(How) Can we read? An interview with Felicita Sala
What can I say about Felicita Sala except that everything she touches turns beautiful in her hands?
Okay, I can only speak to her children’s books — more specifically, the ones we own, like Green on Green by Dianne White, The Hideout by Susanna Mattiangeli, and one of my 8yo’s all-time favorites, the excellent nonfiction Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor by Patricia Valdez (which I reviewed in issue No. 18).
But from even such a small glimpse, I can tell you that her work is outstanding, transforming the text of every author into something expansive and absolutely gorgeous. Her images — especially her choice of media and technique — pull you in and create another, deeper, more transcendent level (which is what truly great illustrators do for their books, in my opinion).
Here’s a lightly-edited biography of Sala, from her website:
Felicita was born in Rome but grew up in Perth, Australia. She graduated with Honours in Philosophy from the University of Western Australia. She moved back to Italy in 2007, where she taught herself illustration and very slowly started making picture books. Over the years, she collaborated on various papercut animations with her husband, animator Gianluca Maruotti. She now works as a full-time illustrator.
One of her books, She Made a Monster: How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein (by Lynn Fulton) was selected among the 10 best picture books of 2018 by The New York Times, and her self-authored book, Lunch at 10 Pomegranate Street: A Collection of Recipes to Share has been translated in over 10 languages. In 2020, she won the Premio Andersen award for best illustrator in Italy. She lives in Rome with her family.
I’m so very grateful that Sala agreed to answer a few of my questions (over email). Without further ado, here is that interview.
How long have you been illustrating for children? What called you to this work?
I’ve been drawing and painting for as long as I can remember. My first books were published in 2010-11 so I’ve been doing it as a job for about 10 years.
You’re not only an illustrator of children's books — can you tell us a bit about your other work as an artist?
I do very little other work nowadays. I do work for an Italian newspaper, mainly illustrated food, and the occasional editorial projects with magazines from around the world. I’ve worked in animation with my husband, Gianluca Maruotti, who works with plasticine mainly. We’ve made stop-motion videos in paper cut. It was fun, but requires a lot of patience, which I don’t have.
You’ve published 22 books in eight years. As an artist — especially one who is also a mother — how do you maintain that pace? Where do you get ideas, and how do you stay inspired, title after title?
That’s about right. Not all of them were picture books — some I had worked on in previous years and were published later, some were chapter books with quicker or with more simple illustrations.
I can do about three picture books in a year, for an average of four months per picture book. It’s hard to quantify. Some books take much longer, from the first concept to final execution, two years may go by, but I’m not constantly working on the same project at one time. I am usually working on two things at once.
Illustrating other people’s stories is different from illustrating and writing your own book. The books I wrote myself took much longer to make. When you have a story already written for you, half the work is done. That’s not to say that the work that comes after is any easier. Finding the right way to create a visual narrative parallel to the written one is much harder than most people imagine.
The last few years have been very productive for me, but I started to experience burnout during the pandemic. It is not a pace that I can keep up. I am trying, in the the years to come, to spread out projects and concentrate more on producing my own work. I don’t know if this will happen; this job is very unpredictable!
This is a question I ask everyone I interview: what are a few titles, recent or otherwise, that have stood out to you as being so excellent you wish they were on the shelf in every home and classroom?
I’ll exclude all the wonderful books I love from my European collection and concentrate on the English-language titles:
The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis — all seven books
The BFG, Matilda and James and The Giant Peach by Roald Dahl (but really all of his books)
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (the novel)
And picture books:
Moon Man by Tomi Ungerer
Zeralda’s Ogre Tomi Ungerer
The Ear by Piret Raud
The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr
Too Much Noise by Ann McGovern and Simms Taback
Sylvester and The Magic Pebble by William Steig
Harold Snipperpot’s Best Disaster Ever by Beatrice Alemagna
What’s next for you? Are you working on anything new you can tell us about?
I just finished two books about the night, very different from each other!
I’m also working on writing my own book. My first book that’s not a cookbook, but a story! I'm very excited about it. Can’t say anything more.
Thank you so very much to Sala for this interview.
For more information about Sala’s work, visit her website. And be sure to seek out her books at your local library and bookstore (or order them online). They’re dreamy and magical, and you won’t regret time spent with a single one of them.
Thanks for reading today, and always,
Sharing comes back to you in the form of magic and good fortune 🧞♀️
This interview is public, so if you know someone who might like it, pass it on!