Rebecca Bender grew up in small-town eastern Ontario where her artistic mother let her daughter draw and paint alongside her at an early age. Even as a young child Rebecca took her art seriously, looking up to illustrators like the expressive Robin James (the Serendipity Series, 1974–) and the humorous Dr. Seuss.
Rebecca maintained her interest in art as she grew up, eventually graduating from the Ontario College of Art and Design where she received the 2003 OCAD Medal for Illustration. Since then she has worked with a range of talented designers and art directors in a variety of graphic design positions—all of which, she says, has helped to develop her illustration work. Her big break as an author/illustrator came in 2011 with the publication of the picture book Giraffe and Bird, which won the OLA Blue Spruce Award in 2012. The following year its sequel, Don’t Laugh at Giraffe, was an honor book for the same award.
Today Rebecca illustrates, writes, and works as an art director and graphic designer in Burlington, Ontario. In her most recent book, Peach Girl by Raymond Nakamura (May 15, 2014), she brings to life a feisty young girl who sets off through the countryside of Old Japan to find an ogre along with three friends, the humorous and expressive Monkey, Dog, and Pheasant.
A Conversation with Rebecca Bender
When did you first know you wanted to write and illustrate picture books?
I suppose I made up my mind as a child; I drew non-stop and often made little storybooks out of my drawings and characters that I came up with. Then I grew up and started to realize how difficult it was to get there, but that made it
all the more rewarding.
Your first two books, Giraffe and Bird and Don’t Laugh at Giraffe, have both received a very positive reaction. What was your favourite part about your journey with those two books?
I would have to say that meeting all the children, teachers, parents and book sellers that have enjoyed my books and shared with me their stories and enthusiasm has been the most rewarding part. I didn’t intend for these books to teach lessons, but it’s nice to hear that they have helped in little ways. (One librarian asked me to sign a book for her granddaughter, who was very shy and really connected with Don’t Laugh at Giraffe; her inscription went, “Don’t be afraid to get your hooves wet”).
With Peach Girl, you’re illustrating someone else’s story for the first time. How does that experience compare to being an author-illustrator?
It was a nice change to illustrate someone else’s story with Peach Girl because I was able to put all my attention on the art, not thinking about re-writes and corrections, etc. It’s also a refreshing exercise to bring characters to life that someone else has created in words first — it gives me the chance to try to see things through another author’s eyes, creating things from their imagination.
Were the Japanese landscapes and animals in Peach Girl new territory for you as an artist? How did you meet that challenge?
I haven’t done a lot of historically-based illustrations, so it was a fun challenge to research and find the visual reference I needed to bring authenticity to this story.
Which Peach Girl character was your favourite to paint? Why?
I would say the dog was the most fun for me to paint. We had a lot of dogs growing up and I love how expressive they can be with their postures and body language—they are so emotional too—you can always tell how a dog is feeling.
What is it like to balance illustration, your day job, and two very young children?
It is challenging to find a good balance, especially because my studio/office is at home. I’m lucky that my day job (graphic design) works well with illustration in that they are closely related; doing one strengthens my skills in the other.
Can you share any advice for other aspiring illustrators?
For other aspiring picture book illustrators, I would say to get involved in the industry as much as possible, and continually push yourself by working on new portfolio and promotional pieces. Make sure they reflect the style and range of subjects you’d like to be asked to do for someone else. Don’t make the art director guess what you’re capable of—show him or her.