Interview: Author Allison Estes & Illustrator Tracy Dockray on Izzy & Oscar

By Allison Estes & Tracy Dockray
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

From the promotion copy of Izzy & Oscar (Jabberwocky/Sourcebooks, 2015):


Have you ever taught an octopus to roll over? It’s harder than it looks. 

Discover why octopuses make the best pets in this charming picture book about friendship and embracing individuality!


Izzy has always wanted a pet. So when an adventurous octopus squiggles into town, Izzy decides to keep him. After all, a real pirate captain has to have a mascot. Oscar is not very good at going for walks or playing fetch. (Although he is amazing at hide and seek). And he’s definitely not like other pets…


But he is just right for Izzy.


Readers will be tickled by Izzy’s attempts to teach Oscar to behave like a dog, a parrot, a pony-and gratified by Izzy’s realization that in the end we love others for who they are…eight arms and all!

Visit Sourcebooks’ Izzy & Oscar Pinterest page!

Allison Interviews Tracy

AE: To get to be a published author, I had to read a lot and write a lot of course. But I didn’t study it in college, I just sort of went out and did it. 

My first published book was a ghostwriting job I got through a friend who recommended me. I had to write a few sample chapters, but the editor approved and I got the job. It was for a YA action/adventure series called Adventurers, Inc. by Mallory Tarcher (Kensington, 1994). 

So, my question for you is, how did you get your first illustrating job and what was the title?

Tracy Dockray

TD: I was living in the Lower East Side of New York, making puppets and painting murals when I decided that I really wanted to illustrate children’s books. I created what I thought a portfolio should be and my boyfriend pretended he was my agent and showed it to publishers.

A wonderful young editor at Farrar Straus and Giroux saw my portfolio and hired me to do a nonfiction book titled MicroAliens. I said “yes!” and was beside myself with joy… even though I had no idea what a microalien was.

AE: Some books are harder to write than others, and in different ways, and no matter what, I love the process of writing. It’s also a wonderful moment when you hear that a book has been accepted for publication. But the best thing is when I finish a book: I get elated, and full of energy. 

What’s your hardest/best thing in the illustration process?

TD: I run around the brownstone doing the Snoopy happy dance every single time I’m told I have another book I get to do. I guess, the best thing about the illustration process is that I get to do what I love to do for a living! Wow!

It’s not all sun and roses because sometimes an editor or writer has a definite idea of what your illustrations should be. And we are all good at some things and not as perfect at others.

AE: When I am writing, I tune out everything, enter another realm of consciousness, am irritable if interrupted, and feel dreamy and satisfied when I finally emerge. I have heard it called the “flow state.” What is your illustrating state-of-mind?

TD: I love the feeling that happens when doing something enjoyable with concentration. Flow state sounds a little groovy but for lack of a better word we’ll use it.

Whether it’s cooking, illustrating, writing or even hammering nails into wood, it’s moving and thinking and concentrating on accomplishing something. Usually, my kids bring me back to earth a lot quicker. Shocking sometimes, but what’re you going to do…?

AE: Right now, what is your favorite book that you have ever illustrated?

TD: My favorite book that I’ve illustrated, so far, is my Lost and Found Pony (Feiwel & Friends, 2011). I absolutely love drawing horses. So much so that I had to write a book about them so I could draw even more of them.

Allison, I know that you’ve written lots of horse books, funny that you and I got together to illustrate one about…. An octopus!?

But I really enjoyed that challenge. Octopi are so much more than I thought they were. It’s been so exciting illustrating your “Izzy and Oscar” although, making sure to get Oscars tentacles just right in the illustrations would mess with my groovy flow… in a big way.

Tracy Interviews Allison

TD: Neil Gaiman wrote, “People who wrote the rules know what is possible and impossible. You do not. And you should not, the rules of what is possible and impossible in art are made by those people who have not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them.” 

Sometimes, I think that not knowing how hard it is to break into the world our craft gave us the courage to try it. In your question to me, you mentioned that you didn’t study writing in school and that you applied yourself after school learning your craft. This is interesting because that is the way I approached illustrating too. 

So, what did you study in school? Have you used it in your work now?

Allison Estes

AE: I loved acting when I was a teenager, and when I went to college I studied Theatre and English. I also competed on the forensics team (which doesn’t have anything to do with crime scene investigation—it’s speech and debate) in the speech and interp events. And somewhere in there I took a broadcast journalism class that I really loved, where I had to write and produce ads for radio.

The performance aspect of the theatre degree has stood me in good stead when I do author appearances, especially for large audiences: I learned how to use physical gestures to help portray characters and how to project!

On the forensics team, I learned to cut a longer piece of literature into a short excerpt, and several tricks that help you be really good at reading aloud—it’s a bit like acting with a book in your hand.

And writing 30-second radio ads is a lot like the way you have to think when you’re writing picture books: short and to the point, but still with some conflict, characters you care about, and emotional interest, so you have to choose your words very carefully!

And I think all the things that fascinate us throughout our lives, all the things we throw ourselves into for the sheer love of it, end up coming through us to shape our craft.

TD: There are always the upsides and down to everything. You’d said you were always so excited to get another writing project to do. So, on the flip side, what was your worst book experience: was it the making of the book, a very difficult time that you were working through while writing, or was it a review that made your feelers droopy?

AE: I wrote a lot of books for series, that I really poured my literary soul into because it was the writing I had to do at the time.

And series by nature are more likely to go out of print, because there are just so many titles and so many series that can fit on the shelves, and your reading audience outgrows them after a while.

So I think when The Short Stirrup Club went out of print was a big downer in my writing career.

TD: They often say that writers are sponges absorbing their experiences and then using them in their writing. Are you that type of writer? Can you cite an example?

AE: I think that’s true, but I don’t think I go around consciously noting things and storing them away to write about later.

It’s more like the stuff soaks in, and then when you go to write something, there it is: the analogy you want, or the idea for a character, or the late afternoon light shining through icy tree limbs…you can’t help but be a sponge, and you can’t help writing about what you’ve absorbed.


TD: As a writer yourself, I was interested in who were your favorite writers to read?

AE: I think I have read thousands of books: truly.

As soon as I learned to read, I was always with a book. My first favorite was Little Black, a Pony, by Walter Farley (Random House, 1961). The second was a little grocery store book called Fawn Baby by Gladys Baker Bond (Whitman, 1966).

As I got older, I read all the Newbery award winners (and I still do), and, really I read anything, everything: magazines, whatever was on my parents’ book shelves, whatever was at the school library…the library in our town had one wall of children’s books, and I’m pretty sure I had signed my name on the check-out card of almost all of them.

Now I still read every night before I fall asleep. For a few years I’ve been trying to catch up on classics I never got around to: I think Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813), David Copperfield (1849), and Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (1862) are some of the most sublime literary inventions ever.

Austen, Dickens, Hugo: no one can write like that anymore. No one.

I’m also a great fan of Kipling and have read nearly everything he wrote. I love Steinbeck. I love short stories; Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall (Scribner, 2010) is one of my favorite collections.

I could go on and on…but I’ll wrap it up with this: I’m currently reading George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series (I’m on the fifth) and I keep a copy of James Stephens’ Irish Fairy Tales by my bed and never get tired of reading it: it’s some of the most beautiful prose ever written.

TD: I really related to you when I read about your never getting your gray kitten. I always wanted Sea Monkeys. They always looked so amazing in the comic book ads. I never got them as a child but for my 18th birthday my mom finally got me Sea Monkeys! She said she didn’t want me to feel like I’d been denied my dream. Ha! 

When I got them, I was dismayed to discover that they were really just brine shrimp. 

You have a lot of animals in your life now, what is a memorable pet moment for you, happy or sad? Do you regret not having an octopus as a pet?

AE: Well, finally getting a gray kitten was a biggy, of course. Once Santa brought me a hamster. I was thrilled! It was the best Christmas ever! My first pony…my first dog…my first horse…But, happy and sad? Actually, this pet moment will always stay with me:

Last October, the same day my folks left town on vacation, our sweet old lab Stella commenced to dying. Sad as it was, she was ancient—about 105 in human years—and came naturally to the end of a long, happy life.

It is a long, hard, sweaty job to dig a hole in the hard-packed Mississippi dirt big enough to bury an 80-pound dog. No one was around to help except my 11-year-old son, Lucas. And help he did. Together we hacked and chipped and dug through the hard, red clay until we got Stella’s grave dug, and together we laid her down on her favorite old bed and covered her up.

It is no easy thing to look at death. Lucas never faltered. That day my old dog left this world, I saw the little man in my son.

Cynsational Notes

Allison Estes has written more than a dozen books. Izzy & Oscar is her first picture book, and was really different and fun to write!

Some of her other books are The Short Stirrup Club series (ten titles) for middle-grade readers, four titles in the Thoroughbred series (fun because she got to start over in #24 with all new characters), and Paw & Order: Dramatic Investigations by an Animal Cop on the Beat, which is an adult book but fine for animal lovers of all ages and full of happy endings.

After 29 years in New York City, Allison recently moved back to her home town, Oxford, Mississippi. She lives in the country with her son, two grandparents, two dogs, and two horses.

Right now, when she isn’t busy cooking supper, taking care of dogs and horses, teaching writing workshops and driving to soccer, she is working on another picture book, another adult book, and more happy endings.

Tracy Dockray grew up on the plains of West Texas with a love of books and innumerable pets. She moved to New York where she studied fine art and acquired several old motorcycles.

Her career veered from sculpture to puppet making to murals and finally to children’s books. She is ecstatic to have illustrated 30 books including two that she wrote herself.

Tracy now lives in a creaky, cavernous brownstone in Greenwich Village, with a hairless cat, two fuzzy dogs, two children and a very tolerant husband.

She is thrilled to have been able to illustrate Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series and The Mouse and the Motorcycle series since she has a soft spot for them both.

Although Tracy studied Fine Arts in school, she has come to the happy conclusion that drawing pictures for children’s books is the finest art she knows.

Find Tracy at Facebook.

New Voice: Matt Phelan on Druthers

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Matt Phelan is the first-time author of Druthers (Candlewick, 2014). From the promotional copy:

With warmth and humor, award-winning author-illustrator Matt Phelan follows a child as she leads her daddy on some rainy-day flights of fancy.


It’s raining and raining and raining, and Penelope is bored. “What would you do if you had your druthers?” asks her daddy. 

Well, if Penelope had her druthers, she’d go to the zoo. Or be a cowgirl. Or a pirate captain who sails to the island of dinosaurs, or flies away on a rocket to the moon. 

If Penelope had her druthers, she’d go off on amazing adventures — but then again, being stuck inside may not be so bad if your daddy is along for the ride!

Note: Druthers is Matt’s first picture book as the author and illustrator.

As a picture book writer, how did you learn your craft? What were your natural strengths? Greatest challenges?

The best thing you can do to learn the craft is to read as many picture books as you can. Try to identify what works and what doesn’t.

Read them Out Loud. If you have a kid on your lap all the better, but it isn’t necessary.

But do read them out loud anyway. It will help you understand the rhythm and page turn.

Having illustrated ten picture books before writing my own, I had a unique opportunity to study the craft of writing a picture book. I learned so much from the great writers I’ve collaborated with over the years.

My greatest strength I suppose is that, as an illustrator, I know intuitively when I can let the pictures tell the story. The great challenge is to also work in the words so they do what they need to do to make the book a success. It’s a delicate balance and I’m honestly not sure if it is easier doing both parts or not.

As an author-illustrator, you come to children’s books with a double barrel of talent. Could you describe your apprenticeship in each area, and how well (or not) your inner writer and artist play together? What advice do you have for other interested in succeeding on this front?

I think my inner artist and inner writer get along swimmingly. I tend to see my stories first as images, but I write before I really start drawing.

In the case of my graphic novels, that medium allows me to tell much of my story through the images. But before I drew those images, I had written a detailed manuscript describing everything you see. I always write first for my graphic novels. I write in images and then the illustrator side makes those images.

Although I drew my whole life, I worked professionally as a copywriter and screenwriter before my first illustration job. I then concentrated on being an illustrator for five or six years.

During that time I was also playing around with the stories that would become The Storm in the Barn (Candlewick, 2009) and Druthers, so I think I always knew I would eventually write books as well as illustrate them.

As far as advice for author/illustrators, I would say that you must always remember that a picture book (or graphic novel for that matter) is a combination of words and images. You might have a wordless book, but there will still be a Story that you can tell with words. Find the balance, pay attention to the rhythm, and throw yourself into it.

Also (and this goes for anyone), don’t chase trends. If the book you want to write is a “quiet” book, don’t be discouraged because people say the market only wants “edgy” books.

Nobody in publishing knows what they want until they see it, really. You have to write or draw the book that you feel deep in your heart, gut, and soul. It’s the only chance for it to be good.

Outside Matt’s Studio
Inside Matt’s Studio

Guest Interview: Lindsey Lane on A Heap of Talking with Edward Carey

Edward in Edward Gorey‘s coat; photo by Allison Devers

By Lindsey Lane
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I am sitting at Sweetish Hill Bakery & Cafe, waiting to interview Edward Carey, author of the forthcoming middle grade/YA novel Heap House, Iremonger Book One.

If I’d read his bio before the interview, I might be a little bit intimidated.

Not only is Carey the author of two adult novels, Observatory Mansions and Alva and Irva: the Twins Who Saved a City, which have been translated into thirteen different languages, and both of which he illustrated, he is also a playwright with a long list of credits in England, Romania, Lithuania and Malaysia.

He has lived all over the world and currently makes his home in Austin with his wife Elizabeth McCracken and their two children and occasionally teaches creative writing and fairy tales at the Michener Center and the English Department at the University of Texas at Austin.

Gulp…Instead, I’m happily oblivious when Edward Carey bursts through the door of Sweetish Hill, hair blown back, red faced. I wonder if he’s driven here on a motorcycle.

Edward Carey: Parking. There’s no parking. I couldn’t find any parking. I had to run a great distance. I’m so sorry I’m late.

I assure him that six minutes past a meeting time in a town with too much traffic and not enough places to put cars is not late. In fact, my mother would argue, five minutes of lateness builds the anticipation of meeting someone. Particularly someone whose book I really loved.

Heap House is brilliant, original, inventive and unlike any book I’d ever read. The writing is smart and funny. The premise is ancient and fresh.

While Edward orders tea, I’ll share a brief description of the book:


Clod is an Iremonger. He lives in the Heaps, a vast sea of lost and discarded items collected from all over London.

At the centre is Heap House, a living maze of staircases and scurrying rats. Clod has an illness. He can hear the objects whispering. His birth object, a universal bath plug, says ‘James Henry’, A storm is brewing over Heap House.

When Clod meets Lucy Pennant, a girl newly arrived from the city, everything changes. The secrets that bind Heap House together begin to unravel to reveal a dark truth that threatens to destroy Clod’s world.

Already, it has received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews.

L2: Can you give me a one sentence description on Heap House?

EC: It’s a coming of age love story set in the rubbish heaps of Victorian London.

L2: So how did you come to write Heap House?

EC: I love Dickens. I love illustrations. I love kids books. I love Robert Louis Stevenson. I love books with a sense of adventure.

L2: Okay. But why Heap House? What was the inspiration?

Edward in China; photo by Hugh Ferrer

EC: Well, there was this museum outside Bejing. I can’t remember the name of it. And when I went in there, they had rooms full of things.

One room full of mirrors. One room full of keys, one full of doorhandles. One room was full of bathtubs.

And it seemed to me all these objects put together were somehow communicating with each other.

L2: Really?

EC: Well, that’s what it seemed like to me. A 14th century tub talking to 19th century tub. They were going on and on.

L2: And that visit led to a book about objects that talked?

EC: It started me thinking about it. In Victorian England, during the height of Britain’s Empire, there was also an horrendous amount of poverty and neglect, and poor people were just crushed under the weight of industry. There were massive amounts of poor people and children were left at orphanages with one object from their families.

There’s a place in London called the Foundling Hospital (now it’s a museum) and sometimes when the mother anonymously left her baby there in the night, she’d leave a small object behind with it, a thimble say or a button or the metal label from a gin bottle, and this would be all that was afterwards to give any hint of where the child came from.

Can you imagine? Your mother is so poor she can’t keep you and she leaves you at an orphanage with one object. What tremendous power these singular objects have.

L2: Ahh, I’m beginning to see the heft and history of the objects in Heap House and their relation to people. But at Heap House you have massive heaps of things and rubbish not just the characters’ birth objects.

EC: Right. That’s what we spend our whole lives doing. Consuming and spending and acquiring and what happens when we don’t look after those things? We throw them away.

And what happens when we die? Those objects, those precious things get orphaned and thrown into the rubbish.

Terribly sad, really.

copyright Edward Carey

L2: How did Clod start coming into focus amongst all the objects?

EC: I started drawing this odd, ill-faced child who looked slightly miserable and I wondered, Hmm, what do you have to say for yourself?

L2: Do you draw a lot?

EC: All the time. But not all of them become characters. Clod did, because he looked so concerned about something. I gave him a bathplug for his object. It worked symbolically because a plug keeps things in or lets them out.

L2: And Lucy? Her object?

EC: I gave her a box of matches. Her name comes from Lucifer. When she comes into the house, she turns things up side down. Almost like a burning, a purifying or a transformation. So…matches.

L2:What would you like your birth object to be?

EC: I think a pencil sharpener would be quite nice.

Edward and I digress and talk about a few of the characters’ objects for a while. He tells me the Grandmother in Heap House gets quite nasty. She’s the one who chooses peoples birth objects and some of them aren’t very nice. Like one poor fellow gets a noose. Not a bright future for that character.

If you would like to have a birth object, you can go to Edward’s website (scroll to bottom) and you will be assigned one. Mine is named Joseph Cecil Tennant and appears to be a little stool.

I try to wheedle the details out of him about Book Two and Three.

EC: Book Two’s done. It will be out next October. I haven’t worked out Book Three. I’ve got tons of stuff but it’s not filled in. I like not entirely knowing what’s going to happen so I have the freedom to surprise myself.

L2: That’s what I loved about your writing. It surprises. Like this description:

Bornobby washed with some sort of scented soap so you could always smell him coming, but always there was an undersmell with him, as if a ghost of a fish was following him about, swimming in his air.

It’s the kind of writing that give other writers permission to write more boldly, more inventively.

EC: Thank you.

copyright Edward Carey

L2: What writers give you permission to draw outside the lines, so to speak?

EC: Angela Carter. Leonora Carrington. Carson McCullers. Shirley Jackson. Patrick Ness. Neil Gaiman. That’s why I love to teach fairytales. Grimm, Hoffman, Andersen these are really dark stories. They are our original stories, Grimms’ tales are a primal source of fiction, which over time have often been sanitized. Originally there wasn’t a stepmother in Hansel and Gretel. It was the mother who sent the kids into the woods because there wasn’t enough food. I love those stories. There are always woods you can’t go into.

If you go into the darkness, what will happen? Death? Or Love?

I also love the Secret Garden, Rudyard Kipling, and J.M Barrie’s original Peter Pan. It has the greatest opening lines in children’s literature: “All children, save one, grow up.”

Or perhaps this first line:

“It really all began, all the terrible business that followed, on the day that my Aunt Rosamud’s door handle went missing.” –Beginning the narrative of Clod Iremonger

copyright Edward Carey

Cynsational Notes

Photo of Lindsey by Sam Bond Photography.

Adapted from Lindsey’s website bio:

Lindsey graduated from Hampshire College with a BA in Theatre Arts-Playwriting and moved to Austin where she started writing plays like the award winning “The Miracle of Washing Dishes.”

Later, she worked at The Austin Chronicle and the Austin American-Statesman where she interviewed death row inmates, cops and wayward millionaires.

When she wasn’t writing, she trained as a boxer and promoted the first
all-women’s boxing event to raise money for the Austin Rape Crisis
Center.

In 2003, Clarion published her picture book Snuggle Mountain, named Best Children’s Book of 2004 by Bank Street College of Education. Later, PicPocket Books published Snuggle Mountain as an app.

Lindsey received an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2010. Her debut YA novel Evidence of Things Not Seen was released by FSG in September.

Event Report: Lindsey Lane & Evidence of Things Not Seen from Cynsations.

Author-Illustrator Interview: Lita Judge on Born in the Wild: Baby Mammals and Their Parents

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

From the promotional copy of Born To Be Wild: Baby Mammals and Their Parents by Lita Judge (Roaring Brook, 2014):

What do grizzly bear cubs eat? Where do baby raccoons sleep? And how does a baby otter learn to swim? 

Every baby mammal, from a tiny harvest mouse “pinky” to a fierce lion cub, needs food, shelter, love, and a family.

Filled with illustrations of some of the most adorable babies in the kingdom, this awww-inspiring book looks at the traits that all baby mammals share and proves that, even though they’re born in the wild, they’re not so very different from us, after all!

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

I wanted to show the amazing ways in which animals protect and raise their young and how remarkably similar a baby animals needs are to our own.

When I was a little girl, I watched my grandparents raise Golden Eagles and Great Horned Owl chicks. We played foster parent to Green Herons, Red Tailed hawks, raccoons, otters and any other animal that was orphaned or injured.

My grandparents were biologists, and they taught me to respect animals and to study how they live and interact in the wild. My work reflects my upbringing, and the fact that I’ve always felt compelled to bring a better understanding of animals to young readers.

Lita with a Great Horned Owlet

Lita’s grandmother, Fran Hamerstrom, with a Golden Eagle

Lita’s grandmother, Fran Hamerstrom, with a Golden Eagle

What was the timeline between spark and publication?

This book went fairly quickly as far as my picture books go.

When I say quickly, I mean three years. That’s how long it takes me to build up the text and sketches after I have an initial concept in mind.

The initial sketching is always the most time consuming for me. When I illustrate wild animals, I want to reflect not only how they look, but how they move and relate to each other.

That means I actually do hundreds of sketches of animals from life, videos, and pictures before choosing a gesture that I feel says what I’m trying to convey.

Final art is a mere three months or so after the months and months of drawing and playing around with text. And then there is that year-plus time at the end where you are done but have to wait for release.

What were the greatest triumphs and challenges along the way?

For this book, I wanted to show the topic of baby animals in a universal way, depicting not only the needs that all baby animals have, but also showing the connection between our own needs when we are young to theirs.

This meant I had to do a very broad approach and choose the animals to illustrate each point carefully. For every animal that you see in the final book, there are dozens more on the cutting room floor. Taking out a detail, whether it be text or drawing, that you love is always the hardest part for me, but in the end, you find the best way to depict the topic.

What was your connection to the topic?

I have spent most of my life observing and drawing animals. Whether in zoos, or in the wilderness, I carry a sketchbook, binoculars, and camera with me always, recording what I see.

I’ve always been fascinated particularly with baby animals, their playfulness and open expressions.

How did you go about your research process?

Research for a nonfiction book is always an intense and joyful part of my creative process.

For a book on animals, I rely on a lifetime of watching, drawing, and photographing animals. I chose many of the animals in this book particularly because I had spent time observing them in nature.

If it’s an animal I can’t observe easily in nature, I can often go to zoos to draw them, observing not only their appearance, but how they move. Wildlife videos are also a great help for this.

My parents are wildlife photographers and have built up an amazing reference library of photographs over the years.

There is always a lot of reading about animals that goes into a project like this, but the most important thing for me to be able to capture the expressions and likeness of an animal is to spend a lot of time observing and drawing them.

Lita with her grandfather

How did you approach the art?

For me, drawing animals really comes down to capturing its gesture or body movement and expression. I don’t want my readers to just know what a chimpanzee of meerkat looks like; I want them to feel a connection to them. I want them to look into the faces of my animals and feel like there is an animal looking back at them.

I also want them to get an understanding of the intimate world of animals within their own world; how does a mother panda hold her baby, or a baby orangutan curl up and feel safe with its parent.

To capture all this I first do hundreds of very loose sketches, focusing on body language long before I worry about details.

Once I feel like I’ve captured that intimate portrait between the animals, I start focusing on the details, which describe their faces and bodies.

Slowly my drawings become more refined until at last, they are ready for a light watercolor wash at the end.

Looking back on your career, how have you grown and changed as a writer and artist?

I started writing only nonfiction but have grown to love creating both fiction and nonfiction stories.

I think my background as a geologist, and having grown up helping my grandparents with their research projects in the field, made me very comfortable with the research involved with creating nonfiction.

But the more I drew and wrote, the more I began to want to push myself into creating fictional characters that emoted expressions full of exuberance and whimsy.

I think my background with wildlife made my fictional drawings of animals better because they were rooted in an understanding for anatomy and how animals move.

And I think my work with fictional characters made my nonfiction better because it really helped me focus on building connections between my readers and my subject through studying the subtlety of expressions.

Good Morning to Me!, to be released spring 2015

What advice do you have for budding author-illustrators?

Focus on our craft. Put your emphasis there more than worrying about how, when, and where to get published. I see so many people that are very eager to get published; they really put a lot of energy into trying to make connections or getting published before they’ve had a chance to let their work blossom into a unique voice. There will be time for all that, but until then, draw, write, draw, write, draw, write…. until you have stories dancing out of your mind!

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Just that I’m really thankful to get to do the work I love. And thankful to the muses that keep me inspired by all their delightful expressions and loving companionship!

Cynsational Notes
Born in the Wild has received starred reviews from School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews.

Cynsational Screening Room

Guest Post & Interview: J.L. Powers & George Mendoza on Children’s Book Illustration & Colors of the Wind

By J.L. Powers
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

What would your life be like if it felt like you were looking into a kaleidoscope every time you opened your eyes?

What would it feel like to experience strange visions twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, even at night when you dream?

That’s what happened to George Mendoza when he started going blind as a teenager.

My first picture book, Colors of the Wind: The Story of Blind Artist and Champion Runner George Mendoza (Purple House Press, 2014), is a picture book biography about George Mendoza.

When George was 15, he lost his central vision and started seeing things that weren’t there—eyes floating in the air, extraordinary colors, objects multiplied and reflected back.

George describes this condition as having “kaleidoscope eyes.”

He triumphed over his blindness by setting the world record in the mile for blind runners, and later competing in both the 1980 and 1984 Olympics for the Disabled.

Now a full-time artist, Mendoza’s collection of paintings, also titled “Colors of the Wind,” is a National Smithsonian Affiliates traveling exhibit. His artwork has also been printed onto fabric and is now sold internationally by Westminster as cloth for clothing and quilts.

Ironically, George paints what he “sees,” an entirely unique phenomenon among painters.

Colors of the Wind is George’s story, illustrated with his paintings (and supplemented with line drawings by Haley Morgan-Sanders).

“Flight of Feathers”

I sat down with George and asked him about the process of becoming a children’s book illustrator.

Powers: What is it like to go from fine artist to illustrator of a children’s book?

Mendoza: Because of my vision problem, being legally blind, I was unable to illustrate the book. But ironically the words that you wrote fit into my paintings. It was kind of a miracle in a way.

Jill Morgan selected those paintings very carefully. And it saved me a lot of trouble because I couldn’t really put paintings to the words.

Wise Tree

Powers: What is it like to have your art used to depict the journey to becoming an artist?

Mendoza: Well, I’ve had great success with painting and having Westminster Inc. do the fabrics, quilts, clothing based on my artwork.

I never thought of doing a children’s book. I think because we’re in a digital age, I thought of doing book covers and CD covers—but never a children’s book.

To have my artwork reproduced digitally on books and fabrics is just a beautiful feeling, to know that people look at my art.

In the beginning, when I first started painting, people said, “Oh, wow, that’s amazing because he’s blind.”

Now they don’t even know that I’m blind because they’re introduced to my artwork only as its reproduced digitally on different types of products.

Powers: Have you ever had art used as covers for CDs? Because I love that idea.

Mendoza: I have actually been contacted by some no-name bands that have put my artwork on their CD covers….and it’s fine with me.

Powers: That’s cool. Anything else you want to say about your journey as an artist and this foray into children’s book publishing?

Mendoza: I grew up with children’s books because my father was a children’s book writer, a very famous children’s book writer. He published over a hundred books with major celebrities like Carol Burnett, Frank Sinatra, celebrities like sports figures. He’s got a classic out called Need a House? Call Miss Mouse (by George Mendoza, illustrated by Doris Susan Smith (Grosset & Dunlap, 1981)).

Jill Morgan (publisher at Purple House Press) wanted to buy the reprint rights for my dad’s book.

She was like the hundredth publisher—email or phone–that I had received over a two-year period so I finally said, “What about our children’s book, Colors of the Wind?”

She said, “Well, let me look at it.”

And it became a children’s book!

www.purplehousepress.com
Visit Purple House Press!

Author & Illustrator Chat & Giveaway: Mac Barnett & Jon Klassen on Sam and Dave Dig a Hole

Jon & Mac

By Mac Barnett & Jon Klassen
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Mac: Hi, Jon!

Jon: Oh! Hi Mac!

Mac: And hello, Cynsations readers. We have taken over the blog today.

Jon: Yes.

Mac: We are using our power to just post this gchat we are having into the blog.

Jon: Great responsibility, etc.

Mac: On a lot of days, because writing and illustrating books is lonely, Jon and I have gchat conversations, either in text or with the audio link thing. I don’t really know what to call it, or even how to use it. Jon is the one who always has to call me.

Jon: There’s a country song in there somewhere.

Mac: Anyway, while we were making Sam and Dave Dig a Hole (Candlewick, 2014), we were talking a lot.

Jon: Not so much anymore.

jk jk we still talk a lot.

Mac: Anyway, those conversations had a big impact on the book we were making, especially this spread right here:

See copyright information below.

Jon: Right. So here we have Sam and Dave, and their dog. This part of the book is about them missing these things in the ground that they are digging for, and they’ve just made an unfortunate turn, and are about to make another.

Mac: The joke is funnier in the book.

Jon: A little.

Mac: The Hard Sell.

Mac and John and their new release

Jon: In Stores Now.

Mac: Anyway, when Jon was doing sketches, we would already be on gchat talking about snacks and stuff, and then he would send the art over to me and we would talk about it.

Jon: Yes. This page and the next few pages started out as a visual joke that I liked, but wasn’t in the story that Mac had written.

Mac: Yeah, Jon sent me a picture where Sam and Dave split up and dig a circle around a big gem.

We can’t show you this picture—if you want to see it, you’ll have to stop reading Cynsations right now and head out to your independent bookstore, cash in hand. Hard sell.

Jon: Right. And I wasn’t even completely sold on it. I liked the joke, but I worried that Mac’s guys wouldn’t split up like this. They are good pals on a journey, and it seems like kind of a risky thing for them to choose to do.

Mac’s dog, Henry

Mac: And when I saw the image, I laughed. It was beautiful and funny, but I didn’t think Sam and Dave would want to split up.

I think then Jon and I sat and stared at that image for a while. The only sound was the chewing of our snacks.

Jon: and the occasional slurp because i had a drink, also

Mac: And we talked about this question a lot—would Sam and Dave split up? We talked about it for the next couple of days.

Jon: with a few breaks for more snacks

Mac: and talking about snacks

Jon: comparing snacks

Mac: And then finally we realized that, yes, they would split up, but it would be a big deal for them—that our worry about the split was also their worry about the split, and so I wrote some new text to set up that image. And that’s the text you see here.

Dave, who tends to take the lead on this adventure, proposes the idea. Sam expresses trepidation. And Dave tries to reassure him. (But Dave is afraid too.)

Jon: Right. It was neat, because it shows them getting a little more committed to this thing, and willing to do things that make them uncomfortable, so the story kind of moved forward.

Jon’s cat, Pigeon

Mac: I think you learn a lot about both boys in this spread. They’re vulnerable, especially Dave.

I love Jon’s art here. He’s so good at facial expressions, of course, but he’s also a master of posing. I love Dave’s hand on Sam’s shoulder, that look in his eyes.

The art is telling you a lot about how the text should be read, as it should in a picture book.

Mac: (Cynsations readers might like to know that now Jon is just sitting, not writing anything, because he doesn’t know how to deal with compliments.)

Jon: i just broke out into a rash

Jon: It’s a fortunate end to have, illustrating a story like this, because the text gives all the emotion you could hope to have, and then if you put a guy very simply putting his arm on the other boy’s shoulder, you’re good to go.

I enjoy Mac’s praise, and will never discourage it, but these things are made much easier because the emotions are there and only need a really gentle implication in the picture.

Mac: Ultimately this ended up being one of my favorite spreads in the book—absolutely one of the most important—and it didn’t exist in the original manuscript.

We created the moment to support a drawing Jon just made up, which is on the next page, and which we’re not allowed to show you, so run don’t walk to your favorite bookstore and grab a copy of Sam and Dave Dig a Hole!

How was that for a big finish?

Jon: Thanks everybody! Come see us on tour! Bring snacks!

Cynsational Notes

SAM AND DAVE DIG A HOLE. Text copyright © 2014 by Mac Barnett. Illustrations copyright © 2014 by Jon Klassen. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win Sam and Dave Dig a Hole (Candlewick, 2014). Eligibility: North America. Publisher sponsored. From the promotional copy:

Sam and Dave are on a mission. A mission to find something spectacular. So they dig a hole. And they keep digging. And they find . . . nothing. 

Yet the day turns out to be pretty spectacular after all. 

Attentive readers will be rewarded with a rare treasure in this witty story of looking for the extraordinary — and finding it in a manner you’d never expect.


With perfect pacing, the multi-award-winning, New York Times best-selling team of Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen dig down for a deadpan tale full of visual humor.

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