New Voice: Sarah Lynne Reul on The Breaking News

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Animated interior spread by Sarah Lynne Reul, used with permission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cynsational Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Voice & 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

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). 

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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