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!