Today I’m feeling blessed, despite the craziness in the world around us. I get to interview TWO amazingly talented women: an award winning picture book author AND an award winning picture book illustrator.
Author Ame Dyckman leads an interesting Life. (And vice versa!) Most recently, Ame’s Life led her to New Jersey, where Ame lives with her family, cat, book characters…and usually no hot water left for her shower. (But THAT’S LIFE! HA!) Ame is the award-winning author of Dandy; Read the Book, Lemmings!; You Don’t Want a Unicorn!; Horrible Bear!; the New York Times bestselling Wolfie the Bunny, and MORE! You can visit Ame on Twitter where she tweets book news, goofy poetry, and pretty much EVERYTHING happening with her Life! You can also learn more about her at her website.
“That’s Life!” is a unique picture book quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s not your usual story. In fact, I might say it’s not really plot driven at all. It’s all about Life. In her typical sense of humor, Ame Dyckman has collected every phrase about Life you’ve ever heard and somehow managed to weave them together into a story akin to “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” It’s surprisingly timeless and yet brand new. It’s clever and unexpected. This is one you’ll have to read to understand just exactly what it is.
Me: You’re one of my favorite picture book writers so I have to ask, what draws you to writing picture books above all other genres?
Ame: THANKS SO MUCH for the Book Love, Jena! (And readers! Without readers, authors are just weird people who yell at their laptops!)
I love writing picture books because I get to be a movie director! (Well, in my head.)
When I write a line for a picture book, I imagine the picture an illustrator MIGHT draw for it. Then I cut the words that will probably be communicated by the picture. Envisioning “skeleton” art-from-the-start usually makes for a better text/image match from the very beginning, and it’s fun to imagine a manuscript’s rough “movie” before I get sketches from the illustrator.
(But Sketches Stage is THE BEST! Illustrators always bring so much MORE to a scene than I ever imagined, and I absolutely love when illustrators surprise me, too—even if it means a partial rewrite!)
And of course, writing picture books is so heart-rewarding because you just can’t top the audience for picture books: kids, parents/guardians, and educators are all Good Folks!
Me: I have to admit that this story wasn’t what I expected. It’s very tongue-in-check with many phrases I’ve heard about “life” interpreted in new ways. What gave you the idea for this book?
Ame: LAUGHING So happy THAT’S LIFE! surprised you! Lessee…
I LOVE when people give my books as gifts, but realized I hadn’t written an All Occasions gift book. (You know the kind—upbeat and full of inspirational phrases that makes you feel all warm-and-fuzzy.)
So, what do we ALL have in common? This goofy thing called LIFE!
And being a goofy thing myself, I thought…
What if Life really IS a goofy THING—a tangible, goofy thing that arrives on a kid’s doorstep? In a crate. With NO INSTRUCTIONS!—that a kid has to figure out?
(Kid Me was OBSESSED with Stephen King’s CREEPSHOW story, “The Crate”—OUR crate critter’s cute-not-scary, though!—and David Lee Roth’s cover of the Sinatra song, “That’s Life!,” so I’m sure those two Inspiration Marbles were rolling around in my Writing Brain, too! EVERYTHING—especially things from childhood!—can be great inspiration for a picture book!)
And me being me, I wanted the story to be FUNNY! (Life itself IS funny!) So the challenge was to bring all those “Life” phrases together in a positive—and funny!—way.
Me: You’ve had the opportunity to work with some amazing illustrators in your career so far. The illustrations by Cori Doerrfeld in this book are pitch perfect! I loved the scene of Life “flashing before your eyes” and its fresh interpretation. Was that an art note from you? Did you have any say in what the illustrator did with some of your ideas in this book? \
Ame: AGREED on the AMAZING illustrators I’m lucky to work with! (I must’ve been good in a PAST LIFE! HA!) I’m a HUGE fan of Cori’s art, and was (and AM!) over-the-moon she so hilariously-and-sweetly illustrated THAT’S LIFE!, including…
LAUGHING THE TUSHIE SCENE! I confess, that was an art note, but Cori has a GREAT sense of humor and went with it! There’s nothing like a character’s cute buns to make little kids—and this Big Kid!—GIGGLE, and I just couldn’t resist!
Cori and I did get to work together to solve a particularly tricky spread, and I loved it! Collaborating with an illustrator (and editor, and designer!) so we can achieve the best combination of text and art that will hopefully appeal to our readers is part of what makes making picture books so much fun!
Me: What is one thing that surprised you with this story? Maybe in writing it? Or were there any illustration surprises for you?
Ame: On the writing side, what surprised me was how much keeping up with/caring for your Life mimicked keeping up with/caring for a child, pet, or friend. (In many ways, one’s Life is ALL these things!)
On the illustration side, I was pleasantly surprised by Cori’s “Life is full of surprises!” spread because there are SO MANY fascinating little things to look at in it! And her “BEAUTIFUL” spread was a complete surprise (a WONDERFUL one!) that brings SO MUCH to the story!
Me: I’m sure everyone wants to know this. For someone as creative and prolific as you are, what does your writing process look like?
Ame: LAUGHING OH, NO! I dunno if I’m a good Author Role Model! I don’t have scheduled Writing Hours or even scheduled Butt-In-Chair time. I write whenever the mood strikes and when time allows and ON whatever’s handy! (Once, on the cat. She’s STILL mad.)
But once I get going on a story, I’m ALL-focused on it: I forget other things. (Except my family, who are luckily SUPER supportive. And PATIENT!) I burn dinners. (Sometimes more than one in a night.) And don’t even get me started on housework. (ONE WEEK LATER, AME LOOKS UP FROM HER LAPTOP: “Wow. This place is a MESS! When did THAT happen?”)
When I’m simply too busy to sit down and work on a story—hey, THAT’S LIFE!—I’ll compose a quick poem for Twitter. (If I can’t take at least a few minutes to write SOMETHING when the Writing Bug bites, I get CRANKY!)
But when a story idea is on FIRE—and hopefully, dinner ISN’T!—it’s the BEST feeling!
Me: LOL! I love that. Any advice for new picture book writers?
Ame: READ! Read as many picture books as you can. Read current picture books, and then picture books from the era(s) when you as a reader “moved on” to chapter books all the way through to when you started reading picture books again, either as a parent/guardian or for research. This is usually the biggest gap in a would-be-picture-book-author’s “I Know That Story!” knowledge base.
Familiarize yourself with current picture book layouts (number of spreads, etc.) so you can maximize the power of the page turn in your manuscript. (You don’t need to “page out” your manuscripts—I prefer to, but you don’t need to—but you do need to know your Big Page Turn Moments COULD fit into one of the standard layouts.)
When you watch TV, keep the captions on. ALWAYS. Not only will you see in print the dialogue people REALLY use, but because of space limitations on-screen, captions sometimes have to condense to the most important parts of a sentence. Hearing a long sentence and then seeing it imagined shorter is GREAT practice for picture book writing! (BONUS: When you watch TV with captions on, you’re technically “working!”)
And my favorite bit of advice? Print your picture book work-in-progress and CARRY IT (and a pen) WITH YOU! You’d be amazed how often you’ll be doing something else when a line from your manuscript will POP into your head, and you’ll realize you CAN cut a few words! (Just be sure to empty your pockets before doing laundry! I’ve washed lots of good still-on-paper-only edits, and have had to tape more than one manuscript back together!)
Me: Were there any expressions about life that couldn’t make it into the book? If so, which ones? If not, any favorite expressions about life that did make it into the book? And why?
Ame: I heard an expression about comparing Life to a box of chocolates, but that just made me EAT a box of chocolates, and then I was so hopped up on sugar, I forgot to include it! I think we included practically all the other “Life” phrases, though.
My favorite expression about Life is our next-to-last one in the book, again PERFECTLY illustrated by Cori:
So love your Life! ‘Cause when you do…
Your Life will love you back.
THANKS for having me, Jena! THANKS for reading, readers! LOVE YOUR LIFE!
Thank you so much for visiting my blog today Ame. That’s great advice for all of us writers.
But wait dear readers! There’s more!
Cori Doerrfeld is a full time author/illustrator who has helped create numerous books for children including Good Dog, Wild Baby, and The Welcome Wagon. Her award winning title, The Rabbit Listened, has been recognized as a valuable tool by teachers, counselors, and parents for its powerful reminder to simply listen. Cori currently lives in Minneapolis, MN with her husband, and her two children. You can learn more about her at her website.
Me: What was your artistic journey? When did you start drawing and/or painting? How did that lead to where you are now as an illustrator?
Cori: Like a lot of artists, drawing is something that I have always done. Even though neither of my parents can draw, they tell me that I just started making art on my own when I was very little. I loved to draw animals like dogs, cats, and horses. But also from a very young age, I loved to draw my favorite cartoon characters like Garfield, The Care Bears, and Roger Rabbit. My absolute favorites were The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (My mom still teases me about having a crush on Raphael.)
When I was around middle school age, animated movies became a really big deal with releases like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. I remember a woman came to our sixth grade class and explained the process of animation. Until then, I had never realized that people literally draw animated movies into existence. From that point on I was obsessed with becoming an animator. I drew constantly, read every book I could find, and even paused my favorite videos to practice drawing characters’ movements and emotions frame by frame. But right when I was about to look into possibly attending art schools for college, Toy Story came out and traditional hand drawn animation became out of date. I decided to attend a liberal arts school so I could study biology, anthropology and art.
For a long time I didn’t really know what I was going to do for a career. After graduating, I worked for many years at a daycare and as a nanny.
It was really a combination of luck and ambition that eventually led me to a career in publishing. My boyfriend at the time went to lots of comic conventions to sell and promote his self-published comics. I went along sometimes, and eventually I decided I should sell something too. I started writing and illustrating little books in my spare time inspired by the kids at the daycare where I worked. These little books were eventually picked up by an editor while we were at a comic convention in New York. I absolutely believe that my years of drawing characters and working with kids shaped the kind of illustrations I make. I love drawing emotions, and expressive, “animated” characters. : )
Me: Can you talk a little bit about your process? How do you create digitally?
Cori: For the longest time I worked traditionally with acrylic paint on paper. When I became a stay at home mom, however, paint became really difficult to work with. Setting up took a long time, paint dried up, and I never knew when I would get the chance to work. I decided out of sheer necessity to teach myself to work digitally.
It was a long, slow process where at first I still hand drew every image and then added color digitally with Photoshop. It was a lot of trial and error. But eventually, I nailed down a process that works for me. I start with really, really loose thumbnail sketches that I still draw traditionally with a pencil. I then scan these into Photoshop. Then I take the really rough thumbnails and trace over them to add a little more detail-enough that an art director or editor can at least tell what they are. I use a Wacom tablet and pen to do this.
To make final art, I take the rough digital sketch and use it as a guide for the final art in Photoshop. I use many, MANY layers. Some files may have 800 or more. Layers for different characters, linework, color, shadows, etc. Again, this is all done with a Wacom. This allows me the freedom I never had with paint to quickly stop working and make changes. I am a creature of habit and still have not tried any tablets or programs where you draw right on the screen. Maybe someday!
Me: I love the work you did in “The Rabbit Listened,” which feels very similar to the work in “That’s Life” in some ways. I love the softness you capture in the lines and edges (almost like a crayon)! If you don’t mind me asking, what brush do you use in Photoshop to achieve this? How do you make everything look soft?
Cori: This is from years of making drawings with the Wacom pen. Being self taught, I never learned any fancy tricks. I just use the chalk brush in Photoshop-sometimes dry, sometimes wet. That’s it! I think the softness comes from years of drawing traditionally and so many years of working with the Wacom. Using a Wacom pen is very similar to using any other pencil or brush. I treat the screen as if it was traditional paper and try not to zoom in really close. I also always make the line work a multiplied layer. That way I can use both dark and light brush strokes to create the finished line.
Me: Illustrating one of Ame Dyckman’s stories must be a dream come true. What is one thing that surprised you in the process of illustrating this story?
Cori: What surprised me the most was that we really felt like a team! I have never had the chance before to really interact with an author I am working with. With Ame it felt like her work didn’t end after I was sent the manuscript. She passed along thoughts and ideas, but more than anything she was such a source of enthusiasm and encouragement!
Me: What is one of your favorite illustrations from the book?
Cori: One of my favorites is the “Life is full of surprises” image. It was really fun to think of things good and bad that life can throw at you. Ame gave me a few ideas for that one as well, like the crystal ball. It was also a chance to draw a lot of details!
Me: Any advice for other picture book illustrators?
Cori: My advice is to always remember that your journey is your own. It is really easy to compare your art or your career to others and feel inadequate. But other people’s success is not your failure. You are the one in control of what you make and what you do with it.
Me: It’s SO true! Great advice that I try to remind myself of often. Do you have any other projects that you’re currently working on or that we will be seeing in the near future?
Cori: I am always game for new and challenging projects so this year I will have two new books coming out with Abrams and Hasbro. I was given the amazing opportunity to help bring to life a set of characters and a community through making picture books. The world is called Cubby Hill, and the two books I created are The Welcome Wagon and The Great Giving. This job is the closest I have ever felt to working on an animated show or movie. I got to draw so many animal characters and flex all sorts of storytelling muscles. I tried to make books that appeal to kids with lots of details in the art and humor. At the same time, I also tried to make books that can be used to start meaningful conversations and foster inclusivity and kindness. The first book is already available, and the second is due out in fall!
That’s awesome Cori. I’ll definitely be checking those out. Dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance yet to read this book, there is NO time like the present.
This book feels SO timely. There are going to be hundreds (if not thousands) of high schoolers who won’t get to walk for graduation because of the craziness going on in the world right now. This book is the perfect gift. Life happens when you least expect it to, in ways you cannot begin to plan for. And …
AND if you’ve read this far, there’s a GIVEAWAY! Head over to Ame’s Twitter and see about winning a FREE critique from her! Thank you Ame! ❤