The Heart of It: Creating Children’s Books that Matter is an online course for aspiring and emerging children’s book writers and illustrators who want to create powerful books for kids while simultaneously coming more fully into their own power as storyteller and artist.
I combine my passion as an educator and activist along with 20 years of experience in creating award-winning multicultural children’s books to craft a course that is a journey of self as much as a practical guide to creating children’s books.
The six-week course offers writing exercises, hands-on art projects, in-depth book reviews, community interviews, Q&A webinars with special guests, and more all designed to offer a holistic approach to creating children’s books and provide opportunities for students to hone their craft, strengthen the power of their own voice and unique way of expressing through art and word, and be in community with other like-minded children’s book makers.
At the end of the program, students are invited to put what they’ve learned to practical use through creating one full spread of text and art to be included in The Heart of It Anthology, a picture book that incorporates student’s work into the story; written and illustrated by me and published by the independent press I co-founded. The first edition is Whaleheart, the second is By The Light Of The Rabbit Moon. and the third anthology will be drawn from this Spring 2016 class.
The Heart of It eCourse is a class I long dreamed of offering out of a desire to support communities to change the still dismal statistics in relation to diversity in children’s books.
As a queer Chicana children’s book author and artist, I know the effects of living in an unequal society and how it can leave many of us feeling as if we don’t get to have a voice especially a voice in children’s books.
This class is not just about learning technical skills. It’s also about how to transform limiting beliefs and ideas that we have inside of ourselves and in the world that hold us back from getting these kinds of stories out.
I center on people of color, American Indians, the LGBTQI+ community and communities still misrepresented and underrepresented in the current children’s publishing industry.
I also highlight the work of authors and illustrators pioneering alternative routes into publishing, including self-publishing, creating their own presses, crowdsourcing funds as well as reclaiming traditional routes.
The Spring 2016 community interviews and book reviews will focus on Native American children’s literature and will be in addition to the African American and LGBTQI+ materials from past courses as well as the core class materials.
I believe that something very powerful happens when we see others in our community tell stories and create images that reflect who we are and our experience in the world.
This course is about finding our voice, allowing our hearts to speak, and knowing that our books belong in the hands of children.
For kids out wanting to learn how to create picture books, Maya also offers a free online video series called Write Now! Make Books, inspired by The Heart of It Anthologies.
Through direct learning, the Write Now! Make Books materials teach how to make books from story through art all the way to book creation in many of the same ways a professional artist/author does.
It includes two hours of instructional videos, a field guide, a complete sample story with art to color and make into a practice book. It also uses a social justice frame to support kids and teens in understanding and reclaiming the power of story and how we can use it to strengthen ourselves today and change our world.
Elizabeth O. Dulemba is an award-winning children’s author-illustrator with more than two dozen titles to her credit, including her debut historical fiction, A Bird on Water Street (Little Pickle, 2014), which has been awarded thirteen prestigious literary honors, including Georgia Author of the Year and a Green Earth Book Award Honor.
Elizabeth splits her time between Roanoke, Virginia, where she teaches Picture Book Design as visiting associate professor at Hollins University in the MFA in Children’s Book Writing and Illustrating program, and Scotland, where she is currently pursuing an MFA in Illustration at the University of Edinburgh.
Elizabeth maintains and active blog where she hosts author/illustrator guest posts each week and gives away free coloring pages. Her weekly newsletter has more than 3,600 subscribers.
Elizabeth, welcome to Cynsations! Thank you so much for taking time to talk with me today.
Thanks so much for having me!
Can you tell us a bit more about your background? How long have you been an illustrator? What led you to pursuing a career in children’s books, and specifically in illustration?
As a kid, I always had a drawing pad and pencil with me. Of course, back then, I didn’t know real people actually made books. And even though the adults in my life knew I was an artist and supported me with lessons my entire life, they steered me towards a more stable lifestyle.
I became a graphic designer for many years. I was always in-house illustrator, though, and I never stopped dreaming about creating books.
When I married my husband, I got the chance. We moved to be together, and I went freelance while I pursued my dream to illustrate books. Three years in, I got my first contract to illustrate The Prince’s Diary (Lee & Low, 2005).
You have illustrated both your own stories, and those of others. Is there a creative difference for you as an illustrator when you are illustrating your own work, versus illustrating someone else’s work?
It took me seven years to get my first contract as both author and illustrator, Soap, Soap, Soap (Raven Tree, 2009). Until that time, I had a lot of fun coming up with images for other people’s writing – I still do. But yeah, it’s a blast to come up with my own text and images.
Heck, I imagine it will be fun to have another illustrator use my words at some point. It’s all about telling stories and creating! I love all of it!
What mediums do you work in?
I’m currently pursuing an MFA in Illustration at the University of Edinburgh College of Art. It’s an introspective and experimental time for me. I feel like I’m in the thick of a creative chrysalis at the moment.
So while I was digital for my first 15 years, I’ve been working with more traditional media of late, getting messy with paint up to my elbows.
We’ll see what style steps forward as my fave. I don’t know yet!
Does this vary depending on the type of project?
Yes! I tend to follow the vision of the story rather than stick to one particular personal style (so far). Although, I’ve been told that when you look at my works on the whole, they all look like mine. Ha!
Do you have a favorite medium or illustration tool?
Not at the moment! I’ve been leaning towards dip pen and ink with watercolors. But I just discovered dyes, and I don’t want to throw out the computer altogether, so we’ll see!
Can you tell us about your typical creative process?
I’m right in the thick of a new project, so I can share exactly!
Right now, I’m in the research stage. I’m looking at images, costumes, architecture, landscapes, color palettes, trying to soak in the looks of the story I’ll be working on – get it set in my head. I broke out the text into the key moments I think I’ll need to illustrate. And I’ve done some very rough thumbnails to get an idea of how the story will visually break out.
Next, I’ll start doing sketches – tons and tons and tons of sketches! Slowly, I’ll start working out my compositions and get bigger and tighter with those. Then I’ll start playing with whatever media I choose. I love the rendering stage the best, so I can’t wait to get to that!
Does it vary depending on what kind of project you are working on?
Y’know, not really. I was sitting here doing online research, and for a minute I thought, “I’m not drawing, why am I wasting time?” And then I realized that I always do it this way and I’m not wasting time at all!
What is a typical creative session like for you?
There’s no such thing as a typical creative session! It’s always different.
Even though my processes remain similar, I might be researching, sketching, painting, digitally rendering – all while listening to music, an audiobook, or requiring absolute quiet so that I can concentrate. It all depends on what stage I’m in.
Do you have a dedicated place that you like to create? Has that changed for you over the years?
Right now, my dedicated space is my desk at the university. It’s a big change from my dedicated studio/office bedroom in the states! But I love the energy of being surrounded by creative students.
I also love that I have to walk through beautiful Edinburgh every day to get here (1.6 miles from my flat). My view is of 17th and 18th century buildings, and lunch often involves meandering into one of the loveliest and oldest areas of the city (Grassmarket). Yeah – it rocks.
You are also the author of a middle grade novel, A Bird on Water Street (Little Pickle, 2014). What was that creative process like for you, in contrast to the very visual medium of picture books?
Completely different. I didn’t realize I was writing a novel when I started it, but dozens of interviews, rewrites, and ten years on, I’m a novelist!
A Bird on Water Street has gotten fantastic reviews and even won 13 literary awards and honors! I’m so proud of the novel, it’s done some wonderfully positive things for the community in which it took place, and for me personally. It has its own web page at http://ABirdOnWaterStreet.com.
As far as the creative process when writing – it has to be dead quiet outside my head because it is so loud inside my head! Now that the writing muse has been set loose, there’s no stopping her.
Sadly, she doesn’t get along very well with my illustration muse. They are constantly battling for my time.
Do you have plans for more middle grade works?
I do! I have about three or four other novels that are at various stages. It’s hard to concentrate on novels right now, though. School is keeping me unbelievably busy, and I don’t get unified chunks of mental space where I can focus on one project.
Instead, I’m working on dozens of projects all the time right now (including personal projects – mostly picture books – and school projects). But spring break is coming, then two months of summer before I head to Hollins University where I teach in the MFA in Children’s Book Writing and Illustrating program, then over a month free before school starts back.
I’m planning to do some concentrated creating in those windows!
I loved your recent TED talk. Like you, my husband and I sold our house and most of our possessions to make a move from the U.S. to Europe. For those who haven’t seen your TED talk yet, can you tell us what led you to make that move?
Thanks! I’ve received the nicest emails from folks who feel the same way or have experienced something similar. It’s been a tangent from my children’s books and school studies, but equally as gratifying. I think a lot of folks are experience-based people trapped in stuff-based lifestyles and could do what I did… I sold almost everything I own to move overseas and go back to school.
Truly, the best way to understand my journey is to actually watch my TED talk.
While it’s not specifically about children’s books, it describes the motivation behind how I live my life, which is all about children’s books!
So you’re currently studying children’s illustration in the masters of fine arts program at Edinburgh University in Edinburgh, Scotland. Can you tell us more about your plans once you complete that program?
I’m going to pursue a PhD in Picture Books! Several reasons have come together in my life to make an advanced degree make sense for me. And who knows, I might actually become an expert!
Through it all, I’ll continue to teach at Hollins University in the summers (it’s a summer MFA program).
After that, I really don’t know. That’s one of the nice things about being mobile. I don’t feel trapped by anything anymore. The future is exciting and shiny!
What is the one piece of advice you would give an aspiring illustrator or author?
Follow your heart, not the trends. The only thing you can control is yourself. Heck, you can’t even always control your own creativity.
Be willing to jump down rabbit holes and see where creativity leads you. More often than not, your instincts will take you someplace good – especially if you get your pesky brain out of the way.
Thank you so much for spending time with us today! It’s been an absolute pleasure to talk to you.
Thank you! I’m honored!
Elisabeth Norton grew up in Alaska, lived for many years and Texas, and after a brief sojourn in England, now lives with her family between the Alps and the Jura in Switzerland.
I started to draw on paper coffee cups right after I came back from the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles, summer 2013. I was overwhelmed with a lot of fabulous information I had received from the workshops and people who share the same love of picture books.
I actually went to the university’s coffee shop and ordered my regular coffee. While I was reviewing my notes from the conference, I started to just draw on my paper coffee cup as a mental break.
Suddenly I found the surface of the coffee cup very smooth and very friendly to work with in pencil. I looked around and imagined myself and other people as different type of animal characters – rabbits, dogs, cats, etc. Later, I started to think how cool it would be if I kept all of my coffee cups every day and instead of drawing in my flat sketchbook, use my coffee cups as my daily round sketchbook.
This unique dimension altered my understanding of composition, forgoing page borders in exchange for unending movement. I found this idea to be vital in illustrating a story – propel the viewer toward a world without borders and limitations imposed by the edge of a page.
All drawings include every simple joy we have in our routine life and sometimes we forget about them. The illustrations help my audience to take a look back into their inner child and invite it to come up and play the life and enjoy the freedom of uninhibited self-expression. This open-ended approach to storytelling helped me find a new style in illustration.
You categorize your children’s art in your website into two categories “fine & detailed” as well as “loose & simple.” Is this a decision you make before starting on a piece? Or is it something you decide after completion?
Mostly this is an afterthought. Some works are highly detailed images of simple ideas, other times they are sketches containing a great deal of meaning. These categories describe how I’m feeling at the time.
Some works I really focus on, and curate every detail. Other works I’m just not so patient with, and need to just get the basic point across and move on.
But the major differentiation is not always in terms of graphic detail. Sometimes I spend extra time on subtleties that illustrate complexities of life, whereas other times I just want to make something that is easy for people to relate to.
There are times in our lives when we look at every little detail, and focus on it intently, and other times in our lives where we just want to ‘take it easy’. I only make the distinction on my web site to aid the viewer, not necessarily to define my work.
“Donkey in the Forest” was part of a series of images associated with a series of books I recently completed with a publisher in Iran. These books were part of a national curriculum that millions of young people took part in, as part of national testing.
I was honored to be included in this project, as it drew on stories and themes that have been part of Iranian culture for hundreds, even thousands of years. Stories are the conduit of human understanding through the ages. It is through metaphor that we grow and maintain a sense of who we are, our place in this world, and our duty to grow.
The donkey represents so many aspects of humanity. His reflection is our reflection, and through his life experience we evaluate our own. Have we grown? Have we been content with our own understanding of the world? Is it a fact that everything we believe is true?
Letting go, and connecting with the small animal that is ourselves is a step toward understanding these broader issues. The donkey is simply a trusted friend with whom we can travel, each on our own unique journey.
How has your art changed over the years?
Art for me over the years has changed with my life, as anyone else. As a teenager in Mashhad, Iran, I was interested in testing limits as any normal teenager would. I felt lost and alone, burying myself in books and culture well past the limits of my own neighborhood and city in an attempt to know that which is not widely known, or see that which is not readily available in a confusing and contradictory world. In my twenties, I was concerned with independence and growing past my preconceptions of those expectations upon me. There were a number of pieces of art that I produced that I was excited to publicize, but I knew better as it may have proven difficult for my family or detrimental to my career.
I grew past this impulsive and sometimes mischievous phase into my thirties as a master’s student at the University of Tehran. Unfortunately, I had not yet understood the boundaries and cultural limitations that my work tested, and I left before I was finished with my MFA.
Since coming the U.S., I have tempered my message, working to understand the deeper meanings of my roots, while also refining and broadening my messages to appeal to a wider variety of audiences, enabling people to think and question the world around them without fear of persecution.
The donkey relates to us that we are all put on this Earth to live, and breathe, and feel and love, right or wrong, and that it’s ok to relate to an image that may reflect our emotions at the time. The donkey also carries with him the test of human character over time, that all of our cultures have come from somewhere, and are worthy of patience and understanding.
Two projects focus on public spaces and our relation to them. The BenchMarks project in Iowa City takes a simple public object, a bench, and creates a metaphor for public engagement, encouraging passers-by to relax and enjoy a peaceful moment that their community has provided.
The second project is through City Sounds, The Des Moines Public Piano Project. This project takes used pianos, subjects them to visual artistic interpretation, and places them throughout the greater Des Moines area in attempt to draw out and engage the public in well-mannered frivolity under the sun, with music and sound at their fingertips.
I have also begun collaboration with a New York agency working on a new and evolving project focusing on education-oriented work for school-age children.
What advice would you offer someone just starting out in the field of children’s book illustration?
The common adage in writing is “Write what you know.” Illustration is no different, in that one should illustrate what they see, both through their eyes and through their mind.
Likewise, this is not as easy as it sounds, so don’t be afraid to see things differently. Not every dimension is well-defined, and not every answer is questioned.
Angela Cerrito is a pediatric physical therapist by day and a writer by night. She thinks she has the two best jobs in the world.
Her latest novel, The Safest Lie
(Holiday House), was named a finalist for the 2015 Jewish Book Award, a
Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Older Readers and a Notable Social
Studies Book for Young People.
On Agents Selling a First Novel Manuscript by Jennifer Laughran from Ask the Agent. Peek: “The people who tend to get lots of sales are the people who are flexible, who stay positive, who are always coming up with more material, and who are happy to revise/reimagine/put something away for a while.”
Inside Look at the Illustrator-Publisher Collaboration from The World of Peachtree Publishers. Peek: “…although the editor typically gets the search for an illustrator underway, the author and production team often propose other illustrators for consideration; after much discussion, the team chooses two or three top candidates, who might be someone whose specialty lines up with the story, someone with experience of the book’s subject matter, or someone who has just the right sense of humor.”
“I Just Don’t Identify with the Character” by Delacorte Editor Kate Sullivan from CBC Diversity. Peek: “I believe that ‘I didn’t connect to the character/voice’ is unacceptable when it comes to diverse perspectives. If most editors are white and straight and middle or upper class, of course they won’t ‘identify’ or ‘connect’ with a diverse perspective.”
Howdy, readers! It’s been a while since I answered your questions. Feel free to ask them in the comments or by emailing me directly.
Congratulations to Lee Bennett Hopkins on receiving the Regina Medal Award! Peek: “…established in 1959 and sponsored by the Catholic Library Association, is administered by the Children’s Library Services Section through the Regina Medal Committee at the will of the Catholic Library Association Executive Board. The only criterion for the award is that of excellence.”