Animal Muses Interview: Winston B. Larson (Muse to Kirby Larson) & Dashiell A. Nethery (Muse to Mary Nethery)

Meet Winston B. Larson:

Also known as Winnie B From the Hundred Acre Woods, this savvy spaniel has accomplished much in his first year of life.

He’s the able assistant and muse to writer Kirby Larson, helping her complete two historical novels, The Fences Between Us (Scholastic, Sept. 2010), the first new Dear America title in five years, and The Friendship Doll (Delacorte, Spring 2011), as well as pairing up with cousin, Dash Nethery, to pen the two narrative nonfiction picture books mentioned in this interview.

Not content to rest on his writing laurels, he is also a therapy dog-in-training, with his sights set on entering the Reading with Rover program. Winston lives in Kenmore, Washington; with his pack-mates, Kirby and Neil.

Meet Dashiell A Nethery:

Dashiell A. Nethery is a New York Times, USA Today, and Publisher’s Weekly bestselling Baby Muse at the tender age of one and a half years and has collaborated with his beloved cousin, Winston B. Larson, on the creation of Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle (Little, Brown, 2009) and Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship and Survival (Walker, 2008).

His newest muse-inspired book, coming out in June 2010 from Clarion, is The Famous Nini: A Mostly True Story of How a Plain White Cat Became a Star, illustrated by John Manders.

Dash was raised in an orphanage in Atlanta, Georgia; until the age of three months, when luck shone upon him and he was discovered by his true parents with whom he now happily lives in Eureka, California. When he’s not hard at work in his muse basket, he likes to conjure up low-tech games like Grab a Leg and Run or Sneaky Spy. He also enjoys lounging, dancing with his favorite ribbon, sampling exotic cuisine, and listening to picture books.

Due to the sudden and mysterious disappearance of today’s guest authors, Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery, I’ve invited these two lesser-known but equally charming luminaries of the writing community—Baby Muses, Winston B. Larson (dog) and Dashiell A. Nethery (cat) to chime in.

Perhaps you could shed some light on the whereabouts of Kirby and Mary?

WB: Did someone say “treat”? No. Well. My pack mate, Mama Dog, is on the prowl, sniffing up a new story at this place called Starbucks.

Dash: My mom is out looking for somebody called Jimmy Choo. I think he’s an editor.

How did you begin writing together?

Dash: WB and I don’t write together. We’re in a higher echelon —we’re two fierce Muses!

WB: No, you goofball, she means how did our moms begin writing together.

Dash: That’s why I love you, WB, you’re the French to my fries, the woof to my meow, the . . .

WB: We’ve only got a few words, let’s not waste them.

Dash: Right again! Our moms have been trading manuscripts back and forth for about seven of their nine lives, scratching around to help each other tell the most powerful story possible.

WB: One day, Mama Dog heard a talk at an SCBWI meeting about collaborative writing. She thought it sounded like fun, and she couldn’t think of a better buddy to write with than your mom. She asked, and Mary jumped on board.

Where do they find their stories?

WB: I’m pretty sure they dig them up from lots of different places.

Dash: So true, but without my mom, there wouldn’t be any stories!

She heard about our buddies, Bobbie Dog and Bob Cat, (Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship and Survival) on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, and later, read about Nubs (Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle) in the newspaper.

Frankly, as the high-powered muse that I am, I pointed her in the right direction every time.

WB: What would they do without us?

Dash: Live lives of quiet desperation, to be sure.

WB: And collect a lot more rejection letters!

How do Mary and Kirby know when a story is the right story for them to tell?

Dash: The purrfect story for them to write together focuses on the superior species– animals.

WB: Finding the right story can be “ruff.” They explored thirteen different ideas before digging up the bone about the Two Bobs.

What do they look for in a true story?

WB: I have chewed up a couple of Mama Dog’s journals, and I can tell you that I ate a lot of notes about wanting to tell stories that offer hope.

Dash: My mom says she and Kirby look for stories where the animal does something extraordinary that illuminates people’s understanding of life and helps them to be kinder than they thought they could be.

WB: We’re extraordinary, aren’t we, Dash? Maybe we should put the idea out there for them to write about us.

Dash: Good one, WB. And BTW, try eating frosting, not paper. It’s a lot tastier and more respectful of our profession.

You don’t live next door or even in the same state! How do your moms work together?

WB: Well, they wouldn’t get anything done without us Baby Muses, that’s for sure. I spend a good part of every day chewing up, I mean, cleaning up, Mama Dog’s office.

Dash: Do you get extra allowance for that? The only thing I clean is me, then I sit in my muse basket on top of a stack of paper and feed my mom ideas about how to respond to Kirby’s drafts and Kirby’s suggestions on Mom’s drafts. You see, when they’re working on a story, they each take a section and write a first draft. I also help Mom by hitting SEND when she’s done.

WB: I chew on the computer cords. And I sit on Mama Dog’s lap during their Friday afternoon working phone calls. Mama Dog sips something out of a stemmed glass while she talks. The longer the talk, the more sips she takes. Me, I just get up every now and then and take a slurp from my water bowl.

Dash: Purrsonally, I prefer kitty cookies during those Friday afternoon chats. And our moms can chat for hours!

How do Kirby and Mary ensure the authenticity of a story told from an animal’s POV?

WB: I’ve seen Mama Dog down on the floor in her office, trying to look at things from a four-footed point of view.

Dash: It should be purrfectly obvious – they run everything by us. They respect the animal’s story, telling it as authentically as they can.

What techniques do they use to research their stories?

Dash: They spend a lot of time on the internet trying to gather all the information they can. For Nubs, they watched every news broadcast and read every article and blog post they could about Brian and Nubs. Then they compile a list of questions they still need answers to and begin interviewing, which they like to do together. Humans have a pretty poor sense of hearing, so it helps if they can both be listening at the same time.

WB: Don’t forget that sometimes they travel to conduct interviews in person, like driving to Medford to meet Melinda, the angel who adopted the Bobbies, or flying to San Diego to meet Brian and Nubs.

Dash: I look at those trips as opportunities for you and I to act out and get more treats. I wonder when the next one is coming up. . .

Give us the inside scoop on something surprising learned during the research process for Two Bobbies and Nubs.

Dash: My mom was surprised by the way Bob Cat walked around his house as if he could see. Melinda told my mom that when Bob Cat got to his new house, he spent a lot of time just walking around the edges of the rooms and around all the furniture. Then it was like he’d made a map in his head and walked through the house following his map. That should not have been such a big surprise to her; after all, I’m a cat and cats are brilliant.

WB: The biggest surprise for Mama Dog was that, after writing two books featuring dogs, she realized she really, really wanted to be owned by one! So that’s how I came to live with the Larson pack.

Describe working with editors and illustrators on a narrative non-fiction book, as opposed to fiction.

WB: I’ve watched Mama Dog do both kinds of books and I can’t see much of a difference.

Dash: On the other paw, they seem to work even more closely with the editor and illustrator making sure every aspect of the book reflects the true story. Facts are facts.

So, what makes it all work, in the end, two writers writing one story?

Dash: In a meow? Respect.

WB: Love ya, man!

Dash: Back at ya, buddy!

Cynsational Notes

Websites for Winston and Dash are under construction, but if you want to know more about their missing moms you can go to or

Check out the book trailer for Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship and Survival (Walker, 2008).

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Enter to win a paperback copy of Swim the Fly by Don Calame (Candlewick, 2010)! From the promotional copy:

Fifteen-year-old Matt Gratton and his two best friends, Coop and Sean, always set themselves a summertime goal.

This year’s? To see a real-live naked girl for the first time — quite a challenge, given that none of the guys has the nerve to even ask a girl out on a date.

But catching a girl in the buff starts to look easy compared to Matt’s other summertime aspiration: to swim the 100-yard butterfly (the hardest stroke known to God or man) as a way to impress Kelly West, the sizzling new star of the swim team.

In the spirit of Hollywood’s blockbuster comedies, screenwriter-turned-YA-novelist Don Calame unleashes a true ode to the adolescent male: characters who are side-splittingly funny, sometimes crude, yet always full of heart.

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly raved, “The boys’ pursuits make for a hilarious, if raunchy, what-I-did-last-summer narrative, supported by a cast of memorable adults, including a take-no-prisoners swim coach and Matt’s grandfather, who is on a parallel romantic journey. This one will spread like athlete’s foot in a locker room.”

Los Angeles Times cheered the “Audacity in the humor and a sweetness in the conclusion that set it apart.”

Read an excerpt or sample chapter (PDF). Check out this author interview (PDF); peek: “The story sat in a notebook, and I didn’t think much about it until my wife mentioned that she thought it would be a great kicking-off point for a young adult novel. She had just published a young adult novel herself and felt there was a real need for material that would appeal to boys on a humorous level.”

Note: The sequel to Swim the Fly, titled Beat the Band, will be released by Candlewick in September 2010.

To enter to win Swim the Fly, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type “Swim the Fly” in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message or comment me with the name in the header/post; I’ll write you for contact information, if you win). Deadline: June 30. Sponsored by Candlewick Press; U.S. entries only.

June Giveaway Update: the winner of Smells Like a Dog by Suzanne Selfors (Little, Brown, 2010) was Lisa in Colorado, and the winner of Morpheus Road: The Light by by D. J. MacHale (Aladdin, 2010) was Jennifer in Wyoming. Thanks to all who entered!

More News & Giveaways

Revision – Chapter Summaries by Brian Yansky by Brian’s Blog – Writer Talk. Peek: “My editor did something I’d only tried once. That time it hadn’t really worked for me. This time it helped a lot.” Note: Brian’s upcoming novel, Alien Invasions and Other Inconveniences, will be available from Candlewick in October 2010. “As the world’s largest, 100% free directory of author events, makes finding when a favorite author is coming to your town as easy as checking the weather.”

Behind the Scenes with a Director of Institutional Marketing by Tim Jones from Get to the Point: a blog of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. Peek: “First he explains that “institutional” means ‘school and library’ and not ‘prison.'”

I Love Middle Grade by literary agent Sara Crowe from Crowe’s Nest. Peek: “I am mostly looking for contemporary stories. Not as a rule– I did just take on a middle grade fantasy, but for the most part the books I love in the category are contemporary.”

Time to Part Ways by Jennifer Laughran from Jennifer Represents. Peek: “Agents, like editors (and like the public and most all of you, no doubt!) appreciate variety and freshness in products, whether buying them or selling them.” See also Writing Nowadays – Good Agent, Bad Agent by Steven Harper Piziks from Book View Cafe.

Enter to win Linger by Maggie Stiefvater (Scholastic, 2010) and Matched by Ally Condie (Dutton, Nov. 2010) from P.J. Hoover at Roots in Myth. See more information on the giveaway. Deadline: June 16.

Character Worksheet Templates by Tabitha Olson from Writer Musings. Peek: “The level of depth is different for main and minor characters, but I find that I reference them more than once while I’m writing my stories.”

The Pacific Coast Children’s Writers Workshop by Suki Wessling from Growing Up in Santa Cruz. Peek: “To add teens into the mix really does rock the boat at a children’s writing conference—instead of just getting the opinions of other adults, the writers get to hear from their target audience. On top of that, the teens bring their own work and get the same level of critique and mentoring as their adult peers.”

Youth Matters: My Artful Diversion by Jennifer Burek Pierce from American Libraries. Peek: “My destination was not the charming farms nor the region’s myriad historic towns; instead, I went to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, which resides on quiet West Bay Road in Amherst.”

Summer Writing Schedule by Carmen Oliver from Following My Dreams…One Word at at Time. Peek: “Until 10 a.m. Mom is off limits. The invisible sign is hung on my imaginary office door. Writer at Work. Enter at Risk. Which means after I set out breakfast for the kiddos, they’re to leave me be and let me write. No one is to bug me unless someone is bleeding.”

More Than a Little Crazy: An Interview with Darren Shan by Penelope Przekop from Aberration Nation. Peek: “In the end, after it [Cirque du Freak] was turned down by 20 publishers, HarperCollins in the UK took a chance on it. It was published in January 2000 and started selling like hot cakes all around the world. By accident, I found myself in the position of a globally successful children’s author, and I haven’t looked back since!” Note: I watched “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant,” a film adaptation of Cirque du Freak this past weekend, and highly recommended it. Don’t miss the special features.

Getting Offers from Multiple Agents by Mary Kole from Peek: “A lot of writers, though, think this is an embarrassment of riches and a great problem to have. It’s not. It’s a really stressful situation where you have to make a major business decision under time pressure, all while being wooed by really nice, really encouraging, really savvy people.” See also Newer vs. Established Agents.

Targeted Facebook Ads for Book Launches by Mitali Perkins from Mitali’s Fire Escape. Peek: “My click-through rate has been outstanding, and the ad has shown up over 500,000 times in April and May, even with me putting it on pause for days to save money.”

The 2010 finalists for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature are: Kage Baker, The Hotel Under the Sand (Tachyon); Shannon Hale, Books of Bayern consisting of The Goose Girl, Enna Burning, River Secrets, and Forest Born (Bloomsbury); Grace Lin, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Little, Brown); Malinda Lo, Ash (Little, Brown); and Lisa Mantchev, Eyes Like Stars (Feiwel & Friends). Peek: “The Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature honors books for younger readers (from ‘Young Adults’ to picture books for beginning readers), in the tradition of The Hobbit or The Chronicles of Narnia.”

TeensReadToo Memorial Weekend Interviews

Visit with Sara Lewis Holmes by Jen Wardrip from TeensReadToo. Peek: “I hope you can lay a wreath or pause near a flag or say a prayer if you want to. But you could also say hello to that new kid. Ask about his military mom or dad or brother or sister.”

Visit with Roseanne Parry by Jen Wardrip from TeensReadToo. Peek: “…many teachers and librarians are uncomfortable with our present military actions overseas. Many of them are searching for a way to begin a conversation with students about Memorial Day and Veterans Day in a way that is respectful of the diversity of human experience, a way to honor the work of our service members without condoning violence, a way to recognize what is selfless in our nation’s military families without taking a political position.”

Visit with Suzanne Morgan Williams by Jen Wardrip from TeensReadToo. Peek: “…according to the latest report I found, one million, seven hundred thousand men and women have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. A lot of them are teens.”

Cynsational Screening Room

Texas Sweethearts P.J. Hoover and Jessica Lee Anderson at BEA:

You must see this gorgeous pop-up book trailer for Perchance to Dream by Lisa Mantchev (Feiwel & Friends, 2010). Source: Tiffany Trent at Center Neptune.

More Personally

Happy summer reading! I’m taking a brief hiatus from Cynsations until next Wednesday but look forward to returning with news of new releases, author interviews, publishing scoop, agent/editor insights, and much more!

This spring marks the 10th anniversary of my debut book, Jingle Dancer (Morrow, 2000), illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (see the celebration!). But I never expected that Neil and Ying would send me an original illustration from the book–my very favorite. I’m incredibly honored and pleased by this gift, and I look forward to sharing it with future guests to my home. Thank you again, Neil and Ying!

Web sightings included a photo of the Portuguese language version of Immortal: Love Stories with Bite, edited by P.C. Cast, which includes my short story, “Haunted Love,” at

Gothic Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, and Urban Fantasy for Tweens and Teens from Cynthia Leitich Smith Children’s-YA Literature Resources. An annotated bibliography of spooky reads, plus links to related Cynsations author interviews, horror-writer resources, and much more! See also Suspense for Teens and Tweens.

Congratulations to former Austin SCBWI RA Tim Crow, whose manuscript “Alacran Turf” has been named a 2010 Writers League of Texas Manuscript Contest Finalist! Tim will receive a free ten-minute critique at the 2010 Writers League Agents Conference.

Guest Post: Author-illustrator Don Tate Interviews Illustrator Mike Benny

Mike Benny has been illustrating for more than 15 years. His clients include Greenwillow/HarperCollins, Random House, Scholastic, and Simon & Schuster.

His books include America’s White Table, written by Margot Theis Raven (Sleeping Bear, 2005), The Listeners, written by Gloria Whelan (Sleeping Bear, 2009), and Oh, Brother! written by Nikki Grimes (Greenwillow, 2007).

Mike has received two gold and two silver medals from the Society of Illustrators, and he makes his home in Austin, Texas.

Don: How did you snag your first children’s book, and what advice would you give to aspiring picture book artists?

Mike: My first book began when an art director at Sleeping Bear Press was searching for war-related images at an illustration directory site.

I had one illustration of a soldier that piqued their interest, and that one image led to my illustrating the book America’s White Table [Margot Theis Raven] (2005).

For artists looking to break in, I would stress consistency as the most important element of a portfolio. Find one style or technique that represents what you do best. There will be time to work on other styles when you are more established in the field.

Don: What kind of training prepared you for your career as a children’s book illustrator?

Mike: For me, it was becoming a father. I was offered a few books before I was married and had children. I tried to make a go of it, but for many reasons, I just was not ready and I had to give up on those projects.

Don: Your clientele is diverse. You’ve created art for Rolling Stone, GQ magazine and the New Yorker. How do you promote yourself, what are you doing to keep your name and artwork before the eyes of editors and art directors?

Mike: I’ve never been a great promoter of my work. For my editorial work, I have relied on a casual variety of illustration directories, portfolio websites, and illustration annuals. Not a sure-fire recipe for success.

I’m still figuring out what to do in the children’s market. I was hoping that once I was published, manuscripts would come pouring in. That might happen for some, but not for me.

When I do send samples or postcards out, I make sure to only send my best work and images that represent the type of work I would like to do. I think the key is to remind, remind, remind, just to the point of being a pest and then pull back.

Don: I’m a fan of your book The Listeners [by Gloria Whelan (Sleeping Bear, 2009)]. It’s truly beautifully illustrated. What we’re some of the challenges you faced in bringing this story to life?

Mike: Thanks, I did have challenges, and I might have made them bigger than necessary.

The story did not specify a location or setting, so I had to determine from the smallest details what state and region it could have taken place in.

Once I resolved that, finding the right architecture, clothing, cotton plants and farm equipment became a research challenge.

I’m sure that the details would not have been important to many, but I felt compelled to be as accurate as possible.

Don: Who are the people depicted in your work? Hired models, people from memory?

Mike: I have not used models yet in my work. I usually use a combination of found photos and some of my own poses. I’m resistant to using models because I’m afraid I would be too locked in to their pose or expression.

I’ve tried using my wife and children for models, but the success of that venture is directly related to their enthusiasm. Most of the time, they are not too enthusiastic.

Don: When I first got into this business some 20 years ago, many editors preferred, and would seek out African American artists for manuscripts dealing with African American subject matter — especially slavery, reasoning that Blacks could bring a certain level of sensitivity to the subject matter that whites couldn’t. Did you have any reservations, challenges, fears about approaching the subject matter?

Mike: I did have concerns before I took on this project. I was concerned that there were too many books about slavery already. I was worried about what I could bring to the table that has not already been delivered. I was worried about a Caucasian author and illustrator working on a book about slavery.

I had no easy answer to these concerns. It boiled down to the story being too beautiful and interesting for me to pass up. I gave it my best effort, and all I can hope for is that it shines through.

Don: Your book Oh, Brother! [by Nikki Grimes (Greenwillow, 2007)] features two brothers, Black and Hispanic. The main characters in The Listeners are Black slave children. The images on your website reflect true diversity of culture, race, topics. Talk about what goes into accurately portraying race and ethnic groups different from your own.

Mike: I think I take on each project the same way, I try to relate to the characters the best I can.

Over the years, I have become more comfortable taking on projects with different character ethnicities. I always try to do as much research as possible for the subject given.

Don: A few years ago, you and I chatted about the WPA Federal Art Project and artists like Thomas Hart Benton and others. How have these artists and their works influenced you?

Mike: I think this art era is intriguing because the art was intended for the masses. I have especially enjoyed reading about the artists and the art of post office murals.

For many people, this was their first experience seeing art in person. People could relate to this type of art, and they also discovered they could have opinions about it. In many ways, this is what our children are experiencing with picture books.

Don: I recently discovered some of your work in a 1994 Society of Illustrators Annual. You’ve been doing this for awhile. What is the most important thing you’ve learned about illustrating children’s literature over the course of your career? What are the biggest changes you’ve witnessed?

Mike: I have been illustrating for 20 years, and the biggest change for me is the level of talent that is out there. I believe the young and focused artists are better than ever. They come out of art school knowing they want to be children’s book illustrators, where you and I were just trying to keep our heads above water those first years. Learning as we go in the school of hard knocks.

Don: Some of my favorites in your portfolio are the old-time-y baseball themes, some of which have won medals in the Society of Illustrators. Where did this come from? Are you a baseball aficionado?

Mike: I’ve always enjoyed creating baseball images, mostly from the early years of the game. I played baseball into college, and I still play today in adult leagues, but I would not call myself an aficionado.

The Josh Gibson piece was memorable for me also because it was one of the few times I was able to recreate what was in my head onto paper. He was, in my opinion, the best player ever and certainly the most powerful, and for some reason it all clicked into place for me.

Don: What can your fans, like me, look forward to seeing from you down the line?

Mike: Right now, I am working on a baseball story set in the ’40s. I would also like to try my hand at writing my own books.

So far, the books I’ve been given to illustrate have dealt with more heavy themes. I would really like to tap into my goofy and wacky side. I’ve got some ideas, but now I have to get down to writing them.

Cynsational Notes

From his official website: “Don Tate is the award-winning illustrator/author of more than 25 trade and educational books for children. With a bold, dynamic style, Don’s oil and acrylic paintings bring to life the pages of the children’s books he illustrates.

“This self-trained painter and digital illustrator has demonstrated extraordinary range in style and medium — each book possessing a distinctive style of its own.”

Don’s books include: Ron’s Big Mission, written by Rose Blue and Corinne Naden (Dutton, 2009); I Am My Grandpa’s Enkelin, written by Walter Wangerin Jr. (Paraclete Press, 2007); and Sure as Sunrise: Stories of Bruh Rabbit and his Walkin’ Talkin’ Friends, written by Alice McGill (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). He makes his home in Austin, Texas.

Guest Post: Illustrator Mike Benny Interviews Author-Illustrator Don Tate

From his official website: “Don Tate is the award-winning illustrator/author of more than 25 trade and educational books for children.

“With a bold, dynamic style, Don’s oil and acrylic paintings bring to life the pages of the children’s books he illustrates.

“This self-trained painter and digital illustrator has demonstrated extraordinary range in style and medium — each book possessing a distinctive style of its own.”

Don’s many books include: Ron’s Big Mission, written by Rose Blue and Corinne Naden (Dutton, 2009); I Am My Grandpa’s Enkelin, written by Walter Wangerin Jr. (Paraclete Press, 2007); and Sure as Sunrise: Stories of Bruh Rabbit and his Walkin’ Talkin’ Friends, written by Alice McGill (Houghton Mifflin, 2004).

He makes his home in Austin, Texas.

Mike: My biggest impression of you when I think about your work is your talent and ability to juggle many jobs at one time.

You seemingly switch gears at ease and bring your talents to every different skill you jump into. Working at the paper, writing your own stories, illustrating others texts and all the while blogging and tweeting about each endeavor.

Is this a skill you have always had or one that you have worked at?

Don: Thanks, Mike. I love what I do in my career; I’m having fun. Hopefully, that shows through. I like variety. I wouldn’t be happy to sit in my studio and do the same thing every day.

Looking back over the past month, I designed a poster for Take 190 West, an arts festival in Killeen, TX. I spoke to four groups of kids in Dallas and Arlington, at schools and libraries. I began illustrating several educational projects. I interviewed four nationally renowned illustrators for the Brown Bookshelf’s 28 Days Later campaign, and I read books and posted reports on the BBS blog. I plotted away on a novel I’m writing.

All this in addition to working part-time at the newspaper! And believe it or not, this is the abridged version of my schedule. But it was a fun ride.

[Due to the delay in posting because of Cynsations’ queue system, Don is referring to events that took place earlier this spring.]

Mike: Do you find it more stimulating to put a project aside and concentrate on another for awhile?

Don: Typically, my deadlines dictate what can be set aside and what will get worked on. But I do like to change things up frequently.

I enjoy working digitally, using Adobe Illustrator and/or Photoshop.

When I feel like I need to get away from the computer, I’ll propose painting a project in oil or acrylic.

Mike: Speaking of your different strengths, do you ever wish to focus on just one thing? If so, which one tends to get the most attention.

Don: If I could take a year off without the worry of income—har-har-har—I’d set my art projects aside and write only. I love writing! I love revision. I love the craft, picking and choosing just the right words, shaping a story. Writing is art.

Illustration gets the majority of my attention because that’s how I pay my bills. When I write, sometimes it feels like I’m stealing time away from what’s important, making money to pay those bills. But my ultimate goal is to establish myself as a writer, too. That way I can earn a bit of income from it, and it won’t feel like such a guilty pleasure.

Mike: I follow your blog [Devas T Rants and Raves!] regularly, and I have always enjoyed your honesty about all aspects of your life and work. Do you have any stories about clients reading your blog?

Don: Thanks for reading the blog. I became a blogger about six years ago. A “blogger” because, at the time, I didn’t have much confidence in my writing abilities. As a blogger, I could sort of claim to be a writer. But if my writing stunk, or just plain didn’t work out, I could hide behind the status of “amateur blogger” and no one would notice.

Also, blogging gave me an excuse to write every day, something I knew was important for developing my skills. Within a couple of months, my readership began to take off. People like Cynthia supported the blog and made positive comments about my writing. My confidence grew.

Soon, I felt confident enough to try writing a picture book manuscript, which I entered into a writing contest and actually won. A publishing contract followed.

A few of my editors and art directors read the blog and have posted comments. Some encourage me to keep writing when I’ve slowed down.

Mike: Has blogging generated new work for you?

Don: Hard to gauge. On occasion, I have received art projects as a result of the blog and from tweeting. Occasionally, someone will see an illustration I’ve posted and want to commission something. But the blog really isn’t a money-making venture.

Mike: We also have children in the same age bracket; are they impressed that daddy is a writer and an illustrator? Or are they like mine where Dad is just Dad?

Don: My daughters are grown now, but they are very excited about my work.

One time I purchased a book illustrated by one of my favorite illustrators. I spoke on and on about how fantastic his illustrations were.

My daughter took the book from my hands, flipped through the pages, and said, “Dad, I don’t get it. Your art is just as good as his.”

My daughter was 16-years-old at the time. Compliments didn’t come easy, so that made me feel good.

My son is eight-years-old, and whenever he attends one of my literary presentations or book signings, he becomes inseparable from me. He insists on being in all the pictures, and many times, he has even in on the signing, autographing his name alongside mine.

Mike: You have commented before about how you thought having your first book being published would open many doors to the publishing world. You and I have both realized that immediate success is not the norm and that it is a slow grind. How do you find new work these days, and how has it changed over the years?

Don: New work? What new work? The picture book market has cooled quite a bit in the last few years. I feel fortunate to have two books that will publish this year. But my current contract bit the dust due to the slow economy. Another book paid an initial advance, but has been on hold for nearly two years. So my schedule is open (hint, hint, to any interested editors).

My first trade picture book published in 2000. After that, like you, I thought I was in like Flynn. That manuscript offers would automatically fill my email box. But that’s when the real work began. Fortunately, thanks to editors and art directors who believed in me, offers continued to come my way.

Things have changed quite a bit since I entered the field. The biggest change: digital art and the Internet. That will continue to change with books going digital.

At one time, artists invested hundreds, if not, thousands of dollars in art source books, hoping to get noticed by publishing houses. They mailed color samples and tear sheets. Or they made trips to New York, where they could drop off their portfolios at publishing houses. These are still valid avenues today.

But now there’s Blogger, Twitter, Flickr, deviantArt, illustrationmundo and every online portfolio service imaginable. More ways to get noticed. But also more ways to get lost in the crowd.

I don’t have a magic answer. I do the best work that I can, make a lot of noise on the Internet. And pray. That helps.

Mike: Now that you have written your own picture book, can you describe the difference between the two processes? Are you visualizing the pictures first and then filling in with text, or is it the other way around?

Don: Every author-illustrator works a bit different, and every book can require a different approach.

Me, I tend to begin with words. Funny, that coming from an artist, huh? But I see the story with words first. I write and rewrite and revise, thinking visually, of course. Sometimes along the way, I will sketch, if it will help me to figure out a scene.

Before I crossed into author territory, I had no idea about the back-story of a manuscript. I knew nothing about the five years or more of writing and revising 29 times. The 15 rejections. The fired agent. The editor who ultimately made an offer but switched publishing houses before the contracts were signed.

This is not my personal journey, but I’ve heard nightmares.

As the illustrator, I receive the final manuscript polished and ready to go. The project will be in-and-out of my hands in a year or less.

Mike: How is it to have someone else illustrate your words?

Don: Well, I don’t really know, yet. R. Gregory Christie is the illustrator for the Bill Traylor story [It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw (Lee & Low, forthcoming)], and I haven’t seen the art yet.

Like most authors, I’ll have to wait until the art shows up on my doorstep in the mail. I don’t mind that someone else is illustrating the book. I submitted it with the understanding that that might happen. I don’t have the time to illustrate ever story that I write, so I’d love to turn some manuscripts over to other illustrators.

[Shown is R. Gregory Christie’s cover for Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U. S. Marshal, written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson (Carolrhoda, 2009).]

Mike: We have both illustrated races other than our own. Did you find it challenging? Was there an obstacle that sticks out in your mind?

Don: Hair. Illustrating convincing Caucasian hair. That took me a few tries. I have it down now, but I really had to work at it.

Mike: What would be your dream project at this point in your career?

Don: Every project for me is a dream project because I’m doing what I’ve always dreamed of doing. But that’s a boring answer, so I’ll go all Hollywood on you.

Like my aunt Eleanora E. Tate, whose Just an Overnight Guest (Just Us Books, 1997) was adapted into a movie, wouldn’t it be cool to author a picture book that becomes so popular the movie rights get purchased and then adapted into an animated movie? Books, movies, video games. Happy Meals! But I’m not getting any younger, so that had better happen soon.

Cynsational Notes

Mike Benny has been illustrating for more than 15 years. His clients include Greenwillow/HarperCollins, Random House, Scholastic, and Simon & Schuster.

His books include America’s White Table, written by Margot Theis Raven (Sleeping Bear, 2005), The Listeners, written by Gloria Whelan (Sleeping Bear, 2009), and Oh, Brother! written by Nikki Grimes (Greenwillow, 2007).

Mike has received two gold and two silver medals from the Society of Illustrators, and he makes his home in Austin, Texas.