Raissa Figueroa - A Lion & Dragonfly Interview
I am thrilled to introduce the mermaid obsessed illustrator of Oona - Raissa Figueroa! This interview is an absolute treasure, as she walks us through how MerMay impacted the delightful evolution of Oona - in sketches! Read on learn a bit more about this engaging and hugely talented former "military brat", now settled outside San Diego.
How did you come to collaborate with Kelly DiPucchio on this book? What does that process look like?
So Oona became a book a little differently than what usually happens in the publishing world, as I've come to understand it. She was “officially” born back in 2017 as a pencil sketch in my toned tan, spiral-bound notebook. It was the first time I’d ever attempt to participate in #Mermay: a drawing challenge on Instagram, started by Tom Bancroft, where artists are invited to draw a mermaid for each day in the month of May:
My agent is ABSOLUTELY gung-ho about all things mermaid, and it was her comment on "Third" that led me to substitute that pointy pile of hair for an enormous afro.
For Mermay 2018, I decided to focus on just a single character in order to help ease the daily drawing aspect, so I tweaked the tail on "Fourth", borrowing from yet another old sketch I had done of a mermaid with a lionfish tail and thus Oona sprung into being.
These paintings caught the eye of my editor, Mabel Hsu, who asked if there was a story attached to this little mermaid. At that point she didn't even have a name, let alone a story! Writing is something I've always thought about pursuing, but at that moment I felt more comfortable if someone with vastly more experience could help tell her story. I don't think I could've gotten any luckier when Mabel informed me that Kelly DiPucchio had seen the sketches and had fallen in love! The rest is history, and I couldn't ask for a better team in helping Oona reach such a wide audience!
Have you always loved mermaids?
I've definitely been a fan, even from a young age. I remember seeing the 80's movie Splash, with Tom Hanks, and just being MESMERIZED by her tail. It looked so realistic to me and made me wholeheartedly wish I had a tail of my own. The Little Mermaid, The Thirteenth Year, even a few episodes of Charmed (the old version) and that Australian TV Show H20: Just Add Water are all still favorites of mine!
What inspired you to become an illustrator and/or Have you always wanted to be an illustrator?
My 8 year old self would have answered that question with a whole-hearted yes:
I eventually strayed from that path as I listened more and more to society's expectations as to how to eek out a living, but eventually I found my way back to my true self.
Who has most inspired your creative life?
The list of people who have been supportive of my decision to take that chance on myself and actually earn a living creating art is endless. I do know that I wouldn't be where I am today without them. And to all the people that are also creating, not just in illustration but in all artistic endeavors: dance, music, film, sculpture, photography - they continue to be a constant source of inspiration to me as well.
What’s been the most surprising thing about being a children’s illustrator?
For me, because I wasn't all that familiar with the medium when I got into this field a handful of years ago, other than the books I remember my mom reading to me as a kid, I had no idea children's books could be so...for lack of a better word... deep! You have a very limited format in which to tell a story and yet the kind of impact some books can wield, touching on truths that not only resonate with children, but with adults as well...WOW. It definitely opened my eyes to the endless possibilities children's books can offer. They're beautifully complex stories disguised in deceptively simple packages that make me appreciate all of the work that goes into bringing one into being!
What do you think are the ingredients for a great children’s book?
I briefly touched on this, but if your story can communicate some aspect of the human condition (be it serious or not) CLEARLY enough to be digestible to a child while simultaneously presenting it in a way that is enjoyable enough for that child to be captivated and inspired in a positive way, you've got yourself a winner.
What is your hometown?
My father was in the military so we moved around quite a bit when we were young, but the place where we settled the longest and I still consider it to be my hometown is the small, rural community of Valley Center - located in Northern San Diego County.
What is your favorite place to illustrate?
When I do personal work I tend to stick with scenes that are outdoor in nature when I do them. Partly because I prefer to paint the lushness of wild spaces as opposed to the sort of colder, more rigid, structures of man, and partly because man-made objects are still a bit intimidating for me to tackle.
Do you listen to music while you are working? If so, what’s currently on your playlist?
Depending on where I am in a project will dictate what I listen to. In the beginning stages of creating a book, where I need to generate more new ideas and the direction I'm going in still isn't quite clear, I will put on a loop of pink noise to help me get in the zone. Once I reach a point where all that's left to do is render things out, I will switch to either music, podcasts, or even put on a movie or show I've seen 100 times over as background noise. My spotify playlist spans a wide variety of genres, ages, and even languages, but music that sort of matches the theme of the project I'm working on will help me connect with the work that much more.
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?
I still have a soft spot in my heart for New Zealand. I've never been, but I absolutely adore their accent, and from the countless shows and movies I've watched that have been filmed there, it seems like a paradise!
What was your favorite picture book growing up? and/or What picture book do you never tire of reading to children?
It's definitely going to be hard to choose just one but the books that still stand out to me to this day include Where the Wild Things Are, The Giving Tree and The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
It’s summertime. We have to know: What is your favorite ice cream flavor?
My all-time favorite would have to be Cookies-n-Cream! Although Mint Chip, and this flavor I've only had in San Francisco - Honey Lavender, are close seconds hehe.
Which superpower would you most like to have?
Another tough one! It would be a close choice between the ability to shape-shift into any animal (which would also give me flight) or teleportation coupled with the ability to maintain my own atmosphere so that I could visit other planets too!
What’s the last book you couldn’t put down?
I'm sorry to say that these days I rely mostly on audiobooks if I do read, but recently I did actually devour the book Creativity and the Campfire by Marco Bucci. He's definitely one of the artists I admire and have learned the most from. The book isn't very long but it is chock-full of amazing insights and inspiration for artists!
If you weren’t an illustrator , what would you most like to be? What is your (other) dream career?
Again, my 8-year-old self said "animal doctor" and while I do love animals to this day, I don't have the stomach to be a veterinarian. Strangely enough, a couple of years ago I signed up with the Wag app (on demand dog walking) and actually really enjoyed it. I had put down my own dog a few months prior and still didn't have the heart to adopt another, so this was a way I could still have dogs in my life AND get a ton of exercise. I've worked in retail and small businesses and when comparing what you have to deal with on a daily basis, it can't really beat the peace you feel when out on a stroll or the love of a pup. You're not going to get rich doing it, but at least for me, I'd be content.
What would you want your ten year old self to know?
I wish someone would've told me that making art for a living was a viable career. Forget the starving artist trope that people often use to scare you into getting some boring 9-5. If you bring your passion and stick with it, your reality could be one where you don't ever have to lose touch with that indescribable feeling you get when you are in the moment creating something. I mean, getting to explore countless worlds and stories, continually stretching your imagination, and helping bring that sparkle, that untold joy to kids?! This has to be the best job in the world!
What are you currently working on?
At the moment I have six books in the works with two not kicking off until later this year and a third beginning next year, so stay tuned! Princess Unlimited will be the next title to come out in November of this year, so I'm excited for that also!
I can't keep track of what's been announced already so that I can talk about it and what hasn't, so for now it's best to just take it year by year You can see a pretty good preview of what's coming all in one spot here.
Look! Oona will be back soon :)
Thank you Raissa!