Did you know that May is Celiac Awareness Month? I didn’t until I read today’s fantastic picture book.
Abigail Rayner was born in England where they have lots of history and rain. When she grew up, she became a reporter and moved to New York, where she was encouraged to write stories, but not the made-up kind. These days she lives in New Jersey with her wonderful husband, brilliant kids, ridiculous dogs, and a neurotic cat. You can learn more about her at her website.
VIOLET AND THE CRUMBS: A GLUTEN FREE ADVENTURE tells the story of a young girl who is tired of explaining to others (who are just trying to be helpful) why she can’t participate in eating at birthday parties or school potlucks. She bottles a lot of her anxiety inside until it all comes pouring out. This book is educational, as well as a story. I didn’t know half of the things that this story explained. It helps young readers to understand and respect the differences of others. This is a book that I think it will be a perfect addition to my classroom’s reading.
Me: You have previously published two other picture books. What is it that draws you to writing them?
Abigail: Probably my love of kids and my very clear memories of being one. Childhood is tough, and I want to be a friend, make kids laugh and feel seen. Picture books are all about connection. That’s the draw for me.
Me: I haven’t seen many picture books out there about celiac disease, which is surprising considering the growing number of kiddos that have to deal with it. What inspired this story?
Abigail: You’re right—most people who have celiac don’t know it, but that is changing as awareness grows and diagnostic methods improve. Also, celiac is triggered by a virus, and I hear that Covid-19 is causing a spike in cases. My daughter inspired this story. She was diagnosed with celiac a few days before her eighth birthday—that was a really fun party, I can tell you!
Me: Oh no! I’m so sorry to hear that. This book is written about kiddos dealing with Celiac Disease, but I think it’s also written for the kiddos that are unaware of what it is. Why do you want to share this information with young readers?
Abigail: You are absolutely right. What surprised me most about my daughter’s diagnosis were the psychological side effects. The sheer range of foods she couldn’t eat either because they contained gluten, or had touched gluten, meant there were myriads of ways she was left out. I went hoarse explaining to other parents that, no, she wouldn’t have an allergic reaction, but actually, yes, her disease was still very serious. For my daughter, the disappointments were endless, and I watched her face fall so many times. They say food brings people together, and that’s true, unless you have an allergy or celiac, and then it excludes. But if people take the time to listen and learn, if they truly understand all the ins and outs, then I find they are very interested and want to help—especially kids.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Abigail: Honestly, I can’t think of anything that surprised me. I had been living and breathing this disease for about five years when I started writing the book. Hopefully, it will be other people who are surprised. I like to imagine little lightbulbs going on every time someone picks up the book.
Me: What does your writing process look like? What habits have you created for yourself?
Abigail: My process involves trying to squeeze in some writing whenever I can! I do prefer to write in the mornings, but that’s not always possible. I jot down ideas on the go and it’s usually the excitement about an idea that eventually forces me to sit down and write.
Me: The illustrations by Molly Ruttan are pitch perfect for your story. I loved the textures and expressions of the characters! You worked with her on one of your previous books too. Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Abigail: Well, Molly is full of surprises—wonderful, creative ones. My collaboration with Molly has itself been a surprising gift. I love the illustrations in both books. One delightful surprise I just noticed was that Eliza from I Am a Thief! makes an appearance in Violet and the Crumbs. See if you can find her!
Me: How fun! Any advice for other new picture book writers?
Abigail: A lot of things can get in the way of writing. A baby who does not nap is an excellent example, a child who needs a sandwich, a husband with selective hearing, a cat with a bird in its jaws, and of course, not being a man. Most of the time you must suck it up. Lean in to all those distractions because they are the stuff of life. Take lots of mental notes, and know that in time, you will write all the stories.
That’s good advice. Thank you for visiting my blog Abigail.
But wait, dear readers! There’s more! We also get to talk with the illustrator today.
Molly Ruttan grew up in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, and eventually attended the Cooper Union School of Art in New York, to graduate with a BFA in Graphic Design. After college she moved to Los Angeles, where she established a career as a Magazine Art Director, Graphic Designer and Illustrator. After taking a night class at Art Center in Pasadena with Marla Frazee, she had the great fortune of winning of an Illustration Mentorship at the 44th Annual SCBWI Conference in Los Angeles. Within two years she had acquired her wonderful agent Rachel Orr at Prospect Agency, who arranged her first book deal, THE STRAY, with Nancy Paulsen Books, in a matter of days. A lifelong dream came into being in a whirlwind! You can learn more about her at her website.
Me: What was your artistic journey? When did you start drawing or painting? How did that bring you to where you are now?
Molly: I have a twin sister, and we both started drawing when we were very young. We would spend hours drawing & creating stories together on the same piece of paper instead of playing with dolls or plushies. At one point my mother called in a child phycologist because she was so worried about this unusual behavior. The phycologist took one look at what we were doing and told her to leave us to it! We also illustrated little books made out of folded paper.
At first, before we could write, my mom would write in the words; then as we got older, we wrote them in ourselves. Fast forward— we attended art school (The Cooper Union, in New York). After we graduated I started a career in graphic design, while continuing to paint and draw on my own. (My sister works as a painter for Sony Animation.) Some years later, I re-discovered charcoal and fell in love with it! Soon charcoal-based pieces took over my portfolio, which up until then were mostly liquid-acrylic paintings. I had become proficient in photoshop while working as a graphic designer, so combining the two seemed natural.
Me: You have had several books published as either an illustrator of others’ work or an author illustrator. 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?
Molly: When my kids were in high school and college, I finally felt I had time to seriously pursue my desire to create children’s book, which I had wanted to do since I was a kid! I took a night class at Art Center College of Design which was being taught by Marla Frazee, and she changed my life. She lit a fire in me that I had forgotten was there. I would cry in the car driving home from her class, with the sheer emotion of a person remembering why they were born and realizing that maybe it wasn’t too late.
SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Books Author & Illustrators) also played a huge part. My portfolio was one of six winners of an Illustration mentorship at a Summer Conference, and later I met my agent Rachel Orr at a regional SCBWI Agents Day Conference. Rachel sold my debut author/illustrated book “The Stray” shortly after I signed with her; followed closely by NorthSouth Books seeing a promo piece I had made and inquiring about my availability to illustrate “I Am A Thief!” — my and Abigail’s first book together. I loved working with Abigail so much, and I love her writing, so I was absolutely thrilled beyond measure when our editor offered me her next manuscript!
Me: Aww! I love that. 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?
Molly: Thank you! — Yes, I my technique is a collaboration between traditional media and digital! I work traditionally with charcoal and pastel on watercolor and other papers, using charcoal pencil for the drawings, pastels for the basic color palette, and charcoal for the gradation, shading and textures. Sometimes I also create liquid acrylic washes and textures, or I’ll find textures, like an old piece of cardboard. I scan everything and continue by compositing & painting in Photoshop. I draw upon a painting technique called “glazing”, which I use when I work with oils and liquid acrylics — it’s essentially the process of applying many thin layers of translucent paint. I do the same thing digitally by using many layers of scanned-in texture and color. For this book I wanted the texture to be particularly rough and splotty in places, to emulate the feeling of crumbs.
Me: I also absolutely loved the end papers you created about grains. Did you have to do a lot of research to get all the details right? Or was this information Abigail Rayner provided with the manuscript?
Molly: Thank you again! I knew from the beginning that Abi intended to have back-matter. Originally we had one page for “About Celiac disease”, one page for a recipe and one page for information about grains. When I approached the grains page, I felt it would be fun and interesting — and even important — to see pictures of all the foods and grains that were listed. So yes, I did a lot of research, but it was all self-inflicted! I had to rely heavily on the internet, as the country was shut down due to the pandemic at this point. I spent several weeks researching and looking at hundreds and hundreds of images. When my editor saw my sketches, (which had all the food & grain illustrations small and crammed to fit on one page) she suggested we would keep the “About” page, drop the recipe, and spread the grain information out across the two end-page spreads. I loved this idea!
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in illustrating this book?
Molly: One of the most surprising discoveries I made when I read the manuscript for the first time was when Violet discovers that ducks shouldn’t eat bread. There is a park with a lake near my house, and my kids and I spent their childhood feeding the ducks bread! I had to immediately research seagulls, as they were another bird we would feed bread to regularly. Turns out bread isn’t good for them, either! We had always kept a bread bag we’d put all the old crusts and stale ends in for our next excursion…it blew my mind and filled me with despair that this had been harmful for them. Never again!
Me: Oh no! At least you know now. What is one of your favorite illustrations from the book?
Molly: Oh, every illustration in the book has some favorite part in it, for me… but I guess if I had to pick, I would say the one at the beginning, with the close-up of all of the crumbs. It was one of the first spreads I did when I was exploring the idea of showing the crumbs as characters, and it informed how I approached the rest of the book. Bringing them to life freed me to let them run loose! I could make them battle soldier cells in Violets stomach and run around like ants at a picnic. Also, as I have learned from Abigail, explaining your child’s long-term serious medical condition that essentially has no immediate symptoms can be challenging. Our decision to illustrate crumbs as annoying little critters put a face (or many little faces!) on the problem and created a more engaging nemesis. I am hoping that the critter-crumbs will help readers understand—in a light-hearted but serious way—the real-life difficulties that people with Celiac Disease are up against, and how people can help. I also had a lot of fun drawing them!
Me: That’s a great idea! Any advice for other new picture book illustrators?
Molly: I would not be where I am today if it were not for my very active and engaged critique group, (which started as a class). We meet every week (on zoom) and keep each other going with our projects. If you don’t have one, find one, and engage! And on that note– I’m a huge proponent of celebrating the success of friends. I believe that if the people you know, (like your friend group or your critique group) start experiencing the kind of success you want, you are in the right place! What you are doing is energetically in harmony with what they are doing. So celebrate them—it’s just a matter of time before it’s you!
And by all means join SCBWI, if you haven’t already! Explore everything they have to offer. They are a wonderful, invaluable organization!
That’s great advice Molly. Thank you for stopping by my blog today.
Dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance yet to track down this book, you may want to consider doing so as it’s a terrific read. Better yet, you might be able to win a copy today. That’s right! One lucky winner will win a copy of VIOLET AND THE CRUMBS. Just enter the Rafflecopter here!