It’s the first author AND illustrator interview set of the year!
Lynn Plourde is the author of more than forty children’s books including her first book Pigs in the Mud in the Middle of the Rud as well as Wild Child, Moose, of Course!, At One in a Place Called Maine, Maxi’s Secrets, How to Talk Monster, Best Buddies, and many more. She does numerous in-person and virtual author visits at schools. Lynn grew up in Skowhegan, Maine, and currently lives in Winthrop with her husband. You can learn more about her at her website.
IF YOU WERE MY VALENTINE is a charming picture book all about the love between a parent and child. Or grandparent. This is the perfect gift book for a newborn, a Valentine’s day present, or any time you want to share some love with a little one. The text formula of “If you were my Valentine, I would…” goes from page to page with a variety of animal parents and babies. The illustrations are soft, gorgeous spreads with a bright color palette that ties the whole thing together. And not to spoil anything, but the end note of the text lets this be a story that applies to any time of year (not just Valentine’s day). It’s the perfect combination of text and imagery.
Me: You have written numerous picture books over the years. Can you tell us about your book journey? How did this book come to be published?
Lynn: I have had 42 kids’ books published, mostly picture books. But I have likely written a hundred more than that—they don’t all get published. But I save all the rejected, not-ready-yet manuscripts because maybe someday I will figure out what a story needs to make it work. I tell kids during my school visits that I’m not the best author I can be yet—I’m still learning to become a better one as I read more and write more.
I had thirteen years of rejections before getting a book published. I didn’t give up because I loved the process and found joy in writing new manuscripts. It was like making magic when an idea (the seed for a story) grew into a complete story. I told myself that I would keep writing even if I never had any books published, but then I did! My first book Pigs in the Mud in the Middle of the Rud was published by Scholastic in 1997 and illustrated by Caldecott-medalist John Schoenherr.
Fast forward to 2022 and my forty-second book, If You Were My Valentine published by Little Brown with illustrations by Jennifer L Meyer. This Valentine book is a companion to If I Could Give You Christmas also illustrated by Jennifer. I adored her art in the Christmas book and the way she portrayed the relationships between all the big and little animals. She made me crave more of her art and more of the special relationships between Bigs and Littles so I proposed a Valentine book. The question was where to set the Valentine book which would determine which animals would be included. The Christmas book was set in the northeast, a nod to my home state of Maine. For the Valentine book, I leaped across the country to the northwest so that I could include both land and ocean animals for visual variety and interest. Once I had the location, I researched animals from the northwest while also brainstorming a list of ways we all show love to each other and wrote the manuscript. Jennifer took it from there and brought the animal pairs and their love to life.
Me: Combining an “I love you” picture book with Valentine’s day just seems like common sense. Yet I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done before. What gave you the idea?
Lynn: I think I’ve been more focused on all the ways we show love to each other since I became a grandmother six years ago. Unlike with the hustle-bustle of raising our own kids, I get to pause and live in the moment and be more purposeful with how I spend time and show love with our grandson. Sometimes, it’s playing dress-up and acting silly together. But at the same time, I’m also aware of how love is expressed the same from generation to generation. My dad used to lay down on the floor after a long day’s work and say, “Come and get me” as me and my three siblings would pig-pile on him—and thus the “rustle and tussle and tumble” scene with the big and little cougars in this Valentine book.
Me: This book is very sweet with an incredibly sparse text. What a tough trick to pull off! How many words did the final draft end up with? How many revisions did it undergo to get to this state or was the story this tight from the first draft?
Lynn: It comes in at 200 words, but keep in mind that the five-word phrase “If you were my Valentine” repeats in the fourteen scenes in the book so that counts for 70 of the words. Leaving 130 other words in the book. This book went through five drafts plus a bunch more word tweaks—where the editor and I would change one word here and another there and then some back to the original word until it felt right. Having worked as a speech-language therapist for twenty years and having acted in plays in high school and in college, I’m obsessed with reading words aloud over and over again until they sound just right to the ear. The overall word count did not change much since the “If-then” structure for the book was established from the beginning.
Me: Wow! The text gives no indication of characters or even animals, so I have to ask. Did you have any expectations about what each line of your story was capturing? Did you use art notes at all?
Lynn: Yes, for this book and its predecessor If I Could Give You Christmas, I chose animals for each scene and included art notes for Jennifer. For example, the art note: (chipmunk showing/sharing stash of seeds) went with the text “If you were my valentine, I would share hidden treasures with you,” and the note: (sea otter floating on back holding baby) went with the text “If you were my valentine, I would hold you until you drifted off to dreamland.” But Jennifer came up with all the details in the illustrations, embellishing my words many times over with the art. Plus, Jennifer suggested changing one of the animals. For the “I would make your day sweeter than sweet,” my art note said, (bee making honey), but Jennifer wanted to change it to hummingbirds since they are bigger and visually more interesting. She was right—a great change!
Me: That was a great change! The illustrations by Jennifer L. Meyer are so beautiful! Their layout and design in the book are perfectly paired with the text. Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Lynn: Jennifer L. Meyer’s illustrations are truly beautiful, which I expected after the Christmas book. But what surprised and impressed me was how she used so many Valentine’s colors—all those different shades of pinks and reds. Plus, I love the “I spy” component Jennifer added to the book where she shows animals from scenes before or after the target scene for readers to spy. But most of all, I’m smitten with the human touches Jennifer added to the illustrations—the knit cap on the puffin, the glasses on the gopher, the scarf on the skunk—they add to the playfulness and joy and wonder of the book.
Me: I loved those aspects too! What is your favorite illustration in the book?
Lynn: Gosh, are you only going to let me choose one? I love so many of them but my favorite is the whale scene. I love how the big and little whales are “holding hands” as heart shapes splash up and out of the water and the playfulness of having the little whale swimming with an inner tube. Awwww!
Me: I loved the whales’ fins touching too. Any advice for other new picture book writers?
Lynn: My advice would be to read piles of current picture books to get a feel for what creators are writing and what publishers are publishing now. For example, word counts in picture books are much lower now than they were when first I started writing and likely lower than in the books you remember from your childhood. After you decide what you are going to write about, then play with the words and the story. Don’t worry—no one is going to see it at this early stage. And just like when kids play with toys, there is no right or wrong way to play. So, play and find the joy and the heart of your story. After you write your story, then read it aloud over and over again and find places here and there to polish it and make it better. Add a new ending, a better beginning, find a fresh way of saying something, cut out a bunch of words so the illustrations will be able to carry more of the story. Even better, ask someone else to read it aloud to you so you can listen to it more objectively. Finally, put it away for a month or so and then go back after that month and read it again with fresh eyes and fresh ears. Good luck!
That is great advice. Thank you for stopping by my blog Lynn.
But WAIT, dear reader. There’s more. I’ve also interviewed the amazing illustrator of this book.
Jennifer L. Meyer is an illustrator of many things, a baker of cakes, a reader of manga, a watcher of anime, and a painter nature & myths. She grew up in a military family and currently lives in the southern U.S. where bunnies, lizards, & frogs come by to say hi! She has Illustrated over 20+ books, been featured multiple times in Spectrum: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art, and won two awards from Society of Illustrators West. You can learn more about her on her website or follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
Me: What was your artistic journey? When did you start drawing and/or painting? How did that lead to where you are now as an illustrator?
Jennifer: I actually started in elementary school. I think one of my first drawings for art class was an ink of a big cat (a leopard I believe).
I’ve always wanted to tell my own stories and I love fantasy. I grew up going to RPG conventions, and it’s where I started looking for work. I did art for various RPG books for a bit, then some NDA art for products, art for collectable products (Clout, Bella Sara, Duel Masters), magazine art and covers for comics. I’ve been very grateful for the chance to work on picture books and board books. I enjoy painting and the opportunity to bring happiness to people.
Me: You have worked with Disney Hyperion, Fisher Price, Dark Horse Comics, Macmillan, TOR, and
Little, Brown Young Readers in numerous capacities. How did you first get into the illustrating picture books side of the business?
Jennifer: I got an agent! I went with my agent because I wanted to get into illustrating picture books (a lot of places are closed to direct submissions from illustrators/writers). It took a while to expand the portfolio from RPG/product art to Children’s illustration. I am very grateful to the art directors and editors who took a chance on me (I took a test for the Christmas book and honestly wanted to cry when I got word I was chosen for the book). The time things take in the development pipeline vary, so the first picture book I worked on didn’t come out first (I had 3 picture books come out close to each other).
Me: Oh my gosh. How amazing that they took a chance on you. I love that! Can you talk a little bit about your process for this book? Are you a traditional or a digital artist? Or do you use a blend of both?
Jennifer: A blend of both. I did thumbnails by hand, then color studies in Photoshop. At which point I did drawings in pencil for the final, scanned those in, and sized up the color roughs as a base for the final.
Me: Wow! That’s a lot of work. This isn’t the first collaboration you’ve done with Lynn Plourde. You both also worked on a picture book that came out in 2019 (IF I COULD GIVE YOU CHRISTMAS). What is one thing that surprised you in the process of illustrating this story?
Jennifer: The Christmas story was actually the first picture book I worked on. It really is a less is more approach (more work with space, color, and texture for emotional resonance). Working on the Valentine book happened during the start of Covid transition for the workplace, so most of the surprising moments were from that new reality. I was super grateful that everyone was fun and a delight to work with.
Me: What is one of your favorite illustrations from the book?
Jennifer: Ohhh, interesting question! Hmm…I really love the baby wolf sleeping with the bunnies on the back cover. My favorite pieces to work on were the ones with the morning light on 3 spreads moving between the gopher, across the hummingbirds, and shinning on the chipmunk surprise. I loved working with the soft colors in the puffin piece and the ethereal nature of the elk. For some reason I don’t understand, I like painting green acorns (the chipmunk piece). BUT I probably had the most fun with the back cover, having so many of the animals hang out together.
Me: I love hearing about your work process through your favorites! Any advice for other picture book illustrators?
Jennifer: If your looking to get in, I’d recommend a picture book agent and/or a portfolio with a site like Children Illustrator. Recently I’ve heard art directors and editors are using Instagram, Dribble, and Behance to find talent. People on Twitter and Instagram have been doing a virtual kidlit postcard on the first Thursday of the month. But things have been changing, so joining a community to find up-to-date news is my best suggestion.
Mostly I’d recommend getting a good chair for where you work (i.e., check on your ergonomics), hydrate, and do some exercise (I’m doing ones for my back and arms) so you can keep drawing. It is also good to have a hobby, something to unwind and relax with, when stress rolls up and says hi (and tries to move in). Make sure to do what works for you.
Me: Great advice! Do you have any other projects that you’re currently working on or that we will be seeing in the near future?
Jennifer: I’m currently working on Fight-Bunny. It’s a graphic novel about a very energetic bunny. It’s influence so far is Winnie the Pooh, Family Circus, Looney Tunes (action), and Herbert Paus. I am also doing a cover of Freja for the comic Sword of Freja: Dwarven Heist.
Wow Jennifer. You’re so multi-talented. I can’t wait to see these other projects. Thank you for stopping by my blog.
Dear reader, IF YOU WERE MY VALENTINE is released today! It’s a stunning portrait of love between a wide variety of animal adults and their young. This is a book you don’t want to miss.