I’m honored to have been invited to host this NorthSouth Books interview exclusively in the U.S. Elena Rittinghausen, Zurich-based editor of NordSüd Verlag/NorthSouth Books recently spoke with Ishita Jain, debut illustrator of The Forest Keeper written by Rina Singh, (on sale April 18 and available for preorder now), and the timing couldn’t be better as we approach Earth Day 2023.
Elena Rittinghausen:What part does nature play in your life? How would you describe your relationship with nature? For you personally, what is the main lesson we can learn from this true story?
Ishita Jain: I consider myself a part of nature, all humans are, even though it’s easy to forget it in our fast-paced lives. I grew up in New Delhi and now live in New York, both of which are big, urban cities, yet I have been fortunate to spend a lot of my childhood and my present days in the midst of greenery.
When I moved to NY, I was often homesick, and trees and parks became a source of comfort to me. I love going on long walks and it is fascinating to watch the seasons turn in my neighborhood. The same tree that is lush green turns to a fiery red in the fall and is then almost unrecognizable in the winter. Watching all these visceral changes in natural things around me has made me far more open to change and evolution within myself.
I am often told that individual acts matter very little when it comes to changing the world- that it all comes down to corporations and government policies. I don’t entirely agree, and this story is a reminder that no matter how small you are, you matter and even if you can’t change the world, you can change your world around you.
ER:You’ve lived in the US for some years now. Did it feel special to go back to illustrating a story set in India?
IJ:It’s interesting, the longer I live in the U.S., my sense of identity of being Indian and thinking of India as my home only grows stronger. So, in some ways, it didn’t matter where I was when I illustrated this book. Though I did illustrate some of the trees for the endpapers while I was in India, and to be drawing a neem tree when there is one right outside your window makes the process so fun!
ER:What was your first thought when you received our e-mail asking if you wanted to illustrate for a Swiss publisher?
IJ:This is my first picture book and when I got the email from you, I thought it was wild that someone was asking me to do this because I have very few drawings of kids, or even people in my portfolio! I am so grateful that you took that chance because I enjoyed the process, and it was a huge learning curve for me.
Funnily, the first time when I traveled outside of India was to Switzerland. I was 10 or 11 and my grandparents took me with them to Lucerne and I have very vivid memories of that trip. I used to spend all the loose change from the day on ice creams and for years, if anyone I knew went to Switzerland, I would jokingly ask them to bring me an ice cream. I was very close to my grandfather and I think he would have been thrilled to know that I got to work with a Swiss publisher!
ER:How did you approach the illustrations? Which technique did you use? Did you look for specific references for your images?
IJ: I love working analog and all the pictures are done in ink and watercolor. For this book, I also did my thumbnails as loose little paintings. It was important for me to get a sense of the color, texture, and mood in the sketch phase to be able to proceed to finals. I also made a tiny dummy to flip through to get a sense of the page turns and the visual pacing of the story.
In some illustrations, all the elements are painted separately and then stitched together digitally. This gives me the flexibility to make changes without having to start from scratch. Other times I just go for it and love embracing the unpredictability that comes with watercolor.
India is huge and very diverse in terms of its people, its culture, and its geographies. I am from Delhi, which is quite far, and different, from Majuli. I did extensive research and referenced movies, news, documentaries, and the work of photographers from Assam and the northeast to make sure that I understood the flora and fauna, the physical features of the locals, their attire, and the visual geography of the region. I also looked for videos about the Brahmaputra floods, time lapses of bamboo growing, and travelers’ videos of Majuli to get a sense of the overall environment.
ER:Would you like to illustrate picture books in the future?
IJ:Without a doubt, yes!
Thank you Elena Rittinghausen and NorthSouth Books for this exciting opportunity to introduce Ishita Jain and her artwork to readers here in the U.S.
Click hereto order a copy ofThe Forest Keepertoday
Click hereto read an interview with The Forest Keeperauthor Rina Singh
Ishita Jain is an illustrator from Delhi, India, though she is now based in New York. She is an alumnus of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, India, and the MFA Illustration as Visual Essay Program at the School of Visual Arts, New York. Ishita loves to draw on location and enjoys documenting the people, places, and stories that surround her. Her work is inspired by day-to-day moments and the wonder that comes from being around nature. The Forest Keeper is Ishita’s first picture book. Find her on social media here: @ishitajain24
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.
The dynamic duo of I Am a Thief by Abigail Rayner (author) and Molly Ruttan (illustrator) have created a new picture book sure to spark conversations about this timely issue.
Violet used to love birthday parties, but now that she has celiac disease, she’s not allowed to eat pizza, cake, or anything else with gluten. Violet feels alone until she discovers that some animals have dietary restrictions as well. While standing up for her animal friends, she realizes she can do the same for herself. And when it’s time to celebrate Violet’s birthday, there isn’t a single gluten-containing crumb in sight!
Filled with pluck and humor, this informative story provides a great opportunity to discuss this increasingly common condition with children who have celiac disease and gluten intolerance as well as those who know people who have it and are seeking to learn more about it.
Watch the trailer and hear about illustrator Molly Ruttan’s experiences working on Violet on the North/South blog.
Click here to find Violet teacher resources including activities and coloring pages.
INTERVIEW WITH MOLLY RUTTAN
Molly Ruttan: Before I start, I want to thank you for featuring me on your amazing blog, Ronna! Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to share my new book!
GoodReadsWithRonna:I’m happy to be able to showcase you and your artwork here today and I appreciate that, in the midst of all your promotion, you made time to answer these questions.
GRWR:What would you say, as an author-illustrator with several books under your belt, is the biggest challenge when illustrating someone else’s manuscript as compared to your own? Is the approach the same?
MR: As an author-illustrator, the process of working with the text and the pictures at the same time feels very natural to me. When I work with a manuscript someone else has written, I shift my process a bit. Jumping into a manuscript that someone else has written is like diving into the deep water, as opposed to wading out there. But the deep dive is part of the joy, and as I work on mapping out the book and making the little dummies I begin to develop a solid connection to it. The connection becomes even stronger as I go through the process of finding the characters. By the time I have all the characters and their setting, and I have begun the full-size book dummy, I have become so familiar with the story that the process feels very much the same from that point forward. Of course, not being able to touch the words can sometimes be frustrating, but I have found that often it will push me to dig for visual solutions that are extremely satisfying to find.
GRWR: Was there much research involved about celiac disease before you could begin your sketches?
MR:I didn’t have to do a lot of research about celiac disease beforehand because, being somewhat gluten-intolerant myself, I knew enough about it to get started. Abigail Rayner, being the author and celiac-disease expert, reviewed my drawings along the way and made helpful suggestions. Our editor worked closely with the Celiac Disease Foundation, including sending the final draft of the book to them for review. And since NorthSouth Books is an international publisher and a German version of the book is also being released in DACH (Germany, Austria & Switzerland,) European gluten-free guidelines were also verified. For my own part, the end pages required the most research ahead of time, as I wanted to depict the grains and different plants as accurately & specifically as possible.
GRWR: How would you describe the particular technique that you use for illustrating? Please tell us how you achieved the look of the gluten clouds that accompany the crumbs!
MR: I would describe my technique as a wonderfully messy collaboration between traditional and digital media! I work with charcoal and pastel on watercolor and other papers. I use a charcoal pencil for the drawings, pastels for the color, and charcoal stencils for the gradation, shading and textures. Naturally, charcoal and pastel dust gets everywhere as I scan (I don’t spray my drawings because of a slight allergy to the fixative). Then the less-messy part of the process starts as I wipe down my scanner and paint digitally in Photoshop. I love the blend of charcoal linework and texture with the pastel color & texture I can create this way. Sometimes I also add liquid acrylic washes and texture as well. I love working traditionally but I also love all the options working digitally provides.
To create the gluten clouds that accompany the crumbs throughout the book, I used a slightly advanced photoshop technique. I scanned in all the stenciled swirly shapes I had created with charcoal-like I usually do, but then I colorized them using the channels. I love this technique – it gives me incredible flexibility because I can make the charcoal any color I want! And I love how the pastel and charcoal textures merge.
GRWR:What gave you the idea to make the evil gluten crumbs into characters?
MR: What—do you mean to tell me crumbs aren’t really alive?? Haha, seriously though… the idea to make the crumbs into characters was a collaboration. There was an art note in the manuscript suggesting “evil crumbs moving between food items via hands”, and my wonderful editor, (who I had worked with before on my first book with Abigail Rayner, I am a Thief!) remembered how I had animated the jewel I had done for that book and suggested I could do something similar with the crumbs in this book. What the crumbs looked like was obviously up to me, and I decided it would be more fun to make them grumpy, argumentative and disgruntled rather than straight up evil– I wanted to have more variety of expression, and I didn’t want them to be too scary.
GRWR: Did you always imagine Violet in a super-hero type outfit?
MR: In the text, Violet “takes desperate measures to defy the crumbs at school”, and there was an art note suggesting that she makes some sort of ridiculous protective suit. Since I had the idea to make crumb “clouds”, I gave her a suit based on rain gear, including an umbrella. But I felt something was still missing—so in my doodles, I spontaneously added a cape, and Violet’s superhero avatar sprung into being! I loved this solution because it freed me to play with her as that identity as she helps her animal friends. It also perfectly emphasized her heroic journey. I often find that the spontaneous solutions that come to me through drawing are the most fun and rewarding!
GRWR: You capture the expressions on Violet’s face and her body language so well. Does this process take a long time until you feel you get it right?
MR: Some drawings fall into place and others take a long time, but I usually get the gist of what I want right away in sketches, and then refine the expressions & poses when I make final drawings. When I’m drawing, I catch myself unconsciously making faces that match the expressions I’m drawing – this is when I’m grateful that I work alone, haha! I like getting into the position and acting out what I’m trying to draw too. It helps me feel what the characters are experiencing and helps the drawing of it.
GRWR: Were the beautiful and info-filled illustrated endpapers your idea? It’s great how in the front you depict foods containing gluten and in the back, you show which grains, starches, or flours can be part of a gluten-free diet.
MR: Thank you! I really enjoyed illustrating the end pages! I knew from the beginning that there would be back-matter on the back end pages – originally it was one page for the “About Celiac disease”, and a spread for a recipe and the rest of the information. When my editor saw my sketches, she suggested we would drop the recipe and spread out all the information across the two end-page spreads. I loved this idea, and we decided it would be fun to separate the gluten and gluten-free information to the front and back spreads, just the way the kids separated the food on the picnic table!
GRWR: Can you share with us any new projects you are working on?
MR: I recently submitted all the final art for my next author/illustrated book, Something Wild, published by Nancy Paulsen Books.It’s about stage fright—something I have battled my entire life. The book tells the story of a girl who loves to play her violin but is terrified of the upcoming recital. She imagines all kinds of wild things she wishes would happen to keep her from having to perform. It’s a subject very close to my heart and I’m excited about it! It comes out in a year—April 2023.
I’m currently illustrating another book which I’m also very excited about, written by Stacy Lynn Carroll, called The Yowlers, also published by Nancy Paulsen Books. It’s about a grumpy family who transforms as they experience the joys of goodwill and graciousness under the influence of new, happy neighbors. This book is slated for April 2024.
I also have a very active critique group that keeps me busy with sharing new ideas. I have one book almost ready to go back out on submission. My list of things to work on is always very long!
GRWR:And finally, can you offer aspiring illustrators any word of advice that you got as a beginning illustrator that has stayed with you over the years?
MR: I love the Oscar Wilde quote: “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.” As a twin, this quote has been particularly helpful for me in all aspects of life! But thinking of this as it applies to my own art has been—and continues to be—also very helpful. It goes along with what my wonderful teacher and mentor Marla Frazee once told our class—that often we tend to think that what comes easy for us isn’t valuable or legitimate because it’s easy. It is just the opposite! Not everyone finds doing whatever that is that you do, easy. Lean into what flows out of you, inspires you, and gives you joy.
GRWR: Thanks so much for all your great answers, Molly. It’s so fascinating to get inside the head of creators!
MR: You are so welcome!! And thank you so much, Ronna, for having me on your fantastic blog! I know you have been through a lot lately, and I really appreciate your taking the time to support me and my new book.
BUY THE BOOK
• Below is a link to order a signed copy from Molly’s local independent bookstore, Once Upon a Time. When ordering, be sure to write in the comments section that you want a signed copy. And if you’d like the book to be personalized, please include the name. The book also comes with a bookmark!
Molly Ruttan grew up in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. She holds a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts from the Cooper Union School of Art, New York. She currently lives, works, and creates art in the diverse and historic neighborhood of Echo Park in Los Angeles.
Her titles include her author/illustrator debut, The Stray, from Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Random House, and I Am A Thief! along with Violet and the Crumbs by Abigail Rayner for NorthSouth Books. Molly has two additional titles forthcoming with Nancy Paulsen Books. She is represented by Rachel Orr at Prospect Agency.
BUG ON THE RUG – Pug is snug on his rug. But what happens when along comes BUG?! With a claim to the rug?! The two engage in a hysterical, rhyming battle of wits and strength until Slug asks the necessary questions and helps them find common ground. Rhyming is an important developmental reading skill. It teaches phonics (decodable text) and helps young readers infer content. This is a fun story to build those skills–and is an epic read-aloud!
INTERVIEW WITH SOPHIA GHOLZ:
Welcome to GoodReadsWithRonna, Sophia! I’m excited to have you as my guest to learn more about your wonderful new picture book BUG ON THE RUG.
GoodReadsWithRonna: I’ve read that as a child you enjoyed horses. I’m curious where pugs fit into the big picture—was it the rhyming potential, their utter adorableness, or something else?
Sophia Gholz: Thanks, Ronna! I’m excited to be here to celebrate BUG ON THE RUG with you.
I often referred to myself as a “barn rat” as a kid and spent as much time with horses as I could. To this day, the smell of a farm still feels like home. While there were always barn cats, dogs, and a slew of other characters in the mix, there weren’t any barn pugs, unfortunately. My love of little dogs actually came about in adulthood. When I lived in New York City, I had a Brussels Griffon who everyone mistook for a pug. I just adore little foofy pooches and their giant personalities. But pug love aside, the true inspiration behind this book is my younger brother. I have lovingly referred to my little brother as Bug for his entire life. I feel very lucky to call him one of my best friends. But much like Pug and Bug, it took my brother and me a long time (and a few trials) to reach best friend status.
GRWR:Are you a plotter or a pantser? If you’re a plotter, did you know the whole story before you set out to write it? If you’re a pantser, what was it that motivated you to tell this story and keep at it?
SG: I’m a total panster. I find that if I plot out a story then the story no longer feels fresh and exciting for me. I like to write as a reader—learning something new with each page turn. So, I go off feeling, emotion, and what story I want to read in that moment. This often means heavy (and I mean, HEAVY) revisions later. But that initial excitement and mood is what I try to capture in the first draft and that same feeling is what keeps me going. With that said, I do a lot of mental pre-plotting and generally have a sense of where I want the story to go before I begin. I do sometimes start writing and realize I’m going in the completely wrong direction and have to start over. In those cases, I end up working out some plot issues or character problems before I really get going. But aside from the occasional false start, I don’t usually write anything out before I begin.
GRWR:Did you have as much fun, any LOL moments, writing this story as I had reading it?
SG: My goodness, yes! I had SO much fun writing this book. Like I mentioned above, I try to write as a reader and don’t really plot ahead of time. So, as those words were coming out, I was giggling along as the voyeur. One of the most fun moments I had while writing this was when Pug rethinks his day. I had a great time coming up with a ton of absurd things Pug might have done during his daily routine.
GRWR:I adore a rollicking rhyming read-aloud like yours. Does rhyming come easily for you?
SG: Thank you! Rhyme has always felt natural to me. When I began writing years ago, my first picture book manuscripts were mostly in rhyme. However, I admit that I wasn’t a trained rhymer. Once I really began digging into the varying rules of rhyme and meter, I grew very afraid. I was so scared that I’d unintentionally blow it that I fully stopped rhyming. It’s taken me a few years of practice and determination to come full circle with a rhyming text, and I couldn’t be happier. Rhyme is so much fun to play with and write!
GRWR:You have two new books, both humorous although one is nonfiction. What do you enjoy most about writing in each category?
SG: You know, I don’t really see them as different categories when I write. For me, I try to write nonfiction the same way I write fiction. The only difference is that I have preexisting pieces of the puzzle when I write nonfiction. But I like to write each with the mentality of just having a fun or interesting story to tell. That said, I do enjoy all the cool facts I learn while researching nonfiction subjects. Education never ends!
GRWR:Sophia, this book is an uproarious and engaging approach to teaching phonics to children eager to learn how to read. Was that always your intention or did it just happen organically?
SG:When I first heard BUG ON THE RUG referred to as a great learning tool for emergent readers, I was so happy … and surprised! I did not initially have this in mind when I wrote the book. For me, it was about reading these words out loud and having a ton of fun. I’ve always enjoyed playing with sounds, alliteration, and tongue twisters. This book is a bit of an ode to that. But I understand how important teaching phonics in fun ways is, especially as I’ve helped my own little kiddos learn to read. With that in mind, I truly hope young readers have a great time with this book.
GRWR:Susan’s art captures both the heart and humor of your story. What did you think when and if you saw sketches or finished art? Which is your favorite spread and why?
SG:I am obsessed with Susan’s art! OBSESSED. Fun fact: I’d been eyeing Susan’s work online for a while and was a big fan before we worked together. So, I was thrilled when Sleeping Bear said they thought she would be a great fit for this manuscript. When I saw the initial sketches, I was flipping out. Seriously. Susan’s art is hilarious! Plus, she completely surprised me in the best of ways. For example, I originally envisioned Pug inside his home when I wrote the book. But Susan created the setting outside, and it made so much more sense. Susan added her own hilarious spin to this manuscript, and I feel so lucky to have worked with her. I think my favorite spread is probably the last page. Pug’s expression is priceless!
GRWR:What do you hope young readers will take away from BUG ON THE RUG?
SG:Humor aside, this book is ultimately about empathy, sharing, and taking ownership of our actions. I hope readers can see themselves here and know that people can have disagreements, but still be friends. Owning our mistakes is difficult. But it’s important to be able to put ourselves in the shoes of others, just as it’s important to learn to forgive and move on.
GRWR:What can we expect next?
SG: I’d love to see more of Pug and his friends! In the meantime, A HISTORY OF TOILET PAPER (AND OTHER POTTY TOOLS), illustrated by Xiana Teimoy, is a humorous nonfiction picture book that’ll roll into bookstores this August. Everything else is still top secret for now. Stay tuned!
GRWR:Thank you, Sophia. It’s been delightful chatting with you. I wish you and Susan much success with BUG ON THE RUG.
INTERVIEW WITH SUSAN BATORI:
Welcome to the blog, Susan, and congrats on your latest picture book! I adored DON’T CALL ME FUZZYBUTT! which I also reviewed here so I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to ask about your art in BUG ON THE RUG.
GoodReadsWithRonna: I immediately noticed the lovely European-like city and snow-capped mountains in the distance. Did you set this story in Budapest where you live and if so, why?
Susan Batori:Sadly there are no snow-capped mountains in Budapest. Originally, the story written by Sophia, was set in a small Swiss town. That is why I drew small, red roof European-ish houses and you can find a cable car which is often seen in Switzerland. The story was rewritten later but we decided to keep the drawings with the Swiss landscape.
GRWR:When you read Sophia’s manuscript, what were your thoughts about how you wanted to illustrate the story?
SB: When I read Sophia’s manuscript I fell in love with it at the first glance. I felt this is my story too because I love the funny and witty tales, these are very inspiring and so easy to illustrate. After reading the manuscript I immediately saw the pictures, compositions, and the characters in my head. There was a little challenge because of the disparity of sizes of the pug and the bug, but I hope I solved it well.
GRWR:What medium did you use to create the illustrations and was there anything about the story that influenced your decision?
SB: I work on a computer and a digital tablet. I love them because they make my work much easier and the publishers like it too. It makes work simple. Besides I can imitate the aquarell feeling, paper textures, and the brush strokes. My digital illustrations are often mistaken for a “real” drawing.
GRWR:What is your process like from when you receive a new manuscript to submitting final art?
SB: After reading the manuscript I use the internet for finding help about the characters or the background. In this case, I started to search pug videos. I try to figure out what kind of things make a pug a pug, or a slug a slug. I mean how they move or sit, what their colors are, what if I draw a smaller nose or shorter legs to them … etc. This is a very useful activity and it entertains me. So I start sketching the characters and show them to the client. Next, I design the composition of the pages and with the publisher, we try to find the best solutions. Then I am ready for coloring where I try to deliver some kind of atmosphere or feeling. In this book, I wanted to illustrate a summer-mountain feeling with a lot of greens. If everyone is happy with the colored pages I send them to the art director. That’s all. Easy peasy. :)
GRWR:The dynamic of the character interaction cracks me up, especially when slug shows up. Was any particular character, Pug, Bug, or Slug, especially fun to work with?
SB: Haha! Yes, Slug is really a funny character. It was interesting because in each book I illustrated there was a character who was my favorite but here all three were my favorites. They have their own humorous personality.
GRWR:I loved your art in Robin Newman’s DON’T CALL ME FUZZYBUTT!, and love it here, too. I see a common thread of a humorous conflict and sweet resolution in both stories. Do you enjoy illustrating humorous picture books? Are there any challenges you must consider?
SB: Aww, thank you! Somehow I am very good at illustrating feelings, especially humorous actions and facial expressions. I just LOVE working on hilarious books or stories, and drawing funny animals is my favorite job. It makes me happy and I believe if I am happy while I am working on these, the children will be happy too while they are reading them.
I wouldn’t be a good illustrator without humour.
GRWR:Do you have a favorite spread?
The first page when Pug hugs his rug, I find it so cute.
Then there is the “rug-fight” scene. This is the most dynamic page in the book.
And I just love the very last page when everyone is on the rug. I think that is very funny.
GRWR:Any plans to write and illustrate your own books?
SB:I have a few ideas but there is no time for them … yet. ;)
THANK YOU FOR THE GREAT QUESTIONS!
GRWR:Thank you for making us smile!
Sophia Gholz is a children’s book writer, music lover, avid reader, and the award-winning author of The Boy Who Grew a Forest and Jack Horner, Dinosaur Hunter! She lives in Orlando, Florida.
★Starred Review – School Library Journal 2021 National Jewish Book Award Winner – Children’s Picture Book 2022 Sydney Taylor Book Award Honor for Picture Books Chicago Public Library Best Informational Books for Younger Readers 2021 The Best Jewish Children’s Books of 2021, Tablet Magazine
In Eliza Davis’s day, Charles Dickens was the most celebrated living writer in England. But some of his books reflected a prejudice that was all too common at the time: prejudice against Jewish people. Eliza was Jewish, and her heart hurt to see a Jewish character in Oliver Twist portrayed as ugly and selfish. She wanted to speak out about how unfair that was, even if it meant speaking out against the great man himself. So she wrote a letter to Charles Dickens. What happened next is history.(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)
Welcome to the GoodReadsWithRonna blog today, Nancy and Bethany. Congratulations onDear Mr. Dickens being recognized with a Sydney Taylor Honor in the children’s picture book category! I’m happy to be able to talk to you both about Eliza Davis, Charles Dickens, and his history of negatively portraying Jewish characters in his writing and how that changed because of Eliza’s letters.
INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR NANCY CHURNIN
GoodReadsWithRonna:Nancy, you mention in your acknowledgments that Dear Mr. Dickens had a long, joyful journey. Please tell us more about when and why you decided to dig into this not well-known but enlightening correspondence which is the basis for the book
Nancy Churnin:When I was a child, my mother always encouraged me to read whatever I wanted. The only time she questioned me was when I fell in love with the books of Charles Dickens. She couldn’t understand how I could like a writer that had created the ugly Jewish stereotype of Fagin in Oliver Twist. Didn’t I understand, she asked me, how that character fueled antisemitism, leading readers to believe that all Jewish people were liars and thieves like Fagin?
She was right. Ugly Jewish stereotypes were part of what made people lack compassion for the Jewish people who were tortured and killed in the Holocaust – where we lost so many family members. These were the kind of images that made neighborhood bullies persecute her and other Jewish children growing up in New York City. I wished I could have written Dickens a letter asking him why someone who had so much compassion for children and the poor could treat the Jewish people with such antipathy. Flash forward to 2013, three years before my first book, The William Hoy Story would be published, when I was in the library researching baseball and I flitted around the computer screen, landing on an article about Dickens.
That’s when I found two lines in an article that mentioned Eliza Davis, a Jewish woman who wrote to him – just as I’d dreamed of doing!—and changed his heart, inspiring him to write his first compassionate Jewish character, Mr. Riah in Our Mutual Friend. I had to know more! But all the article had was snippets from one of the letters. I asked the librarian for help. She found three places that had the letters: the University of Southampton in England, where you had to make a special appointment to view them; and two places in the U.S., one of which was at the University of North Texas rare book collection, less than 40 minutes from my home.
I called the University of North Texas librarian who put me in touch with Professor J. Don Vann, a Dickens scholar that had found Charles Dickens and His Jewish Characters, a 1918 out-of-print book from Chiswick Press in England that contained the letters and donated it to the library. Don and his now late wife Dolores, invited me to tea to discuss Eliza Davis. That’s when I felt compelled to turn this story into a book that I could share with my mother. I had rejections at first from editors that didn’t think a story about letters was exciting enough. It didn’t fit into the usual biography template as it wasn’t the story of either person’s life, but rather an encounter that changed their lives and changed the way English people who read Dickens thought about the Jewish people. I visited The Charles Dickens Museum in London in 2014, deepening my research. But even when my career as a published author began taking off in 2016, Dear Mr. Dickens sat there, waiting, not seeming to fit into any category anyone wanted. It just seemed to be a story that needed to simmer and be revised as I grew more confident in my ability to tell the story the way it needed to be told.
Finally, in 2020, Wendy McClure, my then editor at Albert Whitman, asked if I had something new. She said, for the first time, she wasn’t looking for biographies, but stories about history-changing encounters and events. I pulled Dear Mr. Dickens out of the drawer and gave it to her. She loved it right away. So did her editorial team. It was acquired with dizzying speed for a manuscript that had been waiting years to dance at the ball. But it was worth every moment. Because Wendy and our illustrator, Bethany Stancliffe, really got the story. When it went to print, it said everything I had wanted and hoped to say. I couldn’t wait to share it with my mother. When I did, she held it in her hands and read it over and over. Her face softened. I felt an old pain dissolve as she forgave Dickens – and me. We hugged as she read this true story about how people can, sometimes, change for the better if you speak up, persist and then, when the person who does wrong makes amends, forgive.
GRWR:We’re often told as children’s book writers to make the main characters kids but Eliza Davis is a woman and mother of 10 children. As an adult and Dickens fan, I found the information you shared about Eliza’s positive influence on Dickens fascinating. What do you think makes her a compelling character for young readers to learn about and what can they take away from the book?
Nancy:The most compelling stories for me are the journeys not of a person, but of a person’s dream. In most cases, those dreams start in childhood, so it’s natural to start the book with the character as a child. That’s not the case for Eliza Davis in Dear Mr. Dickens. She didn’t grow up dreaming of writing Charles Dickens a letter! But I had grown up dreaming that. I could put the urgency I felt as a child into what she did as an adult. I also did something I’ve never done in a picture book before. I appealed to young readers by starting my book in the second person: “Think of someone famous you admire. What would you do if that person said or wrote something unfair? Would you speak up? Would you risk getting that person angry? Eliza Davis did.” I believe these are questions that kids – and all ages – can relate to. I believe these are questions that can lead kids – and all ages – to speak up, stand up, and become upstanders when they see someone do or say something that isn’t right.
GRWR:When doing your research forDear Mr. Dickens, was there one particular piece of information you uncovered (included or not included in the book) that has had an impact on you?
Nancy:I hope people will read the Author’s Note which gives context to how important Eliza’s action may have been in historical impact. England was once one of the most hostile places for Jewish people. In 1275, centuries before Nazis introduced the yellow star, King Edward I decreed that Jews older than seven had to wear a large yellow badge of felt shaped like the tablet of the Ten Commandments on their outer clothing. Jewish people were segregated and had to live in restricted areas, were forbidden to lend money, and were unwelcome in trade guilds. In 1290, England expelled Jews who refused to convert; this was two centuries before the Spanish expelled their Jewish people during their Inquisition.
After Eliza Davis helped Dickens see the Jewish people with understanding and compassion, he not only created the kindly Mr. Riah, he advocated in his magazine for them to be treated fairly. Dickens wasn’t the only advocate for Jewish people, but his influence was enormous. Everyone from all classes, chimney sweeps to the Queen of England, read and revered him. Attitudes began to change during his lifetime. The Jews Relief Act of 1858 allowed Jews to serve in Parliament for the first time. I credit the change in English attitudes for the welcoming way that Great Britain opened its arms to thousands of Jewish refugee children during the Kindertransport at the start of World War II.
Eliza Davis wasn’t powerful or famous. All she did was write a letter. But speaking up and not backing down when justice is at stake can make a powerful difference. That’s what I learned from Eliza Davis. That’s what I hope young readers – and all readers – take to heart.
GRWR:Can you speak to your passion for writing nonfiction and also about sharing the stories of notable and in Eliza’s case less notable Jewish individuals?
Nancy: I love and read every genre and I hope, someday – maybe soon – to expand the type of books I write. But I’ll always pay homage to true stories — my mother’s favorite — because, as she’s told me, real people doing great things remind us that we can all do great things, too.
When I look for people to write about, I’m drawn to those who might not be known otherwise – such as Eliza Davis — or who have aspects of themselves that might not otherwise be known – such as Charles Dickens and his evolving view of Jewish people. I feel that every time I shine light on otherwise forgotten people, I’ve helped bring them back into our living, collective heart because it’s only when we have forgotten people or their deeds that they truly disappear.
I’m honored that Dear Mr. Dickens was given a Sydney Taylor Honor because Sydney Taylor provided positive Jewish role models for Jewish children like myself at a time when they were scarce. At first, Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books were like a little island in a sea of books about non-Jewish characters or Jewish characters that were ugly stereotypes. But since the awards were founded in 1968, they’ve done enormous good in encouraging the creation of books with positive Jewish role models for kids that need Jewish windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors. I’m grateful for this encouragement from the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee and for the Notable award for A Queen to the Rescue, the Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah (and for my 2019 Notable for Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing). Now, with sons planning marriages and, I hope, with grandchildren around the corner, I feel more passionate than ever about the mission bring more Jewish stories into the world that fill children’s hearts with courage, hope, and determination to heal the world.
INTERVIEW WITH ILLUSTRATOR BETHANY STANCLIFFE
GRWR:Bethany, what struck you most after reading Nancy’s manuscript?
Bethany Stancliffe:I was immediately impressed with the wonderful portrayal of Eliza in this story. Nancy’s writing beautifully captured what it must have felt like to be in Eliza’s shoes.
GRWR:How much research did you have to do to bring 19th century London, and in particular Eliza Davis and Charles Dickens, to life?
Bethany:It was important to gather a lot of visual references to make sure my illustrations were true to the characters and settings. Studying information and images documenting Charles Dickens and Victorian England was a significant step in the design process. There weren’t many photographs of Eliza available so it was a pleasant challenge to design her character in a way that conveyed her personality.
GRWR: One of my favorite illustrations is the one where two scenes, Dickens in his home and Eliza in hers, flow together with sheets of correspondence. Do you have a favorite spread and if so, what about it do you love?
Bethany: Thank you! One of my favorite spreads to paint was the scene of Eliza and her son walking together to post a letter to Mr. Dickens. While I was illustrating this book I had a toddler of my own running around which really helped me appreciate that Eliza was speaking up not only for herself but for others who may not be able to do so for themselves.
Thank you both so very much for taking the time to share your experiences working onDear Mr. Dickens. I’m also grateful that many misconceptions I and perhaps others had about Charles Dickens have been cleared up and hope everyone will read the book to see how one person’s voice made such a powerful impact.
Nancy Churnin is the award-winning author of multiple picture book biographies. The former theater critic for the Dallas Morning News and Los Angeles Times San Diego Edition, she’s now a full-time writer and peace negotiator between her dog and cats. She lives in North Texas.
Bethany Stancliffe grew up in the Rockies and studied art and illustration at Brigham Young University-Idaho. When she’s not painting, she enjoys exploring outside with her son, Max, and creating original stories with her husband.
I immediately loved the clever diagonal placement of Violet and her umbrella. My eyes easily followed the upward motion that expresses action and adventure. Violet’s smile radiates success and enjoyment, something readers will experience reading the book.
Molly’s signature charcoal linework and blends, along with her combination of muted and bright colors is something I’d recognize anywhere. And the texture in the art, along with the texture in the title font, enhances the visceral and overall presence of CRUMBS! And oh those crumbs! They really drive the point home.
GoodReadsWithRonna:Hi Molly, what an honor to have you back here on the blog with your third book cover reveal and your second artistic pairing with author Abigail Rayner. She tackles some important topics in her stories, the first book being about stealing and this one about Celiac Disease. Can you recall how you felt when you were asked to work on this project?
Molly Ruttan: Thank you so much, Ronna! The honor is all mine. It is such a pleasure to be back with you on your wonderful blog. I so appreciate your time and support!
I was so excited when NorthSouth Books contacted me to work with Abigail Rayner again; I love the topics Abigail writes about. This book, about a girl (Violet) who has been newly diagnosed with celiac disease is especially meaningful for me, because I have a gluten intolerance myself, along with one of my kids. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw the manuscript. I wish so much that this book had been around when my daughter was little; I didn’t know a thing about celiac disease or gluten intolerance at the time– it would have saved us years of stomach aches.
GRWR: Regarding celiac disease, how much work did you have to do to make sure all the information depicted through your illustrations was accurate?
NorthSouth worked with the Celiac Disease Foundationand checked in with them many times along the way. In addition, Abigail Rayner (the author, whose daughter has celiac disease) is an expert on the subject! She had suggestions for some of the illustrations from her own experience; It was a wonderful collaboration! We also included charts on the end pages showing grains and foods that contained gluten, and commonly used grains, flours, and roots that were gluten-free. Illustrating these pages took a bit of visual research, as I had to be accurate with the drawings. It was fun, and I learned a lot!
GRWR:What are some significant elements you’d like to point out about the cover art? What impression did you aim to convey to potential readers?
MR: When I started sketches for the book, I thought a lot about how to visually indicate if food had gluten in it, since you really can’t be sure just from looking at it. I came up with the visual of swirly clouds with crumbs walking and flying around, and this motif is featured on the cover. In the story, Violet creates a costume to help protect herself from the crumbs from other children’s food at school—her own PPE, as it were! Since I had been drawing crumb “clouds”, I made her costume based on rain gear, including an umbrella. But I also included a cape, to show the heroic aspect of her journey and her Superhero attitude! The cover shows Violet in her gear, zooming up and bursting through the cloud of crumbs — she is smiling and clearly had her mind set on setting a victorious path. Since adhering to a gluten-free diet can be very difficult, especially for kids, I wanted the cover to be positive and optimistic.
GRWR:At the start of the interview I told you what I liked. Now please tell us what’s your favorite part about this cover?
MR: Well, of course I love Violet, she was wonderful to get to know as she came to life in my sketches and made her way through the book. But I also love how the stenciling of the crumb swirls came out, on the cover especially. Plus the crumbs are such odd and troublesome little critters, it was a delight bringing them to life, on the cover and throughout the book!
GRWR: How did you achieve the texture in the illustration?
MR:I work with charcoal and pastel on textured watercolor paper. I use a charcoal pencil for the drawings, pastels for the color, and a technique involving the creation of charcoal stencils for the backgrounds, gradation, shading and effects. I scan all of this into PhotoShop. The result is layer upon layer of textured color pastel and charcoal, with some digital texture thrown in here & there. The final art is digital, but there is a lot of traditional media spreading itself all over every surface of my studio along the way! I love working in both traditional and digital media.
ABOUT THE STORY:
Violet used to love parties, but now that she has been diagnosed with celiac disease she’s not allowed to eat pizza, cake, or anything that contains even the tiniest trace of gluten. Violet feels alone until she discovers that some animals have dietary restrictions as well. While standing up for them, she wonders: what can she do to stand up for herself?
Abigail Rayner and Molly Ruttan (creators of I AM A THIEF!) bring pluck and humor to this informative story, sure to spark conversation about this increasingly commonly-diagnosed condition.
ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR:
Molly Ruttan grew up in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. She holds a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts from the Cooper Union School of Art, New York. She currently lives, works and creates art in the diverse and historic neighborhood of Echo Park in Los Angeles.
Her titles include her author/illustrator debut, The Stray, from Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Random House, and I Am A Thief! along with Violet and the Crumbs by Abigail Rayner for NorthSouth Books. Molly has two additional titles forthcoming with Nancy Paulsen Books. She is represented by Rachel Orr at Prospect Agency.
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.
Greta is a little girl who lives in a beautiful forest threatened by Giants. When the Giants first came to the forest, they chopped down trees to make houses. Then they chopped down more trees and made even bigger homes. The houses grew into towns and the towns grew into cities, until now there is hardly any forest left. Greta knows she has to help the animals, but how? Luckily Greta has an idea that will lead to the Giants and the animals working together in harmony. An additional section at the back explains that in reality the fight against the giants isn’t over and Greta needs the reader’s help.
This book has been printed sustainably in the UK on 100% recycled paper. By buying a copy of this book, you are making a donation of 3% of the cover price to Greenpeace UK
INTERVIEW WITH ZOE PERSICO
Please tell us how you came to be a picture book illustrator?
Growing up I had many artistic influences that led me to go into what I do today, especially in books. I struggled with reading, but the illustrations always kept me eagerly invested and inspired. I originally wanted to be an animator, but quickly figured out that illustrating was my passion and wanted to figure out how I could achieve it as my career. I returned to my love for children’s books and knew I wanted to create works of art that would help others like they did for me. With family, friends, my partner, and educators who always supported me every step of the way I signed onto my current agency, got an early jump start into my career, and graduated college. I’ve been working as a freelance illustrator for over five years now and happily receiving great projects such as Greta and the Giants.
What medium/technique did you use to create the illustrations in GRETA AND THE GIANTS and how did the metaphor of the giants as symbols of corporate greed influence your choices?
I use Photoshop CS6 and a Wacom Cintiq Pro 24 to create my illustrations, though I am heavily influenced by traditional materials and try to capture the magic of them through digital means. I use custom brushes that emulate watercolor, gouache, colored pencils, and so on. Before starting the final art for Greta and the Giants I knew that I really wanted to push some new painting techniques, so I practiced using traditional materials beforehand to figure out how I can capture them digitally.
The giants were quite a challenge! I needed to figure out how to portray the giants in a fantastical, but realistic way. It would have been too easy to use stereotypes as a crutch for their design and using certain physical traits to show how “ugly” they are is harmful because that’s telling readers having those traits are negative. I thought that illustrating them mostly from perspectives of Greta and the citizens of the forest, such as them looking up and only seeing their shoes and pants as well as not being able to see their faces as clearly due to the massive distance between them, was a perfect and simple way to achieve that the giants “have their heads in the clouds” more than anything else. They realize that they are causing harm and want to do better and I wanted to make sure their designs were an easy transition to the last spreads of the book as well. They have always worn normal clothes just like everyone else and their size doesn’t change. They are still giants! The change comes into how the new compositions show a better connection and understanding between them and the forest dwellers.
I was taken immediately by the gorgeous jewel tones in your palette. Please explain the decision behind that.
Thank you! I had a lot of fun with this palette for this book. When the design team told me they really wanted to a painterly look and using light for color and mood contrast I was immediately excited. I’ve always tried to push these elements in my personal work and I knew I wanted to push myself even more for this project. Since I have been painting traditionally on the side more, I’ve found new color palettes that I wanted to emulate in Greta and the Giants. I used warm tones for heavily lit areas and went with cool tones for shadows. I mixed colors on top of each other like I would with watercolors to keep interest and connection in each area. I have been in love with using a very bright candy red lately and knew it would be the perfect accent color in a sea of multiple shades of green. For the last spread I wanted to go with a sunset palette to help end the book on a warm and uplifting note. Overall, I would say the goal for this book was to have a mostly nature-inspired palette (greens, browns, oranges) with accents of fantasy-inspired colors (pinks and blues).
What inspired you about this particular story?
Throughout the years I’ve been finding ways to alleviate my carbon footprint on the planet as best as I can and having the chance to work on this project was right up my alley. I was inspired on now only how I can help show others on what we can do to help fight climate change, but to come together and speak up against “giants” by the power of your voice. I hope the illustrations in Greta and the Giants inspire children to ask questions. I hope it inspires parents and guardians to teach them about what is happening. I hope it inspires adults to speak out and vote.
Do you have a favorite illustration in the book?
Yes! Funny enough my favorite illustrations are the spreads that include the city. I rarely paint urban subjects and it was a fun challenge to depict what the giant city could look like from a distance. I’m proud of how it turned out!
I also enjoy illustrating animals as well. Any time I got to paint the fox was always fun for me!
What was the biggest challenge of creating the art for this picture book that’s dealing with a serious topic aimed at younger readers?
I would say finding the right visual balance of fantastical and visually showing a depiction of a real life issue. I wouldn’t be doing the message justice if I went a super happy and bright route for the illustrations. I want to show the dark sides of what’s happening to our home and make it easy to readers to understand that. I also wanted to show signs of hope and warmth as well. I use bright and inviting colors and character designs that young readers can gravitate towards. I paint light shining down on characters such as Greta to show that she is a beacon of hope. It’s little things like this that I add in my illustrations to help readers understand that things are serious, but we don’t have to be kept in the dark. It’s amazing how color and light and design choices can naturally click in your brain to know when something is “relaxing” or “melancholic” or “frustrating”. Illustrations are so important and I love that I get to create them.
As the giants learn about the negative impact of all their building and polluting, they begin to take on less fierce qualities. Was this intentional?
Absolutely. As I mentioned in the previous question regarding the giants, I really wanted to portray the giants in a way that they aren’t so different from the rest of the forest dwellers. Earlier spreads of the book emphasize how tall they are, how hard it is to see their faces from far away, and so on. There’s a disconnect and the giants aren’t aware of the damage they are causing. Towards the last spreads you can see their faces better and their postures and expressions are much more approachable. They are still giants, but there is now a more positive relationship between them and the folks living below them. I am hoping our real life “giants” can listen and start a positive dialogue with us to a better and healthier future.
Which illustrators have most influenced you as an artist?
I have so many! Some illustrators that have influenced me include Amélie Fléchais, Elena and Olivia Ceballos, Yvan Duque, Matthew Forsythe, Rebecca Green, Robin James, and many many more.
Thank you Zoe for your thoughtful answers. I hope everyone picks up a copy of Greta and the Giants to appreciate the beautiful artwork you’ve described in the interview and to see how wonderfully it complements the story.
• FIND OUT MORE ABOUT ZOE ON HER WEBSITE.
• PUBLICATION DATE IS NOVEMBER 19 BUT YOU CAN PRE-ORDER A COPY HERE TODAY.
• CLICK HERE FOR A HELPFUL DISCUSSION GUIDE.
Visit the below bloggers for reviews and other Greta and the Giants related coverage.
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.
Illustrator and author, K. G. Campbell discusses Flora & Ulysses, The Illuminated Adventures
and more with Ronna Mandel!
I had the good fortune to sit down with K. G. (Keith) Campbell earlier this month when he joined Kate DiCamillo for a Flora & Ulyssesbook event at Vroman’s in Pasadena. He’s a charming L.A. local with an intoxicating accent who’s not only an extremely talented and versatile illustrator, but an author, too. This Q & A focuses mostly on his artwork.
Click here now to enter our giveaway. Thanks to Candlewick, we’re giving away 3 copies of Flora & Ulysses, The Illuminated Adventures (Candlewick Press, $17.99, ages 8-12). Please write FLORA in the subject line, include your address and enter by midnight on Sunday, November 10, 2013.
GRWR:A quote I read called you an “up and coming illustrator.” How do you know when you’re no longer up and coming, but have arrived? What’s changed?
K. G. CAMPBELL: Well I think that’s a description from Candlewick Press and at the time I’d had only published one book, Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters for which I won the (2013) SCBWI Golden Kite Award. But since then I won the Golden Kite and an Ezra Jack Keats (New Illustrator) Honor for Lester. Flora & Ulysses had just come out and also Tea Party Rules by Ame Dyckman had also just released. I think you know you’re no longer up and coming when you no longer have to search for work. Candlewick just came to me recently and offered me another project
GRWR:Did you take it?
K. G.: Yes, actually. And also I’ve turned down a few. I guess that’s when you know – when you don’t have to pound the pavement.
GRWR:Tea Party Rulesis with which publishing house?
K. G.:Tea Party Rules is with Viking. My second picture book with Kids Can Press, which is my manuscript, is due to come out next spring. It’s called The Mermaid and the Shoe.
GRWR:Can you please tell us the process when you try to develop the characters after after receiving Kate’s (DiCamillo) manuscript and how long it takes?
K. G.: So obviously the first thing that you do is read the manuscript. You try and get a feel for the characters which isn’t difficult for Kate because her characters are so three dimensional, quirky and hilarious. You look for visual clues you have to be really careful to see if there’s any physical descriptions in there. And you go from there.
Being an LA local, what I tend to do is a little casting. I go in search of the perfect Flora or the perfect Phyllis or whoever it is. But unlike a casting director, I can select from anyone who’s ever lived. They can be friends or family, they can be famous actors They can be TV actors. They can be film actors. They can be theatre actors. They can be fictional. I try to find a type that will fit that character. Then that sort of gives me a feeling how they’re going to react physically in any given situation they’re faced with, expressions and all that stuff. And then I do the sketches based on that. And then, in this case, but it’s not always the case .., well, they always go through the art director and the art director has some input as to whether they think that physical manifestation of the character is appropriate. In this case, because Kate is Kate, they (the sketches) also went to her. Often, usually in fact, they wouldn’t go to the author. The author has very little input in the illustrations. But Kate had something to say. Some characters were modified from my original sketches. Now they are what they are so that’s perfect.
GRWR:Who was the most difficult character to draw or create?
K. G.: I think the most difficult was probably Ulysses himself, because, and it’s actually technical reasons. It’s a middle grade novel so the format is quite small. All of the images are printed as 5×7. I drew them very slightly larger just so it would crisp up as it was reduced, but I didn’t want to draw so much larger that I didn’t know what was going to happen to them. Ulysses is a squirrel and everybody else is a human being and human beings are much larger than squirrels. And in fact, I made Ulysses slightly larger than real life so that he would be visible. So getting the amount of character that we wanted to into Ulysses when his scale was so small, that was the most difficult part.
GRWR:Who was the easiest to draw?
K. G: Phyllis.
GRWR:I love the look of Phyllis. I feel like I’ve met her before.
K. G.: I wanted someone with a crazy, curly hairstyle, girlie, melodramatic. And I actually had a person in mind for Phyllis. She was inspired by a Broadway actress. Phyllis is like my original sketch. Some changed a bit, some changed a lot. But not Phyllis.
GRWR: What medium do you work in?
K. G.: I usually work in water color and colored pencils combined but Flora & Ulysseswas executed entirely with colored pencils, no water colors.
GRWR:You’ve lived in Kenya, Scotland and California. Is one locale particularly more inspiring for you as an artist?
K. G.: Yeah, I would say Scotland, probably. The weather and the atmosphere make it a less attractive place to live, but it’s definitely a very romantic and gothic setting. And it makes for a good location for the kind of gothic stories that I like. Not that Scotland was the setting for either Lester or Ulyssses. It wasn’t. But in my future writing I think some of it will be set there.
GRWR:Since you do not consult with the author, is it scary interpreting their vision or is that a challenge you enjoy?
K. G.: It’s definitely more difficult illustrating for other people’s manuscripts than my own. Obviously not all illustrators are in my position. Not all illustrators write as well so they may not make that comparison. For me I do have that comparison and it’s definitely more difficult and more time consuming because you have more parties involved who make changes, so it becomes a bit more difficult. I wouldn’t say it’s more intimidating or daunting, but it’s more of a challenge.
GRWR:Do you prefer to illustrate others’ books or do the entire book yourself.
K. G.: It’s easier to illustrate my own, but illustrating other people’s work does take me to places that I wouldn’t have gone. So in that sense the product that emerges at the end is perhaps more surprising and unexpected. It becomes something of a team effort almost like a play, I suppose, or when you have several screenwriters working together it becomes a collaborative process and the creation is the product of that.
GRWR:You studied art history, did interior design yet always felt the call to illustrate even as a child. What stopped you from pursuing that from the start?
K. G.: Well that’s quite a complicated answer. And to be honest I’m not 100% sure that I have an answer to that. I was flattered and encouraged to take an academic route as I graduated from high school. My academics were pretty strong and I wound up going to a fairly prestigious school which is Edinburgh University. And really at that point I made the decision not to go to art school and I put down the pencil and I didn’t pick it up again for decades. I got onto a different path.
GRWR:But it was always tugging at you to return to it?
K. G: Yeah. And the more I delved into exploring children’s literature and illustration, the more I felt compelled to do it, the more I felt very strongly that I had the talent and the skill to participate in that world. So I began to take it more and more seriously and so here I am.
GRWR:At that point, did you go back to school?
K.G.: No. As an artist I’m more or less self-taught. I’ve done some life drawing classes. Obviously I’ve done a bit of research on the materials and stuff online, but on the whole you would call me a self-taught artist. I did however go to UCLA and Art Center Pasadena for some night classes in creative writing, in children’s writing and specifically in illustrating. I did a class with Marla Frazee who’s a well-known children’s writer and illustrator who lives here in L.A. She teaches at Art Center. While it wasn’t an art class per se, it wasn’t teaching you to draw, it was teaching you how to use whatever skills you had and whatever style you had to illustrate and how images participate in a book and how they enhance a text. I did a great writing class with Barney Saltzberg who’s another local author/illustrator who has had a string of books published. He teaches a night class at UCLA in writing for kids basically.
GRWR: Did you find when you weren’t working in the field of children’s books that you were still drawn to it, that you still loved wandering around the children’s books department of a bookstore?
K. G.: Oh all the time! In fact I never really stopped reading children’s literature which a lot of my adult peers find a little odd. But definitely my favorite books probably are children’s books or perhaps adult books that have a fairy tale quality to them to some degree. I love sort of sophisticated middle grade novels. Philip Pullman, who wrote The Golden Compass, is one of my favorites.
GRWR:Which illustrators have most influenced you?
K. G.: Edward Gorey, Tim Burton and Lisbeth Zwerger, an Austrian artist.
GRWR:How many hours per day do you devote to your projects?
K. G.: Well, I try to do a full workday. I am my own boss. I’m probably not working a full eight or nine hours, but maybe about six or seven hours a day. And depending on where I am in a project will dictate how much of that time is allocated to illustrating and how much is allocated to writing. An ideal scenario is kind of half and half – three and half hours writing and three and half hours illustrating. Something like that. But in the real world, as deadlines loom for my illustrating projects, I find that the writing has to take a back seat to some extent because the illustrations have to get done and that’s what happens.
GRWR:Any advice for new illustrators?
K.G.: I would certainly say if you haven’t, then take a class, some classes, in illustrating specifically because it is a distinct branch of artistic output and it’s about bringing to a text something that perhaps the text doesn’t already contain. But it has to be complementary. And in many cases, especially in picture books, you’re telling a story along with the text. Sometimes you are a carrying a subplot as well, and you can throw in characters, usually a pet or something, that aren’t mentioned in the main text and you can have things going on, a whole storyline, that’s purely visual. So I think understanding what illustration is is very important. It’s more important than any level of artistic skill or style.