This edition of “The Insider” takes a look at Bright artist Steph Laberis’ successful partnership with Little Golden Books. Since 1942, the renowned company has been publishing beloved books for children, including two of our favorites, My Little Golden Book About Sharks and The Little Grumpy Cat that Wouldn’t. Read on for Steph’s thoughts on collaboration, design, and capturing the essence of Grumpy Cat:
How was working with such a legendary brand and what did your collaborative process look like?
It’s been AMAZING! Despite having a background in illustration, I am relatively new to publishing, having started when I signed with Bright in 2015. The first Little Golden Book project came about a couple of months after I had signed and I was over the moon! I couldn’t believe I was approached to work on a brand that I had grown up with and is considered a milestone among illustrators! Little Golden Books seem to be a common extension for those of us in the animation industry as well, particularly for character designers and visual development artists.
I have worked with two art directors at Random House, being Catherine Mucciardi and Roberta Ludlow. They are just wonderful – they give me tremendous freedom when working from the manuscripts and are very clear with their feedback as well. I have great respect for them! Typically they send me a manuscript and a PDF with the basic text layouts, and from there I compose my roughs and submit them for review. Once I get the go-ahead, I paint everything up (digitally) and send it along! Sometimes life gets in the way, or feedback gets held up with a licensor, and the schedule needs to shift, but they have always been flexible and willing to work with me during these times. I couldn’t ask for a better team.
Oh, and for the record, The Poky Little Puppy was my first Golden Book and it helped kick off my love for drawing animals.
How did you begin to illustrate the look and personality of Grumpy Cat, who is already such a recognizable celebrity in her own right? How did your relationship with Little Golden Books shape the end product?
Grumpy Cat has been an odd project right from the beginning! At the time I was approached to do a cover sample, there was no manuscript to work from and very general direction from the publisher. Luckily for me, Grumpy Cat is already a living cartoon character; her features are already so exaggerated and iconic, that simplifying her to basic shapes was a natural progression for me. Most of my work is simple, exaggerated and shape-based and by looking at the wealth of photos of her available online, I was able to do the initial design quickly and with much enjoyment.To elaborate on shape theory, I broke down her face into its barest elements: half-lidded eyes, snub nose and her dramatic frown.
I noticed that she is seated in a lot of her photos, and since she is a dwarf cat, she’s quite stubby and compact, so I simplified her seated pose as one heavy trapezoid and made her face literally half the size of her body. Because her face is her most iconic feature, I wanted it to be the main focus. The shape of her body, being wide at the bottom and straight-edged, implies that this is not a cat built for speed and gives a sense of weight and stubborness; all hallmarks of Grumpy! The butterfly, ladybug and bird are all characters of my own design and were not called out in the script; I chose to use round, curving shapes with big goofy smiles to give a sense of energy, movement and joy to the characters, which would contrast well with Grumpy’s angular physique and general disdain for life.
It’s not often that a project goes this smoothly, but I think Grumpy was just a lucky, natural fit for my sensibilities. There was little feedback from Random House or the licensor for this cover, and I think that’s because Golden Books have a simple, iconic design sense to them, which also plays into my natural style.
Do you have any upcoming projects with LGB you can tell us about?
Yes! There are 2 more Grumpy Cat books in the works, one of which is an ABC book. There is another non-fiction Golden Book coming up too, but I don’t think it’s been announced yet. It’s in the same vein of the Sharks book though!
“Steph Laberis is a professional, an extremely talented illustrator, and her passion shows through her work. She is one of my most favorite illustrators to work with and I gasp with delight with every submission. Onto Grumpy Cat LGB #2 and it gets better and better!”
Steph has loved drawing for as long as she can remember, and was raised on a healthy diet of cartoons, video games and getting muddy in the New England woods. She also loves crafting, particularly needle felting, and loves to bring her drawn characters to life with real, tangible materials. She attended RISD and has a BFA in Illustration, and currently enjoys working in many artistic fields; illustration, character design for animation and toy design.
She works out of her home studio in the San Francisco Bay Area.She also enjoys tending to her small army of pet rats (who are also her official muses), sampling the best coffees and chocolates of the Bay Area and obsessing over what her next side project will be. When she grows up, she wants to be a real artist. Or be a unicorn. But the artist thing is probably a more realistic goal. See more from Steph here!