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.

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:

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