:  Though Benjamin’s Blue Feet  makes a comment about ocean garbage, it also addresses the issue of body image and wanting to look like someone else.  Why choose the blue-footed booby to focus on this concern?

SM:  The primary focus of the story is on self-awareness and I wanted my main character to be a uniquely memorable animal. The booby’s blue feet already fascinated me and became the starting point for my story. I was surprised to learn that the word “booby” is believed to come from the Spanish word “bobo”, which in English actually means “fool”. Something that might make any bird feel insecure!  So-named because the blue-footed booby’s large wings and feet can make its on-land movements seem awkward and comical. These same features also happen to be its indisputable strengths. Being able to champion an animal character that initially doubts its own attributes and then learns their intrinsic value felt like a very satisfying fit.

HK:  What do you believe are the best ways to tackle the issue of young children comparing themselves negatively to others?

SM:  Speaking only from personal observation, I think this is symptomatic of a much broader spectrum of behaviour surrounding issues of self-esteem and self-awareness. I would say that overarching societal attitudes have an enormous impact on how a child sees him/herself.  The attitude regarding healthy body image in Scandinavia, for example, is very different from that in North American.  I think primary education and more candid discussions about healthy body image with the very young are key components in tackling these issues.

HK:  Your double-spread of “Creatures of the Galapagos” depicts a variety of land and water animals from the Galapagos Islands. Do you have any personal experiences with these unique islands and would you consider another book to focus on this unusual ecosystem, particularly the endemism within?

SM:  When I was seven I got a copy of Helen Haywood’s The New Noah’s Ark of Rare Animals. Among all sorts of amazing creatures, I was introduced to Galapagos tortoises and land iguanas and learned about Charles Darwin for the first time. I think these fascinating islands have probably been floating somewhere in my brain ever since.  A real Galapagos adventure is high on my dream “bucket list” and a book examining the endemism within this remarkable ecosystem would be an amazing writing project…time to start saving for that trip!

HK:  The copyright page describes your art as  created with pen and ink and digital media.  Can you please explain the process of illustrating Benjamin’s Blue Feet?

SM:  The process for this book started with a particularly cute photo of a blue-footed booby. I really enjoy the deep dive into visual research and googled multiple images of blue-footed boobies and did lots of drawings until I found the right look for Benjamin.  The illustrations start as a series of small pencil thumbnails that I refine and enlarge for a finished pencil rendering. Next I add preliminary ink washes and details to the drawing. Then I scan the images into the computer using Photoshop for further work on colour depth and shadows. I like to incorporate paper and photo textures into my illustrations too.


Many thanks to Sue Macartney
for sharing insights into the writing and illustrating of Benjamin's Blue Feet with this interview with CanLit for LittleCanadians

Thanks also go to Laura Bowman,
Sales and Marketing Manager at Pajama Press,
for arranging this interview.

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