Valeri Gorbachev was born in Ukraine in 1944. In 1991 he emigrated with his wife and two children to the United States. During his time in the Soviet Union, he illustrated more than forty children’s books, and in America he created another seventy books. His books with NorthSouth include Chicken Chickens, There Was a Turkey on the Farm, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and Little Bunny’s Sleepless Night. His books have been translated into many languages and his illustrations exhibited internationally. In this interview with Swiss journalist Martin Walker, he discusses his relationship with NorthSouth’s parent company, NordSüd Verlag, what creativity means to him, and some lighthearted tidbits about the day to day of an artist.
Which picture book fascinated you as a child—and why?
When I was a little boy, I was fascinated by all picture books. But I was not happy with the amount of illustrations in them. I wanted to see more pictures in books. So I tried making my own illustrations!
When and how did you first become aware of NordSüd Verlag?
I first learned about NordSüd Verlag from my friend and great children’s book author and illustrator Michael Grejniec, who was making books for NorthSouth in New York at the time. NordSüd Verlag books were easily recognizable on the bookstore shelves for their original designs and excellent artists. And I really wanted to make some of my books with them.
How were your formative experiences with NordSüd Verlag?
I had a meeting with NorthSouth publisher Marc Cheshire. He liked my portfolio, but at the time he didn’t have any manuscripts for me to illustrate. He asked me if perhaps I had any of my own stories that I could show to him. So I told him about a picture book idea that I was working on at the time. In the former USSR I was not only an illustrator, but also a successful author of dozens of children’s books. Marc was interested in my idea and wanted to see the dummy. When I was on my way to the next meeting with the finished dummy, I suddenly had a few new ideas on how to improve the book, so I drew a bunch of thumbnails right there in the subway. When Marc saw my dummy, he was not sure if this could be a successful picture book. But the sketches I made on the subway saved the day. I got my first contract with NorthSouth Books. As a result, Nicky and the Big, Bad Wolves was born.
What inspires the beginning of a book? An image? A story? A feeling?
The idea for a book can come from a phrase that I accidentally heard somewhere. Or from a little picture that I drew many years ago. Or from a character that I come up with that can give me an idea for an interesting plot.
Which of your books are you most proud of?
In my career as an author and illustrator I created a lot of books. In some of my books I like the characters; in some of them I like the stories and illustrations, or just the cover. All these books are like children to me; they are dear to me regardless of whether they are successful or not.
Which other book would you like to have published?
I have some new picture book dummies in my studio that I would definitely like published.
Have you ever failed with a story?
Of course, some of my stories did not work out. They are lying in my studio, and from time to time I come back to them and work on them. And sometimes, years later, I come up with a new, fresh take on some old story, and suddenly it gets new life and becomes a book! However, some stories never see the light of day.
Which medium do you like to paint with? And what is your favorite time of day to paint?
Usually I use watercolors, ink, pen, gouache. I love to paint in the early morning hours—it is my most productive time. But of course I often work from early morning until the evening.
Who do you show your paintings to first?
Every morning I walk into my studio with a bit of fear and hope and anticipation to see with a fresh eye what I have drawn the day before. So the first spectator of my work is always me myself.
What is creativity, and where do you find it?
I think creativity is self-expression of the artist. If one is a true artist, one does not need to look for it. It is inside of you to begin with.
What can’t you express in pictures?
I don’t think there is anything that can’t be expressed in pictures. As they say, if you don’t succeed at first then try and try again! Eventually you will come up with the way to draw what you want.
I make books for children but also for myself!Valeri Gorbachev
For whom do you make your picture books?
Of course for children, but also for myself. I am a very curious person. When I come up with an idea for a new book, I can’t wait to see how it will look drawn on the paper, and then I can’t wait to see how it will look once I put in the text. And then I am dying to know how the editors will react to it. And then I am impatient to see how the finished illustrations fill the walls in my studio. And finally when the book is published, there is the great excitement for me to open it for the first time! And so, the entire creative process for me is driven by curiosity to see the next step. So yes, I make books for children but also for myself!
Is there fashion in picture books?
Absolutely. It has to do with the market and cultural trends. But I don’t think the artist should be following it. His value is in his individuality.
What does paper mean to you?
Many artists today like to draw their illustrations on the computer, but for me, paper remains my favorite medium.
Describe your studio in five words!
The place I feel happiest.
What is your very personal luxury?
A cup of coffee with delicious cake first thing in the morning.
Do you have a family?
Two grown-up children and six grandkids.
Do you have pets?
Only in my illustrations.
Your favorite item of clothing?
Jeans and T-shirt is the clothing I feel most comfortable in.
Your favorite colors?
I don’t have a favorite color per se. It is rather important to me how the colors are combined with each other.
What do you like most about yourself?
When I get an idea, I don’t stop until I implement it and bring it to life.
What do you think others like most about you?
I never think about what others like or dislike about me, but it makes me happy to see good comments and likes when I post my pictures on Facebook. I thank my lucky stars that I can do what I love.