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Behind the Book: Determined Dreamer

last updated 27 February 2024

We joined illustrator Jen Hill to talk about the illustrative journey of the beautiful Determined Dreamer: The Story of Marie Curie, written by Deborah Hopkinson, published by Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins.

Before Marie Curie was the first woman in France to earn the highest degree in physics, before she discovered two new radioactive elements, and became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (and then the first person to win two!)— she was a little girl named Marie Sklodowska who dreamed of being a scientist—and was determined to make that dream come true.

Join us now as we dive into the stroy behind the book.


What inspired the artistic style in Determined Dreamer?

Marie Curie’s lifetime (1867-1934) yielded some of history’s most remarkable achievements in architecture, art and design. Paris was the cultural epicenter of the western world during this time, with Art Nouveau at the forefront. I wanted the illustrations to reflect this period stylistically: the color palette, the clothing, the paint application, the environments.


What inspired the character design?

I wanted the character to resemble Marie Curie in an authentic manner while still being approachable and appealing. She has a distinctive look and is a great subject for an artist who loves to paint and draw faces and people (as I do!)


What do you love most about illustrating books?

I always liken illustrating books to playing with dolls in a dollhouse as a kid. You get to choose the costumes, the facial expressions, the mood… it’s kind of like acting in a play, or directing one. The parameters are set by the manuscript with guidance provided by the editor and art director, which provides structure enough to not get too lost in a sea of ideas. Because there is that tendency to get carried away when you’re having too much fun!


What was your favorite part of working on Determined Dreamer in particular?

Making the paintings! I painted in watercolor and gouache from multiple sources of research. I read two biographies of Marie Curie which contained a lot of description of everyday scenes and occasions to spark my imagination. The research was extensive and absorbing and inspired so many visual ideas that I wanted to try! I still have scenes I want to make even though the book is long since completed.


Do you personally resonate with the theme of the book? If so, what are some things you do to achieve that?

It’s a bit meta I guess, because my process can be all-consuming and protracted… i sometimes have so many ideas that I need to execute them all and then choose the one that works best. I’ll also do multiple versions of a scene with slight variations because in the process of painting I’ll have an epiphany and need to employ it. Thus, I create a lot more work for myself than I need to, but it’s just the way I do things, so I put in long hours in my studio when I’m on deadline. Which is similar to Marie conducting her experiments, in which she’d change one variable and then repeat the process, record the new result, and determine next steps from there, repeat repeat… I’m no Marie Curie, but it’s funny how relatable her scientific process turned out to be!


Is there anything specific you hope readers take away after reading Determined Dreamer?

I hope people can get lost in the art and come out of the reading experience with a deeper understanding of this woman as a person who inhabited a place in time, who had feelings and fun and heartbreak and frustration, wins and losses, love and children. And maybe some budding artist will be inspired to draw something from one of my illustrations in the book!


Other books illustrated by Jen:


Be Kind and Be Strong, written by Pat Zietlow Miller. My Poet, written by Patricia Maclachlan.

View Jen’s full portfolio here.

To work with Jen, get in contact with Anne Moore Armstrong here.

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