Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Celebrating the start of fall with MY LEAF BOOK!

Booklist says "Alternating between the fanciful and the factual, celebrates the gorgeous colors and the great variety of trees around us." Pub date is today!

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Talking about Léon Werth's 33 DAYS

Translator Austin Denis Johnston has generously agreed to answer my questions about his work bringing 33 DAYS to life from French to English. In June of 1940, Léon Werth and his wife fled Paris before the advancing Nazi Army. 33 Days is his eyewitness account of that experience, including a never-before-published introduction by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, recently out by Melville House to much acclaim. "Extraordinary... An invaluable document of history as well as a riveting literary narrative" says Kirkus Reviews.

You and your publisher Melville House got interested in 33 Days quite independently of each other. You had tremendous good luck and good timing! Can you describe how you got interested in 33 Days and how you then made a connection with Melville House? 
I found out about 33 Days through history books. Books about the German invasion of France during World War II mention a massive civilian flight of eight million people. The French refer to it as l'Exode, "the Exodus," which reflects its biblical proportions. Descriptions in both French and English history books mention Léon Werth's 33 Days (33 jours is the French title), several quote whole passages and describe it as one of the most important single sources of information. I read the book and loved it. I also discovered that the manuscript had a fascinating backstory and that Werth was an important writer and an interesting guy. When I first began researching the exodus, there weren't any books in English devoted to it. I just started translating on my own, without a publisher lined up.
Near the end of the first draft, I contacted the French publisher, Viviane Hamy, to see if the rights were available and whether anyone else had inquired. After some back and forth, the rights editor at Hamy told me they were available and that Melville House Publishing in Brooklyn had also been asking. She also said, essentially, "You've got a heck of a chance here, make it count!"
Within five minutes of reading her e-mail, I was on the phone to Melville House (whose co-founder, as it happens, is named Dennis Johnson). I was put through to an editor who was herself a translator. I told her I'd heard Melville House was interested in a translation of 33 Days and that I had one. She said, "Send it over." 
I did, they liked it and agreed to buy it. Melville House negotiated the rights and published the book. It was the equivalent of winning the lottery. Had I not called just then, they'd have used another translator. Melville House prints a lot of translations, and they've got a number of absolutely first rate French translators in their Rolodex.
(For anyone interested, there are now two history books in English devoted to the exodus, and they are excellent: Hanna Diamond's Fleeing Hitler and Nicole Dombrowski Ritter's France Under Fire.)
Do you know how 33 Days first came to the attention of Melville House?  
I was told that someone who helps with acquisitions for them found it while in Europe and recommended it. But Melville is always on the lookout for quality foreign texts and authors that have been overlooked. Their website says they have a reputation for rediscovering forgotten authors, which is true.

You mentioned that the manuscript had an interesting backstory. What is it?
The short version is that the manuscript was lost for fifty years. But the story has a lot of interesting and poignant details.
Werth finished the book within weeks of the event (possibly from notes taken at the time). But he was Jewish and banned from publishing in France at the time.
In October 1940, his good friend Antoine de Saint-Exupéry came to the house near Switzerland in the Unoccupied Zone where Werth spent the war. He came to say goodbye. Saint-Exupéry had flown reconnaissance missions for the French air force during the Battle of France and wanted to continue the struggle against Germany from abroad. He was already famous in America for his books (this was before The Little Prince; now it's hard for us to remember what else he wrote), so he had thought he'd come here to lobby the United States to join the war.
The two decided Saint-Exupéry would take a copy of the 33 Days manuscript, write an introduction and have it published in the United States. (Several New York and Canadian publishers became outlets for French writers during the war; they published more than 600 titles beyond the reach of the Occupation censors.) This would be the first time they appeared in print together.
By the end of 1942, Saint Exupéry had made his way to the United States, found a publisher--Brentano's in New York City--written the introduction and a French edition of 33 Days was in galley proofs. But the book was never printed. It's not clear why. (If anyone reading this has any information, there are a lot of people, including myself, who'd be delighted to have it.) My best guess is that, when the Germans invaded the Unoccupied Zone in late 1942, Saint-Exupéry and Brentano's decided publication would endanger Werth. (Klaus Barbie, who had been running the Gestapo in the Dijon region, was put in charge of the Lyon region, where Werth was living.)
No one seems to know what happened to Brentano's' copy of the manuscript. But Saint-Exupéry revised the introduction (and removed all references to Werth by name) into a stand-alone essay entitled Lettre à un otage (Letter to a Hostage). Brentano's published that, in French, in July 1943. (The Little Prince was also written in New York during this period. It's dedicated to Léon Werth.)
Werth evidently still had a copy of the 33 Days manuscript (probably the original), but, even after the war when he began publishing again, he never submitted it for publication. The October 1940 visit was the last time he saw Saint-Exupéry. In April 1943, Saint-Exupéry left New York for North Africa to rejoin the war, which he would not survive: He died on July 31, 1944, in the Mediterranean, when his plane crashed returning from a reconnaissance mission over southern France. Werth didn't know until the war was over. ("Peace, without Tonio, isn't really peace," he said, and I wonder whether he put the project aside because it was something they'd intended to do together.) Werth himself died in 1955.
In the early 1990s, the French editor Viviane Hamy came across an old edition of one of Werth's books and loved it. She was starting her own independent publishing house, so she contacted Werth's son Claude, who'd inherited the author's rights, and began reissuing Werth's major works. She heard about 33 Days and asked Claude to look for the manuscript in his father's papers. Hamy says it took them two years to find.
After Melville House acquired the translation rights, they decided to look for the Saint-Exupéry introduction. They found it in the archives of a French-Canadian magazine, L'Amerique française, whose March 1943 edition, with permission from Brentano's, printed from the "unpublished preface that Mr. de Saint-Exupéry wrote for a book by one of his friends in France, [which] should appear soon in the United States," and secured the rights.
So, 75 years later, these two friends finally appeared in print together as they intended. There are Spanish, German and, of course, French editions of 33 Days, but only Melville House's English edition includes Saint-Exupéry's introduction.

Why would this book interest Americans?
Well, it's a good read. At every level of experience, the stories that come out of World War II are potent and compelling. And Werth is very good at putting you there.
It's also an opportunity to learn something new about the war and to think generally about the issue of civilian displacement in war. L'Exode is one example of how World War II was a radically different experience for Europeans than for Americans, and why we each take somewhat different lessons from it. And 33 Days shows us some of the issues faced by millions of displaced civilians in war zones today.

In France, 33 Days is required reading for all high school students. Why? And how does it fit into their curriculum?
The French government has made a concerted effort to educate the public about World War II, to keep its memory and its lessons alive. The government funds everything from advanced research centers for scholars to young adult books on the subject. Werth's is the only book-length eyewitness account of the exodus ever published in French; including it on the syllabus is part of that effort. And French public schools work from a common curriculum, so all students read pretty much the same books.
One of my copies of 33 Days is the student edition. (The text is complete, but questions, exercises, insights about the text and about writing, etc., are included.) The cover says it's for teaching World War II history--"a lesson against hate and an invitation never to lose faith in humanity"--to students fifteen to eighteen, depending on whether they're college-bound or getting a vocational degree. Werth assumed his audience knew as much as he knew about politics and history, so he doesn't explain his references. For teachers, those are good starting points for guided historical discussions and further reading.
The student edition also says it's for teaching autobiography and writing, "to work on clear, poetic language." Werth is a model of that. He wrote the book for adults, but his prose is simple (though far from simplistic) and efficient. A book review in the French newspaper Le Monde put it nicely: "[Werth] renders in just a few words a character or situation ... [and] the precious singularity of each."

What were some of the challenges of translating 33 Days? Any general and/or specific examples? 
There were several. For one, Werth was born in 1878, so he learned to read and write in the 19th century, and some of his vocabulary, idiomatic expressions and sentence structures are archaic. I quickly discovered that if a word or phrase made no sense, it was generally an old usage or construction, and I'd get out the big dictionary. (An easy example is "ne ... point." He used it a lot. It's just an old form of "ne ... pas"; meaning "not.") And many of the archaic words and constructions can sound formal today, but, overall, formality was clearly not Werth's intent; just the opposite. So I often streamlined and rephrased to maintain a more casual overall tone.
Another challenge was military slang. Werth did two tours in the army (two years' compulsory service around 1900 and two years at the front in World War I). Some expressions clearly resonated with him (though the military itself certainly did not). But, as you can imagine, French military slang from 1900 isn't in most dictionaries. Luckily I have access to some really good ones, and military-history buffs preserve certain kinds of detail. (An easy example is "boite de singe," literally "can of monkey." It's what French soldiers in World War I called the canned corned beef they were given as cold rations. Corned beef was unfamiliar to them, and the main supplier to the French army had named its brand "Madagascar." So the grim joke was that strange meat "from Madagascar" must be monkey meat.)
Then there were quirks of the historical context. Werth's background notwithstanding, 33 Days is very much a product of interwar France. More so because he was such an engaged writer. To put it mildly, France in the 1920s and '30s was in ferment--politically, economically, demographically, linguistically, etc. (as was much of Europe). The big issues of the times shaped Werth's thinking, his references and his language. (For instance, Werth says that someone uses words imprecisely. As an example, he notes that she referred to a French politician whose knowledge of foreign customs she admires as "très cosmopolite," "very cosmopolitan." Cosmopolitan is exactly the right word, which most dictionaries will confirm. But it would not have been when Werth wrote. Until the 1930s, France encouraged immigration and absorbed more immigrants than any nation except the United States. During the Depression, France began questioning its immigration policies, and more than a little xenophobia emerged. Cosmopolite became subtle slur for someone who not only wasn't a "real Frenchman" but also whose origins were deliberately obscured because his or her "race" [which back then meant nationality, but nationalities were thought to have definite characteristics], allegiances and even ethics were suspect.)
But by far the trickiest parts were because Werth was a very smart guy, an original thinker and an economical writer. His prose is deceptively simple, but can be "as difficult to penetrate as Mallarmé's hermetism," as Saint-Exupéry put it. (Saint-Exupéry admired Werth's writing; Werth was a mentor as well as a friend. Stéphane Mallarmé--whose L'après-midi d'une faune inspired the Debussy music of the same name--was a famous Symbolist poet who wrote very metaphorically.) There were sentences that took multiple tries to parse. When I checked with French speakers, they'd say, "yes, that's a hard one," and not have a definitive answer. I'd finally crack them after sitting with the context and Werth's line of thought long enough that it just came to me. Then it was so obvious that I couldn't understand how I could have read the sentence any other way. Hiding in plain sight.

Was it a help that you know a lot about WWII? Any examples?
My interest in the war helped me appreciate in the first place what a rare item a full-length, eyewitness account of the exodus is. My interest in the war and in France between the wars also helped me appreciate the context of the book; it made me more comfortable and confident translating it. And in turn I learned new things about a favorite subject.
Those interests also enabled me to write the footnotes myself and to provide background information on Werth, the book and the Saint-Exupéry introduction that I understand was very helpful to Melville House. I think the backstory I provided made the project more attractive to them and to the Cultural Section of the French Embassy, which awarded 33 Days a Hemingway Grant. And what I knew helped produce promotional materials, cover copy and the preface.
That said, I don't think a deep knowledge of the war is necessary to be engaged or moved by the book. Werth writes at a very human level. The essence of his story is very accessible.

Léon Werth is very specific about his journey and it is interesting to follow his progress on a map. Can you recommend a site to go to for this, which also shows the occupied and free zones of France at that time? 
Yes. The government of the Department of the Indre in France has a map that traces Werth's route, the stops he made and includes the nearby sections of the Demarcation Line. http://www.indre.fr/lecture-scénarisée-sur-lexode-de-la-grande-guerre.
For a really specific map of the line, there's a site of World War II–vintage Michelin maps that includes an interactive facsimile of Michelin's 1941 map of the Demarcation Line. (Scroll about one-third of the way down to find the Demarcation Line map.) http://cartesmich.free.fr/ww2_a.php.
For more information on the Demarcation Line itself and how it functioned, the French government has a site in English.http://www.cheminsdememoire.gouv.fr/en/demarcation-line-1940-1944

Werth's memoir takes place at the same time as Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française and Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See (both fiction). The German invasion and the exodus from Paris are central in all three. What is special and illuminating about Werth's memoir that makes it a perfect complement to these fictional accounts?

I think they all complement one another. Werth had no idea what the event "meant," so he simply bore witness. Comparing his account to what appears in Némirovsky and Doerr highlights how the novelists "read" the event, what it meant to them, because it highlights what they included, what they emphasized and how, and what they excluded. In turn, their narratives throw light on aspects of the exodus Werth did not experience, and they interpret what he did experience from another perspective.
I don't mean to imply equivalence, though. Each brings something different to the table. 33 Days has what historian Joan Scott calls "the authority of direct experience." But no one person's account of such an event can possibly be definitive (for example, Werth left Paris for his summer home; most refugees had neither second homes nor relatives' or friends' to go to). Through art, Némirovsky and Doerr can create a higher truth than personal accounts. But with historical fiction, we're often left wondering where the border between truth and fiction is.
Hopefully, a point will come when we have a comprehensive understanding of the exodus, a "collective memory"--what historians call a "meta-narrative." Then, whether a detail in a historical fiction is literally true or not will be less important than how well it communicates the meta-narrative.

Why is Léon Werth an important writer? Do you hope to translate more of his work? Are you working on a next project?
Werth influenced a generation of French writers, Saint-Exupéry among them, who said they admired Werth's talent, "like children watching a carpenter."
Important writers also write important books. Werth's first novel was one of four Goncourt finalists in an exceptional year, 1913. (Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes, which was number nine on Le Monde's 1999 list of the "100 Books of the Century," and Proust's Swann's Way were two of the others. There were something like twelve rounds of voting before a winner was chosen--Marc Elder's Le Peuple de la mer.)
His novel of World War I was described by the foremost expert on French Great War literature (Jean Norton Cru) as "worth more than all the other trench novels put together."
In the 1920s Werth wrote a book about Indochina that was called "a model of the genre." The head of the French government asked to discuss it with him.
Werth's diary of the Occupation was described by one of the most eminent French historians of all time (Lucien Febvre) as "essential to understanding the Occupation as it was lived." Oxford University Press is negotiating for the English translation rights.
Yes, I am working on my next project. It's a collection of short stories by an emerging female French writer, Junie Terrier, who was a 2014–15 Visiting Scholar at Harvard.
For my next Werth project, I have in mind his World War I novel, Clavel soldat. And I hope to translate more Werth after that. 

For more information from Melville House click here
From The Times Literary Supplement:
"He lives in France, where he is hungry and cold", wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in his dedication of Le Petit Prince to his "best" friend, the Jewish writer and art critic Léon Werth (1878-1955)....33 Days, admirably translated by Austin Denis Johnston, is a beautifully written portrait not just of the shock of sudden occupation, but an eloquent essay on the meaning of how to remain human, even in the face of such confusing adversity.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Celebrate Bastille Day with Crêpes!









Here is my recipe from Crêpes by Suzette, the book and the app. 

Oh là là - c'est bon!

Monday, June 29, 2015

Where can you get the best crêpes in Paris?

For a crêpe on the run, go to the window on the side of Café de la Place, 23 rue d'Odessa, 14th arrondissement and have a crêpe made by Joseph Karadeniz. His crêpes really are the best. Every time I am in Paris I make sure to stop by. Naturally he is the crêpe maker in the cooking demo video in my Crêpes by Suzette app! 

If you are feeling like you need to sit down in a restaurant, there are numerous crêperies close by, particularily right down the street on rue du Montparnasse.  Crêperie de Josselin is very popular and very good, especially if you want a savory buckwheat crêpe, normally called a galette. But my first choice: always chez Joseph!

Wishing I was in Paris right now! You too? Feeling in the mood for crêpes? Check out more about Crêpes by Suzette here!


Friday, June 12, 2015

Suzette says Merci!

Creating the Crêpes by Suzette app was alot of work, and now launching it into the world is the next challenge. Unlike my books that have all the support behind them of my publishing house, my little app just has me trying to send it out into the big world.

And so I am really happy about some of the notice it is getting. I'm putting a few links here to spread the good news to readers, but I'm also doing this to help keep myself motivated with promotion.

I was thrilled when I saw on twitter from The Horn Book: "Oh là là! : Crêpes by Suzette by Monica Wellington ...now we want crepes for lunch." The full review is here

Apppicker.com had lots of nice things to say here including: "With the Crêpes by Suzette app you can give your child a great head start on the road to learning French with an interactive story that’s a whole lot of fun. This app’s definitely one your children will cherish."  and "Cons: None"!

I did a Q&A here with Gravitybread.com - a wonderful blog that brings together books and food.

I'm a fan of Jama's Alphabet Soup Blog so really nice to part of her post here

All4mychild.com gave great suggestions for teachers on how the app can used with children in their review  here

Merci beaucoup!  This all encourages me to keep at it!

Monday, June 01, 2015

Book Expo 2015 Highlights

I am recuperating from BEA! Over the three days of the convention I gathered a heavy load of books and I'm excited for months ahead of good reading. A sampling of titles: Kitchens of the Great Midwest, The Three-Year Swim Club, The Hundred-Year House, The Expatriates... where to start?!

Lots of authors and illustrators sign books at the convention but these two were special. They created little works of art in each book they signed: Liniers with his brush and paint box and Kris Di Giacomo with her colored markers.

Fran Manushkin's character Katie Woo had a 5th birthday party at Capstone.
A piece of cake was exactly what was needed by the third day of the convention.

My high school friend who is now a school librarian stayed at my house and this is what happened by the end of the trip:

And I heard the good news that My Leaf Book, my new book due out in the fall, is going to be a Junior Library Guild selection!
That all adds up to a great show! Next year it will be in Chicago. I hope it comes back to New York soon - how about every other year?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Crêpes in Paris

I just love this picture from a young reader, enjoying a crêpe on his recent trip to Paris. Mmmm, c'est bon!
My app, Crêpes by Suzette, has just launched! I have been working on this project for a very long time: almost four years. When the book went out-of-print I wanted to find a way to keep it alive, and voilà, the idea of developing an app got started. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into - it was alot of fun but alot of work, and I had alot to learn.  With my digital recorder I collected sounds, music, voices from streets, markets, parks, playgrounds, carousels in Paris and edited them into sound collages, to create a different atmosphere for each page in the book. And that was just the beginning... There are crêpe making demos, narrations and vocabulary in six languages (including the English narration read by me!) and lots more.  I hope children feel they are taking a trip to Paris, and that they have fun savoring the culture, language, and crêpes on their holiday!
Just like this reader clearly did when he was in Paris!

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

School Visit

 I recently visited all the kindergarten and first grade classes in a school in Hoover, Alabama: 20 classes in 10 sessions! It was so much fun! Thank-you to all the fabulous kids and teachers for giving me such a great welcome and to one super special librarian for organizing it all!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Interview with illustrator JANNIE HO

My interviews with artists who have been in my SVA class continues with Jannie Ho. When she was in class over ten years ago (I've been teaching for quite a while!) she already had a very distinctive style with a big assortment of adorable, playful animals in all her illustrations. Jannie's first book was "The Penguins' Perfect Picnic" published by Innovative Kids in 2007. Since then she has been very prolific and busy: she has illustrated over 20 books! I'm hearing more and more from illustrators about getting good work outside the world of "The Big Five" mainstream American publishers. Jannie is having a lot of success with her English publisher - read on!

You have illustrated a number of books in a series with Nosy Crow. Just out is: Cutie Pie Looks for the Easter Bunny. Can you tell us about Nosy Crow and the series?
Nosy Crow is an independent publisher based in the UK. The series, Tiny Tabs, are a set of board books with pull tabs; when pulled, characters are revealed in die cuts within the spreads. Each book feature an anthropomorphic animal character and the stories are mostly search and find themed.

How did this series get started for you?
I was first contacted by Nosy Crow back in 2012. They mentioned that they had found my work via Twitter! I was starting to get some work in the UK and making some contacts there. They wanted someone that could handle the complicated templates as this book was very particular with the pull tabs. It was also to be based on anthropomorphic animals and that was my specialty!

What were the stages of working on this particular book?
"Cutie Pie Looks for the Easter Bunny" is the 6th book in the series, so things went much more smoothly than the others since I knew what to expect. We usually decide what the main animal character is going to be first. For this particular book, it was Easter themed - so a chick was a good and obvious choice. I first come up with the character design and draw a bunch of different options including the clothing. There are few rounds of that before I dive into the cover and spreads. The layout of where the die cuts are in the spreads are very specific, so I have to take that into consideration as I work on the art.

What was your favorite part of working on this book?
My favorite part was coming up with the various animal characters. Seeing this book as part of the series and how its world continues to grow excites me very much.

And the most difficult part?

The cover is the hardest. Since it is a series, I have to be mindful in terms of keeping the same look yet also make it different. The tabs in this book are quite tricky. The colors of the tabs need to correspond well on each spread, but also work together on the cover. Now that I've done a few of these books, I've learned to quickly sketch the cover in color first so I know what I'm working with.

Where do you live and what is your studio like?
I currently live in Boston, MA. My studio is just a corner in my apartment, as we are in a temporary space. I also have a young daughter so it is important to have the flexibility to work from home.
What are your art materials?

I mostly work all digitally now. As clients' deadlines are usually so short, I started sketching straight to the computer (I had pencil sketched before and scanned in my sketches.) Adobe Illustrator is what I use 95% of the time.

What were you like as a child? Did you always draw and paint?
I've always loved to draw. Create. I use to make toys out of cardboard. I use to (and still do) look at children's books and just admire the illustrations. My favorite from childhood is Richard Scarry's Busy, Busy Town. I loved all the little details and a world that was made up of anthropomorphic animal characters.

How did you decide you wanted to be an illustrator of children's books?
I didn't know a career in illustration existed. I took a fashion design course in high school and that was the closest thing in the creative field I knew. The teacher had told me that Parsons School of Design was the best school for fashion, and that is where I went. But when I got there, I realized fashion was not for me. Then I took an illustration course and that made me so much happier, it felt like home. Most of the work I did was very kid based, so it was natural that I went into the direction of children's books.

And I know people are very curious about each artist's journey to publication – can you tell us how you got started?
After art school, I needed a job, so I started working as a graphic designer. I was very lucky to get to work at such great publishers like Nickelodeon and Scholastic. During this time, I never forgot about being an illustrator, but I felt I needed to hone my craft and work on my portfolio some more. I started taking continuing education classes at School of Visual Arts (and one of the classes being yours, Monica!) and continued to make small steps toward my goal. I was sending promo postcards to publishers but started to aim at getting an agent as well. I got a response from an agent, Mela over at MB Artists (who is still my agent to this day!) She took a chance on me and gave me my start. I did not have much illustration job experience under my belt then. But I was working as a graphic designer who commissioned illustrations so I knew what publishers expected out of me.

Did you have some rejections along the way? What have been some of the ups and downs?

Most certainly. The rejections will never stop, I don't think? Projects that I know I was in the running for that I did not get. Dry spells that are inevitable as a freelancer. But being rejected means I'm in the game, and that is a whole lot better than sitting on the side lines.

What are some of your other projects in the works?
I'm partnering with Nosy Crow again but working on something a little different. It is another series- called "Violet Rose". It is a mix of story, activity and sticker book featuring a violet bunny and her friends. There will be press out pieces too-to make paper crafts like paper houses, greeting cards. Alot of crafty fun!

Do you have any special words of advice or encouragement for illustrators/writers starting out now?
Keep drawing and keep showing your work. Know your process, refine your style. Have a voice that is unique. Always be professional with clients and in social media. There are endless resources out there on the internet, so never stop learning!

For more about Jannie and her books,
check out her website at www.chickengirldesign.com
and  instagram.com/chickengirldesign

Friday, February 27, 2015

Two of my favorite things: children's books and dance...

come together at this blog PICTURE BOOKS and PIROUETTES. Read a Q&A about how my dancing daughter and I worked on "My Ballet Journal".

Here is the cover of the activity book and here is the original inspiration: Lydia drew this when she was about 11 years old, for a card for an event at her ballet school.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Glass collages by Dustin Yellin at NYCB

I'm loving New York City Ballet's annual Art Series - currently by Dustin Yellin, on the promenade of the theater. Each sculpture is made of thousands upon thousands of tiny bits and pieces floating in layers of glass.  Each time I went to the theater this past week I was on a treasure hunt for little dancers amongst the huge and imaginative array of collage elements.

And what a great first week it was! Very special to see a beautiful picture of NYCB's opening night Serenade on the front page of the New York Times, delivered to my front door on January 22: George Balanchine's birthday!

The opening night performance of Serenade, Agon, and Symphony in C was fabulously danced by all. And of course it was great fun to see my dancing daughter in eight different ballets in the first week's rep. Lots more to come. I'm getting in the mood for the second week by listening to Bach's Goldbery Variations as I write this.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Interview with author/illustrator: VANESSA BRANTLEY-NEWTON

My series of interviews with artists who have been in my SVA class continues with Vanessa Brantley-Newton. Her interview is brimming over with her talent, generosity and energy, just like when she was in class. I hope you enjoy hearing about how she got started and how she works on her beautiful books - she is a real inspiration!

Vanessa's first book was Let Freedom Sing published in 2009.  Since then she has been incredibly hard working and dedicated, and has illustrated about 20 books, several of which she have also written. Her recent book We Shall Overcome has won the 2014 The Jane Addams Peace Foundation for Children’s Books Honor, amongst other prestigious awards, and it is in the Original Art Show at the Society of Illustrators.

We Shall Overcome was written by Debbie Levy and you are the illustrator. How did this book get started for you?
I had met Joann Hill of Disney-Hyperion quite sometime ago. After Monica's class I was taking another course on Children's Book Illustrations with Sergio Ruzzier. I had already done some illustration work and writing for Scholastic. Sergio took the whole class over to visit a publishing house where Joann was working at the time. She took a look at our portfolios that day.  He really encouraged everyone to bring theirs. Some people didn't listen. Lesson one:  When you get a chance to put your portfolio in front of an Editor or Art Director you make sure you do it!!!  Some people where quite upset when Joann asked me to come back for a possible interview for a project.  Be prepared!  I didn't get to work right away with Joann Hill, but a few years later, when I got an agent, she told me that Joann Hill remembered my work and has seen a couple of the books that I had done and wanted me to come in for a little interview, that they had a story that they thought I was perfect for.

So I was off to NYC to meet the people over at Disney! It was a great visit. As soon as they told me about the story I wanted to illustrate the book. Debbie's beautiful words seem to paint pictures for me. I worked with two wonderful editors and a great art director. I enjoyed and loved working on We Shall Overcome.

After the visit to NYC to the offices of Disney, they knew pretty much that they wanted to hire me and it was only a few weeks later I was asked to start working on sketches.

What were some the stages? 
Talking is one of the stages. They needed to get a feel for me and I needed to do the same.  Contracts take time and this one did take time, but not much. They gave me a generous signing fee and really worked very closely with me.  They did give me all the room I needed to create my work. Which I was very grateful for because sometimes you just don't get that. You can be overly art directed in some cases. They left me alone to do what I do.
There was much research. I looked online and found a lot of things. I interviewed family members who had lived through the Civil rights movement. I collected books and images to work into my illustrations.

What was your favorite part of working on this book? And the most difficult part?
Working on We Shall Overcome was emotional and that was very hard. I remember things as a child of the 60's and 70's. Not being able to do certain places or go to the same bathrooms and stores or restaurants as whites. The other was capturing the right moments to tell the story. Writers do their part and then as the illustrator we get to do our part of telling the story and so we are stretched because it's much more than illustrating what is being said. You also want to illustrate what is not being said. Telling your side of the story if you will.  

Tell us about your relationship with the author? Do you know her or have you met?
We met only after the book was done. Debbie and I have quickly become very, very close. We have spent wonderful time together. We visit her in Maryland and she has even cooked dinner for me. I call her my Sisterfriend!  

Where do you live and what is your studio like?
I lived in East Orange, NJ for many years. Now I happily live in Charlotte, NC in a little section called Sherwood Forest with my husband of 21 years and our daughter and fat cat named Stripes. I share my home with my talented sister Coy and her family. I use to have a wonderful room that double as my studio. Now my little studio is in the corner of our dining room. I hope to have my own space back again soon. This works however for now. It is filled with many, many books and three computers.   

What are your art materials? 
I adore and love art supplies!!! I am always looking for the next hot thing! I have tons of paper and collage elements. I have watercolor paper and paints and gouache and ink and pencils! I have it all. I am looking forward to getting back into traditional media very soon. I have done most of my books digitally. While I love digital illustration, I still love putting my hand and creative spirit to paper and feel the paint, pens, paper and such.  I work on 3 imacs with Corel Painter and Photoshop.

I did We Shall Overcome in Corel Painter 12, but I did the collage part with Photoshop. First I do a really rough sketch of the piece on copy paper or whatever I have and then I scan it into my computer. I then bring it into Photoshop and size the piece and put it into a layer. I lighten my sketch layer and draw over the top of it. After I finish drawing the illustration I begin to color it and place anything that needs to be on a layer. After I am happy with my illustration I bring it over to Photoshop and collage takes place. I collect papers from all over the world. I also sew so I have a closet of fabric that I use as well.  I even did a study on clothing from the 50's and 60's. I look for patterns and anything that has a retro flair to it!  After everything is placed just so I go back to corel and finish the piece.

Here is the book open to the page of the illustration at the Original Art show.
And I know people are very curious about each artist's journey to publication. When you were getting started, how did you find your publisher, editor, or art director who you first worked with? Have you had an agent since you started writing and illustrating books? At the very start I didn't an agent. I didn't even know you might, should or could have one.  I went to a SCBWI conference in NYC and I heard them speaking about having an agent and what they could do for you. I was working on some small projects with Scholastic when one of the really nice editors that I was working with said, " I really think you need to find a agent now Vanessa.  Your work is that good and I have a few that I can put you in touch with." Well, I started reading up on agents and I got my sister Coy involved.  She is excellent at putting letters and things together and so I worked on putting a great portfolio together and Coy started working on my letter. She put together for me a wonderful package that I sent out and actually got 5 agents that wanted to sign me.  I picked Painted-Words. Lori Nowicki.  I have been with her for 8 years now.

Telling you my little story as fast as I can.  Okay, My husband was out of work as an Aerospace Engineer.  He couldn't find work anywhere. We had no money. Seriously NO MONEY coming in.  I tried to find work and found some small jobs that brought in a little money, but bills where piling up and it got really ugly.  I started working for a Reproductive Medicine Center. They hated me! LOL! , But I went to work every single day and when I got home from work I would read and study everything I could get my hands on about Children's books and illustration. I put enough money together and took Monica's illustration class. I honed and worked on my portfolio just hoping and praying that something good would happen. Then I took Sergio's course all the while building a portfolio. I created a blog where I could show my work and I made friends with other writers and illustrators. I joined SCBWI and honed my illustration skills even more.  My dining room table was not used for eating only. It was my creative space as well. My family was pretty upset because it was filled with my work. Everywhere was some kind of illustration I was working on. My next project. Something.  My husband got so upset with me and begged me to clean the table off.  I got a call from a friend who said she wanted to pop in for a second.  She and I had been friends for many years. I knew her to be a dancer and I was singing at the time.  We decided to get together on a Sunday afternoon just to meet for a bit.  My husband asked again. " Please, Please Vanessa! Clean off the table!!!!"  I tried. I really did. I couldn't get everything cleaned up. Karen showed up and there was my table still covered with artwork.  Karen asked," V, who did all the wonderful illustration work??" We had been friends for many years, but we never talked about what each others did besides singing and dancing. I told her, " I did." She said, " Vanessa in all the years we have known each others I didn't know that you had this talent! Do you know who I work for??" "No," I said shamefully.  "Vanessa I work for Scholastic Books and YOU ARE HIRED!!" I have been working in publishing every since.  Blue Apple Books is where I got to do my first picture book that I wrote and illustrated. It was hard work, but I still cherish those hard and scary days.

Did you have some rejections along the way?
I did get some rejections along the way. I think it keeps us grounded in a lot of ways.  I am every grateful to be doing what I do. Only 1% of people get to do what we do.  Rejection pushed me to  really find my own voice in illustration.  I found that multiculturalism was at the heart of my illustration style and work.  I knew that I could draw all cultures and that was valuable to me.  I wanted to be diverse when I illustrated.  It was very important to me that ALL children see themselves in picture books!  

What are some of the difficulties? 
Picture books are hard work and sometimes we are not given the time it takes to produce the work anymore. It use to take a year to do a book now they want it in less than 6 months. Sometimes the crazy deadlines can really get to you. Being overly art directed is very frustrating and can leave one doubting ones ability to create. I work from home so long hours can take from you. I have to remember that I am not single, but I have a family that needs me. Critics are sometimes not very nice.

Do you have any special words of advice or encouragement for illustrators/writers starting out now?
Hone your craft! Develop your signature style by trying all kinds of media. Digital, traditional, watercolor, ink, chalk, grease pencil.  If you are wanting to do children's books, take a course or 3 and collect children's books from the past and present. Create your own library if you will. Create a blog or post your illustrations to facebook, Instragram, Twitter. Join SCBWI.org and then find the chapter nearest you and be a part of it. They always have critique groups to join and publishers and agents are found there as they do visits! Rejection is a part of the process. Embrace it as best you can. ONLY SHOW the work YOU LOVE. Please don't put anything out there that you are not proud of.  Be positive. Seriously, stop saying what you are afraid of and what won't happen for you or others. Start saying to yourself what you wish other to say about your work. " Your work is amazing and quirky! We would like to hire you."  Surround yourself with encouraging and creative people. Believe in your creative self and what you bring to the creative table. No one can do what you do so bring your A game. And remember that there is no competition, because no one can illustrate like you do. No one has your illustrative style.

Looking forward to many more wonderful books from Vanessa! Here is her next book due out in January 2015
For more of Vanessa's work at her agent's website: Painted Words
Here is her blog: OohlalaDesignsStudio

Friday, November 28, 2014

MY BALLET JOURNAL: for young ballerinas!

My first ballet project: an activity book to help inspire, motivate and encourage young ballet students. I made this with alot of help from my dancing daughter, Lydia, corps de ballet member of New York City Ballet.

My Ballet Journal is aimed for girls ages 6 and up. There are pages about ballet class, steps and positions (with space for corrections and goals of course!) and lots more: my performances, my hair, my make-up, tutus, and ... "Oops! Everyone make mistakes sometimes."

I have always loved going to NYCB.  And I started bringing Lydia to performances when she was very young. She didn't want to just watch, she wanted to dance herself, and so she started ballet classes when she was seven at the School of American Ballet. Now she is 24 years old and is in her seventh year with the company.

Tonight the annual run of the Nutcracker opens here in New York at Lincoln Center. After many years in NYCB's production as a student and now as a company member, Lydia is getting close to dancing in 400 performances of Balanchine's Nutcracker. Hard work and the need for encouragement never stops!

We hope young ballet students have fun keeping this journal - that they will fill it with their experiences and special memories of dancing, and keep it for years to come. We hope they pirouette to their dreams!

Here is the link directly to Dover Publications online store - where you can find My Ballet Journal and other projects I have done for them.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Interview with author/illustrator CLARE PERNICE

My interview series with children's book illustrators who have been in my class at one time or another at The School of Visual Arts continues with CLARE PERNICE.  Her first book CIRCUS GIRL was recently published by Simply Read Books.  Here she is at a book signing: Congratulations!

The heroine of Circus Girl is "daring and dazzling and Oh! so dramatic...outrageous...plucky...sensational...stupendous" and full of imagination.
How did she come into being? Read on!

Can you tell us about the process of working on Circus Girl, from first idea to publication? How did this book get started? What were some the stages? What was your favorite part?

The idea for Circus Girl came from my childhood memories, my daughter dressing up and performing and from all children’s love of dressing up. I wanted the book to have exuberant and expressive words conveying different circus acts.  I made long lists of all these words and doodled images beside them. It’s fun playing with concepts and characters but my favorite part is making a final book dummy, as this is when the idea comes to life and looks like a real book.

You are both the author and illustrator. Which came first the words or the pictures?

I think that both come together. It usually begins with an idea that I write down, I start drawing characters and I write some words and then more images spring to mind, back and forth. It is definitely a partnership of words and pictures.

The design and typography are also very important in this book. Did you work closely with the art director on that?

My book dummy was accepted by my publisher and followed almost precisely the way I designed it. One spread changed and I had input on that. We went with a more vibrant book jacket design but a nod to my original cover concept is printed on the actual book under the jacket. It is fantastic that my published book is how I visualized it.

What is your studio like? What are your art materials?

A lovely room over the garage that was designed as a studio by the previous owner, is my special work space. There are windows looking out onto the woods where I live and Milo the Magical our miniature Dachshund likes to curl up on his pillow at my feet while I work.
The upside of a studio at home is being able to work in the middle of the night, however there are an incredible amount of distractions. I wear a lot of different hats during a typical day.  Art supplies and paper make me happy and I love to collect books and all sorts of miscellanea. Sketches, ideas and inspirational material build up when I’m working on a book. I'm not eager to throw anything away but eventually I have to do a big clear up!  I mostly work in colored pencils and watercolor. My pencils are grouped by color. I’m a fan of Faber-Castell.


If you were going to be an animal, what animal would you be and why?

Our dog Milo. I’m sure his favorite expression is "Yes I can!” I’d be him because he's always up for anything, he’s an adventurer and he loves everyone and everything!

And I know people are very curious about each illustrator's journey to publication. How did you find your publisher and your editor?

I have been lucky to meet some wonderful editors and art directors who’ve shown interest in my books along the way and it was really a matter of timing.  I met my publisher at Book Expo. Simply Read Books small booth drew me in. I felt a wonderful connection to their style. The publisher and I chatted and I was invited to meet them after the expo. They took two of my book dummies to show their editor and she loved them. They decided to publish Circus Girl first and I just did a few color illustration samples but no changes to the words before they signed me on. It was serendipitous.

Did you have some rejections along the way? What were some of the ups and downs?

I’ve had a couple of near misses. Simon and Schuster had my Mother Goose book dummy for 3 months, the reason for not taking it was that another editor had a Mother Goose book already under contract. Sterling were divided over Circus Girl, the art director loved it but the editor felt it was too conceptual for their house. It is a great feeling to have interest in your books but it takes timing and grit. Try not to be discouraged and here’s a tip which comes from experience, don’t get distracted!

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

Getting published doesn’t usually work out super quickly but try not to get side tracked into knitting socks for your Etsy shop. If you want to be a children’s book author and illustrator keep focused, immerse yourself, discover blogs and join illustration groups, try out some competitions, make some fun cards at moo.com. Create stories and make book dummies. Take classes.  Go to book stores and libraries and find books that appeal to you as your book could be a good fit for that publisher too. Scbwi conferences and panels at the New School are good to go to as you will be able to submit your work to the participating editors, ad’s and agents.  A great inspiration for me was taking Monica’s wonderful class twice!  I’m a member of Scbwi and Cbig.

Thank you Monica for interviewing me. Your animal question got me thinking and penguin was a close second. I think penguins go “Whee!” as they slide into the water, they are such happy birds and on that note happy picture book creating to all your readers!

To learn more about Clare and her work, check out her website:


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Interview with author/illustrator JENNIFER MERZ

I am going to start up a series of interviews with children's book illustrators who have been in my class at one time or another at The School of Visual Arts. Everybody has their own process of working and their own journey to publication. I hope their stories will be instructional and inspirational. It is with great pleasure that I start off with Jennifer Merz - Enjoy!

I’m delighted to be interviewed for your blog! It’s great fun to be able to tell you all about my creative process. I’m especially proud to discuss my picture book “Playground Day!” released by Clarion Books. 

 Can you tell us about the process of working on Playground Day, from first idea to publication? To begin with, how did this book get started, what was the first trigger?

My creative process started with just the germ of an idea. I knew I wanted to do pictures of happy, active children on the playground, and I was inspired by long, wonderful days at the playground with my now-grown daughters, Lesley and Julia. I love the sheer joy of outdoor, imaginative play, and wanted to capture that feeling – the universal sense of fun from a day outside at the park.

Did you work on the manuscript first, or the pictures?

For this book, the pictures definitely came first – the visual images that I wanted to create were much clearer to me than the words. I remember very early on in the process wanting to tie the children’s activities to animal actions. For example, I wanted to link climbing on the jungle gym with a monkey’s climbing, or draw a parallel between the joy of being high up on a swing with a bird’s flight.

My vision for the manuscript was not as sharp, so the words went through many, many different stages….and different styles….before I decided to tell the story with rhymed couplets.

You make your sketches and your dummy with torn brown paper, instead of drawing with pencil. Can you show us a page? Why do you work this way?

Yes, I often “sketch” with brown paper! After I envision the entire book with small pencil thumbnails, I use brown paper bags to create collage “sketches”. I rip out the shapes that I need and adhere them with a glue stick. Then I put them all together for my dummy book. I find that working this way keeps my dummy pictures very loose. It also keeps me focused on collage, the medium for my finished pictures, so that I don’t get too preoccupied with the drawing itself.

Although it takes awhile to make a “sketch” this way, I think that my compositions are stronger when I’m dealing with silhouetted forms; this method helps me guard against my tendency to get bogged down in too many details too early in the process.

Here’s the brown paper sketch that I did for the swing picture:

…. And here is the final picture: I love the tactile effects I can achieve by tearing or cutting the papers. In this book, I also used fabric and other trimmings in my final illustrations. I’m currently experimenting with including my own photographs and other found objects in my pictures, too, and find this way of working very rewarding, and a great way to layer meaning into my pictures.

 You make your illustrations with collage. From looking at your pictures, you seem very organized, is that true?

Yes, I think I’m a very organized person. I think you need to be in this business. While there is plenty of fun and creativity in the work, there is also a need to have a plan for the project you are working on.

Can you tell us a bit about how you work?

I like to work in the daytime, when the light is good and I’m at my most creative, and I enjoy listening to music (jazz or classical are my favorites) while I’m working on the art.
But I often do my best writing out at my local Starbucks. At least, it’s a good excuse for a mocha latte.

Do you have a big collection of papers?

I have a fairly large collection of collage papers, though I always want more! I like using rice papers and papers with interesting patterns or textures. Lately, I’m incorporating my own photographs, as well. 

When you were a child, did you have favorite animals? Did you have pets? Favorite stuffed animals?

When I was a little girl I had a black cat named Mitty, whom I loved very much. In more recent times, we have had a dog – a pug – named Gatsby.

As for stuffed animals, YES! I had loads of them, and so did my daughters. My girls would set up elaborate parties for them, or bring them on outings, or to school. They figured so prominently in our house, that I wanted to put them into “Playground Day!” The little girl in my picturebook brings ten of them to the playground in her red wagon.

If you were going to be an animal, what animal would you be and why?

Definitely a bird ~~ I like the idea of soaring freely through the skies!

Can you tell us about the process of finding your publisher and your editor?
You had some rejections along the way, but then finally happy outcomes for your first two books. What were some of the ups and downs? 

Yes, both of my books were held up at various publishers for a long time prior to their acceptance for publication. At times, I almost gave up! But I persisted, having faith in my work and in the process. I think it’s important to understand that persistence, luck, and patience are key ingredients in the whole process of being published. 
For my first book, That Dancin’ Dolly, a series of happy, serendipitous moments pointed me towards my editor at Dutton Children’s Books, even though it took a long time to get there. For Playground Day! I am proud that I made it through the slush pile!

My process of finding a publisher is just about to change: I have recently signed on with Steven Chudney of The Chudney Agency. I’m so excited about this step! Steven fell in love with my new manuscript and book dummy entitled Sew Strong, The Legacy of the Triangle Factory Fire. It’s a nonfiction picture book for middle grade children about the events surrounding the 1911 historical fire. Steven is currently submitting it to major publishers – we’ll see what happens next! Wish me luck!

You've taken a number of illustration classes including with the master artist, Ed Young, and recently you have also taught a children's book class yourself. Do you have any special words of advice or encouragement for illustrators/writers starting out?

Yes, I love learning. In fact, in May 2014, I completed my MFA Degree in Illustration from FIT. I’m happy that I was able to immerse myself in illustration…all kinds of illustration, not just children’s...for the past three years, and fulfill my lifelong dream of attaining this terminal degree.

One piece of advice that has helped me to create successful picture books is to make believe you are making a movie. You are the director, the cinematographer, the casting director, the set and costume designer! Think of your book as one unit. In other words, it must work from start to finish. It’s sometimes easy to forget that the book is one total unit, and not a series of pictures.

I’d also advise new students to try to be patient, not only in terms of waiting for responses from publishers, but with yourself as you develop your work. Making books is not an easy task! Sometimes you need to do something over and over again until it looks right. It’s important to seek out opinions of your work ~ but only from those people whom you trust. Listen to your own “inner ear” when you get advice: sift through the information to find out what works for you and what is not true to your vision.

Also keep reading: visit your local bookstore and library frequently. Study as you read. Ask yourself: what makes this picture book effective?

Lastly, join the SCBWI for camaraderie and support! It’s a great organization. www.scbwi.org.

Thank you so much for interviewing me, Monica!
It’s a pleasure to be part of your blog!

All my best to you, your students, and your readers.

And good luck to Jennifer! Her newest project sounds very exciting and hopefully we will hear more good news! To learn more about Jennifer and her books, check out her website: