Featuring author Jenn Reese
Interviewed by John Repplinger
December 1st, 2023
Jenn Reese (they/she) writes speculative fiction for readers of all ages. Jenn is the author of the middle grade novel Every Bird a Prince, A Game of Fox & Squirrels, and the Above World trilogy. Puzzleheart, their next, will be out in 2024. They also write short stories for teens and adults. Jenn lives in Portland, Oregon where they make art, play video games, and talk to the birds.
Icebreaker: If you could choose to be an animal, what would you choose to be and why?
Your icebreaker is one of the hardest questions possible! Ever since I was young, “shape-changing into animals” has been my most wished for superpower. However, since you’re making me choose and birds feature in almost all my work, I’ll pick a songbird. Perhaps a jaunty little nuthatch that darts with total confidence through the trees and often pauses to sing. I’m envious of their freedom and vocal talents, as well as the unwavering sense of purpose they display with each and every movement.
The writing process varies a lot between authors. Can you explain what the average writing time is like for you? Do you have any unique writing customs such as a must-have favorite beverage on hand or time of the day to write?
First, I’ll have to instantly dispel the idea that I have an “average writing time.” When I was starting out, people said “Real writers write every day,” and that faulty adage hurt me far more than it helped. Some days I want to luxuriate in new words early in the morning, or late at night. Some days I fall into the trap of revising what I’ve already written over and over. Some days I have to do freelance work to pay the bills, or deal with life stuff, or I simply want to finish a book I’ve been reading and then tell everyone about it. I also practice other art forms, such as drawing and linocut and ceramics, and I try not to minimize how much all forms of creativity are connected when I spend a three-day burst doing nothing but hunching over my sketchbook.
So no, sorry, no consistency at all, I’m afraid. Having been recently diagnosed with ADHD, I can see how I arrived at this place. My task now is to not feel guilty if I wake up and want to sketch instead of write, or if I decide I have to rearrange all my art supplies. I tell myself I’m fighting capitalism and the idea that our worth is tied to our productivity, which helps a little.
Most people are unaware that you are also an accomplished graphic designer with your own company that specializes in book cover design. Do you ever sketch concepts or schemes from your writing? And do your illustrations ever influence your stories?
What I love about graphic design is how we can draw the eye across an image, how simplicity can imply complexity, how we can tap into common emotions and ideas with color and font choice and composition. I think distilling complex ideas into something understandable by more people is one of the through lines of my life as a creator.
As an illustrator, I have tremendous imposter syndrome. As recently as last year, I would never show someone a piece of art without tacking on “I’m only an amateur artist” or “I’m just learning” or “I know it’s not any good.” When I started writing, I had the hubris of not knowing how bad I was. (I got better.) As an artist, I’ve leaped straight into the self-doubt portion of the journey. But I’m working on this. One of my goals for 2023 was to pursue art (not just graphic design) more intentionally. And, amazingly, I was asked to illustrate one of my stories for an anthology, and my book editor at Henry Holt asked me to draw the interior illustrations for my middle grade novel, Puzzleheart.
In short, I’m extremely excited to start integrating my art and writing more. I feel like there are whole new pathways opening up in my brain when I think in both words and pictures.
Many of your characters are animals that talk such as Ashander from A Game of Fox & Squirrels. Do you have any specific authors that you turn to for drawing inspiration about animal characters? And what do you do when you hit a scene where you’re not sure how an animal character might react/behave/interact with other characters?
T.H. White’s The Once and Future King was certainly one of my early influences — young Wart changes into different animals and learns from them, and that’s the dream, right? That book reinforces the idea that humans and animals are inseparable, and I’ve been writing them both ever since.
Even so, I was nervous to write a book with talking animals, as many readers hate them, especially adults. And then I read the most brilliant essay by the legend herself, Ursula K. Le Guin. “Cheek by Jowl: Animals in Children’s Literature” has so many brilliant insights that I urge everyone to read it for themself. Here is one of them:
“Children have to be persuaded, convinced, that animals don’t talk.
They have to be informed that there is an impassable gulf between
Man and Beast, and taught not to look across it. But so long as they
disobey orders and go on looking, they know better.”
I love that so much! And in terms of writing, my one trick is this: do not allow your human characters to be astonished that animals can talk for very long. When they accept this reality, the reader will too. Because we have always lived and communicated with animals, and giving them actual words requires only the smallest of leaps.
Do you base any of your characters on people you know?
I think almost all writers are collectors. Our brains house scraps of dialogue and interesting character traits and Polaroids of fun locations paper clipped to index cards and shoved into a massive card catalog, willy-nilly. All my characters have something of me in them, whether I want them to or not, but none of them are entirely me. Even in A Game of Fox & Squirrels, which is my most personal work to date, the characters only have pieces inspired by real people. The fun is creating something fresh from little bits of truth.
What is the most challenging aspect of writing middle-grade and young adult books?
I don’t find writing for middle-grade and young adult audiences to be any different than writing for adults, except that I feel a deeper responsibility to make sure my metaphors and messaging is intentional. Adults are more practiced at reading something and disregarding it if they disagree with its premise or worldview. Many adults love anti-heroes who are ruthless serial killers, for example, without ever feeling like those sorts of people or those activities are condoned. Kids are still working on building their critical reading muscles, and writers have to be more careful with how they approach their material.
Your Above World series portrays vivid scenes of a futuristic sci-fi life where humans have adapted physically to a post apocalyptic world. How do you select your locations and scenes? How do you develop your rich sci-fi and fantasy worlds?
I grew up inhaling mountains of fantasy and science fiction novels, and playing Dungeons & Dragons, and I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t creating worlds and characters and asking “what if?” I’m a very visual writer in that I picture every scene in my mind as I’m writing it. I have to know what it looks like, and building those “sets” is a huge part of the fun for me. The Above World books took years to write, and I felt as if I were living in that world, with its wild deserts and oceans and mountaintops. I’ve been writing contemporary fantasies lately, and I have to admit, it’s a lot easier to describe a chicken coop than an underwater city.
Your stories touch on heavy themes such as domestic violence, self-doubt, and identity which can be much more challenging to write than adult books. Why did you choose to write a children’s book on these topics?
For some books, I am writing the stories I wish I’d found when I was young. I had no idea that growing up in an abusive household was something other people were experiencing too. I had no idea that this idea of “don’t talk, don’t tell anyone” was how abusers controlled their victims. Even more fundamentally, I didn’t understand the concept of unconditional love. I’m sorry to say that there will always be kids out there in that same boat, and I wanted to throw them a life preserver.
For Every Bird a Prince, I wanted to speak openly about aromanticism and asexuality, because romance and sex are considered universal desires and goals in our society, and this is simply not the truth. Giving readers words for their experiences is giving them choices and power, and kids need those things more than anyone.
What do you hope readers will take away from your books? If you could talk directly to your readers, what would you say?
I hope my readers are entertained, first and foremost. I hope they laugh at least once. I hope they get a sense of warmth and belonging, and they realize that a wonderful family can be made or found. I hope they feel seen.
I keep thinking about what I would say to them directly, and this is hard! Kids are all so different. There are some who will read my books and see themselves, and some who might recognize their friends or family members. There are many kids who will get nothing from my books, and that’s okay, too. Maybe I’d say, “Hey, thanks for reading my book!”
Do you have any new books or projects that you’re working on that you’d like to mention?
I sure do! Puzzleheart (learn more on Goodreads) is the story of a nonbinary, science-obsessed kid who goes head-to-head (head-to-ceiling?) with a sentient “puzzle house” during a strange spring snowstorm. It’ll be out on May 14th, 2024, from Henry Holt.
Thank you so much for these wonderful questions!
Featuring author Michelle Sumovich
Interviewed by John Repplinger
November 14th, 2023
Michelle Sumovich is the author of picture books ONE MORE JAR OF JAM (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2023), EVERYTHING IS FINE (HarperCollins, 2024), and I HAVE THREE CATS (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2024). Michelle has a background working in bookstores and library program development for young children, as well as years of experience writing lyrics and music for children and adults. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, two children, and more than three cats.
Icebreaker: If you could choose to eat any dessert in the world, what would it be and why?
I’ll lean nostalgic and go with sour cherry pie á la mode for a delicious flakey-fruity-creamy combo. Growing up, I’d stake out the dessert table at family gatherings and sneak bits of crust until it was time to cut into the pies. As I remember it, I always saved the cherry pie for last because that’s the flavor that ought to linger.
So tell us, what inspired you to start writing children’s books?
I worked at a used bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas about 20 years ago– The Dusty Bookshelf. That’s where I first fell in love with illustrated children’s books, particularly those from the 1960s and 70s. I think the first one that really spoke to me was Rain Makes Applesauce by Julian Scheer and Marvin Bileck. It was so beautiful and weird, and that intersection was very appealing to me. Tomi Ungerer and Barbara Cooney were some other faves that I discovered during that time. I was amazed by how they could tell a whole story with deep worlds and commentaries in such a short span of pages.
When my first child was born, I started spending more time reading books by modern authors and illustrators and thinking about the format, and I narrowed in on books which were a bit subversive or strange, or books that told the truth in exciting ways. I realized that they reminded me of those older books written 50 years prior which I loved so much, and it was that connection that made me want to be a part of this work. It’s also what keeps me going– trying to write enjoyable books that are a little wise but not bossy.
Debut authors have a much harder time breaking into the publishing industry. What have been the most challenging aspects of writing and publishing for you?
A couple things– the first few years that I was writing, I was very focused on learning craft, generating work, and revising. The best time to work was after my kid was in bed, so I wasn’t getting very much sleep in the beginning. It was taxing, but I loved that development period. Since I was enjoying the process, I didn’t sweat the “breaking in” too much, nor the criticism and rejection which can sometimes be a sticking point, so that helped.
I signed with my agent, Hannah Mann (Writers House), in 2019 and we sold the second book we went out with. It was a thrill making my first sale, but finding patience during the four year period before its release was more challenging than I anticipated. I had this kind of self-imposed expectation to stay hyped up about the book for four years, which wasn’t really reasonable for me. But luckily I was able to refocus on development, and just kept getting excited about new work.
In your first children’s book, One More Jar of Jam, the writing is filled with beautifully rich and poetic descriptions such as “Gone to sticky Grandma’s table.” The reader feels how the summer is “fruitless and dry as toast” after a storm destroys the family's mulberry tree. How has your experience with writing lyrics and music for young children helped you with writing this book?
Thank you! I love this question because, to me, there’s a subtle rhythm built into this book which is present every time I read it aloud, and I wonder if some of that comes out when others read it, too. Writing song lyrics requires a lot of carving up the thing you want to say, so it fits into a line or a verse.
In this book I thought a lot about how many syllables certain words had, and where the syllabic emphasis fell, to create a lull in the text, even though it’s not a rhyming book. I thought about whether words were heavy or light, slow or fast. For example, it’s difficult to read “climb bending branches” aloud at a faster pace than “wicked winds rage through your town,” so in the story, there’s a rhythmic ease before the storm and a quickened pulse as the storm draws close. I suppose the refrain of the line, “If you ever have a mulberry tree,” also lends itself to a songlike structure, since you could think of it as kicking off each new verse.
I actually started recording a song trailer for this book in the eleventh hour, but when I didn’t complete it before launch, the project kind of fizzled. I’m fond of the song, but not everything gets made! Maybe there will be a song for the next book!
Another important aspect about this book is its theme about interracial families. Can you talk about this?
Yeah! I love to see it. When I submitted my manuscript, I didn’t include any context about the main character’s racial or gender identity. I am a white person, but/and my story doesn’t call for a white character. I’m happy that Gracey Zhang, the book’s illustrator, didn’t choose whiteness as a default. This story is about an experience, and I love to see it told with all the vibrance of this particular family and community.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book? If you could talk directly to your readers, what would you say?
I’m happy for readers to take whatever they need from this book. There’s a bit of an emotional rollercoaster at play in the story. Things get bad for the main character, and they mourn the loss of their important tree for a good long while, but there are also some slow and silent glimmers of hope. I think that’s how life is– sometimes we experience loss, sometimes things feel unbearable, and when we’re ready, we can find hope in celebrating the things that can no longer celebrate themselves.
According to your website, you’ve been involved with children’s library programming. How did you get involved with libraries and what kind of things were you involved with at the library?
At 15 years old, my first job was in a library, actually, and I went on to work in three other public library systems after that. In Oregon, I worked for the Multnomah County Library, and had the opportunity to plan and lead an arts and crafts program for children in the Rockwood community. I loved that work. Many toilet paper rolls and sequins were given a new, exciting life in my tenure there and I was constantly (gleefully) slathered in glue. To support the program, I looked forward to finding tie-in material and getting books into kids’ hands.
I also organized passive programs like poetry stations and games and created displays and bulletin boards. Basically, I gobbled up any opportunity to do creative work to connect the library with the community. Families in particular were so receptive to those services and at the time there was a fair amount of autonomy among neighborhood branches, which made for happy staff and patrons.
You mention having your own children and more than three cats. How do you balance writing with life activities?
Quality childcare and educators! As I write this, my oldest kid has been home for two weeks due to a teacher’s strike in Portland, which has required a big shift in priorities. I’m suddenly integrating home education and picket line education into my schedule, and not a ton of writing is taking place.
I’m fortunate for the flexibility that comes with being a writer, but when things come up, I have to be very intentional about keeping work on the agenda because the pressure to hustle toward the next project or deadline always remains. I’m not sure if a balance between writing and parenting is something that really exists, but I’m getting better at pivoting between the two. As long as I’m chipping away at work, it usually feels like staying afloat. I’m eager to get our kids back to their amazing teachers and get back to my typical work routine.
Two other picture books are slated to be published in 2024 entitled, I Have Three Cats and Everything is Fine. Can you tell us about them? Do you have any other books or projects that you’re working on that you would like to mention?
Yes! I’m really excited about the picture books coming out next year! EVERYTHING IS FINE is coming out first, in October 2024. It’s a story about a chaotic child and her exhausted mother, with a healthy dose of magic elixir, missing persons, and spaghetti. I’m so excited about it. It’s illustrated by Sarah Jacoby (Forever or a Day, The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown) and it turned out extremely beautiful and weird– just how I like ‘em!
My other upcoming picture book is I HAVE THREE CATS, coming in Nov/Dec 2024. It’s a sweet and slightly ornery story about a child with three darling cats, and the stray that appears in the yard and upends their lives. It’s a semi-autobiographical account of lacking boundaries when it comes to adorable animals. Comic artist Laura Park (Unstoppable) is the illustrator on this one, and it’s so sweet and funny!
In addition to those, I just sold the text for my first graphic novel! I can’t say much about it yet, but the editorial consensus seems to be that it’s “unhinged,” which I feel really good about. I’m also taking my first drawing class, and imagining what it would be like to someday illustrate one of my own manuscripts. Gotta start somewhere!
EVERYTHING IS FINE, by Michelle Sumovich, will be published in October 2024
Featuring author Makiia Lucier
If you are looking for YA historical fantasy with murder twists, your next favorite novel may be by author Makiia Lucier. Her stories are inspired by history and mythology, and they have received high praise, have been called “brilliant” (Booklist), “moving,” (New York Times), “masterful” (Horn Book), and “breathtaking” (School Library Journal).
Makiia grew up on the Pacific island of Guam, not too far from the equator, and holds degrees in journalism (University of Oregon) and library science (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee); she is a former librarian. She has also lived in Saipan, Colorado, Italy, New Hampshire, Idaho, and North Carolina. As of 2023 she lives with her family in Portland, Oregon.
Makiia never considered writing fiction until she was in her 30s. She had always loved the Indiana Jones series which may have helped influence her writing, as well as her interests medieval mapmaking and travel. Isle of Blood and Stone is actually a collection of things that she has found fascinating.
When asked in an interview (Nerd Daily) about where the inspiration for Years of the Reaper came from, she replied:
"My first novel came out in 2014 and takes places right at the start of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. While I was writing it, I found myself wondering, 'Well, what happened to the survivors? To those forced to carry on? What’s their story?' That is what Year of the Reaper is ultimately about, about the survivors of a terrible medieval plague."
Makiia's books can be found on many notable lists, including the Kids’ Indie Next and the American Library Association’s ‘Best Fiction for Young Adults.’ Currently, her five novels include: A Death-Struck Year (2016), Year of the Reaper (2001), Isle of Blood and Stone (2018), Song of the Abyss (2019), and Dragonfruit (2024).
Written by John Repplinger
Content is taken from Makiia's home page, Nerd Daily., and Utopia State of Mind.
Beyond Fight Club: Featured Author, Chuck Palahniuk
(Previously published on June 15, 2018)
"The first rule of Fight Club is: you don't talk about Fight Club." Made popular by the movie of the same name, Chuck Palahniuk made his debut with Fight Club in 1996. Written as a response to his first manuscript an older version of what would become Invisible Monsters being rejected by his publisher, Fight Club is a story about the lost connection between men and society. And although Fight Club is Chuck Palahniuk's most famous work to date, he also has a personal connection to the Pacific Northwest and has a strong connection to the Oregon literary scene.
Chuck Palahniuk was born in Pasco, Washington in 1962. He was raised near Burbank, Washington, but went to live with his siblings on his grandparents' cattle ranch in 1976 after his parents' divorce. Palahniuk graduated from the University of Oregon, where he studied journalism. While his career in journalism might not have taken off, it was there that he learned to listen to others and to convey their stories. In a 2017 interview for MEL magazine, Palahniuk describes the correlation between his education and his eventual career.
"My job is to listen to people at parties and to identify their stories and to find a commonality in the pattern between them. Because when someone tells an anecdote that goes over well, it evokes other people to tell almost identical anecdotes from their own life. Then you choose the very best of these to demonstrate a very human dynamic. In a way, what I do isn't so much invent things as it is identifying them. Later, I just put them together in a report that looks like a novel."
Palahniuks writing style has been described as "dark," "satirical," and "transgressional." His works focus on characters feeling confined by society and societal norms. In addition to Fight Club, Palahniuk has published twenty fiction titles, including Damned, a story described as "The Breakfast Club in Hell" about a group of teenagers literally walking through hell. Invisible Monsters was published in 1999, and a remixed version was re-released in 2012. Palahniuk describes Invisible Monsters in the same MEL interview, explaining that "its all about that panicky feeling that this beautiful thing isn't going to be beautiful forever and that you've got to transition that beauty into a different, more lasting form of power."
Most recently, Palahniuk has been transitioning to graphic novels. Fight Club 2 was published as a graphic novel by local Portland powerhouse Dark Horse Comics (and according to his Twitter, another installment may be on the way). Palahniuk's newest book, Adjustment Day, was released by W.W. Norton.
As a native of the Pacific Northwest, Palahniuk has cemented himself into the local literary scene. He received the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award and the Oregon Book Award for Fight Club, and six years later, his horror satire Lullaby was also a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award winner, as well as a nominee for the Bram Stoker Award.
Besides working closely with the comics scene in the Portland area, he's also an active member of a local writing group and has given numerous interviews about Portland culture and area hotspots. (He was on Anthony Bourdain's television show, No Reservations, where he led the chef through some popular Portland locations.) His love for Oregon has also influenced his writing, most noticeably in his nonfiction title Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon.
[To date, Palahniuk has published 19 novels, three nonfiction books, two graphic novels, and two adult coloring books, several short stories, and has had five of his novels adapted into movies.]
Palahniuk, a former resident of Portland, now lives in the Columbia River Gorge.
Palahniuk is very active on Twitter (@ChuckPalahniuk) and Facebook, interacting with both his fans and other writers. Connect with him there, and look for his books in your local libraries and bookstores!
An Interview with Elissa Minor Rust
(Previously published on March 23, 2018)
Elissa Minor Rust, author of The Prisoner Pear: Stories from the Lake, a collection of twelve short stories set in Lake Oswego, is a well-loved, quirky English professor here in Oregon. Proud to be a Northwest author inspired by Oregon's natural beauty, she also works to inspire young writers every year. I had the privilege of catching up with her and asking a few questions.
Q: What set you on the path toward becoming a writer?
A: I knew for a long time that I wanted to be an English professor. I took creative writing courses during my first term of college and knew I had found my calling. I started out as a poet, but soon learned I enjoyed poetic prose in fiction more than poetry. I had some amazing mentors that got me where I am today.
Q: How has the Oregon literary community helped shape you and your work?
A: When I first moved back to Oregon after graduate school, I received a generous Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship that helped me finish my first book. I think Oregon is great about supporting its writers, and the community is lovely. I've met so many wonderful friends through the Portland writing community.
Q: What about Oregon inspires you to write?
A: I love everything about Oregon. My first book was set in a Portland suburb, and I had such a great time writing it. I also find when I need to escape to get inspiration to write, I can easily be in the mountains or at the coast. There is no greater inspiration than the natural world, and here in Oregon we have that in abundance.
Q: What do you like most about teaching and encouraging others to write?
A: I absolutely adore teaching. I knew I wanted to be a professor before I knew I wanted to be a writer. There is an energy in a writing classroom that's palpable, which makes me want to be a better writer and teacher. The most satisfying thing about being a professor is continuing to get notes from past students with news about their successes in the world of writing and literature.
Q: What has teaching helped you learn about your own writing?
A: Every time I teach a class, I am reminded anew about how one should approach the craft of writing. I talk about process a lot with my students, and how each person has to figure that out for themself. As I explained my own process to my students over the years, it struck me how my process has changed and evolved over time as I had children, taken on more responsibility at work, etc.
Q: Is there anything you wish you had known when you started out?
A: Honestly? No. I am tempted to tell my students these days how few jobs there are in creative writing and in the world of higher-ed, but then I think: what if someone had told me the realities of the job market I was going into? It might have scared me off. I'm lucky that it worked out for me--a full time tenured professor, chair of the English department, etc. If anything, I would have liked to have known how many different ways there are of working in this profession, and to not get discouraged if there are periods of time when your own writing ebbs and flows.
Q: What piece of writing are you proudest of?
A: There is a story in my short story collection (The Prisoner Pear: Stories From the Lake) called "Moon Over Water." Its my favorite of all my stories. People either love it or hate it" there's no in-between. Its magical realism and inspired by my interest in science and how people respond to the unknown.
Q: What are some your creative goals now? I read on your website that you're working on a YA novel. How is that going?
A: I am working on a YA novel and a memoir, sort of simultaneously. It is going slow but steady!
We'd like to thank Elissa for joining us and sharing her experiences with our readers!
An Interview with Zoey Abbott
Interviewed by John Repplinger
July 19, 2023
Zoey Abbott is a children’s book author and illustrator who lives in Portland, OR. She loves her dog, Carrots, and her family too. She also loves writing books for kids and for herself. For Zoey, making stories is an indulgence, a spiritual practice, and a way to sort out things that make no sense. Zoey is the author of four books, one of which (Pig and Horse and the Something Scary) was recently named a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and is also a Powell's Books Bestseller. Zoey's work is consistently described as "weird" which she takes as a compliment.
Icebreaker: If you could choose to be any fruit or vegetable, what would it be and why?
I like the vegetable, okra, because it is green, soft yet crispy, and also slimy - if you blanch it just right. It’s surprising and fresh and the seeds pop when your teeth crunch down. I love my dad’s mulberry tree. The berries taste the best when they look the worst.
Many authors have people or events in their lives that inspire them to write a book. What inspired you to start writing and illustrating children’s books?
As a default, I’ve always liked playing with bits of stories in my head, noticing things that come together in interesting ways but I never knew what to do with it. And I’ve always loved making little cards and books for family and friends.
When I moved to Japan in my 20’s, I couldn't speak the language very well so I would make drawings for the people who welcomed me into their homes, taught me their language, culture and how to eat a whole fish with chopsticks, for example. A friend liked my cards and introduced me to an amazing Sumi-e painting teacher. She became a dear friend and mentor.
Shortly after I moved back to the States I made a hand-bound book with little stories and episodes for my mom’s birthday. She opened the gift when she was getting her haircut and the stylist later contacted me and asked me to make a book for her sister. It was the first time I saw there was a way to make this kind of art into a “job”. I spent a number of years making simple illustrated books on commission for clients based on interviews and reference material they provided. I got to help propose to two women this way - a ring hidden in a cut out in the back of a book once. How fun is that?
Years later I took a children’s book illustration night class with Victoria Jameison at PNCA. I loved her class so much I think I ended up taking it 3 times. She is the one who demystified the publishing industry and shared her own path for making work. There are a lot of us illustrators in Portland who owe our careers in some way to Victoria.
Can you explain what the writing process is like for you? Do your illustrations influence your storylines?
I think we all collect things from daily life, what we read, see, who we meet, landscapes, interactions, dreams, memories etc. If we are lucky, some of these things combine in interesting ways and we are inspired to make something new from it.
Some of my book ideas start with words and others with pictures. When I’m working on an idea. I like to toggle back and forth between the two. Switching can help me get unstuck. Working on multiple stories at a time is also good for keeping things fluid and flowing.
My first two publishing jobs were for illustration. When you receive a manuscript you can’t just illustrate what is said in the text. This would be redundant and boring - nobody would read that book. You’ve got to find the spaces between the text and find a secondary visual narrative.
With a good manuscript there will be all this airyness - all kinds of space for you to do your work. Things won’t be said explicitly or fully resolved in the text. The illustrator has to solve these puzzles in a fun and unexpected way. I think the same thing goes when you are illustrating your own book. The illustrator-self gets to take the story and make it her own. Hopefully the writer-self is amused and surprised.
What is most challenging for writing and illustrating children’s books?
At the beginning, I would say learning the craft was the most challenging. I had to put in the time and teach myself how to draw better - to be able to make my ideas make sense visually and be consistent. Then I had to study the format, rules and particular qualities of a picture book, learn about pacing, page turns and stakes. You have to read a lot. A picture book is an object in space, held in a person’s hands with pages that turn. Learning how to exploit and not squander all these amazing physical qualities of a book in a story is challenging and exciting.
Also, making picture books is collaborative.
Finding trusted people to share your work with (at the right time) and learning how to critique well with others is very important. It requires time, energy, mutual trust and vulnerability to seek and find critique partners - to learn how to give good feedback and how to receive it as part of one’s process. When you find your people, the work is so much better - more fun and done with more ease.
For a long time I would feel too shy or embarrassed to share my work and would often ‘pass’ when it was my time to share work in our group. Learning how to share has been key for me. The moment you send a draft into the world you see it differently even if someone else doesn’t open the email. Other eyes and ears on the work keeps it moving and flowing and growing. The same goes for finding an agent and editors who resonate with your stories. When I’m at an impasse, my agent somehow gives me just exactly the notes I need. And the editors are the same. One person’s name might end up on the spine of the book - but really there could be a dozen, at least. Finding the right collaborators is the thing.
What art mediums do you use?
For Pig and Horse and the Something Scary I used pencil, colored pencil, gouache and then some sumi-e ink for the manifestation of Pig’s fears. I have tended to use some combination of these materials in most of my books.
My most recent book, Banana, however, is a combination of pencil line art and color printing. I made textures and patterns in various mediums, scanned them in and risograph printed them at OUTLET PDX. I combined these with the line drawings using photoshop.
You mention having children and a dog (Carrots) on your website bio. How do you balance writing and illustrating with other aspects of your life?
When my kids were young it was harder to make time to work, but they were also infinitely inspiring which was a real gift. Now my kids are teenagers so parenting is a little less intensely hands-on. I think being a parent of humans and dogs (or any kind of pets) can be great inspiration for books.
Location is an important element of a story, and you have a variety of scenes throughout your books such as where the wolves live in Over the Moon, Clementine’s house, and the banana store. How do you select your locations and scenes?
For I Do Not Like Yolanda, I heavily relied on memories of my neighborhood growing up (and also some reference photos provided by my dad) of our local post office and businesses like Happy Donut, Shufat’s Market and neighborhoods. I tend to use real places in memory as a starting point for locations - not for any reason except that they are readily available.
Do you base any of your characters on people you know?
I might not set out to do this intentionally but I definitely end up seeing friends and family in my characters. In retrospect, Horse is definitely my best friend, Veneta, who has a big, beautiful mane of hair, a huge smile and is full of insight and loving support. I am Pig, nervous and worried and pink.
It seems like my dad ends up in a lot of my books– if you see a bearded man—that might be him. Prickly Aunt Mildred was inspired directly by my Grandmother, Joan, who wore a black pant-suit with palm trees almost every day. Mildred’s one line in the book is something my grandmother actually said to me over dinner. She was never boring, that’s for sure.
Your stories touch on certain themes. Pig and Horse and the Something Scary, for example, touches on facing fears and anxiety. Why did you choose to write a children’s book on these topics? How do you select themes for your books?
Honestly, I don’t really think about themes while I’m writing and I might not even know what the book is ‘about’ until the book is done and someone(s) tells me.
To me a story is a conversation and exploration and a discovery. The reader gives a book its meaning, if it has any.
What do you hope readers will take away from your books? If you could talk directly to your readers, what would you say?
Reading a children’s picture book is often a shared experience between an adult/reader and a child/pre-reader. I hope kids enjoy reading the book (on their own or with someone), laugh a little, and find some part of it that maybe resonates. Maybe they use the story as a jumping off point for their own stories. I’ve seen that before. A kid will say as an example, “Well, I think you should have made the banana do this!” Then they go off and draw their idea and make it their own.
I like to go to school visits and see what kids are writing and drawing. I think kids are better at this job than we are—they are the ones who are swimming in the subconscious. They have unfettered fun and delight and don’t hold back. That’s where the good stuff lives.
Do you have any new books or projects that you’re working on that you’d like to mention?
I am currently working on the final art for A Kite Story to publish with Kids Can Press in 2025. This Year a Witch! will also publish in 2025 with Caitlyn Dlouhy Books/ Atheneum, an imprint of Simon and Schuster.
Graham Salisbury is an American children's writer. His best-known work is Under the Blood Red Sun, a historical novel that features a Japanese-American boy and his family during World War II. He was a pop musician in the late 1960s under the name of Sandy Salisbury.
His first novel, Blue Skin of the Sea: a Novel in Stories (1992) received many awards, including Best Book of the Year by School Library Journal, Best Books for Young Adults by the American Library Association, Parent's Choice Book Award, Bank Street Child Study Book Award, Oregon Book Award, the Judy Lopez Memorial Award for Children's Literature (Women's National Book Association), NCTE Notable Trade Book in the Language Arts (National Council of Teachers of English), and the Pen/Norma Klein Award for emerging voice of literary merit among American writers of children's fiction.
Two years later, he published Under the Blood Red Sun (1994) which received eighteen award nominations across the nation. It is now a movie made available on Amazon. He wrote three additional titles in that series. He authored seven middle-grade books and nine books in the Calvin Coconut children's series, all of which were similarly well-received and nationally praised.
Salisbury became a well-known songwriter and musician from the late 1960s. Under the performing name of Sandy Salisbury, he is best known for being a member of Curt Boettcher's groups The Millennium and The Ballroom, whose 1966 album remained unreleased until 2001, before attempting a solo career of his own. He performed on many hit recordings from bands such as The Association, Paul Revere and The Raiders, Tommy Roe, and many others.
Salisbury was born in Philadelphia. He grew up in Hawaii and lived in Kailua, Oahu. Later he attended Hawaii Preparatory Academy in Kamuela, Hawaii. He lives with his family in Lake Oswego, Oregon.
Content and image source from: Graham Salisbury's website and Wikipedia
Rosanne Parry grew up in Oregon loving its rainy days, wild places, and many libraries. She is the author of seven novels for young readers, including the NY Times best sellers A Wolf Called Wander and A Whale of the Wild which have been translated into more than 14 languages. Her first picture book is Big Truck Day! Her next novel will be A Horse Called Sky. Look for it in the fall of 2023. Rosanne is a bookseller at legendary bookstore, Annie Blooms. She lives with her family in an old farmhouse in Portland and writes in a treehouse in her backyard.
Ten things to know about Rosanne Parry:
1. I was born in Oak Park, IL and lived just a mile or so from the childhood home of the author Ernest Hemingway. His house is more than twice and big as the one I lived in when I was little but mine is closer to Longfellow Park which was my favorite place to play. I moved away from Oak Park when I was five.
2. I grew up in Portland, Oregon where I live now with my family in a farm house that is more than 100 years old. Sometimes I have chickens and sometimes I have rabbits and always I have a very weedy garden. My summer office is in a fir tree. I have many cherry, plum, and pear trees, a walnut tree, an apple tree and a very peculiar-looking peach tree.
3. I have also lived in Spokane, WA, Taholah, WA, Ft Huachuca, AZ, Aschaffenburg, Germany, and Ft Hood, TX. I have visited all but 8 of the states in America so I’m definitely looking for an excuse to visit North Dakota, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Maine.
4. My favorite job, besides writing, was being a summer camp counselor. I worked at Camp Howard which is on the slope of Mt. Hood. I still go camping there every year if I can. Here is a view of Mt Hood from Trillium Lake.
5. I can play the violin, and I can juggle, and I am learning to play the harp, but I cannot throw a frisbee to save my life.
6. My grandfather lived with my family when I was growing up. He was born in Berlin. He immigrated to this country when he was a teenager in 1905, and he lived to be 96 years old.
7. I have a brother and a sister who are twins, four children who are not twins and more than thirty nieces and nephews. Mark Twain said, “A man with a big family stands a broader mark for sorrow, but he stands a broader mark for joy as well.” I have found that to be true.
8. Research is one of my favorite things about writing. Sometimes I research in the library but sometimes I research while camping in the mountains or canoeing on rivers and lakes. I go to museums. I go looking for whales in a kayak. I take pictures of plants and animals and listen to birds and the sound of the wind. I swim in the ocean and listen to people sing and learn how to dance. And best of all, I talk to interesting people from all over the world.
9. When I am not writing, I like to ride my bike, hike, make music, climb trees, dance, go to the beach or the mountains, and read books.
10. Lots of really great children’s authors and illustrators live in Portland. My favorite thing about being a children’s writer is the friends I have made. These are some writers I know from Portland: Susan Blackaby, Carmen Bernier-Grand, Carolyn Digby Conahan, Virginia Euwer Wolff, Trudy Ludwig, Susan Hill Long, Fonda Lee, Heidi Schultz, Barry Deutsch, Emily Whitman, Susan Fletcher, Emily Winfield Martin, Graham Salisbury, Laini Taylor, Dylan Meconis, Kim Johnson, and Heather Vogel-Frederick. I hope you read and enjoy their books too.
Content and image source from: Goodreads and Rosanne Parry's website.
Joe Sacco was born in Malta on October 2, 1960. At the age of one, he moved with his family to Australia, where he spent his childhood until 1972, when they moved to Los Angeles. He began his journalism career working on the Sunset High School newspaper in Beaverton, Oregon. While journalism was his primary focus, this was also the period of time in which he developed his penchant for humor and satire. He graduated from Sunset High in 1978.
Sacco earned his B.A. in journalism from the University of Oregon in 1981 in three years. He was greatly frustrated with the journalist work that he found at the time, later saying, "[I couldn't find] a job writing very hard-hitting, interesting pieces that would really make some sort of difference." After being briefly employed by the journal of the National Notary Association, a job which he found "exceedingly, exceedingly boring," and several factories, he returned to Malta, his journalist hopes forgotten. "...I sort of decided to forget it and just go the other route, which was basically take my hobby, which has been cartooning, and see if I could make a living out of that," he later told the BBC.
He began working for a local publisher writing guidebooks. Returning to his fondness for comics, he wrote a Maltese romance comic named Imħabba Vera ("True Love"), one of the first art-comics in the Maltese language. "Because Malta has no history of comics, comics weren't considered something for kids," he told Village Voice. "In one case, for example, the girl got pregnant and she went to Holland for an abortion. Malta is a Catholic country where not even divorce is allowed. It was unusual, but it's not like anyone raised a stink about it, because they had no way of judging whether this was appropriate material for comics or not."
Eventually returning to the United States, by 1985 Sacco had founded a satirical, alternative comics magazine called Portland Permanent Press in Portland, Oregon. When the magazine folded fifteen months later, he took a job at The Comics Journal as the staff news writer. This job provided the opportunity for him to create another satire: the comic Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy, a name he took from an overly-complicated children's toy in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.
But Sacco was more interested in travelling. In 1988, he left the U.S. again to travel across Europe, a trip which he chronicled in his autobiographical comic Yahoo. The trip lead him towards the ongoing Gulf War (his obsession with which he talks about in Yahoo #2), and in 1991 he found himself nearby to research the work he would eventually publish as Palestine.
The Gulf War segment of Yahoo drew Sacco into a study of Middle Eastern politics, and he traveled to Israel and the Palestinian territories to research his first long work. Palestine was a collection of short and long pieces, some depicting Sacco's travels and encounters with Palestinians (and several Israelis), and some dramatizing the stories he was told. It was serialized as a comic book from 1993 to 2001 and then published in several collections, the first of which won an American Book Award in 1996.
Sacco next travelled to Sarajevo and Goražde near the end of the Bosnian War, and produced a series of reports in the same style as Palestine: the comics Safe Area Goražde, The Fixer, and the stories collected in War's End; the financing for which was aided by his winning of the Guggenheim Fellowship in April 2001. Safe Area Goražde won the Eisner Award for Best Original Graphic Novel in 2001.
He has also contributed short pieces of graphic reportage to a variety of magazines, on subjects ranging from war crimes to blues, and is a frequent illustrator of Harvey Pekar's American Splendor. Sacco currently lives in Portland.
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Emmett Wheatfall lives in Portland, Oregon where he writes, records, publishes, and performs poetry. Fernwood Press, an imprint of Barclay Press has published 3 books of Emmett's poetry. His collection titled As Clean as a Bone was published in May 2018. As Clean as a Bone was a 2019 Eric Hoffer Award Finalist as well as a da Vinci Eye award finalist. Our Scarlet Blue Wounds was published in November 2019. Our Scarlet Blue Wounds examines American “Exceptionalism” in light of political, social, and economic constructs in America. Published in June 2022 is his most recent poetry book titled With Extreme Prejudice: Lest We Forget. This new publication recalls and examines the early days of COVID-19.
Emmett has recorded one non-lyrical (without music) poetry CD titled I Speak and four lyrical poetry (with music) CDs. They are When I Was Young (2010), I Loved You Once (2011), Them Poetry Blues (2013), and Welcome Home (2017). These CDs feature some of Oregon’s most gifted and talented jazz, blues, and gospel musicians. Somebody Told Me (2020) is his first lyrical poetry gospel single. Following it up is Amazing Grace featuring LaRhonda Steele (2020). His new single is What A Friend We Have In Jesus (2022) and features some of Portland, Oregon's finest gospel musicians and vocalists. These releases can be viewed, heard, and or downloaded from major online music sites such as Amazon Music and Spotify, including a host of other such download sites.
Since 2014, Emmett has served on the Nomination Committees for the selection of Oregon Poet Laureate Peter Sears, Elizabeth Woody, Kim Stafford, and Anis Mojgani. The Oregon Poet Laureate fosters the art of poetry, encourages literacy and learning, addresses central issues related to humanities and heritage, and reflects on public life in Oregon. The poet laureate is appointed by the governor of the State of Oregon.
Emmett was a featured poet at the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the March on Washington (Portland Event) where he delivered his original poem written for the occasion, Miles to Go Before We Sleep. In addition, he was the keynote speaker at the screening of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech for the Oregon Historical Society’s Oregon Black History Series program, “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom Fiftieth Anniversary” on August 28, 2013.
In October of 2017 and 2021, Emmett gave the keynote address at the Oregon Poetry Association's Annual Conference in Portland, Oregon. The title of his keynote address was "Can Poets Change the World?"
In 2020, Corban University in Salem, Oregon filmed a 9-Part Series featuring poet Wheatfall. This series was made possible by generous grants from the Library of America and the National Endowment for the Humanities as part of Lift Every Voice, a year-long national celebration of African American poetry. A Brief History can be viewed at the following YouTube link https://youtu.be/JFZM7Iqwnsg.
Emmett has performed lyrical and spoken word poetry in Portland jazz venues such as Ivories Jazz Lounge and Restaurant, Tony Starlight's Supper Club and Lounge, Backspace Café (formerly), Portland's fabulous Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, and many venues in Portland and throughout the State of Oregon. Emmett has had the distinct opportunity to headline at Jimmy Mak’s; the former premier Northwest Jazz club once regarded as one of America's top 100 Jazz Clubs.
Emmett has performed and recorded with world-class Jazz and blues musicians in the persons of Noah Peterson (Peterson Entertainment LLC), national and international jazz recording artist Darrell Grant, Gordon Lee, Andre St. James, Brandon Woods, John Thomas, Christ Turner, Ben Jones, Anthony Jones; Canadian pianist Gaea Shell, Eldon T. Jones, James (Jim) Blackburn, and Ramsey Embick (former pianist and bandleader for the Pointer Sisters); notwithstanding Portland's late-great and legendary bass player James Miller. The "Boss of the B-3 Hammond" Mr. Louis Pain, aka “King Louie,” as well as Carlton Jackson, Peter Dammann, Renato Caranto, and Edwin Coleman III; Salem, Oregon great Nathan Olsen, and Portland concert pianist Michael Allen Harrison. Portland vocalists Barbara Harris, including the highly regarded jazz, blues, and gospel artist LaRhonda Steele, Portia Jones, Amy Lesage, and Linda Tellis. Most noteworthy is the late great Grammy-nominated jazz, blues, gospel pianist extraordinaire, Ms. Janice Scroggins.
Content and image source from: Goodreads and Emmett Wheatfall's website.