Chelsea O’Byrne Illustrations Illuminate a Pair of Upcoming Children’s Books

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Chelsea O’Byrne in her East Vancouver studio in January, 2024. (Photo by Perrin Grauer)

By Perrin Grauer

Posted on January 16, 2024

The artist, ECU alum and ECU staff member brings her rich, thoughtful artwork to two new books from major international publishers.

A pair of books illustrated by artist and ECU staff member Chelsea O’Byrne (BFA 2016) are slated for publication in 2024.

The first, written by Jessica Young and published by Harper Collins, is titled Two Homes, One Heart. The second, written by Carol Joy Munro, is titled Springtime Storks: A Migration Love Story, and will be published under Astra Publishing’s Minerva imprint.

While both are children’s books, each deals with difficult subject matter. Two Homes One Heart, for instance, is a book about divorce.

“It is really hard to talk with kids about divorce and frame it in a way that’s not just doom and gloom and scary,” she tells me. “So I really love this story, which is very joyful and focused on the family’s journey of healing. The love in their family doesn’t go away, it just takes a different shape. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s a really uplifting story.”

Two Homes One Heart

Using colour to establish a conceptual theme, Chelsea brings the story behind Two Homes, One Heart to life in her illustrations. (Image courtesy Chelsea O’Byrne).

Chelsea, who is also a teacher, found inspiration for the book while reading Leo Lionni’s classic children’s tale, Little Blue and Little Yellow, to a class of preschool-aged kids.

She decided to focus on colour as a theme, using watercolour, oil pastel, pencil crayon and other dry media to bring her vibrant images to life. She painted the left side of the book in blue for the father, and the right side in yellow for the mother. The daughter, who moves back and forth between parents, is represented in green.

“By the end of the book, both sides have a fully colourful world again after they’ve healed from the divorce,” Chelsea says.

Springtime Storks, meanwhile, is based on a true story, and begins with an incident of momentary violence. A female stork is shot by a hunter, leaving her unable to fly. And though she’s nursed back to health by a kind farmer, she is never able to migrate again.

But storks mate for life, and every spring, her partner travels thousands of miles to be with her again.

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In these hand-drawn thumbnails from the wall of Chelsea’s studio, she works to establish the vernal colour palette and other visual themes for Springtime Storks. (Photo by Perrin Grauer)

As with the subject behind Two Homes, One Heart, Chelsea says Springtime Stork’s opening scene proved challenging to illustrate. A fiery blast, a single drop of blood and a fallen feather gesture toward the injury, but neither guns nor hunters are depicted, Chelsea says.

And any darkness is quickly forgotten as readers enter a dreamy visual world inspired by the work of Croatian folk painter Ivan Rabuzin. Croatia, she notes, is the country where the real-life storks raised nearly 70 chicks over 20 years.

“I wanted to pay homage to Rabuzin in the book, because so much of the story takes place up in the sky,” Chelsea says. “I was playing with the clouds and making sculptural shapes in the sky, which is what his clouds look like.”

Baby blues, bright pinks and green foliage light up a landscape in full bloom as the story moves toward spring, when the male stork returns home.

The Springtime Storks

In her illustrations for Springtime Storks, Chelsea paid homage to artist Ivan Rabuzin, who hailed from the same country where the real-life storks lived. (Image courtesy Chelsea O’Byrne)

Chelsea says using colour and form as emotional and metaphorical cues is one of the most satisfying parts of her practice.

“That’s my favourite thing about illustration,” she says. “It can be a very representational art form, but there’s actually a lot of room to be abstract and introduce layers of metaphor. I always try to find some way to bring a little abstraction to my stories. And all of my favourite children’s books have that deeper layer of meaning that can be inferred.”

Two Homes, One Heart is available for pre-order now, with publication in March, 2024. Springtime Storks is slated for publication in the fall.

And don’t miss Chelsea’s gorgeous contributions to Cary Fagan’s middle-grade story, Hans Christian Andersen Lives Next Door, out now via Tundra Books.

Visit Chelsea’s website and follow her on Instagram to learn more about her work.

Visit ECU online to learn more about studying Illustration at Emily Carr.

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