Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Interview with author/illustrator PATRICIA KEELER

I'm thrilled to introduce author/illustrator Patricia Keeler and to celebrate the publication of her new book with a Q&A. When Patricia was in class at SVA some years ago, she had already successfully published several award winning books but she wanted to change direction and explore new ideas.  She plunged in with her book project about a little girl and her flip-flops and many versions later, LIZZIE AND LOU SEAL has come to life. Joyful, full of action and energy, Lizzie is immediately an endearing character. Get ready, set, go: Summer is coming!


It is exciting to hear about a book's journey to publication—can you tell us about LIZZE AND LOU SEAL?

I breathed in the delicious smells of turpentine and oil paint. I touched the cold cinder block walls and looked out the giant dirty windows and smiled. It had taken me practically a lifetime to get to attend a real art school class. It was 2014, my first class at the School of Visual Arts. 

After college, I became a teacher with a familyLater, I got an art rep and started doing realistic illustrations where the Art Director often told me what to draw. No, no, no.

So this day, I was starting over with no rep, no prospects. I was walking into Monica Wellington's class on Writing and Illustrating Children's Books with my own picture book dummy called Flip, Flop, Stomp


It was the first time I had been in a large group of author/illustrators where the spreads of a book dummy could be seen at a glance. In the class, we critiqued manuscripts and discussed elements that support the visual success of a picture book. We talked about first page illustrations and text placement.We talked about the directional movements of the characters between the pages, and how to visually strengthen the climax of a book.
In later classes, we sometimes worked in smaller groups. By this time, several of us knew each other and our book dummies, so what remained was adjusting and tweaking.

How did LIZZIE get started? What are some of the stages?

The idea came from news articles about problems caused from wearing flip-flops. I imagined a little girl, Lizzie, who loved her flip-flops, but they caused her all kinds of agitation. They got caught on loose stair boards, stuck to boardwalk chewing gum, and didn't keep the hot sand from her feet


The first version was called Flip, Flop, Stomp! because Lizzie stomped her foot in frustration.

In my original idea, Lou Seal was a blow-up beach toy that didn’t show up in the story until a third of the way throughBut as I sketched the dummy, Lizzie got younger and Lou Seal got bigger. The change in sizes was unexpected—but I could see it was more dynamic.




Now Lou Seal was so big, that he needed a bigger part to play in the story. So I thought while Lizzie is busy fussing with her flip-flops, what is happening to Lou Seal? 

Perhaps Lou Seal was also having difficulties. And what fun, if the reader discovered what was happening to Lou Seal before Lizzie did!

Figuring out the story plot seems conceivable now—logical. But it took years and three classes with Monica Wellington.

What was your favorite part of working on this book?

My favorite part was discovering the encaustic wax process. I used it to show Lou Seal as plastic, and for the ocean waves. Here I am creating a wave for LIZZIE AND LOU SEAL.



Where do you live and what is your studio like?

I live in Hoboken, New Jersey. My studio is on the top floor of my building. It is a converted large bedroom. I look down on a retro drug store, bagel shop, and the bus stop. 


When I take a lunch break I walk along the Hudson River. I'll sit for a while, then look over at Lower Manhattan and think, "My editor is over there waiting for the finished art." Then I get a large iced coffee and a butterfly cookie, and go back to illustrating. 

What are your art materials?

I love my box that contains tubes of Winsor & Newton Designers Gouache. I had it made in a plastics shop on Canal Street so each hue could fit neatly in it's own space. 


I made color swatches with the mixing instructions on the back. It's always those final bits of color that add vibrancy to an illustration. These color samples allow me to see what colors would work best. 

The mechanical yellow pencil laying on my paint box is PaperMate Sharpwriter #2. I found these pencils in the grocery store. These pencils are amazing! The lead is cushioned and won't break when you press down. It gives my hand a little bounce!

What are some of the other projects you are currently working on?


I have a second book for Sky Pony Press to follow LIZZIE AND LOU SEAL. I'm so excited about this book, SCOOP THE ICE CREAM TRUCK! It will be out in Spring 2018. I'm in the thick of finishing the artwork now!

Do you have any special words of advice or encouragement for illustrator/writers starting out now?

Don't try to completely understand an inspiration or art process before you try it! If you come across an interesting plot twist or illustration technique, go for it! It's the mistakes you make that make it yours!


Patricia will be at Book Expo America! Meet her at Booth AM34, June 1 and 2, for illustration demonstrations and giveaways!

A few tips: a wonderful place to discover new techniques is UPPERCASE Magazine. http://uppercasemagazine.com

Kelly Rae Roberts Unscripted  (great while working) http://www.kellyraeroberts.com/unscripted/

Social mediaFacebook for friends and family, Twitter for marketing, and Instagram for artists from around the world whose work I want to learn from.
Facebook:  PatriciaKeelerBooks
Twitter: @patriciakeeler
Instagram@patriciakeeler

Patricia is represented by Liza Royce Agency www.lizaroyce.com and her website is patriciakeeler-author-illustrator.com

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Interview with author BARRY WITTENSTEIN

First books are so exciting! Usually it is artists who come to class at The School of Visual Arts but Barry Wittenstein came as a writer. He wanted to learn more about books from the illustrator's point of view. He had the right idea that he might improve his writing if he understood more about how illustrators work on books. And now, let's celebrate his first book, WAITING FOR PUMPSIE, illustrated by London Ladd. 

In 1959 the Boston Red Sox was the last baseball team in the Major Leagues to integrate. But when they call Elijah “Pumpsie” Green up from the minors, Bernard, the child narrator, is overjoyed to see a black player on his beloved home team... It has received great reviews and is a selection for the Junior Library Guild. Congratulations!

It is exciting to hear about a debut author's journey to publication – can you tell us about yours?
My journey certainly has been a long and winding road. I’m happy where I’ve ended up, but it took me a long time to get here.  I guess that was my journey.

I have always been a creative person. I’ve tried everything from photography to songwriting, poetry, sports articles and reviewing. Both in college and after, I have taken classes in memoir, creative nonfiction, screenwriting, picture books, even greeting cards!  But there was never a thought of giving up, even when nothing seemed to be clicking. Which was most of the time.  I knew “my voice” had to be heard. I promised myself that if it was the last thing I’d do, I had to receive some acknowledgment for my creativity. Just a sip from the cup of success!   Finally! It's happened.

How did PUMPSIE get started?
I am and always was a huge baseball fan. And as every fan of the game knows, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with Brooklyn in 1947. But I think that it especially resonated a bit more if you grew up around, or close to, New York City like I did.


My favorite team growing up was the New York Mets. When I was 9 years old, in 1963, the Mets traded for a player. His name was Pumpsie Green from the Boston Red Sox. He didn’t last long, and soon retired. But how can you not remember a name like that?

As l got older and learned more about the history of baseball, I learned that the Boston Red Sox were the last team to integrate. The first African-American player to suit up for Boston in 1959 was Pumpsie Green. Pumpsie’s story and the story of Boston Red Sox racism have been written about extensively for adult readers. But I began to realize that few kids knew Pumpsie’s name or his struggles. Most people (except for die-hard fans of the game) considered what transpired in with Major League Baseball integration beyond Jackie Robinson.

When I began to work as a NYC substitute teacher in elementary schools, this was reinforced.  It got me thinking about what stories are handed down from one generation to another. And the process by which they are handed down. Pumpsie’s story provided the bookend to Jackie Robinson crossing the color line twelve years earlier. Pumpsie added a bit of context to that era, and major league baseball’s efforts.

Can you describe some of your steps of working on PUMPSIE?
First of all, it’s the light bulb over the head moment. Like, yeah! That’s a great subject! Then I research whether or not the story has been done as a picture book. If it has, then I drill down deeper and research whether my specific angle has been done. Since I’m only writing picture books for the 5-8 age group, it’s okay if it’s been written about in MG or YA. “Pumpsie” had not appeared in kid’s lit, so this was an easy one.  

When I was ready, I pitched the story around. At that time I was calling it “Pumpsie, the Red Sox, and Me.” All rejected it. I sent it up to Charlesbridge, a smaller, independent company based in Boston. I had pitched a few things to them previously, all without success. I thought “Pumpsie” had a chance. But, again, no luck.  I was disappointed because I thought it would be a perfect fit, especially since the story took place in Boston.

I wrote Charlesbridge a note saying that they really should take another look at Pumpsie. I rarely, if ever, do that. A rejection is a rejection. It’s usually a waste of time and a bit amateurish to get involved in a conversation. It’s better just to thank the editor and continue on. To my surprise, Karen Boss, a different Charlesbridge editor than the one I had sent the story to, got back to me and wanted to sign it.

What was your favorite part of working on this book?  And the most difficult part?  

Favorite part was finding the voice of the main character, eight-year-old Bernard. Of course, it’s somewhat autobiographical. How could it not be, right? Bernard is na├»ve, but catches on quickly, is honest, has a sense of humor, and loves his hometown team. It’s been half a century since I was eight, so I had to put myself back into that mindset. Would Bernard say this or that? And what would a kid like Bernard say in 1959? For some reason, it wasn’t that hard to do.

The hardest part was not PUMPSIE specific. It was learning how a picture book is put together. Page turns, using back matter to fill in details. The basics! There’s nothing that substitutes working with a professional editor like Karen, and having her guide me…and the process. 

Did you have illustration ideas for the book, 
or were you involved in that part of the book at any stage?
No - I was happy just to focus on the words, and not get caught up in the visuals. I also trusted Karen to guide the process. Which she did brilliantly.
They were nice enough to ask me if I had any illustrator suggestions. I did find some work of illustrators and ran those ideas past Charlesbridge. Looking back, they were terrible suggestions. Great illustrators, but wrong for PUMPSIE. Karen suggested London Ladd, who I never heard of at this point. Thing is, I never heard of anybody!  But I looked him up, saw that he had done picture books about Oprah Winfrey, Martin Luther King, Jr., Frederick Douglass and others, and knew he was the perfect choice.

Once the sketches were submitted, Karen did let me review them, and I noticed a few minor details that London was good enough to tweak.

Sketches from London Ladd for the cover and a sample interior page.

Have you met the illustrator London Ladd?
I have not, although we have exchanged emails. I feel incredibly lucky to have London work on one of my books, no less my debut. His vision and artistry made my words come alive.  He also told me – and I think this is important to include – that my words made it easy for him to “see” the story. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s a great compliment about making his job easier.  In turn, the entire project benefits. You always want to make the illustrator’s job as easy as possible. That’s a big lesson I have learned about writing visually.

Did you have some rejections along the way? How did you find your agent, publisher and editor? 
Initially, I did not have an agent. I pitched it myself and it was signed due to my efforts. I subsequently signed with Karen Grencik to assist with contract negotiations.
But regarding rejections, if you don’t have rejections you’re not trying hard enough. Of course, PUMPSIE got rejected. What I have learned is that there are many reasons for a manuscript not to be accepted. It might not be the genre or written in the style that the editor is looking for. It might duplicate a similar story they’ve already signed. Or the writing might be weak! Sometimes the editor (or agent) will provide some info why it didn’t make the cut.  Other times, it’s a form letter.

Where is your favorite place to write?
Any place as long as it's not at home! I like to be out and about.  Coffee shops. The park.  I like white noise.  Helps me focus. Too many distractions at home. I have to clean that room. The dog needs her belly rubbed. Who’s at the door?

Do you have a writing routine?
No. Except that I try to write as much as possible. On my iPhone, iPad, on a subway, walking down the street and having to stop to notate something, in the middle of the night, whatever and wherever. I am always thinking of new stories, how to complete old stories, where to pitch, etc. I keep my eyes and ears open to things people say, situations I see. I don’t wait for the muse to visit. I demand that she does!

What were you like as a child?  Did you always write stories when you were very young? 
When I a kid was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I loved two things. Baseball and the Beatles. There were few picture books. Or, at least, they didn’t cross my path. In high school I wrote for the school newspaper. But, what really turned me on was the Beat poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Especially his, Coney Island of the Mind poems. Not that I was introduced to that in school. But my older brother, who was into jazz and knew of the Beat poets, bought me the book. It blew me out of the water, the topics, the irreverence, all of it. That really was the door to my own pursuit of poetry and writing.

When/How did you decide you wanted to do children's books? 
I went back to get my Masters in Childhood Education around 2011.  This was 40 years after getting my BA in English. I had just left my job as a web editor with Major League Baseball, and I needed a source of income. So, I enrolled in Hunter College in New York and got through about half the credits I needed to become a teacher. The teacher profession does not discriminate based on age. And I was 58 at the time. So, at Hunter, I took a class onteaching of reading, writing, and children’s literature. There I got really introduced to contemporary children’s picture books. Up until this point, I was trying to write screenplays, a memoir, etc. But I guess this class really piqued my interest. So, I figured, I’d try this, too.  I was running out of genres.

Do you have more projects in the works that you can tell us about?
Besides Waiting for Pumpsie, Charlesbridge also signed a second picture book of mine about the inventor of the Band-Aid. This comes out in February 2018.  Then, in January 2019, Neal Porter signed a picture book about Martin Luther King, Jr. I met Neal at a SCBWI conference in LA last summer, sent him a few things, and he liked my second submission. So, that was quite a coup since Neal is a legend in the business (and a great guy, I might add). Then, he sent the manuscript to illustrator Jerry Pinkney who agreed to illustrate it. So, a double coup. Besides that, I am always, always pitching material. My mantra now is I need to get a picture book lined up for publication for 2020. Since it takes two years from signing to release, I have a little bit of time, but am still working hard. It is like pushing a boulder up a hill.  

Is there anything you learned back in class that has particularly stayed with you?
Starting with your class, and continuing through my projects, I have a fuller understanding of how the illustrator does her job. Meaning, as a writer, my natural tendency is to overwrite. Adjectives. Adverbs. Too much description. Then I would add a zillion illustrator notes. I’ve had to develop my visual sense, to put myself in an illustrator’s shoes and imagine how my words would appear on a page. Not that I nail it every time. I still get rejection notes from editors saying, “I couldn’t ‘see’ this story.” Or,” I found it difficult to imagine how this would look on a page.” So, I think of how movie scenes keep the storyline going. I guess my classes in screenwriting weren’t a total waste!

Do you have any special words of advice or encouragement for writers starting out now?
Like any other creative endeavor, writing children’s literature is difficult. And each genre within children’s lit has its own rules, too. There is a lot to learn, but you learn by doing. Take classes –either online or in person -- write everyday, go to conferences, join organizations like SCBWI, be polite and use a sense of humor and humility when sending out material (it’s a small business and word gets around when a writer is problematic). Get involved in Facebook groups; follow other writers, etc. etc. etc. Dive in. Be a sponge. And don’t be afraid of rejection. Woody Allen once said about success, “Showing up is 80% of life.” So, show up. And don’t give up.


Thank you, Barry, for bringing us behind-the-scenes to hear about the creation of Pumpsie! So inspiring!
Barry's website is here at www.onedogwoof.com and twitter: @onedogwoof
Illustrator London Ladd's website is here at www.londonladd.com/ 

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Looking back on picture book debuts of 2016

As I look back over 2016 I marvel over the talented illustrators that come to class at The School of Visual Arts where I teach my children's book class. This year was a remarkable year for many of those illustrators having their debut picture books published. First books are very exciting: to celebrate, here is a round-up!

I did interviews with each of them, where they discussed how they got their start, how they broke into the field, how they worked on their first book, and more! Everybody's story is different: there is no one way this happens for new illustrators. I hope you are inspired by each of them! May your own creative dreams be fulfilled in 2017!


MINE! written and illustrated by Susie Lee Jin


WHERE'S THE PARTY? written and illustrated by Ruth Chan


LORENZO: THE PIZZA-LOVING LOBSTER written and illustrated by Claire Lordon


MR. PARTICULAR written and illustrated by Jason Kirschner


A HOP IS UP illustrated by Lori Richmond

Friday, September 16, 2016

Interview with author/illustrator LORI RICHMOND


When Lori Richmond was in class at SVA her first book was already in the works but she had to keep it secret until she actually signed the contract. It was very exciting by the end of term to be able to share the news with everyone else in class...and now, finally her first book is a reality: it has just come out into the world: Congratulations!

A HOP IS UP, written by Kristy Dempsey, illustrated by Lori, is about a young boy and his dog who hop up, bend down, spin round, jump over... all around the neighborhood, and get up to lots of fun with their friends along the way. Kirkus Reviews calls it "a read-aloud winner".

Lori's second book, PAX AND BLUE, due out early 2017, will be her debut as an author/illustrator. And she is busy working on several more after that: fantastic!

It is exciting to hear about each artist's journey to publication – can you tell us about yours?  
I was a corporate creative director at various media companies for over 20 years. The tech industry moves VERY quickly, but I began to feel restless because I missed creating something I could touch with my hands. So, I turned back to my fine art roots in my "spare time,” which is kind of a joke when you’re a full-time working mom of two small kids! I took continuing education classes at SVA after work and developed book ideas late at night from around 10 pm through 1 am. I fell in love with the process. I also took a children’s book workshop at the Highlights Foundation. My instructor, Pat Cummings, saw promise in my work and forwarded it to Paula Wiseman, my now-editor at Simon & Schuster who offered me my first contract (for Pax and Blue). Then I signed with an agent, and quick to follow was another contract to illustrate A Hop is Up. I decided to chase the rainbow and left my full-time job to be full-time freelance, and now I am working on design projects and my books. It’s been extremely fulfilling to be on my own, but also scary!

Can you describe how you approached illustrating A HOP IS UP? 
A HOP IS UP is a picture book poem about all sorts of movements, written by the wonderful Kristy Dempsey. The text was a blank canvas and a wonderful challenge for me as the illustrator—without any characters, setting, or traditional story arc mentioned in the words, I got to create the entire visual narrative from scratch! I initially presented two options to the publisher — the boy and dog on a walk in their neighborhood, and a kangaroo and rabbit on an obstacle course! We chose the boy and the dog because it was more relatable. Because Kristy’s text flows so beautifully from one line to the next when read aloud, I wanted the illustrations to do the same. If you look carefully, each spread hints at what is coming next to create a continuous visual story. The text starts and ends with “A hop is up,” so the art begins with the boy and dog leaving home, and ends with them arriving back home. There is also a gardener and her cat that we meet in the beginning, and they make a surprising return near the end.

What was your favorite part of working on this book?  
Teasing each spread and having the visual narrative flow smoothly took a lot of planning. How would I demonstrate each movement, and have the context make sense, and tease what’s coming next, but not feel like I forced the whole thing? I went through many post-its, drawings of neighborhood maps, and many, many sketches. I loved tackling this challenge and it was a really exciting one for a first-time illustrator.


And the most difficult part?  
Same answer!

Where do you live and what is your studio like? 
I’m part of Friends Work Here in Brooklyn, a space created by my dear friend and design blog superstar Swissmiss, Tina Roth Eisenberg. We have an eclectic bunch of creatives in our studio: photographers, designers, videographers, illustrators, and writers. It’s great to see what everyone else is working on and learn and be inspired by people working in other disciplines. 


You now also have projects in the works that you have both written and illustrated: can you tell us about those? Differences and/or extra challenges when the project is completely yours?
PAX AND BLUE (February 2017, Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books) is a gentle story about an unexpected friendship between a boy and a pigeon, inspired by a true story my son told me. BUNNY’S STAYCATION (2017, Scholastic) went to a five-house auction, which was nerve-wracking and craaaazy!This book has many autobiographical aspects to it — it is about Bunny, who attempts to foil his Mama’s business trip and creates his own adventure instead. A parent traveling for work is not easy on the child or the parent. It is a stressful, common issue that so many families deal with every day.

Writing is a huge challenge when the project is completely mine. Writing doesn’t come naturally to me — I have to work at it. Drawing comes more easily. It’s fun when you get into it and the words affect the pictures and vice versa. I find that I streamline a lot at that stage. But I also love taking someone else’s words and bringing them to life. It’s really fun!

Here Lori is on one of her first school visits. Looks like fun!
Did you have some rejections along the way? What have been some of the ups and downs? 
A rejection of one of my own projects is what led to me landing the illustration job for A HOP IS UP! The editor didn’t feel my story was a fit for their list, but she liked my art and brought it to an editorial meeting. They paired me with the HOP manuscript, and the rest is history!  

My biggest “up” was the 5-house auction for BUNNY’S STAYCATION. That was a really memorable and insane day. My biggest “down” is the waiting. Everyone told me publishing was slow, but I had no idea just how slow. It’s really. really. slow. You definitely earn a badge in patience!

Is there anything you learned back in class that has particularly stayed with you?
Feedback and criticism are really important. You can’t create a book in a vacuum. You need to share your work and evaluate feedback. That’s what I liked about being in class — the discussions about our projects always made you rethink things in a different way, and that made our projects stronger.

Do you have any special words of advice or encouragement for illustrators/writers starting out now?
Definitely join SCBWI and attend a conference. You will learn so much in a very short time, and leave invigorated to go home and work! 


Here is Lori at SVA, returning to class as a guest speaker. She showed an illustration she worked on for a class assignment, and then she showed how it sparked an idea for a story, that after many, many changes became Bunny's Staycation! Thank you, Lori, for visiting class, and my blog!
To find out more about Lori and her work, visit her website: LoriDraws.com

A HOP IS UP, written by Kristy Dempsey, illustrated by Lori Richmond, from Bloomsbury, September 2016
PAX AND BLUE, February 2017 from Simon & Schuster 
BUNNY'S STAYCATION, 2017 from Scholastic
SKELLY'S HALLOWEEN, written by David Martin, illustrated by Lori Richmond 2018 from Macmillan/Henry Holt