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Cinnamon illustrator explains how she brought Neil Gaiman's story to life

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Courtesy Divya Srinivasan; HarperCollins

How do you convince a princess who won’t speak to do so? According to Neil Gaiman and Divya Srinivasan’s Cinnamon, the key is a talking tiger.

The picture book dives into the story of the titular Indian princess as her parents try anything and everything in their power to get her to talk. And while this printed, illustrated version may be new, Gaiman’s story actually existed previously as part of The Neil Gaiman Audio Collection (which is narrated by the American Gods writer himself), along with his other short stories Crazy HairThe Wolves in the Walls, and The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish.

With Srinivasan (Little Owl’s Colors) bringing the world of Cinnamon to life, EW caught up with the illustrator to learn about her process, what it was like collaborating with Gaiman, and what she used for visual influences.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you approach illustrating the story? Was there anything specific you had to consider?
SRINIVASAN: This was my first time illustrating a book for someone else’s story. The books I’ve written and illustrated have been for much younger children, and so have a lot less text than Cinnamon’s longer story. Breaking up the text into pages was my first step. I wanted to make sure I had a good balance between text and illustration on each spread. Page breaks affect the flow of the story and help me decide what to illustrate.

Doing image research for Cinnamon was a little different than for my other projects because I was able to draw on my family’s Indian background and incorporate personal items — designs from my mother’s saris (below), for instance, show up on the walls. The auntie’s tea set and table are based on ones my parents have had forever. I was able to include decorative Indian patterns I practiced drawing as a little kid. It was really neat being able to weave these details into a book where they fit in perfectly.

Divya Srinivasan

Was this the first art style you chose? Or did you play around with how you wanted to depict Cinnamon and her family?
The art director who ended up hiring me for this project pointed out which of my portfolio pieces she thought might work well in terms of style. I was so happy at what it seemed she was looking for because it was right in line with how I was imagining the visuals. I did sample illustrations of the main characters — Cinnamon, her parents, the tiger — and showed how I’d do backgrounds, and the style was approved.

What was your favorite part of working on this book?
My wonderful agent approached me with Cinnamon around the same time I found out I was pregnant. I’d always been eager to do a book with Indian characters, and here was a story that takes place in mythic India, written by Neil Gaiman — a dream project that would span my pregnancy and some months after, it turned out. It was definitely a challenge finishing up the book after my daughter was born. My parents made it possible, watching her while I worked in the next room. And if my infant daughter was having a rough time (or finally rolling over!), I was right there. It’s really cool to me to now have this book in hand that I worked on during such a special time in my life. And working with the art director and editor (and via the editor, Neil) was a complete pleasure. They were all so respectful of my work and really seemed excited to see what I would turn in next — it felt great. They truly wanted me to do my thing, which meant a lot to me.

HarperCollins

Which of Cinnamon’s illustrations are your favorites?
When I read Cinnamon for the first time, the part I could picture immediately was Cinnamon and the tiger headed into jungle. I’d grown up with images of the Hindu god Ayyappan and the goddess Durga sitting on their tigers, exuding a peaceful confidence, and that’s what I wanted here. That spread is at the very end of the book, and I did the illustrations in order, so it felt like there was this super exciting thing waiting for me the whole time I was working. All the characters were a joy to draw. I did get a special kick out of drawing the mean auntie. It made me laugh having her lounge atop a tiger rug in the scene where she gets eaten by the tiger. I’m glad they let me keep it in. I also loved the chance to illustrate the parrot’s poem in a different style. Neil wrote a story that included such fun details but also left room for me to add my own. I appreciate that so much.

Cinnamon is currently available for purchase. You can see more examples of Srinivasan’s art below.

HarperCollins
HarperCollins