2016 SCBWI Bologna Author-Illustrator Interview: Lauren Mills

By Angela Cerrito
for SCBWI Bologna 2016
and Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Lauren Mills spent her youth in the woods trying to tame wild animals and has been illustrating since she could hold a crayon. She always knew she wanted to write and illustrate children’s books and was the first in the California State System to receive an MA in Illustration.

Her picture book, The Rag Coat (Little, Brown, 1991), won numerous awards including the Charlotte Award, and her original fairy tale, Fairy Wings, co-illustrated with her husband, Dennis Nolan (Little, Brown, 1995), won SCBWI’s Golden Kite for best picture book.

Mills is also a sculptor and painter, but returned to children’s books, especially after reading that her Tatterhood and the Hobgoblins (Little, Brown, 1993) had helped young girls.

Her first novel, Minna’s Patchwork Coat (Little, Brown, 2015) is a Social Studies Notable Trade Book and a Children’s Book Council Hot of the Press pick.

Congratulations on your illustration Minna’s Patchwork Quilt being selected as a finalist in the Bologna Illustrators’ Gallery. The illustration is the cover to your latest work. The novel Minna’s Patchwork Quilt is based on the much-loved picture book (The Rag Coat). What was it like to expand the characters of Minna and her family into a novel? Were there any specific challenges?

It was very gratifying and rewarding to expand Minna’s story into a chapter book. When I originally sent in the first five chapters I had only intended the book to be a small chapter book of about sixty pages. When my editors, Deirdre Jones and Andrea Spooner responded they asked for the synopsis for the rest of the novel.

 Since I didn’t have one, and I write very stream-of-conscious, letting the characters move the story along, I wrote the rest of the short chapter book in the following two weeks so I could give them a synopsis. They then wanted it longer and with more tension and character development of Minna. So, that’s when I focused more on the new characters of Lester and Aunt Nora, his grandmother, the Cherokee midwife, and changed the ending a little bit.

In The Rag Coat, Minna remembers her Papa’s words about “People only need people”, jumps off the log and heads back to school. In the novel, she says, “People only need nice people” and she resolves never to go back to school until her conversation with Lester makes her think about her own power.

Picture books are like poems or songs where every word counts and you must tell a whole story in very few words. I was daunted by the idea of writing a novel, but in some ways it’s easier to let your characters have interesting conversations without trying to cut them short.

What is difficult is tying it all together and remembering what was already said and done and keeping the reader interested from one chapter to the next.

Your sculptures have received national acclaim in the U.S. and have been recognized in Italy. How do the two art forms, sculpting and painting complement each other?

I noticed my drawing skills improving after I began sculpting and studying anatomy.

When I teach drawing, I always use sculpting to help with: perspective, anatomy and character design. Drawing and painting are a like a magician’s trick – how to show something three dimensional on a two dimensional surface.

Sculpting is the real thing. It just has to look right at all angles.

When one draws one must think about what is on the other side and how it connects to what they see from their perspective.

In addition to creating your own work, you also teach drawing as a faculty for Hollins University’s MFA in Children’s Book Writing & Illustrating. What advice do you offer to students who are starting out in the field of children’s illustration?

Three favorite quotes I give to students are: “Follow your bliss” by Joseph Campbell and “Do what you love, love what you do”, anonymous. And the third I think is John Burton – “It is the love of the process that pulls one through the discipline necessary to master the demands of that craft.”

I tell students that if you love doing art then make it your priority. Fit it into your day the best you can, and don’t worry how you make your living, as long as you can spend some of your day doing what you love. Somebody, somewhere will also love it and you will have made the world a better place by pleasing yourself and that other someone.

While I am a task master and believe in passing on the traditional academic teachings from the old masters. I believe that if one doesn’t love what they are doing that will show. And your love of the process, which for me is meditational, will show in your work and people will respond to that.

The only problem is that much of today’s American art education, art and book markets do not support or value craftsmanship or tradition or anything that takes a lot of care and time. “Quiet” and “precious” are seen as negative terms that don’t sell books.

Evie with a bust of her, created by her mother (Lauren)

Sometimes I wonder if I was born in the wrong century or the wrong country or both, but I have hope that my work will reach and inspire the next generation and/or the pendulum will swing back.

All the classical ateliers now are indicative of that, but we need more stories. That’s where illustration comes in. My definition of the difference between fine art and illustration is that there shouldn’t be any difference if they both are at their best.

Since this recognition of the cover for Minna’s Patchwork Coat, I have had an American agent in France ask to represent me. I’m now happy to have Erszi Deak of Hen and Ink Literary Studio as my agent and hope to expand to the European market.

The Rag Coat was adapted into a ballet. What was it like seeing your characters on stage, living, breathing and dancing?

It was thrilling to see the book translated into song and dance! It was almost an opera as well.

When someone approached me about making it a movie that’s when I thought about expanding the book into a novel myself and adding my favorite folk songs that would have been sung in 1908.

How do you juggle everything – painting, illustrating, sculpting, teaching and exhibiting your work?

I’m scattered. I work from project to project and sometimes do have too many things going on at once and our place gets very messy at times. I wasn’t writing or illustrating when I was painting and sculpting. Now, I hardly sculpt, unless it’s to make a doll out of clay I can fire in the oven.

Sometimes I get together with doll artist, Anna Brahms, and illustrators, Jane Dyer and her daughter, Brooke, and Kathy Brown to sculpt dolls. I adore sculpting but the cost of working from a model, making a mold and casting it into bronze is extremely expensive and difficult to sell these days.

Someday I would like to combine the sculpting, painting, and writing into art pieces… or perhaps a puppet show!

When I am teaching it is hard to get too much other work done, but teaching helps my art, too, and I believe in passing on what you’ve learned. Sometimes, we go on three day writing retreats with our writing group. Noticing how much we accomplished by not having any other interruptions, we’ve sometimes scheduled “at-home retreats” and just let people know we can’t be disturbed for a couple of days.

What is a typical work day like for you?

Lauren’s studio

It always changes, but lately I get up at 5:30 a.m. or 6 a.m. and Dennis and I do 20 minutes of yoga stretches and exercises then go down to the first floor where there’s a gym.

(We used to live in a converted barn on 15 acres with our daughter and two whippets, but the dogs are gone, sadly, and our daughter is grown so we’re now in a converted factory building filled with lots of other artists who live on the fourth floor, and the other floors are studios and businesses such as the gym, a restaurant, hair salon, printer, photographer, yoga studio, and Figure Drawing studio… all of which we frequent!)

After working out at the gym, I make a smoothie, rinse off and get dressed into vintage, hand-made, natural clothing… mostly made by Magnolia Pearl – (I believe in creating the world you want to live in. Wearing art that harkens to another time and has a story book feel with handmade old lace or homespun linen brings me joy and brings beauty to the world I inhabit.)

At 7:30 a.m., I arrive at my elderly parents’ house, five minutes away, and make their smoothies and breakfast, take out the dog, and do whatever chores or errands they need.

At 9:30 a.m. or so I come back home and begin my work day. A lot of times it is taken up with business, so that’s why we need to schedule “creative retreats” where that’s all we do.

At 4 p.m. I may or may not go back to my parents to help them with dinner, etc…

View of Mt. Tom from Lauren’s studio window

Sometimes we go to Figure Drawing at night or we continue working or we read or see a movie.

(We haven’t owned a TV for 30 years, but we do watch movies and series, such as the “Downton Abbey” or “Outlander” series or Jane Austen movies.)

Sundays we have our writing group here… either we all write for the day and critique or they just come over at 3 p.m. and we critique then go downstairs for dinner.

We belong to WMIG (Western Massachusetts Illustrators Guild) and once a month there is an illustrators meeting at someone’s home.

What are you working on now?

Lauren, Kathy & apple-head puppets at a Carle Museum workshop

I have just sent off sketches and manuscripts for three picture books about a little girl and her dog. My agent, Erzsi Deak, also has many of my picture books and novels that I’ve just sent her.

I have several novels in various stages, but the front runner is a novel version of Tatterhood (loosely based on the folk tale). My picture book, Tatterhood and the Hobgoblins came out about 20 years ago and is part of the reason I returned to children’s books.

I have read online that my book helped little girls who had felt different feel like they were special. Now that is the reason to keep writing and to publish books!

Is there any wisdom you’d like to share to other’s who write and illustrate children’s books. Especially those who are just starting out?

My advice to anyone in the book field: There are children out there who need to have books that can help them navigate this world. Do whatever it takes to create a better life for children.

Cynsational Notes

Angela Cerrito is a pediatric physical therapist by day and a writer by night. She thinks she has the two best jobs in the world.

Her latest novel, The Safest Lie (Holiday House), was named a finalist for the 2015 Jewish Book Award, a Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Older Readers and a Notable Social Studies Book for Young People.

Angela Coordinates the SCBWI Bologna Interview series, volunteers as SCBWI’s Assistant International Advisor and is a Cynsational reporter in Europe and beyond.

2 thoughts on “2016 SCBWI Bologna Author-Illustrator Interview: Lauren Mills

Comments are closed.