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Artist Julie Morstad on finding inspiration for her illustrations

Julie Morstad art 1 spotlight on kids' booksIt would be safe to say 2014 was a good year for Julie Morstad. How To (Simply Read Books), the Vancouver artist’s 2013 authorial debut, won the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award, and Julia, Child (Tundra Books), written by Kyo Maclear, was nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award for children’s illustration. With two books slated for release in the coming months – This Is Sadie (Tundra), written by long-time collaborator Sara O’Leary, and Sometimes We Think You Are a Monkey (Puffin Canada), co-written by Sarah Blacker and Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Johanna Skibsrud – 2015 is shaping up to be a good year as well.

Julie Morstad art 2 spotlight on kids' booksThe success is welcome, especially given that Morstad’s career in kids’ books almost didn’t happen. When she gave birth to her first child at age 20, Morstad allowed herself to be talked out of her plan to pursue illustration at the Alberta College of Art and Design*.

“Everybody was saying, ‘You won’t be able to handle it,’ and I listened,” she says.

So she went into textile design, thought to be less demanding, but never stopped drawing. Motherhood turned out to be a boon rather than an impediment to her ambitions. Reading to her son (and, later, her daughter) and watching them play inspired her.

Julie Morstad art 3 spotlight on kids' booksThrough the Vancouver art scene, Morstad came to the attention of Simply Read Books publisher Dimiter Savoff, who approached her with a picture-book manuscript by O’Leary. When You Were Small, the first of the duo’s Henry books, was published in 2006, and went on to win a Marilyn Baillie award the following year.

“It was all kind of a dream come true,” says Morstad, whose pen-and-ink drawings have evoked comparison to Edward Gorey. In a review of Morstad’s 2007 illustration collection, Milk Teeth (Drawn & Quarterly), critic Jeet Heer referred to the images’ “subdued, languid creepiness.” Morstad contends that her work is less macabre than reflective of reality. Her intention is “to show how hard it is to be a kid, how powerless you feel and how small you are.”

Following in the footsteps of illustrators she admires, including Gyo Fujikawa and Ezra Jack Keats, Morstad strives to present cultural diversity, noting that it has always seemed natural to her to portray the world as it is.

Julie Morstad art 4 spotlight on kids' booksFamily life continues to inform Morstad’s illustrations; the heroine of This Is Sadie was inspired by her young daughter’s active imagination.

“The kind of drive to play and make things – it’s exhausting as a parent,” says Morstad. “[But] if I can relate to her on that level, it’s amazing to watch and be part of.”

*Correction, March 5, 2015: An earlier version of this story stated that Morstad attended the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design.