Author Interview: Debbie Levy on I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Happy Election Day! Go vote!

We welcome author Debbie Levy to talk about her new picture book biography. 

From the promotional copy of I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley (Simon & Schuster, 2016):

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has spent her lifetime disagreeing . . . with creaky old ideas. With unfairness. With inequality. She has disagreed. She has disapproved. She has objected and resisted. 

She has dissented!



Disagreeable? No. Determined? Yes! 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has changed her life, and ours, by voicing her disagreements and standing up for what’s right. This picture book about the first female Jewish justice of the U.S. Supreme Court shows that disagreeing does not make you disagreeable and that important change can happen one disagreement at a time.

See also the Glorious RBG Blog (click to view 11 entries).

Welcome to Cynsations, Debbie! We’re both graduates of The University of Michigan Law School. Did you practice law or go straight to writing for young readers like I did (or rather like I did after clerking)?

I did practice law for several years after law school. But writing books for children is the only job I’ve held for more than six years. Lawyer at a big Washington, D.C. law firm: six years. Newspaper editor: six years. Then I took a class at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, with the excellent Mary Quattlebaum. (Check out her books, and her reviewing work!)

Writing for children: This was a vocation with long-term potential.

Michigan Law School Reading Room

Hey, I have a newspaper background, too–so much in common! You write fiction and nonfiction across formats and age levels. Often I hear from new writers that they feel pressured to pick one focus. What has your range of pursuits done for you in terms of craft and career?

I think the writers you’re hearing from are telling a truth: There can be pressure to pick one focus or, to put it otherwise, to establish a “brand.”

I think I must have subconsciously scoffed at the notion that I could ever be a brand—ha, a Debbie Levy brand!—so, for better or worse, I’ve mostly followed my interests and allowed serendipity a role in choosing projects.

Also, one solution for writers who do want to be multi-focal is to have more than publisher. I realize that doesn’t solve a beginning writer’s problem, who may be looking for Publisher #1. But it is an option once you start getting published.

Congratulations on the release of I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley (Simon & Schuster, 2016)! What about Ruth Bader Ginsburg called to you as a writer?

Thank you! Like many people, I knew that the Glorious RBG was the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States and the first Jewish woman on the Court.

I knew that, before that, she was a federal appeals court judge in Washington, D.C., and, before that, one of leading lawyers in the field of equal rights for women and girls.

What I didn’t know, until I started researching more deeply about her, is that she has been disagreeing with unfairness and with things that are just plain wrong from the time she was a little girl.

I mean, she objected to being excluded from shop class in grade school, and being required to take cooking and sewing instead! When on a car trip with her parents, she disagreed with she saw a sign outside a hotel that read “No Dogs or Jews Allowed.” Later, of course, she went on to disagree, resist, object, and dissent her way into big things.

And she’s been doing this for years with a voice that is not loud (people lean in to hear her words), in a manner that is not obnoxious (more benefit of the doubt than bashing, more insight than invective), and in service of justice.

So, I realized, the story of her life offers this inspiring lesson: Disagreeing does not make you disagreeable, and important change happens one disagreement at a time. Is it any wonder, then, that I thought she was a great person to introduce to young people in a picture book?

Agreed! Many of my favorite people disagree strongly with injustice. What were the challenges (research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the story to life?

I feel lucky to live in the Washington, D.C. area, because although Justice Ginsburg didnot find time for an interview with me last summer when I was working on this book, she did grant me access to her papers on deposit in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress (practically next door to the Supreme Court!).

I’ve gone through at least one Manuscript Division collection before, but none like this. So tidy! Meticulous! Her speeches typed on 4 x 6 cards: impeccable! Her handwritten notes on yellow legal sheets discussing and advocating for the Equal Rights Amendment that never got adopted!

Although I didn’t absolutely need to read piles of drafts of legal briefs and memoranda, I dived into this stuff with gusto; you do get a sense of a person from their papers.

Oh, wait. You asked for challenges. It is a challenge to write about someone, a living, active person, without having an interview. But there were many, many print and video interviews of RBG for me to consult. Many scholarly articles, by and about her.

And she did review the manuscript last October. She sent a nice little note, and wrote in some handwritten notes in the margins of my typescript. I took all her edits!

Since you’ve specifically mentioned “psychological challenges”—I lost my mother three years ago.

Debbie’s mother kayaking on the Wye River

She was a vibrant, ever-curious, outgoing woman, someone always interested in another person’s story, someone who as a girl dreamed of being a journalist (she ended up in the wholesale costume jewelry business instead), and she would have been over the moon to know that I was writing a book about RBG, to know that I was elbow-deep in RBG materials at the Library of Congress, to know that RBG looked over my manuscript pre-publication.

I’m answering your questions, Cyn, the morning after the book launch for I Disssent, which we held at D.C.’s great Politics & Prose Bookstore. Many friends who had known my mother attended.

I said there, “I cannot help but think that had my mother still been alive, she would have figured out a way to get me into RBG’s chambers for an interview—and she along with me!”

The room was filled with knowing smiles and laughter. Someone even called out my mother’s signature phrase: “Let me ask you a question”—her way of getting people to open up to her.

That helped with the pain of not having Mom there. (And, really, she would have snagged me an interview.)

Talk to us about disagreeing. It sounds like a negative focus for a children’s book. Is it? In either case, why do you think it’s important in the conversation of youth literature?

Yes, let’s talk about disagreeing! The theme of disagreeing is really what sold my editor at Simon & Schuster on this book.

From the very beginning, we were really excited about creating a book that said to all kids, and to girls in particular, that disagreeing does not make a person disagreeable, and that you can accomplish big things for yourself and for the world through dissent and by finding another way when the world says “no” to you.

It’s a positive message, but it’s also a message that says you don’t have to be positive—that is, you don’t have to sound or look positive, you don’t have to just say yes and smile and go along with things that you believe are wrong—to be a good person.

At the same time, simply disagreeing without more isn’t really enough if you want to change your life or anyone else’s. On the back of the book, we’ve put this RBG quote: “Fight for the things that you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

Seems simple, right? But it’s that second sentence that is so hard to pull off.

Many authors discover reoccurring themes in their work? Is this true of you? If so, could you tell us about it and how I Dissent fits in?

I seem to return to the theme of Outsiderness. My mother, protagonist of the nonfiction-in-verse The Year of Goodbyes (Hyperion, 2010), being an outsider as a girl in Nazi Germany in 1938. Danielle, protagonist of my young adult novel Imperfect Spiral (Bloomsbury, 2013), who finds an unexpected antidote to her feelings of being the outsider in an unlikely friendship with the six-year-old boy she babysits one summer.

The African American individuals and communities, outsiders in their own country, in my nonfiction picture book We Shall Overcome: The Story of A Song (Disney-Jump at the Sun, 2013).

Today we may look at RBG and see the ultimate insider—she’s a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, for heaven’s sake! But she overcame the outsiderness of being a Jew in a sometimes hostile Gentile world, of being a young woman in the (then) overwhelmingly male-dominated world of law school, of being a female lawyer in a (then) man’s profession, and of being an advocate for legal and social changes that went against the grain of society’s traditional norms. There’s my theme.

What do you love about your writing life?

Other writers. What good communities and friendships I’ve found!

What do you do when you’re not writing or out-and-about in your author hat?

Walk in the woods or along the nearby Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Kayak in the Chesapeake Bay area. Fish in the Chesapeake Bay area. Read.

Think about whoever my next dog will be.

Apologize to my cat for thinking about my next dog.

You know, the usual.

What can your readers look forward to next?

In February 2017, Soldier Song, A True Story of the Civil War (Disney-Hyperon). An 80-page picture book for older children about a remarkable event that occurred after the Battle of Fredericksburg. Illustrated by the excellent, creative Gilbert Ford, with lots of room for excerpts from soldier’s letters and diaries. I’m excited about this!

Don’t miss The Glorious RBG Blog!

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.

Author Interview: Monique Gray Smith on My Heart Fills With Happiness & Advice for Beginning Writers

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Today I’m honored to feature Monique Gray Smith, “a mixed heritage woman of Cree, Lakota, and Scottish descent” and the author one of my favorite new titles–my official go-to gift book for 2016.

What put you on the path to writing for young readers?

I never set out to write for young readers and to be honest, I never saw myself as a writer.

When Tilly: A Story of Hope and Resilience first came out, it was marketed to adults, but then it won the Canadian Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature.

This award sends 2500 copies of the winning book to schools and programs across the country, and all of a sudden, Tilly was in the hands of young people, in schools, classrooms and friendship centres and it became a YA book.

Congratulations on the release of one of my favorite new titles, My Heart Fills with Happiness, illustrated by Julie Flett (Orca, 2016)! What was your original inspiration for this title?

Thank you for your kind words about My Heart Fills. Working with Julie was a true privilege. We spoke on many occasions about the message and illustrations; it was a beautiful collaboration.

My Heart Fills with Happiness was inspired when I was facilitating a workshop on our history and resilience at an Aboriginal Head Start program.

At lunch, the children joined us and I witnessed a Kookum (Grandma) sitting in her chair and her grandson came running over to her. He stood in front of her and she took his face in his hands and his whole body changed. His shoulders went back, his chin came up and his eyes lit up.

What I saw was the way she looked at him with such love filled his heart with happiness. This got me thinking about what fills my heart and our hearts as human beings. A couple weeks later, I was visiting with five of my dear friends and as we were talking, the book came.

Literally, in one quick write, it was done. Only one line has been changed. My next children’s book, called You Hold Me Up has also been inspired by Aboriginal Head Start. This is such a powerful program in our country and now has been running across our country for over 20 years and has 50,000 graduates. Culture and Language as well as Family Involvement are two of the six components of this program and as a result it is a significant aspect to the healing of Residential Schools in Canada.

What were the challenges between spark and publication, and what lessons were learned along the way?

This book was a gift from the Ancestors, I know that with every fibre of my being, Cynthia.

Her first book!

As I said above, there was only one line change and in the end there were three publishing companies that wanted to purchase it.

There were some miscommunications with the design between myself and Orca Publishing and as a result I think we have both learned the importance of ensuring connection throughout the project.

I know that this is a new way of relationships between author and publisher, but in these times of reconciliation, it is critical we work together instead of the publisher having all the power and decision making.

What did Julie Flett’s illustrations bring to your text? (Full disclosure: I’m a fan.)

Oh Julie! As I said above, it was a privilege to collaborate with Julie. When Orca informed me it was going to be Julie Flett illustrating My Heart Fills with Happiness I literally did a happy dance in my office. Not only do I admire Julie’s contribution to literature; both as an author and illustrator, but I also have profound respect for her as a human being.

I think Julie’s illustrations bring the words alive. The way she was able to capture the tender nuances on facial expressions and body postures is precious!

And the cover, I have had numerous girls say to me, “look, that’s me on the cover.” I think that says it all! When a child sees themselves on the pages it is incredibly affirming for them and in some ways, their right to be seen.

We all need to be seen and heard, but for generations literature has not only not seen us as Indigenous people, but especially not Indigenous women and girls.

Let me simply say, Julie’s illustrations make this book what it is!

You also are the author of Tilly: A Story of Hope and Resilience (Sononis, 2013). Could you tell us a little about this book?

Tilly is loosely based on my life through Tilly’s journey and the characters she meets they tell aspects of our history as Indigenous people in Canada. It weaves together some of our traditional teachings, culture and ways of being.

It also speaks to my personal journey of alcoholism and recovery and the beautiful relationship Tilly has with her alcohol & drug counsellor, Bea.

How have you grown as writer over time? 

Oh yes, I am still growing…and to be honest, hope to never stop growing. I am not a trained writer, so I need exceptional editing support.

One of the aspects where I feel I have grown the most is being willing to let the story flow through me.

I used to want to interrupt and pause the story, but now I close my eyes and type away or I share what I’m thinking into my phone. Especially dialogue between characters, that seems to come to me in the place between wakefulness and sleep.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Pay attention. Notice your surroundings, the mannerisms of individuals, the ways people speak, how the light looks on the land at different times.

I’d also say, put yourself out there: let others read your work, send it in to contests, send it to publishers. And remember, you will get on of three responses. Yes. Not yet. Or I have something even better in mind.

View of Gonzales Bay from Monique’s office

How about Native American/First Nations authors?

Our people are craving to read our stories and stories that they can see themselves and their lived experiences in. Write them, share them. And if writing them isn’t necessarily comfortable, talk them.

On most phones, there is the microphone app on email, if you record your story and then send it to yourself by email it will come as text and voila, you have your first draft.

I would also remind you of the importance of ceremony when writing. I find it helps ground me and opens me for the story to come through me. Offerings of gratitude help me every single day, not only when I am writing, but every day.

I would also say read as much as you can and raise up and talk about those you are reading.

New Voice & Giveaway: Maria Gianferrari on Penny & Jelly

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Maria Gianferrari writes both fiction and nonfiction picture books from her
sunny, book-lined study in northern Virginia, with her dog Becca as her
muse.

Maria’s debut picture book, Penny & Jelly: The School Show, illustrated by Thyra Heder (2015) led to Penny & Jelly: Slumber Under the Stars (2016)(both HMH Books). 

Maria
has seven picture books forthcoming from Roaring Brook Press, Aladdin
Books for Young Readers, GP Putnam’s Sons and Boyds Mills Press in the
coming years.

Could you tell us about your writing community–your critique group or partner or other sources of emotional, craft and/or professional support?

In the spirit of my main character, Penny, an avid list maker, here are my top five answers:

1. Ammi-Joan Paquette:

I am so grateful for my amazing agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette!

Where do I begin? I owe my writing career to Joan, for taking a chance on and believing in me. She has been sage guide, a cheerleader and champion of my writing from the get go.

She’s made my writing dream come true!!

2. Crumpled Paper Critique (CP):

I would not be where I am today without my trusted writing friends and critique partners: Lisa Robinson, Lois Sepahban, Andrea Wang, Abigail Calkins Aguirre and Sheri Dillard. They have been such a wonderful source of support over the years, in good times, and in bad.

Yes—it’s kind of like a marriage—that’s how dedicated we are to each other’s work! They’re smart, thoughtful, insightful, well read, hard-working and the best critique partners one could hope for!

We have a private website where we share not only our manuscripts, but our opinions on books, ideas, writing inspiration and doubts. I treasure them and wish we lived closer to one another to be able to meet regularly in person. Hugs, CPers!

3. Emu’s Debuts:

Like many other writers, I’m quite a shy and introverted person. If you’ve seen that classic hamster ball cartoon about introverts, that’s me! Having a book debut is extremely intimidating.

I was so lucky to have joined the ranks of Emu’s Debuts, so named for clients and debut authors affiliated with Erin Murphy Literary Agency (EMLA).

The Emu’s Debuts blog is a place for sharing thoughts on the craft of writing and illustrating, being debuts, and most importantly, helping launch our books into the world. I have since fledged, but it was so helpful, reassuring and fun to be a part of this community of very talented, kind and generous people. Check out the current flock of Emus.

4. Tara Lazar:

Picture book author extraordinaire, and founder of PiBoIdMo (picture book idea month), Tara has also been a generous supporter, not just of me, but for all the pre and published picture book authors and illustrators out there. Thousands of writers participate and are inspired by guest posts during PiBoIdMo, November’s picture book idea challenge. She shares insights on craft, the field of publishing, new books, interviews, giveaways, etc. on her popular blog, Writing for Kids (While Raising Them), throughout the year.

When the news of the Penny & Jelly sale broke, Tara kindly offered to host me of her blog. Later, she invited to be a contributor for PiBoIdMo, and last year she also participated in my blog tour for Penny & Jelly.

5. Kirsten Cappy of Curious City:

Kirsten’s a kidlit marketing guru and owner of Curious City. She was invaluable in sorting through the mire that is promotion.

Kirsten’s clever and creative and had so many wonderful ideas for promoting Penny & Jelly in ways that would be most comfortable for an introvert like me. She designed a Jelly banner with original art from illustrator Thyra Heder for use as a photo booth so kids could “be” Penny and pose with Jelly, as well as gorgeous postcards and business cards.

I especially love the talent show kit for library and classroom use that Kirsten designed. Please feel free to share and use it.

As a picture book writer, you have succeeded in a particularly tough market. What advice do you have for others, hoping to do the same?

1. Write What You Love:

Write what you’re obsessed with. This will help you not only endure the inevitable rejections along the way, but also the winding road of revision.

My debut nonfiction book, Coyote Moon, was released this July. It initially began as an article on suburban coyotes for “Highlights.”

Well, “Highlights” rejected it, but I wasn’t ready to let go of my manuscript.

The coyotes kept howling in my head, so it morphed into a poetic picture book.

Several revisions later, it won a Letter of Commendation for a Barbara Karlin grant from SCBWI; many more revisions later, it was acquired by Emily Feinberg at Roaring Brook Press. And I am so in love Bagram Ibatoulline’s illustrations. They are absolutely stunning!

2. Read. Read. Read:

Then read some more. I once read that before attempting to write one picture book, we should first read 1,000. But don’t just read them, see them as teachers, as mentor texts for your own work.

One of the most helpful exercises is to hand-write or type the words of my favorite picture book texts, to feel the rhythm of the and pulse of the story in my fingers, to get under the story’s skin—see its bones or structure and the way the muscles and sinews, rhythm, refrain and repetition, are bound together. Doing this helps us find a story’s heart, its elusive soul and helps us understand our own work.

Consider joining founder Carrie Charley Brown’s ReFoReMo, where picture books are studied as mentor texts. Get ready to dig deep!

3. Don’t Give Up!

Persevere! Keep swimming! Rejection is at the heart of this journey and it’s not usually a linear journey, it’s more circuitous, with ups and downs along the way.

Take it one day, one moment at a time, and celebrate all of your successes, both big and small.

And remember, keep improving your craft, and building your connections, you will get there!

(See #1 again)

4. Play and Experiment:

To find your writing voice, play with different points of view. Change genres. Try out different structural techniques like letters, or a diary format or lists, like I did with Penny & Jelly.

Think about the shape of your story. Is it circular? Could it be a journey? Would a question and answer format enhance it? Does it have a refrain?

I’m not an illustrator, but you can do the same kinds of things to find your visual voice—switch sketching for sewing, or painting for clay. And most of all, embrace your inner kid and have fun!

5. Reach Out:

Connect with your local and online writing community—there are so many valuable resources out there. You’re reading Cynsations, so that’s a great start! If you haven’t already joined SCBWI and found a critique group, that’s a must. As I mentioned above, join Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo challenge in November, or Paula Yoo’s NaPiBoWriWee to write a picture book a day, which takes place in May.

There’s a plethora of writing groups on Facebook. One I highly recommend is Kidlit411, co-run by Elaine Kieley Kearns and Sylvia Liu. It’s such a wealth of information for authors and illustrators on writing/illustrating craft, on promotion, on submissions for agents and editors, revision—all kinds of things. And to borrow Jane Yolen’s title, above all, Take Joy!

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win an author-signed copy of Penny & Jelly: The School Show and Penny & Jelly: Slumber Under the Stars. Eligibility: U.S. only. From the promotional copy:

This young and funny picture book introduces the soon-to-be star of her school talent show: Penny. Despite her desire to knock everyone’s socks off, Penny’s having a tough time deciding on what talent she might have. With a little help from her dog, Jelly, Penny tries out various talents—from dancing to unicycling, fashion designing to snake charming—with disastrous results. That is, until she realizes that she and Jelly have a talent to share that’s unlike any other.

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Publisher Interview: CEO Nancy Traversy of Barefoot Books

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Barefoot Books was founded in 1992 by two young moms working from home with the dream of creating beautiful books that celebrate diversity, spark curiosity and capture children’s imaginations.”

There’s been an ongoing conversation about diversity in children’s literature. What are your thoughts on the subject?

Children’s publishers, and the media industry as a whole, have a huge responsibility to create diverse, inclusive content for kids. Barefoot Books has always been committed to celebrating diversity and inclusion; but our mission, and the task of nurturing empathy in our children, has never felt more urgent than it does today.

As our culture faces what President Obama has called an “empathy deficit,” it’s important for us to work hard to do better by our children. All children deserve to see themselves, their families and their experiences represented in the books they read. They also need to see and understand others, in order to develop empathy, and grow into compassionate, responsible global citizens, prepared to thrive and contribute in their communities and in professional and academic spheres in the 21st century.

Our children look up to us; they’re listening to our conversations, soaking in and internalizing our attitudes and beliefs about ourselves and others. It is now more important than ever for parents, educators and caregivers to share diverse and inclusive books with the children in their lives and to start conversations about empathy and compassion.

How is Barefoot Books responding in terms of diverse representation on your list?

This month, we are particularly excited to be introducing what is perhaps our most meaningful, and certainly most timely, publication to date, The Barefoot Book of Children, which empowers caregivers and educators to start important conversations with children about diversity, inclusivity and acceptance.

We worked with a team of both U.K.- and U.S.-based diversity and inclusion experts to represent a wide range of children as accurately as possible; and the result, with meticulously researched hand-painted art by award-winning illustrator David Dean, is a playful, powerful and thought-provoking celebration of both the big ideas and everyday moments that reveal our common humanity and tie us all together.

At Barefoot, we’ve always been passionate about celebrating diversity of all kinds in our books: it’s one of our core values and central to our mission as a company.

We began nearly 25 years ago by publishing myths, legends, folk and fairy tales from all over the world.

We started to introduce children to other cultures more overtly with our “Travel the World” series by author Laurie Krebs, which includes titles like We All Went on Safari, We’re Sailing to Galapagos and Up and Down the Andes, all with fascinating additional information about people, cultures, history and more.

However, we aim to celebrate more than just cultural diversity. Many of our picture books – such as Mama Panya’s Pancakes and
The Girl with a Brave Heart – immerse readers in the experiences of children from around the world and also foster compassion for others.

From The Animal Boogie, which has sold well over two million copies, and our other other best-selling singalongs, to
The Boy Who Grew Flowers, which was written by the author for her brother who has autism, our books strive to offer positive, strong, relatable characters to children who may feel different from others.

We also strive to introduce children to other faiths and religions with books like The Wise Fool, a light-hearted introduction to Islamic culture; and
The Mountains of Tibet, a gentle story from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

A couple of years’ ago, we published My Big Barefoot Book of Wonderful Words, which depicts a multi-racial family in a contemporary urban setting – “Richard Scarry for the 21st century”. We worked with Beth Cox, founder of Inclusive Minds, to ensure that we accurately represented people of all races, cultures, abilities and lifestyles.

This book is now available in bilingual Spanish/English and French/English versions.

How about diverse voices (AKA authors) and visions (illustrators)? Do you have a message for those children’s book creators?

Being inclusive means relating to each other in ways that give a voice to everyone – and that means publishing books not only for
all children, but by a wide range of creators!

When introducing children to cultures from around the globe, it’s vitally important to ensure that they’re getting an accurate perspective from the authentic voice of a local creator.

From the very beginning, we’ve commissioned authors and illustrators from all over the world, including Tehran-born Israeli pop star Rita Jahanforuz, author of The Girl with a Brave Heart; Lebanon-born Wafa’ Tarnowska, author of The Arabian Nights; and Mexico-born Caldecott Honor-winner Yuyi Morales, illustrator of Sand Sister.

We continually strive to find contributors who can provide that authentic voice and vision; it’s a core part of our editorial conversation.

How are you doing outreach to Native children and children of color?

Barefoot is unique in the publishing industry because of our emphasis, not only on creating beautiful books, but also on growing a vibrant community of people who share our core values. We sell our books to schools, libraries and independent retailers as well as through our passionate network of home-based sellers called “Ambassadors” who are united by our mission to share diverse, inclusive and inspiring books.

Many of our Ambassadors use their businesses to give back and raise funds to promote causes that are important to them. Some are involved in promoting literacy in various underserved communities whose children have historically been underrepresented in children’s books, including children of color. We are so proud of the incredible work our Ambassadors are doing to advance our mission to share stories, connect families and inspire children.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

For nearly a quarter of a century, Barefoot has been creating beautiful books for children that nurture creativity and compassion, and that celebrate diversity in all its forms. Discussions about race, diversity and inclusion are happening everywhere – in homes, in our children’s schools, even in their playgrounds.

Books offer an essential and accessible resource for parents and educators to kickstart crucial conversations about these important topics with our children.

Since our founding in 1992, Barefoot has put nearly 20 million books into the hands of children and we would love to make that 100 million!

We believe the time is ripe to build some real momentum and create a movement of people who want to change the conversation and start to create a more accepting, inclusive world for our children.

Find more diverse and inclusive books. Explore our free tools to help start conversations with children about diversity and inclusivity.

Summer Children’s-YA Lit Diversity Conversations

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Over the summer, the children’s-YA book community has continued discussing diversity, decolonization, authenticity and representation both throughout the body of literature and the industry. Here are highlights; look for more in quickly upcoming, additional update posts.

Mirrors? Windows? How about Prisms? from Uma Krishnaswami. Peek: “…cultural content in children’s books needs to be woven into the story so the authors intention is not stamped all over it.” See also Uma on Tolstoy Was Not Writing for Me.

Twelve Fundamentals of Writing The “Other” and The Self by Daniel Jose Older from Buzzfeed Books. Peek: “Every character has a relationship to power. This includes institutional, interpersonal, historical, cultural. It plays out in the micro-aggressions and hate crimes, sex, body image, life-changing decisions, everyday annoyances and the depth of historical community trauma.”

Diversity in Book Publishing Isn’t Just About Writers — Marketing Matters, Too by Jean Ho from NPR. Peek: “For past projects, she has researched segmented audiences ranging from retired African-American women’s books clubs, South Asian soccer organizations, Trinidadian-interest media outlets both stateside and abroad, to extracurricular programs geared toward South Bronx teens.”

Looking Back: Diversity in Board Books by Joanna Marple from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: “…that children as young as six months can judge others by the color of their skin. Even if a caregiver never mentions race, children may well use skin color on their own, along with other differences, to judge themselves and others.”

Drilling Down on Diversity in Picture Books from CCBlogC. Peek: “We’re keeping track of the things people want to know. Just how many picture books have animal, rather than human, characters? How many books about African American characters are historical? How many feature LGBTQ families? Or Muslims? Or people with disabilities? How many are by first-time authors or illustrators?”

Children’s Books and the Color of Characters by Kwame Alexander from The New York Times. Peek: “They all believe I am writing about them. Why is this so much harder for the grown-ups? Is race the only lens through which we can read the world?”

On White Fragility in Young Adult Literature by Justine Larbalestier from Reading While White. Peek: “…we white authors can support Indigenous authors and Authors of Color by reading their books, recommending their books, blurbing their books, and recommending them to our agents. When we’re invited to conferences, or festivals, or to be in anthologies, make sure they’re not majority white.”

When Defending Your Writing Becomes Defending Yourself by Matthew Salesses from NPR. Peek: “Here is a not uncommon experience. Writer Emily X.R. Pan was told by the white writers in her workshop that the racism in her story could never happen — though every incident had happened to her.”

There Is No Secret to Writing About People Who Don’t Look Like You: The Importance of Empathy as Craft by Brandon Taylor from LitHub. Peek: “The best writing, the writing most alive with possibilities, is the writing that at once familiarizes and estranges; it’s writing that divorces us from our same-old contexts and shifts our thinking about ourselves and the world around us.”

How Canada Publishes So Much Diverse Children’s Literature by Ken Setterington from School Library Journal. Peek: “Considering that the entire Canadian market is about the size of the market in California alone (roughly 36 million), publishers must rely on sales
outside of the country.”

Biracial, Bicultural Roundtable (Part One, Part Two) by Cynthia Leitich Smith from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: “According to a 2015 Pew study, 6.9 percent of the U.S. population is biracial. According to the 2010 Census, between 2000 and 2010, the number of people identifying themselves with more than one race rose from 6.8 million to 9 million.”

Cynsational Screening Room

Related Links

Hallmark Great Stories Award

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The Hallmark Great Stories Award will recognize and celebrate the power of storytelling by honoring new children’s picture books that celebrate family, friendship and community and that exhibit excellence in both writing and illustration.

Annual nominations will be reviewed by a multi-disciplinary panel of esteemed judges. For the inaugural year, judges include Betsy Bird, Alfredo Lujan, Alan Bailey and Cheri Sterman.

Eligible books include those published by publishers in the United States between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2016 and must be entered into the competition by the publisher. The inaugural winner will be announced in March 2017.

The winning picture book’s author and illustrator each will receive a special award medal and $5,000. If the author and illustrator is the same individual, the cash prize is $10,000. In addition to traditional distribution, the winning book will be available in Hallmark Gold Crown stores nationwide.

2016 SCBWI Bologna Illustrator Interview: Paul O. Zelinsky

By Elisabeth Norton
for SCBWI Bologna 2016
and Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Paul O. Zelinsky grew up in Wilmette, Illinois; the son of a mathematics professor father and a medical illustrator mother. He drew compulsively from an early age, but did not know until college that this would be his career. 

As a sophomore at Yale College, he enrolled in a course on the history and practice of the picture book, co-taught by an English professor and Maurice Sendak. This experience inspired Paul to point himself in the direction of children’s books. His first book appeared in 1978, since which time he has become recognized as one of the most inventive and critically successful artists in the field. 

He now lives with his wife in Brooklyn, New York. They have two grown daughters.

Among many other awards and prizes, he received the 1998 Caldecott Medal for his illustrated retelling of Rapunzel, as well as Caldecott Honors for three of his books: Hansel and Gretel (1985), Rumpelstiltskin (1987), and Swamp Angel (1995).

Spring is the season of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, so I thought I would focus on the business side of illustration today. Can you tell us about how you as an illustrator are selected to work on a picture book project?

Other than through the occasional subliminal suggestion I plant in the illustrations of my published books (painting “HIRE ME!” upside down in the trees outside of Rapunzel’s tower and so on), I don’t know how I get chosen.

My work looks awfully different from book to book, but I imagine that an editor or art director who ends up contacting me is thinking of one look in particular, and they might mention that to me, though they may not end up getting it. Also, from my third book on, I have tended to keep working with people I’ve worked with before, so those publishers know more what they’re getting into. On my end, what happens is that I get a call or an email. 

Could you describe your involvement in the process, from the time you are contacted about a new project, through the creation of the illustrations, to the finished book?

I usually want to stick my nose into all stages of the creation and production processes, but as I try to do it in a nice way and, I hope, not out of a personal need for control but in the spirit of collaboration, I’ve rarely had trouble.

So it usually begins for me when I get a phone call or email from a publisher, either asking if I’m available or just sending a manuscript, and I can sometimes tell pretty quickly if I think it’s a good idea for me on or not. Sometimes I don’t know and I mull.

My first criterion (and I’m sorry if this seems pompous) is whether the story makes me think that our overcrowded world, with no shortage of books in it already, would be notably worse off without this new addition. (Which is sort of like saying how much do I like it, but not quite). Then I imagine what kind of art I’d like to see illustrating the manuscript and at that point I can usually tell whether I’d get excited by the prospect of trying to make that kind of art.

Then, if it’s a go, come all the stages you probably know about in the making of an illustrated book. If it’s a picture book, that means breaking the manuscript up into pieces that fit in a 32- or 40-page book (publisher tells me what’s possible)—not a simple job if you want to do it right.

At the same time, I try to imagine the best size and proportion for this book, long before having any idea of the content of its pictures. Then with text decided for each spread I’ll very, very crudely rough out an array of thumbnail sketches, trying to establish the dynamic of the storytelling through the pictures, the content and composition of each illustration.

After or during that time, I’ll be casting around for what the characters should look like, and I’ll be thinking about the style I want the drawings to display. This is intimately connected to the choice of medium, so I’m thinking about that, too, and probably doing a lot of testing on scratch paper.

If I get the thumbnail sketches working, I’ll go to a full-sized, or at least not-so-little dummy, in black pencil, with text placed on the pages.

The dummy can be very rough, too, and I am generally willing to risk showing it to the publisher even before, say, I have any idea of what the characters will look like.

I like feedback, and things like pacing can be judged without other important features yet in place. I might also put the pictures together with text in InDesign, at least as a preliminary version before the art director gets to work on it.

When the designer does join in, I’ll want to be part of her or his process, too. Then there is research, refining sketches, working out color, checking with editor and art director all along, and working and working and working on finished art.

How involved is the art director or author in determining the style of the artwork for a particular project?

The style of my artwork has to be determined by me, to the extent that I can control it. I think the author should have a role in choosing an illustrator, and if there’s a wish to have the book look a certain way, that could be part of the manuscript’s presentation to me at the outset. But in fact this rarely happens. I think publishers are interested in seeing what I come up with.

It has happened that after seeing what I come up with, they aren’t convinced. Then it becomes a conversation, or a discussion, or a debate, in which at the end everybody needs to be on the same side. And I can be convinced that I was wrong, at least if I was wrong.



Do you ever revise your illustrations based on feedback from the art director or for other reasons?

I make lots of changes based on suggestions. Art directors and editors I work with often have great ideas that I didn’t think of, or can point out features in my drawings that I then realize were not so great. I believe we are all devoted, at base, to creating the best possible book. So if I’m given a suggestion that I don’t feel good about, I will say why, and another conversation can begin.

I will try to convince the other parties that I have important and valid reasons for seeing things my way, or point out (if it’s the case) that their suggestions might have problems they may not be considering, and at the same time they’ll do the same to me.

In the end, with very few, minor exceptions, I don’t think any book I’ve worked on has left anybody feeling that the wrong path was taken.



What is the typical timeline, from receiving a commission, to submitting the completed artwork to the publisher?

I’ve rarely managed to finish illustrating a book in less than a year. That has been about the average, I think, but I’m usually not able to start work on a manuscript right when I receive it, so it’s hard to pin down the time it takes when I’ve got a couple of projects waiting to be begun for a couple of years, and I’m already thinking about all of them a little.

You have said in the past that you have created many of your picture book illustrations using oil paints. When that is the case, how is the final artwork submitted to the publisher?

Art that isn’t digital to begin with needs to be scanned, and it is still the case that publishers use scanners or cameras of a higher quality than almost any individual illustrator would have access to.

I’ve talked to some younger illustrators who scan their reflective art and deliver electronically, without even considering that they could or should deliver the actual art on paper. That is really the preferable way to go.
Oil paints have the reputation of not drying, but my oils are usually dry within a day, or at least dry to the touch. There is an additive you can put in your painting medium to speed the drying, and if I’m running very late I will sometimes mix in a little more of this desiccant, or I will avoid painting with pigments I know are slow-drying and favor the faster ones, if possible.

Although I won’t scan my own oil paintings (my scanner picks up reflections on oil paint’s shiny surface for every little textury bump in the paper), I’m not above asking for the high resolution files that the publisher gets from their scanner, and sometimes even before first proofs, going in digitally to fix things I didn’t manage to do correctly in the art.

After a book is released, what kinds of promotional activities do you as the illustrator engage in to support its release?

The more the merrier, I say. I’m on Twitter (@paulozelinsky) and Instagram (paulozelinsky) anyway, and while I don’t like self-promotional posts, when a new book is coming out, there is plenty of interesting information to share. I go on Facebook, too, but only privately for my personal account. I would prefer that people I don’t know personally “Like” my Facebook author page.

Z Is For Moose fabric, suitable size for quilt

I’ve had some ideas for contests and a raffle for prints of the cover art of a book. Sometimes the publisher has given me great support and help. But I’ve also done a raffle or two on my own.

In general I do these things because they seem like cool things to do; I don’t know if they have in any way helped sales—in fact I doubt it. Also, I like to create a repeating design based on almost every new book, and have it printed on fabric (at spoonflower.com). People can purchase it on their own, by the yard (though they don’t), and I can have some of made into a shirt or a vest (which I do). Not so long ago I couldn’t decide on color choices in one of these patterns, so I conducted an online vote; that was fun.

An additional layer of attention has sometimes become available to me that would be harder for most illustrators to garner, in that a few of these larks I’ve gone on were interesting enough that Publishers Weekly has written about them, or the Horn Book. But only after a friend pushed me into asking these journals if they’d like to write about it.

I’ve made ties that go with my books, as well as shirts and a couple of vests, and I wear this special apparel (in moderation!) whenever there’s an appropriate event.

And yes, school visits are great. I love to do them with or without a new book. There is nothing better than to see groups of children appreciating the very things you spent so much time and effort on in the solitude of your studio, a year or more earlier.

When it comes to visiting schools I tend to be passive, waiting to be asked, but it’s not out of line to approach and let schools know you’re available if they’re interested. School visits not related to a book tour are a source of income; as part of a book tour, arranged by an independent bookseller, I’m happy to give one presentation to a school, but not the three or four I’d give if it were a paid arrangement.

Are there some new releases we should look out for?

Actually, no. It will be a long time before anything new comes out. After the recent Toys Meet Snow, it’s going to be quite a while until the next thing.

But one brand-new release that is partly mine is the 75th anniversary edition of Make Way for Ducklings. I was very honored and excited (you can imagine) to be asked to draw a pictorial map of Boston that would be included with the book and a CD recording in a boxed set. That edition is just out now, I think.

I had a wonderful time researching what Boston looked like in 1941 (if felt like detective work), and illustrating parts of the story in the appropriate parts of my map, which is really an aerial view as much as it is a map. My drawing didn’t reproduce every single building in and around Beacon Hill, and I had to squash some blocks down in size for the picture to fit the proportions of the paper, but it’s pretty faithful to reality, I’d say.

You’re going to be one of our dueling illustrators at the SCBWI booth at the 2016 Bologna Children’s Book Fair. How often have you visited BCBF?

Publishers always told me, when I asked about Bologna, that going there was not something I would want to do, or should. It was only for brusque, publisher-to-publisher deal-making and if I went I would be in the way.

I first came to Bologna anyway in 2006, because after planning a family trip to Venice, I decided to look up the Bologna fair and discovered that it started immediately after we were going to leave Venice, and Bologna was an easy train trip away. And then a friend told me that SCBWI was holding a full-scale pre-conference in Bologna on the weekend leading up to the fair. I was able to get a spot on a panel, and then when I asked publishers again, they told me I should go after all, and helped me find a hotel room (almost impossible just a month before the fair). And I enjoyed it tremendously!

So after that first wonderful time there, I’ve been going back almost every other year, and continuing to enjoy it tremendously. Where else can you see virtually every children’s book published in the world in the previous year? I see a lot of editors that I know, as well as the great SCBWI community, so it’s an occasion to hang out with friends, and I must say that eating is a large part of the pleasure.

I think the Bologna fair has been changing, and now you see a greater presence of book creators among the sub-rights sales force and the editors. Mostly these are just people coming on their own, but now very occasionally they are even being sent by their publishers.

SCBWI isn’t putting on Bologna pre-conferences any longer, but they have an active booth at Bolognafiere every other year. Of course my favorite activity is the dueling illustrators tradition, which is huge fun. And this year the booth is bigger than ever before.

How can visits to fairs such as BCBF benefit an illustrator’s career?

I haven’t used my trips to the fair in a practical or useful way from the point of view of career-helping. But I’ve seen illustrators come away with publishing deals: it can happen though I’m not positive how it’s done.

SCBWI itself can facilitate this, because you can arrange for a period of time when you sit in the booth and basically represent your books to passersby like all of the other publishers with booths there.

There’s also a wall at the fair for illustrators to put up their promotional cards, and publishers look through them (although there are so many cards by the end of the fair that it seems like an awfully long shot).

European publishers set up periods for open portfolio-viewing, and illustrators line up with their work in hand, to be seen by an art director in the flesh.

Do you have any advice for a first-time visitor to BCBF?

If you have published already, and are thinking of visiting Bologna, definitely ask for advice from your U,S, publisher. If you have ever had a book picked up by a foreign publisher, it would be a great thing to arrange to meet that publisher’s representatives in Bologna. This will make you more of a real person to that publisher rather than just a subsidiary right they purchased.

SCBWI offers various good opportunities to get your work seen, so definitely arrange your visit with SCBWI in mind. Even if you’re not trying to network or push your career forward, hanging out (and eating out!) with SCBWI folk is reason enough to make the visit a fun time. Many but by no means all of them are of US origin, but they live all around the world.

What’s your favorite thing to do in Bologna, apart from visiting the BCBF?

Did I mention eating? Well, other than that, Bologna has some fantastic museums. Besides the main art museum (the Pinatoteca) there is a fabulous Medieval museum.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is a museum devoted entirely to the generally under-appreciated painter Morandi, although I think it may be closed temporarily and its collection shifted to the Modern Art Museum. There is plenty more to do in Bologna, and don’t forget about the eating.

People say that Bolognese food is the best in Italy, and although that kind of claim is sort of meaningless, it is probably also true.

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today. It was great to see you at the Book Fair. I really enjoyed watching your duel with Doug Cushman at the SCBWI booth during the fair!

Thank you! The pleasure is mine.

Cynsational Notes

Elisabeth Norton grew up
in Alaska, lived for many years and Texas, and after a brief sojourn in
England, now lives with her family between the Alps and the Jura in
Switzerland.

She writes for middle grade readers and serves as the regional advisor for the Swiss chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

When not writing, she can be found walking the dogs, playing board
games, and spending time with family and friends. Find her on Twitter @fictionforge.

The Bologna 2016 Interview series is coordinated by Angela Cerrito, SCBWI’s Assistant International Advisor and a Cynsational Reporter in Europe and beyond.

2016 SCBWI Bologna Illustrator Interview: Lisa Anchin

By Angela Cerrito
for SCBWI Bologna 2016
and Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Lisa Anchin has been drawing since she could hold a pencil and making up stories since she could speak. 

She grew up just outside of New York City, passing briefly through Massachusetts where she picked up a B.A. from Smith College, and then she returned to New York to work and to later pursue additional graduate degrees—an MA at Columbia and an MFA at the School of Visual Arts. 

Lisa now freelances full time as an illustrator and designer. She is the illustrator of A Penguin Named Patience by Suzanne Lewis (Sleeping Bear, 2015). Her second illustrated book, I Will Love You, by Alyssa Satin Capucilli will be released in spring 2017 (Scholastic). 

When not in her studio, she can be found haunting one of the many cafes of the five boroughs, sitting with a bucket of tea and scribbling in her sketchbook. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner in crime and a not-so-little black cat.

Congratulations on your work “Happy Birthday Fox,” being selected as a finalist for SCBWI’s Bologna Illustrators’ Gallery. It’s on display at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. What was the inspiration behind Happy Birthday Fox?

I’ve been trying to expand my palette, so as an exercise, I’ve started picking colors that I don’t generally use then planning an illustration based on those colors.

“Happy Birthday Fox” was one of these painting exercises.

The mustard, aqua, orange, bright magenta, and lime green felt like party colors.

But rather than the moment of the party itself, I wanted to illustrate that contented, happy sigh moment that comes after the party has ended.

You are the illustrator of A Penguin Named Patience (Sleeping Bear, 2015). What was it like illustrating your first children’s book? Were there any unexpected developments?

A Penguin Named Patience was my first illustrated book and an interesting challenge.

Serendipitously, I actually received the offer only a few days before I left for a trip to New Orleans for an illustrator’s weekend. While I was there, my fellow illustrators generously agreed to accompany me on a visit the Audubon Aquarium, so I could take reference photos.

I was able to photograph the penguin enclosure and the South African penguins featured in in the book. That was a really luck coincidence, and then the publisher also sent additional images of Tom, the penguins’ keeper, and videos of the penguins’ triumphant return to New Orleans.

I had never made such a large body of work on a single subject before. That in and of itself was an experience. Before I began work on the final pieces, I did quite a few character studies and color tests. I wanted to make sure that everything would be consistent throughout the book.

Overall it was a really wonderful experience. Not to mention, drawing penguins is a pretty great way to spend your workday.

Tell us about your school visits? I imagine students are excited to learn about Patience and the other penguins who were rescued after hurricane Katrina.

My school visits have been really rewarding. The first one I did was actually at my old elementary school. The kids I’ve spoken with are always excited that the book is based on a true story, and that Patience was a real penguin living at the aquarium at the time of the storm.

After reading the story together and answering their questions about the reality of what happened and the making of the book, I like to draw with the kids. I usually start by talking about South African penguins before taking them through the basic steps to draw Patience.

With older kids, I can also talk about storytelling, character development, and how to visually emphasize your protagonist, especially when all of your characters are a single type of animal and all look very similar. I love watching the kids draw and seeing the characters they imagine and create.

What is a typical work day like for you?

On studio days—I also freelance at a publisher doing book design during the week—I’m usually at my desk by nine. I set aside some time in the morning to take care of business related things—emails, invoices, etc.—and then I begin with warm-up sketches.

Sometimes these are drawings of the characters for the project I’m currently working on, but usually I use it as free drawing time. Often these open, sketch-anything moments lead to nuggets of ideas for future stories.

After my warm-ups, I dive into work, which ranges from writing, thumbnailing images for a new dummy, sketching, working on color studies, or painting a final piece.

The actual work of the day depends on where I am in a project. I try to take small breaks as I work—for a new cup of tea, to play with my cat, or just to stand up and stretch—and I always take a long walk in the middle of the day, which inevitably includes a stop at the library three blocks from my apartment on my way home.

What are you working on now?

As of this week, I just finished the art for a new book called I Will Love You, written by Alyssa Satin Capucilli and being published by Scholastic in the spring of 2017. It’s a lovely story, told from a parent/care-giver to a child. The text uses beautiful, lyrical language, and is a non-linear narrative, which allowed me to stretch my imagination. It was a joy to illustrate.

I’m also working on a number of my own stories, and I often have a few in progress.

If I get stuck on one project, I can put it aside and work on another until I’m ready to return to the first.

Right now I’m juggling work on an entirely new manuscript with revisions on two book dummies—one is a story about a precocious little plant and her garden and the second features a character that I’ve been calling Little Viking.

Do you have advice for artists who are just getting started in the field of children’s illustration?

Childhood Painter

First and foremost, join SCBWI. Between the conferences, the technical and professional information, and the community, the organization provides an unparalleled wealth of resources for someone new to the field. I owe much of my career to SCBWI, and I specifically want to emphasize the importance of the community generated by SCBWI.

As illustrators and writers, our work is largely solitary, and it’s so important to find a group of like-minded folks. They can both provide moral support on those hard-to-work-through days of doubt, and also honest feedback on your work.

If you don’t yet have an agent, editor, or art director to turn to for creative feedback, it’s helpful to have critiques from peers. I still look to my illustration critique group for a first round of editing and feedback well before I pitch a new story or dummy to my agent.

Cynsational Notes

Angela Cerrito is a pediatric physical therapist by day and a writer by night. She thinks she has the two best jobs in the world.

Her latest novel, The Safest Lie (Holiday House), was named a finalist for the 2015 Jewish Book Award, a Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Older Readers and a Notable Social Studies Book for Young People.

Angela coordinates the SCBWI Bologna Interview series, volunteers as SCBWI’s Assistant International Advisor and is a Cynsational reporter in Europe and beyond.