Today I interview not one, not two, but THREE amazing and gifted picture book creators about their latest collaboration. Can you handle it???
In 2018, I went to Highlights for a poetry workshop and met Rebecca Kai Dotlich and Georgia Heard in person. They ran the workshop together and it was obvious that not only were they dear friends, but that they loved collaborating together to write and teach. And today, I get to share with you their latest collaboration.
Rebecca Kai Dotlich has visited my blog before. She is the author of many children’s poetry and picture books that have won various honors, including the Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award and the Golden Kite Honor Award. She lives near Indianapolis and gives presentations and workshops across the country. You can learn more about her on her website or follow her on Twitter.
Georgia Heard has also visited my blog before. She is the winner of the 2023 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children AND is an internationally recognized expert in the teaching of writing for grades K-8. She works as a consultant in schools and districts around the world, and is longtime staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. You can learn more about her on her website or follow her on Twitter.
WELCOME TO THE WONDER HOUSE is not their first collaboration, but WOW! WHAT a collaboration it is! Every page is a revelation. Not only in text, but also in illustration (which is one of the many reasons I wanted to talk to both the authors and illustrator of this project). The book is organized like a house. Every page is a room in the house (of wonder) and in those rooms are gorgeous poems and pictures that fit the topic. I wanted to take my time soaking in every page and every line. It’s a fantastic ode to imagination and wonder. Trust me when I say that you will have to read this book yourself to see exactly what I’m talking about.
Welcome back Rebecca and Georgia!
Me: This is a fantastic poetry picture book dripping with such incredible lines that it made me want to soak in each page until my fingers got prune-y. I know this book was a joint effort, so who came up with the concept? Where did the idea come from to do something like this together?
Rebecca and Georgia: Thank you, Jena, for your kind words and for noticing and appreciating individual lines in the poems! We’ve both been writing poetry for quite some time, and as poets, the sense of wonder is a natural connection made from our imaginations to the page.
When a collaboration begins so seamlessly, so naturally, like this project did, there’s no way to pinpoint exactly who said what, and exactly how the idea was born. We both remember riding in a car with our editor Rebecca Davis from a Highlights poetry workshop to the airport and bouncing ideas back and forth and becoming excited with the idea of wonder. The idea first took the form of a museum, and then it soon became a house with no windows or walls and we began to “fill” the individual rooms with poem ideas that included a variety of wondrous things. As educators, we also recognized the importance of wonder in a child’s life, and we saw a beautiful opportunity to collaborate and blend our sense of wonder through the eyes of childhood.
Me: I know that you have both worked together before in the past on other collaborations. What was it like working as a team on this picture book?
Rebecca and Georgia: Despite living over a thousand miles apart, we’ve discovered that our collaboration on poems serves as a constant source of inspiration for both of us. Building on both our previous collaborations and workshops, we have developed a deep understanding of each other’s poetic styles and voices. Through our friendship and connection, we understand and are familiar with each other’s poems and poetic process.
As a way to visualize our rooms of wonder, we wrote our ideas onto large post-it notes. During one of our visits together at Georgia’s home, we spread these large post-it notes to represent rooms across the dining room table so we could see the whole picture of wonder and discover redundancies or gaps. We divided the topics in the rooms amongst ourselves as possible ideas for poems. Those colorful post-it notes sprawled across the dining room table is a cherished memory, as it was the beginning of our poetic collaboration.
Me: I love that. I also love the concept of wonder and creativity being organized into rooms of a house. Is wonder or imagination an important topic for both of you? What drew each of you to this project?
Rebecca and Georgia: Our idea behind rooms of wonder involved envisioning children being playful and joyful and finding what creates wonder in their minds and hearts, and stepping into metaphorical rooms of wonder in the world around them. To bring this idea to life, we collaborated with our editor, Rebecca Davis. Together, we made a list of anything in the world that evokes wonder for us. We then brainstormed our personal experiences and reflections of growing up, making sure that the ideas were accessible and something young readers might wonder about too. Then, we deliberately searched for overlooked sources of wonder, such as the room of quiet or the room of time.
Me: Wow! Excellent idea. The illustrations by Deborah Freedman are incredible. Each page offers so many different things to see in tandem with your words. Did either of you have art notes? Did you get to collaborate with her during the creation process as well?
Rebecca and Georgia: As you’re aware, writers often don’t have the opportunity to choose their illustrators, but we were incredibly fortunate that our editor paired us with the exceptionally talented Deborah Freedman. When we discovered Deborah’s background as an architect, we knew she would bring something extraordinary to our project. When we received the initial pages of her sketches, where she crafted the table of contents as miniature windows, we knew a unique and beautiful book would be the end result. The illustrations are not only exquisite but they also introduce a whole new dimension to the poems. Children will find themselves spending time exploring every intricate nuance in her pictures which will add another layer of wonder to our poems. To answer your question, we did not collaborate with Deborah. Our editor usually prefers us to step aside and give free reign to the illustrator.
Me: Were there any illustration surprises for you? Any favorites?
Rebecca and Georgia: The beautiful illustration for the Room of Quiet, which became the cover of our book, resonated deeply with both of us. However, one page that truly took us by surprise was the Room of Creatures. Deborah combines elements of a bathroom and shower with hot and cold-water faucets and tiles with a sea of enchanting creatures swimming all around. Also, with a delightful touch of whimsy in the Room of Mystery, Deborah shows an unexpected sketch of a dinosaur skeleton answering a vintage telephone line connected to the cosmos.
Me: What is one thing that surprised each of you in writing this collection together?
Rebecca and Georgia: We were amazed at how wonder leads to more wonder. Once we started brainstorming ideas, we found that wonder is endless.
Also, in writing the poems we did research to make sure that we were getting facts and information correctly, and we discovered fascinating facts such as that dolphins sleep with one eye open or realizing that fossils serve as Earth’s ancient clocks, and old trees help us identify the passage of time. It was through the act of writing these poems that the world became an even more wondrous place for both of us. We were surprised at all the ideas, objects and images we wanted to include but had to leave behind, as we realized (with the nudging of our brilliant editor Rebecca Davis) that one book can’t hold everything.
Me: What advice for other aspiring picture book writers or poets would you each give? Would you recommend working as a team?
Rebecca and Georgia: If collaboration comes naturally, and you respect another poet’s work, then give it a try. Find a topic that you’ve been fascinated with for a long time. No matter what the subject matter is, try to discover the wonders within it and use it as your guiding lens. Pay attention to craft and put your best work out into the world.
Great advice. Thank you for stopping by today Rebecca and Georgia!
But wait, dear reader, there’s more! I also interviewed the amazingly talented Deborah Freedman. I’ve been dying to get her on my blog for quite some time as I’m a huge fan of her work. Her use of watercolor never ceases to amaze me.
Deborah Freedman has written and illustrated many picture books, including Carl and the Meaning of Life, Is Was, and Tiny Dino. Her books have been translated into nine languages, adopted in classrooms, and received many starred and rave reviews, honors, and awards, including SCBWI’s Crystal Kite Award and a Parent’s Choice Gold Award. You can learn more about her at her website or follow her on Twitter or on Instagram.
Me: What was your artistic journey? When did you start creating art? How did that lead you to illustrating this book?
Deborah: I’ve been making art since I was a child and was lucky to be encouraged by my parents. They also exposed us to a wide variety of art in museums, which lead me to major in Art History in college. I went on to study Architecture, practiced a few years, had kids, began spending many hours in the children’s section of the public library… and started making little books for my daughters. I fell completely in love with the picture book as an art form and, very slowly, I started working towards “real” bookmaking.
Welcome to the Wonder House is my 10th book. I’m so grateful for this career, though honestly surprised it’s taken so long for me to illustrate someone else’s words! I’ve always wanted to, if the right thing came along, and when my agent sent Georgia’s and Rebecca’s manuscript to me, I knew right away that it would be the perfect match for my illustrator-only “debut”.
Me: Congratulations! What a wonderful project for a debut. I’ve been a fan of your work for years, but the illustrations in WELCOME TO THE WONDER HOUSE are stunning! I can’t believe all the different things you have going on in each spread. Can you tell us a little bit about your process for the book? Did you work with traditional media or digital or both?
Deborah: You are so kind! I really enjoyed making the illustrations for this book. With every book, I tend to begin with the base of skills I’ve acquired to date and then attempt to build on those. Every book is different, so each time I like to try something new. For example, in Wonder House, I played around with bubble painting and graphite rubbing. Kids always seem to have fun hearing about my experiments (including the failures) and then being challenged to look for those bits in the book.
All of the drawing and painting you see in my books is done on real paper, and then scanned so that I can mess around with it a bit. For this book, I also snapped some photos and layered them into some of the spreads—so the final book is digital montages of traditional art.
Me: With so many different elements in each line of poetry and so many poems on each page, how in the world did you decide what to illustrate for each spread? For instance, in the spread for the “Room of Praise” none of the poems mention a teacup. What made you decide to include that?
Deborah: How in the world, indeed! The poems were SO packed with imagery.
I really just let my mind drift while I read the poems, doodling down thoughts along the way. The Wonder House is an allegorical house, so I didn’t want to get too literal. I decided to simply let the pages be its walls and doors, allowing each “room” to feel expansive and reflect how, as the last line of the book says, “the wonder house is our whole world.” At the same time, I thought I could allude to a more literal notion of “house” by dropping in a few details—like the fire escape on the jacket, a lightbulb (as the sun in “Room of Curiosity”), and a few domestic touches like that teacup (there’s also no reference to a pencil or goldfish crackers!), or a telephone (“Room of Mystery”). I don’t remember exactly how my brain drifted to the teacup, but that’s how it was operating…
Me: I love that. Do you have a favorite spread that you illustrated for this book? If yes, which one?
Deborah: Haha… would I tell you, if I did? I’ll just say that while readers will likely be most focused on the “rooms” of this book, I hope they will also give some time to the front and back matter spreads, which for me are just as much a part of this book’s visual world of wonder.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in illustrating this story?
Deborah: How much I’d enjoy this collaborative process. Whenever I feel like I’m taking a risk, I get nervous about what the reaction will be. So when I turned in that first set of sketches… yikes.
Like, would they say what is this teacup doing here? There’s no reference to a teacup! But the reaction was more than I could have hoped for. My editor Rebecca Davis and art director Barbara Greszlo loved that teacup. In fact, their response to the first round of sketches was essentially: here are the spreads we adore, here are the ones that need work—make them more imaginative, like the “Room of Praise”.
A dream response, truly, and of course, hopefully Georgia and Rebecca felt the same way.
I’ll go back to the drawing board an infinite number of times if you are asking me to make more magic!
Me: Any advice for other picture book illustrators just starting out?
Deborah: Re the above: don’t self-edit. Don’t make assumptions about what “they” are looking for. They want to see what comes from your singular brain and heart. ♡
Me: Do you have any future projects planned?
Deborah: Yes, I do! One reason I was thrilled to be asked to join Wonder House is that I could tell from Georgia’s and Rebecca’s manuscript that we care about many of the same things—curiosity , imagination, wonder…
Their collection is a wonder-fully creative approach to STEAM, which I’ve been exploring myself since This House, Once—in Carl, Tiny Dino—and my next book. Partly Cloudy is about two characters who look at clouds from their own, unique points of view—one from pure imagination and the other scientifically. It’s “informational fiction,” or a story with facts woven through, and includes six pages of nonfiction back matter about clouds and the water cycle.
In other words, my excuse to paint a book full of pretty clouds. Partly Cloudy, Viking, March 2024.
Yay! I can’t wait to read it. Thank you for stopping by my blog today Deborah.
Dear readers, if you haven’t yet had a chance to read WELCOME TO THE WONDER HOUSE this is a book you will want to read. It’s a glorious mixture of beautiful poetry, imagery, and imagination. Don’t miss it!