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Illustrator Juana Medina on Her <i>1 Big Salad Counting</i> Book

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I love Juana Medina's whimsical and charming illustrations and was delighted to have the chance to ask her some questions about her delicious new counting book, 1 Big Salad, with adorable fruit and vegetable characters helping children learn numbers -- and a great recipe!

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When you go to the grocery store, do you look for characters or food?

For both! I greatly enjoy looking at food. With time, I've learned that searching for food for illustrations has to happen separately from grocery shopping, otherwise leaving the store becomes impossible!

While working on 1 Big Salad, I was lucky to count on very, very patient farmers selling their produce at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) Farmer's Market, they graciously answered my questions and allowed me to take a long time choosing fruits and vegetables based on their appearance.

What helped you decide which animals go with which numbers?

Observing the shapes of fruits and vegetables led to imagining how they could be transformed into animals. There were plenty of unsuccessful attempts, where the animals were a little too abstract or where the photographed food element wouldn't really go along with the salad, but it was all worth the experimentation -- little by little, I was able to find a combination that seemed to make sense.

How do you make sure that characters based on the same food have such different personalities and expressions?

No two carrots are the same! Each vegetable, fruit or nut brought great richness in terms of color, shape, and texture, which naturally guaranteed a great diversity of characters. I also was careful to keep the illustrations simple, but as playful as possible in order to keep the readers engaged.

Do you ever draw on the food or do you take photos and draw on that?

Initially, I did start by drawing on food or photographing food along with the ink illustration, but maintaining fresh and vibrant food for any length of time is difficult.

Photographing the food beforehand and drawing digitally, afterward, allows for me to try many iterations before I committing to a final image. (I should point out that I've been able to enjoy most of the food I work with after I photograph it, so very little of it goes to waste!)

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Do you create your drawings with pens or brushes or computers?

I use both. For this book, the final art was done digitally, but many of the initial sketches were done with pencil on paper.

What kind of adventures do you think your food animals like to have?

Jumping, swinging and flying across the page!

Do the lions and alligators ever frighten the mice and kittens?

I hadn't thought about that! I'd dare say, it could well be the other way around -- those clementine kitties can be feisty!

Are the colors or the shapes more important in deciding which foods go with which animals?

The shapes were essential in determining the animals; and the colors and textures helped each character pop off the page.

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How do you pick the color and shape of the letters and numbers?

That's the beauty of working with a fellow graphic designer! I presented to Nancy Brennan, designer extraordinaire at Penguin, my vision for the typography and layout and she added the right dose of flair to make it all work.