Author-Illustrator Interview: Ellie Peterson Reflects on Her Creative Process & Winning the Washington State Book Award

Cynsations is celebrating its 20th anniversary by switching to a quarterly publishing schedule, featuring in-depth interviews and articles. Thank you for your ongoing support and enthusiasm!

By Suma Subramaniam

We’re thrilled to have Author-Illustrator Ellie Peterson on Cynsations today.

Congratulations on winning the Washington State Book Award! How has winning the award changed or affected your creative life? What hasn’t changed?

Having How to Hug a Pufferfish (Macmillan, 2022), recognized as the best Washington State Picture Book of 2023 is such an incredible honor. There’s a certain confidence that comes from having your work validated in this way that emboldens you to keep pursuing the projects closest to your heart.

How long will that confidence last? Only time will tell! I still find myself questioning my creative decisions, working to improve my style and humor, and dealing with a bit of imposter syndrome to be perfectly honest!

What do you love most about being an author? Why?

The best part of being a children’s book author is that it keeps you interacting with kids! I love visiting schools all over the state and talking to kids of all ages at book events and launches. They’re earnest, funny, creative…spending time with them feels more like play than anything. (And you would not believe how many knock knock jokes I’ve learned.) These interactions warm my heart and keep me motivated to continue creating.

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

I find it hard to get my creative juices flowing when there’s a task list floating around in my brain, so I usually write and illustrate in the early afternoon. This means I’ve spent the morning getting the kids off to school, the dog walked, some household chores completed, and administrative tasks related to author life off my plate.

At that point, I set up in a cozy chair in the corner of my studio shed and write or draw with my doggo sleeping at my feet until the kids get home. Sometimes, I go back to it in the evening and weirdly, I find that is when my work is the most creative. (Must be something about that end of day delirium!)

You’re both an illustrator and a writer. What draws you to a project to illustrate? 

I’m most often drawn to character-driven stories and humor. Lots of humor! The book I illustrated most recently, A Geoduck Is Not a Duck by Candy Wellins (Little Bigfoot, March 5, 2024) had me laughing out loud on first read-through. Each character in that story has such a unique and well-defined voice that I could instantly picture what they’d wear, how they’d gesture, and even how crazy their eyebrows needed to be. At other times, I’m really motivated by the story’s message.

With Home is Calling: The Journey of the Monarch Butterfly by Katherine Pryor (WorthyKids, 2023), monarch migration is allegorical to the journey of migrant farmers. As many of my family members are immigrants, this story felt particularly close to my heart and I knew it was one I wanted to illustrate.

Is there one aspect of the process you enjoy the most? 

Initial sketches are my favorite. It’s really fun and freeing to hash out what a main character looks like or to scrawl messy scenes for them on my iPad. What’s funny is that I used to hate this part of the process and found it to be the most difficult part of the work! However, with time and experience, I’ve come to understand that perfectionism is my enemy at this stage of the process. When I get loose and think big, what I come up with is so much more engaging than what I’d have otherwise.

With books like How to Hug a Pufferfish that you’ve both written and illustrated, which comes first, the words or the images?

A little of both? When a book idea begins to percolate, I have a few phrases that tumble over and over in my head. I write these few phrases down and then put little sketches next to them. Next, I develop the phrases into a rough outline.

Sometimes I can go straight to typing a full manuscript from this point, other times I need to sketch a little more. But I usually have a full manuscript written before I draw out my storyboard. It’s important to me to have visual variety and different perspectives from page to page, and I can’t do that unless I know what words will be on that page.

When you look back on your writing journey, what are the changes that stand out?

It’s been interesting to see how the subject matter of my books has changed over time. When I first started writing picture book manuscripts, they were about aspects of everyday life with toddlers because that was my life! Two young children provided all sorts of inspiration regarding separation anxiety, younger siblings, sharing toys, etc.

Of course, I quickly found these stories were already extremely popular in a very competitive market. So I started to hone in on my science teaching experience and created books to teach commonly misunderstood concepts through engaging stories.

As I age (gracefully, of course) and my children become more independent, my stories seem to be evolving, too. Without really trying, I’m discovering universal themes focused on justice, kindness, and well-being for future generations layered into my writing. It will be interesting to see what the next 10 or 20 years hold for my work.

Could you tell us about your latest book?

In August, author Katherine Pryor and I welcomed our latest book Home is Calling into the world. Home is Calling details the incredible journey of migrating monarch butterflies from Canada to Mexico – a journey in which this single generation of butterflies fly the entire way!

When Katherine shared the manuscript, I instantly fell in love and knew I wanted to illustrate this book. (Little did I know it would be another five years before this book would be published!)

It took a lot of time to hone my illustration style and finding the right publishing home for the book was challenging too, but now that it’s here, I couldn’t be happier. I’ve had so many teachers and nature educators tell us it’s been a great addition to lessons on monarch life cycles.

What are you working on next?

I’m very excited about a couple books I have coming out this spring! A Geoduck is Not a Duck written by Candy Wellins (Little Bigfoot, March 2024), and illustrated by me, is a hilarious tale of mistaken identity regarding a very real and very humongous Pacific Northwest clam.

Sandcastles are Forever (Roaring Brook, May 2024) is written and illustrated by me and tells the story of two girls who love to build sandcastles and the feelings one experiences when the other moves away. (As a former army brat, I moved quite a bit in my youth and had to say goodbye to some dear friends.) I’ve got a couple projects on submission too, including a picture book that tackles issues around homelessness and a graphic novel about taekwondo and making friends in middle school!

Cynsational Notes

Ellie Peterson is the author and illustrator of multiple picture books, including How To Hug A Pufferfish and School Is Whereever I Am.

Her work is inspired by 20 years as a classroom teacher and her experience growing up as a biracial army brat. You can find her making art in her backyard studio or exploring the beautiful Pacific Northwest, where she lives. Look for her new book Home Is Calling: The Journey of the Monarch Butterfly. Learn more at

Suma Subramaniam’s interests in writing for children are centered around STEM/STEAM related topics as well as India and Indian heritage. When she’s not recruiting by day or writing by night, she’s volunteering for We Need Diverse Books and SCBWI or blogging about children’s books.

Her picture books include, Namaste is a Greeting, illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat (Candlewick, 2022), She Sang for India: How M.S. Subbulakshmi Used her Voice for Change, illustrated by Shreya Gupta (FSG Books, 2022), and The Runaway Dosa, illustrated by Parvati Pillai (Little Bee Books, 2023). Suma is also the contributing author of The Hero Next Door middle-grade anthology (Penguin Random House, 2019) and What is Hope? poetry anthology (Pomelo Books, 2023) . Her poems have been published in Poetry Foundation’s first Young People’s Poetry Edition of Poetry Magazine. She lives in Seattle with her family and a dog who watches baking shows. Learn more at