An Interview with Whitney Gardner, Illustrator of Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Journey to Justice

In truth, I wasn’t sure what I’d think of Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Journey to Justice, a graphic novel about the amazing Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Yes, I love author Debbie Levy. And yes, the illustrations of Whitney Gardner are simply awesome. But RBG’s life is so epic and simultaneously so political, that I wasn’t sure a graphic novel could really bring it to life for kids. Then I realized something: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is truly a superhero. And graphic novels are the perfect avenue for shining a light on a superhero.

So I dove in and loved it. Absolutely loved it. Then my kids loved it. Then my husband loved it. Then my kids’ friends loved it. And suddenly, I was telling folks to read it and learn all the things we never knew about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life through not only words but also entertaining yet realistic illustrations. So you can imagine how thrilled I was when I got the chance to interview that very same talented illustrator, Whitney Gardner!

How did you connect with author Debbie Levy on this project?  What made you want to illustrate the story of this iconic woman in our country’s history?

After Debbie’s success with her NYT bestseller I Dissent, it was a natural next step to bring RBG’s backstory to graphic novel format. I had just completed my graphic novel Fake Blood, also published by Simon & Schuster, and we have them to thank for making the match. They thought my art style would bring RBG’s story to life in a friendly, accessible way for a middle grade audience, that complimented Debbie’s deep, meticulous understanding of RBG’s journey.

You can’t imagine how honored I was to be entrusted with Justice Ginsburg’s story, as RBG is responsible for real, lasting change for women in America. She was a hero to me before getting this opportunity, and learning more about her life while drawing this book only bolstered that.

She truly deserves her reputation as one of history’s greatest feminists, though of course she would say she’s fighting for equality, not for just women.

What did you learn about Ruth Bader Ginsburg in this process that impressed you?  Did anything surprise you about her?

At the outset I had a general impression of RBG as a hard worker, but it’s hard to comprehend or explain just how hard and ceaselessly Ruth worked, and continues to work to this day. She’s really unstoppable. When her dorm room was too raucous to study, she moved to the library. And when even the whispers of the library were too distracting from her work she decided to study in the women’s restroom! There was no keeping Ruth from any goal she set out to achieve!

When did you first begin professionally illustrating?

I’ve always known I wanted to be an artist. I studied design in college, and after working as a school librarian, I started dreaming about writing and illustrating children’s books, around 2008. In 2015, I sold my first young adult novel, You’re Welcome, Universe, and since the pictures are my favorite part of all books, I insisted on drawing interior illustrations for it. So if you don’t count the odd design job drawing logos for ill-fated internet startups, I’ve been “professional” since 2015.

Although there’s something about working in your bedroom, showing up every day despite the lack of pay, hunched over a drawing that feels so much more professional than just signing that first contract.

What advice would you give a child or young adult interested in illustrating? What life lessons have you learned about the career?

Draw every day (that you can). Draw things that bring you joy. Make drawing fun, make it part of your routine. The more you draw, the better you will get, but you also have to be patient with yourself because it takes so, so, so long. So long that it will feel like nothing is happening. Try not to be hard on your own work. Don’t compare yourself to other artists; you’re the only person who draws like you.

Read comics. Watch movies. Read books. Play games. All creative traditions draw influence from each other. Keep an open mind, and be sure to go outside your comfort zone.

How long did it take to illustrate this book?

Over 3,000 podcast episodes.

Did you ever have to go back to the drawing board and start over on an illustration?

If you could have dinner with Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself, what’s a question you’d like to ask her?

Thank you so much Whitney Gardner for not only answering our questions but bringing this iconic figure in our history to life! Becoming RBG is available now!

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