Today we welcome author Tamara Ellis Smith and illustrator Nancy Whitesides to Cynsations to discuss the joys and challenges of creating a book that’s close to the heart. Their new book, Grief is an Elephant (Chronicle, 2023) is available now. It’s Nancy’s debut book, so Tamara kicks off the interview with questions about Nancy’s path to publication.
Tamara: How did you find yourself in the world of children’s book illustrations? Did you doodle and draw as a child?
Nancy: I’ve pursued children’s writing for many years, but not illustration because of self-doubt. It was only when I’d volunteered at an SCBWI Illustrator’s Day, and saw the portfolios, I thought, “Maybe I could show my art here too.” A spark was kindled, and I worked on that spark for years until I finally got my agent.
I’ve been an artist ever since I could remember. I have this happy memory of learning how to draw a face, and then I proceeded to draw about a hundred little faces all over the walls and on my little dresser. It was fun for me, but maybe not for my mom.
How did you take your art from a beginner level to publishable? How has your style evolved over time?
I did not go to art school so there will always be this inkling of uncertainty. So I learned on my own, and drew tons and tons. I’ve entered many art contests, drawn for several hashtags on social media, signed up for portfolio reviews, and took classes and workshops. I think it’s also important to say I lost almost all the contests I’d entered except for maybe a couple. I’d lose, but for the next contest, I’d try to improve my art. I did this over and over until my art was finally publishable.
My style has changed over time in how I approach my work. In the beginning, I felt unsure, floundering, and I looked at everything–everywhere, so my art wasn’t the best. After countless hours of practice and working, I’ve improved, and turned inward, into myself more. I finally realized what I want and don’t want. I think this is how my style has developed and evolved.
What challenges did you face when bringing the images to life in Grief is an Elephant?
There were challenges. These are the three that stand out in my memory now. First, it was a challenge illustrating grief and loss in a way that was accessible to children. In the end, I approached it as if I were the child in the story. I did this because of my personal experiences with grief. I think this helped me find the balance and also the truth in my work.
Second, a spread for the book proved quite challenging. I think it probably took over eight iterations before it was approved to go into final art. And even final art took many revisions and countless hours. In the end, this spread is one of my favorites in the book. It was the resolution spread with the firefly in the end.
Finally, at the time I was creating art for this book, the whole world was going through grief. I was also going through grief. I had to push aside some of my pain. It was a difficult time, a difficult time for everyone.
What piece of advice would you give a beginning children’s illustrator?
Something I did for years was to read many, many, many picture books. I read not only as a reader but also as an illustrator. I tried to learn the mechanics of how the illustrator created the visual narrative for the book. I studied and learned the process, but not to copy. I think people can tell when we’re earnest and create from our own ideas and passion, and not derivative of other illustrators’ work.
And if I were to advise my younger self, I would say, “Don’t wait anymore. Don’t wait. Do it now.”
Nancy: What inspired this story?
Tamara: Grief is an Elephant came from my need to sort through and name and tame, to some degree, the ways I felt after a few big losses in my life. In pretty rapid succession, my son’s friend died and then my friend died, and I was overwhelmed with the intensity of feelings flooding through me. I often say that I write stories to explore questions I can’t easily find answers to, and this was similar. I couldn’t think straight, I couldn’t make sense out of my mess of feelings and so I did what I do—I wrote.
Later, when I was revising Grief for my editor, my father went into the hospital for a planned surgery to mend his heart. It went terribly wrong, and he died six weeks later. The story became almost a witness to my grief then. I felt the weight of the elephant on my chest, making it hard for me to breathe, and the story confirmed my feelings. It’s hard to describe. You can’t make grief go away. And it leaves you feeling like you’re living in an entirely different world than the rest of the people around you. The story anchored me in my reality.
What do you hope readers will take away from Grief is an Elephant?
A validation that what they’re feeling is okay. It’s okay to feel grief heavy on you like an elephant. It’s okay to want to run away from the deer-like version of it. It’s okay to be curious about it. To talk a lot about it. And to maybe let it go. But not necessarily in that order! Grief doesn’t come in an orderly line of stages. And you may feel stages over and over again. It’s all okay—and it’s yours.
I hope Grief gives readers a vocabulary to use to express their feelings so they can talk about them in a way that feels authentic and true—and so other people can help them as they navigate this heartbreaking journey.
In the end though, I hope the story becomes what the reader needs it to be. I know why I wrote the book and what I needed, right? But I believe very strongly that a book is not finished until the reader reads it. If I’ve done my job, I’ve left enough space to let this alchemy happen between the reader and the story.
What self-care advice do you have for other writers working on manuscripts that are very close to their heart?
Write it, but don’t share it until you’re ready. Writing is a vulnerable process anyway, right? Offering your imagination and feelings and ideas to the world? And if the subject matter feels tender, you feel even more vulnerable. Give yourself the time to write as much and as many drafts as you want.
I also believe it’s important to step away from the story sometimes too. The process of writing Grief is an Elephant was cathartic for me and I needed to do it, but there were times when it got too hard and then I’d go for a run or take a walk with the dogs or watch Ted Lasso!
When you’re ready, show your story to someone you trust. Someone who will hold your heart gently. But if you hope the story will be made into a book that you can share with the world—and I really mean share, because once it’s out there it’s not just yours anymore—make sure you’ve given yourself enough space from it to be able to accept critique, new ideas, requests to revise.
I was so lucky, oh my gosh, I had amazing collaborators once the story was not solely in my hands. Victoria Rock, my editor—she is empathetic and warm and she has such a keen eye and smart ideas. She pushed me in the best ways. And Nancy—I could go on and on about her. I adore her art and her heart. I have loved every minute of working with her.
You write middle grade novels as well as picture books, do you have strategies for switching between age levels?
Good question. Hmmmm. I definitely separate them in terms of writing sessions. Like I don’t work on a novel and a picture book within the same couple of hours. Often, I work on my picture book manuscripts when I have a natural break in my novel writing. So, if I finish a draft and need to let it sit, then I’ll go to my picture book.
You’ve made me really think about this! I’m realizing I also tend to separate them by what writing medium I’m using. So, if my novel is on the computer screen, my picture book will be on paper with a pencil.
Thank you for having us on Cynsations, Cyn and Gayleen!
Nancy Whitesides (she/her) is an author and self-taught illustrator born and raised in the Philippines, and moved to the US. Her illustration debut, Grief is an Elephant with Chronicle, was accepted into the prestigious Original Art Show at the Society of Illustrators in New York, and included in Travis Yonker’s prediction list for the New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2023. Nancy also illustrated Small Things Mended with Rocky Pond Books forthcoming Spring 2024. Nancy is represented by Rebecca Sherman at Writers House.
When she gets the chance, Nancy bikes to the library or to the store. She challenges herself by biking uphill to get home with heavy books or groceries in tow. Nancy is also on Instagram and Post.
When she’s not writing books for children, she can often be found running on a river trail with her friends and dogs. She also hangs out on Instagram @tamaraellissmith and Pinterest @tamaras0259, and her website is tamaraellissmith.com.