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: 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.


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