Today I get talk with both the author and the illustrator about a recently released picture book.
Gabi Snyder has visited my blog once before, almost exactly one year ago for her author debut picture book. She is a reader, writer, and a lover of chocolate. Gabi lives in Oregon with her family, including one daredevil dog and the cat who keeps everyone in line. You can learn more about her at her website.
LISTEN is her second picture book. It’s all about slowing down to really listen to the things around you, but that’s not all. It’s not just about listening to sound. It’s also about listening to your emotions and listening to your heart. It’s about many different kinds of listening that I’d never really thought of before. And the icing on the cake is the amazing illustration work done by Stephanie Graegin that bring this book to life. She gives it a visual structure that works perfectly with the text by incorporating character and the time arc of a day. This is a book you will want to read to see the perfect marriage of text and illustration, as both are paired so beautifully here.
Welcome back Gabi!
Me: “Listen” is a fun exploration of sounds AND a nonfiction approach to the act of listening. What gave you the idea?
Gabi: Thanks, Jena. I first wrote down the idea for LISTEN on a post-it note and then jotted down some ideas in my writing notebook. I think the initial impulse was to explore, in picture book form, the benefits of listening. I also wanted to capture the sense that the world can sometimes be so filled with noise – both literal and figurative – that it can be impossible to focus or to filter out what’s really important.
In addition, I wrote LISTEN at a time when I was taking a great deal of inspiration from nature walks, paying special attention to the sights, sounds, and sensations on those walks. I was also attending a weekly yoga class and finding that the practice of mindfulness was helping me focus and feel less overwhelmed – a feeling I was especially prone to as a child and still occasionally struggle with as an adult. So I think the text for LISTEN grew from an exploration of the benefits of listening married with the practice of mindfulness.
Me: I love how you focus on listening to sounds in nature, mechanical sounds, people sounds, sounds of words, and even emotions with specific examples. There are all kinds of listening here and you provide a great explanation of them in the back matter. Did you set out to talk about all those different kinds of listening with your beginning idea? Or was it perhaps an editor’s suggestion to include these in the back matter?
Gabi: My first drafts didn’t include the explanations for hearing, listening, and attention that now appear in the back matter, but those early drafts did include listening to a variety of different sounds and tuning in to emotions.
At one point, the text included nonfiction sidebars. But I felt that placement interrupted the flow of the story, so I eventually settled on including that nonfiction text as back matter.
The final text came out of a revise and resubmit (R&R) request from editor Sylvie Frank. She suggested that the text could move from louder sounds to quieter sounds over the course of the story, encouraging the protagonist and the reader to listen more carefully as the story progresses. I think revising in that direction strengthened the story and provided a more powerful arc.
Me: I agree! I’m incredibly impressed that you chose to write this story with the second person point of view. That is tough to pull off successfully, but you do! Was that a choice you made from the beginning? Or did you come to it in multiple revisions?
Gabi: While the story went through dozens of revisions, it was always told in second person point of view. The story’s initial lines came to me in second person and that seemed to fit the gentle and lyrical tone of the story.
Me: This is an incredibly unique picture book. I haven’t seen anything quite like it. The only book slightly similar that comes to mind is “The Sound of Silence” by Katrina Goldsaito which is really more about quiet. That being said, was your book difficult to market? How did you pitch it?
Gabi: I first pitched this book to agents with the following or similar text, “Because of your interest in STEM topics, I think you might enjoy LISTEN. This lyrical 241-word picture book explores the delights and benefits of listening to both the natural world and the people in it. Sometimes in this big, wild world, all you can hear is…NOISE. But if you stop, close your eyes, and listen, you could hear a crow cawing from wire to wire. With back matter that takes a deeper dive into the science behind listening and attention, this text celebrates the act of listening.” I’m so grateful that this story resonated with my agent (Natalie Lakosil) and my editor.
I think the mindfulness component of the story is helpful for marketing because many schools and families are interested in the benefits of mindfulness. Simon & Schuster created some lovely LISTEN mindfulness infographics, including this one:
Me: The illustrations by Stephanie Graegin were absolutely wonderful. They are colorful, playful, and fun! She even creates a progressive timeline that isn’t in the text. Did you have any illustration notes for her or did she create the illustrations on her own?
Gabi: I agree! Stephanie’s illustrations are truly stunning! I did imagine the story following the arc of the day, and I think the text subtly suggests that arc. I looked back at my manuscript and see that I did include a few small art notes suggesting when the child is walking home from school and when she’s reached home. But honestly, I’m not sure those art notes were necessary.
Me: Were there any illustrating surprises for you? Any favorite illustrations?
Gabi: Yes, while I had imagined the setting as a city, I was surprised and delighted by the New York City (Brooklyn, I think) setting. I LOVE the spread with the trees. Stephanie did a lovely job of capturing the movement of the wind through the trees and the swirling leaves.
My favorite illustrations are the final nighttime spreads with the calming and magical warm glow of lamps in windows and streetlights set against a twilight blue. Breathtaking!
Me: Why is listening an important message you want to share with young readers?
Gabi: When the world feels overwhelming, listening and mindfulness can sometimes help. I think there’s an opportunity at those times to pause, close your eyes, and tune in to individual sounds.
I hope the book will provide a model for how to put listening and mindfulness techniques into practice in our daily lives. I also want readers to know that it’s okay to sometimes feel overwhelmed by our big noisy world! Sometimes as a child, or as an adult, you might need to seek a quiet spot to find some solace.
In my opinion, picture books about listening and mindfulness can be a valuable tool at home or in the classroom. And having a variety of books on the topic improves the odds that each child will find a book that particularly resonates with them.
I completely agree. Thank you for visiting my blog Gabi.
Thanks for featuring me in your fabulous Simply 7 blog series, Jena!
But wait! There’s more! I also got to talk with the illustrator!
Stephanie Graegin is the author and illustrator of Fern and Otto, A Story About Two Best Friends and Little Fox in the Forest (one of my personal favorite books!) which garnered four starred reviews and appeared on many Best of the Year lists. She is also the illustrator of many books for children, including You Were the First by Patricia MacLachlan; The Lost Gift by Kallie George; Water in the Park by Emily Jenkins and Peace Is an Offering by Annette LeBox. Stephanie lives in Brooklyn, New York. Visit her at graegin.com.
Me: What was your artistic journey? When did you start creating art work?
Stephanie: I’ve been creating artwork since I was old enough to hold a crayon. As a kid I loved making little books out of stories I wrote. When I was eight, I wrote and illustrated a book called The Magic Bats about a beaver baseball team. It won an Indiana Young Author’s award, and I got to attend an author’s luncheon with other kid winners. That made me think that someday I could be a ‘real’ book illustrator/author.
For college, I went to The Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) where I majored in Fine Art. I made a lot of artist’s books that were really just small edition, handmade children’s books. They were all made using some fine-art printmaking medium, like etching or screen print. I found I loved the medium of printmaking so that I was compelled to try to do more with it, so I ended up attending the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn where I received my Masters in Printmaking.
Me: You have had several books published as either an illustrator of others’ work or an author illustrator now. 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?
Stephanie: Like I kind of hinted, my wanting to illustrate is really founded in my childhood —I mean can you think of a cooler thing to do as a grownup? So, after I finished grad school, I felt confident enough to really do it, but I quickly learned my artwork wasn’t yet refined enough. I spent several years just making drawings and watercolors and growing my style and reservoir of work. The major breakthrough happened when I switched from exclusively using pen and ink to using pencil. When I was younger I was smitten with the work of Edward Gorey, so everything I made had to be in black ink. Then it happens that I’m mindlessly doodling with a pencil (like when you’re talking on the phone) and something clicked. These once lifeless characters that I was trying to make with ink, sparked to life when I used a pencil.
Equipped with this new way of approaching drawing, I ended up making little handmade booklets with artwork in this new style, which I then sent to editors and art directors. By some luck, I received positive responses, and my career slowly started to begin. Some of the first illustration jobs I did were for a toy company eeBoo, and for kids magazines.
In 2011, by some extraordinarily amazing luck, literary agent Steven Malk saw my work on Nate Williams’s illustration blog (IllustrationMundo). He reached out to me and I started working with him. Since then my focus has been children’s books. I feel very fortunate to have worked on several titles a year for the last decade.
To jump ahead to the present, when I first read the manuscript for Listen I knew immediately that I had to illustrate it. Gabi’s writing is poetic and gorgeous. I loved how open the writing was, it gives so many opportunities to have a genuine interplay between the words and the pictures.
Me: What does your illustration process look like? How did you create such amazing textures in each page of this story? Is it a blend of traditional media and digital?
Stephanie: Listen was done completely digitally. It’s actually my first book where the entire workflow was digital, save for the initial thumbnail layouts, which are still done on post-it-notes. In the past I used a mix of traditional pencil drawings combined with digital coloring. For Listen, I first made the sketches and then drawings on an iPad with an Apple pencil and a program called Adobe Fresco. I then colored those drawings using Photoshop. I also integrate handmade textures-swatches made with pencil, crayon and watercolor, which are scanned into the computer to get the textures you see.
Me: I loved the variety of characters you put in this book. As far as I can tell they weren’t described in the text. You also created a progressive timeline for this text that didn’t really have a traditional plot. WOW! Were there any art notes? Or did you come up with these on your own? What inspired each character? What inspired the timeline?
Stephanie: The manuscript for Listen did not have art notes on what should be shown, or who the characters were, I love a challenge like that. It’s my favorite kind of book to illustrate! I knew right away the main character should live in a city, where there is a lot of noise. The look and feel of the neighborhood in the book is based on my own neighborhood in Brooklyn. The main character and her family were inspired by my relatives, and my niece in particular.
The timeline came together quite naturally, I could see the girl’s day unfold before me as soon as I read the manuscript. Gabi’s beautiful writing made my job easier!
I sketched out the whole book, then met with editor Sylvie Frank and art director Chloe Foglia to iron out what we would see visually. One of my favorite parts of making children’s books is collaborating with the editor and art director. It’s always both fascinating and exciting to see how ideas and input from others really make the end result of the book so much better. Every children’s book truly is a group effort.
Me: That is SO true! I also absolutely loved the illustration inside the school library and the books you paid homage to via the posters on the wall. How did you decide which books and/or authors to include? Were there ones you wanted to include but couldn’t?
Stephanie: Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad series are my all time favorite children’s books, so I try to add a nod to them when possible, you’ll find them in several books I’ve illustrated.
Super Manny Stands Up, written by Kelly DiPucchio and illustrated by myself has a timely theme of standing up to bullies, it just felt right to be in this school’s library.
Olivia by Ian Falconer is another classic favorite of mine. It’s also an inside nod to my niece Olivia, who inspired the main character’s look in Listen and who is a big Olivia fan.
I chose Another by Christian Robinson because Christian is one of my favorite modern day illustrators; his work is beautiful, joyful and filled with energy and love.
The characters in the book the librarian is holding are Fern and Otto, characters from my latest authored/illustrated picture book, Fern and Otto, A Story About Two Best Friends.
Me: Ha! I love that! What is one thing that surprised you in illustrating “Listen”?
Stephanie: I was surprised at how much I enjoyed drawing the city scenes and all the vehicles. For a long time, I’ve shied away from city scenes. On first thought (at least in my books), they’re hard, angular, impersonal places. Which is why I often place my books in lush, forest settings. Illustrating this book gave me the opportunity to draw cities as I see them, which is an intricate patchwork of families and communities.
Me: Any advice for new picture book illustrators?
Stephanie: Be very open while working on a book. Open to new ideas, open to changes, open to trying new techniques and palettes.
That is wonderful advice. Thank you for stopping by my blog Stephanie!
Dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance yet to check out this book, I highly recommend it. It teach young readers how to calm themselves and listen carefully to the world around them with writing that sings and illustrations that will grab attention. This is a carefully crafted work of art that you won’t want to miss.