Truffles, Tardigrades, Meteorites and Museums: Nonfiction with Jessie Hartland

by Annie Ruygt

Author and illustrator Jessie Hartland, the October speaker in the Metro NY Professional Lecture Series, often writes about icons: Steve Jobs: A Graphic Biography and Bon Appétít: The Delicious Life of Julia Child are two of her recent titles. Her bright, playful illustrations have a following that transcends the normal age bracket for picture books. What people don’t see is the months, sometimes years, of research Hartland pours into each book.

 As a child, Hartland was shy, enchanted by The New Yorker magazine covers, dollhouses, and  putting on puppet shows. She started making art at an early age. Her adult career has been eclectic; in addition to illustrating and writing children’s books, she’s designed editorial cartoons, book covers, fabrics, and packaging. A gig designing the holiday windows at Bloomingdale’s inspired the much later picture book Night Shift, about people who work overnight.

After submitting a  book idea and hearing only rejections , Hartland finally got her first break: an editor who’d received Hartland’s promotional cards asked her to illustrate a book about Matisse. The Perfect Puppy for Me followed, and after illustrating these two books, Hartland went on to write and illustrate her own.

She finds unusual ways to present topics. One day, Hartland was examining an ancient Egyptian sphinx in the Metropolitan Museum of Art when she began wondering about the story behind it: “How did it get here?” She picked up the phone and connected with an Egyptologist at the Met who told her every last detail, from the sphinx’s arrival at the museum to the conservation work done before it was put on display. This resulted in the book How  the Sphinx got to the Museum which was followed by How the Dinosaur got to the Museum, about a dinosaur skeleton in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC. She researched that book by spending a week on a dinosaur dig in Wyoming.

For each new book, Hartland spends ample time taking classes, traveling, and living her stories. “I look for details and information that would make a good illustration,” she says. She weaves facts together with emotional storytelling so intuitively that she can’t really explain how she does it other than that she is “drawn to simplifying complicated material.”

Some helpful tips:

– Make dummy books. (Dummying is one of Hartland’s favorite parts of book creation.)

– You’ll never know for sure when you have enough research. At some point you just need to start writing.

– Always work on new ideas.

Annie Ruygt is an author illustrator who loves dreams, symbols, and secrets revealed.  When she’s not writing, she is learning about plants, and taking long walks in Prospect Park, in Brooklyn. You can connect with her on social media and on her website:

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