Kristy Everington and AG Ford Talk About Writing, Art, and Isobel Adds It Up

By Suma Subramaniam

We’re pleased to welcome the author-illustrator team of Isobel Adds It Up (Penguin Random House, 2021), Kristy Everington, and AG Ford to Cynsations.

In this lovely picture book, Isobel is a problem solver . . . addition, subtraction, multiplication, division! But trying to figure out who is causing all the noise next door is one problem she can’t quite work out. Is it a marching band? A basketball team in the middle of a practice? Could it be a family of elephants?

Isobel doesn’t know what to do about all the noise, but the solution just might come from the most unlikely place!

Kristy: AG, how did you become interested in illustrating books for children? Did you enjoy drawing when you were a kid?

AG: As a kid, I always had a basketball or a pencil in my hand at all times. I loved to draw, and my favorite thing to draw was people. My passion for portrait drawing still thrives today! My interest in illustrating books for children came much later in life.

Kristy: Can you talk about your journey to becoming a published illustrator?

AG: My journey was actually a little turbo charged! I graduated college in 2007 and published my first book in 2008. I illustrated a book for HarperCollins titled Barack (2008), written by Jonah Winter, and the excitement surrounding the possibility that Barack Obama would win the election helped the book reach the New York Times Bestseller list. This was amazing for my first book!

Kristy: What was your illustration process like for Isobel Adds It Up? How did it evolve along the way?

AG: My process for the book was interesting because half of the book takes place in Isobel’s mind. She is imagining things, and so I had to figure out a way to show her imagination, but also keep it clear to readers that these events were not actually happening. The solution was monochromatic floating images and numbers.

Kristy: You’ve talked before about how this manuscript gave you freedom with the art because it’s not necessarily tied to reality (there’s a talking elephant!). Can you talk more about that?

AG: Because I have done many picture book biographies where everything needs to be historically accurate, it was nice to have a change of pace where I could break all the rules. You are right, the manuscript has a talking elephant, so after that is established, I think anything goes!

Kristy: Did you have any particular challenges with creating the illustrations for Isobel Adds It Up? I know you were working on this in 2020 when the pandemic began—what effect did that have on your process?

AG: I think it was just an overall challenging year for everyone, but for me particularly, I have always worked alone, so the pandemic didn’t necessarily affect my work in that sense. Once I established how to approach Isobel’s thoughts, it was straightforward from there.

Kristy: I’ve seen photos of your studio—it’s gorgeous! What are your must-haves on your desk? Is there anything else you like to have with you while you work?

AG: Thank you, I love seeing other work spaces as well. I have tried my best to make my workspace cozy. I mainly just need music, an audio book, or a podcast and I’m good to go. This is for mainly while I am painting and drawing. When I am trying to think of concepts and compositions, I usually keep the studio very quiet.

Questions for Kristy from AG: 

AG: In your journey as a writer, at what point did you start to focus on writing for children?

Kristy: When I started studying for my MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I came into the program writing young adult fiction only. I had a vague notion that I might want to try picture books, but at that point, I hadn’t even really read any! I fell in love with picture books in my first semester with Kathi Appelt as my advisor, and immersed myself in reading, writing, and studying them. There’s so much to love in the picture book space—the interplay between the text and the art, the brevity, the humor, the heart.

Isobel Adds It Up was the third picture book I wrote, although it has changed a lot since the first draft. It was initially called I Think Elephants Live Next Door. It got me an agent and is my first published picture book.

AG: When encountering and going through a writer’s block or creative block, what activities or brain exercises help you get free from the rut?

Kristy: I go for daily walks around my neighborhood and find getting outside is helpful. There are always new things to see and think about. My neighborhood has a lot of wildlife (turkeys, deer, owls!) and I often create stories in my head about the animals and their interior lives.

Reading, watching TV shows and movies, and listening to music also gives me ideas and helps me to see things from a different perspective. I like thinking of mash up ideas: What if this news story about a stalker was a picture book? What if this TV show about friendship and popularity had a supernatural element?

AG: Who do you bounce ideas off of when you need a new set of eyes on a concept? Do you have writers groups or close writer friends to rely on?

Kristy: I do have some writer friends that I show work to and discuss ideas with. Feedback can be so useful for taking a story further. I found this especially when I was doing my MFA—Bernadette (the elephant) wasn’t initially in Isobel Adds It Up, but she came from an advisor suggesting that Isobel make a friend (although she meant a human friend!). It’s about interpreting feedback in a way that works for your vision of the story.

I don’t find getting feedback from a lot of people at once helpful though—you can’t write to please everyone! I’m picky about who I share my work with.

AG: How did you initially envision Isobel Adds It Up looking in terms of the final book? Has your idea about who Isobel is changed now that she has come to life?

Kristy: I have a very weak mind’s eye—I can’t really visualize anything in my mind—so I didn’t actually envision how Isobel Adds It Up would look at all! I had a sense of what I wanted it to be though, and you captured the sense of fun perfectly! I was absolutely delighted when I saw the art—I love how you depicted what Isobel thought was going on next door and the touches you added that weren’t in the text (like the dog!).

I didn’t specifically imagine Isobel thinking in numbers, but how you illustrated that is so perfect for her. I always thought of Isobel as a spunky character, and the illustrations bring that out even more with her rocking out in her own band.

AG: Where do you write?  Anywhere and everywhere, or do you have a cozy place that’s perfect to write in?

Kristy: I need quiet (like Isobel!) to write, so I mostly write in my office at home. I have a peaceful view of the backyard. My office in my last house overlooked the street, and I had a great view of what the neighbors were up to, which was very distracting! I have my books in my office, and I like to light a candle, and I have a cup of tea (and maybe a cat or two around) while I write so it’s nice and cozy.

Cynsational Notes

AG FORD  is a New York Times bestselling children’s book Illustrator and recipient of two NAACP Image Awards. He grew up in Dallas, Texas. Ford attended The Columbus College of Art and Design majoring in illustration. He has illustrated picture books for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sharon Robinson, Ilyasah Shabazz, Martin Luther King III, Nick Cannon, Jonah Winter, The Archbishop Desmond Tutu and many others. Mr. Ford has over 30 published books for children including picture books, chapter books such as the Magic Tree House Series, and YA covers. He has worked with publishers such as HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Scholastic, Penguin Random House, Candlewick Press and more. He lives in Frisco, Texas; with his lovely wife Brandy and their two sons Maddox and Carter.

Kristy Everington is a children’s book author. Originally from Perth, Australia, she now lives in the Bay Area where she enjoys exploring the California coastline and visiting as many lighthouses as she can. Kristy holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Suma Subramaniam is a contributing author of The Hero Next Door (Penguin Random House, 2019). She is also the author of Centaurs (Capstone, 2021), Fairies (Capstone, 2021), She Sang For India: How M.S. Subbulakshmi Used Her Voice For Change (Macmillan FSG, 2022), and Namaste Is A Greeting (Candlewick, 2022). She is the chair of the Children’s Internship Grant Committee at We Need Diverse Books and Mentorship Program Coordinator for SCBWI Western Washington. She hires tech professionals for a leading software company during the day and is a writer by night. Suma has an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and degrees in computer science and management.