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:

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

Friday, July 29, 2016


It was so much fun this week to do a "My Ballet Journal" workshop for aspiring young ballerinas at the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs, NY.   

Here the children are meeting the New York City Ballet dancers, Lydia Wellington (my daughter and collaborator on the project!), Meagan Mann, and Megan Johnson. 

Then they broke up into small groups and rotated around the three workshops. 

They learnt how to do French twists and Balanchine buns from Lydia.

They picked up make-up tips from Meagan Mann.

And Megan Johnson answered their many questions about pointe shoes

What a lovely group of young ballerinas! I hope they have lots of fun writing and drawing in their ballet journals. Good luck to them all in pirouetting to their dreams! 

Friday, July 08, 2016

Crêpes by Suzette in Paris!

I'm in Paris visiting my favorite city for crêpes. I imagine that every expert crêpe-maker is named Suzette: they all inspired my book and app, Crêpes by Suzette!

Mmmm, c'est bon!

The epicenter for delicious crêpes in Paris is right by the metro Edgar Quinet: at the Café de la Place and then numerous restaurants along rue du Montparnasse and rue d'Odessa. Bon Appétit! 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Interview with author/illustrator RUTH CHAN

With all the picture book debuts this spring, it is certainly time to celebrate with a party!  Ruth Chan's picture book debut, WHERE'S THE PARTY? is exactly perfect for the occasion! It is not easy for illustrators to break into children's publishing. Nor is it easy for Georgie to throw a party in Ruth's book, but he manages to pull it off with big success. Congratulations to Georgie and to Ruth!

It is exciting to hear about each artist's journey to publication – can you tell us about yours?
Well, it all started with your class at SVA's Continuing Education!  And then I signed up for two more of your classes.  This was sort of the first concrete step I took.  I'd been surrounded by picture books all my life, first as a kid, and then as an educator, but never thought I'd have the chops to actually make one and get it published.  The classes helped me understand the basics of the industry, as well as what makes a good picture book.

Upon your recommendation, I signed up for the SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) Winter Conference in 2013. I was so overwhelmed, I didn't manage to meet a single person, and returned from it completely disoriented.  I was, however, inspired, and decided to dedicate the next year to getting to know all I could about the industry, and working on my illustration.  I read picture books incessantly, went to book launches, followed everyone I could on social media, and painted every day. I returned to the 2014 SCBWI Winter Conference with a new portfolio, a deeper understanding of what I had to do, and a group of friends I'd made along the way.  

I ended up winning a Runner-Up award for the Portfolio Showcase that year, and the very next day, I had emails and calls from agents and art directors.  I signed with my agent, and worked with her on a book dummy I'd started in an SVA class.  We sent it out and got a two-book deal at auction with Roaring Brook. It was very quick journey, and I'm very fortunate to have had that.

How did WHERE'S THE PARTY get started? What were some the stages? 

The original idea came one day when I was walking in my neighborhood. A delivery man from Balloon Saloon was trying to deliver balloons to an address, but he couldn't find it, and was becoming increasingly frustrated. It was such a funny visual to see this person holding over 50 balloons-- something that would make anyone happy-- so agitated and angry.  I thought it'd be an interesting concept to make a book about anticipating a party, and having all the fun of it taken away.

I also knew Georgie (my cat) and Feta (my dog) were going to be the main characters of the book.  They are such odd and funny creatures in real life, it was inevitable that they'd become picture book characters.

I started working on the dummy in your SVA class. I reworked it in the next class.  I created another version after working with my agent.  And then changed the entire concept of the book while working with my editor.  I think, in the end, we had 21 versions of the manuscript and eight versions of the dummy!  

What was your favorite part of working on this book?
I loved painting the characters.  There were times I'd sketch or paint one of them and laugh out loud at how funny they were.  That's got to be one of the best feelings-- to draw something and then laugh or nod at something you did right.  I feel like we're always our own harshest critics, so to do something you actually like is quite the accomplishment.

And the most difficult part?
It was hard to step back from the story and try to see it with fresh eyes at every round of edits.  You sort of lose sight of the story arc, the rhythm, etc. because you've read and looked at the darn thing so many times.

There was also one spread that I could not for the life of me figure out the colors for. I think I did the spread six times before settling on a palette I'm still not completely sure of. 

Where do you live and what is your studio like? 

I live in Brooklyn, NY, just a few blocks from Prospect Park, the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Central Library.  It's great here. Feta loves going to the park, and Georgie loves staying inside and watching the birds from his perch on the windowsill.

My studio space is in my bedroom, and while it isn't the most space, it has a great view of the city.  It gives wonderful light, and it's great for spacing out, and for watching the lighting change over the course of the day.  I also live across the street from another children's book author/illustrator, so we'll work together in his studio pretty often.  Making picture books can be such isolating and lonely work, so it's nice to have even just one other person around.  Feta even has his own bed there.

And then at night, Georgie and Feta usually snuggle up together and fall asleep.  Actually, they do this pretty much all day long. The are both kind of old, and love sleeping.  And love sleeping together. It never gets old, how cute it is. 

What were you like as a child?  Did you always draw and paint since you were very young?
I was painfully shy as a child. So much so that I'm blotchy and crying in almost all of my school pictures from earlier grades.  

I drew and painted as much as the average kid, but I wouldn't say I was a 'born artist' who was incessantly drawing.  I also didn't like to read very much until about 7th grade.  I much preferred playing outside in the woods and biking around with my friends!  

How did you decide you wanted to be an author and illustrator of children's books?
Like I mentioned earlier, I'd always loved picture books. They seamlessly encompass some of the most beautiful things in life: A good story, beautiful language, incredible art, humor, wit, tenderness, and truths. I’d amassed a huge collection of them, but never allowed myself to really consider making them. While I doodled here and there, I had no formal illustration background, and, in my mind, there was no way I’d make it in such a competitive industry.

Then in 2012, a number of really difficult things happened at the same time and I found myself alone, jobless, and, quite honestly, depressed.  I remember sitting down in the mornings and drawing because I didn’t really know what else to do, and then— as things sometimes unfold— that aimlessness led to more illustrations, which led to taking a few SVA continuing classes, and then to attending an SCBWI conference.  And you know the rest!

Did you have some rejections along the way? What have been some of the ups and downs? 
You know, I was really fortunate, I didn't really have many rejections when it came to picture book submissions, just because of how things unfolded for me.  I had a few from submissions I'd made at the 2013 SCBWI conference, but I also knew my work wasn't quite up to snuff.  I've had a ton of rejections from illustration competitions, and I think the key is to hope, but not expect.

That being said, there were so many ups and downs.  There are so many downs when you admit to yourself you really want something, and start working towards it, because you start thinking, "What happens if I don't get what I really want?"  But there are many little ups as well: Talking to a favorite picture book illustrator, finding a solution to a problem in the story, drawing that funny character. 

There were a few times making WHERE'S THE PARTY? where I was convinced I couldn't make this book.  And I think you feel that working on any book, even if it's your 20th book.  But then your editor or agent or friend pulls you out of that, and you end up being just fine!

Are more books about these characters in the works?

Yes!  GEORGIE AND FRIENDS is going to be a series, of which WHERE'S THE PARTY? is the first.  I just finished working on the second book, GEORGIE'S BEST BAD DAY and is about Georgie and his friends having a bad day together.  

I'm also about to start illustrating a sequel to a book that comes out in September, 2016, called MERVIN THE SLOTH IS ABOUT TO DO THE BEST THING IN THE WORLD.  Colleen AF Venable is the author and has written two hilarious, heartfelt stories here. 

Is there anything that you remember from SVA class that has been particularly helpful? Do you have any special words of advice or encouragement for illustrators/writers starting out now? 
- Join SCBWI!
- Get others to look at your work and get feedback.  The critiques in your class were so helpful.
- Be prepared to work hard.  Read as many picture books as you can. Attend as many events as you can.  Get on social media to see who is talking about what in the industry.  
- It's really not impossible! I remember sitting in your class thinking "Wow. This real life author/illustrator is here talking to us. If only I could ever get to that point. But it'll never happen." But it did!

To find out more about Ruth and her work visit her website here
and for more fun pictures of Feta and Georgie check out her Instagram here
And now it is time to get to the PARTY! 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Interview with author/illustrator JASON KIRSCHNER

We are on a roll with picture book debuts from amazing illustrators from SVA! This week we are celebrating Jason Kirschner's MR PARTICULAR. This tale in comic book style is filled with warmth and humor: our super-hero is just a bit fussy and quirky, and SUPER appealing!  MR PARTICULAR has gotten off to a flying start. Congratulations!

How did MR PARTICULAR get started? What were some the stages? 
My son was a picky kid. When he'd refuse to eat something or he’d make a fuss, we'd call him Mr. Particular. As a comic book fan, I thought it would be the funniest name for a superhero. After a few different book dummies that no one was buying, I wanted to write something that was closer to my heart which ended up being Mr. Particular: The World’s Choosiest Champion. I went through several stages of story revisions with my agent and then started drawing.  I produced a fully illustrated dummy with a few color spreads which we shopped around and sold to Sterling last April.

What was your favorite part of working on this book?  
I loved just about every stage of this project. The story was fun to write because I knew all the characters intimately and I got to add a lot of comic book homages to the script.  Having said that, drawing these guys was my favorite part. I'm an illustrator first and bringing these characters to life on the page was tremendous fun.

And the most difficult part?  
Honestly, it was the unknowns that were hardest.  As a first time author/illustrator, I just didn't know what to expect and I was continually surprised by the amount of work that happens even after you sell the book. It wasn’t bad — it’s just a lot of work.  Thank goodness I had tons of support from my editor and art director.

Where do you live and what is your studio like? Your art materials?
I live in a lovely house in NJ where I've stolen the finished attic and made it my studio.  It’s as quiet as a room can be in a house with two 9 year-olds.  I’ve got a large drafting table with a lightbox for drawing  and a computer workstation with my Wacom palette for Photoshop. 
As for materials, when I use expensive paper I tighten up so I draw everything on cheap photocopy paper. That way, I don’t worry if I mess up — and I often mess up.  I like 11”x17” so I've got some room. I draw with brown and black Prismacolor pencils. Then I scan it all in and color digitally.

What were you like as a child?  Did you always draw and paint since you were very young?  
Yes. Always. I’ve got sketchbooks from when I was three and four years old.

Future projects? 
I’ve just finished a new manuscript and I’ve started drawing the dummy. I've also mapped out the next two Mr. Particular books -- not that anyone's asked for them. I just love the characters so much. I hope it does well enough to warrant a sequel. I’ve also started fiddling with a chapter book because I’m so wordy.

Is there anything that you remember from SVA class that has been particularly helpful? Do you have any special words of advice or encouragement for illustrators/writers starting out now? 
I loved meeting the guest artists and hearing their stories.  Each one went about things differently which was reassuring.  
As for advice— Do tons of work.  If you write, write every day and if you draw, draw every day.  (If you do both, alternate days or something.)  I go up to my studio every day after my day job and work. And get a good critique group. I’ve been with mine for several years and they’ve been instrumental in raising the quality of my work. 

To find out more about Jason and his work visit his website here
Also check out the blog Drawn to Picture Books created by Jason and five other illustrator friends. SUPER GREAT!!!

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Interview with author/illustrator CLAIRE LORDON

Having your very first book published is super exciting and fabulous! This spring not just one, not just two, but THREE people, who were all in my SVA class at one time or another, are having their picturebook debuts. Each wrote and illustrated their books, each has had a different experience towards reaching publication, and each are going to do a Q&A here. I'm thrilled to introduce to you these new author/ illustrators! First up is Claire Lordon:

Lorenzo the Pizza Loving Lobster is about a feisty creative little guy who wants to share his love for pizza with his friends. Eelgrass or algae pizza anyone? After a few silly mishaps that will make kids giggle, there is naturally a delicious pizza party at the end!

It is exciting to hear about each artist's journey to publication – can you tell us about yours?
I took my children's book class at SVA (with Monica Wellington) in January 2014 and in June 2014 I attended the New Jersey SCBWI conference. There I made a contact with a publisher. I sent them my dummy and my portfolio and after six months I received a response. They said that while they didn't want my story, they loved a few pieces of art and wondered if I had any stories about them. They happened to love an illustration I made of a lobster, and I was just finishing up my dummy for "Lorenzo, the Pizza-Loving Lobster". When I was finished with my dummy and some sample art I sent it to them. After a few rounds of revision I received an offer! I believe my art and illustration background gave me a bit of a head start.

How did LORENZO get started? What were some the stages? 
The idea for Lorenzo started as an inside joke between me and my boyfriend. I gave him a stuffed animal lobster for his birthday and somehow we decided he was Italian and loved pizza. I thought this would make a great character in a children's book, so I made one piece of art and wrote a story.
The story for Lorenzo was very different at that point. Originally it had Lorenzo as a child and then grew up to a grownup lobster. I made a "dummy" book and had a few samples of what I thought the final art should look like.  After submitting my book dummy, my editor and I went through a few rounds of revisions and the story changed - all for the better. Then I had to make a new storyboard and rough sketches of all the pages before going into final art.

What was your favorite part of working on this book?  
Besides all my pizza breaks? 
My favorite part was creating the storyboard. When I created the storyboard I particularly enjoyed figuring out the pacing and thumbnail compositions because that is what the rest of the work is going to be based on - it's very exciting!

And the most difficult part?  
The most difficult part was the waiting! The publishing industry is very slow and waiting to see the actual physical book from when all the artwork was complete took almost a year.

Where do you live and what is your studio like? What are your art materials?
I currently live in Brooklyn, New York. My studio is very small, but since I work mostly digitally it's fine. I use Photoshop with my Wacom Cintiq monitor to create most of my illustrations. Occasionally I start out with a pencil sketch or thumbnail, but otherwise I work using my computer.

What were you like as a child?  Did you always draw and paint since you were very young? 
I was always drawing and announced to my parents when I was three years old that I was going to be an artist. I continued to study and make art all the time, even taking art classes on Saturdays for many years. I loved exploring different mediums and my favorite subjects to draw were always animals.

How did you decide you wanted to be an author and illustrator of children's books?  
I studied and made art all throughout my childhood and decided my junior year of high school that I wanted to further pursue art. For college I chose to go to the Rhode Island School of Design. There I had one foundation year and three years of studying illustration.  In my last semester I realized that I loved creating art for kids. I dabbled in a few industries doing various illustration work when I decided that taking a picture book class sounded like fun. I decided to take the children's book class at SVA. I have always loved telling stories and found that children's books are a great fit! I can combine my love of storytelling and creating art for children with picture books.

Did you have some rejections along the way?
Yes! I received some rejections, some were silent (they didn't respond), some were filled with encouraging notes, and some were form rejections. The rejections that were more personal and had suggestions really encouraged me to keep working.

What are some of your other projects that you are currently working on?  
I recently completed a few pieces of art for a story about a penguin named Bento who is apprehensive about school picture day that I'm going to shop around. Right now I'm working on a story called "Santa Jaws" which is about a shark who takes on Santa's duties underwater. I'm also working on a story about a fox who wants to go camping. There are a few other drafts in progress, but they are very rough.
I'm also working on art for my portfolio, as well as various illustration projects for clients.

Is there anything that you remember from SVA class that has been particularly helpful?
There were many things that were helpful from the SVA class. Learning how to pace a story and how to storyboard were greatly helpful. Also learning how to create a "dummy" (rough draft) book really helped me before I started submitting my work.

Do you have any special words of advice or encouragement for illustrators/writers starting out now?
1. Join SCBWI
2. Read many picture books so you can learn more about the industry
3. Write and illustrate - lots!
4. Find a critique group that will give you support and good feedback
5. Share what you make - through social media and to art directors and agents
6. Repeat steps two through five.
7. Don't give up. Keep making new work and keep trying!

To find out more about Claire and her work take a look at her website here