New Voice: Sarah Lynne Reul on The Breaking News

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’m always amazed by those creators who can both write and illustrate their stories. Okay, I’ll admit a little jealous too. My talents do not lend themselves to do both.

 So shining the Cynsations’ spotlight today on Sarah Lynne Reul is a treat.

She shares about how she creates her art and why she ultimately decided to become a children’s book author-illustrator instead of focusing solely on illustration. 

The Breaking News, by Sarah Lynne Reul (Roaring Brook, 2018). From the promotional copy:

When devastating news rattles a young girl’s community, her normally attentive parents and neighbors are suddenly exhausted and distracted. At school, her teacher tells the class to look for the helpers—the good people working to make things better in big and small ways. 


She wants more than anything to help in a big way, but maybe she can start with one small act of kindness instead . . . and then another, and another. Small things can compound, after all, to make a world of difference.

Welcome, Sarah! How did you take your art from a beginner level to publishable? How has your style evolved over time? 

I’ve come to the winding path of writing and illustration in sort of a roundabout way, as so many people do.

I didn’t really see art as a viable career when I was in college, so I only took a couple of drawing classes during my undergraduate years. I worked in retail, social ventures, nonprofits as well as science museum education, but there always seemed to be something missing.

Eventually, personal events propelled me into going back to school to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in 2D Animation from the online program at the Academy of Art University.

I had always loved the idea of making drawings come to life through animation, and I imagined a career working in one of the several studios located in the Boston area. Unfortunately, two out of three of these companies closed just before I finished my degree.

After a few months of unsuccessfully trying to find work in the field, I attended my first SCBWI conference and began to pivot towards kidlit, applying the drawings skills I’d gained in my MFA program to picture book illustration.

There are so many 2D animation principles that transfer to picture book illustration – design, staging, clear communication, exaggeration, appeal… and so much more. I taught a workshop on this subject at the 2018 New England SCBWI conference.

In traditional animation, there are usually 12-24 drawings per second to create the illusion of life.

For my two-and-a-half minute MFA thesis film, The Search for the Monster of Lake Quannapowitt, I created literally thousands of individual character drawings, not to mention countless reference sketches, designs, animation planning and background drawings.

The experience of drawing so much (as well as getting over the fear of redrawing things when necessary) has contributed greatly to my progress as a professional illustrator. Since I completed all of my traditional animation through a digital pipeline (hand-drawing each image on a Wacom Cintiq tablet attached to my desktop computer), it’s been a natural progression to create picture book illustrations by drawing in Photoshop.

My style is definitely still evolving (and I hope it always will!). So far, I’ve digitally produced all of my professional work.

However, I would love to explore some traditional media like gouache painting, collage, linocut and diorama-building. Personal, daily projects, like 100 Days of Drawing on Photos give me the space to explore new ideas.

I’ve been dreaming about building some models out of cardboard and drawing on the photos – I’m hoping to create some sample pieces in this style soon!

As an author-illustrator, how did your writing journey inform your artistic journey and vice versa? 

I started out in this industry thinking that I’d mainly work as an illustrator. However, after starting to share my work through portfolio reviews and postcard mailings, I began to realize that publishing timeframes are a bit too long to wait for someone to come to me with a project.

So, I started to write my own stories, in order to give myself something to draw (as well as to create more things to submit to agents and editors).

I hadn’t studied writing as part of my MFA, so at first it was a little difficult to think of myself as a writer. Eventually, I realized that my favorite illustrations are a vehicle for communicating a story, so it wasn’t that far of a leap to creating the story from scratch.

In addition to the 100 Days of Drawing on Photos projects that I mentioned above, daily writing challenges have also been super useful to help keep me going and creating new ideas.

The story for The Breaking News came to me while participating in my first Storystorm, which is a challenge run by author Tara Lazar, to generate 30 picture book ideas in 30 days.

Creating daily, whether through writing, illustrating or animating, is key to thinking of myself as a person who creates – even when I’m not working on a professional project.

My process of writing and illustration goes back and forth quite a bit. I’ll often start with a rough draft of the words, will attempt to figure out the page breaks, and then will make super rough thumbnail sketches of how I’d like to communicate each spread.

Often I’ll find that I need to change some of the language, or shift the page breaks to heighten the impact of each scene. I’ll go back and forth, refining each side, and when I think it’s going somewhere, I’ll bring it to my two critique groups (one for writers and one for illustrators) for feedback.

What were the challenges (artistic, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the images to life? 

My debut picture book, The Breaking News, focuses on a girl who wants to make things better after she notices how negative news has impacted her family and her community.

Animated interior spread by Sarah Lynne Reul, used with permission

In creating the text and the images, there was a delicate balance of telling the truth about a difficult topic without saying too much. The actual news that we are exposed to regularly is often so awful – I didn’t want to go overboard with details, but I also didn’t want to gloss over the experience with false cheer.

I had feedback from some critique partners early on that a book like this wasn’t necessary or appropriate. Some people commented that they always made sure to shield their children from hearing the bad news. And I definitely agree that is an important thing to do, up to a certain point – there is only so much that is appropriate at each age, for each child.

However, I also know from my own experience that I can’t shield them from what they might hear out in the world, and I can’t shield them from noticing when the grownups in their lives have been deeply affected by the news, no matter how we might try to hide it.

If you read the book, you might notice that the little girl’s teacher paraphrases this quote by Fred Rogers:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me,
“Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

In my research for how to handle the issues in this book, I came across that quote and then the wonderful parent resources of the Fred Rogers Foundation. This article, which talks about about how to help young children when there are tragic events in the news, provided inspiration and grounding as I worked on the story. 

Throughout the process, I tried to say true to the legitimate feelings that I have seen our own family go through, that I have seen friends go through.

Of course, the wonderful feedback of critique partners, family, friends, as well as my agent Emily Mitchell and my Roaring Brook editor, Claire Dorsett, were all hugely instrumental in finding the right balance.

It was important to me that we never quite understand the nature of the actual news that is reported within the story. I wanted to leave it open ended, and to leave that question unanswered so that each reader could interpret, drawing from their own experiences.

The Breaking News is ultimately about our reactions to the worst things that we can’t control – and how we can’t give up hope just because there is so much fear, doubt and despair in the world.

Cynsational Notes

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly described The Breaking News as “wise and timely.” Peek:

“Ruel doesn’t specify the nature of the event, but her astutely composed, wonderfully sympathetic cartoon-style drawings capture how kids are impacted by worried and distracted adults, and how it feels to be small in the face of something too big to grasp.”

Sarah Lynne Reul is an author, illustrator and award-winning animator who likes science, bright colors and figuring out how things work.

Originally from Brooklyn, she now lives near Boston with her family.

Her first three books will debut in 2018: The Breaking News (Roaring Brook/Macmillan), Pet All the Pets (Little Simon, August 14, 2018) and Allie All Along (Sterling, August 7, 2018).

You can find friendly monsters, colorful patterns and animated gifs at her website.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

New Voice: Interview & Giveaway: Daria Peoples-Riley on This Is It, Illustration & Diversity

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

To say that I’m thrilled to feature Daria Peoples-Riley, fellow Epic Eighteen member, today on Cynsations is an understatement.

This Is It (Greenwillow, 2018), her debut picture book as an author-illustrator, follows a young girl of color getting ready for a ballet audition. Although she loves to dance, she doubts herself as she approaches the studio.

I love Daria’s use of the girl’s shadow self to help her overcome her hesitation. The endpapers with the young ballerina demonstrating the ballet positions remind me of my own trepidation at performing during my few years taking lessons as a child.

Daria, as an author-illustrator, how did your writing journey inform your artistic journey and vice versa?

For This Is It, I wrote the poem as a gift for my daughter to give to her on the day of her first ballet audition.

I didn’t intend for it to become a picture book, so I illustrated the poem after the manuscript was written, and the text really drove my ideas for the illustrations.

However, in other projects, I find that the story comes as text for some spreads and illustrations for others. Eventually, during the revision process, the pace of text and illustrations evolve organically.

Daria’s writing workspace

Please describe your illustration apprenticeship. How did you take your art from a beginner level to publishable? How has your style evolved over time? 

I began painting as a child, alongside my dad. In high school, I took the mandatory semester of art, and fell in love with drawing, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I really started practicing. The ability to draw and paint relies on a person’s ability to see. As your visual intelligence improves, your art will as well.

I remember Marla Frazee saying that in the journey from beginner to becoming publishable, you have to just practice until your art is good enough.

Every year, I put together a portfolio and took it to SCBWI conferences. Eventually, it was good enough.

There is no magic to making publishable art. There is truth to the 10,000 hours. Whether that is in art school or at home in your living room, 10,000 hours is 10,000 hours, and it took me three years of practicing before my portfolio was good enough.

Do you have any tips for putting together a portfolio?


I’m sure there are many more qualified people to answer this question, but I think anyone who wants to be an illustrator has to create from a place of love in order for their work to see the world.

You can check the boxes of having everything in your portfolio we learn to include at intensives and conferences, work that demonstrates our mastery of skill, but if we don’t love what we are making, the work won’t evoke the emotion of the viewer, or stand out to industry gatekeepers. Absolutely love everything you include.

If you don’t love it, if it doesn’t make you laugh, or tear, or smile to yourself, take it out, and make something else.

Daria’s illustration workspace

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

The best moment was when This Is It sold. After three years of developing it, I was on the verge of moving on. Waiting is hard, but I’m learning to wait better.

The worst moment? I haven’t had one yet, but it might be around the corner, and that will be okay. It’s all a part of the journey.

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?

I introduced myself to Matt de la Pena at a children’s book festival, and I knew he had a daughter, so I brought a copy of This Is It to give him. When he asked me to sign it for him, I froze. I’d never signed my book before.

He was very gracious, and taught me how to sign my book. I had to laugh about it afterwards, and I was a little embarrassed, but it was definitely memorable and funny for him, I’m sure.

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story? 

The physical rendering of the heroine in This Is It is very intentional.

Like me, she checks a lot of racial and ethnic boxes, and not fitting into any one box informs her lack of belonging. She looks different, but because of her differences, she is extraordinary and special. She represents the underrepresented child’s uniqueness and desire to do something in an arena where she is often the only one present.

Brown ballet dancers are underrepresented at pre-professional ballet schools and companies all over the country. I hope this book whispers, “You can do it.”

Daria talking with students

The text is the rhythm and movement of my mother’s New Orleans’ roots. New Orleans’ women are resilient with deep-loving hearts.

I wanted to portray a character who overcomes her fears by using the greatest catalyst an under-represented youth could possibly use when she feels alone in the world—-the power of affirmations spoken from within herself.

Dancing through our fears is also a metaphor for how we can choose to approach life. Whatever challenges we face, let’s surrender to the journey.

I think the strength we discover along the way will be change the trajectory of our lives forever.

Cynsational Notes

Daria Peoples-Riley’s first job was at nine years old in the children’s section of her hometown library in Paso Robles, California. She worked a little, but she mostly read picture books.

Daria loved basketball, competing in oratorical contests, drawing, and painting. Her dad gave her art lessons in their garage on Rose Lane, and Daria’s mom rescued her first self-portrait from the kitchen trash can, and had it professionally framed the next day.

Today, it hangs in her parents’ living room as a reminder that our life’s purpose almost always introduces itself to us as a child.

Daria earned a B.A. in English from U.C. Santa Barbara, where she found herself shelving books in the library once again and reading the writings of many notable authors.

After earning a Masters in Education and 10 years of teaching, Daria became a full-time author and illustrator. A companion book to This Is It will follow in 2019. She is also the illustrator of What Gloria Heard by Jessica M. Rinker (Bloomsbury, 2019), a picture book biography about the life and work of Gloria Steinem.

Daria lives in Las Vegas with her family.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

Enter to win a copy of This Is It:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

No purchase necessary. Enter between 12:00 AM Eastern Time on April 12, 2018 and 12:00 AM on April 26, 2018. Open to residents of the fifty United States and the District of Columbia who are 13 and older. Winners will be selected at random on or about April 26, 2018. Odds of winning depend on number of eligible entries received. Void where prohibited or restricted by law.

New Voice: Interview & Giveaway: Dana Wulfekotte on Rabbit & Possum

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Today I’m pleased to shine the Cynsations’ spotlight on Dana Wulfekotte, a fellow Epic Eighteen member. Her debut picture book, Rabbit & Possum (Greenwillow, 2018), features the antics of these two friends hoping to share a snack but having to overcome an obstacle first.

I love Dana’s use of illustrated thought bubbles and her experience as an animator comes through in the book’s artwork.

Kirkus Reviews stated, “Friendship, loyalty, and determination come through in this well-paced exploit.” I couldn’t agree more.

From the promotional copy:

Rabbit likes to leap before she looks.Possum is a little more cautious.So when Possum accidentally gets stuck in a tree, he fears he’ll be trapped forever. Everything is ruined!Luckily, Rabbit won’t give up till she rescues him.With a little creativity—and a big surprise—she just might be able to save the day.After all, that’s what friends are for.

Dana, as an author-illustrator, how did your writing journey inform your artistic journey and vice versa?

It’s still funny to think of myself as a writer, because my whole life I’ve been focused on my art. When I first started writing Rabbit & Possum, and even going through the revision process with my editor, I sometimes felt like I had no idea what I was doing. But I think having all of that experience as an artist is helping me find my footing as a writer.

My learning process is also about how to make the art and writing work best together, and what to say in the text versus what to show in the art.

Please describe your illustration apprenticeship. How did you take your art from a beginner level to publishable? How has your style evolved over time?

Early sketch of Rabbit & Possum by Dana Wulfekotte,
used with permission.

I’ve been drawing my whole life, but as an adult I’ve been working in animation since I graduated from college in 2005. I think that gave me an advantage when I took the leap into publishing, since I already had a background in visual storytelling.

The biggest hurdle was developing my own artistic voice. When you work in animation, you’re working on teams and you’re often asked to mimic all different kinds of artistic styles. When I decided to move into children’s illustration, I knew I would need my own unique style.

I also had a webcomic that I worked on with my best friend for many years, but it had a look that wouldn’t really work for a picture book.

I started drawing almost every day again, filling up sketchbooks and doing drawing challenges like Inktober while also working full-time at an animation studio. It took about a year or two from there to develop my work to the point where it was publishable. Even now that my style is more consistent, I’m very indecisive and I still experiment a lot with my process. 


What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

The best moment was definitely getting the message from my agent that I had gotten an offer on my book. It was a real turning point in my life and making children’s books has been the most creatively fulfilling work I’ve done so far. 

When I was little, I saw “Beauty and the Beast” and decided that I wanted to be a Disney animator when I grew up. As I got older, I realized I didn’t want to move out to California. I’m too much of a cranky East Coaster. So now I get to tell stories and make art for children while living in New York City, which is pretty much the best outcome I could have hoped for.

I haven’t had any truly bad moments in publishing, aside from the usual rejections and bad reviews that everyone experiences. It’s not that I enjoy those things, but they’re a normal part of working in most creative fields.

A spread from the Rabbit & Possum dummy that Dana sent out on submission.
Used with permission.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s illustrators?

I’ve seen so much good advice from other artists and I don’t really have anything new to add, but I’ll reiterate some things that I feel are important: The most successful artists I know are also the most determined and the hardest working. Some people may have advantages that you don’t have, but focus on what you need to do to reach your goals and don’t worry about anyone else. 

Similarly, don’t compare where you’re at in your career to other artists (I know this is much easier said than done, but nothing good ever comes of it!).

Cynsational Notes

Dana Wulfekotte is a children’s book author-illustrator and freelance animator. 

She
was born in Korea, raised in New Jersey, and now lives in Queens with her
boyfriend and two pet rabbits. 

Dana has also illustrated another picture book, The Remember Balloons by debut author Jessie Oliveros, that will be published in August by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

As an animator/designer, she has worked on various animation projects for HBO, PBS, Google, and many others. 

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

Enter to win your own copy of Rabbit & Possum.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

No purchase necessary. Enter between 12:00 AM Eastern Time on April 5, 2018 and 12:00 AM on April 19, 2018. Open to residents of the fifty United States and the District of Columbia who are 13 and older. Winners will be selected at random on or about April 19, 2018. Odds of winning depend on number of eligible entries received. Void where prohibited or restricted by law.

New Voice: Interview & Giveaway: Jeanette Bradley on Love, Mama

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I am pleased to shine the spotlight on a fellow Epic Eighteen debut picture book, Love, Mama by author-illustrator Jeanette Bradley (Roaring Brook, 2018). From the promotional copy:

When Mama leaves her young penguin Kipling, he knows she’ll return home soon—yet he still can’t help but miss her. 


After all, Pillow Mama won’t read, Picture Mama won’t laugh, and Snow Mama is too cold to cuddle.


But then Kipling receives a special delivery from Mama, including a note that reads:

My love for you stretches across the wide ocean,
through day and night,
from earth to sky
and back again.

And Kipling knows that no matter where Mama is, he is loved. Soon, Mama comes home, and Kipling ends the day where he belongs—right in her arms.

Jeanette’s story about young Kipling, a penguin in the Antarctic, missing his mama away at work features a beautiful color palette of red, blue, and gray that immediately drew my eye to the illustrations.

One of the other aspects I appreciated and she talks about in our interview below is that Kipling stays home with a caregiver which could be anyone – the other parent, a grandparent, older sibling, cousin, aunt, uncle, or babysitter.

Many children have this experience when a parent is away working, so I appreciated that portrayal in addition to the deep longing Kipling has to be in Mama’s arms again.

Jeanette, as an author-illustrator, how did your writing journey inform your artistic journey and vice versa?


I started out studying painting, and then illustration. I was sending out postcards, trying to get noticed in this highly competitive industry, when a wonderful thing happened.

My father told me that he had run into my eighth grade English teacher and told her that I was doing illustration and that she had asked him to convey to me a message. The message, delivered with her intonation, was: “Don’t forget that You. Are. A. Writer. Too.”

Teachers really do change lives. I am grateful that Mert Smits changed mine more than once. She was absolutely right, and I got serious about learning the craft of writing picture books. Three years later, here I am.

Interior illustration from Love, Mama

What were the challenges (artistic, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the images to life?


Love, Mama is fiction with anthropomorphic animal characters, but I rooted the story in science.

I researched the location and spoke with Antarctic scientists about the animals that migrate in the Southern Ocean, the types of boats that are used in the sea ice, and what souvenirs are available in Antarctic gift shops. I used a lot of reference photos to create the fictional island that Kipling lives on.  I wanted to create the sense that Kipling lives in a real, but alternate Antarctic.

If you type “do penguins have” into Google, you will discover that many other people struggle with the existential question of “do penguins have knees?”

When designing an anthropomorphic character, there is always a tension between the animal elements and the human elements. It’s a challenge to combine those in a way that is cute and appealing, instead of falling into the “uncanny valley” of psychologically disturbing not-humanness.

The most difficult part of drawing the cuddly penguins in Love, Mama was figuring out how they sat on a sofa. (Penguins do have knees, but you can’t see them, because they are hidden by their belly flaps. Real penguins would not be able to sit on a sofa. This is my public service announcement for science.)

Jeanette at Book Launch party

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

My book has been released out in the world for two days, and the best part has been seeing photos of kids all over the country enjoying Love, Mama. So much love!

The runner-up best moment was when my agent Emily Mitchell sent me an email telling me that not only had she sold my book, she had sold it to Connie Hsu. I wouldn’t say that Connie was my dream editor, because it hadn’t occurred to me to dream that big. I felt like Cinderella, except visited by the fairy godmother for introverts.

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?


I queried my agent because her bio made me laugh. Seriously, its funny, go look at it.

(Traci – Jeanette and I actually have the same agent and I couldn’t agree more.)

What advice do you have for beginning children’s illustrators or author-illustrators?


In art school I was taught to draw from the masters, which is the best way to really get inside someone else’s visual thinking. So, I read a lot of recently published picture books. I choose a few to analyze more deeply, and type them out and/or sketch from them.

Interior illustration from Love, Mama

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story?

There are so few picture books in which my children can see their two-mom family mirrored that aren’t books explicitly about family structure. I wanted to write a book about family which the family structure was not the point of the book, but was also not locked into a mother, father, and child. I wanted to leave space for children who live with a grandparent or a single parent or who have same-sex parents to read their own family into the book.

Love, Mama is focused on the relationship between mother and child, and the ability of love to transcend distance. But the toddler-like main character felt too young to leave home alone, so I needed to create another adult without shifting the focus of the story or closing the space I had created.

I solved this by creating another adult penguin with no identifying characteristics, who is never mentioned in the text.

Some children will assume Blank Slate is a babysitter, others will map a parent or grandparent onto that penguin. (I have already witnessed a debate between kindergartners about Blank Slate’s true identity!)

Whatever the reader brings to the story, the focus remains on the deep emotions of missing a parent when she is gone, even if someone else is home with you.

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews wrote of Love, Mama, “The artwork works with the spare text to keep the focus on how Kipling is feeling; readers are sure to empathize. This will provide both reassurance to children missing their own loved ones and ideas for staying connected.”

Jeanette Bradley has been an urban planner, an apprentice pastry chef, and the artist-in-residence for a traveling art museum on a train. Her debut picture book contains no cities, pastries, or trains, but was made with lots of love.

She currently lives in Rhode Island with her wife and kids. To see more of her art, follow her on Instagram @jea_bradley.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on September 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures. In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.


Enter to win your own copy of Love, Mama!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

No purchase necessary. Enter between 12:00 AM Eastern Time on March 14, 2018 and 12:00 AM on Mar. 28, 2018. Open to residents of the fifty United States and the District of Columbia who are 13 and older. Winners will be selected at random on or about Mar. 28, 2018. Odds of winning depend on number of eligible entries received. Void where prohibited or restricted by law.

Guest Post: Beth Bacon on Honoring Reluctant Readers with Author & Illustrator Charles Johnson

By Beth Bacon
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

This post is the first in a series honoring reluctant readers.

Reading is the closest thing we have to magic in the real world.

Is there any other explanation for the way those small, squiggly symbols on the page transform into meaning in our minds?

Scientists can provide technical explanations of the way our eyes and brains make reading happen. But I’m talking about the way a book can move us to tears or spur us to action. Reading conjures actual emotions. It transports us to places that are as real as any we’ve been to in person.

Reading is enchantment. Writers, editors and educators have the honor of introducing this power to young people. But reading can be difficult to learn.

Many children struggle to read or are reluctant to spend time with books. In this series on emerging readers, I spoke with editors, authors and educators who are thinking deeply about the issues our young people face when learning to read.

Charles Johnson with his grandson and daughter
Author, illustrator, teacher and philosopher Charles Johnson who recently wrote and illustrated a series for children, The Adventures of Emery Jones Boy Science Wonder (Libertary Company, 2015).

Johnson is a creative writing professor (emeritus) at University of Washington and received the National Book Award for Middle Passage (Scribner, 1998). He also is a preeminent voice on literature and race and a practicing Buddhist who’s written many books about the philosophy.

Beth Bacon: You’ve written a couple of children’s books. Can you talk about your motivations? Did you have someone in mind when you wrote them?

Charles Johnson: According to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, and in 2012 only 3 percent of children’s books published in America had “significant African or African-American content.”

And, of course, few of these books were produced by black American authors and illustrators.

As both a storyteller and a cartoonist/illustrator, part of my motivation is obviously to correct this dearth of books for children of color to read.

At the time my daughter Elisheba and I co-authored Bending Time and The Hard Problem, the first two books in The Adventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder series, we had my grandson Emery in mind—that’s where the protagonist’s first name comes from.

I care very much about this issue of reading material for our children. You know, of course, about the special issue of The American Book Review (September/October 2014) that I guest-edited titled, “The Color of Children’s Literature,” because you kindly reviewed Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America, by my friend, the prolific, award-winning children’s book author Tonya Bolden (Abrams, 2014).

Something else—perhaps the most important thing of all about the Emery Jones books—is that we want to get kids around middle school age interested in STEM learning and fields. To see the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math as exciting and fun.

So Emery in the books is a scientific whiz kid who finds himself flung into different adventures—saving a bully who gets stuck in the prehistoric period, saving the world from aliens and AI robots gone amuck in the second book.

In the next book we do, he’ll save the future from a disaster.

As a writing instructor, do believe there is a difference in writing for children who struggle to read and writing for those who like to read?

Yes, I think there is a difference. And you know what? Many adults today struggle to read.

The lack of literacy is a well-documented and very serious problem, especially for high school students who can’t read a newspaper op-ed and tell you what the argument is, or adults who can’t read and understand the instructions on their prescription medication.

Humanities Washington has a long-running and important program that addresses this, called Mother Read/Father Read. These are a series of books aimed at helping parents learn to read as they read to their children.

How is writing novels for young people different than writing for adults?

As an academically trained philosopher, I write very complex, multi-layered, language rich philosophical novels that dramatize the quest for the Good, investigate the nature of the self, the experience of the middle passage or north Atlantic slave trade, and the philosophical dimensions of Martin Luther King Jr. as a theologian/activist.

But for the Emery Jones books my daughter and I select subjects close to the experience of a middle school-aged child. For example, the experience of being bullied or of first love. I rely on my daughter for this because she is closer to those experiences of young people than I am.

Do you remember learning to read? Did you like to read as a child? What kinds of books influenced your childhood?

I don’t remember when I learned to read. But as an only child, books were my refuge (along with drawing) from boredom.

In high school I read one book a week, sometimes three, and they ranged from Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels to westerns to Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.

My mother was in several book clubs and kept our house full of interesting titles, and I was in a science fiction book club, receiving a new title every month.

I describe this early reading experience in the chapter titled “In the Beginning” in The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling (Scribner, 2016).

You are a cartoonist, how does this inform your writing?


Well, every picture is worth a thousand words, as they say, and our nation’s cartoonists (and graphic novel illustrators) are storytellers, too.

In others words, I’ve always had since childhood a very strong visual imagination, and I’m sure that shows in the descriptive passages in my novels, where I work for as much granularity of detail and specificity as possible.

A blank writing page is for me like a painter’s blank canvas—and that is a beautiful thing, a white surface onto which I can project images that hitherto existed in my head where no one could see them.

An illustration from Charles Johnson’s Emery Jones series

Can you talk about the differences in reading, writing and books over the three generations (your childhood, your daughter’s experiences, and now reading to your grandson, Emery).

In the early 20th century, and into the early 1970s (a period still suffering from racial segregation), white, mainstream commercial publishers seldom published black writers and artists. That’s why what we call the “black press” (Ebony, Jet, Negro Digest, Players, Johnson Publishing Co. in Chicago) came into existence.

As a cartoonist in my teens and early twenties, I published drawings and one book (Black Humor, 1970) with black publishers, then from 1974 until today with so-called “mainstream” publishers.

So the publishing situation for black writers and artists became somewhat freer since the 1980s than during my childhood. But today, sadly, and as I mentioned in my response to your first question, we still have a situation described eloquently by author and illustrator Christopher Myers in his essay “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature” (New York Times, 2014):

“Children of color remain outside the boundaries of imagination…at best background characters, and more often than not absent. …They recognize the boundaries being imposed upon their imaginations, and are certain to imagine themselves well within the borders they are offered, to color themselves within the lines.”

So our goal with the Emery Jones books is to break down those borders and lines, and free the imagination of as many young readers (of all backgrounds) as possible.

Beth Bacon: Freeing the imagination was one goal I had in mind when writing I Hate Reading (Pixel Titles, 2017) and The Book No One Wants To Read (Pixel Titles, 2017).

Children who find reading difficult—whatever the reason—face real barriers. Not just barriers on the page, but challenges from parents, obstructive comments from peers, and isolation at school.

What if we authors for children approached our writing projects asking, “How can I include struggling readers within the boundaries of this text?”

My two books for struggling readers are barrier-breakers. They break the barriers of linear narrative; the barriers of a single authorial voice; the rules of separating words and pictures. And that’s just the form.

The content of the books break barriers, too, by directly acknowledging the experience of reluctant readers and honoring those kids whose feel like they’re on the outside in their own classrooms.

Sometimes writers have to go beyond the margins of a book to reach the readers on the margins. Let’s acknowledge and address the experience of young readers as they develop the magical skill of reading.

Cynsational Notes


Beth Bacon is the author of books for reluctant readers including I Hate Reading (Pixel Titles, 2008, 2017) and The Book No One Wants To Read, illustrated by Jason Grube and Corianton Hale (Pixel Titles, 2017).

She earned an MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Beth has won the VCFA Candlewick Award for Picture Book Writing, the Marion Dane Bauer Award for Middle Grade Writing, and is a PSAMA PULSE Award Finalist for marketing. 

New Voice: Author-Illustrator Suzanne Del Rizzo

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

While a well-published illustrator, Suzanne Del Rizzo celebrates her authorial debut with My Beautiful Birds, which she also illustrated (Pajama Press, March 2017). From the promotional copy:

Behind Sami, the Syrian skyline is full of smoke. The boy follows his family and all his neighbours in a long line, as they trudge through the sands and hills to escape the bombs that have destroyed their homes. But all Sami can think of is his pet pigeons—will they escape too? 


When they reach a refugee camp and are safe at last, everyone settles into the tent city. But though the children start to play and go to school again, Sami can’t join in. When he is given paper and paint, all he can do is smear his painting with black. He can’t forget his birds and what his family has left behind.

One day a canary, a dove, and a rose finch fly into the camp. They flutter around Sami and settle on his outstretched arms. For Sami it is one step in a long healing process at last.

What inspired you to write My Beautiful Birds?


The Syrian civil war has just entered its sixth year. My school-aged children had been asking about the conflict, so I went online to search up some child-friendly resources to share with them. 

Being an often scary and unsettling issue, I wanted to ensure I approached the topic from an age-appropriate and safe way such that my kids would be left feeling empathetic and reflective yet informed. 
Ontario Library Services book signing

I came across some good articles and information including a short article featuring a young boy who was raising a variety of wild birds in the Za’atari refugee camp. I thought to myself how important it was to have picture books that act as windows into the world, providing a safe opportunity for children to learn about other children’s circumstances and issues.

My Beautiful Birds was inspired by that little boy, his struggle with displacement and the universality I think all children have with their affinity to animals. 

Displacement is something many children face, from forest fire evacuation, to moving house, to fleeing war, and the struggles they encounter to reacclimate can be very hard. 
Likewise, all children, regardless of nationality, gender, or religion- they all love to play, learn and make new friends. It is my hope that these commonalities presented in My Beautiful Birds resonate with all children.

Once you wrote the story how did your writing group help you?

BAM! (Burlington Authors Mafia): Jennifer Mook-Sang,
Deborah Serravalle, Gisela Sherman, Jennifer Maruno, Sylvia McNicoll.
Seated: Suzanne and Rebecca Bender. Not pictured: Lana Button
Gillian Chan, Wendy Whittingham, Judith Robinson.

My writers group meets up about two times per month. They are a great group of talented ladies with diverse and extensive writing backgrounds and interests. 

We are all about providing a friendly, encouraging environment with honest, thoughtful feedback (and sometimes yummy treats), so we can feel comfortable sharing our first awkward drafts, and know every comment and critique comes from a good place. 
I read my first few drafts of this manuscript to my group (and two of my other writerly friends, Monica Kulling, and Lisa Dalrymple) and they critiqued it thoughtfully, pointing out niggle-y areas and offered great suggestions to help me strengthen my story.

What was the editorial process like?

Managing editor Erin Alladin and Suzanne

Ann Featherstone, senior editor at Pajama Press, was my editor for this project. She lives in British Columbia, so although weren’t able to meet in person we talked over the phone or via email to discuss the manuscript. 

We went through a few rounds of edits, to work out some areas that were initially a bit confusing. Ann was wonderful to work with as an editor. She was very open and helpful knowing this was my first time as an author-illustrator.

What are the similarities/differences in working with an editor versus an art director?


I found the experience to have more similarities than differences actually. 
Doing edits on a manuscript feels, to me at least, quite similar to making art changes based on art direction. With each you are fine tuning your creation to best suit the project, and maybe because I am such a visual thinker, the words I write are so intertwined with my images in my head, it is hard to totally separate them. 
I quite enjoy the collaborative approach with both editing/writing and art direction/illustrating as the brainstorming sessions of both leave me invigorated to create or tweak my writing/illustrations.
Editorial feedback or art direction really helps me to focus my ideas and it pushes me in unexpected directions that I might not have achieved on my own.

What were the challenges (artistic, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the images to life?

I wanted this book to not only depict beautiful and thought-provoking illustrations but I wanted to ensure that the artwork accurately and respectfully portrayed the Syrian people living in refugee camps.

Work-in-progress photo of Syrian landscape – note research photo, upper right

 Although I didn’t have to opportunity to travel to a camp myself, I did my best to research as much as I could from as many sources as possible to ensure I was informed and educated before beginning my illustrations. 

Work-in-progress of family fleeing their village
My publishing team at Pajama Press and I were very deliberate in our decisions about how to depict the scarier moments, in the book. For example, in the pages depicting Sami escaping during the bombing of his village, we decided to put the village and plumes of smoke and fire in the background to give some visual separation from these images to ensure even the most sensitive of readers would feel safe and secure.

Artistically, because many aspects of the book speak to the main character’s connection with the sky and his birds, I chose to illustrate in a more painterly style to evoke this emotional connection on a subconscious level. 
My art director, Rebecca Bender also suggested I used a limited colour palette, which I think worked very well. I envisioned sweeping desert landscapes and windswept clouds in colorful sunset or sunrise skyscapes, so I chose various shades of purple, violet, pinks, grey, and beige. 
Work-in-progress illustrations – note Sami’s blue hoodie
I used blue specifically in only two places: Sami’s hoodie and in the dove and pigeon. 
Overall, I think the artwork compliments the text well, and together the interplay of the text and illustrations enhances the reader’s connection to the main character, his struggles, and his avian friends.

Please describe your illustration apprenticeship. How did you take your art from beginner level to publishable?

I suppose my illustration apprenticeship could be best described as unconventional and “immersive.” 

I did not actually attend art school but I have taken various art classes throughout my life and as electives during my time at university where I earned a B.Sc.H in Life Sciences. 
I have been creative and a “maker” since I was small. After leaving a job in medical science research to have my four children, I decided to make the switch to children’s book illustration. I had always loved sculpting and was particularity drawn to the books featuring dimensional illustrators like, Barbara Reid, Janette Canyon, Euginie and Kim Fernandes
I immersed myself in picture books, poured through the wealth of awesome online kidlit resources while my kiddos napped, and joined SCBWI and CANSCAIP (Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers). I worked away on my art until I felt I was ready to put together a portfolio and send out postcards to publishing houses.

I still can’t believe how the stars aligned…only a few months after sending out my first postcard mailers (with fun bookmarks), I received a call and eventual offer from publisher and children’s editor, Christie Harkin at Fitzhenry & Whiteside to illustrate my first picture book, Skink on the Brink, written by Lisa Dalrymple (Fitzhenry & Whiteside 2013).

How has your style evolved over time?

One thing that I greatly enjoy about each picture book project is exploring and finding just the right mix of mediums to best illustrate that particular project. 

Maybe I’m getting a bit braver in my approach, with each new book, I hope so. I just love the interplay of different materials and the visual textures that come about. 
Polymer clay colors
used in My Beautiful Birds

With Gerbil Uncurled, by Alison Hughes ( Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2015) since the book centered around a family of gerbils, I used real wood chips and nibbled papers along with plasticine in my illustrations. 

In Sky Pig, by Jan Coates (Pajama Press, 2016), I incorporated actual watch gears, cogs, map papers and real milk-weed fluff into my illustrations- so fun! 
In My Beautiful Birds, as I mentioned previously, I wanted to use a more painterly approach, due to the subject matter.

I experimented with polymer clay, which looks pretty much like plasticine but has one major difference- it can be hardened by baking it.

Work-in-progress photo of rose finch

For this project I created my illustrations in polymer clay, baked them in the oven to harden them, then added paint or glaze treatments overtop to create depth, and simulate the dusty conditions of the Jordanian desert.

Close-up of rose finch feathers

Work-in-progress photo of children painting

I also incorporated hand-painted art from my children and their friends for the mural illustration near the end of the book. I set them up at the kitchen table with their art supplies and gave them the prompt: “how would you feel if you had to leave your home and all that you love?” 

Suzanne’s children painting the mural images 

These fabulous painting are also featured on the endpapers of the book. I scanned each painting then worked out the overall mural image in Photoshop, next I printed it out on t-shirt transfer paper, pressed it onto raw, thin sheet of polymer clay and baked the whole thing to transfer the image. 

This technique was also used for the kites and smaller children’s artwork throughout the book.

Cynsational Notes

Suzanne Del Rizzo began her career in picture books as the illustrator of Skink on the Brink, written by Lisa Dalrymple. It won the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award for Canada and was shortlisted for the 2014 Rainforest of Reading Award.

My Beautiful Birds has been named a Junior Library Guild selection for 2017 and received a starred review from Quill and Quire.

The Horn Book said, “Del Rizzo uses polymer clay and acrylic paint to create vibrant pictures of Sami, his family, the refugee camp, and the swirling pink-and-purple sky. Most of all, she creates birds for which every feather and color looks real. Beauty and sorrow sit side by side in this compassionate and age-appropriate depiction of contemporary refugee life.”

Pajama Press has a complimentary teachers guide for My Beautiful Birds, along with additional resources for learning more about the Syrian crisis.

Suzanne lives with her four children and husband in Oakville, Ontario.

Author-Illustrator Interview: Chieu Anh Urban on Developing Interactive Board Books

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Congratulations on Color Wonder: Hooray for Spring! (Little Simon, 2016) This is your third novelty book. 


Cynsations readers may remember your debut Raindrops: The Color of Showers (illustrated by by Viviana Garofoli, Sterling, 2010) and the creative process you described then.

Thank you for having me back; it’s hard to believe seven years have gone by. I’m excited to still be working on novelty books, and appreciate the opportunity to share my process with you and the creative children’s book community.

Tell us about the Color Wonder series. How did this idea develop? What was your inspiration?


This story was a dream come true. Every fall, I begin working on my holiday card to send to publishing editors and art directors. My cards focuses on a special interactive format, and each one is hand-assembled.

A few years ago, I sent out a holiday card featuring sea creatures, embracing the holiday spirit with an interactive wheel format that showcased the concept of color-mixing. The editor at Little Simon was very excited about it, and that is how Color Wonder became a series.

Holiday card with interactive wheel format.

Were there things you learned working on your previous books that helped you with this project?

I am always working on my craft and developing ideas. I’ve learned to be patient and let my designs slowly evolve, until I feel they are ready for me to start layering format and concept together.

My color-mixing wheel format was sketched out in my art book over four years ago. Every now and then I would return to the drawings to improve the design, and develop story concept ideas that would compliment the interactive experience.

Interior spread from Hooray for Spring!

When you’re thinking about an interactive novelty board book, what are the top priorities for creators to keep in mind?

Chieu’s art work space

My goal is to develop a format that will provide fun learning, interactive story-time experiences. I want my novelty format to serve a purpose that works with the story and concept. The interaction with format and story should be fun and satisfying to the child and reader.

My biggest challenge is to keep printing production and cost in mind. Often times, I develop a project that I’m very excited about, but is cost-prohibitive, or difficult to manufacture.

You wear a lot of hats in creating these books: author, illustrator, graphic designer and novelty format designer. Can you tell us more about these roles and the creative skills you call upon to make interactive novelty board books?  


I have a background in communications art and design. I think visually first, with my designer hat on.

I often start my projects with a concept idea, for example, colors. I begin with sketches of how I envision the layout, format, and design to look. From there, the art and story starts to play a role. I work in all these pieces and see what transpires.

How does being a novelty format designer make your work stand out?

Chieu’s computer work space

I focus on creating a format that is inventive and unique, a design that is fun and fresh.

I also think about reinventing common novelty elements, such as die-cuts and wheels.

Being a designer helps me approach art and story in a different perspective.

What are you currently working on?

I’ve been busy preparing art for my upcoming novelty books. This fall, Winter is Here! (Little Simon, October 2017), the second book in the Color Wonder series with color-mixing wheels will be published.

Quiet as a Mouse, and Other Animal Idioms (Sterling, 2017) is a fun guess-who novelty book with die-cuts, that will also be available in the fall.

In 2018, 123 GO! will make its debut. It is a number and counting novelty book with sliding vehicles on every page. I currently have a few novelty projects I am developing. Hopefully they will come together nicely.

Cynsations Notes

Chieu Anh Urban holds a BFA in Communications Art and Design from Virginia Commonwealth University School of Arts in Richmond. She began her career as a graphic designer and now works from her studio in suburban Maryland.

Activities, coloring pages and party collections associated with Hooray for Spring and Away We Go! are available on her website and her blog includes pre-school appropriate crafts related to her titles.

Chieu and her daughter at Hooray for Spring Launch Party

2017 Europolitan Con: Agent Penny Holroyde & Author-Illustrator Chris Mould

By Catherine Coe

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Note: This is the final installment of our series focusing on the SCBWI Europolitan Conference. Author Catherine Coe interviewed agent Penny Holroyde and her client author-illustrator Chris Mould.

Agent Penny Holroyde started her career in publishing over twenty years ago working in the rights department at Walker Books and selling picture book co-editions across the world.

She then relocated to Massachusetts and worked as Director of Rights and Licensing for Candlewick Press before relocating to the United Kingdom and starting life as an agent.

After 10 years with the Caroline Sheldon Agency she founded Holroyde Cartey in 2015 with Claire Cartey, former art director at Hodder Children’s Books.

Chris Mould was born and raised in West Yorkshire where he still lives with his family.

He is one of twenty studio artists at the prestigious Dean Clough Mills arts and business complex. His published work ranges from picture books to young fiction, and throughout a long career he has also produced theater posters, editorial cartoons for major newspapers and character development work for animated features.

Chris has won the Nottingham Children’s Book Award and the Swiss Prix Enfantaisie Best Children’s Novel Award, and has been short-listed for numerous others including the Kate Greenaway Medal and the Sheffield Children’s Book Award.

Chris is the author/illustrator of many picture books and young fiction, including the hugely successful Something Wickedly Weird series, and he also illustrates for others, such as Matt Haig‘s A Boy Called Christmas (Canongate, 2015) and The Girl Who Saved Christmas (Canongate, 2016). He occasionally shares illustrations and publishing news on blog.

Penny, can you tell us about how you and Chris first met, and what attracted you to his work?


As soon as I saw the words ‘My name is Chris Mould’ in my inbox I was looking up train times to Halifax. I would need to bring my A-game because, as a talent seeking new representation, he would not be short of suitors. I already knew I loved his work and when we met, we got along really well plus we shared the same strategy for how his career should progress.

And, Chris, what drew you to Penny?


Although Penny was an ‘ideal world’ choice for me I’d never be so presumptuous as to say I chose her because it has to be a mutual agreement of two people deciding to work together and matching up their skills. But her reputation goes before her.

She has a publishing background that means she completely understands the foundations of children’s publishing and why, when and how it works, both at home and abroad. She can wrestle a contract into the ground and she will do it in a way that shows that she’s human and enjoys working with the people that she negotiates with. She’s always 100-percent respectful of publishers and their respective teams when she talks to me privately and I like that.

But what’s hugely and equally important to me is that we get on tremendously and we’re like-minded on the creative front. You should hear us nattering in the pub. We’re like two old men.

Penny, many of your clients are illustrators and/or authors of younger fiction, such as Chris. Is this an intentional direction for you, or has it just happened that way? When considering illustrators, do you look for those who can write too, or do you find that comes later?


This does appear to have become Holroyde Cartey’s brand and although this has not been a conscious thing, it reflects my and Claire’s respective fields of interest and has actually become a kind of USP for the agency. We don’t insist that illustrators can also write though.

Chris, how did you get into children’s books? Were you an illustrator or a writer first?

Illustration was my first port of call. I was in art schools for six years after struggling through school, directionless.

When I found what I loved they couldn’t get rid of me. From then on I dived head first into publishing. But the sketchbook process is a big part of what I do and it lead to me creating written content.

I’d draw characters and give them names or just write odd sentences that floated around mid-air but that definitely had the opportunity to develop into something. It grew from there.

I always say I don’t really separate words and pictures. Integrated text and image makes for more coherent storytelling and I love the idea that the two can seamlessly merge.


Penny, in your day-to-day working life, how does teamwork play a part? 


It would be weird if 10 days went by when Chris and I didn’t talk on the phone. He is always busy so there is always stuff to discuss. Part of what I really respect about our working partnership is the trust. I might explain where I’m at with a contractual technicality and he will diligently listen and say that he trusts me to do the right thing.

We had a situation recently where he was approached for a high profile (read, celebrity) fiction series and we worked out our position, together, and stuck to it.

Chris’ work space in his Dean Clough Mills studio 

Chris, are there other partnerships – aside from illustrators, your agent and your publisher – that are important to you in your creative work?


My studio sits in a large complex which is a mixture of art and business. We have art space, galleries,
restaurants and cafes mingled with office space that is home to over 150 companies.

It’s huge and it has a great vibe and the whole idea of it initially was that it would encourage business and art to mingle and mix and enthuse one another. It works well for me and it means that there’s a certain dynamic that allows and assists inspiration, creative thinking and interesting input from people connected, and not connected, to the arts.

Sometimes inspiration comes in the form of a sandwich and a coffee in the cafe. I’m a big believer in that.

Penny, before becoming an agent, you worked in international rights (for Candlewick in the US). How has that affected what you do and how you approach agenting? Do you always think internationally?


Yes, I do, particularly when it comes to picture books. My background in rights gave me a lot of field knowledge but I learned the most about contracts, rights, and technicalities (which I think are essential skills for an agent) whilst working with Caroline Sheldon for 10 years.

Chris, your books have been translated into over 20 different languages. Do you take into account the potential for international book deals when developing ideas? 


Outside of publishing, people don’t realise how reliant we are on selling foreign rights and how small the U.K. market is. It’s not something you’d need to consider. And there are many things you’d like to ignore when you’re creating content because the whole idea of doing just that is that you can go anywhere you want to within your imagination.

But you do become conscious of what will travel and what won’t.

Pirates are a good example. Always a sure seller in the children’s market. Everlasting appeal guaranteed. And then consider the countries that have problems with modern day piracy and you can strike them off of your list of foreign rights options.

Penny, can you give us an insight into your professional mindset and what drives you as an agent?


I’m so happy to be running a business with Claire Cartey and, nearly two years in, we have some good successes and our client list is building very nicely. In terms of what drives me, I think it’s that thing of seeing a book go from a germ of an idea during a phone conversation with a client, right through to holding the finished book in my hand.

Chris, what drives you as an author/illustrator? Do you have any ambitions as yet unrealized? Is there anything you’d really love to work on/anyone you’d love to work with?


What drives me is the need (not the desire or the love of) but the need to draw and paint and tell stories.

It’s something we’ve always done. It’s as old as time and I’m endlessly fascinated by it. I always say I’d love to see something go to screen but being in this industry I am realistic. It’s about handing your work to someone else and very possibly feeling lukewarm about what comes back. So although that interests me and I’ve already got a waste bin full of popcorn on reserve, I’m acutely aware of the reality.

Also there are plenty authors I’d love to work with. I guess that’s fairly normal for most people like me. And I need to do a graphic novel.

Chris, you’re both an author and an illustrator, so in a way you’re your own partnership! Does that mean that when you’re working on a book you’re both writing and illustrating that your creative process is fairly solitary? Or do you still involve others – your agent/publisher? – and in what way? 

I’d say I’m very solitary in the early stages until I roll something out there. I’ll harbour my thoughts in my sketchbook and then it would probably extend into excited conversations over the phone with Penny.

Usually I’d send her drawings and ask her what she thinks and we will talk about why something may or may not work before she takes it anywhere. Maybe with some adjustment aforehand. Sometimes we talk about ideas before there’s any content if it happens that way. Usually this needs wine or beer.

Penny, how involved do you get with Chris’s early ideas and the development of his projects? 


When Chris and I started working together, Pocket Pirates was pretty much fully-formed and since then, he hasn’t had much time to work on his own ideas as he’s always being approached!

His sketch book is a cornucopia of delights and we keep promising each other that one of these days we’ll find a quiet corner of a pub and dig through for new ideas.

Chris, how do you find that writing informs the illustrating side of your work and vice versa? Where do you usually start when developing a new project? Do you experiment with different illustration styles depending on the concept? 

It’s back to that idea of trying not to separate words and pictures. And just letting thoughts out and not being self-conscious of what something is before it’s formed into something concrete.

I always try and start with something that just interests me. But it can be something very simple. A written line, a character, even just words that I like the sound of and start playing around with. It’s a very back to front and inside out process. So yes, in answer to your question they do inform each other and I think, subconsciously, that’s why I work in the way I work.

Penny, do you think it’s the words or the illustrations that are more important to a publisher when considering a submission from someone who does both, such as Chris?

Chris reads a lot in his free time and so he has a good gut instinct about whether a text (someone else’s) is for him when he’s offered it.

He’s currently working on a very exciting new non-fiction book that was born when a publisher saw something in his sketch book. The publisher then worked up the idea and attached a non-fiction author to it so that was a very collaboratively process.

Chris, you’re best known for your Something Wickedly Weird series. Can you tell us where the idea for that came from and how you developed the concept? 

Something Wickedly Weird was the beginning of me putting artwork and narrative together and at the time it was really just a vehicle for me to add all the elements to a story that I wanted to draw.

So, for example, I was always fascinated by all those animated sequences of people turning into werewolves in horror movies. I loved the idea of a character becoming another character within a plot.

I also loved the idea of a completely invented place away from anywhere else where anything could happen without cause for explanation. And I had to weave pirates in there just because they make for great characters and children love the sinister ones.

So it was a jumble of all the things knocking around in my sketchbook and all the nonsense in my head that I wanted to include and it became a process of weaving them into a coherent storyline.

Penny, why do you think Something Wickedly Weird has been so successful? 

A hugely likeable hero in Stanley Buggles, recognizable fantasy worlds featuring pirates and three-legged dogs, etc., the writing is strong and perfectly pitched for the age group, plus, of course, Chris’s amazing pictures.

Chris, some of your most recent work has been illustrating Matt Haig’s Christmas novels – A Boy Called Christmas and The Girl Who Saved Christmas. Can you tell us about how that came about and how the partnership works? Are there difficult things about illustrating someone else’s work? Is it easier or harder to illustrate someone else’s work because you are also a writer?


Canongate had looked around for an illustrator who would make visual sense of the Christmas books and needless to say we were very excited by the prospect when we were approached. I’d always wanted to do a book about Father Christmas and here on a plate was a ready-made tale by a significant author. And a strong one at that. A Christmas gift, in the middle of May!

Matt and Canongate are both great to work with because they weren’t prescriptive about how things should appear visually.

Sometimes authors can be very specific in this sense. That’s fine. It just means they have a clear view of the whole look of that world in their head when they’re writing. But obviously that makes the process a bit more backwards and forwards and less free for the visually creative side.

But the team embraced the visual interpretation with open arms and allowed me to develop it in the way I saw it, which was great for me and made the process all the more enjoyable.

I really believe that to get the best out of illustrators you have to let them do what they do. Myself and Matt also seem quite well matched in that we aren’t overly sentimental and we are both happy to deal with the darker side of things.

I love that his Father Christmas origin story has trolls in it. And that someone’s head explodes. Who’d have thunk it??

Someone said to me that they could tell that when my reindeers aren’t ‘in shot’, they’re round the back of the sleigh shed, having a cigarette.


Penny, can you give us your thoughts on why Chris and Matt make such a great combination?


Chris is a perfect choice for Matt’s Christmas novels and Canongate’s publishing of this franchise has been very talented. Chris is very good at portraying poignancy in dark situations, and Victoriana and the Gothic are very much his metier.


Thanks, Penny and Chris, for talking to me today and giving such interesting insights into your work. I’m very much looking forward to seeing you both at the Europolitan conference.


Catherine Coe is a children’s book editor and author with over 15 years’ experience. Having worked in-house for many years, most recently as senior commissioning editor at Orchard Books, Catherine went freelance in 2011.

Since then she has authored over 30 books, including The Owls of Blossom Wood (Scholastic, 2015), The Unicorns of Blossom Wood (Scholastic, 2016), and the Kid Cowboy (Orchard Books, 2012) series.

Editorially, Catherine’s clients include many major and independent publishers and agents, and she also works directly with writers, offering consultancy, mentoring and editing services.

When Catherine’s not reading or writing with a cup of Earl Grey in hand, you’ll most likely find her out running the waterside paths of Stockholm, the city she now calls home. On Twitter she’s @catherinecoe.

Cynsational Notes


Huge thanks and appreciation to the amazing Elisabeth Norton, for organizing, coordinating and making the SCBWI Europolitan Con series of articles possible! Without her generous assistance, we would not have been able to share these in-depth interviews with you.

Elisabeth Norton

In Memory: Yumi Heo

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Obituary: Yumi Heo by Shannon Maughan from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “[Henry] Holt’s Laura Godwin shared this remembrance:

Yumi was extremely gracious, enthusiastic, and inquisitive,’ she said. ‘I loved the way she incorporated ‘mistakes’ into her art rather than erasing or deleting them.

“If she drew a squiggle where she hadn’t intended, it would show up in the final art as a tree or a rabbit or whatever struck her fancy. She was part artist, part magician—and always an inspiration.'”

Yumi Heo Memorial Fund from Go Fund Me. Peek:

“Please show your support in honor of internationally loved children’s book author and Illustrator and creator of Polka Dot Penguin Pottery, Yumi Heo.

“Your support will help continue two of Yumi’s dreams, the steady training of her daughter as a professional figure skater and the founding of a scholarship program to help students in Korea who have big dreams and little resources.”

Author-Illustrator Interview: Ambelin Kwaymullina on Justice, Hope & Her Creative Family

Sample chapter from Candlewick Press

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The second of a four-installment dialogue with Ambelin and Cynthia.  

Our focus is on the creative life and process,
speculative fiction, diversity, privilege, indigenous literature, and books for young readers.

Yesterday, Ambelin spoke on ethics, the writing process and own voices.

We have children’s-YA literature and the law in common. That’s actually a pretty common combination here in the states. Why do you think there are so many people involved in both?

Well, I’ve had some of my law students suggest the law is so horribly dry that it drives people to being creative in order to escape its clutches (these are generally the students who are studying law because their parents thought it was a good idea).

But for me at least, I think the reason I studied law and the reason I write are the same. In both realms, I am seeking justice – and justice, in Aboriginal societies, generally equates to balance, not just between human beings but between all forms of life (and everything lives).

I write speculative fiction because I want to write about the possibility of defeating injustice; to write about the terrible things that were (and are) while imagining what could be.

The oppressive law I wrote about in the Tribe series divides people into three categories: those without an ability (Citizens); those with an ability (Illegals); and those whose ability is considered benign (Exempts).

This is not an invented law. It is based on the Western Australian Natives (Citizenship Rights) Act 1944, a piece of legislation that purported to offer Aboriginal people ‘citizenship’ by exempting us from racially-based restrictions that only applied to my ancestors in the first place because they were Aboriginal.

In the Tribe series, this law is ultimately defeated by an alliance of the marginalised and the privileged, and by a heroine whose power is to identify and sustain the connections between all life.

And in writing of connections, I am writing of something that is central to the law in Aboriginal legal systems where (at its broadest) law is the processes of living in the world that sustain the world.

You clearly articulate the impact of white privilege on writing and writers, noting the negative impact on the work of Native voices and POC voices. What would you say to those Native and POC writers who may find themselves angry, frustrated, hurt or discouraged by these dynamics?

First: it’s not you. Exclusion is not something you are inventing in your head and you are neither unlucky nor unworthy.

It helps in this context to form connections with other Indigenous writers as well as with writers of colour, LGBTI writers, and writers with a disability.

You are likely to hear stories of authors getting similar comments across different contexts (e.g: you’re not writing to the Indigenous experience … this story is too Asian … gay books don’t sell … we’ve already published a ‘disability book’ this year).

It matters to have a network of people with whom to share both the good and bad experiences; and perhaps most importantly, to understand that you are not alone.

Second, never forget how to laugh. Some of the comments I’ve listed above have been part of the experience of other writers that they’ve laughed about with me – not because these comments are not discriminatory and hurtful, but because laughter has always been one of the ways in which marginalised peoples have dealt with pain.

Third, define success in your own terms. We all know what ‘success’ is supposed to be in literary industry terms: book sales and/or critical acclaim (preferably both). I’m not saying we shouldn’t aspire to that. But I also think that if marginalised writers define our success solely in the terms set by an industry that consistently privileges white, straight, cis-gendered people who don’t have a disability, we are also buying into an underlying lie.

The lie is that if we can just prove we are good enough we will be treated equally. But once equality has to be earned, it is no longer equality.

So I think it’s important that each of us define success according to what matters to us – and for me, it’s being a person that my ancestors would be proud of.

Book sales wouldn’t overly interest them. But honouring who they were, and who I am; treating cultural knowledge with respect; helping other Indigenous writers whenever and wherever I can – these are the kinds of things they’d be concerned about.

Fourth: be hopeful. I am. I locate my hope in people, and there are many, many people working towards a world in which all voices have an equal opportunity to speak and all stories are equally heard.

I think change will come, and in the meantime, I’m proud to be a part of a global community of voices, marginalised and privilege alike, that are speaking out for justice.

While you don’t feel it’s appropriate for non-Indigenous writers to reflect your community in first person or deep third, you are open to them writing secondary characters. Why does your opinion differ depending on how centered the character’s perspective is in the story?

Ambelin’s desk

I don’t think it’s appropriate for non-Indigenous people to speak as if they are Indigenous, especially given the operation of privilege which means that non-Indigenous voices will be heard in a way that Indigenous voices are not.

For me, writing from an ‘outsider’ perspective (so not in first or deep third) is to respect boundaries; to accept there are limits on what we can know of others and how we should represent others in our own work.

When I write of experiences of marginalisation not my own, I do it from an outsider perspective – reflecting that this is much as I can understand and that understanding may of course be wrong; I am not suggesting that I know what it is to see the world from an ‘insider’ view of a group to which I don’t belong. I think the spaces must be created for everyone to speak to their own worlds, and I want to be part of making those spaces a reality.

What advice do you have for non-Indigenous writers in crafting those secondary characters?

I think something you’ve said is the best place to start – you’ve spoken of the need for writers to read 100 books by Indigenous people before writing about us.

I agree. No one should be writing an Indigenous character without being familiar with Indigenous stories (not the ones told about us but the ones told by us).

It’s also important to ensure that any stories people are reading are ethically published because there is a vast body of Indigenous stories that were taken by anthropologists and others and are now in the public domain without the informed consent (or sometimes even the knowledge) of the Indigenous peoples concerned.

The easiest way to check that a story is appropriately published is to see who holds the copyright; where Indigenous peoples hold copyright in their own stories it is at least some indication that they control the text.

In addition to reading stories, I’d say, become familiar with representation issues. Engage with the online dialogue happening around representation and children’s literature as it relates to Indigenous peoples. There are no shortage of voices speaking in this space.

And finally: words spoken about marginalised peoples have a weight and a cost. But if you are not a member of that group, then it’s a weight that you don’t carry and a cost that you don’t pay.

So don’t measure the impact of your words by how they will be read by people like you. Measure them by how they’ll be read by the people you’re writing about.

How did you learn your craft as a writer and illustrator?

By doing! I have no formal training in writing or illustration. But nor do a lot of Australian Indigenous writers and illustrators, and we have been storytellers for thousands of years.

So to learn craft I look to the work of Indigenous writers and artists, both within Australia and elsewhere, as well as to the ancient teachings of my people.

What inspired you to direct your talents toward creating stories for young readers?

In my YA series, I was writing about a superhero, so it had to be about a teenager. I don’t believe grown ups have it in us to save the world, because we are spectacularly failing to do so.

But in the young I see all the hope for the future – they are more interconnected, quick to embrace new ideas, and passionate about fighting anything they perceive as an injustice.

They’re also more honest, especially the children for whom I write picture books. When they like a book, they write me lovely letters telling me how they sleep with the book under their pillow and begging me to write more. When they don’t like it they’re equally forthright.

People ask sometimes whether its difficult as an author to deal with bad reviews, to which I say: try writing for six-year-olds. Every once in a while, children send me letters about one or the other of my picture books that begin something like this: “My teacher made me read your book. I didn’t like it.”

I’ve had a few of these letters that went on for ten pages or more, and since that length is like War and Peace from a six-year-old, it means I’ve had kids hate my work enough to send me the child equivalent of Tolstoy.

Adverse reviews from grown-ups are nothing in comparison.



What was your initial inspiration for The Tribe series?

Sample chapter from Candlewick Press

My brother Blaze. He came up to me one day and said, “I’ve got an awesome title for a book. It’s called The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf.”

I said, “That’s a pretty good title – what’s the story?’

To which Blaze replied, “Oh, there’s no story. Just the name, and I can’t be bothered writing it so I’m giving to you.”

Having bestowed the title of the novel upon me, he wandered off, leaving me to start thinking about the story. (And for anyone who’s read any of the Tribe series, the character of Jaz is very like my brother Blaze).

What were the challenges—literary, research, psychological and logistical—of bringing the stories to life?

I think the primary challenge is this: in so many ways, I wasn’t writing fiction. A post-apocalyptic world is not a fantasy for Indigenous peoples; the colonial apocalypse has already happened and much of The Tribe series is drawn from Australian colonial history.

Much of it too is drawn from the experiences of my ancestors and that is why hope runs so strongly through the narrative. They held on to hope through hard, cruel times when all their choices were taken away from them.

Indigenous peoples are so often spoken of as victims and I certainly don’t wish to minimise the suffering and the multi-generational trauma inflicted upon us by the colonial project. But the very fact that the Indigenous peoples of the world survived determined efforts to destroy us demonstrates our great strength.

I think the ability to hold onto hope is part of that strength and its something I try to honour.

You’ve created several picture books with Sally Morgan. Could you tell us about your work together?

Ambelin with her creative family

So, Sally is my mum. I’ve also done books with my two brothers, Blaze and Zeke, and the four of us have written together as a family. We’re all authors and artists, and we always give each other an honest opinion – sometimes this results in one of us storming off (usually me or Zeke, we’re both excellent stormers).

Generally, once we’ve had a chance to think about the criticism we come creeping sheepishly back and agree that yes, actually, that particular portion of the narrative (which we were previously so proud of) does indeed need more work.

I think from the outside our working process probably looks chaotic; we all talk at the same time and over each other; generally, the person with the best story gets to hold the floor until they get boring and someone else interrupts. If you want a place in the conversation in my family, you have to be prepared to earn it.

What can your readers look forward to next?

I’m working on three YA novels right now, but the one I’ll finish first is a book I’m writing with my brother Zeke.

It’s a mystery with fantasy elements that’s told from the perspective of three Indigenous female protagonists. It’s been a difficult book to write in places because terrible things happen in it, but its ultimately a story about the power of young Indigenous women and how they find their way home.