Today’s Simply 7 features BOTH the author and the illustrator, as well as a giveaway!
Tamara Ellis Smith was a creative kid who wrote poems and plays, made clothes, and cooked. But she wasn’t patient. In fact, she was almost allergic to patience. If something took more than a minute to do, then she got all itchy and breathed heavy like a dog on a hot day. She had to work a long time to become a writer. SHe did a lot of other kinds of jobs, especially teaching. She became a mom, went to Vermont College of Fine Arts, read a lot of books, and wrote and wrote and wrote. Now she lives in Vermont with her family. You can learn more about her on her website or follow her on Twitter or Instagram.
GRIEF IS AN ELEPHANT is an elegant and poetic take on … well, grief. It’s hard to find picture books about grief that help children by explaining all of the emotions inherent in loss, but this book does just that. It explores emotions through allegory and has the perfect illustrations by Nancy Whitesides to express both of those. It’s hard to explain just how genius this book is. It pulls off the impossible. It comforts and explains the various facets of grief without being didactic. It felt so true to my own emotions of loss when my dad died a few years ago that I was stunned. This is a book you really need to see for yourself.
Me: Can you tell us a little bit about your writing journey? How long have you been writing? What brought you to picture books?
Tamara: I thought I was going to be a playwright. Well, let me backtrack. I thought I was going to be an actor, but I was quite mediocre at it, and I also had a ton of stage fright. Not a great combination. But then I was in a play by María Irene Fornés—she wrote these incredible feminist, experimental, spare plays—and I thought for the first time that if she broke the “rules” and did it her way, maybe I could do that too. So, I changed my major from acting to playwriting. Much later, after I had written a handful of plays, I was working on another one, but it kept wanting to be a novel, so I decided, Okay, I’ll listen. I’ll write a novel. It wasn’t very good, but I loved writing it. And then the first of my four kids was born, and I didn’t have a lot of time to write, plus I was happily swimming in picture books, so I turned my focus onto them.
I still write novels too, and I adore middle grade novels especially, but the collaboration between the art and words in a picture book never ceases to feel like magic to me.
Me: Your story is so wonderfully written. I never would have thought of grief as an animal, but every animal you chose makes perfect sense. What gave you the idea for this story?
Tamara: Thank you for saying that! I didn’t begin with the intention of writing a book about grief, actually. Instead, I was trying to explore the idea of waiting so I was hard at work on Waiting is an Elephant. I was riffing off of that parable about a group of blind men who each touch a different part of an elephant—trunk, legs, tail, ears—and as a result they all have a different definition of what an elephant is. I wanted to explore all of these different kinds of waiting, like waiting in the doctor’s office versus waiting for your birthday.
But it never worked. And then in rapid succession, my son’s friend died, and my friend died, and Grief is an Elephant came pouring out of me. Then later, as I was revising the story for my editor, my father unexpectedly died and I really felt the weight of an elephant making it hard for me to breathe. Working on the book was a saving grace. It became a way for me to begin to name, feel, and process my grief.
Me: Oh my goodness. I’m so sorry. That’s a lot of loss. Were there animals you envisioned for this book that didn’t get included for some reason? What made you choose the animals that you did?
Tamara: No, it was actually the opposite! The draft I sent to my editor had only two animals. Grief was the elephant for most of the story, and then at the end it transformed into the firefly. And it was my editor who suggested adding a few more animals who get smaller and smaller between the two. Brilliant! It was a challenge to rethink the story, but in my gut I knew she was right and I was excited to give it a try.
I appreciate your question about the animal choices I made, because of course they had to get smaller and smaller, but there are a lot of animals to choose from size-wise between an elephant and a firefly! I struggled with that for a while. What kind of throughline could connect a group of animals to each other and to grief? I knew from my own experience that it’s basically impossible to help someone stop grieving. That feeling of loss never goes away. It can’t. It’s equal to the love you feel for that someone or something.
But I also knew that talking about my grief felt comforting, and you can help someone talk about it by listening. So I decided my animals would have big ears. That’s why the fox is a fennec fox, which has those beautiful, long ears. (Side note: Nancy actually saw a fennec fox once and so she was able to draw it from memory!)
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Tamara: The thing that surprised me the most was not during my writing process, but once most of my work was done and Nancy came on board. I was ecstatic when I found out she was illustrating the book because her art is so tender. Her animals—oh my gosh—I don’t know how she makes them so soulful with one or two details, but she does, and you fall in love with them. But Nancy’s amazing art isn’t what surprised me. What did surprise me, in the best way I could ever imagine, is that as soon as we began working together it felt like we’d been collaborators forever. I felt immediately connected to her. What a gift.
Me: I love that. You have had several books published at this point. What does your writing process look like?
Tamara: I’m a slow writer. Partly that’s because I’ve got four kids and a few day jobs, so I don’t have a lot of time to write. But it’s also because it just takes me a long time to work out the plot. I go through many iterations of the action of a story before I find what works. I usually have a loose idea of what I want to say, then I write a draft, and after that I map out a plot based on what I’ve written—on what works and on the MANY things that don’t work. I can go through that process many times. Like MANY. I once lined up all of the drafts of my novel Another Kind of Hurricane along the street in front of my house. It was something like twenty-five drafts. An endless line.
Grief is an Elephant was a little different though. I wrote a billion drafts of Waiting is an Elephant, but once I made the switch to Grief, I wrote it pretty quickly.
Me: The illustrations by Nancy Whitesides are absolutely stunning. I especially loved the textures and color palette. Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Tamara: Honestly, the first time I looked at Nancy’s illustrations I was surprised each time I moved onto a new page. I knew the text inside and out, but Nancy’s art changed it, deepened it, made it more of what it was supposed to be. It was this incredibly strange but glorious feeling of intimate familiarity and brand-newness all at the same time. I still feel that way. Every time I look at a page, I see a detail I haven’t seen before.
One of Nancy’s most astonishing feats is how she conveys so much emotion in the eyes of her animals. Look at the spread of the elephant leaning over our little girl. Her face is in profile, so you only see one of her eyes. But that sweet elephant eye is filled with so much love, as well as grief.
Me: Any advice for other picture book writers?
Tamara: Hmmm…I feel more comfortable being the person getting advice! But let’s see. Read. That’s my first bit of advice. Read as many picture books as you can and try to read them out loud. Like many parents, I think I benefited a lot from my kids saying again! again! for the umpteenth time. Sometimes I was, like, oh my gosh, I don’t think I can reread this one more time, but mostly—and I really mean this—I found new details and new bits of information every time I read.
Write what you need to write. That’s another thought I want to share. Write to figure out the answers to the questions you have, write to work out the story that only you can tell. Be protective of your vulnerable self and your vulnerable story. Don’t let other people derail you. But, on the flip side, do trust the people you invite into your process: your critique partner, your agent, your editor. Be open to taking your work from being intimately yours to being an offering to the world.
I love that advice Tamara. Thank you for stopping by my blog today.
But wait, dear readers! There’s more! I also interviewed the illustrator.
Nancy Whitesides is an author and self-taught illustrator specializing in digital and traditional techniques including watercolor and gouache. Born and raised in the Philippines, she now lives in California. Her art and stories are inspired by her love for children, nature, and the feeling of still being the six-year-old girl who’s just won the regional drawing contest, and climbed the giant tamarind tree behind Grandpa’s house to watch the sun set. You can learn more about her at her website or follow her on Twitter or Instagram.
Me: This is your illustrator debut. YAY! Congratulations! What was your artistic journey? When did you start creating art? How did that lead you to illustrating this book?
Nancy: Thank you, Jena! I’m so excited for Grief is an Elephant’s book birthday. My artistic journey started when I was quite young. I could draw even before I knew my letters. But because of self-doubt I did not even consider I could be a professional illustrator. For years I’ve been pursuing childrens writing. I’d volunteered at an SCBWI Illustrators Day and saw the portfolio displays. I resolved to pursue childrens illustration then. I posted my work on social media, entered contests, studied in workshops, and queried wisely until I finally got my agent and this project from Chronicle.
Me: I love your style! Can you tell us a little bit about your process for the book? Did you work with traditional media or digital or both?
Nancy: Thank you so much! To create the art, first I imagined and planned the story in my mind. Next, I drew sketches and test spreads, a few with color—then the dummy. For final art I used mixed media including watercolor, pencils, crayons, and digital editing and cleanup. All the while, I did my best to illustrate the scenes and moments with feelings of grief, loss, and hope. That required multiple revisions until it was achieved.
Me: I love your textures and your color palette. What drew you to those colors for this book? What made you decide to make the sky red in the last spread?
Nancy: Thanks for saying, Jena! Color and textures are tricky. I usually do several tests. I chose the colors at the beginning of the story to be dark, and to show a feeling of sadness, even trepidation. Thank you for noticing the red sky in the last spread which I chose purposefully. For me red symbolizes love, and at this tender moment, I think this is where you will find the most love.
Me: Do you have a favorite spread that you illustrated for this book? If yes, which one?
Nancy: If I had to pick only one, it would be the landscape spread showing the child’s home and the animals. I drew this landscape mostly from my memory when I saw the view from the top of the tallest tree I loved to climb when I was little. This spread represented home. I set Grief is an Elephant in this beautiful world which I wanted to share with the children reading our book.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in illustrating this story?
Nancy: One thing that surprised me was finding out even more reasons to love elephants which I already did prior to working on this book. I found out from my research how elephants experience and manifest grief and loss. When elephants encounter an elephant’s remains, they would touch the bones and tusks even if the elephant was not part of their herd. They recognize they’ve lost one of their own. They would also stay for a while with an elephant that has died. Isn’t this heart-breaking? But after knowing this, I love elephants even more.
I also want to say another thing that surprised me from working on this project is how well matched Tam’s story and my art are. Even though there weren’t really art notes per se, I’d discovered just recently that Tam really meant for the animals to be listening to the child in the story. I did not know that beforehand. I tried to illustrate the animals with empathy and heart, and actively listening to the child. I was thinking what if I hadn’t. It wouldn’t have worked out at all. So I am very happy and grateful that not only did our work match so well together, Tam and I are also so matched well together. We’ve actually become friends.
Me: I love that. It was meant to be! Any advice for other new picture book illustrators?
Nancy: I know how discouraging it is to get rejected, and on top of that we have to overcome self-doubt. It’s difficult. One thing that helped me was continuously working on my illustration and writing skills. Another tip is if a story is not successful, and keeps getting rejections, try it another way. Revise before querying again, and also work on a different story.
Me: Do you have any future book projects that we can look forward to?
Nancy: I illustrated another picture book, Small Things Mended, written by Casey W. Robinson, and published by Rocky Pond Books, which will be coming out on March 19, 2024. It is about a kind and lonely man who helps repair toys, gadgets, and other valuables in his community, but he himself has a broken heart that needs mending.
That sounds like another wonderful book. I can’t wait to read it. Thank you for stopping by my blog today Nancy.
But wait, dear readers! There’s more! Tamara and Nancy have generously decided to give ONE copy of their book to one lucky winner in the US. You can enter the rafflecopter here. Good luck!