Today I have another set of Simply 7 interviews for you with two people, but this is a unique one. You see the author is no longer with us. Today’s interview is conducted with the author’s daughter, Amy Losak, and the illustrator, Sawsan Chalabi. This is perhaps one of the most unique Simply 7 interviews I have done to date.
I have to laugh because everything has been coming up haiku lately.
I stumbled across some books of poetry by a mystery writer who lives in my hometown (Sitka, Alaska). I didn’t know he’d also written poetry! So I had to track them down. I read them and fell in love with them. They were all haiku set in the Alaskan landscape I know and love. He writes one every day as a warm-up exercise. I bought a copy of one of his poetry books and a Haiku journal (I laughed at how small it was when it arrived in the mail–I wasn’t expecting that) for one of my best friends who is now writing one haiku every day. Then I stumbled upon this book. And the story of how it came to be resonated with me, losing my dad so recently.
Amy Losak is the one that got this book published, but it was her mom, Sydell Rosenberg, who was the writer. She wrote and published many Haiku during her lifetime. You can learn more about Amy at this blog over on the publisher’s website. This beautiful picture to the left, is of both Amy (when she was younger) and her mom. What a gift.
H is for Haiku is an alphabet book, but it is not quite like any others I’ve read. It has a Haiku for every letter of the alphabet, but what those letters come from aren’t typical or what you might expect. It’s truly a unique and beautiful reading experience.
Welcome to my blog Amy!
Jena, thanks so much for this opportunity to share the story of H IS FOR HAIKU by Sydell Rosenberg.
Me: This book is a unique project. You didn’t write it, but your mom did. And it wasn’t the first writing project she was drawn to either. Any idea what drew her to wanting to publish a picture book?
Amy: Syd was a teacher in New York: English and literacy; and also adult English as a Second Language (she earned her Master’s in ESL from Hunter College in 1972). I wish I knew how and when she first came up with the idea of creating a poetry picture book. I must have been quite young when this desire began to coalesce in her mind.
But I can guess. Mom always was a writer: poetry, prose including an adult novel, short stories, word, and literary puzzles; etc. At some point in the early-to-mid 1960’s, mom “discovered” haiku. Or maybe it found her.
Haiku is the briefest form of poetry, but by no means easy to compose. I think Mom was intellectually and artistically restless, searching for a literary form that would challenge her in a different way. Haiku was, I can surmise, the form – the outlet — she was seeking. It demands both amplitude of vision and focus of expression. And being a teacher, I think she zeroed in on haiku as a novel “vehicle” for a kids’ book – especially an alphabet reader. Her haiku are “bite-sized.” They’re digestible. And I view mom’s haiku for children like little stories, in essence — or word-pictures. I like to say that they capture nature and human nature in “nuggets.”
When mom had a goal in mind, she did her best to learn as much as could in order to attain it. She immersed herself. Mom studied, read, and wrote haiku seriously over the span of a few decades. She was a charter member of the Haiku Society of America in 1968. In 1975, mom served as HSA secretary, and also on two Merit Book committees. She studied Japanese, probably to try and read the original masters. Also, when mom decided she wanted to create and publish a picture book – preferably a haiku ABC reader – she took at least one children’s literature class, that I am aware of.
Me: What drew you to do this book for Syd? Do you have any picture book aspirations yourself?
Amy: What motivated me to do this is simple: this was mom’s dream. She was well-anthologized over the course of her decades-long literary career, but she never got to publish her poetry picture book. She submitted to publishers multiple times, and more than one manuscript, if my memory is correct.
At some point in, I believe, the 1980’s, when my father Sam became ill, she had to give up this dream. Mom became a caregiver, and this difficult role took up so much of her time. She remained committed to her writing – which included sending out her work to journals and other publications, contests, etc. But as you can imagine, the caregiving responsibilities she was forced to assume became pretty much full-time – and they overwhelmed her literary and creative pursuits.
The stress of caregiving, as well as an undiagnosed heart condition, also took a horrible and ultimately fatal toll on her health. Mom died suddenly at home of an aortic aneurysm on October 11, 1996. At her funeral, her family – my brother Nathan; sister-in-law, Debbie; and husband, Cliff – vowed that somehow, we would publish the book she wanted.
Me: Your mom submitted picture book manuscripts many times before she passed away. Why didn’t you just take one of those and submit it as is? How did you decide to pull together these specific poems for this wonderful collection of her work?
Amy: This book is indeed based on at least one manuscript I located among her materials. Starting around 2011, after years of procrastinating, I finally “got serious.” I began to sift through her papers, publications, and other “stuff” that we had deposited into boxes, bags, bins, etc., after she died. A lot of her materials moved with us, after we closed up my parents’ apartment in Queens, NY and later, left the borough for New Jersey.
I’m not an organized person, but somehow, with encouragement from some extraordinary people, I was able to collect and curate some of her poetry, especially her haiku and senryu. As I read through her manuscripts I had found, I made the entirely subjective decision to swap out and/or edit some of mom’s short poems. Others I left intact. This is my mom’s poetic legacy, and I’m so proud of her.
As a result of my efforts, I have thought about writing a picture book myself. I have a plot idea in mind. I’m also mulling over a second picture book which combines my mom’s haiku with mine.
Me: You’ve said that it took you a while after your mom passed away in 1996 before you started trying to deal with this project. Totally understandable. I’d be the same way. So how long did it take once you had a manuscript to get a contract? Did you receive any rejections before you succeeded? Can you talk about this manuscript’s path to publication?
Amy: The first manuscripts were mailed off to publishers that don’t require agent representation beginning on April 1 of 2015. I signed with the wonderful Penny Candy Books on October 31, 2016. The book was released on April 10 (National Poetry Month) of this year.
Yes, I did receive several rejections. A few of them were personalized and quite kind – even complimentary. And a few publishers never responded, which is not surprising. I still check the mail for those rejections. =)
So this part of the path was short and fairly straightforward. But it was a long, meandering slog to get to April of 2015. Along the way, I undertook a number of projects to “revive” some of her short poems for young audiences. For example, I entered into a highly rewarding partnership with Arts For All (arts-for-all.org), a nonprofit NY arts education program celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. We developed programs for mostly second-grade students in two schools (in Queens and the Bronx) that paired her haiku with drawing, painting, and collage; music; and theater. This collaboration has been in place for several years, and it’s been wonderful.
And I have been involved in other initiatives, as well. In hindsight, I guess these were “stepping stone” projects, with the ultimate destination being the book, H IS FOR HAIKU. Even so, they’ve been tremendously enjoyable and satisfying for everyone – I hope especially the kids.
Me:The illustrations in this book are wonderful. There are so many that I’m drawn to! What about you? Did you find any happy surprises in the illustrations once you saw the first proofs of the book?
Amy: Sawsan’s illustrations are so vivid and clever! As an example, I love the “house-skirt” in “Vacation Cottage.” It’s a cheerful – and unexpected — visual pun!
Me: Any advice for new or aspiring picture book writers?
Amy: My advice is, I’m sure, something new or aspiring picture book creators have heard before, but it’s worth repeating: “Don’t give up!” If you believe in your work and know it is good and has value, keep persevering. Believe in your own promise, but be open to constructive criticism. Keep researching and learning about the industry – trends, changes, new opportunities, etc. And be prepared to course-correct along the way. It’s also OK to pause, if you need to – to take a break if the effort to find an agent or a publisher becomes overwhelming or discouraging. But keep going. Everyone has stories of disappointment and missed opportunities. No one has it easy in any creative industry, including this one. So – keep going!
I almost gave up myself several times, to be honest. I faltered often. But I’m glad I persevered. The work was hard, but it was worth it. And luckily and thankfully, I had allies. I’m indebted to many people for their caring and support, including – but not limited to – the KidLit community.
Me: I have a few favorite poems in this book (like the umbrella mushrooms!). Do you have any favorites?
Amy: I’ve always enjoyed “Holding Umbrellas” – it’s such an affectionate, sweet haiku. And I love “So Pale.” This one has grown on me over the years. Note how mom doesn’t specify what “it” is. The ambiguity is intentional. Sawsan chose to depict a friendly moon, but “it” can be anything the reader imagines. This poem is serene, and I like the gentle mystery the words evoke.
I’ve come to love the “way” of haiku. Looking back, I realize the seeds were planted a long time ago.. But they didn’t start to truly germinate until comparatively recently. I always will be a beginner, and this is fine.
Even though H IS FOR HAIKU is out now, I’m still on a journey, and I’m enjoying it. We will see what comes next! Thank you again.
Thank you Amy! What a wonderful homage to your mom. This is definitely a picture book journey unlike any other I’ve heard within recent memory. The same could be said for the illustrator.
Sawsan Chalabi is a digital illustrator mostly known for her work in advertising, magazines, and art shows. This is actually her picture book debut! You can learn more about her at her website.
Me: What was your artistic journey? When did you start drawing or creating?
Sawsan: Art runs in my family. From a very young age I used to watch my older sister paint and relished in the smell of her oil paints as she worked on her Van Gogh and Gaugin replicas. I used to doodle but didn’t take art and design seriously until I decided to do my undergrad in Graphic Design. I enjoyed every aspect of design but definitely leaned towards fine art and illustration and loved incorporating illustration in my work whenever possible. I moved to the US shortly after graduation and worked within the IT and non-profit industries as an in-house designer but always felt there was something missing. I didn’t feel I was fulfilling my creative potential. Ten years after professional design experience I decided to pursue my passion for art and illustration and went for my MFA at Savannah College of Art and Design. When you go back to school after so many years of working you really do appreciate every single minute of every class and I immersed myself fully in all my classes. It was heaven to be back in an amazing creative environment… just the energy that I needed to find my creative voice again.
Me: What does your illustration process look like?
Sawsan: My work is mostly digital but also incorporates some traditional line and textures. When I receive a script or article I spend a lot of time brainstorming concepts and thumbnailing ideas. I really need to be excited about the concept to enjoy working on the illustration and have an outcome I am satisfied with. Once the client and I are happy with the ideas and roughs I move on to working on the illustration on my Cintiq.
Me: Is “H is for Haiku” your first picture book illustration project? How did that come about?
Sawsan: Yes, it actually is my first official picture book. Before that I had created several children’s illustrations for Cricket Magazine and most of my work has been for editorial illustrations. I loved the idea of working on children’s books though and I created some children’s illustrations for my portfolio just for the love of it. I was contacted by Penny Candy Books to work on the book and I was definitely excited especially after reading the beautiful haiku which were so descriptive and visual.
Me: Some of the haiku in this collection are open to interpretation as to what the subject matter is (like the winter “S” poem). What helped you to decide what images should match each poem?
Sawsan: I enjoyed those which were open to interpretation the most as they allowed me more conceptual freedom. They were like little riddles and I sat with each one and allowed it to speak to me. With the S poem, it really could have been anything, like a bird or owl, literally sitting on that branch but I love going for the unexpected and I thought the moon framed as if sitting on those branches resonated well with the poet’s romantic winter moment.
Me: I love some of the choices you made for this book, like with the hand-lettered text. What made you decide to use that for this project instead of a font type?
Sawsan: Because the haiku were so visual and were really what the book was about I felt they needed to have as much prominence as the illustrations. I wanted the poems to be integrated with the illustrations so that the image and words worked together as a whole and children reading them would enjoy the poems and illustrations in tandem. I then decided to hand letter the poems so that they had the same visual voice as the illustrations and worked them into the visual elements.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in illustrating this book?
Sawsan: That it wasn’t one full story. Other than the alphabet framework uniting them, each poem was a completely different thought from the other. That was fun but also challenging because I wanted to package the whole book as one harmonious work. So, to keep a smooth transition from one poem to the next, I used the same color palette throughout the book and developed each spread as one piece with the visuals of one poem flowing freely into the other, allowing the reader to glide through the poet’s thoughts with ease.
Me: Any advice for other picture book illustrators just starting out?
Sawsan: I will share my “Note-to-self” with them… That the most important thing is to enjoy myself as I am working on any project because the energy of the artist is always reflected in the work and that translates to the reader and viewer.
Excellent advice and one I’ve heard many illustrators say time and again. Thank you for visiting Sawsan! Dear readers, you really must track down a copy of “H is for Haiku” if you haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I can promise you that it will exceed your expectations. It’s quite a special project and quite a delicious read.