Petra + An Interview with Marianna Coppo


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.

Petra and dog Petra as an egg

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!

Petra in winter

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…


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.

Petra's houses

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?!


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!




ABC Pop-Up + An Interview with Courtney Watson McCarthy


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.


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.


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!”

image001 image002 image003

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.


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:


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.


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


Until the final arrives!


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.


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.


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.


Free As a Bird + An Interview with Lina Maslo


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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!


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.


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.


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


dreaming1 dreaming2 dreaming3 dreaming4 dreaming5 flying1 flying2 flying3 flying4

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.


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


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.


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!


The Rabbit Listened


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.


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.


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.


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!

9780735229358_Interior_Image_8_91850   9780735229358_Interior_Image_12_91854 9780735229358_Interior_Image_15_91857 Can you tell us about your process?

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.


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.


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!



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!

chicken_spot_sketch   birds_Sketch 9780735229358_Interior_Image_3_91845

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!

cori doerrfeld_author photo


Robinson + an interview with Peter Sís

Robinson High res - Copy

by Peter Sís (Scholastic, 2017)

Here’s a special thing for you that was a huge honor for me.

Meet Peter Sís. You might know him from an incredible stack of books like Starry Messenger, The Wall, and The Pilot and the Little Prince. His latest, Robinson, is a sort of mashup of Sís’s own childhood and the adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Surprising, refreshing, and familiar.


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

Growing up in Czechoslovakia I loved to illustrate stories that my father and grandfather told me as a child, but I never thought about becoming an illustrator while in art school. I was thinking about a future in fine arts and fell in love with animation. I won the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival with my short film “Heads.” I got invited to Hollywood in 1982 to work on an animated film project for the summer Olympic Games in 1984. Animation takes a long time so I was still working on the film when the Soviet bloc countries pulled out of the Olympics, and I did not return home.

I was trying to figure out my future as an artist in America when Maurice Sendak came to the rescue. “So, you want to be in children’s books?” he said. He gave me such a lovely introduction to publishing that I have been in the picture book world ever since.


Can you tell us the story of how Robinson came to be?

Robinson is a memory from my childhood which came back to me when my sister found an old photograph of me dressed up in furs as Robinson Crusoe for a school costume party. It was a flashback to a moment when I felt ridiculed by my friends. I loved the book Robinson Crusoe. And my creative wonderful mother made me an outrageous costume of the brave castaway, for which I won the top prize for the most imaginative character. But all my friends made fun of it.

I remember very well how mortified and foolish I felt. Yet I loved the book so much that somehow it made it all worthwhile. My new book, Robinson, is about the power of books for a child.


What does it mean to you to be a recipient of the Hans Christian Anderson award?

It means one is recognized by one’s peers all over the world for lifetime achievement. That is wonderful and also alarming because it means you are getting old. But I love that it creates a connection to my teachers and mentors: Jiri Trnka, Maurice Sendak and Quentin Blake.

One of my favorites from your backlist is Madlenka. Do you have any favorite stories in your catalog? And why?

For many years, I was inspired by my children. My son gave me the idea for Fire Truck because we lived across the street from a fire station, and he was passionate about them. I discovered life in America and the colorful, multicultural world of my new country through my daughter, Madeleine (or Madlenka), who is very curious and creative and had many adventures on the block where we lived in downtown Manhattan. This global diversity was so inspirational for me because I came from a country where everybody and everything looked the same. Now my children are grown, but I still have many stories from their childhood that have yet to make it into a book.

I also value the story about my father, Tibet Through the Red Box, and a book about my childhood hero, Jan Welzl, A Small Tall Tale from the Far Far North. The Three Golden Keys brings back special memories of Prague for me.

Who are some of your story heroes?

Robinson Crusoe, Antoine de Saint Exupery, Czech president, Vaclav Havel, Swallows and Amazons, Charlie Chaplin, Milos Forman (I created the poster for his film Amadeus), John Lennon and the Yellow Submarine.

I also had unique heroes as a child since my grandfather worked on the design of train stations in Cleveland and Chicago in the 1930’s. He collected comic strips from the Chicago Tribune and got them bound into a book which was bigger than I was. Unlike other Czech kids, I grew up with Little Orphan Annie, Mutt and Jeff, and Crazy Cat. I loved that book so much that the newsprint slowly fell apart.


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

My favorite piece of art is by Lane Smith. We did a picture exchange, but I still owe him his! Sorry, Lane, it is coming!

What’s next for you?

Ha, good question. I am inspired by the story of Nicholas Winton who saved 669 children before the Nazis arrived in Czechoslovakia in 1939. He organized trains that took them to England. I am also thinking about a story of a little refugee of today who faces all kinds of dangers before arriving in the free world. And how I met the Beatles and worked on the cover for Sergeant Peppers. There are amazing stories happening all around us every day. Now I need to focus and choose the right one.



PS: Thank you to Scholastic for the images in this post and connecting me to Peter Sís.

How to Make Friends With a Ghost + an interview with Rebecca Green

How to Make Friends with a Ghost

by Rebecca Green (Tundra Books, 2017)

Here’s your fall storytime favorite! It’s already mine. Author and illustrator Rebecca Green stopped by to answer a few questions about this book and her beautiful work.

Welcome, Rebecca!


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

I’ve only been doing picture books for the last two years or so. Before, I was doing editorial, gallery work, and older chapter books. I signed the contract for How to Make Friends with a Ghost right when I was signing on with my children’s publishing agent, and I just sort of got launched into the industry. I absolutely love working in this field, from the broad possibilities for illustrations to the people – everything’s been great.

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How to Make Friends with a Ghost is your debut as an author, right? How was the experience of both writing and illustrating for the first time?

Honestly wonderful. Because the story is mine, I still feel enthusiastic about it – I still feel just as excited about the characters as I did the day I started writing the story. It’s gone through such a change from that first day and it’s been an amazing learning opportunity. I also get to do a lot more in terms of promotion and marketing and that’s very fun for me.

Can you tell us about your process?

I usually do sketches with a black colored pencil on paper. Those are then sent to the client and we go back and forth with revisions or changes. Once I am ‘good to go to final’, I then redraw the illustration on Bristol paper and use either gouache, colored pencil, or a mixture of both to do the final painting. I then scan the illustration, taking it into the computer and I use Photoshop to clean up the illustration, making the background clean and white.

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Who are some of your story heroes?

Maira Kalman is definitely one of my biggest real life art heroes. I absolutely love her work and her writing. As far as fictional characters, I’ve always admired Jesse from Bridge to Terabithia. That book is one of my all-time favorites, and he is a such a strong and compassionate character.

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

A painting by Nashville artist, Harry Underwood. It’s a small piece, maybe 8×10″ and it portrays a woman who remarkably resembles by mother. In sloppy pencil, it reads “Life goes on”. His work is quite sad and eerie and I love it.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently illustrating a memoir, and another picture book, both for other authors. In coming months though, I am hoping to carve out some time in my schedule to work more on personal work and writing.


Pax and Blue and an Interview with Lori Richmond


by Lori Richmond (Simon and Schuster, 2017)

I’ve been so fortunate to get to know this fabulous author, illustrator, and human this year, and I’m so pleased to introduce you to her today. Unless you also know her, and aren’t we lucky?*

Meet Lori!


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

I came to love picture books through art. Ever since I was a kid, I loved to draw. My professional career has always been related to art or design — for 20+ years I was Creative Director at various corporate media companies. But the nature of my industry shifted, and design, especially digital product design, became very data-driven and technical. While there were some things I liked about it, I found that my daily tasks at work were no longer aligning with my personal goals. This was a tough thing to go through, because so many of us conflate our own identity with what we do for work.

Out of frustration and fatigue, I went shopping for art supplies. Oh man, is there nothing better than the smell of new art supplies?! I began drawing and painting again late at night after my kids went to bed, and I felt so refreshed and joyful. I took some continuing education classes at School of Visual Arts (SVA), where my husband teaches as an adjunct professor, and one of those was a picture book class. Thinking about making a picture book was so magical to me. To have something you made, and can hold in your hand and share with children — it was the piece I was missing in my professional work. I fell in love with the process and knew I had to pursue it.

Pax_Proofs Lori_Studio_table

How did PAX AND BLUE originate?

We live in Brooklyn, so my kids are used to taking the subway everywhere. My then 3-year-old told me a story about when he was out with our babysitter, and that there was a pigeon stuck in the station. My son was so worried about the bird and talking about how frightened it must have been. Pigeons are certainly not the most revered urban animal, so it struck me how the child’s perspective was so sweet and innocent. My son was little, just like the bird, and could empathize with it. I knew it was a good seedling for a story, so I went from there and started on it while I was at SVA, and also workshopped it at Pat Cummings’ Bootcamp at Highlights. Originally, the title of the book was PAX AND THE PIGEON. In my mind, it kind of still is!


What was it like to be both the author and illustrator for the first time?

I had no idea what I was doing, and still feel like I don’t. But I LOVE being the author and the illustrator, because you have the power to have the art do so much of the talking. I find that as I draw, more and more words go away. My editor, Paula Wiseman, and I edited a lot of text out of the book. The drawings were doing all the talking and left more room for the reader to discover the story and emotion on their own.

Can you tell us about your process? (And if you have any pictures of your studio or PAX-in- progress, that would be excellent!)

I usually begin with the words first. I may not have the entire narrative or all the character nuances laid out, but I need to have some kind of foundation for the story before I start thumbnailing. I admire artists who draw characters for years and get to know them, and their story comes out. That has never happened to me. (Maybe one day!!)  I do love the thumbnailing part of the process — the loose scribbles and the thinking part. Everything feels so malleable at that stage, and it is very free flowing. I like to challenge myself to come up with multiple solutions to the same problem. Sometimes I think of something way better, and other times it helps me validate my first thought as the strongest.

PAX AND BLUE looked really different in the initial submission to Simon & Schuster. It always had a limited color palette, but it wasn’t until about a year after the submission and we began to work on it, that I revisited the art. I created new character studies for Pax and expanded the palette while still staying true to the original feel. I wanted to be like a modern version of LYLE, LYLE, CROCODILE (by Bernard Waber) where the backgrounds and environments recede and the characters really stand out on the page. I love books of that era! This also led to me asking (ahem, begging?) my editor for a 3-piece binding. That was a really special touch that helped give the book a vintage feel.

Pax_LyleComparison PAX_old_submission Pax_Sketches pax_new_artinbook Pax_Binding
What’s your studio like?

I am part of a co-working studio in Brooklyn called Friends Work Here. We are an eclectic mix of all types of creatives, including writers, photographers, designers, and video artists. And we even have an indoor swing, people!! I like having a separate workspace and the community that comes along with it. The studio is very conveniently located to my home, too, which is helpful when I have to be home for my boys.

Who are some of your story heroes?

I absolutely love THE CARROT SEED by Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson, and SNOW by Uri Shulevitz. Both are such simple stories about a child’s belief in themselves, and persistence in those thoughts no matter what everyone else says. I love these kind of universal messages that stand the test of time.  As for modern books, my current favorite is LIFE ON MARS by Jon Agee. It’s one of those books I wish I had thought of! So well done, and the pictures say so much. And it’s so funny!

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

This is a classic case of the shoemaker’s children having no shoes. I make books, and my husband is a photographer, and we have no art on our walls. We also don’t have too many walls, because we live in a city apartment! I do always let my children hang up their work, though. I never get angry about tape or adhesives on the walls. It’s really fun to see them feel pride in their creations. My younger son has completely covered the wall surrounding my bed with love notes. So, those are definitely my favorite right now.

What’s next for you?

2018 is going to be a crazy year. In March 2018, my next author-illustrated title, BUNNY’S STAYCATION (Scholastic), will hop into the world. This is an incredibly special book about a parent who travels for work. I can’t wait to share! Then in Spring 2018 comes a super-cute book I illustrated called OOPSIE-DO (HarperCollins), written by Tim Kubart. And, finally, in Summer 2018 comes SKELLY’S HALLOWEEN (Henry Holt), written by David Martin. Whew!



*This is a recurring line in my novel, A Rambler Steals Home, and it pops into my head so many times I just use it as much as I can. Cool, right?

Thanks to Lori for the fantastic pictures in this post!

The Unexpected Love Story Of Alfred Fiddleduckling + An Interview with Timothy Basil Ering


by Timothy Basil Ering (Candlewick, 2017)

One of my all time favorite picture books is The Story of Frog Belly Rat Bone, which I wrote about here. That’s Timothy’s! I’m so excited to have him here today and to give you a peek of his latest book, a total delight, The Story of Alfred Fiddleduckling.

Check out this synopsis and see what I mean.

Captain Alfred is sailing home with new ducks for his farm when his little boat is caught in an unexpected and mighty storm. Everything aboard the ship is flung to the far reaches of the sea, including the very special and beautiful duck egg he had nestled safely inside his fiddle case. But perhaps all is not lost: the little duckling stumbles out of his shell and discovers Captain Alfred’s fiddle, floating not too far away in the waves. And when the duckling embraces the instrument with all his heart, what happens next is pure magic. Through an enchanting read-aloud text and beautiful artwork, award-winning author-illustrator Timothy Basil Ering shares a thrilling and fantastical story of a farmer, a gentle old lady, a dancing dog, and one brave, tiny duckling that will warm the heart.

Welcome, Timothy!

How did you get into picture books?

The foundation to my career as an illustrator was The Art Center in Pasadena CA. I don’t know where I’d be without that amazing training from a melting pot of truly amazing teachers. One of the biggest starts for me just before I graduated was when I caught word that an art director was visiting Pasadena for a day to look at student portfolios. Making that appointment to show my portfolio, which was a soup of all kinds of stuff, was one of those “OMG, I’m so glad I did this!” moments.

The art director, Lynette Rushchak, showed particular interest in the textures I was creating, and in my figure and anatomy drawings. She told me that she was looking for an illustrator that could create aged, distressed, anatomical figure drawings that were reminiscent of old DaVinci drawings. When my eyes lit up with curiosity, she asked me if I’d be interested to illustrate an exciting manuscript she had that was written by author, Roscoe Cooper. Of coarse I was thrilled about the opportunity and was all in! That project was The Diary Of Victor Frankenstein. After lots and lots of drawing, DKink, NY published the book and it was released in 1997. It was the 1st book I illustrated. The project was fantastic fun!

Trying to manipulate paper to give the appearance that the paper was hundreds of years old was part of the project that I really enjoyed, and creating pen and ink, and charcoal drawings of strange experiments and macabre anatomical illustrations was a blast. What’s more is that I illustrated that book on a small 30-foot boat! I had at that time also made a commitment to a 5-month sailing voyage alone with my father on that boat from Florida to Guatemala and back. It was an adventure that I will never forget! Creating art for that book hooked me deep with interest to illustrate more books!

And more books came.

After illustrating 3 more books by different authors, including a children’s pop-up picture book, I became more and more excited, interested, anxious, and determined to see if I could write and illustrate my own book. After hours, days, weeks, and months of writing and re-writing and scribbling and sketching and re-drawing, I was ready to show the work and I pulled off what seemed to be the impossible- getting in the door of a publisher to have a meeting to show the work and my ideas! It was a meeting with editor and publisher Karen Lotz in NY that launched the beginning of a dream. It was a meeting that I thank my lucky stars for every day! With Karen Lotz and Candlewick Press, my 1st book, that I both wrote and illustrated, was published in 2003, and this was the beginning of my ongoing, magical, and SO appreciated adventure in making books with Candlewick Press!

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Where did Alfred Fiddleduckling’s story come from?

I had bits and pieces of dead end ideas for a story that I was trying to write around two characters I had imagined. The two characters had great potential that I did not want to give up on. One character was a duck named Alfred that played the fiddle. The other was a duck dog that did not like duck hunting but loved to dance, and in particular, he loved to dance to the fiddle! So, whenever I imagined my two characters interacting out in a marsh somewhere, it made me laugh, but the story just wasn’t going anywhere.

Whenever I hit a wall over and over again when I’m writing or art making, the way I clear my mind from frustration is to go fishing. Lots of ideas come to me when I’m out on the water fishing. So one day, during a “getting nowhere writing day,” I grabbed my fishing rod and hit the beach. I waded across the shallow flats through the water until I was about a ¼ mile off shore standing in waist deep water casting and thinking and relaxing and doing what I love to do when unexpectedly a huge thick white fog bank rolled in off the ocean right to me. I was locked in fog. I love the ocean, and extreme weather, so watching this fog was awesome but more so it got me thinking about a new element in my story! Fog! I had been lost and struggling in my story, and oddly enough, as I stood offshore, in waist deep water, in the fog, things became super clear to me! The fog made me think of mariners from long ago getting lost at sea in the fog, and it made me think of widows. Wow! 3 new ideas! The fog, a sea captain, and the sea captain’s wife were new ideas that immediately began to thread themselves into my dead end ideas and I knew just what to do with Alfred and the dog!

Normally I stay in the water until I catch fish but that day was a day I couldn’t get to my sketchbook fast enough! I jogged through the water, across the beach, up through the woods to my truck and sat in it dripping wet, writing so fast it looked like chicken scratch!

Can you tell us about your process?

I like to experiment with lots of different art making mediums. Which mediums I choose to use depends on the project. For The Unexpected Love Story Of Alfred Fiddleduckling, I used acrylic paint, charcoal, and pen and ink on paper for the interior art. I used acrylic paint on wood and canvas for the book cover. For most of the illustrations I worked on 19” X 24” paper. I created charcoal drawings first, and then painted on top of the drawings. However, some of the illustrations were started with paint first, then drawing over paint, then paint again.

Whatever mediums I use for my art, there will be several layers applied and mixed before I finish a piece. I like to start an image by loosely rubbing, scribbling, smearing, or washing the medium all over the surface that I’m drawing or painting on. I’d say I use my hands to move the mediums around as much as I use brushes, especially when using charcoal. I use charcoal pencils, and graphite pencils but I also love to grind pigment from the pencils or sticks onto the surface I’m working on so that I can rub the pigment, or smear it, and make shapes and forms and marks with my hands.

I’m definitely very inspired by the way children apply art-making mediums. At the beginning of a drawing or painting, I like to move the mediums around quickly to increase the potential for mistakes that can lead to unique things that happen to shapes and forms and colors. I’m always keenly watching for interesting visual things to happen and when they do, I stop to look and react to their beautiful possibilities. To me, mistakes show positive possibilities that I might not have imagined were there when I started. There’s a lot of trial and error, lots of mistakes, and different reactions to my mistakes. If something doesn’t work visually, it’s fun to deconstruct it by erasing or painting over it, and then to reconstruct it again with different color, or value, or size, or whatever it takes so that it does visually work. I also like to glue more paper, or canvas, or wood if needed to make room for more imagery rather than to start over again on a new surface. Sometimes I cut pieces of art from a piece to move it somewhere else in the piece or collage onto a completely different piece.

Below is an example of starting with a charcoal drawing. The paint was applied over the drawing.


Below is the beginning of the application of paint over a charcoal drawing.


Below is an example of starting with a loose painting.


The two drawings below of the gentle lady wearing a gray wool coat are examples of developing a charcoal drawing over a wash of paint, and they show how much my drawings change while I’m developing them.

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Below you can see how much my scribbled drawing of Alfred shrunk in size before I started painting him.


The next two drawings below are examples of experiments with paint, ideas, textures, and composition during my process of figuring out these illustrations.

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Believe it or not, the image below of this beautiful glob is actually my kneaded erasure that I pinched into a quick reference sculpture of Alfred Fiddleduckling playing his fiddle. I used it to help myself envision and draw the following illustration of Alfred playing his fiddle.


I used pen and ink to create the title text.


Who are some of your story heroes?

When I was in high school, I had a hard time finding books that captured my interest quick enough to keep me pouring through the pages until I read White Fang by Jack London. I love the outdoors, nature, wild animals, and adventure, so I really enjoyed that story, so much so that when I finished that book I remember wanting to see what else Jack London wrote. It was easy to find Call Of The Wild and I loved that story too. Again I searched for another story to read by Jack London and chose Sea Wolf and loved that one too! So, one of my story writing heroes is Jack London.

Another story writing hero of mine is Irving Stone. It only took one book of his to make him a hero of mine. It’s a big book entitled The Agony And The Ecstasy. What kept me into every page was Irving Stone’s wonderful descriptions of the life and times of my favorite artist, Michael Angelo. It was awesome! And Kate DiCamillo is not only a story writing hero of mine, but she also created a story book hero of mine- Despereaux.*


*Which Timothy illustrated! What a pair.

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

A single-haired paint brush painting of an owl by an artist from India who paints masterfully with a tiny, tiny, tiny one haired brush!

What’s next for you?

I am working hard on my next children’s picture book, but its waaaaaayy too early to say anything about it except that I’m struggling with fighting the good fight and I think I need to go fishing!


Thanks, Timothy! I can’t wait to see how that next fishing trip turns out.


THE UNEXPECTED LOVE STORY OF ALFRED FIDDLEDUCKLING. Copyright © 2017 by Timothy Basil Ering. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Everyone + an interview with Christopher Silas Neal


by Christopher Silas Neal (Candlewick, 2016)

I’m happy to introduce you today to Christopher Silas Neal, a picture book creator I am a big fan of. He’s got quite the illustration portfolio, but this spring’s Everyone was his debut as both picture book author and illustrator. Here’s hoping he makes many more. Enjoy!

How did you get into picture books?

Over and Under the Snow was my first experience making a picture book. I had been an illustrator for about seven years, making art for magazines, posters, and book covers before Chronicle Books called with Kate Messner’s manuscript. Kate’s approach to writing about nature was more lyrical and unexpected than a typical science based picture book and Chronicle was looking for a non-traditional artist. Even though many of my biggest influences were classic picture book makers, I hadn’t thought I would be one myself.

Narrative illustration felt overwhelming and daunting—character building wasn’t something I had ever tried and building scenes was certainly not my strong suit. I had previously worked as a graphic designer and my approach to image making is more flat and simple than what I thought readers expected from picture book art. The industry wasn’t as visually diverse as it is now and at the time, most books about nature would have featured fairly detailed and rendered paintings. I just didn’t see me having a place in that world. But, I loved Kate’s writing and the folks at Chronicle Books are so nice and very design oriented, so I thought if there was ever a chance, this is it.


My pictures are often quiet and still with a lot of space—the fact that this book was set in wintery woods was reassuring.  A big challenge was figuring out how to add depth without using the things that traditional painters rely on like lighting and perspective—visual tools I typically don’t use. I like to think the personality in the art comes from me trying to fit a painterly peg into a graphically flat and naively drawn hole.

Where did the beginnings of Everyone originate?

When I first met my agent Stephen Barr at Writer’s House I had a few book ideas floating around, but Stephen was more interested in an animated gif I had made. It was based off a drawing I did for the New York Times about a boy whose parents were deported to Mexico. It’s a simple image of a boy crying and his tears turning into two birds. Stephen thought the idea had promise as a book and I spent the next year turning it into a manuscript and book dummy. In the end I think I had made fifty versions before sending it to publishers. Eventually, we sold the idea to Liz Bicknell at Candlewick.



Can you tell us about your process?

The writing process happened organically. I started with that original New York Times image and tried to think of other visual metaphors that involved nature bending and morphing to reflect our emotions. After a bit of sketching, writing and playing with ideas, a theme developed—when we feel something, the world feels it too and reflects those feelings back at us—and I illustrated three emotional expressions: crying, laughter, singing.


It took a lot of patience for the words to develop. I had one version where I spelled everything out in the text i.e.”…the boy’s tear turned into a bird and flew into the sky. The bird whispered to the clouds and soon the clouds were crying, too,” but my editor, my agent, and I all agreed that the story was better left simple and open ended. After many, many revisions I pared it down to the few words that appear in the book.


I was listening to a lot of John Lennon—he uses these wonderfully simple, repetitive phrases—and I tried to put some of that influence to the words of this book. I can almost hear a John Lennon melody when I read from Everyone, “When you cry you are not alone. When you laugh happiness grows. When you sing everyone listens.” I wanted the art to match the simplicity of the text so the illustrations are made using just three colors. My process starts with pencil sketches and then digital mockups where I think about color and composition. The final art is created in layers or separations very similar to print making. Each color is drawn and/or painted separately and then scanned as a black and white image. Then I add color to each separation—one is colored black, one blue, one tan—and they are layered on top of each other to make a complete image.

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What does a picture book text need in order for you to feel excited about illustrating it?

The words should be poetic or simple or surprising and there needs to be room for me to add to the narrative. If the text is too descriptive, there isn’t really much for me to add.

Who are some of your story heroes?

One of my favorite books is Frederick by Leo Lionni. It’s a simple, emotional book about four field mice storing food for winter. Except one mouse who gathers sun rays, colors, and words. I love how you can see the process within the final images. The reader can mentally pick apart the textures and scraps of paper like a puzzle.


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

Leanne Shapton paints wooden blocks to look like re-imagined book covers. The art is all typography and shapes. I have one of her blocks painted as Jaws by Peter Benchley.

What’s next for you?

I have a third book with Kate Messner coming out in Spring 2017 called Over and Under the Pond. In Fall 2017 I have another book with Candlewick about a hungry cat. In Spring 2018 I have a series of board books about shapes and colors and animals. Beyond that are books with authors Jennifer Adams and Barb Rosenstock.


Thank you, Christopher! Your readers have lots to look forward to, and I am so very glad you are a part of the world of picture books.


EVERYONE. Copyright © 2016 by Christopher Silas Neal. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

How to Outfox Your Friends When You Don’t Have a Clue + an interview with Jess Keating


by Jess Keating (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2015)

Heads up, email subscribers: my blog took a bit of a tumble so I’m reposting what was lost in the shuffle. Apologies, and thank you for reading!

Sometimes you meet people on the internet who are instantly your kind of people. And all of a sudden they aren’t a tiny square avatar, but a real friend who sends you ketchup chips from Canada and the best gifs to your email. They support you on this whirling road of publishing, and they make you laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh and you wish that Canada and California weren’t so far away.

Let me introduce you to my friend Jess Keating. She’s got great books and she’s a better friend, and I’m so happy to have her here today to celebrate her newest story in the My Life is a Zooseries, How to O

And also, it’s not just me. These guys liked her too . . .

“With her trademark kid-oriented wit and lighthearted touch, Keating leads readers through the daily emotional ups and downs of the typical just-turned-teenager who is trying to juggle hormones, parents, schoolwork, and, most importantly, her friends…A sweet reminder that being middle school girl is about far more than boys and makeup.” –Kirkus, starred review

So: here she is!

Hi Jess!

Hello, my dear Carter! Thank you for having me!

Can you give us some backstory on Ana? Is there any young-Jess-Keating wrapped up in her?

There is definitely a lot of young-me in Ana. I’ve always been an animal nut, and I was raised on Kratt’s Creatures, Crocodile Hunter, and Jane Goodall. Savvy readers might notice that Ana’s middle name is Jane—both she and her mother share this name to honor Dr. Goodall!

As a kid, it was my dream to live in a zoo, surrounded by strange animals. Obviously, my parents thought this would be rather hazardous, so instead they let me decorate my room to look like the rainforest. I even stuck plastic lizards and poison arrow frogs to my walls. Sometimes I even pretended I was David Attenborough, narrating my way through the day with a bad British accent.

Ana is also a giant nerd, who struggles with feeling like an outsider a lot. I think that’s something a lot of us share (particularly as teens and tweens), and I was no exception. It takes guts to share your passions, you know? I think Ana is also a very lucky kid, in that she’s surrounded by intelligent people who challenge her to pursue her dreams. We have that in common too.

Which do you most identify with: having untied shoelaces, missing a snorkel, or not having a clue?

Untied shoelaces!


What’s your ideal writing scenario? Snacks? Tunes?

Yes to snacks! I’m a big fan of popcorn and chocolate chips. Together or separately, really. My awesome agent Kathleen Rushall introduced me to Songza, which I’ve found to be perfect for playing background music while I write. I listen to mainly movie scores and video game soundtracks.

I like to move around a lot as I work, so I have a standing desk that’s really just a wooden crate that props up my laptop. That’s about it! Oh, and Post-It notes. Millions and millions of Post-It notes.

Which came first, these characters or their scenarios?

The characters came first, for sure. I think once you’ve got characters you know well, especially their flaws, it’s really a matter of plunking them down with some challenges and letting them find their way. I’ve always had such a clear picture of Ana, Daz, and Shep, so they seem to run the show. With each book, I have a general idea of a setting I’d like to explore, but I like to give them some freedom in getting there.

But sometimes writing can surprise you! Characters like Sugar and Bella were much quieter in my mind, and getting to know them better as the series continues has been extra fun.

What has been your most favorite scene to write and edit? Just don’t spoil us too much!

I love writing funny scenes, embarrassing scenes, and downright awful ‘fight’ scenes between friends. There’s just so much juicy emotion in these!

My favorite scene to write in OUTFOX revolves around Ana doing a Superman impression. I won’t spoil it, but it’s a scene I’ve wanted to write since the beginning of the series!

Describe Canada in one word.


What gif best describes your feelings for this book’s birthday week?

Ahh, you know how much I love gifs! I have so many feelings, I have to give you two! Publishing a book is a funny thing—it never stops being exciting. With every new book, I feel like Bilbo going on an adventure:

And this week especially, I’m so thankful and humbled that we get to continue Ana’s story in a third book. It takes so many people to get the story in your head on a shelf, and the readers who pick it up are really the reason we do this. So, I have a lot of love for everyone who works so hard to make these books, and those who have been with Ana from the start. Hence, hobbit hugs:

What’s coming next for you?

I like working on several projects at once, so I’ve got lots to keep me busy! My first nonfiction picture book is coming out in February, called PINK IS FOR BLOBFISH. It’s all about challenging the notion that “pink is for girls”, showcasing bizarre, dangerous, and unique pink animals. I’m tickled pink for this one! (Sorry.) This book is part of a new series called “The World of Weird Creatures”, so I’m also working on the next one! I can’t share the title yet, but I’ve definitely never seen anything like it before. Hee!

I’m also deliriously happy to report that we’ve just sold my first picture book biography!SHARK LADY is all about the life of Eugenie Clark, an incredible female scientist who studied—you guessed it—sharks. She is one of the coolest ladies I’ve ever come across, and I’m so excited to share her story!

Thanks again for having me!


The wonderful folks at Sourcebooks Jabberwocky are going to give away a complete set of Jess’s My Life is a Zoo series to a lucky reader! Head here to enter! (


Good luck!


About the Author:

Jess Keating is a zoologist and the author of the critically acclaimed How to Outrun a Crocodile When Your Shoes Are Untied. Jess is also the author of the playful nonfiction picture book Pink is for Blobfish (Knopf Children’s, 2016). She lives in Ontario, Canada, where she loves writing books for adventurous and funny kids. Visit Jess at

You can also find her at these places:





(And you’ll be so glad you did.)