Guest Post: Mark Karlins & Nicole Wong on the Creation of Kiyoshi’s Walk


By Mark Karlins and Nicole Wong

Kiyoshi’s Walk, written by Mark Karlins and illustrated by Nicole Wong (Lee & Low, March 2021) is the story of a Japanese-American boy who wants to learn how to write poetry and of his relationship with his grandfather.

Both of us found great joy in creating this book. Mark was able to explore his love of haiku and his belief that the writing of poetry is a way for children and adults to connect more fully to themselves, the world and each other.

Nicole was able to grow closer to her own heritage and her connection with her Japanese grandparents. Her illustrations move from small, caring details to the wider expanses of the city in which the two main characters take a walk to discover the origins of poetry.

We are pleased to share with Cynsations’ readers our thoughts about the process of writing and illustrating Kiyoshi’s Walk, the importance of creativity for children, and how writing poetry can bring to children a sense of mindfulness.

Mark Karlins

Mark: As a visual artist, I’d guess that you’re often blessed with images. When you’re just reading something that’s not part of your illustration work, do pictures spring into your mind? Or do you have a separate mindset that you decide to go into, when you want to summon pictures from words?

Nicole: I see pictures all the time, some long and detailed images, some fleeting and hard to hold onto in my head. When I speak, it’s always a translation from image to words.

Let me throw the same question back to you, but in a more specific way. What were a few of your own images that meant a lot to you in Kiyoshi’s Walk?

Nicole Wong

Mark: I’d say the very first image, the one of Kiyoshi standing near his Grandfather, Eto, as Eto writes a haiku. It’s then, on the first page, that Kiyoshi asks his crucial question and the one that propels the entire book, “Where do poems come from?”

Nicole: And Grandfather Eto answers, “Let’s go for a walk.”

Mark: Yes, there’s the impetus for the whole story, on the first page—Kiyoshi’s question which addresses the fundamental mystery of the source of creation, and his grandfather’s answer on the second page which creates the book’s structure, their walk.

Of course, Kiyoshi’s just a kid, so he’s not exploring the metaphysical dimensions of the mystery of creation. And, of course, it’s also a picture book, a kids’ book.

Nicole: And a lot of the answers are very practical in their way. Kiyoshi learns that you find poems by seeing clearly, by listening, by imagining what might be behind a wall.

I really believe that Kiyoshi’s Walk isn’t only a good story. Because it demonstrates some of the ways poetry is made, it can also be used in the classroom for teaching poetry. Parents can use it at home too.

Mark: Actually, it even comes with a Reader’s Guide.

Nicole: And we didn’t even have to write it! The people at Lee & Low are doing that.

Mark: Thanks, Lee & Low. But let me ask you another, more general question. What are some of the things that attract you to illustrating children’s books?

Nicole: I love kids. I love stories. I love art. I love making art and telling visual stories. I love taking the author’s text, and problem-solving to become a clear and hopefully inspired visual storyteller to match the words. Children’s books are a combination of all the things I love.

Mark: I agree! It’s really wonderful to be involved with the making of picture books.

As a writer, one of the interesting elements is that I know I need to leave space for the artist. I know that my text is waiting to be opened by the illustrator’s various perceptions and insights. By her technique and choices, her view of things. A very good illustrator will see things in the text that the author didn’t even know were there.

In fact, after seeing your illustrations of Kiyoshi’s Walk, I felt myself going deeper into the book and becoming more compassionate for my own characters. Given that I’m the one who wrote the book, it was a pretty amazing experience.

I feel that you bring your viewers close to the character’s emotions, and  to the scenes, but I’m not sure how that happens. How do you accomplish that?

Nicole: Thank you, I always hope to help connect the readers to the words. I try to make sure I feel the words and the characters. I try to empathize with them.

When I create what the characters look like, and depict how they move and stand and behave, it’s a bit like acting. I use models, mostly my family and myself, and try to inhabit the characters to give them life.

Mark: Both with the characters and with other elements in the book, I noticed and appreciated the details you put into the illustrations which were not in the text.

Nicole: I love those details and can get lost in creating them. I love to create miniature stories within the story, hiding in the backgrounds. These can help tell the main story and add meaning through small detail, even if no one but me knows what they might mean. I have stories about everything as I doodle along. I sometimes slip my family into the background too.

Mark: Yes. It’s all about details in the writing too. Sometimes, though, I put in too many details, and I have to distinguish between significant details, which carry weight and help propel the story, versus the details that are just window dressing. This is true for most writing but is especially true for the short and fragile form of the picture book text.

Of course, unlike a short story or novel, the work doesn’t end with me. The illustrator steps in, so that the child (and the adult reading the book) have both a verbal and a visual experience.

Nicole: So, it’s a weave of words and pictures. That’s one of the things I like about working on picture books.

Mark: Yes, a weave. Picture books are usually very tightly woven. And the conclusion of a well-done picture book is a marvelous thing. The whole book, with its already tight weave, can crystallize on that final page. Well-wrought picture books resemble poems.

Nicole: Is that how you wrote Kiyoshi’s Walk? Were you conscious of keeping things tightly woven, of keeping things succinct? Did you immediately know what your “crystalizing conclusion” was going to be? Did you create your tight weave right away?

Mark: A lot happens to the writing in the second, third or fiftieth draft. For most picture book writers I know, the creation of the picture book text is a very slow process. We edit, again and again. I’m often amazed how the shifting of a single word can significantly alter a page of text, even the entire book.

I tend, by the way, to write a very quick first draft, to be swept away in first draft energy. And then comes the editing, the real loving and caring for the manuscript, the slowing down and spending time with my creation. Kiyoshi’s Walk took me years to write. I write at about the same speed as a glacier.

Nicole: Which do you prefer, first draft or later drafts?

Mark: For me the enjoyment of the first draft is that, within limits, anything is possible. You can be reckless, exploratory, leaps can be made which later can be filled in. During later drafts I often discover what the story really wants to be. I polish, hone and cut, pulling up the weeds, so to speak, from the garden.

At this point I’d like to circle back to an earlier topic for a moment. I’ve already asked you about the things that attract you to illustrating children’s books. What about Kiyoshi’s Walk? Was there anything in the book that made you interested in illustrating it?

Nicole: I love this story so much. My relationship with my Asian grandparents was not as close as I would have wished, so this helped connect me to this story. I am a very big walker, especially through cities. I live in a working-class city, so there is so much to see and find in the nooks and crannies, and I hoped to bring that to the book.

In general, I like the challenge of illustrating any story, trying to find the small moments within it that I can connect to. This book in particular is all about appreciating the small, beautiful, transient moments in life, and that’s something I try to do in my own life, so I felt very excited to do this project and felt very close to it.

The theme of the book feels closest to how I live my own life, so even though I love all the books I’ve illustrated and am proud of them in different ways, this is one of my favorites.

Mark:  I’ve noticed elements of magic and poetry in your illustrations (for example, those beautiful images of the river at night). In the Author’s Note to Kiyoshi’s Walk, I mention that if we look with a poet’s eye, everything becomes poetry. I see that in your illustrations. Does that make sense to you? Would you say that your work reflects the eyes of a poet?

Nicole: I’m a story person. Everything has a story even if I don’t know it, and I find stories everywhere. But I do gravitate toward stories with compelling imagery, emotion, and change, and I hope that trickles into the pictures I make.

Mark: I really like that, everything has a story. But let’s switch back for a moment to your process. How do you create, out of separate scenes, a work of narrative art? What are some of the ways you create visual unity or continuity so that you are creating not a collection of separate paintings but a book?

Nicole: Pacing and organizing.  I always start in the layout and then chip away to the individual page. I work out the pacing of a book through very loose thumbnails so I can see the entire layout at once. The pages in my books try to reflect the text.

Mark: I feel that the act of attention or mindfulness is central to the book and to Kiyoshi’s experience. Kiyoshi is not only learning about the process of writing a poem, but is also learning to become mindful and to see a deeper connection between himself and the world around him.

When I look at your illustrations, I see a meditative calmness in them. I feel at peace. Do you see your creative practice as also a meditative or mindfulness practice, if not always, then at certain points?

Nicole: I love that idea. My daily walks are my mindfulness practice. I cannot have a good day unless there is a walk, and I always look for interesting things even on the same paths I travel often, whether that’s a change in a nearby park or what the local dogs are up to.

I find the painting part of illustration a very meditative part of the process. Before that, with thumbnails and sketches and revisions, it can be chaotic, but by the painting phase it becomes more orderly and calming.

Mark: One last question. There are many things I like about your illustrations, the pink blossoming trees, for example, that appear on a number of pages. Is there a reason you chose to make them a part of your illustrations? Can you recall how you decided to include them? Oh, by the way, I also love all the pigeons that perch and fly through the book.

Nicole: I always have a season in mind even if it’s not stated in a text. For Kiyoshi’s Walk, I chose spring. Maybe because the book gives a sense of renewal and hope. Also, my daughter loves pink, and pink just pops in a city of mostly neutral colors and against a dark sky.

Mark: Spring works. I actually read through my author’s copy of the book several times before I realized I hadn’t mentioned spring in the text. Spring and those blossoming trees seem so right.

I like too that you say that pink pops in a neutrally colored city and that it is your daughter’s favorite color. There’s something that’s right in the colors of your illustrations, in your technique, but the illustrations are also informed by something highly personal and affectionate, the love of your daughter. They both come across in your illustrations. Thanks for that.

Cynsational Notes

Mark Karlins is the writer of six picture books, including Music Over Manhattan (Scholastic, 1998), and Salmon Moon (Simon and Schuster, 1993). His belief in the potential of all children to go beyond themselves is a hallmark of his work. He has also published two books of poetry for adults.

Mark lives in Santa Fe in a house full of curves and surprises, with the sounds of mourning doves, coyotes and ravens. Mountains rise on every side. When he isn’t writing or teaching, Mark can be found in the kitchen, cooking up something to share with his wife, a choreographer and writer, or perhaps outdoors, savoring the high desert and the stars. Like many of his characters, Mark is from New York City and is often amazed by the countryside in which he now lives.

A devoted teacher of writing, Mark offers a variety of writing courses for adults and presents programs and workshops in elementary and middle schools. Mark taught in the MFA program in writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

I [Nicole Wong] was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, with both parents in the arts—my dad was a designer and painter, and my mom was a fashion illustrator and art teacher.  So, when I was a kid I never thought of becoming anything except an illustrator.  I drew constantly as a girl—including on the walls behind furniture, where my mom would find drawings years later. I received my first freelance illustration job when I was 12.

As I grew up, I wanted to learn more, and graduated from Rhode Island School of Design  with a BFA in illustration. I still take art classes to explore different media and techniques, like collage, photography, egg tempera painting, and etc.

Now, I’m happily a full-time illustrator of magazines, children’s educational and trade books. I continue to live in Fall River with my husband, Dan Medeiros, our daughter, our mean kitty, and happy puppies. My books include Three Lost Seeds: Stories of Becoming written by Stephie Morton (Tilbury, 2019), No Monkeys, No Chocolate written by Melissa Stewart and Allen Young (Penguin Random House, 2013); and illustrations for Andrea Cheng’s Only One Year (Lee and Low, 2010).