Today I get to interview TWO lovely ladies about their picture book just released into the world last week.
Sherry J Lee has worked in the book industry for most of her life, and has many books! She has a particularly fabulous library of children’s picture books she began collecting many years ago when she worked at The Children’s Bookstore. You can learn more about her at here.
“Going Up!” is Sherry’s debut picture book (yay!). At it’s most basic, it could be considered a counting book as it’s about a child in an elevator going to a party on an upper floor (and thus you could count the floors that pass), but it’s SO much more than that! It’s a wonderful look at community, diversity, food, love of elevators and fun! It’s definitely impressive that it is able to squeeze all of that in to such a delightful story line!
Me: What draws you to writing picture books?
Sherry: I have worked in the book world for a very long time – most of my adult life – and my first job in the industry was as a bookseller at The Children’s Bookstore in Toronto which, at the time, was the largest children’s bookstore in North America. I did not grow up in a bookish family – I really discovered kids’ novels on my own. Picture books, on the other hand, were not on my radar. So when I began working at The Children’s Bookstore, picture books were a revelation!
Here I was in the Mecca of picture books – every book that came into the store was read and approved (or not) by one of three former librarians. So these were the best! It was in the era of Maurice Sendak, John Burmingham, Judith Kerr, and Ezra Jack Keats. The first year I worked there was the year The Paper Bag Princess was first published! Since that time I have collected all of my favourite picture books. I guess it was predetermined that I might try to write one someday.
Me: Aww! I love that. “Going Up!” beautifully captures diversity, a sense of community, and kids’ love of elevators. What an amazing combination! What gave you that idea?
Sherry: I did not at the time identify as a writer. I was moving into a condo building of five stories with my West Highland Terrier, Grace. We entered the elevator and Grace was momentarily startled and confused when this small room started to move! It was the first time she had ever been on an elevator. At that moment, it was as if a very loud elevator “Ding!” went off in my head. It occurred to me that there were so few books about homes in multilevel buildings for children who live in them. After all, there are so many ways to live! In that moment, I knew there was a story to be told and I thought, “I have to find someone to write this! But who?”
Me: Who indeed! LOL! I notice that you didn’t include any numbers or counting in the text, but left that up to the illustrations. Were you avoiding having a “counting book” plot? Why or why not?
Sherry: It’s very interesting that you ask that question. As I said, I didn’t think of myself as the one to write this book at first. I had never planned on being an author. It hung out in my head for quite a while – off and on – before I realized that I was the one to write it. I tried out various ideas before I actually put pen to paper.
Right away, I knew it would be about creatures going up on an elevator to the top floor and at first I figured it would be a kind of counting book. There was an opportunity for that, as well as for multiples of creatures getting on that corresponded with the floor numbers – that sort of thing.
However, that was only an idea that came up along the way. The book wanted to be something else. I think our core values tend to shape our creative endeavors, and for me, community, inclusion, food and character are things I value very highly. Also, it is an urban book and I live in one of the most diverse cities in the world. So it did not become a counting book per se. It became a book about inclusion, welcome, community and fun. And pets.
Me: The illustrations by Charlene Chua in this book are wonderful. The layers of stories in the background are such a delightful surprise. Were there any illustrating surprises for you?
Sherry: What has been most delightful to me in this process of having a book is seeing Charlene take the story to another level. She immediately understood my humour and vision. She didn’t necessarily see all the characters the same way I saw them in my head. But her versions were so wonderful that it didn’t matter. She made the story bigger. I love all those characters the way she did them. I guess I’m particularly fond of Andrew and Pippo. Those tattoos are just fabulous.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Sherry: The thing that surprised me was the process. By the time I sat down to write Going Up! it was all there. It had spent so much time in my head that I wrote it all out in about 45 minutes.
Me: Any advice for new picture book writers?
Sherry: I guess my advice is to tie your horse! What I mean by that is that we need to be practical. We need to support ourselves well so that we can support our various art interests. Find work that grounds you so that you don’t need to be fearful of finances. I have discovered that creativity flourishes at the right time.
Me: Did you love elevators as a child? Do you love them now? Why or why not?
Sherry: I actually grew up on a lake in the country. I can’t remember the first time I was on an elevator but it likely was not until I was an adult. I moved to Toronto when I was nineteen. When I was in my twenties, I was on an airplane that lost an engine and the plane dropped a lot. For many years afterwards, I was phobic of planes and elevators. But, now that I think about that fear, it is long gone!
Aww! I’m glad it is. I think a lot of love shows up in this book. But wait, there’s more! We also get to talk with Charlene Chua, the illustrator today.
Charlene Chua has illustrated many things over the years for kids of all ages. Her illustration work has won MANY awards, and books she has illustrated have been nominated for quite a few awards as well! Charlene was born and grew up in Singapore, and moved to Canada in 2007. You can learn more about her at her website.
Me: What was your artistic journey? When did you start creating art work?
Charlene: I have been drawing since I was 3 years old or so. I’ve always liked drawing. Mostly I drew birds and animals as a kid.
Me: I have followed your journey to success for a while now. I even have some of your postcards on my inspiration wall. How did you get into the work of illustrating picture books? Can you tell us a little bit about your journey to illustrating this book?
Charlene: I was contacted by a small publisher back in 2007 or so, and that turned into my first picture book, Julie Black Belt. I liked working on the book but at the time it was not feasible for me to keep working on books. Things changed over time and I signed with my agent (Tracy Marchini at BookEnds) and now I work mostly on picture books.
I happened to have a meeting with the editor (at Kids Can Press) and she mentioned that they had acquired a new book and were looking for an illustrator. I was interested in the story and did a sample, and later was offered the book.
Me: So, not a traditional journey to success! I love that! What does your illustration process look like? HOW did you create such amazing textures in each page of this story?
Charlene: I normally start with character designs and multiple rough concepts/ layouts for each page. Going Up! was a bit different though, because there are so many characters, so I focused more on the characters and less on layouts.
Most of the art for the book was hand painted with watercolor, inks and color pencil. The textures comes from the coldpress watercolor paper I used throughout. Additional textures were made by combining scanned artwork in Photoshop and manipulating them for effects.
Me: So traditional art methods AND digital. Wonderful! Speaking of characters, I loved the variety of characters you put in this book. What inspired them? Are any of them based on real people you know?
Charlene: The author did have some art notes for the characters in the book. I worked with the editor as well to help make sure we had a cast of characters that depicted a wide range of people. I also worked with a sensitivity reader who specializes in disability to help refine one character. For my part, none of the characters are based on anyone I personally know in real life. Though that’s not to say they aren’t (on the author’s side)!
Me: I love it when an illustrator includes stories in the illustrations that aren’t in the text. I think the cat is my favorite addition in this story. He (or she) is SO subtle! Are secondary storylines something you always try to include? Or was this an after thought?
Charlene: The cat was actually written into the story! He has no lines but he is in the script. I did add him in on earlier pages and the credits page on my own though.
I try to include side stories where I can. It’s easier to do with some manuscripts than others. Going Up! was good for that because it’s a very visual story, and it invites the reader to look closer at everything. So it was easy to add in other small details that readers could pick up on during repeated readings.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in illustrating “Going Up!”?
Charlene: How many pieces of paper it took to paint everything!
Me: LOL! I bet! Any advice for other picture book illustrators?
Charlene: Oh… where to start? Lol! Depends on what advice they would like? Perhaps a good general one would be to join an organization like SCBWI or CANSCAIP if you’re interested in illustrating picture books. Go to the local events where you can, join the online groups, meet other people who have or want to make picture books. Even a few connections can be very helpful in the journey towards publication.
That’s true. Great advice! Thank you ladies for stopping by my blog today! And dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance to read this book yet, you must track down a copy! I highly recommend it.