Found your circuit-board head? Your voice-control torso? Your hydrojet feet? Hooray! You’ve made one of the 729 mix-and-match robots that are possible with this innovative flip-flap book. Alongside the bright and cheery illustrations of robot parts is a basic alphabetical listing of terms—from android to gears, neural network to program, wheels to Z-drive—and a basic definition of each. With a concealed spiral binding and sturdy card stock pages to hold up to enthusiastic flap-turning, AlphaBotis full of appeal for young robot lovers, preschoolers who love machines, and anyone looking for STEM books for the younger set. Back matter includes a brief explanation of the three key abilities of robots: to sense, think, and act.
Rajani LaRocca:How did you come up with this idea?
Vicky Fang: ALPHABOTactually started off with the title! As a former designer of robots for kids, I think about robots a lot, haha. Once the title and the idea of a robot alphabet book were in my head, I knew I wanted to make something interactive. I thought about different novelty formats (flaps, cutouts, etc.) until I had the idea for mix-and-match flaps. This meant kids would be able to mix-and-match the A-Z robotics terms to create their own robots. How fun and exciting! I spent a long time thinking about what terms would work and making paper dummies to prove out the concept.
RL: What kind of challenges did you face coming up with a novelty book idea like this?
VF:This book was definitely a puzzle to put together! I have several paper dummies where I was working to make sure I could make all the terms work together. Once I had a working dummy, it was also challenging to sell the book! Novelty books are expensive to construct, so even though several editors were interested, it took time to find a publisher that could figure out how to make the numbers work. I’m so glad that MIT Kids Press/Candlewick found a way and I’m so happy with the quality of the book!
RL: Isee a strong parallel between this book and your debut, INVENT-A-PET. What do you see as the similarities and differences between them?
VF: I love introducing kids to STEM concepts, but really, I want kids to be creative problem solvers. This is at the heart of both books! Even though INVENT-A-PET is a fiction story about a girl inventing fantastic pets and ALPHABOT is about non-fiction informational book about creating robots, you can see that both books invite kids to be inventive! Maybe the different approach will appeal to a different kid, but hopefully, all kids find a way to engage their imagination from the STEM content in these books.
RL:I loved the mix of familiar and not-so-familiar terms in this book! Was it hard to come up with a concept for each letter of the alphabet?
VF:There were letters that were more challenging than others, especially to make sure they would work in their positions in the book (head, torso, or feet.) I tried several different options, as well as shifting which flaps the letters would fall on. But since I was also illustrating, I was able to think creatively about how these robot parts might work and all fit together!
RL:What do you hope kids get from this book?
VF: Well, of course, I hope they understand robots a little bit better! The back matter is a pretty simple explanation of the capabilities of robots and came from my engineering partner, Chaitanya Gharpure. Hopefully, kids understand a little bit more about how robots work and what kinds of parts they might have!
But ultimately, as I was saying before, I want kids to have fun and be creative, I hope that this book sparks their imagination and gives them the confidence to create.
RL: What’s next for you?
VF: I am very excited about my next early reader series, BEST BUDDIES, illustrated by Luisa Leal, which is releasing in October with Scholastic. It’s about a dog named Sniff and a cat named Scratch who are best friends and get into mischief at home. It’s been fun to explore themes of friendship and teamwork with these two characters who approach things differently, but together.
After that, I have many more books coming! I’m currently working on a new early chapter book series, AVA LIN, about a relatable and funny 6-year-old Chinese-American girl with a knack for getting herself into—and out of—trouble. Keep an eye out for it, launching with Candlewick in June 2024!
Vicky Fang is a product designer who spent 5 years designing kids’ technology experiences for both Google and Intel, often to inspire and empower kids in coding and technology. She started writing to support the growing need for early coding education, particularly for girls and kids of color. She is the author, and sometimes illustrator, of nineteen new and upcoming books for kids, including the Layla and the Bots series, Invent-a-Pet, I Can Code board books, Friendbots series, and the forthcoming Ava Lin series, Best Buddies series, AlphaBot, and The Boo Crew Needs You!. You can visit Vicky at vickyfang.com.
Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area, where she writes award-winning books for young readers, including the Newbery Honor and Walter Award-winning middle-grade novel in verse, Red, White, and Whole. She has always been an omnivorous reader, and now is an omnivorous writer of novels and picture books, fiction and nonfiction, in poetry and prose. You can learn more about her atwww.RajaniLaRocca.com.
This shoe lover’s paradise reveals that a city’s feet are as varied as the people and animals who live there.
Susi Schaefer: Congrats on your picture book, CITY FEET. How did you get into creating books for young readers?
Aixa Pérez-Prado: Thank you very much! I feel like I have been a writer and illustrator since I was a little girl. I was born in Argentina and raised between there and the USA. I later lived in several other countries, including Costa Rica and Morocco. I believe that being multilingual, being a child immigrant, and having lived in many different places are all strong influences on the stories and the illustrations that I create today.
I am a former bilingual kindergarten teacher, a current university professor specializing in diversity education, and, most importantly, a mother of six. All of those experiences led me to read many children’s books over the years and create my own stories for my students and my children. A few years ago, I decided to try to publish some of those stories and started my education in writing picture books.
Part of my education included taking a number of kidlit writing courses, entering online contests, and joining SCBWI. In addition to writing, I started drawing again and creating a few dummies for my stories. CITY FEET is my debut picture book.
SS: Tell us what inspired this book.
APP: I am a city girl at heart, and I love to explore the cities of the world. A few years ago, when I decided I wanted to try to publish in kidlit, I started entering online writing contests, and an earlier version of CITY FEET was a story I wrote for one of those contests, the Early Childhood Book Challenge. The idea was to write a story of 250 words or less, use rhyme, and have the story take place in an urban setting. I came up with about six stories for the contest and was a finalist with a different story, but the beat and rhythm of CITY FEET stuck in my head.
Two years later, I pitched it in Latinx Pitch on Twitter, and Winsome Bingham of Reycraft Books liked my pitch and made an offer. I was not meant to illustrate the book, but when she found out I was also an illustrator (or want-to-be illustrator), she and my agent, Joyce Sweeney, encouraged me to make a dummy. I had a very clear idea of how I wanted the book to look, with all characters appearing only from the waist down, as seen from the point of view of a baby in a stroller. I made the dummy and soon after received the offer to be the illustrator. I was thrilled!
SS: Can you share your process?
APP: I started by revising the original story and adding an additional stanza to reach the appropriate amount of spreads for a picture book. I then started trying to create the first spread, but the vision in my head wasn’t really working on paper. I went to an illustrator friend, Cristina Keller, and explained what I wanted to do to her. She invited me to her studio, and after showing her some of my sketches, she helped me to map out the first spread. After that, I knew exactly what to do.
My illustration process for CITY FEET is mainly collage created by cutting up different kinds of textured papers that I create and others that I find. I also use fabrics, leaves, petals, and other materials – including banana peels – in my collages. Once I make the collages, I scan them and bring them into Photoshop in different layers to combine and rearrange. I also do some digital collage in Photoshop.
SS: Are you working on any projects you can tell us about?
APP: Yes, I am the author and also the illustrator for a nonfiction picture book that will come out in the Fall of 2024, Mercedes Sosa: Voice of the People, published by Lee & Low. It is a very different kind of story than CITY FEET, with a different feel and somewhat different style. However, my illustration technique will continue to be the use of collage with a variety of materials as well as digital collage for the majority of the artwork.
Aixa Pérez-Prado, the author/illustrator of CITY FEET is a native of Argentina who immigrated to the US as a small child. In addition to writing and illustrating, Aixa is a translator, sensitivity reader, and university professor. Aixa has lived in several different countries and draws inspiration for her stories and illustrations from diverse locations. Her passion is writing and illustrating picture books aimed at giving diverse children a chance to see their multilayered identities represented with heart and humor. She writes in Spanish and English and enjoys mixing languages in her prose. Similarly, she loves illustrating by employing different techniques in a multimedia whimsical style.
Aixa’s upcoming picture books are OUR WORLD: ARGENTINA (Barefoot Books, 2023) and MERCEDES SOSA: THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLE (Lee & Low 2024). Aixa is represented by Joyce Sweeney from the Seymour Agency.
Born and raised in the Austrian Alps, Susi Schaefer trained as a glass painter in the medieval town of Rattenberg. After moving to Southern California for sun and adventure, Susi studied graphic design. She’s the illustrator of ZOO ZEN by Kristen Fischer, author-Illustrator of CAT LADIES and THE GLOW SHOW. Susi lives in North Tustin, California, with her family. www.susischaefer.com
Wombats might be pretty weird, but they’re pretty awesome, too! Wombats Are Pretty Weird is funny, kid-friendly, and informative, and features sidebars, comic panels, extensive backmatter, and a map. Acclaimed author-illustrator Abi Cushman’s nonfiction debut contains everything anyone could ever possibly want to know about wombats!
Vicky Fang: Abi, WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD is such a funny and informative book! I love how you use humorous dialog and illustrations to introduce so much fascinating information about wombats! How did you come up with the idea for this book?
Abi Cushman:Thank you, Vicky! I’ve been obsessed with wombats ever since I studied abroad at the University of Melbourne in Australia in 2001. I learned on a guided hike that wombats are the only animals in the world that have cube-shaped poop. This very odd tidbit of information along with the fact that wombats are adorable quickly made them one of my favorite animals.
But it didn’t occur to me to write about them in a book until 2018 after I’d written several other fiction picture books. I was thinking about the cube poop fact, and I thought it would be funny to make a little comic where a wombat makes a tower out of its cubes of poop (similar to how a kid would make a tower out of blocks) and then is just really proud of how tall it was. I wasn’t sure at that point if there was enough there for a book, so I did more research, gathered more weird facts about wombats, and gained momentum.
VF:I love that scene in the book with the cube poop tower! Hilarious. Could you tell us about your process in writing this book?
AC:I started with a lot of research about wombats. I listened to podcasts, watched videos, and read everything I could about them. Then I compiled the weirdest, most interesting facts. The next step was to see if I could make a joke about each fact. I have pages and pages in my sketchbook of facts plus doodles. I tried to come up with as many jokes as possible, and then and then really hone in on the funniest dialogue, facial expressions, and scenes.
Once I was satisfied with the jokes, I worked on putting them together in a dummy (a rough mockup of the book) in a way that made sense and that would also build to a final scene with all the wombats together.
VF:I love the addition of the snake adding color and commentary throughout the book. What made you decide to include the snake in a book about wombats?
AC: Adding the snake was a way for me to put a stand-in for the audience in the book. He could react and make comments that the reader was thinking when learning about these very weird animals. And this animal character had to be something other than a wombat. After all, the wombats wouldn’t consider themselves weird at all. In their world, it’s strange when poop is round. I chose a snake specifically because I wanted an animal that could technically live in the same area as a wombat, but was vastly different from them.
VF:Your illustrations do such a wonderful job of balancing humor and information. You’ve written funny books before (SOAKED! and ANIMALS GO VROOM! are so good!), but what was it like writing and illustrating non-fiction for the first time?
AC: Writing and illustrating non-fiction for the first time was a wonderful challenge. For this book, which includes factual information but also talking animals and other silly stuff, it was very important to me that kids didn’t think the facts were made up. One of the things I was very careful about was to ensure the narration was factual and accurate, and then have the wombats and snake react to those facts in the illustrations and speech bubbles. That way there was a clear separation.
For research, I consulted science journals and talked to wombat experts to verify and ensure the way I phrased things was correct. It was pretty wild to me that my work entailed being knee-deep in these dense scientific papers, trying to distill the information and make sense of them, and then using that to make the best poop joke I could.
For the illustrations, I wanted them to be very accessible and fun, but I also wanted them to show a decent resemblance to actual wombats and to clearly convey scientific information where appropriate. So I used a lot of references. I looked at photos of wombats’ feet, watched videos of them moving, and really studied the differences between three species. Then I drew them using hair dryers and wearing party hats.
VF:Can you talk about how you approach humor? Do you have any tips for writers who want to write funny books?
AC:The books I find funniest always contain a bit of absurdity. So that’s something I like to play with a lot in my books. For this book with weird animal facts, it was a chance to push the absurdity in the actual facts to a higher level.
For example, one of the facts in the book is that there are three species of wombats: the southern hairy-nosed wombat, the northern hairy-nosed wombat, and the bare-nosed wombat. And I just thought the names were pretty silly. So I wanted to play with that idea of hairy (or unhairy) noses and push it further into absurdity by having two of them talk about nose hair styling to the annoyance of the bare-nosed wombat.
I think with humor, you have to let yourself be pretty vulnerable. I put everything I think is funny into a story and then show it to people with the full knowledge that a lot of the jokes will absolutely not land. But I have NO IDEA which ones those are. The trick is to put the weirdest, totally out-there jokes into your story and then see how many you can get away with.
VF: That’s such great advice, and it has clearly paid off for you. What do you hope young readers take away from this book?
AC: I hope this book will get kids excited about wombats and animals in general. There is so much in the natural world that is bizarre and captivating. Kids have a natural curiosity so I think it’s our job as authors to foster and encourage it. I also hope kids come away with the idea that being weird is a good thing. It’s what makes all of us special and unique. And finally, I just hope kids laugh and find this enjoyable to read.
VF:I love that. I feel like you’ve definitely accomplished those goals with this book and kids are going to love it. So what’s next for you?
AC: I am currently polishing up the next book in the “[Not So] Serious Guide” series. This follow-up to WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD is all about the very strange, very tough FLAMINGO! And I’m happy to report that Joey the snake is back to experience it all with the reader. This book is scheduled to release in the summer of 2024.
I also recently finished illustrating a wonderfully clever book written by Charlotte Offsay called THE QUIET FOREST. This book will be released in March 2024 from Paula Wiseman Books. It’s about a very mischievous mouse who starts a chain of chaos in a formerly quiet forest, and it involves a lot of very disgruntled forest animals. It’s a ton of fun, and I’m really excited about it. This was the first time I illustrated a book I didn’t write, and it was fun to see how Charlotte’s words and my pictures came together.
VF:Those both sound fantastic! I look forward to seeing them next year. Thank you so much for sharing your journey for WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD with us. I’ve learned so much from chatting with you and from getting a peek at this hilarious book!
AC: Thanks so much for the interview, Vicky! This was fun. And I’m looking forward to chatting with you again later this summer about your upcoming book, THE BOO CREW NEEDS YOU!
VF:Looking forward to it too! Thank you again for sharing your insights with us today, Abi!
Abi Cushman is the author-illustrator of SOAKED! (Viking, 2020), ANIMALS GO VROOM! (Viking, 2021) and WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD (Greenwillow, 2023).
She has also worked as a web designer for over 15 years. She runs two popular websites of her own: My House Rabbit, a pet rabbit care site, and Animal Fact Guide, which was named a “Great Website for Kids” by the American Library Association. Did you know that wombat poop is cube-shaped? You do now! (And no, you’ll never un-know that.)
Abi lives in a small Connecticut beach town with her family. In her spare time, she enjoys running, playing tennis, and eating nachos. (Yes, at the same time.)
She is represented by BookStop Literary Agency and is a proud member of the Soaring 20s, a group of picture book authors and illustrators who debuted in 2020/21.
Vicky Fang is a product designer who spent 5 years designing kids’ technology experiences for both Google and Intel, often to inspire and empower kids in coding and technology. She started writing to support the growing need for early coding education, particularly for girls and kids of color. She is the author, and sometimes illustrator, of nineteen new and upcoming books for kids, including the Layla and the Bots series, Invent-a-Pet, I Can Code board books, Friendbots series, and the forthcoming Ava Lin series, Best Buddies series, AlphaBot, and The Boo Crew Needs You!. You can visit Vicky at vickyfang.com.
Glow is a bioluminescent squid who loves to dance and twirl. And the faster he twirls, the brighter he GLOWS! He loves to show off his skills … and becomes quite a show-off with a bad attitude. He doesn’t like sharing the spotlight. And when he ditches his friends in search of fans, he loses his glow! Can Glow find his way home—and if he does, will his friends take him back?
As readers follow Glow’s journey, they’ll learn all about bioluminescence and fascinating ocean creatures along the way.
Aixa Pérez-Prado: Congrats on your picture book, THE GLOW SHOW! How did you get into creating books for young readers?
Susi Schaefer: Thank you so much for the interview. I was born and raised in Austria, where I completed an apprenticeship as a glass painter. That style still influences my illustrations today.
Once I reached my early twenties, I got a case of Wanderlust and came to the U.S. to work as a nanny. While reading tons of picture books to the kids, I fell in love with the format. Eventually, I studied graphic design and worked in that field for many years.
And once I had my own kiddos, I decided to try my hand at illustrating and writing. With the help of the SCBWI and my critique groups, I steadily improved my craft until I landed an agent in 2016. THE GLOW SHOW will be my third book.
APP: Tell us what inspired this book.
SS: I am a huge nature lover and have always been fascinated by the ocean, partially because I grew up in a landlocked country. Soon after arriving here, I got my scuba diving certification to explore the underwater world for myself.
Then, a few years ago, we had a lot of bioluminescent plankton in the surf here in Southern California. I really became interested in glowing marine life.
Also, I wanted to tell a story about friendship versus followers or fans. And that’s how that idea for THE GLOW SHOW was born.
APP: Can you share your process?
SS: For this book, I started by illustrating a finished underwater scene, including a purple, bioluminescent squid. I loved the character so much that I began to write a messy first draft of the manuscript. After a couple of revisions, I created the dummy. The feedback from my critique group was very positive, and I decided to share the idea with my agent. She loved it and helped me refine the dummy. And then, we sent it out on submission and found a wonderful home.
My illustration process is digital collage combined with traditional watercolor washes. First, I create manual sketches on paper, then bring them into Procreate on my Apple iPad Pro and finalize each file in Photoshop on my Mac.
APP: Are you working on any projects you can tell us about?
SS: Yes, I am thrilled to share that I have recently signed two more contracts, one as an illustrator for a book scheduled for publication later in 2023 and the second as an author/illustrator for a book coming in 2025.
Born and raised in the Austrian Alps, Susi Schaefer trained as a glass painter in the medieval town of Rattenberg. After moving to Southern California for sun and adventure, Susi studied graphic design. She’s the illustrator of ZOO ZEN by Kristen Fischer, author-Illustrator of CAT LADIES and THE GLOW SHOW. Susi lives in North Tustin, California, with her family. www.susischaefer.com
Aixa Pérez-Prado is a native of Argentina who immigrated to the US as a small child. She is a writer, illustrator, translator, sensitivity reader and professor with a PhD in Social Science and Education. Aixa has lived in several different countries, and draws inspiration for her stories and illustrations from diverse locations. Her passion is writing and illustrating picture books aimed at giving diverse children a chance to see their multilayered identities represented through stories that resonate with heart and humor. Aixa writes in Spanish and English and enjoys mixing languages in her prose. Similarly, she loves illustrating by employing different techniques in a whimsical style that includes watercolor, acrylic, ink, and digital. She especially enjoys combining all of these elements through collage. Her 2023 books are CITY FEET (Reycraft), and OUR WORLD: ARGENTINA (Barefoot Books), and coming in 2024, MERCEDES SOSA: THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLE (Lee & Low). Aixa is represented by Joyce Sweeney from the Seymour Agency.
NOTE FROM RONNA: As a grammar fanatic,I’m thrilled to be able to share this fun and informative interview by Moni Ritchie Hadley with Rebecca Kraft Rector and Shanda McCloseky, author and illustrator respectively of the new picture book LITTLE RED AND THE BIG BAD EDITOR. Celebrate its book birthday with us by reading on because I know you’re going to devour this chat!
Moni Ritchie Hadley: Welcome, Rebecca Kraft Rector and Shanda McCloskey! Thank you for taking the time to chat about your new book and writing and illustration processes. Rebecca, this story creatively spins a popular fairytale with a new narrative. What was the original pitch for LITTLE RED AND THE BIG BAD EDITOR?
Rebecca Kraft Rector: In this fractured fairytale, the Big Bad Wolf is so distracted by Little Red’s poorly written thank you note to her grandmother that he keeps missing the chance to eat her.
MRH:Based on the educational subject matter and the structure of a fractured fairytale, this story seems to be the type of book a kid would love, and a parent or teacher would want to purchase. How did you come up with the concept?
RKR: I like to play with words and came up with Little Red WRITING Hood. The idea that Little Red’s poorly-written thank you note to Granny would distract the Big Bad Wolf grew from there.
MRH:Do you begin your stories with pencil and paper or on the computer?
RKR: I mostly use the computer, but I also jot down phrases and ideas in a notebook that I keep beside my bed. Some of my best ideas come when I’m only half awake.
MRH:Today, kids primarily use technology to communicate. Do you feel that kids will relate to a thank-you note written with pencil and paper?
RKR: I hope so! Kids still use pencil and paper in the early grades, and the Common Core Standards include things like using capital letters and punctuation. I’ve heard from teachers that there’s even a letter-writing unit in most first-grade classes.
MRH:Shanda, as the illustrator, what attracted you to this manuscript?
Shanda McCloskey: The happiness I felt when I read it for the very first time! Rebecca definitely knows how to have fun with words :)
MRH:Can you tell us about your process?
SM: I spent a few days drawing/redrawing character look possibilities for this book. When I saw something good in a character sketch, I would just “follow the light” and then tried drawing the character again, leaving in the good and stripping the bad, over and over until the characters felt “right-ish.”
LITTLE RED AND THE BIG BAD EDITOR was drawn digitally, printed onto paper, and painted with watercolors.
Little Red’s cape had to be red (obviously), so I started there. I found that Little Red popped best when her colors were warm in contrast to a cooler background. Wolf needed to blend into the background sometimes, so he is cool-toned as well. Then, I stuck in some of my favorite colors for fun, like Little Red’s pink and purple outfit.
The first dummy took me two months or so. Then it went through a couple of versions with feedback from the publishing team over several months. Things like character consistency, spread variation (ex., full bleeds, vignettes, panels), hair and skin color, etc., were tinkered with.
MRH:Were you able to collaborate?
MRH:Shanda, when illustrating a book based on an existing story, how do you separate the images of the past and make them fresh?
SM:It happens automatically when you are working with new characters in a new world. But it’s also cool when my “style” shows through in all my books, at least a little bit. Also, every book is a leveling-up experience for me. There may be a new technique I’m using or a mood I’m trying to achieve. There’s always something in my craft to tinker with or improve upon with each book.
MRH: You are an author of children’s books as well as an illustrator. Is it easier to illustrate someone else’s words or to illustrate your own? How is the process different?
SM:They both have various perks! When illustrating my own stories, I can add a speech bubble with a joke if the notion hits me. But it’s not really my place to do that when I’m illustrating someone else’s words. But on the flip side, having limitations can sometimes be nice and clean, and it sure is nice to launch a book with a partner. If it flops, it’s not just on you!
MRH:Rebecca, this is your second picture book. Where do you usually get stuck in the writing process, and how do you get out of it?
RKR: Ha! I get stuck all over the place—the beginning, the middle, the end—everywhere! Sometimes I’ll print out what I have, and seeing it on paper makes it easier to figure out what to do next. If I can let myself play and have fun with the story, I find my writing goes more smoothly. My critique groups are big help with both brainstorming and pointing out where I’ve gone astray.
MRH:Are you more like Little Red or the Big Bad Editor? How so?
RKR:Hmm, I guess I’m more like the Big Bad Editor because, like him, I’m frequently frustrated by bad grammar and punctuation.
SM: Hmmm. I identified with both of them! I can definitely be a stickler for what I think is “the right way” to do something. But I can also appreciate how Red didn’t wait until she had a perfect letter to say thank you to her granny. She just went for it and improved along the way! #amwriting #amillustrating
MRH: Are there any other secret insights that you can share about this book?
RKR:Unlike all the other stories I’ve written, I wrote the last line first. Also, the entire time I was writing and revising the story, I thought I was filling the story with fun metaphors. Nope! Every single one was really a simile. I still can’t write metaphors.
SM: I put my own real kids’ artwork on the refrigerator in Granny’s kitchen :) And there’s usually some nod to a book I’ve previously worked on. Such as the fire truck (FIRE TRUCK VS. DRAGON) and the snuggle bunny (BEDTIME BALLET) on Little Red’s shelf in her room on the first spread.
LITTLE RED AND THE BIG BAD EDITOR releases today! Thank you both for chatting with us.
With a nod to Richard Scarry, this inventive picture book surprises readers with every turn of the page!
Hiss! Screech! Roar! It’s a noisy day in Bumperville! But are the sounds what you think they are? That Honk! must surely be a goose. But turn the page and it’s the taxi that a goose is driving! Using cleverly placed die-cuts, this inventive book hints at what is making the sound, but with each turn of the page, it’s an eye-opening surprise and part of an unfolding story that is part guessing game and part giggle-inducing caper. Abi Cushman is the master of surprise and silliness in this absolutely delightful picture book.
Colleen Paeff:Happy book birthday and congratulations on the release of your second picture book, Animals Go Vroom! Kids are going to love all the unexpected surprises in this book. The way you use die-cuts is so clever. Were they a key element of the story from the start or did they evolve over time?
Abi Cushman: Thank you, Colleen! I am so thrilled to be here. And congratulations to YOU on your wonderful upcoming debut picture book, The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem. It is so wonderfully told, and the illustrations by Nancy Carpenter are fantastic.
CP:Thank you! I love Nancy’s illustrations, too!
AC: To answer your question, yes! I always envisioned die-cuts in the book. My initial thought was about how animal sounds and vehicle sounds sometimes overlap. And so I wanted the book to be a guessing game where readers had to guess who or what was making the sound.
Die-cut windows are a wonderful device for guessing game type books because they give a little peek at the next spread, and then the page turn offers the reveal.
CP: I love the way even the background characters in Animals Go Vroom!have their own stories that play out over the course of the book. That must have been so much fun to illustrate! Can you tell me about coming up with those stories?
AC: Some of the background characters are inspired by family members. The sloth using the walker is based off of my grandmother who would cover great distances at the mall using her walker. She had a cap she’d wear whenever she’d go out. The two bunnies in the background of the bus scene are a tribute to my two house rabbits, Cosette and Coco.
And then I chose other background characters based on the sounds they make. The artist sea lion shouts out, “Art? Art?” and the baby crow points out the car by calling out, “Cah! Cah!”. The baby crow is actually also based on my son who would do the same thing every time he saw a car when he was younger.
CP:How fun! I can’t believe I didn’t pick up on those sounds! And for more fun, outside of the book, I noticed that you have an Animals Go Vroom! memory game on your website. (It took me 46 seconds and 13 moves to solve it.) How did you come up with that idea and did you create it yourself? If so, how did you develop such impressive skills?!
AC:I have been a web designer/developer for over 15 years, so that coding experience definitely has benefits. Although I don’t specialize in making online games, I was able to find some open source code for a memory game, and then I tweaked it to work on my website and to use the images I created for all the cards. I actually had intended to make a memory game for my first book, Soaked!, but I didn’t have enough time. But Animals Go Vroom! actually worked even better for this sort of game because there is a large cast of characters to choose from.
CP: It definitely seems perfect for a game like that. You dedicated this book to your mom “who really loves snakes.” Is that true? Did you have pet snakes in the house when you were growing up?
AC:I showed this illustration:
to my brother over a family Zoom so he could see how I made his headphone-wearing daughter into a character in the book, and my mom blurted out, “Oh no! Gross!” And we were all kind of laughing because although we all know she does NOT care for snakes or worms, we thought a cartoony-looking snake drawing might be ok.
I didn’t set out to make a book that largely featured snakes, but that’s where the story took me since they make that wonderful hissing sound. I thought, “How can I make it so that my mom HAS to read this book with a bunch of snakes?” And so I dedicated it to her, and she did say recently that the illustration of the kid snake on the dedication was okay. :)
And so to answer your second question, NO. There was absolutely no chance of us having pet snakes when I was growing up.
CP:Hahaha! I love that your family shows up in so many different ways in this book. Did you base any other characters on people you know?
AC:Oh yes. I mentioned earlier that the baby crow is my car-loving son, and the kid snake is based on my niece who wore headphones the entire time we were on a family vacation one time. The mama snake is me. Actually the bear in Soaked!is also me. I guess I follow that advice, “Write what you know.” since I apparently just put myself in all my books.
CP:For StoryStorm 2020 you advised people to keep an ugly sketchbook and said the practice freed you up to do the drawings that inspired your debut picture book Soaked!(Viking Children’s Books, 2020). Is there any correlation between the vengeful sketchbook chipmunk at the end of that post and the chipmunk car salesman in Animals Go Vroom? And did any other ugly sketchbook characters make it into this second book?
AC:Hahaha maybe this is the vengeful chipmunk’s origin story. A car salesmunk who becomes disillusioned with life after getting bonked in the head with a flat tire just hours after making his first sale.
But yes, the whole concept of the book came about from this Ugly Sketchbook character: a sea lion flying a jet going RAWRR!
This specific character didn’t end up in the final book, but another sea lion made it into the story as an artist just trying to share their beautiful art with everyone.
CP:I loved the sea lion’s paintings! And I loved the otter taxi passenger, too. I happen to know that he is a published author. I read his research project “Funny AND Female” and noticed that he didn’t ask YOU to talk about being a funny woman in kidlit. (He’s got some nerve!) So, talk to me about being funny. Where do you find inspiration for your humor? Do you have any tried and true tricks to bring humor to a scene?
AC:I find inspiration everywhere- TV, movies, books, my family. Unexpected random or absurd things are often very funny. So I like playing around with creating a pattern and then disrupting it with something ridiculous. Being specific helps create that absurd moment. For example, in Soaked!, I create a pattern in the first spread. “Not that badger. Not that bunny.” and then I disrupt it with something specific and out-of-place. “Not that hula-hooping moose.”
When I was thinking about a passenger for the taxi in Animals Go Vroom!, it was tough because really, it could be ANYONE in the backseat. So I made it fun by thinking of someone who would look glorious with a monocle (an otter, of course), and then I thought it would be pretty ridiculous if in every scene he was eating a different meal and was totally oblivious to the traffic jam. I started with tea because that would be a great contrast to the goose who was having a fit about being stuck behind the bus. And then the next spread, the otter is eating a filet of fish on a plate with a fork and knife. How did he get this fancy meal? Where did he get the utensils? In the next scene, he has an ice cream cone. Did he have the ice cream in the taxi the entire time? Why didn’t it melt? Does he have a freezer in there? I like creating scenes where the reader does a double-take and thinks, “Wait a minute- WHAT?? What’s going on there?” It’s a treat for the curious kid who takes a closer look at the pictures and sees that secondary storyline happening in the background.
CP:You teach a couple of classes at Storyteller Academy. What do you enjoy most about teaching other picture book creators?
AC:Most people enrolled at Storyteller Academy have committed to making a real go at improving their craft. So it is incredibly satisfying to see them put in the work every week and make huge gains in their stories. I really believe that if you put in the work- which is to read and analyze current picture books, think about a compelling concept or character, and then just keep plugging away, that you can become a published author. But a lot of people give up. So it is wonderful to see the dedication from Storyteller Academy students. And I can’t wait to see the manuscripts I’ve critiqued become published books in a couple of years.
CP:That’s definitely something to look forward to. Speaking of craft, what are three tools of the illustrator’s craft that you wouldn’t want to be without?
AC: 1. My Bic mechanical pencil. I use a mechanical pencil to draw all the characters in my books. I like that the pencil always stays sharp.
My Wacom Cintiq tablet. I color all my illustrations digitally using Photoshop and my tablet. I like to apply the color this way because it is easy to correct mistakes, experiment with color, and keep the color palette consistent across spreads. I can also zoom in to apply details. e
Google image search. Even though my books feature anthropomorphic animals, I still use a lot of reference photos. When thinking about a mouse riding a unicycle, I’ll look at photos of mice to imagine what one would look like sitting upright on a seat. How would its leg look while pedaling? Then I’ll look at photos of unicycles. How can I modify this unicycle if the rider had short (mouse) legs? And now what would it look like if that mouse was not only riding a unicycle but also holding a large cupcake? I have to use my imagination, but I still try to base parts of it on real-life so the illustration looks plausible.
CP:That’s fascinating. So, when you’re working on a story, do the pictures usually come first or is it the words? Do you find one is easier than the other?
AC: I usually think of a very general concept first. For Soaked!, I thought about how when you’re stuck in the rain, it actually becomes pleasant after you become thoroughly soaked. The idea of changing your perspective despite the situation staying the same was intriguing to me. Then for a couple months after that, I kept drawing a bedraggled soggy bear looking very disgruntled in the rain. But the whole thing flew together once I thought of the voice of Bear, the main character. The voice drove the story and the words came pouring out.
For Animals Go Vroom!, I again thought of the concept first: sounds that both animals and vehicles make. After brainstorming sounds and animals, I started to see a chain of events forming, so I made a book dummy to see how it would all work with the die-cuts. I started with a small dummy and gradually increased the size with each revision. From there, I was able to draw in a lot more details as it got closer to its final size, and secondary storylines started forming through the illustrations.
When I’m working on a story, I often see images in my head, and I’ll quickly jot them down as very ugly doodles. I’ll also write down little snippets of text. So in terms of what’s easier for me, I think it’s easy for me to picture little moments in a story. But what is hard is actually rendering those imagined scenes and characters properly in the final art. It’s tough to match the idealized images in my head. Plus, doing the final art is so labor-intensive, and there’s also a deadline. But that being said, it is AMAZING when the art director shows you a PDF of the book with the text properly typeset over the full-color art. It makes all those long hours worth it.
CP:I bet! What’s next for you?
AC: I have an unannounced picture book in the works that I’m very excited about. It’s an informational picture book that I would have LOVED as a kid. It’s a book where hopefully kids will be laughing and learning at the same time.
CP:That sounds wonderful, Abi. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me. And congratulations, again, on your terrific new book!
All artwork and photos courtesy of Abi Cushman.
Abi Cushman is the author-illustrator of Soaked!(Viking, 2020) and Animals Go Vroom! (Viking, 2021). She has also worked as a web designer for over 15 years, creating websites for libraries, towns, and local businesses. She runs two popular websites of her own: My House Rabbit, a pet rabbit care resource, and Animal Fact Guide, which was named a Great Website for Kids by the American Library Association. In her spare time, Abi enjoys running, playing tennis, and eating nachos. (Yes, at the same time.) She lives on the Connecticut shoreline with her husband and two kids.
Blossom Valley is opening a new community center! But they need to generate buzz for the grand opening. Layla and the Bots know how to help: they will build a cupcake machine for the party! But will their invention be a piece of cake… or a recipe for disaster? With full-color artwork on every page, speech bubbles throughout, and a fun DIY activity that readers can try at home, this early chapter book series brings kid-friendly STEAM topics to young readers!
Meet the robots Blink and Block in this STEM-inspired, Level Two I Can Read Comic by debut author-illustrator Vicky Fang.
Blink is scanning the playground for treasure, but Block is pretty sure there’s no gold to be found. When Blink finds a penny and decides to make a wish, will these two new pals find treasure after all—or maybe something even better? Blink and Block Make a Wish is a Level Two I Can Read Comic, geared for kids who are comfortable with comics, can read on their own, but still need a little help.
Colleen Paeff: Hi Vicky! It looks like I caught you right in the middle of two book launches. Layla and the Bots: Cupcake Fix came out on June 1 and Friendbots hits bookstores on June 22. Congratulations! How exciting to have two books coming out in one month! How does it feel?
Vicky Fang: It’s so much fun but also quite exhausting! Social media is such a strange place and two book launches means I’m on it more than I’d like to be. But I had the amazing opportunity to do an in-person launch party for Layla and the Bots: Cupcake Fix with Linden Tree Books and it was amazing! Even though it’s my sixth book (gasp!), it was my first launch party! I had so much fun celebrating the book with friends, new readers, and even some Layla and the Bots fans I met for the first time.
CP:Oh, my gosh. That sounds amazing! It must have been so nice to see your fans live and in-person. Friendbots is your debut as an author/illustrator. How was the experience of creating that book different from your previous experiences writing the text alone? Were you surprised by any particular aspect of the author/illustrator process?
VF:Illustrating a book is so much work! I mean, writing a book is too, but there’s definitely a different kind of pressure to illustrate a whole book within a few months, including revisions and cover illustrations, etc. I do think that between Book 1 and Book 2 I got much better at designing panels that would be fun to draw. I also had a much better sense of how long the drawings would take. Creatively, I’m more comfortable incorporating wordless panels as the author-illustrator. Somehow, it feels less like I’m just leaving a hole there, because I know I’m the one who’s going to have to fill it!
CP:One thing I love about your Layla and the Bots books is that I can never anticipate what’s going to go wrong (and something always does!). When you set out to write those books do you start with the problem, the solution, or something else entirely?
VF: Ah, that’s a great question! I usually start with the solution, in some rough form, just in the sense that I think about something that would be fun to design! So an amusement park for dogs (Happy Paws), a suped-up go-kart (Built for Speed), or a cupcake machine (Cupcake Fix). From there, I think about the problem they might try to solve and that leads to the specifics of the solution they come up with. It does feel a bit like a fun puzzle trying to plot those books!
CP:Coding plays a big part in your books–even the board books. What would you recommend to parents who are intimidated at the thought of coding, but who want to foster a love (or at least a level of comfort) with coding in their children?
VF: A lot of people ask me this question! First off, I incorporate coding into the books because I think computational thinking is so important for all kids, whether or not they want to code or become software engineers. It’s really about being able to break down a problem logically and think through the solution in small, logical pieces. I’m just hoping kids start to think in these logical blocks: if/then, and/or, etc. And they do already naturally! It’s just about seeing those logical blocks and realizing that those blocks are how you give instructions to a computer. Besides books, there are also great tools and toys out there. Scratch/Scratch Jr., Code-a-pillar, and Sphero are just a few that parents might look into!
CP:Awesome. Thank you! You’ve written (and sold!) a picture book, chapter books, board books, and an early graphic novel series. What do you like about writing in so many different formats and do you have a favorite?
VF: As a former product designer, I get inspiration from the strengths and restrictions of the different formats! The format is part of the ideation process for me. I don’t have a favorite. I love the conceptual and tactile nature of board books, the poetic precision of picture books, the fun of chapter books, and the theatre-like quality of graphic novels!
CP: How do you know which format is right for which story idea?
VF: I usually have an idea floating around in my head and it will click with a format, based on some of the qualities I described above. I have an ongoing list of ideas that I keep, usually of vague picture book ideas. But then separately, I’ll decide I want to try a particular format and read a lot of books and realize, oh, this is perfect for that idea about X! And then I start writing it. It becomes a bit of, what format has the right shape to fit the story I need to tell? Which will give me enough room for the characters and the plot? Which will support the visual needs? Which will fit the age group the best?
CP:I understand you worked as a technology product designer for Google and Intel. What exactly is a technology product designer and what are some of the coolest projects you worked on during that time?
VF: Yes! I designed the user experience for products, which means I designed how things should work. By the end of my time at Google, I was a design lead, which meant I oversaw the creative team, which included interaction designers, visual designers, writers, and even voice/audio designers. I loved working on projects that used technology to create surprising and delightful experiences! I designed DIY cardboard robots that you could build and code yourself, interactive voice games for kids, and a building that lit up and played music when you held hands in the space. Those are just a few of the projects that I loved!
CP:That sounds amazing! Tell me something I might not know about working for Google!
VF: Ah, what wouldn’t you know? Hmm … I think you hear all about the amazing perks and the amazing people. So what wouldn’t you know? One time, we took dozens of our cardboard robots and set up a giant robot dance party in the hallways in the middle of the night and videotaped it. We had a lot of fun—but we did a lot of work too!
CP:Hahaha! I love that!! I read that you were a theater major in college (me, too!) and an actress on Charmed and other TV shows. How did you get from theater to tech?
VF:Oh, cool, I didn’t know that! I moved to LA to act but was working at some startups to pay the bills. One startup actually had very little work to do, so I spent my days teaching myself Photoshop and making little Quicktime animations in the most inefficient way possible. From that, I got jobs making Flash animations, which lead to coding Flash websites, and I eventually ended up going to grad school at Parsons School of Design to get an MFA in Design and Technology!
CP:What skills from your previous professions have been most useful to you as a children’s book author?
VF:One of the things I love is that I feel like writing pulls from ALL of my experiences! Acting I think is an obvious one, in terms of story and character, and emotion. It also helped with understanding the agent landscape! But I also feel like all of the design work helps me craft stories, and understand how to respond to critique feedback, and be creative on demand, etc. Both acting and design have helped me as an illustrator, in thinking about color and layout, and visual focus. In some ways, I think of myself as somebody who just loves creating in different mediums—whether that be technology or pictures or words!
CP:What is your favorite thing about writing for children?
VF: I love that I feel like I can make a positive impact on even just one kid with a book. It never feels like a wasted effort. I love seeing kids embrace the books and become inspired to make fan art or invent something or write a story.
CP: What are the three most important tools in your “Writer’s Toolbox?”
VF: First off, my critique partners. I met Christine Evans and Faith Kazmi in 2017 and I wouldn’t still be here if not for their moral and creative support. Secondly, my agent. Elizabeth Bennett is an amazing partner who gives me the most insightful and inspiring directional guidance. The third, I would say, is creative brain space. I find that I have to give myself space to create and forgive myself when I’m not able to (which inevitably happens with life, more than I’d like!).
CP:What’s next for you?
VF: I’m finishing up Friendbots Book 2, which launches this fall. And I’m excited for Layla and the Bots Book 4, Making Waves, which launches in January 2022. I have an unannounced project coming in 2023, and I’m always working on new ideas!
CP:Great! I look forward to reading them all. Thanks, Vicky!
VF:Thank you, Colleen! It’s been a pleasure chatting books with you!
Vicky Fang is a product designer who spent five years designing kids’ technology experiences for both Google and Intel, often to inspire and empower kids in coding and technology. She started writing to support the growing need for early coding education, particularly for girls and kids of color. She is the author of nine new and upcoming STEAM books for kids, including Invent-a-Pet, I Can Code, Layla and the Bots, and her author-illustrator debut, Friendbots. Find Vicky on Twitter at @fangmous or on her website at www.vickyfang.com. e
Julius and Macy like to play heroes. Julius pretends he’s the defender of the forest, while Macy has a quieter strength. When their snack disappears one night, they decide to track down the only one who could have taken it―the Night Goblin. They both have to be brave in their own ways, and they ultimately discover that the real thief isn’t anything like they imagined.
With its endearing characters, this gently told tale reminds us that we each have courage within us and that kindness can make all the difference.
INTERVIEW WITH ANNELOUISE MAHONEY
GoodReadsWithRonna: Congratulations on your author-illustrator debut, Annelouise! Does it feel surreal right now after all your hard work to hold Julius and Macy: A Very Brave Night in your hands? How long has it been since you first began this creative journey in general and specifically for this picture book?
Annelouise Mahoney:Hi Ronna. Thank you so much for having me over today. Yes! Surreal is the perfect word for how it feels. Surreal and grateful! It’s been a long journey into picture books. It took about 10 years of serious focus to break into children’s books and of those 10 years, it took 5 years for the making of Julius and Macy.
GRWR: I adore bravery stories since I was not the bravest of kids, nor were my children. Tell us how you decided on this topic for your picture book.
AM: I adore bravery stories too! I didn’t set out with a definite topic for this book at the beginning. It was more finding the characters that resonated with me and asking questions as I drew them over and over again. So the characters came first. The more I drew Julius and Macy the clearer their story became.
GRWR: Burning question. Are you more Julius or more Macy?
AM: That’s a fun question! Honestly, I think I’m a little bit of both. I love to go after something I’m passionate about but feel bravest with someone by my side. I feel the younger me is more adventurous like Julius, but the older me is more cautious like Macy.
GRWR: Please walk us through your approach to writing and illustrating. Did you conceive the text first and then illustrate it, vice versa, or did everything happen simultaneously?
AM: I’ve learned to stick to the illustrations first. Not full illustrations, but loose sketches of ideas, and build from there. I gather all the loose sketches into a folder and begin placing them into a small thumbnail template. The template is an 8×11 piece of paper where I can see the story in one place. When I can see the story, and feel the visual narrative is working, then it’s time to add the words. This part of the process takes a long time for me. It’s a lot of experimenting to get the words right. If I start with the text too soon, I usually end up straying from my story.
GRWR:Can we talk about your gorgeous artwork and how you create it?
AM: In the beginning when I’m moving away from the very loose thumbnail sketch and planning out the compositions for each spread, I use Post-it notes to redraw certain elements, or add to what I already have. This part of the process takes a long time for me. It’s figuring out compositions and looking for how to express a feeling. I’m also looking for areas that may be repetitive and looking for the most interesting way to show the story. There is a lot of experimenting happening at this stage. The Post-it notes help me to not get attached to any single idea as I can just take it off or move it around without having to redraw the whole spread.
When I think what’s happening on the page is working, I scan the sketches into the computer and make the images bigger in photoshop. I’m looking for more specific information I can give to each spread, making sure the compositions work within the trim size and add the text to make sure everything reads well in the space.
This dummy stage will then repeat as I go through revisions with my agent and then my editor until the story is fleshed out and polished.
Once the story is polished, I begin all over again with small thumbnails but this time I’m focusing only on color. For Julius and Macy: A Very Brave Night, I made a color guide to help me navigate the color choice for each spread before going into final art. I found this part extremely helpful because I was painting in watercolor and I had to know how I was going to approach each painting.
I then repeated the process of scanning in the tiny thumbnails in Photoshop and making them much bigger to fit into the book template. I was interested to see where I need to focus on adding details and how the images read in the true size of the book. It’s checking and double-checking that the text will fit and I’m getting the color transitions right. Once the loose wash looks right and I can see where I’m going, I took large sheets of Arches 140lb cold press watercolor paper and cut them down a little larger than print size.
I painted each page in watercolor, with lots and lots of wash layers. I would work on a few spreads at a time so there was time for the paint to dry, and time to look away from a work in progress. There is an uncomfortable moment in each illustration where it looks ugly and messy and doesn’t feel like it will work before it does. When the painting was dry and complete, I scanned each painting into the computer and used photoshop and my Wacom tablet to set each painting into the picture book template provided by my publisher, Two Lions.
GRWR: Now that you have one book under your belt, are you busy with promoting it, or are you also making time for more artistic pursuits?
AM: Promotion does take a lot of time, and I’m enjoying this moment very much. But yes, I’m working on two other book dummies at the moment and I’m hoping to get them submission-ready soon.
GRWR: Do you have a routine you like to stick to when working on a project?
AM: I really need to be flexible as a working mom and often bring my book dummies, Post-it notes and pencils with me wherever I go. As far as a routine, I definitely wake up early each day before the demands of my family take over, and I work at night when there is another wave of calm. Those precious hours are protected for when I really need to concentrate.
GRWR: Is there a spread in Julius and Macy that really resonates with the child in you and the mother in you?
AM:Oh wow, what a beautiful question. The spread of the book with panels of Julius and Macy walking into and through the dark cave resonates with me as a mother. When my daughters were very young they would slip into pretend play very easily. They craved adventure and enjoyed little scary moments where they were challenged to be brave. The Los Angeles zoo has a man-made cave meant for little ones to explore. We’d visit it often and my girls would become more and more brave to venture through it, their imaginations on fire as they explored every corner.
As an author, I find writing a children’s book a bit like walking in the dark. There are times when I don’t know where I’m going, I can’t see the story, I can easily spook myself, but there is the need to keep going even if the unknown feels scary. As a child, I craved adventure stories and had a very active imagination. I think I’d be excited to walk into a cave, as long as I had a friend beside me and it wasn’t completely dark.
GRWR: What would you love for children to take away from reading your book?
AM: I would love children to explore what bravery means to them and see the many ways they’ve been brave in their own life. I’d like children to know that there is a unique form of bravery to reach out to someone, especially when you notice someone struggling to belong, as well as the bravery and trust to reach back.
GRWR: Has anyone in particular been influential in your kidlit career?
AM:I had a brave moment myself, and enrolled in a class taught by Marla Frazee at Art Center College of Design. She lit the way for me when I was really struggling to understand the craft of writing for children. She taught in a way I could understand by breaking things down to get to the heart of the story, finding the emotion in the art, trusting what your sketches are trying to tell you. Most importantly, when writing as an illustrator, stick to the sketching first. I’m still learning and growing, but those lessons influence how I write and how I create a book.
GRWR: What important lesson or invaluable piece of advice have you learned along the way in your children’s publishing experience that you’d like to share today?
AM: I believe that if you want to write for children, be passionate about it. Really put in the time and love to learn the craft. Be passionate about what you are working on. Publishing takes time and you want the love for your story to carry you through the rejections, revisions, and care that will ultimately polish your book better than you could ever do alone.
GRWR: What can we expect next?
AM: I hope to make many more books! That’s really all I want to do. Whether I have the honor of working with another author to create a book together or have the opportunity to publish more of my own stories. It’s the greatest privilege to make books for kids.
GRWR: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to mention?
AM: I’d like to mention to your readers that I have activity pages that correspond to my book available for download on my website. www.WoodlandAbbey.com
Also, I’m a member of a wonderful group of children’s book authors, The Picture Book Scribblers. We are all available for school visits paired by theme or individually. You can find us here https://picturebookscribbl.wixsite.com/home
Thank you so much, Ronna. It’s been an absolute pleasure to chat with you today!
GRWR: What a wonderfully frank and informative interview. Thank you, Annelouise, and best of luck with Julius and Macy: A Very Brave Night. e e
Annelouise Mahoney has worked in animation for DreamWorks, DIC Animation, Sony, and Saban Entertainment. She has also worked as a coloristfor Marvel and Image Comics on such series as Uncanny X-Men, Generation X, and others. This is her first picture book, and it was inspired by the depths of her daughters’ friendships and the many ways they are brave, especially with someone on their side. She loves to explore the forest, can’t resist a cave, and has a lot of love for all those named Julius in her life. Annelouise lives in Southern California with her family. Learn more about her atwww.woodlandabbey.com. e Order your copy ofJulius and Macy: A Very Brave Night: Mahoney today.
1. Enter our Twitter giveaway @goodreadsronna for a chance to win a signed copy of Julius and Macy: A Very Brave Night together with aspecial Giveaway Prize Package from Annelouise that includes an 8×11 print of cover, a sticker sheet, and a round sticker. Eligible for U.S. only. One winner will be selected at random and announced at 6 pm PDT on Friday, April 9.
WIN! WIN! WIN! WIN!
2. Additionally, five lucky winners will each receive three fabulous books celebrating the art of making and keeping friends, including Julius and Macy: A Very Brave Night, courtesy of Two Lions. Details and entry form can be found here (US addresses).
Click here to read another recent author-illustrator interview.
When a chipmunk mistakes Hare for a rabbit, Hare puts him in his place. But actually, the chipmunk is a SQUIRREL. Or so he says.
INTERVIEW WITH JULIE ROWAN-ZOCH:
Colleen Paeff:Hi Julie! Congratulations on the release of your author/illustrator debut, I’m a Hare, So There! The rabbit—I mean, hare—in this story has such a strong voice. (I love it!) Was that voice there from the get-go or did it develop over time?
Julie Rowan Zoch: From the beginning, there was never any question about Jack’s personality, but recently I realized he has the same confidence as a close friend of mine. Must be why it felt so easy to write.
CP: I love the search-and-find element at the back of the book. Was that always part of the plan, or did that idea come later?
JRZ: No, it was my editor, Kate O’Sullivan who suggested I added backmatter even before the contract was final. I wanted to keep it simple and we agreed visual elements with a few facts would be a good fit. The search-and-find was an extension of that idea.
CP: Can you talk a little about the process of writing and illustrating this book? Were there any big changes?
JRZ: A big change in the ending happened before we submitted it as I had the plan to have the main character “carried off”! Luckily I was able to keep it kid-friendly AND still funny! Once it was with the editor she suggested some minor changes to the text and to add more similar-not-same elements, which I’m really grateful for – makes for a much better book. The art director, Celeste Knudsen also suggested a more colorful palette than I had originally intended, and I am grateful for that guidance too!
CP: Your debut picture book, Louis, was written by best-selling author/illustrator Tom Lichtenheld. How did you feel about creating illustrations for such a well-known illustrator? Did he have any say in what the illustrations looked like?
JRZ: I was intimidated by the thought that the illustrations would be compared to his own, and luckily I quickly got over that! Just had to remind myself, anyone’s illustration style will always be compared to others! He did have a say, but that went through the editor, and she never gave me the feeling I had to adjust my own vision if I felt strongly about something. The HMH team was truly a joy to work with!
CP: What relationships (with individuals or groups) have been most helpful to you as you’ve made your way in children’s publishing?
JRZ: Being a part of my regional SCBWI chapter and our local Connect group, (which I now facilitate) have helped me tremendously, especially with encouragement. I am also a 12×12 Picture Book Challenge member from the beginning, and some of the community I have met are very close friends now. Through both of these organizations, I have also found all of my critique partners, past and present, as well as the promotional groups I now enjoy being a part of – all of which have helped me through both book debuts happening during the pandemic! I do not want to imagine what it would have been like without them! I am also lucky to be able to trust my agent, Marcia Wernick, implicitly. She knows when to push and when to listen, shares a love of period drama, and has a great laugh!
CP: Has failure played any part in your success? How?
JRZ: Of course! No one learns without friction! I’ve racked up plenty of embarrassing moments in sharing awful manuscripts, first with my poor friends then with critique partners! And my agent can be very frank with me – thank goodness! I’ve had some tough art school teachers whose constructive criticism knocked the wind out of me as well as helped me get back up! Even the old neighborhood kids kept everyone’s ego in check – once they even left me hanging on a fence by my overalls! I suppose it’s all helped me grow a thick skin!
CP: You’re a bookseller! How does that inform your work as an author and illustrator?
JRZ: I applied for the job thinking it would be interesting, and I was right! I see many books before they are released, so I am very aware of market trends; I hear what customers of different ages are asking for in children’s literature, and know that half of what sells are classics, and I learn that even books I like can be quite boring to a group of toddlers!
CP: If I asked you to curate a perfect day, guaranteed to get the creative juices flowing, what would it look like?
JRZ: My gut reaction is to say I wouldn’t want to! I don’t know how it all works when it works, and randomness may be the key! BUT when all else fails … read poetry and read it out loud!
CP: What’s your advice to people (of all ages) who like drawing, but get discouraged by their lack of natural drawing ability?
JRZ: If you love it, draw. I really don’t know if anyone has natural drawing ability. But I do know one gains the ability by drawing.
CP:Is there anything else I should have asked?
JRZ: Have beliefs about how I wanted to make picture books changed since I started out (later in life to boot!)?
JRZ: Yes. I was quite certain I would not want to illustrate for someone else’s text, and now I know it’s just as exciting and in some ways even more so!
CP: What’s next for you?
JRZ:Fingers crossed that a current offer to illustrate moves to contract, and that a dummy I’ve been revisiting on and off for years is finally ready to go walkabout!
Author, illustrator, bookseller, and activist: Julie Rowan-Zoch grew up collecting freckles and chasing hermit crabs in NY, and spent years slicing rich breads in Germany before waking up to 300 days of blue Colorado skies. If she doesn’t answer the door, look in the garden!
For signed books, please leave a personalization request in the online order/comment section with my local indie bookstore (and place of employment!) here.
The Torah is called the Tree of Life. Just as a tree is always growing and changing, the Torah’s ideas can help us grow and change, too. Yoga can do the same. Both can help us strengthen ourselves, calm our minds, and learn to appreciate the world around us.
Written by rabbi and certified yoga instructor Mychal Copeland, I Am the Tree of Life encourages us to explore both the world of yoga and the stories of the Bible and find meaning in both.
GoodReadsWithRonna: Congratulations on your great honor, Rabbi!What a pleasure to have you as our guest today.
“How might it feel to stand at Mount Sinai? To dance at the red sea?” are the inviting opening words to your lovely picture book. This gentle and meaningful introduction to yoga through Torah exploration is a wonderful idea for a story. Please share your inspiration with us. Is this a practice you use with children?
Rabbi Mychal Copeland:This book came together organically, doing yoga with children at Jewish summer camps and synagogues. We imagined, together, which stories we could form with our bodies. I loved seeing kids use their imagination and how easily they understood what it means to embody, or become, an animal, object, or character. Those ideas evolved over many years into the poses in the book, alongside poses I brought into my adult Jewish yoga classes based on the weekly Torah readings and holidays.
GRWR:The beautiful blend of the spiritual and physical come together seamlessly in I AM THE TREE OF LIFE. What do you feel your book offers to youngsters especially now when they have been coping with an unprecedented pandemic?
RMC: Parents of young children are striving to bring grounding, healthy practices into their kids’ lives, especially during this pandemic. Yoga teaches adults and children that we can regulate our own breathing, calm ourselves down when necessary, pay attention to what we are feeling, and to be empowered in our bodies. Children have lost their daily opportunities for movement, so I’ve been thrilled to hear that this book has helped them get moving during this time. I hope that has, in turn, connected them to their spiritual selves and to the world around them as they embody a mountain, tree or a fish.
GRWR:I love how there’s a boat pose to signify Noah’s Ark. Did you have trouble finding poses to correlate to the various stories? Or did you select the stories based on existing poses?
RMC: I have been teaching yoga in a Jewish context for many years, and in my practice I connect the poses to the weekly Torah portion or Jewish holiday wherever there is a meaningful link. I have collected so many poses that fit perfectly with our stories. In fact, I had a tough time choosing which ones to drop to make the book the right length for children!
GRWR:Do you have a particular favorite illustration and if so, why?
RMC: The book is based around the image of the tree, both as a metaphor for our Torah and of our bodies. The cover so perfectly brings those images together with a child coming into Tree Pose against the backdrop of a tree so we can see how our feet are like roots, legs like a trunk, and arms like branches. I also love the way he integrated the Torah stories we are about to read into the Tree of Life while we are forming Tree Pose on the opening pages. I also love the Crescent Moon, because Andre so beautifully captured the sweeping feeling of this pose and the story in Genesis.
GRWR:The book is filled with a variety of wonderful Torah stories. Is your hope that, in addition to wanting to try yoga, children reading your book might also become interested in further Jewish study?
RMC:Yes! My hope is that the short glimpses into the Torah stories will pique a child’s curiosity to know the full stories. Perhaps at a Passover seder, they will hear the Exodus narrative and remember that they tried a yoga pose from that formative story. If they feel like that story is theirs because they embodied it, even better. I hear so many young adults say that they don’t feel Jewish enough, that they didn’t learn enough to feel it’s theirs, or that the Jewish community doesn’t accept them as being fully Jewish. My hope is that our upcoming generation of kids feel like they own their own Judaism. It is not someone else’s tradition that they are peering into. It is wholly theirs to live, learn, and create.
GRWR:I love how at the end of the book you address what’s Jewish about yoga. For those reading who do not yet have the book, what’s your answer?
RMC: Yoga emerges from the Hindu philosophical tradition. Jews have a long tradition of being open to learning and incorporating wisdom from other traditions that surround us (medieval liturgy based on Arabic poetry, piyyut, is another great example). But movement also has a long history in Judaism. Our ancient rabbis discussed how to move our bodies during prayer, recognizing that words are not the only way to pray. One medieval Jewish mystic matched Hebrew letters and vowels with head movements. Other kabbalists envisioned different aspects of God as a chart in the shape of a tree, the Tree of Life, and mapped that chart onto the human body. And Hasids used body movements to enhance their prayer.
So yoga is a practice that Jews are borrowing, but spiritual movement is not new to our people.
GRWR: This is such a feel good, calming read. What other Jewish or non-Jewish children’s books have you enjoyed reading for your own writing inspiration?
RMC: Howard Schwartz and Kristina Swarner’s Gathering Sparks (a Sydney Taylor Award winner) has been such an inspiration to me, inviting children to contemplate a complex spiritual, mystical idea in a way that is both relatable and calming. Their book, Before You Were Born, has that same mystical, whimsical quality. I have also been heavily influenced by Rabbi Sandy Sasso’s work (In God’s Name, God’s Paintbrush and so many others), bringing a depth of spiritual conversation to an ecumenical audience.
GRWR:What else would you like to mention about your experience writing the book?
RMC:In early conversations with Apples and Honey Press, we wanted to make sure that the children pictured in the book would represent the diversity of the Jewish community. They brought Brazilian artist, André Ceolin, to the project and I am overjoyed with the illustrations. Portraying children of color in books does not solve the deep-seated issues we face in the Jewish community or our larger American culture. Yet making sure People of Color are represented in Jewish children’s literature is one way we can show kids they are visible in Jewish life, while showing white children that a diversity of racial and ethnic backgrounds is what Jewish looks like. We can offer the next generation an invitation to connect themselves to Jewish stories and other Jews.Collectively, we can make intentional choices about which stories and images are passed on.
INTERVIEW WITH ANDRE CEOLIN:
GRWR:Congratulations on your great honor!What a pleasure to have you as our guest today, André.
On the very first spread of the book readers see the tree of life pose along with the tree itself representing the Torah. Can you speak to some of the wisdom shown on the different branches of the tree, the preview of stories to come, and how you imagined this particular illustration?
André Ceolin: Both Ann Kofsky, from Behrman House, and Rabbi Mychal have given me the guidelines and important insights for that illustration, coming up with the idea of the tree showing the passages in each branch.
The tree is strong and healthy, and each branch of it shows an image which represents a passage from the Torah. For me it shows that the wisdom from each passage lead us to a balanced, steady and healthy life.
GRWR:Can you please tell us how you created the artwork? Was it done digitally? And what made you choose this color palate? How long did it take to complete the illustrations?
AC: On a piece of paper and using a good pencil, I always start with several small sketches, the size of a thumbnail, for each illustration to be done. In doing so, I experiment several approaches, having a general idea of the drawing structure, without being distracted by the details.
After evaluating all the miniature sketches, I shoot some photos of the best ones and then, start to work at the computer in a bigger and more detailed version, which will be sent later to the editors and authors for evaluation .
Once approved, I get started with the final version of the illustration, more elaborate and colorful. This step is made digitally as well.
Regarding the color palates, each drawing has its own one in order to express the feeling and the time period in which the story takes place.
Normally, it takes from 2 to 4 days for each illustration, from the sketches to the final version, depending on its complexity.
GRWR:Do you have a particular favorite illustration and if so, why?
AC:The illustration with Jonah inside the giant fish is my favorite, because it was really fun to illustrate that monster-fish. Besides, the image shows some tension, at the same time that it shows hope.
GRWR: You made all the poses look so easy and fun. Did you have to learn yoga to be able to illustrate this book?
AC:Yes, I had to learn a little bit about Yoga, despite not being able to do many of the poses (maybe one day I will take some Yoga classes). Rabbi, through her feedback helped me a lot to correct and make right each of the poses illustrations, as shown in the book.
GRWR:Who are some of the illustrators who have influenced your art?
AC:There are many artists whose work I admire. Stephen Michael King, Rodney Mathews, Rebecca Dautremer and Edivaldo Barbosa de Souza are some of the artists who inspire me.
GRWR:Is there anything else you’d like to mention about your experience illustrating this book?
AC:Illustrating The Tree of Life was a very rich and enjoyable experience in which, in addition to learning about yoga, I learned about the wisdom of the Torah and Jewish culture.
GOODREADSWITHRONNA THANKS YOU BOTH SO VERY MUCH FOR YOUR THOUGHTFUL REPLIES!
You can find Mychal getting into yoga poses while teaching, writing, reading Torah, and even leading Shabbat services at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco. Mychal is both a Reconstructionist and Reform rabbi, earned a masters and teaching credential from Harvard Divinity School, and is a certified yoga instructor, fusing Jewish spirituality with movement through yoga. She co-edited Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American ReligiousPerspectives (SkyLight Paths, 2016) and I Am the Tree ofLife: My Jewish Yoga Book (Apples & Honey Press, 2020) is her first children’s book. She leads yoga sessions that are steeped in Jewish thought and prayer, melding breath and posture practice with Jewish ideas. Her interests span Jewish magical texts, interfaith dialogue, Jewish issues of inclusion, and teaching Judaism as a spiritual path.
Clickherefor my Facebook page where people can find me and yoga opportunities for their kids.
André Ceolin is a self-taught illustrator from Brazil He started his first attempt at sketching around the age of four when his father brought home some reams of paper from work. It was in that moment that he fell in love with painting and drawing. André initially got a degree in pharmacy at UNIMEP. Though he worked in this field for several years, his artistic passion was too strong to ignore. As a young father, he was surrounded by beautiful children’s books and was always drawn to the spontaneity of the imagery. He then decided to switch gears and studied at School of Visual Arts in NYC, Melies, and Escola Panamericana de Artes to develop a signature look and learned new illustration techniques. He illustrated his first book “Um Dia na Vida de Micaela” de Cauê by Steinberg Milano, published by Editora Roda & Cia in 2009. Ever since, he has illustrated over 20 books by great publishers in Brazil such as Roda & Cia, Saber e Ler, SM, Moderna, FTD, Editora do Brasil, Editora Abril. He loves working with books targeting juvenile readers from the very young age to middle-grade and young adult. When not illustrating, he creates toys and small sculptures for his son. He also enjoys bicycling, playing his guitar, and, singing. Visit his websitehere.
It’s Day One of theCHICK CHAT BLOG TOURas well as its book birthday! Peep! Peep! GRWR is so happy to participate and celebrate the hatching. Please enjoy the following interview with Chick Chat author-illustratorJanie Bynum and her insights on this fun new read-aloud picture book for children.
CHICK CHAT SUMMARY:
Friendship comes in all shapes and sizes.
Peep, peep, peep! Baby Chick has a lot to say!
Everyone in Chick’s family is too busy to chat with her. But when chatty baby Chick adopts a large egg—she finally finds a friend who is a good listener. When her egg goes missing, Chick is heartbroken, until she finds that it has hatched into a brand-new friend!
INTERVIEW WITH CHICK CHAT AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR JANIE BYNUM
GoodReadsWithRonna:Hi Janie! Welcome to the blog. I’ve got lots of questions for you today.
In your author bio on the book’s copyright page, you mention how talkative you were as a child. Can you expand on this and how it influenced creating your main character Baby Chick?
Janie Bynum: Being an inquisitive, talkative, and determined child, I’m sure I tested the patience of my family—and quite a few teachers. Baby Chick and I share all of those personality traits—as well as being a fairly self-reliant youngest sibling. As I wrote and revised Baby Chick’s story, this very talkative youngest sibling emerged. So I ended up writing from a perspective (with a voice, as it were) that I understood as a kid.
In early versions of the manuscript, Baby Chick actually spoke instead of only peeping. But, I ultimately chose to have her peep in such a way that sounds like she knows exactly what she’s saying (and she does). This way kids can interpret what she may be saying—either inferred by the illustrations or by whatever words they imagine for her.
GRWR:Which came first, the Baby Chick character design or the story?
JB:The Baby Chick character art came first.
GRWR:It was funny how everyone in Baby Chick’s family is unaffected (to the point of almost ignoring her while they’re otherwise occupied) by her nonstop peeping while she carries on joyfully by herself. Is there something to be learned from her sheer self-contentedness?
JB:Possibly … by enjoying our own company, not being entirely dependent on others to “make” our happiness for us. Baby Chick is creative and makes her own fun; and, in doing so, she discovers something to nurture, which ultimately hatches into a friend who listens.
GRWR:I was absolutely convinced Baby Chick had found a rock not a big egg. Was this deliberate?
JB: No. The giant Galapagos tortoise’s egg—which I used for reference—looks very much like a round stone. Only at first, when she hasn’t fully unearthed the object, does Baby Chick not know that it’s an egg. But once she uncovers it, she realizes it’s some sort of egg—maybe not a chicken egg because it’s so round. But Baby Chick either doesn’t notice the difference or doesn’t care. It’s an egg without anyone to tend it, so she decides to be its guardian.
GRWR:I’m curious why you decided to make the baby turtle a quiet character rather than one “with a lot to say” like Baby Chick?
JB:I could’ve made the baby turtle/tortoise even more talkative than Baby Chick, which would’ve been funny. But I wanted Baby Chick to be rewarded (for all her nurturing and protection of the egg) with a friend who likes to listen. It’s also a sort of celebration of the yin/yang relationship, how seemingly opposites are actually complementary (in this case extrovert/introvert).
GRWR:Do you see Chick Chat as primarily a friendship story or did you feel there were other themes you wanted the book to explore?
JB: The friendship theme is wrapped around a story about self-sufficiency; and, as you noted earlier, self-contentedness. So, it really has two main themes.
GRWR:What medium do you work in when creating your artwork?
JB: I used a combination of digital media and traditional watercolor, which is the way I generally work. For Chick Chat art, I worked on my iPad (in an app called Procreate) and in Photoshop on my Mac computer with large monitor. I used traditional watercolor for some areas, and added real paper and paint textures (with Photoshop layers) to give more depth to some of the digital color.
GRWR:As someone who began telling stories first visually, do you usually create your dummy with thumbnails and then add the prose later?
JB: I usually have a character in mind first that I must draw so that I can get to know them. A seed of a story germinates as I’m drawing. As I start writing the story, I sometimes create a simplified mind map to look at arc, action, and direction possibilities. Then I write some more. And I revise. And then I revise the text some more.
When I feel like I have a fairly finished manuscript, I start thumbnails. Inevitably, the text changes as I work on thumbnails and rough sketches. So, as I create the rough dummy, I work back and forth between words and pictures until I feel confident that the story (both visual and written) is ready to submit to my agent.
GRWR:I enjoyed a lot of the little unexpected details you included in the illustrations like Baby Chick’s grasshopper friend (or cricket), and the punny titles of the books Sister is reading. Did you do this in all the books you illustrate even if you didn’t write them?
JB: Thank you. Since I write/illustrate for a fairly young audience, I try to add details that older readers (especially adults) will enjoy. While I don’t include a small observer character (who sometimes participates) in all of the books I illustrate and/or write, I have done so in a few. In Otis, which I wrote, a red bird appears in many of the pictures; and, in Porcupining, written by Lisa Wheeler, a grasshopper observes and sometimes participates.
GRWR:What do you do to spark your creativity? Is your process to work daily, inspired or not?
JB: In addition to creating children’s books, I work as a creative director and graphic designer (outside of children’s publishing), so creative problem-solving is part of my day every day. But, one of the things I do as a creativity spark—at least several times per week—is just draw for no reason at all, with nothing in mind until pencil meets paper (or stylus meets iPad). Many times character ideas come from these sessions.
GRWR:How long did it take to complete Chick Chat from the idea stage to the final book we can order from bookstores today?
JB: Roughly two years: story and book dummy, spring 2019; art delivered January 2020; published book January 2021.
GRWR:Who are some of your current kidlit illustrator faves and why?
JB: I have soooo many favorites, and for so many different reasons.
I love the color and stylized work of Felicita Sala. I adore the haunting stylized art of illustrators like Isabelle Arsenault and the cheery whimsy of Louise Gay. Carter Goodrich’s dogs are divinely humorous, and he possesses quite a deft hand with paint. With Sophie Blackall’s art, I’m inspired by her use of color, texture, and pattern. Her work is retro and contemporary, both at the same time.
Oliver Jeffers’ composition on the page (including an amazing sense of negative space) and his sensitive use of color and line inspires me. Matthew Cordell’s spontaneous linework and non-complicated watercolor embodies a spontaneous loose feel that I aspire to in my own work.
I like Ryan T. Higgins’s ink line coupled with his graphic use of shape and color (and, of course, his humor); the gorgeously strange art of Mateo Dineen; and the Matisse’esque art of Olivier Tallec.
GRWR:What’s in the works for your next book?
JB:A very creative beetle is the hero of my current work-in-progress. Also, I’m considering creating something for Gary the Worm to star in. (To find out who Gary is, visit my Instagram @janiebynum.)
GRWR:Is there anything else you’d like to add that perhaps I haven’t addressed?
JB:I’d like to let educators (including parents and grands) know that they can find Chick Chat activities at my website (janiebynum.com) and atnorthsouth.com/resources. And last, but not least, thank you for including me in your blog!
GRWR:It’s been such a pleasure being the first stop on your blog tour and getting to know you and Chick Chat better. Thanks for your terrific answers!
Janie Bynum grew up in Texas and graduated with a BFA in graphic design with an emphasis on illustration. As an author/illustrator, she has created many lovable characters and stories for younger children. Her work has been recognized as a Junior Library Guild Selection. She loves to travel and experience other cultures, drawing inspiration from the people, landscape, and cuisine. Known to her friends as a bit of a nomad, Janie lives in a nearly-100-year-old storybook house in southwest Michigan—for now.
The traditional children’s book launch is typically at a bookstore, someone’s home, or occasionally at a venue related to the subject matter. Prior to the pandemic I attended several book birthday parties and launches every month, but since being stuck at home, I’ve begun watching them on Facebook and Instagram or via Zoom. I was so impressed with Molly Ruttan’s Instagram launch in May that I asked her if we could discuss the ins and outs of creating a virtual book launch. As a special bonus, Molly’s kindly offered to share her Instagram Live launch today so please scroll down to watch. Please note that due to copyright protections Molly’s book reading ofThe Strayhas been edited out. You can also read my review of the picture book here.
GoodReadsWithRonna:What made you choose to do your virtual launch on Instagram rather than on another platform like Facebook?
Molly Ruttan:First I want to say thank you, Ronna, for having me on your excellent blog. It is truly an honor to be featured here.
As I watched the world closing down because of the pandemic, I realized I needed to start planning a virtual book launch for my debut author/illustrator book THE STRAY, (Nancy Paulsen/Penguin Randomhouse). The idea was extremely intimidating—I struggle with keeping up with social media, and I had no experience with live social media events, at all. On top of that I am terrified of public speaking and don’t feel terribly photogenic! But a good friend from my book critique group, April Zufelt, met with me several times (virtually) and provided such an ongoing and positive pep talk that she convinced me into thinking I might be able to pull it off! We chose Instagram Live because she was most familiar with it and so could teach me how it would work
GRWR: Did you make an outline for the presentation? Tell us about how you came up with the program.
MR:I tend to get like a deer in headlights when I’m put in front of a camera—winging it would not be a good idea—so I knew I would need an outline of the itinerary posted where I could see it, to help me keep on track. I put it on a bulletin board, and then while I rehearsed I kept adding notes and reminders to the point where I needed a second bulletin board! Then with my nerves rattling I decided to keep the whole display up during the live show. I didn’t end up using it that much, but it was nice to know it was there.
Outlines and lists were also crucial for my preparation. I made lists every step of the way. I had a vision that I wanted the launch to be like a birthday party, and I wanted it to be interesting for kids. I had previously made a hat of my main character Grub, for Halloween, so I knew right away I would wear it, and it also gave me the idea for the craft.
I proceeded by brainstorming other things I might do at a birthday party/live presentation with kids present. Once I got a good idea of what I wanted to include, I wrote out a schedule for myself to keep track of what I needed to make time for each day. In the months before, I had started making swag, but I had stopped when things started to shut down. With April’s encouragement I decided to proceed with ordering it and using it for a week-long Instagram giveaway to generate interest.
I also created several short animations as invitations and reminders. (I had previously animated my own book trailer). It was additionally tricky because at the time, we were in lockdown. But fortunately a few days before the event the lockdown lifted, so my (grown) daughter Sydney offered to come over and help me. That was a godsend. (We were still very careful not to get too close to each other, though!) Sydney helped me adjust the flow of the presentation and organize the props so that everything would be at hand at the right time. She arranged the background and framed the scene. I rehearsed virtually in front of her and April, and we refined. My book launch day happened to fall on my Dad’s birthday, so the day before the event I baked cupcakes and decorated one of them to match the book, so I could light a candle and blow it out, to celebrate both of them.
GRWR:Which type of online launch do you think best highlights an author or author/illustrator’s picture book: Q+A, talking head, combination of both, or something else?
MR: I think this is something that really depends on the type of book you’ve written, and who your audience is. It also depends if you are the writer, the illustrator, or both. I had trouble finding any launches to view in preparation— this was still pretty early on. I viewed one that was done in a Q+A format, and although I found that format interesting, it didn’t have quite the energy I wanted. Since my launch I’ve seen some interesting power-point type presentations, and/or pre-recorded video demos within a Q+A, which I thought worked well. I think it also depends on the tech you have available. I work on a desktop MacPro that doesn’t have a camera on the monitor, so doing a Zoom-type presentation where I could share my screen wasn’t an option. In the end I think any format can work as long as you keep your audience in mind and speak to them. I got through it by imagining that I was talking to kids.
GRWR:How much time should someone expect to prep for their launch?
MR: Again, I imagine it depends on the type of book you’ve written, and what you plan to do. I gave myself a month, which wasn’t a lot of time, especially since in addition to preparing for the launch activities, I was also ordering the swag & creating the animated announcements. Plus I was busy with work. I would advise giving yourself more than a month! Write out what you want to do way ahead of time and create a schedule. And don’t be afraid to ask for help!
GRWR:How long a program should it be?
MR: Regarding the length of the event, as I mentioned before, I rehearsed and then revised places that went too long or could be expanded. My launch took about 45 minutes because that was how long it took to get through everything. It was longer at first because the craft took forever! I realized I needed to make some of the craft pieces before-hand and have them ready, like in a cooking show, and that worked much better. I’ve seen some launches that are simply an introduction and then a reading; their launches are much shorter than mine was. I think short & sweet is great; longer is great too if you have a presentation that is engaging. (The launch video I’ve posted on You Tube is much shorter because I took out the book reading.)
GRWR:Do you recommend including a giveaway to viewers during the launch?
MR:I would recommend it! I believe people truly enjoy winning things, and I get a lot of joy giving presents to people. Announcing the winners was a fun way to end the “party” and having a winner to announce the next day (from the giveaway during the event) was a great way to follow up on social media. I also ended the “party” by showing the beautiful activity sheets that my sister had made. It felt a little like handing out party favors– something for everyone!
GRWR:What was the hardest thing you encountered when creating your presentation? For example, looking at camera, not having a live audience to gauge interest, keeping on schedule, figuring out the tech, etc.?
MR: Aside from getting over my stage fright, and trying to remember everything without squinting at my notes that were pinned up everywhere, the hardest thing for me was the social media tech. I had decided early on that I wanted to “film” the event at my table in my studio, so that I could have all my art supplies and craft materials in view. I thought it would be as simple as attaching my phone to an old lamp stand, but it wasn’t. Among other things, like lighting and sound, Sydney figured out how to connect her phone feed to her laptop so I could see what I was doing—something that would have caused me to have a meltdown! She also helped me with Instagram afterwards. Good tech people are invaluable!
GRWR:In terms of feedback from viewers, was there a particular part of your talk that was most popular?
MR:Because of the way that I was filming, I was unable to see comments as they came in during the event. When I watched the recording afterwards I was truly awed and touched by the enthusiasm of my audience. It’s hard to pinpoint if any one thing stood out—there was a lot of response all the way through it. One of the things I had done was a draw-along demo, with a giveaway attached to it. I was delighted to see so many pictures flooding in after the event! All in all it was well attended, topping out at about 70 people logging on, with between 30-40 at any one time.
GRWR:Was there a call to action, so to speak, when you do an IG live event so that people watching will buy the book and get it signed like they do at an in person event? How do you and other people launching handle that aspect?
MR:In terms of making the book available to buy, I put a message in my Instagram bio, with the link to my page on the Penguiun/Random House site, which has many different choices of venues. At the end of the party I instructed people to the link. Unfortunately there was no way of signing the books, using that method. I did make book plates, some of which I had signed and sent to a local bookstore, but I didn’t mention that; I had only sent a handful. Of course I signed the books that were in my giveaway, but I have been thinking about how to honor the people who bought my book at the launch … maybe I will do another IG “call to action”, so I can send out the rest of my name plates! I am honestly not sure what other people do. Launching a book during a pandemic is definitely a work in progress!
GRWR:What was the one most useful pieces of advice you were given about doing a virtual book launch during the pandemic?
MR: I was pretty stressed out getting all of this together—I almost lost sight of the fun and joy in it. April kept telling me not to worry so much about it, and to enjoy the time and the process. It was really good advice, and it made a huge difference. It kept me in touch with how much I live in eternal gratitude for having a book that I have created, in my hands. I have tried to keep her advice in mind ever since, for my life!
In the end, I really don’t know how my launch compares or if it was even successful! But I did it. I pushed through fear and stress, I had a great time, and I learned to laugh at myself, to boot. Thank you so much for your time and interest in my book birthday party, Ronna!
And thanks Molly for your honest and helpful insights into putting a virtual launch together. This info is going to come in handy for a lot of authors and illustrators over the next few months.
INTRO: Last month, my ten-year-old daughter and I attended an amazing event at the LA Zoo, hosted by DC Entertainment. A group of middle-grade graphic writers and illustrators wowed the crowd with their “superpowers” sharing the stories-behind-the-stories and demonstrating their lightning-fast art skills. VICTORIA YING caught our attention with her interpretation of Wonder Woman as a tween so I wanted to know more about the wonderful woman behind Wonder Woman.
CHRISTINE VAN ZANDT:Your new middle-grade graphic novel, Diana: Princess of the Amazons(DC Comics; $9.99, Ages 8-12) is about Wonder Woman as an eleven-year-old girl. As the only kid on Themyscira, the island of the Amazons, understandably, Diana’s a bit lonely. How did you go about envisioning the famous Princess Diana as a tween?
VICTORIA YING:We first looked at the original iconic design for Wonder Woman and then tried to imagine what she would look like as a kid! We wanted to have those shadows of the person she would become without being too obvious about it. She has her bracelets, a simple rope headband, and her pleated skirt. Things that would allude to her future, without showing our whole hand.
CVZ:You’ve illustrated pictures books before and are the author-illustrator of a wordless picture book, Meow! How was illustrating a graphic novel different?
VY:I was so lucky to be able to have Shannon and Dean Hale as collaborators for this project. It is my debut graphic novel project and they are industry veterans who really understand how to write for a visual medium. They left a lot of the decisions up to me, but would keep the important descriptions in the text.
CVZ:Tell us about your process.
VY:For comics, I first lay out my rough sketches with rough text in ComicDraw for the iPad. Then I submit this for approval. Once the sketches are approved, I take them and do a tracing paper style draw over of the rough sketches for a clean finished drawing in Procreate. Lark Pien was our colorist and she takes the work to its finish.
CVZ:Your middle-grade graphic novel, City of Secrets, is coming out in July (Viking, 2020). How does it feel to be both the writer and artist?
VY: I originally wrote City of Secrets as a NaNoWriMo project. I was so afraid to have to draw the city! When my friends commented that I had great story structure and good characters, but terrible description, I realized it was because I relied too much on my illustrator brain and decided to try it as a graphic novel instead. It turned out that I LOVED drawing the puzzle-box city!
CVZ:You’ve worked on films, picture books, middle grade novels—what’s next?
VY:City of Secrets has a sequel coming out in July of 2021, and I’ve just announced a new book with First Second Books called Hungry Ghost, a YA contemporary about an Asian-American girl struggling with an eating disorder. I have a wide range of interests and all kinds of stories I want to tell. I hope that my career will let me tell as many of them as I can handle!
CVZ:Thank you for taking time to talk with us. We look forward reading all your new stories!
BIO: Victoria Ying is an author and artist living in Los Angeles. She started her career in the arts by falling in love with comic books; this eventually turned into a career working in animation and graphic novels. She loves Japanese curry, putting things in her online-shopping cart then taking them out again, and hanging out with her dopey dog. Her film credits include Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Paperman, Big Hero 6, and Moana. She illustrated the DC graphic novel, Diana: Princess of the Amazons. Watch for her authored graphic novel, City of Secrets, out July 2020.
I enjoyed hearing about this picture book’s artistic evolution when Molly was working on the illustrations (NOTE: We’re in the same picture book study group), but I hadn’t read the story or seen any sample spreads. What a thrill it’s been to finally read I Am a Thief! It’s a humorous, thoughtful, much needed tale about taking things, okay, STEALING things then facing the uncomfortable feeling of having done something wrong. Please read my review then get the inside scoop on illustrating the book by the artist herself, Molly Ruttan.
★Starred Review – Kirkus
The main character in I Am a Thief, Eliza Jane Murphy, is a star student having racked up all kinds of achievements and accolades at school. But when temptation in the form of a “brilliant green” stone on display in her classroom shouts her name, she heeds the call and swipes said item. Regret and guilt set in immediately and Raynor does a great job in her prose by conveying how these feelings overwhelm Eliza. Molly’s images wonderfully depict how riddled with remorse poor Eliza is. It’s not easy to capture the raw emotion of guilt but Molly succeeds especially in the scene where the menacing gemstone weighs heavy on Eliza’s conscience as she tries to swing with her friends. The challenge now is that while it was easy to nick the stone without anyone seeing her, Eliza worries that she’ll get caught trying to put it back.
The awful feelings follow her home. She proceeds to ask everyone if they’ve ever stolen anything. Her dad exclaims, “Never!” though his facial expression says otherwise as it appears he’s about to take a slice of cake from the fridge. Eliza’s mom says she took a magnet once, and even Grandpa George, Nana Iris and her dog James, the sausage thief, admit they’re not completely innocent.
Molly’s hilarious WANTED posters depicting all the guilty family members begin to get crowded with each page turn as Eliza realizes that almost everyone at one time or another has taken something whether it’s as small as a sugar packet or as big in Eliza’s mind as her theft of the stone.
The part that will especially please readers is when Eliza returns the stone to her teacher and, rather than chastising her student, tells her she’s brave. Owning up to her misdeed and its possible consequences takes guts. Here Eliza realizes that this one bad thing doesn’t define who she is nor should it. Her unburdening heals her and her “heart started singing again.”
I Am a Thief provides parents, caregivers and teachers an opportunity to explore with children the ramifications of taking things when they don’t belong to you, who ends up hurting the most when something is stolen, and how to right the wrongs we may do. I’m glad this book is out in the universe because it’s going to help a lot of families comfortably and honestly approach this important topic in a really relatable way. In fact, this clever and creative pairing of prose and pictures is likely to get you thinking about the behavior you’re modeling for kids the next time you go to grab a few packets of sugar at the coffee shop.
It’s so exciting to be a part of your fantastic blog! Thank you so much for having me!
I Am a Thief! by Abigail Rayner is my debut as an illustrator as you mentioned above. It came to me from NorthSouth Books via my wonderful agent, Rachel Orr. The second I read it I knew I wanted to jump in.
One thing that immediately hooked me into the story was actually not the obvious. I have no real memory of ever stealing anything when I was a kid—I was much too shy and intimidated by the world to ever step out of line! (Although I probably did steal a crayon or two from a restaurant!) But more so, I’m an identical twin, and the question of identity has always been fascinating to me. For Eliza to impulsively take a sparkling stone to keep for herself, and then to allow that stone, and that act, to redefine how she sees herself, is to me an incredibly interesting bit of human nature. I was hooked, and I decided to illustrate her identity crisis alongside her moral crisis.
I decided to have the green gemstone transform along with Eliza’s moral transformation. I started by showing it as a separate character (“The stone made me do it”) to a beautiful object (“I knew what I had to do”) to finally a lens in which Eliza could see a faceted world (“Everyone is a lot of things!”) I love crystals, and have held and admired many. It wasn’t too far of a leap for me to imagine that a crystal could encompass a journey.
Regarding her identity crisis, I decided to use the imagery of the cat burglar, because this image is an archetype and is immediately recognizable. Eliza’s perception of what a thief looks like would most likely be this—the Halloween costume version! Besides, it was really fun to draw!
As I was figuring all this out, I was filling my sketchbooks with notes and drawings. The story is full of characters, some written and some implied, and it was an amazing thing to watch Eliza and her whole extended family, her teacher and her classmates appear on the paper and take on a life of their own.
Abigail Rayner is a brilliant author and I can’t wait to see what she writes next. Hopefully I’ll have another chance to be her partner in crime!
Molly Ruttan’s illustration debut, I AM A THIEF! by Abigail Rayner from NorthSouth Books is available September 3, 2019, and has earned a starred Kirkus review. Molly’s author-illustrator debut, THE STRAY, is forthcoming from Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Random House in May 2020. Molly Ruttan grew up in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, and holds a BFA in graphic design from the Cooper Union School of Art. She lives, works and creates art in the diverse and historic neighborhood of Echo Park in Los Angeles, California. Find Molly online at www.mollyruttan.com, on Twitter @molly_ruttan and on Instagram @mollyillo
A HUGE thanks to Molly for stopping by to share her unique I Am a Thief! artistic journey. It’s fascinating to get an inside perspective and I know it will add to everyone’s appreciation of this terrific new picture book.
GOOD READS WITH RONNA GETS A 10 YEAR ANNIVERSARY MAKEOVER!
MEET AUTHOR + ILLUSTRATOR BETH SPIEGEL
WHO DESIGNED OUR NEW HEADER
I had the pleasure and good fortune to meet Beth Spiegel in 2018 at a children’s picture book study group. She told me she was participating in an upcoming artists’ open house close to where I lived. Curious about what she had produced over the years and keen on supporting a local woman artist, I stopped by to see her work. I was instantly struck by an illustration of a woman seated at a table in a bird’s nest hat. It could have been me if she’d had curly hair! Right there and then I told Beth that I had been eager for an illustrator to redesign the Good Reads With Ronna header for its 10 year anniversary and wondered if she’d be interested in creating something with a similar aesthetic.
I asked Beth if she could personalize the header with things I love including books, cats, travel and tea so they’d feature prominently in the new artwork. She agreed so we met and discussed the particulars of the image and the final version of Beth’s beautiful watercolor now graces the website, much to my delight. I’m thrilled to share the following interview highlighting Beth’s artistic journey and I want to give a great big shout out of thanks for her spot on interpretation of a kidlit book reviewer on the job.
AN INTERVIEW WITH BETH SPIEGEL:
GOOD READS WITH RONNA: Did you always plan to be an illustrator?
BETH SPIEGEL: Funny you should ask because I still have a book I made as an art project in the second grade and in the “back matter” I wrote …
“When I grow up, I want to have lots of pets and make lots of books.”
GRWR:What artists have influenced you or had an impact on your approach to illustrating?
BETH:There are so many. Looking at my bookshelf I see books illustrated by William Steig, Virginia Lee Burton, Roger Duvoisin, Mary Blair and Hillary Knight alongside the contemporary illustrators, Matthew Cordell, Melissa Sweet, Sydney Smith, Erin Stead, Benji Davis, and Hadley Hooper. There’s great illustration happening now. It’s inspiring but also intimidating.
GRWR:Please tell us about the books you’ve illustrated.
BETH:My first book was Rosa’s Room written by Barbara Bottner and published by Peachtree Publishing Company. The opportunity came about because Bottner saw an exhibition of my watercolors of abandoned buildings at the Pasadena Museum of History. She says they inspired her to write a story.
“Bottner offers a heartwarming story of a young girl moving to a new house and a too-empty room … Spiegel’s softly colored watercolors are the perfect complement to the text, showing the transformation of both Rosa and her room … A welcome addition sure to calm the worries of youngsters facing a similar situation.”– Kirkus Reviews
Next was First Grade Stinks! written by Mary Ann Rodman, and also published by Peachtree. The story of a frustrated first grader pulled me in because I sympathized with the main character Haley from the start.
The third book I illustrated was written by Eve Bunting Will It Be a Baby Brother?, published by Boyds Mill Press. This came about because the art director saw my work on the “Picture Book Artists” website.
I got to meet author Eve Bunting a year after the book launched. I was a host illustrator for the Mazza Museum’s Studio Tour. Each year they travel to a different state and visit picture book illustrators that live there. I’ll never forget watching their giant tour bus pulling up in front of my studio house on my tiny street. Then 40 picture book enthusiasts getting off and amongst them was a special guest … Eve Bunting. I felt honored to be part of the Mazza tour and very happy to spend time with Eve. She’s very charming.
GRWR:What is in the pipeline?
BETH:To be honest I don’t know. Since the last book I illustrated, I’ve also started writing. In fact, I snuck a few of my titles into the painting I did for your banner. Look for Almost Flying, Excuse Me Mr. B., as well as The Yellow Umbrella, all of which I am writing and illustrating. It feels good to be doing both and am excited to start submitting them to agents and editors.
GRWR:What do you do when you’re not working on children’s books?
BETH: I take long walks. I recently moved near downtown L.A. so there’s new territory to explore. I love to get out to sketch and people watch. Travel is a passion.
GRWR:You’ve also worked on films over the years. How has that informed your children’s book art and writing?
BETH: I’ve been lucky to have received offers to edit documentaries for film and television. The majority were about subjects I care about … animals, artists and the environment. The most recent was “Pandas 3D” for Imax.
I liked editing films for Imax. The audience is young and one is challenged to find a way to express complicated ideas in a clear way fun way. While editing I also learned about pacing, and how to recognize those “story telling” moments. I think about all this when I work on illustrations.
Fortunately I’ve never stopped working on picture books. I joined a talented writing group a few years ago, that’s helping me develop my story ideas. I’ve also been working in my studio further developing/finding my “voice” as an illustrator.
Editing has been a great experience but now I’m excited to focus solely on making books. I love the picture book format. At best they are both simple and profound. To get that right, even a little, is a dream for me.
GRWR:What medium/s do you create with and does your process involve many steps and and any digital work?
BETH:I like to work in many mediums. Often I use pen and ink with watercolor, but recently started to paint digitally, which I like more than I thought I would. The important thing is that the medium suits the story.
I start every day journaling using pen and ink. Sometimes I write, sometimes I draw. Those messy marks help me start an illustration or a story and often get me going when I’m stuck. The painting of the lady reading, you liked for your banner, started as a morning doodle. As you see the bird’s nest was originally two mice nibbling some decorative fruit. Not sure why I changed it.
Here is what it looked like:
GRWR:What are some of your all-time favorite children’s books?
BETH:Oh there are so many, but a few are: Amos and Boris, Olivia Saves the Circus, Iridescence of Birds, Lost and Found, Little Gorilla and Hello Lighthouse.