Oh dear readers, I’m delighted to bring you an interview with both the author AND the illustrator (another two-fer) about a truly wonderful new nonfiction picture book biography. Of course, with the subject of the sea and a female scientist, are you surprised that I was interested?
Evan Griffith is the author of the picture book biography Secrets of the Sea: The Story of Jeanne Power, Revolutionary Marine Scientist (Clarion) and Manatee Summer, a middle-grade novel forthcoming from Harper in 2022. He studied creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and received his MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He worked for five years as an editor at Workman Publishing in New York City, where he specialized in non-fiction for children and adults, and he continues to edit books on a freelance basis. Through his role as the youth programming specialist at The Writing Barn, a creative writing education center, he also teaches online writing classes for kids. He lives in Austin, Texas with a mischievous tuxedo cat and several overflowing bookshelves. You can learn more about him at his website.
His picture book debut, “Secrets of the Sea,” is a beautifully told story about a woman who was determined to discover more about the sea. I can sympathize with her. Once one falls under the ocean’s spell, you are forever her’s. I cannot stop being fascinated with the creatures within its depths, so I definitely felt a kinship with Jeanne Power. She was a French woman who went from fashion designer to scientist. If that wasn’t enough, she would go on to be the inventor of glass aquariums to aid her study of sea creatures. Did you know it was a woman who invented them? This is her story and it’s incredibly well written. This is a picture book biography you won’t want to miss.
Me: You have helped to edit others’ work at Workman Publishing and taught young writers at the Writing Barn. Wow! What is it then that draws you to writing picture books?
Evan: It’s funny—I didn’t exactly set out to be a picture book writer. When I started writing for kids, my focus was on middle-grade and YA novels. But during my time in the Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I was inspired to explore the picture book form, and I quickly fell in love with it. After years of editing nonfiction at Workman, I was also eager to try my hand at writing a true story. So this project formed at the intersection of those curiosities—picture books and non-fiction.
Me: This is your debut picture book nonfiction biography. What was it about Jeanne Power’s amazing story that first grabbed you and drew you to write about it?
Evan: I grew up on the east coast of Florida and have always been intrigued by the ocean and the creatures that live within in, so I immediately felt a connection to Jeanne’s curiosity about the sea. Everything about her story, from the ingenuity of her methods (she was one of the first to design aquariums for the purpose of scientific study) to the perseverance she demonstrated at every turn, inspired me—but the detail of her life that really grabbed me was that she ended up losing quite a bit of her research and specimens in a shipwreck. Losing research about the sea to the bottom of the sea—that was a dramatic hook that I couldn’t resist.
Me: True! Did you have to do a lot of research for this story? Can you tell us a bit about that process for this story?
Evan: I did! I started by reading everything I could find about Jeanne online, but the research process really got underway when I poured through Jeanne’s own writings. She published a travel guide to the island of Sicily, where she lived for many years and conducted most of her research, as well as reports on her scientific observations and experiments. Her writing gave me insights not just into her work, but also her personality and passions—her unbridled curiosity about and love for the natural world shines through on every page. For a fuller picture of Jeanne’s legacy, I also corresponded with scientists, historians, and journalists who are familiar with her life and work. They were all very generous with their time and knowledge, and were willing to read drafts of the text and offer suggestions and fact-checking.
Me: Wow! That’s amazing. As a teacher of writing, I’m sure you have all sorts of tips that you’ve learned over the years. Can you tell us about your writing process? What does it look like?
Evan: I’ve certainly been exposed to a lot of writing advice—though I don’t always live by it! While I wish I had a firmer writing routine, my daily schedule now as a freelancer can be quite varied; sometimes I find myself writing first thing in the morning, other times it’s at night before bed.
For fiction, I tend to do some exploratory writing as soon as I get an idea—I’ll play with a character, a situation, a theme, to see if the idea has legs. If it does, I then do a bit of outlining, or loose plotting, so that I have a roadmap for where to take the idea.
It looks a little different for nonfiction, which generally begins with research. I want to make sure that I’m passionate enough about the topic to write about it and share it with the world; if the research sustains my interest and enthusiasm, that’s a good sign. Then I think about whether there is a satisfying narrative to be drawn from the research, one with dramatic twists that will make it read like compelling fiction. Once I’m confident that it’s a story I want to tell—and that it’s a story that can be told in an exciting way—I start writing… and rewriting… and rewriting…
Me: Joanie Stone’s illustrations in this book are absolutely perfect. Did you communicate with her at all during the creation of them? Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Evan: Her illustrations are incredible! And full of fun details. For instance, Jeanne once brought a tortoise into her house in Sicily to study it, and it ended up becoming something of a beloved pet. While I only mention the tortoise in passing in the text, Joanie included a tortoise in several of her illustrations. It’s so cute, but also a nod to aspects of Jeanne’s work that there wasn’t as much room for in the text. While I didn’t communicate with Joanie directly during the bookmaking process, it still feels like a true collaboration, and we’ve been in touch more recently to celebrate the final product. I can’t imagine a better illustrator for this book.
Me: Any advice for other new picture book writers?
Evan: This isn’t necessarily specific to picture book writers, but I think one of the best things you can do is build a community of fellow writers who support one another throughout the writing and publication process. I’ve found it helpful to form a small critique group with a few close writer friends—they read early drafts of my work. I made a lot of my connections through my MFA program, but that’s far from the only route. There are lots of organizations, from SCBWI to The Writing Barn (where I work part-time!), that foster creative communities.
Me: Jeanne was both determined to get her work out into the world and a fighter. She wasn’t about to let her work go unrecognized in the male dominated field of science where others tried to take credit for her work. Do you consider yourself as determined as her? What would you fight for and stand your ground over?
Evan: Wow! Well, I’d certainly like to think I approach my life with a lot of determination, though I shy away from drawing a comparison between Jeanne and myself. She was really remarkable in terms of her energy, enthusiasm, and all she accomplished.
I likely won’t change the world with any scientific discoveries, but there are many things that ignite my passion and curiosity—as this book demonstrates, I love to learn about animals and the natural world, for instance, and to share what I learn with young readers.
I’m also very passionate about speaking candidly and hopefully about mental health and emotional wellbeing to kids (this is more evident in other stories I’m working on right now).
In both my nonfiction and fiction, I often find myself writing stories I would have loved—or needed—when I was growing up. I guess the hope is that there are kids out there who will love and need these stories, too.
Great answer. Thank you for stopping by Evan. But wait, dear readers! There’s more! I was also able to interview the very talented illustrator of this book.
Joanie Stone was born and raised in Virginia, where she still lives today with her husband and young daughter. She spends her days working in her light filled studio in the country, surrounded by nature. She has a love for all things vintage, especially children’s book illustration, advertising and fashion from long ago. She hopes her illustrations will inspire kids to pick up a pencil and create their own worlds through stories and art. You can learn more about her at her website.
Joanie: Hi Jena, thank you so much for featuring me on Simply 7!
Me: You’re welcome! What was your artistic journey? When did you start creating art work?
Joanie: Probably like most artists out there I have been drawing since I was a young kid. Whenever we got to create art in school, those were my best days. I have a distinct memory of when I knew that being an artist was the life for me. I was 11 years old and playing in my room pretending that I was a Disney animator. (Aladdin had just come out and I was obsessed with it!) I would draw page after page of Disney characters referencing them from books I had, the back of VHS cases, anything I could find and I spent the entire day just drawing, so happy and in the ‘flow’. I remember showing my parents at the end of the day all those drawings and they were so encouraging and told me how good they were and from that day on I knew I wanted to be an artist somehow. It felt like such an unattainable goal for little 11 year old me but I never let go of that dream and I kept drawing as I grew up.
Me: How did you get into the work of illustrating picture books? Can you tell us a little bit about your journey up to illustrating this book?
Joanie: I hope this will be encouraging for people to know that I didn’t start working professionally as an illustrator until I was 35 years old. I graduated art school and worked for a few years as a web/multimedia designer which I don’t think was the best fit for me. I left that job after I had my daughter and became a stay at home mom. It was during this time that I fell head over heels in love with children’s books since I would read them to my daughter every day.
It was a whole new world of art that was so inspiring to me. It sort of jolted me out of just being a mom for the past year or so and reignited my passion to create art again. I decided I wanted to try and pursue children’s book work so I joined my local SCBWI and began building up a new portfolio of children’s art. I attended a conference and got some feedback on my work for the first time from a professional illustrator and the feedback wasn’t great. It was great in the sense that she was completely honest with me about my work not being up to professional level yet (and she gave me some things to work on) but it kind of crushed me.
However after a few days of feeling discouraged I decided to take her advice and began again and started taking online courses and trying to improve all the while posting my art online. It was about another year and a half of practicing and learning and posting my work online when I decided to submit my portfolio to an agent whom I met through an SCBWI meet and greet. She liked my work but felt my style was too similar to another artist she had just signed and had to pass. It was only a month later when I got an email out of the blue from my current agent with Painted Words saying she found my work online and asked if I would be interested in pursuing children’s illustration. I couldn’t believe it!
What’s interesting is that they also represented the illustrator who gave me that all important critique a few years before. It almost feels like it was meant to be. After about a six month trial run with my agent, I signed with her and have been working steadily illustrating books ever since. It’s been four years now and I still have to pinch myself that I get to do this every day!
Me: That’s amazing! What does your illustration process look like? Do you work digitally or traditionally? HOW did you create such amazing textures in each page of this story?
Joanie: I do all of my work digitally using Photoshop on a Wacom Cintiq. Everything from rough sketches to finished art is done digitally because I love how easy it is to edit and make adjustments while working. The brilliant editor Anne whom I worked with on Secrets of the Sea told me she chose me for this book because of a piece she had seen in my portfolio of a lady in a green dress. She thought the same style would work well for this book and she was particularly drawn to the textures in that piece. So I knew that I wanted to incorporate a lot of varied textures throughout these illustrations. I did this by using a lot of different textured brushes as well as overlaying photographs on top of the illustrations. You can see examples of this on this spread.
I used images of wood grain on the bookshelf, a linen texture on the books, a knit sweater image on Jeanne’s dress, a close up of rope on the plant pot and soap bubbles on the marble floor. I like finding and creating interesting photos of textures to subtly overlay over the illustrations and using them in unexpected ways like the soap bubbles on the floor. I’ve scattered this all throughout the book and I think it created some really interesting effects.
Me: Brilliant! And now that you’ve pointed it out, I can see all of that. I loved how you really brought the character of Jeanne to life. Did you have to do visual research for the time period, costuming, and/or locations? What did that entail?
Joanie: That was a really fun part of illustrating this book, the research into the time period. The fact that it was set in the Victorian era is one of the reasons I was so drawn to this story in the first place. I bought some books all about fashion in this time period, books on antique furniture as well as books about early aquariums and of course a lot of online reference searching as well.
I fell in love with the Victorian style of dress and hairstyles and because Jeanne once worked as a dressmaker I liked to imagine her as a very stylish woman and had so much fun designing her dresses. She has a different dress on each time we see her as well as a few different hairstyles. I love the idea of her not feeling the need to minimize or downplay her femininity in order to be taken more seriously by the men scientists she worked with. I imagine her as very confident and unapologetic in her womanliness and knowing full well that she could be feminine and like pretty dresses and also be intelligent, curious, independent, strong willed and brilliant all at once.
Me: Yes! I love that! Did you also research some of Jeanne’s sketches to include replicas in the book? Or did you just imagine what her sketches and notes would have looked like?
Joanie: The publisher did supply me with a few images of Jeanne’s watercolor studies and some images of her early cage designs which looked to be made with a dipped ink pen to use as reference and I thought they were so beautiful that I wanted to include a nod to them in the book. I tried to create a similar dipped ink pen look on the illustration of the paper nautilus (see image on left).
We wanted to show the paper nautilus here so that the viewer has some idea of what they look like but without spoiling the next spread where we see all the paper nautilus that Jeanne had been hatching swimming gracefully through the water, up close and personal for the very first time. I did the same here (see image on right) in that I wanted to show Jeanne’s work in a way that she would have done it by using her own watercolors as a reference.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in illustrating this book?
Joanie: Previous to working on this book I had illustrated three other books that were similar in that they were all non-fiction biographies of strong women. While I will never ever tire of telling stories of inspiring women I was getting tired of illustrating non-fiction biographies. There is an added layer of the character needing to look like a specific and real person and trying to get a likeness across that I found difficult. I wanted to try some new types of stories and I told my agent that I didn’t want to illustrate any more biographies for a while.
However shortly after that, I got the offer to illustrate Secrets of the Sea. At first I thought, oh no it’s another biography but then I read Evan’s manuscript and none of that mattered anymore. Evan wrote the most beautiful story, I could already see all the images so clearly in my mind through his words and I saw that Jeanne’s story was so full of beauty and wonder and mystery and a real love for nature and science and so many good things all rolled into one.
I went from no longer wanting to do biographies to wanting nothing more than to illustrate this book! I fell completely in love with Evan’s writing and Jeanne’s story in an instant. I don’t think I had ever felt so strongly that I was the right person for a job before. I was surprised how quickly my mind was changed and it just goes to show that you have to keep an open mind.
Me: Absolutely! Any advice for other new picture book illustrators?
Joanie: As an artist it can be all too easy to tie your self identity and self worth to your art. So when someone doesn’t like what you’ve worked hard to create it can feel much more devastating than it is in reality. You can try so hard to be perfect and please everybody that art sometimes becomes a place of stress rather than a place of happiness. It always helps me to remember the simple truth that we are creating art for children.
Remember the way you created as a kid, with fun and playfulness and with zero judgment of whether your drawing was good or not. I try to keep that in the front of my mind in those times when I am feeling anxiety about not being good enough. I love the way that kids are so naturally playful and curious and the lovely, silly way they see the world and I try to approach my work from that same place I did as a little girl.
I think if you create from joy, then it comes across in the work. Remember to not take illustrating so seriously all the time and to have fun and experiment. It’s a balance between a lifetime of hard-earned technical skills with the little kid inside of you that just wants to pull out all the crayons and play.
Wonderful advice. Thank you for stopping by my blog Joanie. Dear readers, I hope these interviews have enticed you enough to want to track down a copy of this book and read it. The writing is captivating and the art work is beautiful. This is a picture book biography to both study and love. I can see it as a permanent addition on my special bookcase. It is a book I want to return to again and again.