Simply 7 with Rebecca Jordan-Glum–“The Trouble with Penguins”

I’m so excited to share today’s Simply 7 with you.  Today’s author and I became instant friends when we first met and have been cheering each other along the journey ever since.

I first met Rebecca at an illustration intensive at Highlights many years ago.  We had such a good time laughing and drawing together that I was determined to keep in touch.  And we did!  Today I get to share Rebecca’s picture book author-illustrator debut with you.  And dear readers, it was worth the wait.

Rebecca Jordan-Glum is an author, illustrator, graphic designer and artist. She grew up in the heart of Los Angeles eating latkes and tabbouleh and sushi and tamales, falling out of trees, skinning her knees, and using bad words in too many languages to count.

She spent much of her childhood in trouble for her overactive imagination and ridiculous notions but put those same traits to good use at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY where she graduated with a BFA in Communication Design, receiving Pratt’s Excellence Award for Outstanding Achievement in Illustration. She now lives back in Los Angeles with her husband, two kids, an excessively large collection of imaginary animals, and a few real cats. The Trouble with Penguins is her debut picture book as author/illustrator and is a MacKids School and Library Staff Pick and a winter 2020 Indie Next List selection. She is currently working on her 2nd book with Macmillan.  You can learn more about her at her website.

Her debut book “The Trouble with Penguins” all starts with a chance encounter between a penguin and a child who is roasting a marshmallow over a fire.  It’s true love at first bite.  Then the child-like penguin enthusiastically shares marshmallow roasting with other penguins, but … sharing doesn’t last long.  This is truly a story of our times: a whole community at odds and wrecking unforeseen havoc.  It rings oddly familiar, even though it’s a story “for children.”  This may be the picture book you need to read right now.

Welcome Rebecca!

Me: Can you tell us a little bit about your artistic journey?  When did you start drawing and/or painting?  How did that lead to where you are now as an illustrator?

Rebecca: I’ve always been a very creative person who loved writing and drawing, but my thought process was unique and I struggled to fit into school structures as a child. At 19 years old, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. I was working in a t-shirt shop when I unexpectedly got a postcard for a summer school illustration class at Otis College of Art and Design. On a whim, I signed up.

The teacher of the class liked my work and convinced me to apply to Otis for that upcoming year, which was starting about 6 weeks later! I was accepted and received grants and scholarships— and shortly after, moved into the dorms and started art school with a very full class load of 21 units. (It was the same price for 12 to 21 units so, throughout college, I took as many classes as I was allowed to.) When I decided to go into Communication Design, a combined graphic design and illustration degree, I transferred to New York’s Pratt Institute. While I was at Pratt, I used all of my additional units to study fine art painting. By the time I graduated, I had learned graphic design, illustration, and fine art— all skills that I use together in my work today.

Although I took writing classes throughout school, I attribute my writing skills to being an avid reader my entire life. I’ve loved books since I was old enough to hold them and spent much of my childhood reading. I’ve read thousands and thousands of books! There have been periods of my life where I read a book a day. Reading is a great teacher and an excellent way to learn how to use language in wonderful ways.

Me: So true! I have loved your illustration style for years now and this book is no exception.  The art work is beautiful!  What illustration process did you use for this book?  Did it change or evolve as the book progressed?

Rebecca: Thank you, Jena! For The Trouble with Penguins, I used a mixed-media approach. I drew the characters in pencil and then layered in watercolor backgrounds and textures, and digitally colored the scenes using a Cintiq tablet with Photoshop on an iMac. I experimented with combining everything to achieve both frosty and flaming feels! In fact, I experimented so much that I’m still trying to remember how I made the colored smoke scenes…

Me: This story feels so timely with a community that becomes selfish and divided.  Yet they learn from their mistakes and come back together.  Is this a message that is important to you?  Did you think about that topic as you wrote the story?

Rebecca: When I started this story 6 years ago, climate change was apparent but I wasn’t reading creative stories that commented on the ecological repercussions of our communal behaviors. As a society, we seemed to be acting as individuals, but those individual decisions were having very collective results. I wanted to tell THAT story and thought it would be fun to tell it through penguins that become obsessed with roasting marshmallows. The story unfolded from there.

Despite the humorous approach, my early versions were very ‘preachy.’ (I heard this response from many editor rejections!) I couldn’t figure out how to resolve the book. The various versions had the penguins making a mess of everything… but how to fix it? The focus was on the negative— there wasn’t any redemption. At some point, I realized that this is the same problem that we as society are struggling with and I was very discouraged. I was thinking, “How am I supposed to solve society’s problems with a picture book?” It just wasn’t possible. It was my brilliant editor at Macmillan, Emily Feinberg, that came up with the idea that maybe they don’t ‘fix’ everything. Maybe they grow and learn… and try again. Which, as it turns out, was the perfect solution. (I like to think  that the determined and clever penguins continue with their newfound appreciation for community and caring and find ways of repairing the damage.)

Me: I love that. Your penguins are unlike any other penguins Ive seen.  They are very distinctive, even with different colored eyes.  And the child in the story isnt named either.  What made you decide to go with these choices?  When were they made?  From the very beginning of the story or as you worked on it over the years?

Rebecca: Thank you! I love how the penguins came out. They were initially very graphic and rigid but as I drew them more and more, they came to life and became the penguins you see in the book. My life has always been filled with a diverse array of friends and family. Giving the penguins different colored eyes felt like a fun way to acknowledge the beauty of those differences. 

The child character started out with a name, but at some point, I realized that the penguins weren’t named and wondered why the person should be. My editor and I eventually decided to not even refer to the person’s gender in the text. The penguins are just penguins— not ‘boy penguins’ or ‘girl penguins.’  We decided to treat the person in the same way because gender seemed irrelevant to the story. 

Me: This is your author-illustrator debut.  Which was harder: writing the story or illustrating it?  Why?

Rebecca: This is a bit of a trick question!

I was very comfortable writing words and creating illustrations— what took me years to figure out was the storytelling. I had not studied story structure and my initial attempts were collections of written vignettes but they were not a properly formatted story. I had to work very hard at learning how to use my abilities as a writer and an illustrator to tell a good story.

What finally helped me break through was when a friend told me about the Save The Cat story structure. Using that particular screenwriting technique, I was able to rewrite my story in a way that sold! It was the same story with the same characters, but for the first time— it was also a well crafted story. My amazing agent sold it to my amazing editor who helped me turn that good story into a great story! (Yay, team!)

Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing and/or illustrating this story?

Rebecca: How hard it was! Picture books look deceptively easy. That simplicity is the result of thousands of hours of revision.

Me: Any advice for other aspiring picture book writers and/or illustrators?

Rebecca: Study storytelling and screenwriting! There is a lot of room for different writing and illustrating styles and techniques if they are pulled together by a good story with a strong structure!

Great advice.  Thank you for stopping by Rebecca and sharing your wonderful book with us.

Dear readers, if you haven’t yet had a chance to read this book, I cannot recommend it enough.  I got chills after reading it.  It feels so much like a story reflecting what I see in the world around me and yet I knew how long it must’ve taken for this book to come to fruition.  It couldn’t possibly have predicted 2020 when it was originally created.  And yet … this story feels prescient.  It’s not preachy in any way.  There’s just a subtle nod to children being children that feels a bit close to home these days.  I’m not kidding about those goosebumps.  This is a story you have to read to believe it.  And study it for how it manages to pull all of that off!  This is a book to remember.

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