Simply 7 with Lori Haskins Houran AND Priscilla Alpaugh–“Space Mice”

Today I get to talk with both the author and illustrator of a book I’ve been eagerly waiting for: “Space Mice”!

Houran author photoLori Haskins Houran moved to New York after college to work in children’s publishing.  She has been both an editor (at Random House books) and an editorial director (at Golden Books) before she published her first book in 1996.  She has published more than 40 books since then.  You can learn more about her at her website.

Screen Shot 2020-01-03 at 4.31.39 PM“Space Mice” is a delightful picture book about two hungry mice who gaze at the moon, realize the solution to their problems, and go on a fantastical journey.  The story is “cheesy” (I couldn’t resist the pun!), as well as wonderfully told.  The art work is also a delight from one of my favorite illustrators (as you will soon see).

Welcome to my blog Lori!

Me: You have written many books: board books, nonfiction, Golden books, readers.  What is it that draws you to picture books?

Lori: I like that a picture book is a shared experience. It’s fun to imagine a grown-up performing the story for a young listener—or the other way around. I’m also drawn to picture books because of their size. The pages are nice and big, which means plenty of room for illustrations.

Me: Did you grow up wanting to travel to the moon?  What inspired a space story with mice?

Screen Shot 2020-01-03 at 4.33.33 PMLori: I was born the year after the moon landing, so there was a lot of excitement around space travel when I was a kid. Though if I’m honest, this story was inspired largely by my love of cheese! People joke that the moon is made of Swiss, and I thought, Wouldn’t it be great if that were true—and a couple of mice managed to get there?

Me: How did writing this picture book differ from any of your other writing projects?

Lori: Usually I try to think of a problem for the protagonist to solve, then I throw a few obstacles in the way. This time, I gave my characters the problem (a rumble in their tummies), but I skipped the obstacles. I thought it would be amusing and optimistic to see the mice take an impossible idea—building a real, working spacecraft—and pull it off with aplomb.

Me: I love that twist.  You are an EXCELLENT rhymer!  Many writers hear “don’t write in rhyme” from the industry these days.  What inspired you to write this book in rhyme?

Lori: Thank you. I didn’t plan to write the book in rhyme; it just started coming out that way! There’s nothing wrong with writing in rhyme. Writers just need to know that picture book editors receive more rhyming submissions than non-rhyming ones, so it makes a tight market even tighter.

Me: The illustrations in this book are amazing!  They are beautiful, creative, and so dang cute!  Was there any collaboration on them?  Or was it a surprise to see the results?

Right Stuff mice2Lori: I adore Priscilla Alpaugh’s artwork. Priscilla and I did not collaborate during the process (though I was lucky enough to meet her after the book was done). This is my fiftieth book, and I’ve never collaborated with an illustrator! I do include art notes in my manuscripts. For instance, on page 14, I described the mice striding toward the reader, helmets under their arms, like a scene out of The Right Stuff. I wasn’t sure if Priscilla would choose to follow the note, but she did. I love the way the illustration turned out! By the way, writers might have heard that they should never add art notes. I think if your text is very spare, it’s okay to give a brief sense of what you envision on the page, especially if it advances the plot or adds humor. Just don’t get carried away.

Me: What is one thing that surprised you in the writing of “Space Mice”?

Lori: I had no idea what my last line would be. Just as I got to that point, it hit me that there was a word to describe both a round moon and a satisfied belly. So I ended the story: “No full moon… Just two full mice.” It was a wonderful surprise to have the ending fall into my lap.

Me: Any advice for new picture book writers?

Lori: I’ve already copped to breaking two “rules”—writing in rhyme and adding art notes—so I’m probably the last person who should give advice! But I’ll share my favorite tip, which is to read what you write out loud. Picture book manuscripts for sure. But everything else, too. I even do it with letters and emails. In fact, I’m planning to read these answers out loud before I send them!

I do the same thing!  I think that’s great advice.  Thanks for visiting my blog, Lori.  But wait dear readers, there is more ahead.  Today we also get to hear from the illustrator!

Priscilla AlpaughPriscilla Alpaugh studied illustration and even went to graduate school. While raising her family she made art whenever she could, but it wasn’t until her kids moved on to college that she started illustrating full time. (Don’t you just love hearing a success story that took a while to culminate?)  Her first picture book came out in 2015 and she won the NESCBWI Portfolio Showcase the same year.  You can learn more about her at her website.

Welcome to my blog Priscilla!

Me: What was your artistic journey? When did you start drawing?

Priscilla: Like most illustrators you’ll talk to, I don’t recall ever not drawing. I learned pretty early that people seemed to think I was good at it. There’s nothing like praise to make you keep going at something!

My artistic journey was fairly conventional with the requisite stops at school art rooms, after school art programs, Mass College of Art (where I was told not to even try children’s books since such a small percentage ever succeed), UMass Amherst for my BFA and finally Syracuse University’s graduate program in Illustration.

After graduation I started to build a portfolio. I subsequently got a full time job, drew as much as I could on the side but wasn’t happy with the results. After graduate school I got married and started a family, always making art on the side but not having the time or focus to make the work I wanted to make. When my youngest entered high school I finally had time to make work I was proud of. I sent off postcards then, in 2008 and by the time she went to college (2015) my first picture book came out. (There was a six year gap between sending out the postcards and being asked to do my first picture book. Art directors/editors really do keep postcards for a long time!) That was when I finally dedicated myself to illustration full-time. Now I’m on the really interesting part of the journey where I get to see what I’m capable of.

Me: I absolutely LOVE that journey!  It gives me so much hope.  What does your illustration process look like?

Screen Shot 2020-01-03 at 4.33.48 PMPriscilla: I use a couple of different processes for different styles of work. For loose pencil and watercolor work I sketch on copier paper and place it on a light box. I then cover it with another piece of paper and draw the heavy black line. I scan the line into my computer and either repeat the process with a layer of watercolor or if it’s black and white I’ll color it digitally.

My other more detailed style is more involved. I still sketch on copier paper but scan that sketch line into Photoshop and adjust the line to a color I like. I’ll also lay down a scanned layer or more of watercolor, combining it with the sketch line. Then I add a layer of scanned in textured paper. (I scan textures whenever I see something that appeals and keep a large file on hand). After all the layers are combined, I’ll start playing with the piece on my iPad Pro in Procreate and finish it there.

Me: I’ve long adored your mice and corgi sketches.  How wonderful that you were chosen to illustrate this mouse story!  How did that come to be?

Screen Shot 2020-01-03 at 4.32.40 PMPriscilla: Thank you so much. I’ve drawn an awful lot of mice and corgis! When my kids were young we got a corgi puppy. (I think I wanted to be Tasha Tudor). I started drawing and painting corgis then. I haven’t stopped!

Mice, on the other hand, I feel like I’ve drawn forever. As a kid I was obsessed with Garth Williams’ Stuart Little and Louis Darling’s Mouse and the Motorcycle. I worked at a company that made collectible mouse figurines for ten years. One of my first self publishing jobs was a five part story about a mouse! It seems like it was inevitable that I’d do a book with mice. The publisher would have seen the illustrations featuring mice in my portfolio and they happened to need some mice in space right then.

Me: I know you also teach some illustration classes.  Can you tell us a little bit about that?  What do you teach and where?  Do you plan to keep teaching?

Priscilla: I’ve given workshops on how to use the Procreate app on the iPad Pro at SCBWI conferences and other KidLit groups. I’ll be doing that again at NESCBWI this May! It’s such fun to show people all the great things you can do with this one inexpensive application. It made it possible for me to finally make my art match what I saw in my imagination.

I’ve also taught a class on showing motion and emotion in illustration. That was another really fun class. We had a blast drawing each other in order to show how much emotion is expressed by body language.

I also give private drawing lessons. I have students come to my studio at ArtSpace Maynard. I plan to hold small group classes for teens at some point in the future but illustration work comes first and right now I don’t have time to do both! I’ll likely have a children’s book illustration class as well as a drawing/illustration class. 

Me: Wow!  What opportunities! What is one thing that surprised you in illustrating this story?

Screen Shot 2020-01-03 at 4.35.16 PMPriscilla: What surprised me? I think it surprised me how different the end product was from what I originally conceived of. I love the art in the book and it’s a significant departure from what my initial vision was.

Me: Any advice for other picture book illustrators?

Priscilla:  “It’s only work if you’d rather be doing something else” says it all for me. People praise my work ethic but the word “work” doesn’t seem to fit. Is a treasure hunt work? When you really want to see what you’re capable of it feels less like work and more like a treasure hunt. The harder you look…the more likely you’ll find the treasure you were looking for.

A good friend once said, “Illustration is HARD!” She’s right! I think sometimes people think it’s easy. You think of an image and draw it. Voila! Nope. You’ve got to be willing to practice your craft, improve your skills, make yourself draw things again and again. You think the hand you just drew was good? Awesome, erase it and draw another! It’s usually going to be even better. Another quote I like (and I think I came up with) is, “no one ever drew anything well by thinking about it!” It’s all about practice and constructive criticism. I recall getting to a point where I thought, “I say I can draw anything but I wonder if I can draw that?” I intentionally choose difficult things to draw after I knew I could handle the easy stuff.

Also, try to find time to play and make work just for you! It’s important to let yourself experiment. Try new things, look at art, movies, anything that excites you. Sometimes it leads to an all new technique.  Relax and have fun whenever you can. Take care not to overwork. Our hands and bodies are our tools and need to be treated well.

Me: Do you have any future projects that we can look forward to seeing?

Priscilla:   I’m working on a six book chapter book series right now. Those will be out later in 2020. I have a personal project that I feel like I’ve been working on forever. It’s a corgi story! With luck, it’ll be a real book one day. I’m always looking for new and challenging projects and when the next one comes along, I’ll let you know!

Wow! That sounds wonderful!  Thank you for stopping by the blog Priscilla.  Dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance yet to read this book, you must.  It’s delightful!

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