It’s another interview with both the author AND the illustrator of the picture book today as part of their blog tour.
Today’s interview is part of a grand blog tour for ALPHABEDTIME. If you want to learn more, be sure to check out the other visits. The blog tour linktree can be found here.
Susanna L. Hill has visited my blog a couple of times. She first visited during a blog tour for her cute board book series and then to talk about her Trucks board book. She is the author of three New York Times bestsellers, including Moon’s First Friends: One Giant Leap for Friendship, and the award-winning author of over twenty-five more books for children, including Punxsutawney Phyllis, Can’t Sleep Without Sheep, and the popular When Your Lion Needs a Bath series. Her books have been translated into French, Dutch, German, Japanese, Chinese, and Thai. She does frequent school and library visits, teaches picture book writing, and has a popular picture book blog. Susanna lives in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley where she practices the alphabet with her children and two rescue dogs. You can learn more about her at her website or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
ALPHABEDTIME is a concept bedtime story that is both clever and adorable. There are 26 little kiddos (can you even imagine having 26 kids?) and each one is an alphabet letter with personality and flair. Mama says it’s bedtime and 26 toddlers start their fights or routines. Young readers will love tracking their favorite letter/kiddo throughout the book to see what they do. This is a very smart introduction to the alphabet with plenty to see, as well as a fun bedtime read.
Welcome back Susanna!
Me: What gave you the idea to combine bedtime with the alphabet?
Susanna: I found myself writing an alphabet book because I couldn’t think of anything else to do that day, and when I squared off with the blank page it was definitely winning. “Haha!” said the Blank Page. “I am still naked as the day I was born er, came off the paper making machine!” “Bully for you,” I grumbled, and wrote all the letters of the alphabet on it, just to prove I wasn’t totally out of the fight. “There is not one single word on me,” the mostly Blank Page taunted. “There is too,” said I, determined not to be bested. “I is a word!” The Page did not judge that worth a reply. So, I wrote “alphabet alphabet alphabet.” Take that, Page! I read what I’d written out loud to myself: “Alphabetalphabetalphabet…” and it started to sound like Alphabed. Which made me think of bedtime. And suddenly, I knew I had an idea. Put the alphabet to bed! ALPHABEDTIME!
Me: LOL! That is the best origin story I’ve heard yet. Did your original concept involve animated alphabet letters or alphabet children?
Susanna: I was thinking of alphabet letters that looked like children, if that makes sense. I thought they’d have arms and legs and eyes and hair and maybe clothes or maybe they’d just be all different colors and patterns. But I LOVE them as children!!! It’s SO much better!
Me: I agree! It should come as no surprise that this is an incredibly succinct manuscript, given your Halloweensie and Valentiny short writing contests. How many words long is it? Was this story always this brief, or did it undergo many revisions?
Susanna: It was always short, but it did start out longer, and it did undergo MANY revisions for a multitude of reasons. I initially had qualifiers on a lot of the letters – Acrobat A and Clown-around C, for example – and I tried a few versions with different categories of qualifier (circus, kids’ favorites like firemen and construction workers, etc.). But I didn’t like how that felt, so in the end, I cut nearly all of them. I think the IJK page is the only one left that includes any. This was partly because I didn’t think they made sense with the story and mostly because I wanted the eventual illustrator to have room to be creative and do what she wanted. The story is about 240 words, of which 26 are just the letter-names of the kids and another 52 are chanting through the alphabet in two different places. I think the original version was in the 300-350 range. And it may be a surprise to you, but it’s taken me a long time to get succinct. 🙂 The stories I wrote when I was starting out routinely topped 2000 words! 🙂
Me: With repeated recitations of the alphabet, did you worry about read-aloud-ability when you wrote the original manuscript? Or were you more concerned with rhyme and meter?
Susanna: The first recitation of the alphabet is done by introducing all the kids, so it’s broken up by story (e.g. “We’re not sleepy!” sing A, B, C. D and E chant, “Neither are we!”) The other two recitations come at sort of high moments in the story action and I saw them as ways to encourage kids to join in with the reading as well as practice the alphabet. I hope that doesn’t make it hard to read! I did worry a little over the meter in the W, X, Y and Z part. It feels like it could read a little off if you’re not paying attention, or on a first read. But I think it’s natural to pause a little – W, X (pause) Y and Z – and if you do that it works out fine. 🙂
Me: There are a lot of subtle details in this story that are contained within the illustrations. Did you include any art notes for the illustrator? Or did you leave most of the illustration choices up to Betsy Snyder?
Susanna: I left ALL the illustration choices up to Betsy! And I was absolutely right to do so! Just look how it turned out! 🙂 I trusted Nancy (Paulsen) to choose the right artist for the book. I knew she and I had a similar vision and I knew she would choose someone who would bring that to life. And I couldn’t have asked for a better illustrator for this story than Betsy! As someone who has read a LOT of books to a lot of children, I know that youngest readers love to have a lot to look at on the page. Betsy has given them so much to see. And for parents and teachers looking for ways to make the read a little educational, there are many things beginning with each letter to practice on. B for example (Spoiler Alert if you want to look at the book and find them for yourself first) 🙂 is Blond, has Bangs, Braids, a Beret, and a Bear, is wearing (color) Blue, Blue jeans, and Boots, and has letter B on her!
Me: The illustrations by Betsy Snyder are wonderful. There are SO many things to keep track of and she included so many brilliant details (that can be missed at first glance if you’re not really looking). Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Susanna: For me, the surprise was only that she had included so much, and been so thoughtful in all her choices. It was the best kind of surprise. 🙂 There is no doubt that kids will have tons of fun looking at these pictures. I feel like every time a look through them I find things I didn’t see before. But one of the things I love, which I only noticed after MULITPLE readings, was that on the dedication page, the letters in the alphabet soup are all our children’s initials (and in my case grandchildren’s also) that had been listed in the dedication. Now THAT is thoughtful detail!
Me: I love that! There are 26 different and distinct children in this story. Do you have a favorite? Or do you have a favorite illustration?
Susanna: All the characters are amazing, but my favorite is Baby Z. 🙂 I love him, and his zebra, and how he is always with the dog. On the toothbrushing page, the dog is holding the toothbrush in his mouth so that Baby Z can squirt the toothpaste on – so cute! As for a favorite illustration, that is SUCH a hard choice! They are all so good. I love the bathtub page (which might be a kid favorite), and the jammies and stories page and the climactic moment page. (I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it yet!) They are all so bright and lively and full of fun and energy. But, as a mom and grandmom, I might love the last two pages best, where they’re all tucked in bed, each still clearly him or herself, clutching their loveys (again, so many wonderful details!), curled or sprawled in sleep the way only kids can manage to make sleep look like something they’re doing hard even though they’re completely and totally relaxed, and the one time of the day when they hold still long enough for you to look at them – really look at them – for as long as you want, so you can linger over all their sweet perfection (and beloved imperfection). And in the same way, those last two pages bring the boisterous story down to starlight and quiet and sleep. . . before it all begins again tomorrow. 🙂
What a great way to describe the whole book. Thank you for stopping by my blog on your book birthday Susanna.
But wait, dear readers! There’s more! I also interviewed the illustrator of this fantastic picture book.
Author-illustrator Betsy Snyder’s smile-inducing art can be found on everything from social expressions products, board games, plush, decor, fabric, wallpaper, and of course—books! Since making her publishing debut, Betsy has illustrated and/or authored over twenty books. Betsy lives in northeast Ohio, where she enjoys cozying up to doodle with her art-loving family of four (plus one furball puppy), and venturing out to schools and libraries to encourage kids (and even grown-ups) to share their stories and chase their dreams. Learn more about Betsy and her books at her website or follow her on Twitter or Instagram.
Me: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? What was your artistic journey? When did you start creating art work professionally?
Betsy: English and Art were always my strengths and favorite subjects growing up. I ultimately knew I wanted to pursue an art-related career, but I wasn’t sure exactly what that would be. I studied art at the University of Dayton, beginning as a fine arts major with the intent of becoming an art therapist. But that didn’t feel like quite the right fit for me. An advisor suggested I try an Illustration course, and I was hooked—it was actually what I wanted to do all along. So, I shifted my major to Visual Communication Design, concentrating in Illustration, with the hope that someday I would get my own children’s book published. But I knew I wasn’t ready for that step yet.
After graduation, I sought jobs with the potential of gaining more children’s illustration experience, working first as a staff designer at a small publisher and later as a designer, illustrator and juvenile trend consultant at American Greetings. I loved being in such a creative workplace, surrounded by so much talent! I also pursued freelance work to further hone my style and build my portfolio. One project was a 12’ long scenic wallpaper border with a fairy tale theme, which was valuable experience because it was similar in scope to a children’s book.
Me: Wow! How did you get into the work of illustrating picture books? How did your artistic journey bring you to illustrating this book?
Betsy: Around 2005, I felt more ready to make the leap into publishing, and began to shift my energies in that direction. As luck would have it, an opportunity found me. Brian Cleary, an editor and coworker at American Greetings, who was also a published author, had a new manuscript that needed an illustrator. He introduced me to his publisher Lerner Books, I shared my portfolio and was soon offered a contract to illustrate Brian’s book Peanut Butter and Jellyfishes: A Very Silly Alphabet Book. Negotiating that contract led me to my agent Lori Nowicki at Painted Words. It wasn’t long before I had multiple book contracts to both illustrate and write, and it was time to make publishing my full-time gig. It was a big, serendipitous chain reaction and an exciting time!
When my agent shared Susanna’s manuscript for Alphabedtime, it was love at first read. (Clearly I can’t resist a good alphabet book!) I really fell for the playful rhyme, bouncy rhythm, and winning mash-up of evergreen themes—bedtime AND the alphabet. And as much as Susanna put in to her story, I also appreciated what she left out—she allowed so much open space to layer on my own vision and create a strong visual narrative with lots of fun alphabet-y references.
Me: You really did add a LOT to this book. What does your illustration process look like? Is it a blend of traditional media and digital? Or are you strictly a digital artist?
Betsy: I think of my final art as a digital collage. I use my sketch as a template in Adobe Photoshop, drawing all my flat shapes and working out basic color. Then I use my shapes as a mask, pasting inside hand-painted, computer-generated, and found textures and patterns. I add details with various Photoshop brushes, keeping a custom set of brushes specific to each project to help my technique feel consistent throughout. My completed art is digital, but I strive for a handmade feel that feels a bit quirky and imperfect.
Me: I loved the variety of characters you put in this book and all the tiny details with each one (also alphabetical!). Were there any art notes? Or did you come up with these human characters (not animated letters!) all on your own from the simple text? What inspired each character?
Betsy: I don’t think there were any art notes in the manuscript I worked with, and nothing specifying what the characters would look like. Susanna intentionally left a lot of room for interpretation. I initially envisioned animated letterforms (anthropomorphic letters with faces, arms and legs), but I explored a variety of directions early on, and we landed on kid characters with letters on their shirts and pajamas, like mascots for each letter. I felt a little (actually, a lot) out of my comfort zone when faced with SO much character development, but I trusted the experience would make me a better illustrator in the end.
I wanted each character to have its own style and personality inspired by their particular letter. Early on, I created different alphabetical word lists—animals, physical attributes, clothing, accessories, personality traits—and used these as inspiration for my characters. Representing a diverse family was also important to me, so I put careful consideration into choosing a mix of kids that felt balanced and inclusive. I hope every child can see someone or something in the book that reminds them of themselves.
Me: How in the world did you keep 26 little kiddos consistent in the illustrations for this book? Did you have a list of what each one looked like and what toys they had (etc.)? How did you keep track of them all from page to page?
Betsy: Phew! It sure wasn’t easy to keep tabs on 26 kiddos (plus outfit changes, 2 parents and 11 pets)! The characters come together in so many different ways that it was a lot to balance and juggle. Consistency was a huge challenge—every time I made a change to a character in one place, I had to go back and make that edit throughout.
To help me choose a cast of 26 and assign their letters, I cut each of my character sketches out so I could freely move them around and play with the order. When I was happy with the balance of genders and appearances, I taped them onto a larger sheet of paper, and that became my go-to for all 26 letters. As I worked on color and final art, I created a master file for each character to further help with consistency. But no matter how much I planned, there were still some places where I needed to do some swapping around later on, especially with color. It was a giant puzzle!
Me: Oh my gosh. I can only imagine! What is one thing that surprised you in illustrating this book?
Betsy: Susanna and I did not get to know each other or directly collaborate during the making of the book—that is actually pretty typical in publishing and not surprising. But, I am pleasantly surprised that we have recently had the opportunity to connect and collaborate on publicity ventures. It’s been wonderful to grow that relationship with Susanna and team up in a new way—and I am still learning tidbits and gaining inspiration about Susanna’s process and how Alphabedtime came to be.
Me: That’s wonderful! Any advice for other new picture book illustrators?
Betsy: In addition to honing your style and portfolio, don’t forget to build your network. Connect with other creatives—get involved with SCBWI, join a critique group, attend workshops and conferences, research publishers, agents and the book market. The relationships you foster along the way are critical to finding your path and shaping new opportunities in publishing (plus, meeting other creatives is just a good time!).
Also, it’s easy to feel discouraged by all the good ideas and talent out there, but try to feel inspired instead. There is always room for new talent and fresh ideas. Even if you feel like something has been done before, there is always a way to put your own spin on it, to make it uniquely you.
I love that. Thank you for stopping by my blog today Betsy.
Dear readers, this book is released today into the world. While this book appears deceptively simple at first glance, there are SO many details in this book that young readers will love to spend time finding. I suspect that this will be a favorite bedtime read over and over. Don’t miss it!
AND if you read this far, there’s a giveaway! One random person who comments on this blog will win a copy of ALPHABEDTIME and a personalized signed bookplate! YAY!