New Voice: Sarah Lynne Reul on The Breaking News

By Traci Sorell

I’m always amazed by those creators who can both write and illustrate their stories. Okay, I’ll admit a little jealous too. My talents do not lend themselves to do both.

 So shining the Cynsations’ spotlight today on Sarah Lynne Reul is a treat.

She shares about how she creates her art and why she ultimately decided to become a children’s book author-illustrator instead of focusing solely on illustration. 

The Breaking News, by Sarah Lynne Reul (Roaring Brook, 2018). From the promotional copy:

When devastating news rattles a young girl’s community, her normally attentive parents and neighbors are suddenly exhausted and distracted. At school, her teacher tells the class to look for the helpers—the good people working to make things better in big and small ways. 

She wants more than anything to help in a big way, but maybe she can start with one small act of kindness instead . . . and then another, and another. Small things can compound, after all, to make a world of difference.

Welcome, Sarah! How did you take your art from a beginner level to publishable? How has your style evolved over time? 

I’ve come to the winding path of writing and illustration in sort of a roundabout way, as so many people do.

I didn’t really see art as a viable career when I was in college, so I only took a couple of drawing classes during my undergraduate years. I worked in retail, social ventures, nonprofits as well as science museum education, but there always seemed to be something missing.

Eventually, personal events propelled me into going back to school to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in 2D Animation from the online program at the Academy of Art University.

I had always loved the idea of making drawings come to life through animation, and I imagined a career working in one of the several studios located in the Boston area. Unfortunately, two out of three of these companies closed just before I finished my degree.

After a few months of unsuccessfully trying to find work in the field, I attended my first SCBWI conference and began to pivot towards kidlit, applying the drawings skills I’d gained in my MFA program to picture book illustration.

There are so many 2D animation principles that transfer to picture book illustration – design, staging, clear communication, exaggeration, appeal… and so much more. I taught a workshop on this subject at the 2018 New England SCBWI conference.

In traditional animation, there are usually 12-24 drawings per second to create the illusion of life.

For my two-and-a-half minute MFA thesis film, The Search for the Monster of Lake Quannapowitt, I created literally thousands of individual character drawings, not to mention countless reference sketches, designs, animation planning and background drawings.

The experience of drawing so much (as well as getting over the fear of redrawing things when necessary) has contributed greatly to my progress as a professional illustrator. Since I completed all of my traditional animation through a digital pipeline (hand-drawing each image on a Wacom Cintiq tablet attached to my desktop computer), it’s been a natural progression to create picture book illustrations by drawing in Photoshop.

My style is definitely still evolving (and I hope it always will!). So far, I’ve digitally produced all of my professional work.

However, I would love to explore some traditional media like gouache painting, collage, linocut and diorama-building. Personal, daily projects, like 100 Days of Drawing on Photos give me the space to explore new ideas.

I’ve been dreaming about building some models out of cardboard and drawing on the photos – I’m hoping to create some sample pieces in this style soon!

As an author-illustrator, how did your writing journey inform your artistic journey and vice versa? 

I started out in this industry thinking that I’d mainly work as an illustrator. However, after starting to share my work through portfolio reviews and postcard mailings, I began to realize that publishing timeframes are a bit too long to wait for someone to come to me with a project.

So, I started to write my own stories, in order to give myself something to draw (as well as to create more things to submit to agents and editors).

I hadn’t studied writing as part of my MFA, so at first it was a little difficult to think of myself as a writer. Eventually, I realized that my favorite illustrations are a vehicle for communicating a story, so it wasn’t that far of a leap to creating the story from scratch.

In addition to the 100 Days of Drawing on Photos projects that I mentioned above, daily writing challenges have also been super useful to help keep me going and creating new ideas.

The story for The Breaking News came to me while participating in my first Storystorm, which is a challenge run by author Tara Lazar, to generate 30 picture book ideas in 30 days.

Creating daily, whether through writing, illustrating or animating, is key to thinking of myself as a person who creates – even when I’m not working on a professional project.

My process of writing and illustration goes back and forth quite a bit. I’ll often start with a rough draft of the words, will attempt to figure out the page breaks, and then will make super rough thumbnail sketches of how I’d like to communicate each spread.

Often I’ll find that I need to change some of the language, or shift the page breaks to heighten the impact of each scene. I’ll go back and forth, refining each side, and when I think it’s going somewhere, I’ll bring it to my two critique groups (one for writers and one for illustrators) for feedback.

What were the challenges (artistic, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the images to life? 

My debut picture book, The Breaking News, focuses on a girl who wants to make things better after she notices how negative news has impacted her family and her community.

Animated interior spread by Sarah Lynne Reul, used with permission

In creating the text and the images, there was a delicate balance of telling the truth about a difficult topic without saying too much. The actual news that we are exposed to regularly is often so awful – I didn’t want to go overboard with details, but I also didn’t want to gloss over the experience with false cheer.

I had feedback from some critique partners early on that a book like this wasn’t necessary or appropriate. Some people commented that they always made sure to shield their children from hearing the bad news. And I definitely agree that is an important thing to do, up to a certain point – there is only so much that is appropriate at each age, for each child.

However, I also know from my own experience that I can’t shield them from what they might hear out in the world, and I can’t shield them from noticing when the grownups in their lives have been deeply affected by the news, no matter how we might try to hide it.

If you read the book, you might notice that the little girl’s teacher paraphrases this quote by Fred Rogers:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me,
“Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

In my research for how to handle the issues in this book, I came across that quote and then the wonderful parent resources of the Fred Rogers Foundation. This article, which talks about about how to help young children when there are tragic events in the news, provided inspiration and grounding as I worked on the story. 

Throughout the process, I tried to say true to the legitimate feelings that I have seen our own family go through, that I have seen friends go through.

Of course, the wonderful feedback of critique partners, family, friends, as well as my agent Emily Mitchell and my Roaring Brook editor, Claire Dorsett, were all hugely instrumental in finding the right balance.

It was important to me that we never quite understand the nature of the actual news that is reported within the story. I wanted to leave it open ended, and to leave that question unanswered so that each reader could interpret, drawing from their own experiences.

The Breaking News is ultimately about our reactions to the worst things that we can’t control – and how we can’t give up hope just because there is so much fear, doubt and despair in the world.

Cynsational Notes

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly described The Breaking News as “wise and timely.” Peek:

“Ruel doesn’t specify the nature of the event, but her astutely composed, wonderfully sympathetic cartoon-style drawings capture how kids are impacted by worried and distracted adults, and how it feels to be small in the face of something too big to grasp.”

Sarah Lynne Reul is an author, illustrator and award-winning animator who likes science, bright colors and figuring out how things work.

Originally from Brooklyn, she now lives near Boston with her family.

Her first three books will debut in 2018: The Breaking News (Roaring Brook/Macmillan), Pet All the Pets (Little Simon, August 14, 2018) and Allie All Along (Sterling, August 7, 2018).

You can find friendly monsters, colorful patterns and animated gifs at her website.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.