Shennen Bersani lives in Wayland where she visits Starbucks and pays taxes and takes her kids to school. But Bersani also lives in another world – a world of imagination and color and creation. And in that particular world, Bersani is the queen.
Bersani is an award-winning children’s book illustrator who lifts life and story out of text and splashes them across glossy pages using her colored pencils and computer.
And she’s good at it. So good, in fact, that her most recent book for Sylvan Dell Publishing, "Home in the Cave," authored by Janet Halfmann, was recently recognized with a gold Gelett Burgess Children’s Book Award in the “growing up” category.
"I know it’s a collaborative effort with the author and my art," Bersani said, "but I thought that it validated that this book was a good book."
Today, Bersani says that her favorite project so far – she’s illustrated 14 children’s books to date and has several more in the works – is "Home in the Cave," but she admits that her adoration is fleeting.
"Every book [the publisher] gives me, I say, 'This is my favorite,'" Bersani said, smiling.
These days Bersani has the luxury of only creating art for her “favorite” books. Each time the publisher sends a text her way, Bersani said, she decides whether she truly enjoys what the book has to say and whether she feels she can envision the illustrations right away.
"Some of them, I read and I turn them down," Bersani said. "If I can't put my soul into it, then I don't want to do it because I'm going to live with this project for six months. I want to see images popping into my head."
Bersani grew up in Weymouth where she developed her artist’s eye and a healthy love of the sea. She knew from an early age that her life would go in one of two directions, but an award she earned in high school ultimately decided her fate.
As a teen, Bersani won The Boston Globe Scholastic Art Award. From there, art became her goal.
"I'd been drawing forever," Bersani said. "I knew that I wanted to be an artist – either an artist or an oceanographer. It was one or the other. When I got the award, I decided, 'I'm going to do this.'"
Passion and talent aside, Bersani said her mother’s pragmatism urged her in another, less "starving artist" direction.
In spite of her mother's concerns, Bersani applied to the Art Institute of Boston and was accepted to the school on the spot when the dean saw her portfolio.
"Those things [The Boston Globe award and acceptance] told me I was doing the right thing," she said.
She knew she wanted to do children's books illustrations, but she had to pay her dues first. In particular, she spent 12 years creating the illustrations for medical tools owner’s manual produced by Johnson & Johnson.
Her opportunity to break into children’s book illustrations came thanks to a lucky event her son attended as a senior at Boston College High School.
A New Direction
Children's book author Jerry Pallotta made a stop at Boston College High School to talk with students a little more than 10 years ago. During his presentation, Pallotta mentioned that his newest book needed a lion.
Bersani’s son approached the renowned author after the event and presented him with Bersani’s brochure, assuring the author that his mom could draw a lion.
At first, Bersani said, she was shocked and a bit embarrassed by her son’s brazen salesmanship. But in the end, it worked.
"Icky Bug Shapes," authored by Pallotta and illustrated by Bersani, came out in 2002 and marked the beginning of her new career path – the one she'd dreamed of walking for many years. It also marked the beginning of an ongoing relationship between Pallotta and Bersani – she's worked with him several times over the years and is currently involved in a project with him.
Though she has working relationships that are 10-plus years old, Bersani said the work itself has evolved.
"I'm moving in a good direction," Bersani said. "The newer technique is looking good. I keep trying to change. Maybe there are strains of Shennen through them all, but my technique has really changed, my style has changed over 10 years."
The style changes along with the content. Bersani said she is drawn to books about the ocean, but she’s also tackled some fairly emotional books over the years. Bersani had two illustrations left in a children’s book for the American Cancer Society when she was herself diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
She went on to complete two more books for the ACS and to beat her own cancer diagnosis, but that experience stands out among the books she’s completed.
"Technically, it's the same thing for me to draw that, but they all had a lot of emotion," Bersani said.
Bersani said she makes a decision for each book as to whether it requires a realistic feel or if her illustrations can delve a bit into the fantasy realm. In any case, she likes to research her projects rather than drawing simply from mental images or pictures.
In the case of "Home in the Cave," Bersani visited Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and spent time in the "bat lab" at Boston University. In the lab, she said scientists actually allowed her to examine preserved bats, providing an up close look that informed her illustrations.
"I'm trying to look at how kids think,” Bersani said. "I'm trying to capture their interest. I want the kids to look at every page and say, 'Ahh.' I'm trying to get adventure. I'm trying to get them captivated. I'm trying to get them to open the book again and again."
Bersani's next book takes her far from the caves that won her the Gelett Burgess Award and back to the oceans that she loves. "Shark Baby," by Ann Downer, is due out in spring 2013.
"'Shark Baby' is going to be awesome," Bersani said. "It’s something I really wanted to do.
"I'm doing the right thing," Bersani said of her work. "I know that I'm touching children's lives in a positive way and that's really important to me."