“For me, building a book is much like balancing a piece of music,” says illustrator Christopher Denise. “It goes through rhythms and sweeps and sways. You have high points and low points, points with a lot of activity in them and areas where there’s wide open spaces.”
Describing his technique as “heavy on the concept side,” the illustrator says he spends a lot of time “thinking about the book as a whole, the pacing, before I get into the specific drawing.” His preparation for Phyllis Root’s Oliver Finds His Way was a case in point. Because he wanted to keep the picture book’s atmosphere appealing and not too scary, he made sure that even when the little bear is lost in an unfamiliar woods, “you can always see little bits of blue sky; there’s always a sort of way out.” He even mapped out a “geography” for Oliver’s world that eagle-eyed readers are delighted to discover—a snail by a clumpy bush, a squirrel in a twisty tree, rabbits in the woods— landmarks and friendly creatures that can be spotted again on Oliver’s journey home. The book’s endpapers show a bird’s eye view of the entire landscape, making it clear that Oliver was never very far away.
Perhaps best known for his work on the popular Redwall series, Christopher Denise admits that he is drawn to anthropomorphizing animal characters, and that when he looks at his finished drawings he often sees a lot of his friends. The endearing, expressive Oliver, he notes, was partly inspired by his three-year-old niece, whom he watched playing hide-and-seek around doors and running through the empty rooms of his house the day he moved in.
When he’s not illustrating picture books, Christopher Denise enjoys noncommercial landscape painting, reading, and seeing films (“anything that provides that visual stimulation,” he says). A graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, he currently lives Providence, Rhode Island.