This is a banner week! Today I get to share another set of interviews with both the author and the illustrator of a recently released picture book.
Anna Lazowski wrote her first picture book for a class assignment in the sixth grade and has been creating stories ever since. Now an award-winning radio producer, Anna has an MA (Journalism) from the University of Western Ontario and a BFA (Hons.) from the University of Manitoba and is a member of SCBWI. Anna’s debut picture book launched just this week! Her second book, DARK CLOUD, will be published by Kids Can Press in spring of 2023. You can find out more about Anna by following her on Twitter, @anna_lazowski, or on her website, annalazowskibooks.com.
T.REXES CAN’T TIE THEIR SHOES is a hilarious ABC book where animals fail miserably. Each one has a task that is … well, frankly they’re ridiculous. I wouldn’t expect a T.Rex to tie shoes, let alone a narwhal eat nachos. And yet these are tasks that young readers might attempt. Showing them that others fail at what might seem like simple tasks to adults sends the message that it’s okay to make mistakes. This book is both a funny story that will be reread many times, as well as an instructional tool teachers will love as it helps aid a “growth mindset.” Seriously! Have you ever seen a book use “can’t” so many times while it’s actually teaching “go ahead and try it”? It’s a fantastic idea.
Me: “T. Rexes Can’t Tie Their Shoes” is another brilliant ABC picture book! What inspired the idea of using “can’ts” for this genre?
Anna: I couldn’t recall ever coming across a book that has, at least on the surface, a series of negative statements – in this case 26 of them! Most books written for kids frame things positively, and are all about that kind of reinforcement. I thought it would be interesting to write a book that tells kids it’s okay if you can’t do something right away, and that there would be a real value for kids to see animals failing as they try to succeed. So on the surface it might seem like a whole pile of negative statements, but they come together for a pretty positive, funny book!
Me: Absolutely true! How many times had you participated in the Twitter pitch #PBPitch before you reached success with this manuscript? Can you tell us a little bit about your success story with the pitch?
Anna: I drafted the manuscript in January of 2019 and participated in #PBPitch in February with no luck. I pitched this book with the exact same pitch at the event in June, and that’s when it caught the attention of Frances Gilbert at Doubleday. After Frances liked my pitch, she sent me her email address. I immediately sent the query letter and manuscript to her and she responded to let me know she had received it. When I got another email from her about an hour and twenty minutes later I assumed it was going to be a rejection. Instead it was an immediate offer to acquire T. REXES CAN’T TIE THEIR SHOES. This put me in a rather unusual position because I hadn’t told any of my friends or family I was writing picture books, it was something I was doing for myself as a creative outlet. Which means the first time any of them heard about this, it was after I sold my first book!
Me: Wow! That’s incredible. I noticed you chose animals that started with each letter of the alphabet and they tried to do something (while failing miserably and hilariously) that also matched the letter of the alphabet. Was that something you chose to do from the first draft? Or were there a lot of revisions before the final version?
Anna: There weren’t a lot of revisions with the animals before the final version, it was always the intent to have an animal and action that began with the letter being featured. It did make for some fun combinations as I was coming up with possibilities. One I thought was hilarious but didn’t include was “sloths can’t eat soup,” mainly because it wouldn’t make for a very dynamic illustration.
Me: Funny, but I just got an image in mind for that. I love that you start this book off by reassuring young readers that they shouldn’t be frustrated if they can’t do hard things yet, but end with the message that they should keep trying (and trying can be fun). I absolutely adore that your last note is positive back matter with things that each animal CAN do. Why is “keep trying” an important message for you to share with young readers?
Anna: I think it’s an important message for kids and parents. There’s so much pressure on kids to hit certain milestones, and so much stress for parents trying to make sure their kids are meeting all those markers. Looking back, I wish I’d stopped to take a deep breath and realize that if the kid learns to tie their shoes today, or a week from now, in the long run it makes absolutely no difference. And really, we all spend our lives trying and failing at things so why not just acknowledge that nice and early, it feels like a very relatable message.
Me: Again, I agree! The illustrations by Steph Laberis are both amazing and hilarious. Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Anna: There were so many wonderful surprises when I saw Steph’s illustrations. I love the narwhal trying desperately to eat the nacho on its tusk, I adore the bee looking perplexed on the bicycle seat. Then there’s the poor giant T. rex trying so hard to reach his shoelaces… But really, there are so many I could just keep listing pages. I also have a soft spot for the urchins who can’t get their umbrella open.
Me: I love the Narwhal and the Urchins (they remind me of the dust sprites in Totoro). What is your favorite illustration in the book?
Anna: I think it would have to be the final spread where all the animals are helping each other with their challenges to varying degrees of success. I knew I wanted those two pages to tie the book together and Steph did such an incredible job, it’s better than I could have imagined.
Me: Any advice for new picture book writers?
Anna: I know writers and critique groups focus a lot on character, story arc, conflict, tension and all those great things. But the more I write, the more it all comes down to the emotion and how you want people to feel when they read your work. I’m currently mentoring two picture book authors through the WriteMentor program, and when I was sifting through all the submissions for that, the stories that stood out were the ones that made me feel something. I think a lot of the rest can be developed. You can work on character, you can raise stakes, you can amp up tension, but if you can’t connect with the work on an emotional level, it’s not going to stick with you. So my tip would be to think about emotional resonance, if we understand what the character is feeling, rather than just what they’re doing, the story will be stronger for it.
I love that. Thank you for stopping by my blog Anna. But wait, dear readers! There’s more!
Stephanie Laberis is a character designer for animation & kidlit artist living in California. She’s illustrated 38 picture books to date & worked on several animated pre-K series. When she’s not drawing, she’s playing video games, enjoying the company of her cats or volunteering at her local wildlife hospital. You can learn more about her at her website or follow her on Instagram.
Me: What was your artistic journey? When did you start creating art work professionally?
Steph: Great question! I’m one of those artists that started drawing as a really young kid & just never stopped. Drawing has always been a natural expression of myself, not to mention it was just plain fun. I started to think about doing art for a living when I was 13, specifically working in animation & worked my way through art school to get a BFA in illustration. I got lucky & landed an internship at Hasbro as a toy designer immediately after I graduated & from there I’ve been all over the place! I’ve worked as a character designer in animation, a designer for video games, I’ve done licensed artwork for Disney & of course, children’s book illustration. I still work in several of these fields, all at once, so I am grateful for the opportunities & for the variety!
Me: Wow! That’s fantastic. I’m a huge fan of your work. You’ve now illustrated quite a few pictures books that have been published. 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?
Steph: Thank you so much! I got into picture book illustration somewhat late in the game, though honestly it’s never too late to change your career! I was in my mid-30s & left the gaming industry to strike out on my own as a freelance illustrator. And I certainly struck out, at least for the first year. I just didn’t have a big enough client base to support myself.
So, I researched children’s book agencies online & thought I could try to illustrate picture books to supplement my income. I had yet to illustrate a picture book before this, but my friends & peers had been urging me to try for years, so maybe they knew something I didn’t! I sent in a portfolio of my work to a few agencies; like I said, I didn’t have previous book experience, so my portfolio was comprised of animal illustrations I had done for fun over the years (I eventually compiled these illustrations into a self published art book, which I sold in small editions at conventions!)
Thankfully my work resonated with a couple of agencies & I ended up signing with The Bright Agency. Since then I’ve illustrated 38 picture books & I could NEVER have imagined things would take off as they have. So when my agent approached me for T-Rexes, I was over the moon. It was an instant yes from me. Anna’s sense of humor & witty text aligned perfectly with my art style & I felt so lucky to be offered this book! My work is cute & whimsical but I also love to illustrate comedy, which probably comes from my background in animation. So, page after page of adorably funny animals failing at life? Yes please!
Me: What does your illustration process look like? How did you create all of the amazing textures in each page of this story? Is it a blend of traditional media and digital? Or are you strictly a digital artist?
Steph: Though I am trained in traditional media, such as oil paints, gouache, pastels, etc., all of my picture book work is done digitally. I might do the initial thumbnails for spreads in pencil on a paper scrap, but my process is very streamlined on the computer. I do all of the roughs directly on the template that the publisher sends me, then clean up the roughs to color. The textures I use are created from my own library of handmade papers & brush strokes that I scanned into my computer. I use blending layers in Photoshop to integrate these textures into my digital art. I also have a fancy set of digital brushes that look convincingly like traditional media!
While it may seem a little weird to go through extra steps to make work look like it was done traditionally, in the end it saves me massive amounts of time if & when there are revisions to be done. It’s so easy to shift colors, textures or erase elements of the composition when done in layers on the computer. No need to re-paint a tree from scratch when the publisher wants the leaves changed from green to red; it’s just a 10-second adjustment in Photoshop!
Me: I love that! I also loved the variety of characters you put in this book and your sense of humor that is shown in each of their hilarious disasters. Were there any art notes? Or did you come up with these illustrations all on your own from the simple text? What inspired each character?
Steph: Thank you! To be honest, in my entire publishing career, this was the book with the least notes. I can count on one hand how many there were, which, for me, is unheard of. This was especially a surprise because I was given full freedom in terms of the style & many times when I am allowed to “run wild”, I have to be reined in a bit. What I loved about the text is that is was so concise yet left so much open for interpretation, almost like one-liner jokes.
My process went something like this: “Dogs can’t do dishes. Ok, what part of doing dishes is hard for a dog? They don’t have thumbs. They can’t hold things. They can’t wear dish gloves. They can’t use the faucet. They can’t hold dishes.” And in terms of the animal character in this case, I wanted to use a dog breed that sort of also fails at being a dog… No offense to you pug owners out there, I think they’re wonderful, loving little beasts, but they have a hard time being a dog, let’s face it. They can’t even point their eyes in the same direction. So with those elements combined, we get a very enthusiastic pug faced with towers of dirty dishes he can’t possibly clean, as he dispenses soap uncontrollably into a sink with his little paws uselessly covered by oversized dish gloves. The formula I used was basically, “What’s special about this animal? How does the thing that makes them special conflict with what they need to do?”
Me: Brilliant! I love quite a few of your illustrations in this book (from the narwal trying to eat nachos to the owl trying to fold origami). Did you have any favorite illustrations from the book?
Steph: I do! I am there with you on the narwhal! I also have a soft spot for the bee on the bicycle; I feel like this poor bee every time I have to face some scary challenge in my life. Like, I have the tools to get me to the destination, but I just can’t seem to get there.
Me: LOL! I empathize with that. What is one thing that surprised you in illustrating this book?
Steph: I think the ease at which these ideas & scenarios came to me. This book felt like such a natural fit to my sensibilities & taste. There were still challenging moments now course, but this was one of those rare projects where things just clicked immediately.
Me: I can totally see that! Any advice for other new picture book illustrators?
Steph: Take the first few steps. Draw that dummy book, illustrate a couple of scenes, do your research about publishing agencies. For me, finding an agent changed everything; there are certainly illustrators who can find work without representation, but I’ve found that the lion’s share of us do better with an agent who really understands what it is you want to do & keeps your best interests at heart.
And of course, look for kid lit communities online! There are facebook groups, Discord servers, lots of places in which we gather & we are all in different places in our careers. It really helps to find people who are where you find yourself in your own career, & to find others who are where you want to be. The people at your level can provide support, camaraderie, & be a sounding board for your ideas, & the folks who are a little further along can share advice, help you network & help inspire you to keep going.
Absolutely true and great advice! Thank you for stopping by my blog Steph.
Dear readers, if you haven’t yet had a chance to read this book, I cannot recommend it enough. This is one I need to have on my classroom bookshelf. It’s so easy to see mistakes and failure as such horrible things that they can paralyze us from even trying. This book makes them wonderfully entertaining instead. That is something every young reader can get behind. Don’t miss it!