This summer brings some amazing things to the Simply 7 interview series that I’m SO excited to share with you guys! Today, I get to bring you TWO interviews for the price of ONE. That’s right, I was able to interview BOTH the author and the illustrator of today’s picture books. Yes, there’s TWO books too! AND there is a prize to be given away at the end. Read on to find out more!
If you haven’t met Susanna Leonard Hill, well let me introduce you. Susanna has written more than a dozen books for children. She also teaches an online picture book writing class, offers picture book critiques, and uses her blog to 1) host writing contests (Valentiny, Halloweenie, etc.), 2) share picture books with activities (Perfect Picture Book Fridays), and 3) help writers practice their pitches (Would You Read it Wednesdays). Did I mention the amazing dessert recipes she shares on her blog? She ALSO does frequent school and library visits. Whew! I don’t now how she does it all! BUT she does! You can learn more about her at her website (and I highly recommend following her blog!).
Today, she stops by to discuss her latest books: “When Your Elephant Has the Sniffles” and “When Your Lion Needs a Bath.” These adorable books are just the start of a wonderful series AND the debut of a new illustrator (but more on him in a minute). And here is the PREMIERE OF THE NEW BOOK TRAILER for “When Your Lion Needs a Bath”!! Isn’t that cute? Before we go any further, I need to cover some legal stuff. ALL pictures from the books are by permission: Text copyright © 2017 by Susanna Leonard Hill; Illustration copyright © 2017 by Daniel Wiseman; Used by permission of Little Simon
Without further ado, welcome Susanna!
Susanna: Thank you so much for having me today, Jena, and for helping spread the word of my new books! I so appreciate the opportunity to share! =)
Me: Absolutely! I’m excited to share them too! What draws you to writing picture books?
Susanna: I love the challenge of telling a complete story in a minimum of words (and it IS a challenge for me! My early manuscripts routinely came in at 2,000-2,500 words!)
I love the subject matter that is appropriate for early childhood – coping with a new sibling, banishing monsters under the bed, wanting to feel important, going somewhere without mom for the first time, learning to do things yourself, wondering about every little thing under the sun because it’s all so new and interesting.
I love the interplay of text and illustration, and the opportunities it offers for humor, surprise, wonder, or poignancy.
But maybe in the end what I love most of all is that picture books are time shared between a grown-up and a child. Whether it’s naptime or bedtime or wait-at-the-dentist time or ride-in-the-car time or summer-afternoon-on-a-picnic-blanket-under-a-tree time, it’s magical time to share the joy of reading and stories with someone you love. And if you’re a writer, you get to give others that opportunity to share and enjoy, and you get to help kids find their way in the world through story.
Me: You have been publishing picture books since 2002. What helps you to keep writing and keep it fresh?
Susanna: I don’t really need help or encouragement to keep writing. I don’t always write well, but I always write. I can’t not. =) As for keeping it fresh, I guess every new idea brings its own nuances. Every story has a different mood, a different feel, calls for a different unfolding and different language. Because the stories are new, they feel fresh. And part of the fun of a new story is trying things I haven’t tried, reaching for better words, experimenting with different characters, channeling different emotion, sharing something in a way that will hopefully touch readers. I tell my students, and hold myself to this as well, that if you’re bored writing it, readers will be bored reading it. So I try to have fun. =)
Me: I see that you have two more books in this series as well (“When Your Monkeys Won’t Go to Bed” and “When Your Llama Needs a Haircut”). What gave you the idea for this series?
Susanna: I have 5 children. Enough said. =)
I have a child who refused to bathe to the point of hyperventilating when she was 21 months old.
I have a child who hated getting his hair cut and would run screaming from the barber chair.
And I have many children who object to bedtime and occasionally get the sniffles.
So all of these stories came right out of my life, as I think is quite often the case for writers. Certainly for me!
Bearing in mind that these stories are about things that kids often find objectionable, I wanted plenty of humor. And I also wanted the child in the story to be in the power position – to be the one in control – because that is something we all long for in real life but don’t always have. Especially when we’re little. =)
Me: Oh my goodness! Hyperventilating about baths! What is one thing that surprised you in writing these stories?
Susanna: One thing that surprised me when writing these stories was how visually I saw them. I always think visually when I’m writing, but these stories had more art notes than I’d ever included before. The text is quite brief (for me) =) and much of the humor is dependent on being shown in the art without being stated.
Me: And amazing art it is too! (Again, MORE on that in a minute!) What does your writing process look like?
Susanna: I think calling it a “process” is a bit generous! =) Does walking in circles around my house and staring out the window count? =) Actually, a lot of my writing is “pre-writing” – what my son, when he was five, would have called his “thinking time.” I am always open to ideas. Many of them sail right on through without enough substance to hold my attention. But some of them feel like they have potential. Those ones stick… but they have to roll around in my head for a while until they find magnetic north and make their direction known. The sticky ones are helped significantly by washing dishes, vacuuming, showering, driving, or taking long walks with the dogs – anything where my hands are busy and my mind is free. At a moment when I have absolutely no way of writing them down, they will suddenly beg to be captured! So I rehearse the ideas in my head along with any lines of story I think up until I can get to a writing implement of some kind. I write my first draft long hand on paper. Then I type it into the computer, revising as I go. Then I “save as” and rewrite/revise some more. I do that anywhere from once to about 100 times. =) There is a lot of chocolate involved. Also, coffee. Also some gnashing of teeth and rending of garments when things aren’t going well. And, usually, more chocolate. =)
Me: Any advice for other picture book writers?
Susanna: I’m afraid I don’t have anything pithy or original to say. My advice is probably the same as everyone else’s that you’ve heard a million times. But in case you’re new to this, and you haven’t heard it a million times here are Susanna’s Baker’s Dozen Rules for Picture Book Writers:
- Read a lot of current picture books and get a feel for the market – what’s popular, what sells, what appeals to librarians, parents, teachers, and kids.
- Read books on the craft of writing. Two excellent ones are Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books and Linda Ashman’s Nuts And Bolts Guide To Writing Picture Books.
- Take some writing classes if you can – in real life or online. There are lots of good ones.
- Write some more.
- Write some more!
- Join a critique group – in person or online. Not only will you get valuable objective feedback from your peers, you will get to practice your own evaluative skills by reading and commenting on their
- Write some more!!
- Join SCBWI, and follow KidLit411
- Don’t just sit at your desk all the time. Get out. Do things. Go places. Learn stuff. You never know where ideas might be lurking or what might spark your interest and a possible story. Also, spend time around kids if you can (without being thought creepy). =)
- Look around for online communities of interest, including 12×12, Storystorm, ReFoReMo, RhymeRevolution, and the aforementioned KidLit411 (among others) – places where other PB writers hang out, share information, and learn from each other.
- Eat chocolate. =)
- Write some more!
Me: I read “Punxsutawney Phyllis” every year to my students on Groundhog’s Day. You also have Valentiny and Halloweensie contests (among others). What holiday would you say is your favorite?
Susanna: Ooh! Favorite holiday! That’s a tough question! Valentines, Halloween and Easter are very appealing due to the chocolate factor… and I’d like to be unique and say something interesting and off the beaten path like Day of the Dead or Cinco de Mayo… and because of my books and contests, I should probably pick Groundhog Day, Valentines Day, April Fools Day, or Halloween…but I think my favorite holiday might be one I don’t have a published story about (though I DO have a contest) =) … Christmas. I love the smell of balsam in the house, the soft glow of the Christmas tree lights, baking cookies, wrapping presents, singing carols, and having all my family around. None of the other holidays can match that. =)
That is VERY true. Thank you again, Susanna!
BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE! (A phrase I like to repeat all year with my students until they say the 2nd part of the refrain for me.)
I promised you another interview with the illustrator as well. MEET Daniel Wiseman! He has been drawing forever, but these books are his illustrator debut. Usually he draws animals wearing clothes, or kids enjoying a good dance party. However, when prodded, he’s been known to draw pretty much anything else. He currently lives in St. Louis, MO with his beautiful wife and his equally beautiful son. You can learn more about him at his website.
Me: Welcome Daniel! Can you tell us about your artistic journey? When did you start drawing?
Daniel: I’m sure I started younger than this, but the first time I remember really drawing for fun on a regular basis was around 9 or 10. I loved hockey, baseball, and The Simpsons, so that’s what I drew ALL THE TIME. Bart and Homer Simpson were my favorites to sketch. In my teen years I became a huge Grateful Dead fan and began copying their posters. Drawing bears, skulls, and turtles on everything I could. I’d create pieces of art for my friends with their names and some dancing bears. Those were probably the first things I ever made for other people that they actually requested.
When I got older I played in a few different bands, and ended up falling in love with Photoshop through creating album art. That led to starting a “business” creating album art and MySpace page designs for all of my band friends. That’s when the light bulb illuminated and I thought “I can make money creating art!”
From there I’ve had a pretty typical journey of getting a corporate designer job, then quitting that job and going freelance. I now am a co-founder and CCO of a St. Louis based startup called Pixel Press that creates a product called Bloxels. Bloxels is a toy and app that allows kids to create their own video games. I do that on the weekdays, and illustrate picture books at night and on the weekends. I stay really busy, but illustrating for children’s books and products is a true passion of mine so it never really feels like work!
Me: These books are your official picture book illustrator debut. How exciting is that?! What draws you to picture books?
Daniel: It’s been super exciting…and a real whirlwind! Like most illustrators, I’ve loved picture books since I was a child. I think what keeps me fascinated by them is how the words and pictures rely on each other. I love reading a manuscript and being allowed the freedom to interpret it almost any way I choose. The ability to further the story with pictures, rather than just draw what’s being said, is what really makes picture books interesting to me. It’s a true collaboration and not only a window into the author’s soul, but also one into the illustrator’s.
Me: Wow. I couldn’t have said that better if I tried. What is one of your favorite scenes that you illustrated from these two books?
Daniel: There are a lot of fun spreads in these books. The lion knocking down the blocks made me happy because drawing primary colored blocks is a blast. I also really enjoyed the spread of the little girl and the elephant playing cards in their messy room. I tried to model it slightly after what my bedroom looked like as a 6 or 7 year old…which was pretty gross!
However, I think with these particular books doing the cover for LION really takes the cake, simply because it was the very first illustration for the very first book I’d ever created. That moment will never happen again, and I’ll try to hold onto that feeling forever. I was just over the moon to finally feel like I was living a dream I’d had for myself for so long.
Me: I can only imagine! I can’t wait to experience that moment myself someday. What is one thing that surprised you in illustrating these stories?
Daniel: I think the most surprising thing about illustrating these stories (and picture books in general) is the process. I’m really accustomed to designing for digital, whether it be apps, games or the web. It’s very fast paced and iterative. Make it, launch it, fix the problems, over and over again. With books the pace is much slower and the refining process is longer. It took me a while to get used to doing black and white sketches for approval without wanting to just dive right into the final art. After doing more books this past year I’ve grown to appreciate the process, and now really enjoy the sketching phase. It’s really helped me grow as an artist.
Me: What does your illustration process look like then?
Daniel: It’s pretty simple really. When it comes to books I will spend some time sketching out variations of the characters. Normally I have a pretty good idea of what I want everything to look like, but through sketching I’m able to refine the idea. I do almost all my sketching digitally because of efficiency and because undoing mistakes is so simple. I’m able to quickly get my idea out and refine it without redrawing it a hundred times.
The sketching process is also where I will work on composition. Sometimes I’ll start even more lo-fi, and make small digital thumbnails with only sketched shapes. After I sketch I’ll either work through values in black and white fill, or I’ll just jump straight to the finished product. Either way I just start opening up new layers in Photoshop, and begin the final art on my Wacom tablet. Sometimes I’ll start with inking the outlines, other times I don’t want outlines so I just go straight for color shapes. That just depends on my mood, and/or direction from the editors and art directors.
This final phase is obviously where I start to experiment with color. I really love primary colors, and put them in almost everything I do. I can’t explain why I’m drawn to red, blue and yellow, but something about them together just makes me happy. Occasionally I branch out…especially with LION and ELEPHANT, because I wanted them each to have a different color story. You can catch my love for primary colors thrown about in there, though. Almost all of my work is done digitally due to efficiency and the myriad of amazing Photoshop brushes at my disposal, however I love other mediums and can’t wait to experiment incorporating them into my future work.
Me: Any advice for other picture book illustrators?
Daniel: Never stop learning. Never stop looking at art of all kinds. I continually research new illustrators and their process. I love to find out how other artists think and do things. I think that hunger for knowledge comes naturally if you have a true love for the craft…no matter what it is. If you love creating picture books, then chances are you spend a lot of time looking at other illustrator’s work. Just like if you really love building homes, you probably spend a lot of time studying beautiful residential architecture.
Another piece of advice is to hone your portfolio to what you want to do, then go find an agent who really cares about you. If you want to make picture books, then start making art that looks like it should be in a picture book. Make it all the time and share it with the world. Once you’ve done that, look around for an agency that feels right for you and show them your work. For me, I wanted an agent who works specifically with children’s literature and has a relatively small number of clients. It has worked out wonderfully for me, and I owe it all to my agent, Teresa Kietlinski at Bookmark Literary. She not only introduces editors and art directors to me and my work, but also helps me grow as an artist.
Me: Whether it’s a guitar playing mouse or a bunch of kids dancing, music seems to be a common theme in your illustrations that crops up from time to time. You even mention you like to sing loudly in your car. Do you illustrate while listening to music? If yes, any favorite songs you like to work with? Or if not, would you like to share a couple of current favorite songs with us anyway?
Daniel: Oh man…I love music of all kinds, and I find it hard to work without it. I tend to listen to really dismal and sad music when I work, which surprises some people because I like to draw brightly colored, happy dance parties, and bunnies wearing clothes. I guess they picture me wearing a jam shorts and listening to Love Shack on repeat? I really just like non distracting music that I can sort of sing along with while I draw. Some of my favorites right now are the Bon Iver Pandora Station, any old Sam Cooke or Otis Redding, Alt J, Gregory Alan Isakov, and Noah Gundersen. I also really love listening to film scores while I work. Some of the best are The Assassination of Jesse James, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Fountain, Little Miss Sunshine, Amelie, Lenin, and anything else by Yann Tiersen.
Oh man Daniel! Yann Tiersen! You’re speaking my language. I too love film scores and he’s one of my favorite composers. Amelie. Need I say more?
Well yes. Yes I do. Because I did mention something about a prize, didn’t I? TWO readers of this blog will win ONE book: either “When Your Elephant Has the Sniffles” or “When Your Lion Needs a Bath.” And Susanna has offered to autograph them to anyone the winner may wish. How cool is that? You don’t have to wait to read these books, you can WIN them! Just enter the Rafflecopter at THIS link and stay tuned to find out who wins the prize. Thank you SO much Susanna and Daniel!
And if you want to learn more about these books, Susanna is on a blog tour roll. Check out the schedule below. =)