Everything You Need For a Treehouse + an interview with Emily Hughes

Treehouse

by me and Emily Hughes (Chronicle Books, 2018)

It’s here! It’s forty pages of beauty and magic and even though I wrote it, it feels new to me every single time I take a look.

There’s just something about a treehouse. I never had one, did you? But thanks to this book, now I’ve got a collection of the dreamiest treehouses of all time.

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You can have them too! This book is for all of us, and it’s out today.

Making picture books is a little bit collaborative and a lot bit not, and I had a lovely time chatting with Emily about her experience with this book. Enjoy!

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Emily, how did you come to illustrate Everything You Need For a Treehouse?

I went about looking for the precise answer first, through the trenches of a rarely straightened inbox. I was jolted upon finding the very first message. The subject line the same as the title atop the dust jacket; Postdated September 04, 2014.

2014, how strange it sounds. It rings so long ago and weary compared to the newness I feel.

The wonderful, fab, trusting Taylor Norman at Chronicle sent the brief to the equally wonderful Stephen Barr, my agent. Designing tree houses without the tether of a storyline sounded dreamy. The reading leads with sensory nostalgia, which has given way to freedoms of interpretation. I will add that the book may, in all its glory, be thrown aside by a child because it is so evocative. The desire to create one’s own space is immediately set aflame.

At least, I felt that upon reading, and I said yes immediately.

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You created an enchanting menagerie of treehouses. Was this a first instinct for you, to dream up all kinds of treehouses? Or did you try other visual stories first?

Instinctual. Only because I have built up experience consistently recreating Bongo’s Dream House (as found in my Mom’s copy of Life is Hell by Matt Groening) throughout my childhood. I would say I’m a one-trick pony and my trick is trees. To draw variants/hybrids of both required intense recall of my eight year old self.

Not wanting the constrain of continual characters, it was environment that dictated the visual narrative. I tried to keep the story stateside, though I strayed off the path a bit with the library scene, whoops!

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What was your process like for making this book?

As you can see with the sketches, they start off very bare! They usually are quite small in size. I do the same drawing repeatedly with small fixes each time—going through droves of paper. I get nervous when I start on the final image. The more I can get the drawing understood by muscle memory, the more confident I feel when I work on the final piece (I’m still nervous, though!)

I use some references, but try to not look at them while I work. For the Garden scene, I looked at pictures of the Schoenbrunn Palmenhaus I took when I was in Vienna a few years ago. I remember being in awe of it, I wanted to capture that feeling somehow. I adapted it to be a bit taller, which is ridiculous. I thought it would be far too silly to be built that way in real life, but that was my little twist to separate it from its reality.

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I was trying to figure out a layout for the chilly sleeping bag scene— I usually work on this scale. I was trying to figure out a chateau-type mountainous home. In the end, I was inspired by a treehouse I kept coming back to, one made completely out of recycled windows by Nick Olson and Lilah Horowitz. I tried not to look at their actual house while drawing it, but I was very much inspired. The scary story treehouse is from my own imagination, but when you have a reference, there’s more dimensionality to be gained!

I would try to find a few strong words from each page and run with that, not intending to illustrate all the text literally. These key words dictated what the illustration would entail.

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This is what a usual draft sketch looks like for me. Here I was drafting for the ‘secrets and shared smiles’ treehouse. Words carry a lot of feeling. I make a lot of these mood boards; they are based on what words Carter used on the page, or what words those words evoked for me.

What does a secret or whisper feel like? To me a secret has that same warm feeling as coming home to a dry house on a rainy day. Safe, small, with the blinds down. The patter of the outside world goes on while the private interior makes a hum, has a soft glow. No one asked, but here it is—and the feeling dictated the drawing.

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Which treehouse would you pick to live in forever?

‘Forever’ makes me afraid! I don’t think I could live anywhere forever, even in the most elaborate, fantastic home.

However, if it was enforced, it would have to be the ‘chilly so high…pinpricked canopy’ treehouse. Practicality wins here. The slumber party possibilities, snacks, bootleg Tintin, electrical outlets, say no more.

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Which kid do you relate to most?

Emily:

I take back what I answered in the previous question.

In a way, I do forever occupy one of the treehouses, and it is the very one I like most. In the drawing I’m on the far right, drawing through the condensation on the windows.

In this book I counted 205 children. I think (I’m not good at counting). This count includes shadows of children, appendages of children, endpaper children, book jacket and cover children, so there were lots to choose from.

‘Safety drill boy’ on the ‘blueprint’ page, the boy with the caterpillar on the ‘begonias’ page, and the girl in the red jumper climbing to see the ‘sun speckles up close’ are favourites of mine.

I say that with trepidation as my siblings, parents, friends and housemates are scattered throughout the book!

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Carter: Oh, this is hard. But I’m really into this girl who is steadying the ladder for a friend, and doesn’t even notice that she’s stepping on her other friend’s plans. Kind of oblivious, but always ready to help. Or the kid with the squash on his head. Or this hair salon situation.

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Do you have a favorite Easter Egg in the book?

Emily: I have many! I won’t include many, but here are my most favourite:

On the ‘should the shadows ever growl’ page, there is a creepy little face hidden among the lilypads. My Mom thought it was too spooky, but I’m happy it got through.

My parents are the two children in the tree on the cover.

On the last page, something from every one of the former pages is in the apartment complex. So maybe none of those treehouses exist?

It’s up to the reader.

Carter: When my dad was young, he and his brothers had a treehouse in their backyard, which famously only had three things: a telephone, a dictionary, and some baseball cards taped up. That’s what the old, green phone represents. I love it so! Can you find it?

Is there anything else you want us to know about this book?

Working on this book got me thinking about the privilege required to have a literal treehouse.

At the start of it, you need land.

On the land you need a tree, preferably one planted long ago, strong enough to support you.

If you want a treehouse that is the kind you see in the backs of magazines, you may need the help of a Mother, Father, Uncle, Grandmother—and sometimes these people don’t have the luxury of time to devote to these pursuits, even though they may very much want to. Instead of using money to build a treehouse, you could find/borrow all the materials needed. However, hunting for enough material also takes a long while, some kids may be needed to be helpful at home.

Land, and time are the main reasons why idyllic treehouses are not accessible to all.

I was jealous of kids who had beautiful treehouses. To make it look perfect, they often had help from an adult. Many of those kids who had a ‘perfect’ treehouse didn’t even play all that much with them. That’s at least what I lamented to my Mom. It is jealousy talking, but I think it was because it was perfect, and because it wasn’t all theirs that they didn’t appreciate it as much as I thought they should. My neighbours, Brother, Sister and I dreamed up ways to have one.

We didn’t have a treehouse, but we had spaces, and luckily enough, we had time. Space can be found anywhere—an empty box is space. We burrowed in the grass, we collected rocks to build a ‘wall’ but it was only a foot tall. We hid in my neighbor Gene’s downstairs room and called it the ‘devil’s club’ where we only drew pictures of little devils. We would dream and dream—about how we’d decorate our own treehouse, or even a little plastic Home Depot shed all our own. That was the key thing missing from people who had treehouses built or gifted to them, at least I have willed myself to believe.

The scheming and yearning was the most fun.

In the end I want to say to kids is this: The longer it burns in you, the more you draw it, the more you dream it, the more time spent trying to create it, the more you have it. Even moreso than someone who actually owns it, but does not have the love behind it. I’m not saying this in the rash wave where you love it/want it more than another person, so you can lay claim. It is that ownership of a dream or feeling internal is often more powerful than ownership itself.

I asked people online and friends in real life about their treehouse attempts. Every vignette in the endpapers are based off real-life stories that people shared about their results. I think they are all so creative and special—far more resourceful, interesting and ingenious than ideas I spent weeks working on.

A couple of the treehouses in the book would be possible to build, but the best of them can’t exist, at least not in the places they have been set. They are for no one to possess physically, but it is all ours in fantasy.

If you only have a box and tape to recreate a drawing, or to build on a dream, that is enough and beyond.

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PS—Are you interested in a signed copy of the book? If you place an order with my local bookstore, I’ll stop by and sign it for you before they ship it. Just click here. 

Florette + An Interview With Anna Walker

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by Anna Walker (HMH Books for Young Readers)

I’ve been a fan of Anna’s for ages. Have you seen her Instagram feed? It’s a complete day-brightener.

I got to chat with Anna about her new book Florette, and I’m happy to have you meet her too. Here’s Anna!

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When, how, or why did you get into picture books?

When I was a child looking at a fairy tale book with friends and gazing at the beautiful world created by the illustrations, I remember thinking, ‘this is what I want to do when I grow up.’

How did Florette originate?

In 2016, I travelled to Paris with my family. We were on our way to The Louvre, when I noticed a shop on the other side of the street filled with plants from floor to ceiling. I stood for a brief moment, fascinated by the window of green, before running after the family who had gone ahead! Thinking about that forest window later amidst the busy Parisian streets, was the inspiration for the story.

The name actually came from a visit to Versaille where I wrote down some of the names of Louis IX’s dogs. Among them was Florisette, which became Florette!  Florette1 Florette2

Can you tell us about your process?

I spend time imagining what the story will look like. I like to call it day dreaming rather than procrastinating! Each story is a chance to explore different mediums and techniques. After I work on roughs, I enjoy playing with watercolour, pencils, block printing, and collage. It takes me a while to hit my stride with the look and colour palette of each book so I try to develop the pictures together in the hope they work as a family rather than completing one at a time. Now and then an illustration comes together just as I imagined it, most of the time though I will start a piece over and over again to try to come closer to the visualisation.

Every detail of the book is important to me, whether it be the spine, the endpapers or the imprint. Being a graphic designer in a past life, I love thinking about the layout and the whole look of the book. An extension of that is making tiny animations and window displays and even fabric using the endpapers.

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What do you hope readers take from this story?

I hope there are children who may connect with the feeling of wanting to create their own special place in the world. When I was writing the story I was focussing on the idea of being displaced and how that feeling can dissipate using imagination, friendship, and the power of nature.

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Who are some of your story heroes?

I have many story heroes but Piglet and Pooh have been with me since childhood and can be relied upon on any occasion to make me feel better.

What’s your favorite piece of art in your house?

Right now, my favourite piece in our house is a Wishbone chair. It’s Freddy’s favourite too.

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What’s next for you?

Next is Found You, Walter! A story about a small girl, Lottie, who is afraid of the water until she comes across an unlikely companion . . . Walter! Walter is a lumbering walrus, he makes me smile when I think of him!

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PS: THIS!

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Smoot

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by Michelle Cuevas and Sydney Smith (Dial Books for Young Readers 09A38448-DC78-495A-BD75-E1BFFA274F09 C9DDD400-A96C-4F3D-A027-10F8278DFFCE

I love a good fish-out-of-water story. That’s happening here in Smoot, when a shadow separates himself from his boy. It’s a book about taking risks and making choices and seeing colors in entirely new ways.

Smoot is a shadow. And he is bored. His boy is a stay-inside-the-lines creature of habit, and Smoot would rather be wild.

Until . . .

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The unstuck Smoot heads out on a journey of double-dutch and tree-climbing and hopscotch and hoping. And the other shadows notice.

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The people notice.

Then bravery takes flight.

After all of their wishes come true, the shadows return.

Happy, welcomed, and a little more wild.

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PS: A Rambler Steals Home is coming up on its first birthday! What a year of sharing it with you and meeting readers along the way. If you have read it, would you consider posting a review here? Those help authors out quite a bit, and help more readers find the stories you love. Thank you!

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This Is Not a Valentine + An Emily Arrow Song!

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by me, illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins (Chronicle Books, 2017)

(Use code VALENTINE for 30% off right now at Chronicle!)

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This post is not a valentine, but I’m here to wish you the happiest of them. Thank you for celebrating this book so well with us!

And here’s an extra special treat:

Emily! The sweetest gift.

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I’ve got a bit more of a Valentine roundup in this month’s newsletter, so click here to subscribe if you’d like.

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Petra + An Interview with Marianna Coppo

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by Marianna Coppo (Tundra Books, 2018)

This book instantly shot up to the top of my favorites list. It is a smile from start to finish. I chatted with Marianna Coppo about Petra and how it was made, and hope this shoots it to the top of your favorites too.

When, how, or why did you get into picture books?

When I was little I was very much attached to the world of books and images. Being a solitary child, I read a lot and drew just as much.

Even today the characters of my favourite childhood stories – all by Roald Dahl – have the faces of those created by Quentin Blake.

I don’t have many memories, though, related specifically to children’s picture books. I started getting into them much later, when I began to study illustration.

When I began studying, I was ignorant of picture books – I probably still am – and was knocked off my feet when I made their discovery. I fell in love with picture books (the wonderful ones, naturally), because with children’s picture books it’s difficult to fool the reader.

There aren’t many tricks. A picture book works if there’s a strong idea behind it. They say a lot with so little. When a picture book works, text and images blend together perfectly, creating something magical. So, it’s a world in itself. And at the heart of it form, content, and rhythm are condensed into 32 pages.

In 2015, two years after finishing my studies in illustration at Mimaster in Milan, I attended a year-long course in Bologna at the Accademia Drosselmeier, a center of studies dedicated children’s literature. There I read and looked at thousands of books and I haven’t stopped looking since. I think it’s safe to say that I have a joyful obsession with picture books. And I now draw with a different perspective: words and images grow within the limited space of a book, an enclosed space that allows me to express myself as best I can, I hope.

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How did Petra come to be?

The idea for Petra came to me around three years ago. I had been working on a different project that wasn’t working at all. The best ideas always seem to come to me while I’m working on something else. On balance – well, at least for me – I think that every story is an attempt to respond to a personal need. Or perhaps stories are questions asked at the right moment. When I wrote Petra I was going through a terrible period. I felt like I was running on one of those indoor exercise bikes and getting nowhere.

Nothing was going right, but at the same time I was afraid to make a change. So I think Petra came from a necessity for me to change perspectives. I needed to see unknown things with a renewed optimism.

Things are always in flux. Petra rouses a dog, for example, and no matter how much she tries to stay still, sooner or later, she gets thrown here and there.

The message, for me, is not “be yourself.” What I wanted to say is that the “yourself” is whomever you want to imagine yourself to be. It was a liberating idea for me.

The choice of a rock as the main character was easy: it’s a fixed object, that can be considered useless, but can also make leaps and bounds!

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Can you tell us about your process?

My creative process is totally chaotic. The first step is insight! That moment of grace that compensates all of the work and frustration that will come after.

Then there’s months and months of this…

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Then I go straight to the final artwork (I’m trying to change the process and find a middle way between my scribbled storyboard and final illustrations).

Then I do all of the final artwork again. This is repeated at least three times.

At a certain point, I make myself stop, otherwise it would be never ending.

Fortunately, I usually like the results from the fourth round.

What do you hope readers take from Petra?

I wanted children to enjoy playing with the different perspectives and playing with Petra. I also wanted readers to try looking at things from a different point of view to see how things change depending on one’s perspective.

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Who are some of your story heroes?

Oh dear. I don’t know if I have an answer. I don’t have true heroes. Or perhaps I have so many that I’m not sure I can call them that. In the world of contemporary picture books, I think Jon Klassen’s and Mac Barnett’s work is absolutely genius.

What’s your favorite piece of art in your house?

I collect ugly and absurd things that don’t make sense. A lot of these “things” are also in storage because of a recent move, but here’s one. It’s a package of pasta that I found in a souvenir shop in my hometown, Rome.

As you can see, there’s an image of the coliseum with the writing “Made in Italy” on the package, but the pasta itself is made in the shape of the Eiffel Tower. How clever is that?!

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What’s next for you?

I’m working on the final touches to my latest book, A Very Late Story (to be published by Flying Eye Books in late spring).

And I’m also working on a new project about a dog, which is filled with… dogs!

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ABC Pop-Up + An Interview with Courtney Watson McCarthy

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by Courtney Watson McCarthy (Candlewick, 2017)

Just when you think you’ve seen every ABC book, something fresh pops up. This one is clever and sophisticated, and I got to chat with Courtney Watson McCarthy about all things engineering and design and just plain happiness.

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When, how, or why did you get into making pop-up books?

I have always loved MAKING things. I enjoyed drawing as a child but I really loved constructing things, usually out of paper and tape. I learned early on how to use an x-acto knife with my dad, constructing movable paper objects from a kit called Spooner’s Moving Animals.

I stumbled into the world of pop-ups and paper engineering unintentionally, probably as most do. I started collecting pop-up books and mimicking what I was seeing, I made cards and gifts for people. But one day, I had an “aha!” moment when I realized that it was someone’s actual job to make these books and I set out to learn how. I was living in CA at the time and was fortunate enough to find a class on pop-ups offered at The Art Center of Pasadena. A short while later, I moved back to New York City and on a whim, emailed Robert Sabuda photos of the pop-ups I created in class. He and his business partner Matthew Reinhart invited me to his studio to talk about all things pop-ups. A short time later, they offered me a freelance job in the studio. However, on the very same day, I was offered a full time design position with Penguin Books. I was living in a new city, about to get married and terrified of the freelance life! So I thanked them for their offer and accepted the “safe” job. I have always wondered how it would have turned out if I had accepted Robert’s offer but working for Penguin was a great experience and helped me to learn a lot about the inner workings of publishing. I always knew I would find my way back into paper engineering and that it had to be on my own path.

Only a few years later, however, after the birth of my first daughter, I found myself ready for the flexibility and the creativity that freelancing can provide. I started out building little pop-ups, during nap times, of my some of my daughter’s favorite things. These would be the beginnings of ABC Pop-Up though it would take another ten years to come to fruition.

I am sure there’s got to be a link between your history in theater and set design and paper engineering. Can you talk to that a little?

I fell in love with theater in high school, primarily being onstage. But during my time majoring in theater at Hampshire College, I found that I was more interested in shaping what a production looks like, rather than be in it. My love of set design definitely had a huge influence on becoming a paper engineer. Creating a scenic design for theater requires you to step inside the play, truly visualize where these characters are and then create a physical representation of that vision. Creating a pop-up book is creating through that same process but in a smaller scale. I also found I enjoyed both model building and technical drafting, both skills necessary for scenic design. Creating pop-up books require the same skills, paper skills for creating the pops, and technical drawing to create the files necessary to recreate the books.

What are you most hopeful to see in this book’s readers?

Joy! It was designed loosely based around my daughters’ favorite things, an odd collection that would make one of them squeal in delight or coo contentedly. It’s a lovely small book meant to be shared on laps. I love seeing the delight on children’s faces when they open a pop-up book for the first time.

Publishing pop-up books is always a challenge. They are expensive and time consuming to produce, as every single one must be hand-assembled. In the digital world we are all occupying now, with everything so easily download-able, I believe it is more important than ever to keep producing actual books on paper. Pop-up books stimulate imagination and creativity and can also be a fabulous learning tool. Getting them into the hands of young readers helps keep the artform alive.

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Can you tell us about your process?

ABC Pop-Up came about very slowly, almost by accident. I began working on several unrelated small pop-ups over 10 years ago, mostly just to get the creative juices flowing. I then did a series of pop-up books, mostly collaborating with a packager based in the UK, using existing art and recreating them in three dimensions. Those books, on subjects such as MC Escher and Salvador Dali, followed similar processes. I do a lot of research on the artist and spend days and weeks simply studying the art. Slowly, I separate the artwork into layers, thinking about what pop-up mechanisms would work best. I then build very rough white dummies before laying the artwork on top. Typically, you can create pop-ups and then create the artwork to fit within it. But in these cases I am using existing art that can’t be altered and I have to find ways merely to enhance it.

With ABC Pop-Up I had significantly more creative freedom, as I was creating each piece from scratch and could essentially do whatever I wanted! Five or six years ago, an editor saw some of the first few spreads (apple, balloons, juice) and said “Hey there’s a little alphabet book here!”

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I then slowly developed each spread up through the letter O. I made up several samples, as well as a short video of the project so far and sent it out to about ten different publishers. I had the highest hopes to work with Candlewick as they have an excellent reputation with paper engineers and make beautiful pop-up books. I received polite rejections from every single publisher EXCEPT Candlewick! They said they loved it but I had to finish it before they could commit. So back to the drawing board to complete the book. I think I revised the R/S/T spread (roots, swing, tree) more times than the entire book put together.

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Every time you adjust one small angle you have to adjust everything else, especially with such a small book, to make sure nothing is sticking out of the sides.

My very messy desk and some of my tools:

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Once all of the dummies are finalized, I lay out all of the components of the book onto one large document in the computer. This is called a nesting sheet.

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This provides the printer with all the information they need to recreate the book. From there, multiple dummies are made, checked, adjusted and remade.

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Until the final arrives!

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Who are some of your story heroes?

I read aloud to my daughters every single night, particularly stories with strong female protagonists lately. I love being able to share favorite characters from my own childhood memories as well as discover new ones. Claudia Kincaid of From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is a fascinating portrayal of a 12 year old, strong, defiant, complex. My youngest daughter and I recently tore through the entire Clementine series, laughing out loud the whole time.

I tend to gravitate toward misfit characters, the ones who feel they don’t fit in or don’t care about fitting in. Ramona Quimby, of course, Anne Shirley, Lyra of His Dark Materials, Violet Baudelaire, Peter Sis’ Madlenka. Not surprisingly I find I’m drawn to books that incorporate paper somehow into the storyline. Years ago, I fell in love with Clare the paper artist from Audrey Niffennegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. And I have revisited Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus multiple times, losing myself in her magical otherworldly descriptions.

What’s your favorite piece of art in your house?

I’m sure it’s common to answer with your children’s art but seriously, what they produce in a month is more creativity that I can imagine in a year. My eldest is an amazing writer and my youngest creates amazing paper sculptures.

A table set for tea made out of construction paper and tape by my daughter at age 7.

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What I love most about the art in our house is that each piece has some kind of a story or memory attached to it. A small piece purchased while traveling, artwork given to us by friends. Currently we have a print of Faith Ringgold’s Freedom of Speech hanging in our dining room that has prompted a lot of interesting meaningful dinnertime conversations.

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What’s next for you?

I have been working on several private commissions this past year. But I’m eager to get back some new book ideas of my own!

And guess what? I have an extra copy of this delightful book for one of you! Just comment here by Friday, February 2nd at noon PST for a chance to win. US only please.

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Free As a Bird + An Interview with Lina Maslo

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by Lina Maslo (Balzer + Bray, 2018)

This beautiful book hit the shelves yesterday, and I’m so pleased to bring you a little insight from its creator, Lina Maslo. Enjoy!

When, how, or why did you get into picture books?

I knew I wanted to be an artist from an early age, so I was always drawing as a child. I got a lot of encouragement from teachers, and I kept at it. After getting a traditional degree in Art, I decided I would pursue illustration. I began to research children’s book illustration, and came across the SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. After attending several conferences, I learned how to build a portfolio. I also realized that writing a story myself and making a book dummy would give me a better chance of success. I went through several story ideas and book dummies. Then, at a Highlights retreat, an agent saw the Free as a Bird book dummy. He was excited about the story, and together we sold my first book!

The WHY? I love to illustrate, I love stories, and I love the idea that stories (in this case picture books) can be inspiring or even make a difference in a person’s life!

How did Free As a Bird originate?

I love reading biographies. To me, they’re more interesting than fiction (most of the time). I read Malala’s autobiography, and was drawn to the relationship between Malala and her father, Ziauddin. His words, “Malala will be free as a bird”, were the main inspiration for Free as a Bird. After looking at other picture book biographies about Malala, I didn’t see any that focused on the encouraging relationship between parent and child. I thought it was an important side of the story to tell.

Can you tell us about your process?

I begin most story ideas with notes and sketches. At this stage, I’m not sure if it will be a book or not…it’s something that interests me and I’m just getting it on paper to see if there’s anything there.

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Then I write (and rewrite a million times) the manuscript, and split it up into spreads, drawing little thumbnails to the side.

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Then…pages and pages of thumbnails! With these, I’m trying to pace the story and break it up into 32, 40, or 48 pages, figure out rhythm, composition, darks and lights, and even start to play around with color a bit! This is one my favorite stages. It’s mostly just doodling.

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With Free As a Bird, once I realized I wanted to use a bird as a symbol, I started looking at birds that were native to Pakistan and had similar colors to what I had in mind. At first, I was going to go with a European Bee-eater. These birds are simply gorgeous! But halfway through, I realized that they were probably not the kind you could feed or put into a cage. (You’d have to feed them bees!) So I found a bird called the Red-headed bullfinch. It’s not quite as colorful…I did have to pump up the colors just a bit…but still beautiful! And its diet consists of seeds.

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I drew Malala many times to become familiar with her features. The ones that stood out the most to me were her strong eyebrows, her lips, and the curve of her bangs.

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Well, I might have gone a little overboard here, but I made mini book dummies. I was debating between vertical or horizontal, and wanted to get a feel for the book format, with the page turns and all.

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I then decided on the medium, which was acrylics, and made some mini paintings.

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I went on to make a full-sized book dummy. I made sketches, loosely painted them, scanned them in, added the words in Photoshop, then printed them out and put it all together. This is the version I took with me to The Super Children’s Book Boot Camp at Highlights (run by Pat Cummings). I presented it to an editor, art director and agent, and the agent, Rubin Pfeffer, saw potential in it!

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My agent gave me some very helpful and insightful feedback and advice, and I made changes to the book dummy. Once he thought it was ready, he sent out a PDF version of the updated dummy to editors.

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Well, as you know, the book sold! It was an exciting moment!!

I went through many edits with my editor Kristin Daly Rens at Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins.

Edits to the manuscript, then sketches, final sketches… and then I was approved for final art! I had about three months for final art, that is, to paint about 20 spreads plus a cover. I used ink and acrylics on paper.

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Here are some of my favorite spreads from sketch to finish:

 

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I then mailed the finished art to the publisher, and they scanned it in and sent me several rounds of color proofs to look over.

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Fast-forward almost a year and a box arrived at my doorstep! Hardcover copies of FREE AS A BIRD!

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People always wonder why it takes so long to make a book… this process took over a year! It’s a lot of work, but worth it in the end.

What do you hope readers take from Malala’s story?

So many things! That their words are powerful.

That education is important.

That freedom isn’t guaranteed, and sometimes you have to fight for what you believe.

That you can overcome the bullies in your life.

And that….even with all the bad in the world, there is still hope.

Who are some of your story heroes?

I’m a fan of other authors and illustrators of biographies and nonfiction, like Jen Bryant, Melissa Sweet, Peter Sís, John Hendrix, Barb Rosenstock, Mary GrandPré, Bryan Collier, Kadir Nelson, Greg Pizzoli… there are too many to name!

What’s your favorite piece of art in your house?

Right now, it’s this tiny framed piece of “scissorcutting” by Marie-Helene Grabman that I got at a local art fair last year. I love silhouettes. And it’s so small! I am just in awe of people who can make detailed cut paper works like this.

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What’s next for you?

Right now I’m working on my next picture book biography. It’s about C.S. Lewis, and how he came to write The Chronicles of Narnia. The working title for it is…THE DOOR TO NARNIA. It will probably be out sometime next year, and is also being published by Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins.

I can’t wait for everyone to meet C.S. Lewis! He was an interesting guy.

Then…maybe some fiction. Not sure yet!

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Trees

TREES

by Lemniscates (Candlewick Press, 2017)

Happy New Year!

Do your resolutions call for more art-making and daydreaming? This is the perfect book for you. It’s a look at the profound nature of treestheir strength, their gifts, and their incredible patience.

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Some of you might be seeing winter trees right now (not here!), and some of you are patiently waiting for spring’s blooms. Let this book remind you that the seasons will change and bring beauty each time.

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It makes me want to gather some materials: colored paper, leaves and sticks, scissors, paint, and glue.

Read it, dream it, make it.

There is also some great downloadable content at Lemniscates’s webpage here. Coloring pages, finger puppets, and puzzles galore! Take a peek and have even more fun!

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TREES. Copyright © 2015 by Lemniscates. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

This Is Not a Valentine

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out today from Chronicle Books!

It’s time that this book belongs to you, and not just Lucy, me, and our incredible team at Chronicle. We hope you love it enough to share it with someone you love!

Just yesterday, Betsy Bird named it to her list of Transcendent Holiday Picture Books! You can see the whole list here.

And in other exciting news, the book is on the Winter Kids’ Indie Next List. Thanks, Indies! We’d give you a frog too.

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Making a picture book is a surreal kind of art. The words started with me, but Lucy’s art wrapped around the story in a way that created something entirely new than I could have conjured up. I’m such a fan of our book. Just look!

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Available today! Everywhere you can get good books!

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The Rabbit Listened

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by Cori Doerrfeld (Dial Books for Young Readers, February 2018)

Here’s a book that you need to know about.

I read a lot of books. A lot. And this one nearly took me down. It’s a breathtaking look at grief in a few simple gestures. It’s stunning.

I got to chat with Cori Doerrfeld about this book, and I think you’ll enjoy her immensely.

When, how, or why did you get into picture books?

I have always loved to draw, even as a small child.

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I grew up wanting to be an animator for Walt Disney Studios. I loved how animation literally made drawings come alive. Right when I was about to go to college, however, computer animation began replacing traditional hand drawn techniques. Instead of studying animation, I went to small liberal arts school.

For a long time I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but the more art classes I took, the more I realized that I still loved to draw. My professors began pointing out that my art always told a narrative and began suggesting a career in illustration. With this in mind, I decided to continue my education after graduating by taking some courses at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. It was there that I met my husband, Tyler Page. Now as much as I hate to admit it, he is really one of the main reasons I got into picture books.

Tyler was creating and self-­publishing graphic novels when I met him. To promote his books, he would travel around the country to various comic conventions and sometimes I would go with him. During this time, I was working as a nanny and a teacher at a daycare center. I read SO many picture books at these jobs, and worked with SO many different kids that I started to get my own story ideas. I had never really written or illustrated a book, but I thought I would try it.

I made teeny tiny paintings, Tyler helped me lay the books out on the computer, and then we printed them ourselves as little stapled paperbacks. From then on, I had something to sell whenever I went with Tyler to comic conventions.

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It was at these conventions that editors first discovered me. One of the editors that bought my little books worked for Harper Collins and because she brought the books back to the office, I got my first job illustrating a book for a big publisher. That editor also became my agent and together we went on to pitch and sell the ideas behind two of my original little books.

All of this happened about 11 years ago, right before I got pregnant with my first child. I have juggled being a full time stay at home mom with my career in picture books from day one. I sincerely believe that what is behind my career and what has kept me going is that love of drawing I have always possessed. It has been incredible to see what I love to do come alive in the picture books I create.

Can you tell us about the history of this story and how it came to be?

At some level, I feel like this book has been with me for many, many years. I was a senior in high school when I first learned about the rabbits. My boyfriend at the time was a year older and often wrote me letters from college. One of his letters described what it was like for him after his older brother died in a car accident. He wrote about how important his pet rabbits were in helping him cope with his grief because they were a quiet, peaceful presence he could turn to.

Even after we broke up, the story of his rabbits was something I thought about from time to time. I made art and stories over the years about rabbits. It wasn’t until more recently, however, that I really began to understand why those rabbits were so helpful to my high school boyfriend.

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Cori made this piece for her high school boyfriend

In the past few years, I had two friends go through the experience of losing a child. As a mother myself, I couldn’t begin to wrap my head or heart around their pain and emotions. I felt very helpless when it came to how to be there for my friends, and it was clear many of the people in their lives felt the same way.

Seeing how frustrating it was for my friends made me realize how lacking so many of us are in terms of our emotional intelligence. It is hard to know what to do in these kinds of situations, and even the best intentions can complicate things.

As I struggled with what to do or say, I once again thought of the rabbits and for the first time I truly realized the power behind their story.

When my high school boyfriend was an eight-year-old boy trying to face the loss of his brother, he didn’t need anyone telling him what to do or feel. What he needed and found in those rabbits, was a calm, reliable presence that was simply willing to listen. The more I thought about it, the more compelled I felt to do something.

I remember going on a long walk with my dog and the idea for a picture book began to form. Once I got home, I began sketching and writing and it all poured out. I have never had an idea flow out so quickly or so complete. At first, I wasn’t even sure if I should show the book to anyone, but I decided to at least share it with my critique group. Their responses were immediate that I needed to pass this book on to my agent, so I did.

With my agent’s support, I submitted the book for publication and could not believe when it not only received interest from multiple editors, but that the story was already resonating at a personal level with others. It is almost hard to describe the entire experience because it happened so quickly. I think a part of me still cannot believe that the book actually exists!

What are you most hopeful to see in this book’s readers?

I have many hopes for anyone who reads The Rabbit Listened. First and foremost I hope the book becomes something people of any age can read, give, or turn to as a starting place when those moments in life come along when it seems like there is nothing you can say or do to help.

I hope it is something people who are in pain can pass on to those around them to remind their friends and family to just be patient and to listen. I also hope it is a book supporters can offer someone they know who is hurting as an open-ended invitation and promise that they will be there for them no matter what. I also hope the book is something readers can absorb even if everything is just fine, so when times do get difficult they are more capable and confident about how to cope.

I hope if nothing else, the book starts conversations about grief, emotions, and about what people need from each other. Last, I truly hope this book makes people feel that they are not alone in their pain or in their struggle to understand how overwhelming emotions can be. You are not alone!

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All of my books start as a nagging idea, something I just can’t stop thinking about. I find I do my best thinking on a walk, laying in bed at night when I can’t sleep, or early in the morning. (Whenever it’s most likely I’ll forget.) It usually becomes clear pretty quickly if I can turn an idea into a full story. Sometimes the words and images simply begin to emerge like puzzle pieces all fitting into place. This was definitely the case for The Rabbit Listened.

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Once I have a solid idea, I try writing a really rough draft that just covers the basics of the story to see if I can get all the way from the beginning to the end without any major roadblocks. I almost always type my rough drafts on the computer. I use this rough draft to do a really quick tiny layout of the entire book using thumbnail sketches of the spreads.

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When I make a picture book the visual story is just as important to me as the text, so the thumbnails are essentially another rough draft of the story. I draw with a pen or pencil on paper spending no more than a minute or so on each thumbnail. I will re-­sketch the most at this stage trying to get just the right loose concept for each page in the book.

With most books, including The Rabbit Listened, I have already decided what the characters will look like in my head so however I draw them in the thumbnail is typically how they will look in the book. After I thumbnail the entire book, I scan all the drawings into my computer. I use a Wacom pen and Photoshop to turn my thumbnails into larger sketches.

Again, I do this relatively quickly. As I mentioned before, I have always had to split my time between being a stay at home mom and my career, so I have become really efficient with my time!

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Thumbnail (top); Sketch (bottom)

After I’ve made a sketch from every thumbnail, I place them in an InDesign document where I can add the text and consider how the book should be laid out. When I am done I essentially have something that looks like a picture book made of sketches. This is what I send to editors for feedback. My favorite part of the process is making the final art.

Making art is something I have done my entire life and nothing makes me feel more challenged, satisfied, or at peace. Unlike the earlier stages of the book, I can make final art listening to music, podcasts, or audio books. I used to create all my final art with acrylic paint on paper, but I eventually became curious about digital art making.

It took a lot of practice, but I eventually taught myself to use Photoshop to create digital paintings. All of the art for The Rabbit Listened was created with digital ink, a Wacom pen, and Photoshop. I work in my studio in our basement. It is nothing fancy, needs a dehumidifier and a space heater…but at least it has a door so this mama can work!

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Who are some of your story heroes? (Fictional characters or real-­life creators)

In terms of fictional character heroes, when I was younger I loved the odd characters who never quite fit in. I loved Barbapapa, Charlie Bucket, Matilda, Dickon Sowerby, Ebenezer Scrooge, Pee Wee Herman, Edward Scissorhands, Jack Skellington, and the Iron Giant.

Most of the creators I looked up to then were in animation-­-­Chuck Jones, Bill Peet, and Adreas Deja but I have always loved Jim Henson. And while I still hold many of these characters and people dear to my heart, now most of my story heroes are women and their creations.

Back when Tyler and I were going to comic conventions, we met Raina Telgemeier. She was inspiring to know way back then when she was also selling stapled together copies of her work, and she is beyond inspiring to know now as the accomplished graphic novelist she is today. I relate a lot to her character in Smile and Sisters having been an awkward art kid myself. Her books helped my daughter fall in love with reading and gave my daughter and I some of our first mutually loved stories.

Another story hero of mine is author Kelly Barnhill. Her work is pure magic, and the cast of various female heroes in her book The Girl Who Drank the Moon spoke to me on so many levels. This book celebrates the simple power of love but also how complex the bonds between women, mother and child, and our inner and outer selves can be.

What’s your favorite piece of art in your house?

Picking the favorite piece of art in my house is tricky. My kids create art almost daily that astounds me. I do love a print I made from one of my grandma’s drawings. She passed away when I was only four. She loved drawing and animals as much as I did. But then again I also adore my Leo Lionni prints from Swimmy!

What’s next for you?

I’m always wondering what’s next for me. This industry is not always the easiest to navigate. I feel so proud that my career has evolved to a point where I am making books that have the potential to influence or help people, but I’ve also learned you cannot force those books.

I would love to create more books that deal with emotional topics like fear or anger, but will have to wait for the right idea to click. In the meantime, I do have three more books coming out soon that celebrate things like loving someone no matter what, goodness, and how wild parenting can be!

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