An Interview with Marianna Coppo! – Author and Artist of Petra

Petra in winter

From Petra by Marianna Coppo © 2018 Tundra Books. Image courtesy of Tundra Books.

Marianna Coppo was kind enough to let me interview her. I asked her everything from where the idea of Petra came from, to what it was like for her to write Petra, to questions about if she has any thing she does to cultivate her creativity. I love her responses. I hope you all enjoy the interview — it was a priviledge to get to chat with her. 

Hello Marianna! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. I love your new book Petra. It is beautiful and funny and philosophical. My children and I enjoy it tremendously. It so elegantly and playfully presents how people’s perspectives and lives change and the advantages of being flexible and optimistic.

Where did the idea of Petra come from? Did anything in particular happen to make you want to tell this story?

I came up with the story three years ago, practically at the same time that I moved to Bologna, where I lived for a year. When I first got the idea it seemed to have come from nowhere. In hindsight I was able to figure out where it came from (but not entirely!). That year was a difficult one for me. I was lost and felt like I had closed myself up into a ball. I felt like I wasn’t going anywhere. I think that the character of Petra came from that place.

I’m pretty sure now that the message of the book was directed first and foremost to its creator: me. Petra starts off on the defensive, but when life forces her to make a move, she reacts and manages to does things that I was struggling with.

What was the experience like for you to write and illustrate Petra? Were there any surprises? What did you particularly enjoy about it? Did you run into any obstacles?

Creating a book is an incredibly exciting and terribly frustrating experience. The aha-insight moment is amazing. I’m not a very methodical person and I tend to scribble down stories. When I fist come up with a story, it seems perfect (it never is). Then comes the part that I have to make concrete all of the things that I have in my head and that’s when the trouble begins.

Working on a book can be a taxing exercise. Often I fall in love with the idea and lose sight of the bigger picture. In practical terms, it comes down to making compromises.

What was nice about Petra was that a certain point, after months of doubts and changes, I had grown so fond of the character that things just started falling into place.

She’s a character whom I now really love.

How much did Petra’s story change from the first draft to the final draft? Did you find that you revised the illustrations or the words more?

Quite a lot. Before working on the illustrations, I spend lots of time filling in little rectangles in my notebook. I have tons of mini storyboards that are now totally incomprehensible even to me. Fortunately, the major changes take place in that stage of the work process.

At any rate, there are at least two previous versions of Petra, but the changes are mostly aesthetic ones. While working on a book I often feel like changing the technique or medium that I’m using. Naturally, the look of the book also changes. The first version was mostly done digitally and in watercolor. When I realized that I didn’t know how to use watercolors, I changed to tempera.

Did you write Petra in English or Italian first? -If you wrote it in Italian first, did you translate it yourself? Did you find any words or ideas challenging to translate? (I love languages and think translating is a very difficult task. So I’m interested in what it may have been like for you.)

English isn’t my strong suit. Fortunately, my agent, Debbie Bibo, translates my text from Italian. Sometimes I try to think of a story in English. I love the English language because it’s so direct and to the point. Often, I prefer the translated version to the original one!

(Note from translator: one of the most difficult sentences to translate in the book was the very last one: “I’m a rock and this is how I roll.” The Italian phrase, which is also an idiomatic expression, included the word “rock”: “Una cosa è certa, ti lascerò di sasso.” This translates to: “One thing for sure, I’ll leave you astonished.”

We didn’t want to lose the play on words, so I kept thinking of expressions with the word “rock” in it until it hit me: rock and roll… “I’m a rock and this is how I roll.”)

 — I love it! Thank you to the translator for sharing this! 

Petra's houses

From Petra by Marianna Coppo © 2018 Tundra Books. Image courtesy of Tundra Books.

When did you start writing picture books? And what was it that inspired you to write a picture book?

I began studying illustration from zero. I didn’t know much about the world of picture books. Let’s say it was a bit of a gamble. Fortunately, when I opened the door to this world, I fell in love with it.

The form and structure of a picture book is unique and extremely stimulating. I love reading them and the idea to give this form to my stories came quite naturally.

Making picture books is a hybrid between writing and drawing: a world in which I feel at home.

Do you have a system, method, or process that you follow for writing and illustrating?

Uhh, no. Let’s say that I wish I did and am trying to. I think it depends on the project. I tend to do things as they come. I’m terribly disorganized and a rebel to habit. My work process is not at all linear. I’m desperately trying to overcome this, but whenever I fall back into chaos, I realize that I need it. In some way, it helps me.

I love your artwork. It is so beautiful and so playful at the same time. It’s elegant, sophisticated, and yet so much fun. You’re clearly very creative — what do you do to take care of and cultivate your creativity? Do you have a particular philosophy you follow or have a guiding principle in this respect?

Thank you for your kind words!

I’m not sure if I can answer this question.

My creativity is connected to my childish side. I think I get my inspiration from my animistic vision of reality. I don’t mean that in a spiritual way, but rather in a way of looking at things as a child would: asking questions about the most common things, even stupid things.

The images are always created around a character. I rarely draw just to draw. I try to create empathetic characters with whom readers can relate and then I create the world around them.

As for the technical aspect, I’m not great technically, but I tend to have interesting result by circling around my defects.

Petra as an egg

From Petra by Marianna Coppo © 2018 Tundra Books. Image courtesy of Tundra Books.

Have you always wanted to be an artist? I think being an artist is incredibly brave. How did you find the bravery to become an artist?

Actually, I find it reassuring that I don’t consider myself an artist.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but in my head an artist expresses herself without any rules. Whereas for me, the rules and the more concrete aspects of picture book making are part and parcel of the process. They make up part of a much greater mechanism – just think of the whole publishing industry – whose players are all very brave!

At the end of the day, writing and illustrating books is wonderful and it’s what I know how to do. It would be much braver for me to wake up every morning at 7:00 am!

Tell me about your favorite books. What have you read that you really love? What are some of your favorite childhood or children’s books?

The last book I fell in love with was The Bad Mood and the Stick written by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Matthew Forsythe. I think it’s genius and also very sweet. More in general, I love the Mac Barnett-Jon Klassen duo!

Thank you again for taking the time to chat with me and thank you so much for creating such a wonderful picture book.

Thank you for the interview and for your interesting questions!

Where to Get Your Copy of Petra:

Reviews of Petra:

Where Obtained:  I received a review copy from the publisher. No other compensation was received.  

FTC Disclosures:  Some of the links in the post above are Amazon affiliate links and others are IndieBound affiliate links. If you click on the link and purchase something, I will receive an affiliate commission at no additional cost to you. Which goes to fund my family’s picture book habit.  It’s a vicious cycle, but we manage.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


  1. Sue Wickstead

    I loved reading this review and the interview. I too feel that ‘Creating a book is an incredibly exciting and terribly frustrating experience.’
    I am also a person who scribbles down story ideas
    i do draw simple story boards but the word ‘simple’ is what they are!
    A good review and I enjoyed reading it.

    Liked by 2 people

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