Have you ever been told to smile by a well-intentioned person when you just weren’t feeling it? I have! That’s one of the reasons I loved today’s picture book.
Skylaar Amann has visited my blog once before with her author-illustrator debut. She is a children’s author and illustrator specializing in ocean, nature, and science stories. She is also a member of SCBWI and Women Who Draw, as well as an affiliated artist with Climate Science Alliance! You can learn more about her at her website. You can also follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
SMILE, SOPHIA is her second author-illustrator picture book that has been released into the world. In this story a little girl named Sophia is told by several adults in her life to smile, but Sophia has better things to do. She is MUCH more interested in dinosaur bones and digging in the dirt. This is a well-developed character who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to do it or say it. She will smile in her own good time when she’s ready. Even better? There are science goodies hidden all throughout the book about paleontology. I love that!
Welcome back Skylaar!
Me: “Smile, Sophia” is both about paleontology and being ourselves. What gave you the idea to combine both of those things into a picture book?
Skylaar: I love paleontology, fossils, and bones—probably from growing up on the Oregon Coast, where it was easy to foster my love of discovery and the natural world just by going down to the beach. And I’ve been told to smile A LOT in my life, which I don’t like at all! I wanted to create a story about a girl with a deep passion and rich world, so Sophia is on a quest to find a specific dinosaur bone. I thought the juxtaposition of that intense scientific interest against people’s obsession with appearance and smiling was interesting—like there’s a lot we can miss if we focus on outer appearance only.
Me: There are lots of little tidbits hidden in the pictures. I love that there’s back matter about each of them, almost like a hide-and-seek puzzle. Did you think about that before you created your first dummy for the story? Or did that part of the story evolve over time?
Skylaar: Thank you! That was a really fun part of the book to create and integrate, and it developed later, after the text was done. I knew I wanted to incorporate a lot of easter eggs, so to speak, like a poster of Darwin and certain fossils, into the story pages. When we were designing the book, the team at Feiwel & Friends suggested adding some dino facts in the back, and I mocked up some sketches and we took it from there.
Me: There are plenty of well-meaning people in Sophia’s life who tell her to smile. How did you decide who those people would be without making them seem too villainous?
Skylaar: Ooh that’s a good question! It was easier to make them non-villainous in the text than in the drawings. I guess I have a tendency to draw scarier- or meaner-looking faces when a character is doing something I don’t like, so that was something I needed to pull back on for the art. I think the grown-ups are more clueless about how rad Sophia is and what’s important to her, rather than truly villainous. So making them less “bad” was probably the right way to go! Hopefully the adults in her life can learn to approach those situations a little differently.
Me: Just like your first picture book, this book tells a story AND teaches about an aspect of science. Do you like including real facts in your fiction? Why is that important to you?
Skylaar: Yes! I love including science and factual info in my stories, and I think the sweet spot for me is to stick to fictional narrative and weave the science stuff in (rather than writing nonfiction, for example).
I think this also ties back to growing up on the Oregon Coast with easy access to the beach, tide pools, and a free science center (The Hatfield Marine Science Center). Free activities were a big part of my childhood, and getting to explore the rocky shore, the forests, and the beaches instilled a big love of the natural world in me. I even found occasional fossils on the beach, which was the start of my love of paleontology. It just feels like a natural fit for me to include those topics in my stories. And now, with climate change being a more serious issue than ever, I think sharing the importance of our natural world with young readers is important.
Me: How much research did you have to do on the real facts included in the book and the back matter? Can you talk about that process a bit?
Skylaar: A lot of the things in the back matter I had a decent working knowledge of beforehand, and I had already drawn sketches of them into the story pages. So I knew roughly what I wanted to include in the back matter and a little bit about each thing. But I did some fact-checking on trusted science websites and in encyclopedias to ensure I was getting numbers right. One thing about science is that with more research and information, our understanding of the fossil record can change, which makes me nervous that info could be out of date fast—I just hope the professional paleontologists go easy on me!
Me: Were there any challenges for you in creating the art for this book? Anything that surprised you?
Skylaar: The biggest challenge was probably just taking (and finding) the time to work everything up to the level of detail I wanted, thanks to including all those little items and tidbits here and there. I also wanted to make sure I got Sophia’s facial expressions and poses right so that the images of her during the conflict and resolution would feel intentional and more powerful.
Me: Any other projects we can look forward to from you in the future?
Skylaar: Yes! My next picture book is called Everybody Needs a Hole in the Ground, and it’s slated for 2024, also from Feiwel & Friends. That story is about a girl who needs to take some alone time to decompress, and her friend who tries to balance helping her and giving her space.
Ohhh! That sounds like a good read. Thank you for stopping by my blog again Skylaar.
Dear readers, this picture book released just this Tuesday. If you haven’t had a chance yet to track it down, don’t miss it. Sophia is such a plucky character obsessed with dinosaurs. She is happy just the way she is and she doesn’t have to smile unless she really wants to. Young readers will love getting to know her.