Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Illustrating, with Karen Patkau

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Karen Patkau

Set in Uganda, A Good Trade (Pajama Press) is illustrated by Karen Patkau and written by Alma Fullerton. The book tells the story of Kato, a young boy who is so overwhelmed by the impact of an aid workers' gift that he longs to find something to give in return.

Today Karen speaks to Open Book about the experience of capturing this story in illustrations, her favourite things to draw and her influences as an artist.

Open Book:

Tell us about the illustrations in your book, A Good Trade.

Karen Patkau:

The following words are written on the dust jacket of the book:

“Alma Fullerton’s spare, lilting prose tells a deceptively simple story of one day in a little boy’s life. But in a place ravaged by a generation of civil war and drought, a village well brings life, a gift of shoes is a cause for celebration, and a simple flower becomes an eloquent symbol of peace and gratitude.”

My illustrations for A Good Trade try to visually enhance and emulate this “deceptive simplicity,” in both content and technique.


How did you approach A Goode Trade as a project? Was there a mood you were trying to evoke?


I tried to show aspects of everyday life in a troubled and poverty-stricken country. I tried to convey the struggles, hope, gratitude and joy of a young boy. I tried to convey the atmosphere and beauty of the Ugandan landscape.


Did your process for this book involve any research? Were you drawing anything that was very new to you?


I became familiar with the parts of Uganda that I needed to illustrate. I researched its people, their clothing, villages, homes, crops, livestock and the countryside. Everything I drew was new to me, including the aid-worker’s big truck.


What are some of your favourite things to draw?


I love to draw the natural world. I love colours, shapes, textures and patterns.


Who are some people who have deeply influenced (fellow artists or not) your artistic life?


My early illustration influences include the work of Ezra Jack Keats, Brian Wildsmith, Lois Ehlert, Elizabeth Cleaver and Eric Carle. I also study fine art, Inuit art, folk art and contemporary illustration.

I am fortunate to have a family and several artist friends who are interested in and support what I do. My parents encouraged my creative endeavours from a very young age. My brother and sister-in-law are architects. Their comments about my illustrations are always insightful. My husband is my “tech guy. ” He assists me in computer maintenance and helps my work as a digital artist run smoothly. My two cats are indifferent. However, they do like to sit on illustrations and stacks of books.


What are you working on now?


I’m writing and illustrating three more titles for my non-fiction Ecosystem Series with Tundra Books. These books introduce young children to ecosystems. While many nature picture books describe the plants and animals living in different ecosystems, very few explain what ecosystems really are.

Who Needs a Reef?: A Coral Reef Ecosystem, Who Needs a Prairie?: A Grassland Ecosystem and Who Needs a Desert?: A Desert Ecosystem will be published in Fall 2014.

The first three books, Who Needs a Swamp?: A Wetland Ecosystem, Who Needs a Jungle?: A Rainforest Ecosystem and were published in Spring 2012.

Author, illustrator, designer and visual artist Karen Patkau’s distinctive art can be found in more than a dozen picture books for children. She is the recipient of the Ezra Jack Keats Memorial Medal for Don’t Eat Spiders, and One Watermelon Seed appeared on the Bank Street Books Best Children’s Book list. Karen lives in Toronto, Ontario.

For more information about A Good Trade please visit the Pajama Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the On Writing and On Illustrating interviews in our archives.

Related item from our archives

JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications


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