I’m so pleased to introduce you to Russ Willms. Russ has spent many years in advertising as an illustrator and graphic designer in our hometown of Victoria, B.C. But he is also an award-winning children’s book illustrator and author. We featured his most recent book Elephants Do Not Belong in Trees in our May Picture Book Box.
MARMALADE BOOKS: How young were you when you started drawing? Were you always a doodler?
RUSS WILLMS: I remember enjoying drawing when I was young, but when I was around 13 years old, I really got into drawing. A lot. It was mostly just hockey players and other sports figures. My school notebooks were covered with my drawings. Another guy in my class, Al, also was drawing on his notebooks. We started sharing our drawings. We inspired each other and eventually we went to art school together. We were best friends for many years. We are still in touch.
MARMALADE: One of your first books, Brewster Rooster was published in 1993. I still remember its wonderful illustrations. This book was a Governor General’s award finalist and a Mr. Christie’s Book Award Gold Winner. What was it like to have that kind of recognition early in your children’s book career and do you have any interesting memories from that time?
RUSS: Yes, Brewster Rooster was my first picture book. It was very exciting to see it take off and win a few awards. I was also asked to be a judge for the Governor General’s Awards 2 years later. That was amazing to see all of the entries and debate the strengths and weaknesses of over 100 picture books. It wasn’t easy but we finally decided upon a winner!
MARMALADE: The characters you create are wonderful, quirky animals. Do you only draw animals and why? Some of your animals are almost humanlike. Are they inspired by people you know?
RUSS: Over the years I have created many illustrations with people, but when it comes to picture books I really prefer to use animals. The animals represent people, kids mostly, without excluding anyone. Any kid can relate to an animal character.
All my characters are inspired by people I know or people I’ve seen in movies or TV.
We all know someone who is stubborn or super positive or is grumpy. These character traits from real people are what go into developing my illustrated characters.
MARMALADE: What is your process for writing and illustrating? Which comes to you first, story or images?
RUSS: It is a bit of both. I often doodle characters, some of which inspire me to think of a story in which they could be a main character. More often though, I imagine a story idea and write it down. Then I develop a character to fit the story. This can take a lot of sketching. If it is a dog character for instance, there are so many different types of dogs. You have to do a lot of exploring to find the right fit for that character.
MARMALADE: Tell us about your award-winning advertising agency, Suburbia. Why did you go into advertising and did children’s books go on the back-burner for awhile?
RUSS: When I was in Art School (Albert College of Art) my plan was to be an illustrator and work in a studio for someone. But a couple months before I graduated the economy tanked. I ended up taking a job in an advertising agency as an art director. There were few options at that point. That is where I met my wife, Mary-Lynn. A few years later I took some time off to help raise our 3 and 4 year old boys. Mary-Lynn continued to work at an advertising agency for another year. That is when she developed a plan to start our own company. Suburbia Studios. At first I was illustrating and doing graphic design. It was at this time I illustrated my first three picture books. With the studio getting busier and busier, I steered away from taking on picture book assignments. They were just too big of a project to fit in. I continued to do other editorial work for business and children’s magazines through the years.
MARMALADE: About 6 years ago you created an app for children called Zooper ABC Animals. Can you tell us about it?
RUSS: I really wanted to get back into children’s picture books but I didn’t think I was capable of writing a story myself. The app world was taking off and I knew if I created an app I didn’t need a publisher. I could go straight to the marketplace with whatever I created. As long as Apple approved it of course. I started with an ABC app. I thought even I can write “A is for Alligator.” It was a really fun project with lots of humour and animation. I couldn’t do it all myself. I had help from some of the team at Suburbia, which I was really grateful for. After 3 years of work, it finally launched. I got great reviews but few sales. I realized it is tough to go up against “Grover’s ABC App” from Sesame Street. That is when I decided I wanted to get back to the traditional world of children’s picture books. That meant facing my biggest doubt. Can I write a story?
MARMALADE: Earlier this year, Elephants Do Not Belong in Trees was published with Orca Books here in Victoria. Was this a story you have been working on for awhile and where did the idea for this adorable elephant come from?
RUSS: Back in 2016 I was trying to get an agent. That meant writing a story and sending out a ‘query’ letter to a couple dozen agents. I received several ‘no thank you’ letters back. On my third story, which was Elephants Do Not Belong In Trees, I finally had an agent who wanted to represent me. That story with a dummy was sent out to around 25 publishers in the US and Canada. Orca Books were the first to buy one of my stories. I was thrilled to finally have a book that was going to be published.
The story idea came to me as we were in Italy for a friend’s wedding. As we drove down this one road there was a tree with a tall trunk and a very bushy top. Not knowing which animals were wild in that area I began to wonder what animals would live in a tree like that. It doesn’t take long to go to the silly side and wonder if an Italian alligator, a hippo or even an elephant might live in a tree like that. And then I thought about what problems might occur with an elephant living in a tree.
MARMALADE: You have a couple of new books publishing soon. Can you tell us about them and do you have any more projects you are working on?
RUSS: When Orca Books bought my elephant story, they also bought a story of mine, called Quiet Please, about a giraffe who just wants to read his new book. Unfortunately his brothers and sisters are the noisiest animals in the forest. That book is coming out in the spring of 2022. I also have a new book coming out with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt this September, called Who Will Pull Santa’s Sleigh? It is a story about how Santa ended up choosing reindeer to pull his sleigh. Apparently, many animals were invited to try out for the job. And just recently, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt bought another story of mine, called Parker’s Place. This will come out in the spring of 2023. It is the story about a dinosaur that wants to live on a farm.
MARMALADE: What do you do when you aren’t creating your quirky animals?
RUSS: We sold our Suburbia business 2 years ago, so now I can focus my energy on creating children’s picture books. Coming up with the next idea will always be the challenge. Other than that, I like to read, ride my bike and play pickleball!
My thanks to Russ Willms for this interview. What fun to be able to have a career creating adorable characters for children. Pat Oldroyd