Stefanie Trilling is a Manhattan-based lawyer who pivoted to legal marketing in 2013. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, under strict stay-at-home orders with two small children, Stefanie had the idea to riff off of children’s book covers and picked up her daughter’s Crayola washable paint. Since early April, her artwork series, Children’s Books for Pandemics, has gone viral. Stefanie has never painted before.
This episode was recorded on May 21st, 2020. We are a few months into the coronavirus pandemic. All 50 States are in different phases of the reopening process.
Going viral is not something that is planned. Most people hear about it on the news, or you’ll see a viral video as you’re scrolling through social media. But not many people have the experience of saying they’ve gone viral or even know someone that’s gone viral. Walk us through the experience of going viral and how this happened.
Going viral was the last thing on my mind when I began painting these parodies of book covers. Early on in the stay-at-home order in New York, my kids, and my husband and I had been home. We live near a number of major hospitals in Manhattan. We would hear constant sirens outside our window. My daughter in kindergarten learned a lot about coronavirus before schools closed, and she would ask me, “Is there someone who’s very sick in that ambulance? Are they going to die? Are they going to be okay?” There was a lot of fear and uncertainty about what was coming next. To distract the kids, I brought up the highest value activities I could involving the messiest craft we could find. We did a lot of playdough, baking, and painting. One day we were sitting at the dining room table, and I decided to pick up the paintbrush with them.
My kids are two and five. They were having so much fun. I didn’t know what to paint. I saw a book on the table we’d read earlier in the day called “An Elephant and Piggie Biggie.” I started painting the characters, and then my mind was drifting to something I was worried about relating to COVID-19. I started doodling some cartoon-like coronaviruses into my painting. My daughter looks over and says, “Do Elephant and Biggie have COVID-19?” It opened a discussion about a hard topic. She and my husband loved the painting, so I posted it on social media. My friends thought it was hilarious, and they said, “Do another book!” So, I did another book. That one was “Pete the Cat and the Bad Corona.”
I posted it, and I got a great response. I kept doing it. I did more covers and I posted them, and my friends wanted to share it with their friends. So I made it public. From there, people I didn’t know were messaging me suggestions for book covers to do and telling me how much they liked my work. I made a social media art account because it became too much to manage on my personal page. I continue to post every single day. One night, I seemed to be getting a lot of traction. I think I had 900 followers. This is sometime in mid to late April. The next morning, I woke up and the number had at least tripled overnight in a 10-hour period.
This was completely organic. I didn’t do any paid advertising. I didn’t pay anyone to do my campaign. It was purely based on the novelty of what I was doing, catching it at exactly the right moment in the market and not being afraid to try something I’ve never tried before. I’ve never painted before in any capacity like this, and I have no formal art training. I figured, what’s the worst thing that’s going to happen?
I think the first emotion I felt was panic. What at first seems like a fun novelty, it almost felt like this was something real. This is a new responsibility I have. I quickly got over the panic because it was exciting, and I continued to paint. I continue to receive wonderful support from my fans, and I’m garnering media attention with it.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: As you’ve said, viral videos and opportunities are not planned. In PR and communications, we get asked by clients to plan a viral campaign, but that’s not how it works. It’s organic, and it’s taking a chance to find something creative or that you’re passionate about.
What would you recommend to someone looking to find creativity or passion?
First, be unprepared because that’s when these things happen. To go viral, your content needs to hit a note that nothing else is hitting at that time in a particular area. In the age of COVID-19, there’s a universal sense of uncertainty and fear.
Without even knowing it, I took something very familiar from the culture in which I live in the United States. I took something from the collective history of most of the people who are alive now, which is classic children’s books and new classic children’s books. I took these common themes, and I use them to express what everyone else was feeling and thinking. The reason why it was so successful now was because of the circumstances in which we’re all living. We’re all changing the way we do things. We’re all changing how we live.
My paintings have given fans something tangible they can look forward to. Giving people something that they can hold onto has been part of the reason I think this has been so popular because it’s drawing on a collective experience, and it’s resonating in a way that most commercial campaigns can’t. I do this on the fly. I did this with no motives. I did this with no plan for how this would turn out. Most corporate campaigns are carefully curated and have been for committees and are not nimble. To go viral, you need to be nimble, you need to know your market, and you need to be creative. You need to be able to try things that no one’s tried before. In my case, I’d never painted before I tried it and it was successful for me. Maybe it’s using a different kind of messaging for your company or, or a different voice or speaking to a different audience than you’d been speaking to before. It’s about trying something new and being nimble enough to follow the trends and follow the market that can turn on a dime.
What was your favorite book to cover?
That’s a hard question. I can tell you my favorite book to do, but I can’t tell you which one’s my favorite, only because that would be like choosing a favorite child. I put so much blood, sweat and tears into these.
My favorite one that I worked on is also one of the hardest ones I worked on and that was Alexandra and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad 2020 . The level of detail I had to delve into to get that cover right was more than I knew I was bargaining for. I bit off more than I could chew at that point. There’s so much detail and intricacy. Once I realized that this was something that people are enjoying, I wanted to make sure I was doing it right. I wanted to be sure I was being true to the story and being true to the characters, even if that meant putting in an exceptional amount of work. When I didn’t know what the return would be, it was important to do. So I painstakingly painted every single hand, letter in the long title, and, if you zoom in really closely, you could see the blanket as a very intricate pattern. What I do is to give the black details, I use a pigment over that so that I’m putting the pigment in very carefully. That was one of the hardest ones I did.
Did you paint those covers with your daughter’s Crayola paint or with your adult art kit?
The first painting I did with my grownup art set was “Goodnight Zoom,” and you could tell the difference immediately between just the vibrancy of the color and the intricacy. That was when I started taking a very professional approach to it. I had about 200 to 300 people who were really actively looking at these. I saw the potential once “Goodnight Zoom” came out.
You’ve been covered by a number of outlets, and you’ve gotten coverage from CNN, Good Morning America, and various radio shows. You mentioned that it was unexpected. How did that feel? What network were you most surprised to hear from?
I think the network I was most surprised to hear from, and also my favorite interview, was from PBS News Hour. That was exciting for me because I’ve watched PBS News Hour forever. It’s national programming and it’s on public broadcast, so it’s accessible to everyone. I was really excited to do a segment with them.
What’s next for you and your artwork? What plans do you have?
In terms of my artwork, I really see this project as just the beginning. This is an opportunity for me to go build a brand. I plan to sell merchandising prints with some of this imaging on it, and I would like to donate a percentage of that to charities, especially those that benefit children who have been in communities that are hardest hit by COVID-19. I’d also like to publish a book that is an anthology of these covers and provide some anecdotes about what it was like to live as a family during this time.
Once the world reaches a new baseline of normal, I would like to do some kind of museum show to share my artwork and present them. I’ve had interest from the Library of Congress to donate pieces, so I anticipate that there’ll be more requests. I want an opportunity to share what I’ve done and share how I’ve spent my time during this period and what I try to give the world.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: Is there anything that you’d like to ask me?
Stefanie Trilling: How do you recommend people manage their relations with the media when they go viral? How should they prioritize?
Jennifer Simpson Carr: We have to plan for the unexpected. As part of a strategic planning process for communications and for business, anticipating situations that may or may not occur is part of making sure that that plan is robust and that you and your team are in a position to be able to handle any situations that come your way. I think as you go through that process, you have to understand what your message is or should be, and who would be your spokesperson or spokespeople. To do this, you would assess the types of media outlets that are most appropriate based either on the situation or the type of audience you’re looking to reach. I think in planning the unexpected, having a plan in place for crisis, or in your case, something going viral, or even a really great opportunity for a business or an individual. Have criteria in place that helps you and your organization assess what opportunities would be the most advantageous for you and for your business at the time.
Stefanie, I’m thrilled that you could join me today. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. I’m sure our listeners have too. Where can people learn more about you or how can they get in touch?
The best way to find me is either at my website, which is at www.stefanietrilling.com. On Instagram, my handle is @stefanie.trilling. You can also find me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/strilling.
We’ve been talking with Stefanie Trilling.
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