Archive for Interviews & Appreciations

Amanda Gorman: As Drawn by Greg Ruth

 

My friend, artist Greg Ruth, shared this illustration of Amanda Gorman on Facebook. Like nearly everyone, Greg was astonished and inspired by Gorman’s presence, delivery, and poem at the Inauguration.

It is interesting to note that Greg executed this drawing in the recursive style of one single unbroken line, never lifting the pen off the paper. He said it seemed fitting, perfectly matching the fluidity of the poem. 

I loved this meme . . .

 

 

Some readers might recognize that Greg Ruth is the illustrator of many fine books and comics, including two that I wrote: A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade and the seldom-seen follow up, A Pirate’s Guide to Recess.

This piece is from Recess

 

 

I hope that this morning there are young people out there with renewed hope for the future, along with a thirst for the art and possibility of poetry, which has always been my first love as a writer.

Thank you, Amanda Gorman. Thanks, Greg.

 

I –

A Conversation with Liza Donnelly, Children’s Author/Illustrator and “New Yorker” Cartoonist

“People respond to my positive approach

and I love that.

People want hope, as do I.

It’s just as easy to be optimistic

as it is to be pessimistic.

It is a choice.”

— Liza Donnelly

 

Liza Donnelly and I go back more than 30 years, except she never actually knew it. As a copywriter and book club editor for Scholastic in the late 80s and early 90s, I loved Liza’s imaginative dinosaur books. I also followed her cartoons in The New Yorker. In fact, there’s a long line of acclaimed New Yorker cartoonists who went on the publish in children’s books (most notably, William Steig). Recently, Liza popped up again on Facebook, and I was thrilled to see her new work. Early during the pandemic, I grabbed this image by Liza and used it for my Facebook Cover art: 

 

Beautiful, right? I figured it was time to invite her over to my swank offices her at James Preller Dot Com. After a hasty cleaning — Where did all this old cheese come from? —  I opened the windows, lit some incense, and eagerly awaited Liza’s arrival. Here’s she is now . . .

 

 

Greetings, Liza. Is everything okay? You look a little drawn. Oh, wait, wrong image!

 

 

 

When I was a junior copywriter at Scholastic (working for a cool $11,500 a year), I wrote various book club kits: SeeSaw, Firefly, and Carnival. I especially liked your book, Dinosaur Day, which was the first in the series of seven books.

That’s great to know. That’s what I got paid in my first job at the American Museum of Natural History, probably around the same time! I enjoyed doing those books for Scholastic and was ready to have the Dinosaur series go forever…but alas it didn’t. The books now live on the internet however, and are e-books for kids. Thanks, Dinosaur Day was a favorite for me, too. I wanted it to be wordless but we ended up with minimal words.


I still remember, without having seen that book in decades, how the boy’s imaginal life connected to the objects in his room. I loved –- and still very much love –- that idea. The interior and exterior coming together, celebrating the imaginary journey.

That’s a great observation and I like how you put it, celebrating the imaginary journey. I wanted to show that the little boy was obsessed with Dinosaurs!

I knew you were a New Yorker cartoonist. So many of them got into children’s books, most notably William Steig, James Stevenson, others.

Yes! I was heavily influenced by Steig’s use of color in his books. I loved reading them to my daughters. My favorite was Brave Irene. Also Stevenson was great, a much different feel to his books. I was lucky to meet both men before years ago.

Stevenson seems a little forgotten these days. He was hugely popular on the book clubs, with favorites such as The Great Big Especially Beautiful Easter Egg (that kid running around with a mustache!) and What’s Under My Bed?  He also illustrated a number of Jack Prelutsky’s bestselling poetry collections (The New Kid on the Block, Something BIG Has Been Here, etc). It’s a wonderful honor for you to be a part of that tradition. When I found you on Facebook, I was immediately taken by your current work. The images you are putting out each day. Obviously, we’ve been living in uncharted times.

So true. I have found doing a cartoon a day and broadcasting it on Instagram as I draw (and talk about it) has been a wonderful way to connect with people. Also it helps me be connected with what is going on in the world because I do it every day in a rather public way.

On a personal level, I tend to go dark at times, which I attribute to my Irish background. I hold grudges and distrust the wealthy and I believe it’s a good idea to get rip-roaring drunk twice a year. Yet you seem intent on putting forward positive messages with your work.

That’s so funny you say that because I am also of Irish heritage, you undoubtedly noticed. I think the Irish may distrust the wealthy for sure and hold grudges (never heard that), and that they/we can go dark. I go dark all the time. But we also tend to be poetic and with the dark you have to notice the light. People respond to my positive approach and I love that. People want hope, as do I. It’s just as easy to be optimistic as it is to be pessimistic, it is a choice. That doesn’t mean I don’t notice how horrible things are in the world, I do.

I remember talking to my good friend, illustrator Jennifer Sattler, after Donald Trump was elected. We were like, How do we live in this new world? And she said that she heard someone’s podcast, she never could recall the source, where the speaker said, “Do what you’ve always done, but with new purpose.” That made a lot of sense to me.

That’s wonderful. I felt that way after 9/11. I was so distraught by the event that I was about to change careers and give up cartooning. Then I drew a cartoon about it and it was bought and run by The New Yorker (“Daddy, can I stop being worried now?) and I felt back on track. I decided to spend more time drawing about global politics than ever before. With Trump, it was not easy to figure out how to approach him because I don’t particularly enjoy ridiculing people.

 

 

In the meantime, you are still making books. What’s your most recent?

My most recent book was Women On Men, a collection of my cartoons and writing about women making fun (lovingly) of men. I also did two kids books for Holiday House in recent years. Interestingly, after I stopped with Scholastic in the 1990’s, I tried to sell these two ideas for books, and no one would buy them. I showed them to Holiday House after they sat in my drawer for ten years…and they bought both!

 

 

 

I am currently working on a new edition of my history of the women cartoonists of The New Yorker. It’s to be called Very Funny Ladies, due out this fall.




Thank you so much for your time, Liza. It’s really nice to connect with you after admiring your work for all these years. I very much appreciate what you are putting out into the world right now. How can people find you?

Thanks so much for reaching out! And for your kind words. I feel lucky to be able to do what I love, which is draw and connect with people. Folks can find me on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook: @lizadonnelly.  Watch me draw every weekday at 5pm ET on Instagram and a new startup called HappsTV every day at 6pm ET: happy.tv/@liza . My website is lizadonnelly.com. A lot of my political cartoons and writing is found on Medium: lizadonnelly.medium.com And some writing and cartoons on The New Yorker website.

 


James Preller — um, that’s me, and so awkward in the 3rd person — is the author of the Jigsaw Jones mystery series, ages 6-8. C
oming this Spring, look for my new middle-grade novel, Upstander. Thanks for stopping by. Onward and upward with the ARTS!

 

 

A Conversation with Deb Pilutti, Author/Illustrator of “OLD ROCK (is not boring)”

 

I fell in love with a new picture book this year, Old Rock (is not boring). It was created by an author and illustrator, Deb Pilutti, who I didn’t know much about. So as a curious admirer, I invited Deb over for a chat. And lo, here she comes now . . .

 

 

Welcome, Deb. Normally I’d offer a guest a big comfy bean bag chair, but in preparation for your visit I’ve had a glacial erratic, originally deposited in the Adirondacks, hauled into the spacious offices of James Preller Dot Com. So, yeah, have a seat on the rock.

 

For the record: This glacial erratic can be found in Scotland, it is not the rock Deb Pilutti is currently sitting on for this interview in the spacious offices of James Preller Dot Com. It’s just an example. Carry on!

 

Thank you. And I’m glad you mentioned glacial erratic! It’s a term I became acquainted with while writing Old Rock.

Yes, erratics resonate with me. There’s even a chapter titled “Erratics” in my novel, Blood Mountain. It serves as a metaphor, in that scene, for being left behind. Anyway, I understand that your book began with a doodle?

Yes — I drew a picture of a rock with a face on it in my sketchbook and kept coming back to it. I wondered if I could write a story about the character, and then I quickly thought, Well, that would be a boring story. Rocks just sit there! And that became the concept. Old Rock’s friends think life as a rock must be very boring.

 

 

On a secondary note, I often walk in the woods around Michigan with my husband and dog. Sometimes, we come upon a giant boulder, with no other rocks or boulders around, and I wonder how it got there. Short answer: glaciers.

Is that a normal working method for you? I’m always curious about writer-illustrators. How does that internal tug of war between artist and writer work? Bernard Waber once told that he thought the writer in him tried to please the illustrator. Who’s in charge inside your head?

 

 

Good question, I’m never sure who’s in charge. I work both ways, either by starting with an idea, or from a sketch or doodle. Whatever takes hold, really, because it has to be something that is going to be engaging and keep my interest for 32 pages and more than a year’s worth of work.

There’s so much mystique attached to that eureka moment: getting an idea. Oooooh, magical. But the important thing is to roll up your sleeves and work that idea. In your case, a rock as a character seemed appealing and original. But hardly a book.

True. And that’s what initially steered me away from the idea. But then I started asking questions and doing research. The more I learned about rocks and how they were formed and then thought about the history of the earth and what a rock might have witnessed during that time (EVERYTHING), the more the story developed.

 

 

Most young people, and many adults, have an uncertain grasp of historical time. Ten years ago seems like ancient history. That’s one thing I love about Old Rock. It subtly brings the reader into geologic time . . . earth time . . . rock time.

It is hard to get a handle on thinking about such an enormous span of time, but many people are familiar with the dinosaur periods or the fact that glaciers once covered much of the earth. It’s amazing to imagine that the rock that I’m sitting on now might have been a resting spot for a T. rex!

 

You thank two people, Larry Lemke and Lacey Knowles, for sharing their knowledge of the natural world. At what point did you bring experts into the process?

Larry Lemke is a geologist, and Lacey Knowles is an evolutionary biologist, and fortunately for me, they are also my neighbors. While it is a story about a talking rock, I wanted everything that occurs in the story to be plausible. I talked with Larry early in the process, when I was deciding what type of rock to use. Originally, I had Old Rock starting as a blob or lava, but quickly decided that a volcanic rock wouldn’t be right. I decided on a metamorphic rock, like Gneiss, so that Old Rock could develop underground and eventually be unearthed during a volcanic explosion. I knew that rocks don’t erupt out of volcanic vent the way lava does, but Larry let me know that it
was possible that a rock could be blasted, along with part of the volcano, during a pyroclastic explosion. Lacey studies insects, so I asked her about beetles and also the type of plants that might be around during the Jurassic and Cretacious periods. She also works at the University of Michigan Natural History Museum, which was a good place for research. Once I had a final version, I showed it to both again.

I get the impression that being in nature is important to you.

It is. When I was young, my family camped. It was an economical way for a family of 7 to travel, but it was also fun and a great way to see the country. I continued camping and hiking with my own children. Michigan is a wonderful place to get out and enjoy nature.

Where did you grow up, Deb? What was your childhood like? 

I grew up in West Lafayette, Indiana, a midwestern college town. My father was a high school English teacher and writer and my mother was an art teacher, but stayed home after she had children. My brothers and sisters and I did plenty of art projects at home with her. I had a lot of free time and liked to read and draw and play outside, but I also watched a copious amount of t.v. I credit Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Chuck Jones and Jay Ward as my first teachers in design, storytelling and animation.

And then, one day, you decided to become a hot-shot children’s book author?

Hahahahaha . . . oh sorry, is that a question?

I can’t tell anymore. 

It was a meandering route. I spent most of my adult professional life as a graphic designer. I got to work on some really fun projects, like being on a team that designed the environmental graphics for Cartoon Village, a Warner Brothers Theme Park that featured . . . Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and company. One of the amazing things about that assignment was that there was a whole backstory for the area and rides. It became my job to immerse myself in the world of the characters and design graphics for them. And I KNEW these characters. I understood their stories. I had basically trained my whole life for it. The better I understood their stories, the better the design. The same is true in making children’s books.

I like that. You weren’t mindlessly blobbing around in front of the television as a kid, you were studying for a career! 

It took me a while to figure out that making books was what I wanted to do. When I did, I spent time learning about the business, like how to make a book dummy, how to submit. Admittedly, it took longer than I anticipated.

Well, it was worth the wait, because you are making terrific books. What’s next? Do you have a new book coming out?

Ten Steps to Flying Like a Superhero came out in November from Macmillan/Holt. It’s a companion to Ten Rules to Being a Superhero. Lava Boy tries to teach his superhero action figure how to fly. It doesn’t always go as planned. It was fun to revisit the characters and develop a couple of new ones. I’m not gonna lie, it has been really difficult for me to create over the last year. I’ve got a few ideas for new projects and I’ve been feeling more optimistic lately.

I have faith that those ideas will come. Oh, hey, almost forgot. You have a border collie! Our rescue dog, Echo, is part border collie, part anybody’s guess, probably Pit. So smart and energetic. We got lucky.

 

Here’s JP’s dog, Echo, taken in December while out snowshoeing (the author, not the dog).

 

Aren’t dogs the best? Our last dog was a quirky border collie named Wilson. Right now we have a quirky Australian Shepard named Tater. She’s an energetic rescue dog and needs a LOT of walks. I can’t imagine going through a pandemic without her.

Deb’s dog, Tater.

 

Thanks for coming over, Deb! It was great to meet one of the new stars in the children’s book galaxy. Keep it up!

Thanks for the hospitality, it was a pleasure!

 

Deb Pilutti keeps up a snazzy website. Also, you can learn more about her by using this amazing resource I just learned about called Google. How did we ever survive before?

 

 

 

 

 

 

As for me, James Preller, I’m the author of the Jigsaw Jones mystery series. My most recent picture book, illustrated by the Mary GrandPre, is titled All Welcome Here. And coming this Spring, look for my new middle-grade novel, Upstander. Thanks for stopping by. Onward and upward with the ARTS!

 

     

One Question, Five Authors: “How do you feel about messages in children’s books?”

“A good place to start

is by continuing to make art

which begs questions,

sparks conversations,

explains stuff,

and provides catharsis.”

— Lizzy Rockwell

I remember being at the Rochester Children’s Book Festival a few years back. Jeff Mack turned to me and asked, only half-jokingly, “Do you remember when it used to a bad thing for children’s books to be didactic?” We laughed about that one. Ho, ho, ho. I was reminded of that moment while reading a timely, interesting article by Elisa Gall and Jonathan Hunt in Horn Book’s “Calling Caldecott” series, titled, ” What the Hell Is Didactic Intent Anyway?”

The time seemed right to bring back my ever-quasi-popular, “One Question, Five Authors” series, beginning with possibly the thorniest question I’ve ever asked: “How do you feel about messages in children’s books?It’s not a simple topic, and definitions vary — it’s not always clear we are talking about the same thing — which is likely why some responders gave longer, deeper answers than usual. Another reason for that: I made sure to ask this particular question to some of the more intellectual, thoughtful, experienced writers I could find. Today I’m honored to share this space with Lizzy Rockwell, Lois Lowry, Lesa Cline-Ransome, Liz Garton Scanlon, and Tony Abbott. Please feel free to add a comment or voice a complaint. The more voices, the better.

 

LIZZY ROCKWELL

Thanks Jimmy.  What a good question.  Having raised two grown sons, I know that there were plenty of messages my husband and I consciously or unconsciously delivered as they were growing up: Be nice. Be responsible for your actions. Pay attention to your emotions, and other people’s emotions. Use words to work out conflict. Take care of your body. Learn about the world.  Respect all living things (including ecosystems). Be creative. Be generous. Be honest. Know that you are loved. Books helped. Frederick and Swimmy, by Leo Lionni, Moon Man, by Tomi Ungerer, Medieval Feast, by Aliki, The Awful Mess, by Anne Rockwell, Donkey Donkey, by Roger Duvoisin, and Spinky Sulks by William Steig were some of our favorites.

Ours is not a religious home, but our ethics are in keeping with those of most religions.  Children’s books can support a society’s effort to help children grow into healthy, collaborative, expressive adults who distinguish between right and wrong, fair and unfair. But books are not just about molding successful and virtuous future adults, they are about providing art specifically crafted for children. A child’s need for art is every bit as great as an adult’s. Art is cathartic; it lets us identify and talk about our emotions.  Art is philosophical; it’s the best way to explore the big existential and ethical questions. But good art is never didactic. It is sensory and emotionally charged, so it gives us pleasure, scares us, makes us wonder, makes us laugh, connects us with others. Art is open-ended so it can be interpreted in a variety of ways. And art is subversive. It challenges the confines of social norms, and requires us to ask questions.

We are in a fascinating moment, where some very long-in-the-making problems are finally being pulled from the back of the closet and brought into the light. This moment is simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. The legacy of slavery,  the genocide of indigenous Americans, the oppression of LGBT people, the subjugation of women and girls, economic inequality, European imperialism, gun violence,  drug addiction, and environmental devastation, are on the short list of problems we can no longer ignore. Solving many of these problems requires disrupting systems (patriotism, capitalism, transportation, policing, Religious orthodoxy, industry) which also are the armature of American society.  So how do we rebuild and improve, without completely tearing down?

A good place to start is by continuing to make art which begs questions, sparks conversations, explains stuff, and provides catharsis.

But let’s be honest, making art for children is not the same as making art for adults.  We have a responsibility to not overwhelm them with fear or guilt. Any story or work of non-fiction created for children, no matter how disturbing the problem, or open-ended the solution, should contain a message of hope. And I don’t have a problem with that message at all.

 

LESA CLINE-RANSOME

I write each of my books with a measure of intention and purpose.  For me, there is a need to accurately represent my culture and heritage and provide a counter narrative to the misrepresentations that have pervaded literature for too long.  I write stories that provide one depiction of black life that reflects its resilience, sacrifice, joy, enduring traditions and loving families.  Is it a message?  Perhaps.  But in a time of erasure and exclusion, I feel a message celebrating the fullness of black life, community and family is a much needed one.

 

LOIS LOWRY

I can’t comment on any trends because I simply don’t keep up with what’s being published (isn’t it ironic that Spellcheck wants “published” to be “punished”?). But my personal opinion about books with messages has not changed. A book with a blatant message…a book whose author has set out to instruct young readers and guide them to a higher morality…is a bad book. A book with intriguing characters who face complex problems and weigh difficult choices is a book from which a message will arise but it will not have been placed there by the author. It will evolve from the reader: from the reader’s circumstances and introspection and emerging beliefs.  When a student emails me and asks: “What is the message of (insert title)?” I always reply: “Whatever you want it to be.”  When a parent or grandparent hands me a book to sign and asks me to write: “For xxxx, in hopes that this book will teach you…blah blah” I always conceal a deep sigh and write: “I hope that you’ll love this book.”

As an old person myself I do sympathize with…and share…the yearning to be able to impart wisdom to the young. But if I’ve learned anything in my 83 years, it’s that wisdom is acquired through experience and through feeling one’s mind and heart opened…occasionally by a good book. Not a book with a message.

 

LIZ GARTON SCANLON

For me, the question isn’t so much whether books contain messages. I honestly think that’s a given. Characters learn and grow and have ah-ha moments. They navigate tricky times and grapple with moral choices. Metaphors telegraph meaning or theme. Beginnings pose questions that endings then satisfy with deep realizations. Books are full of messages.

I think the question is a more subtle one –- one of prepositions. I think messages in children’s books need to be of or from children rather than to or for or at them. I like to see them emerge with each page turn, from the small, wide-eyed perspective of a kid, rather than come down like an explicit, instructive hammer.

What if messages were more like discoveries than lessons? What if they were sometimes nonlinear or digressive or funny or wholly surprising – just the way they are for kids in the world outside of books? What if young characters and young readers alike got their messages in deeply felt and experiential ways? I think that’s how we give them the most important message of all – that we respect them, that we’re paying attention, that they matter.

 

TONY ABBOTT

While I’ve given this question a bit of thought over the last couple of years, it’s not been with any sense of tying it off with an eloquent flourish, so forgive clumsy lapses in logic. But, yes, I think we are seeing more and more books for children with simpler and simpler messages that try to appeal to the reader by defining, quickly, and in terms that reader will understand, what those books are about and why they should be read.

Part of this trend might stem from increased competition in the marketplace. The need for books for younger readers to be published with an engaging tagline — “would you be brave enough to . . . x y z?” is an attempt to land the besieged reader with a simple emotional hook. This is one response to a glut of shiny things to attract one’s attention. (Another might be a flashy cover.)

That’s all very fine, but I think this nailing-down-the-point notion might have worked its way down to the writer — it’s not difficult to see why it shouldn’t have. The writer wants to be read, so, sure, let’s lead with that phrase, however it simplifies my 300 pages. After time, we forget that taglines are something to be applied after the fact, and not during the composition of a piece. We have all seen how particularly “meaningful” lines or phrases from a book make their way into memes that are then used for corporate or personal promotion of the book. That a writer might write toward one of those simplifying lines is also easy to imagine. We would never admit so, but even unconsciously it’s easy to see how that would happen. And then we have the message book — the one that, more often than not, is a story of some kind of empowerment and hope. These themes follow obvious trends in the political, cultural, and emotional marketverse.

You can see, however, how after a time, this might be what the literature becomes: a sequence of very acutely directed essays aligning with (or scandalously denying) the current cultural touchstone. I’m certain I’ve been guilty of doing this, just as I’m certain it’s a bad thing. I’d hope other kinds of publishing aren’t like this, but my sense is that they are. [Let me also add that I don’t particularly see one’s editors as at the front of this trend; it’s a cultural current.]

This is one part of the cartooning of America, the shallowing of culture you can see just about everywhere — necessitated, in a way, because we as audience are also getting thinner and less able to work in complexities. No doubt social media has played a big part here.

Talking about this issue is, for me, likely one more aspect of sour grapes, so it can easily be dismissed. My last books have gone precisely nowhere, so I’m moving on. If you write a book, you have to allow yourself at least two years to get to a decent shape, often longer. To push through to completion is a bigger and bigger deal when you get older and other projects have been laid aside for too long. So you leave. Is there hope? I don’t think so. It’s a downward trend we’re seeing played out in every sphere of American life, starting at what we used to call the top. Yes, you know what I mean. Maybe it’s the same in every country. Another reason to build a big personal library and lock the door.

James Preller — that’s me! — is the author of the Jigsaw Jones mystery series. My most recent picture book, illustrated by the great Mary GrandPre, is titled All Welcome Here. And coming in Spring 2021, look for my new middle-grade novel, Upstander. Thanks for stopping by. Onward and upward with the ARTS!

       

 

A Conversation About Book Covers with Illustrator Deborah Lee, A Rising New Voice in Children’s Books

 

Back in the halcyon days of school visits, I’d often get questions about my book covers. People tend to assume that the author sits back in a stuffed leather chair, calling the shots. That’s far from the truth — I only sit on cinder blocks! My shorthand answer is that as an author, I’m responsible for the interior of the book. Every single page. But the cover? That’s the publisher’s. They’ve invested money in the book, talked to sales representatives, editors, designers, artists, bean counters, and endured actual meetings. Seriously. They go into windowless rooms and hammer it out. They want to sell the book, too.


What I mean to say is that the process is mostly out of my purview. Take for example my upcoming book, Upstander (Macmillan, 2021). One day my editor, Liz Szabla, sent me a file and said, more or less, “Here’s the cover, hope you like it.”

And you know what? I did, a lot. I found out the name of the illustrator, Deborah Lee, and wrote to thank her. Deborah was willing to answer some of my questions. Here she is now (I know, I’m excited, too).

 

First off, who are you? Could you give us some quick background? How did you get into illustrating book covers?

Hey! I’m a Korean-American freelance illustrator who works primarily in the publishing and editorial industries. And to be honest, I’ve only started working independently this year—before, I was working at LinkedIn and Lyft as a designer and illustrator for a year and a half while juggling freelance illustration. I was a designer for a while because I didn’t pick up my current profession as a career choice until my senior year of college. (Unfortunately, the university, which is strongest in engineering, has no resources in illustration, so I was pretty much on my own for that.) It was my final semester when I had some presentable work ready to show, and the stars aligned when my current literary agent found me through social media, which began my career in publishing. The rest is history!

So this is all new. How exciting. Where do you live?

I live in Oakland, CA, which is across the bay from San Francisco. But next spring we’re moving back to Pittsburgh, where my partner and I graduated from college. We miss having seasons and cheaper rent.

So let me see if I’ve got this right. One day you get offered a book cover job for something called, Upstander? They tell you how much money you’ll make and you say, “Okay, fine, I’ll do it anyway.”

Couldn’t have said it any better.

Ha, it’s pretty much the story of my career.

HOWEVER, I do love drawing book covers! They’re some of my favorite kinds of projects—the sketch ideas come by much more easily since there’s already a clear narrative in place. A lot of my quick freelance assignments tend to look for illustrations about very abstract concepts and current events.

I understand that, as fate would have it, you were already familiar with my Jigsaw Jones books.

Yes!! It’s been a long time, but my brother and I borrowed most, if not all of the books from the library when we were growing up. I’m sure we had some of the boxed sets too!

That’s pretty cool. Obviously you were an amazing kid. Back to the cover. Do you work from a designer’s concept?

The designer, Mike Burroughs, gave me some pointers in regard to symbolism (eye and speech bubble emoji) and mood (loneliness, tension) but luckily, I still had creative freedom! Mike was also looking for something more conceptual and less narrative-based, but reading the book helped anyway so I could take notes on any key scenes that could inform the cover as well. Also it helped me understand Mary’s (the protagonist) conflict enough to depict her facial expression as appropriately as I could. There’s a lot going on in her life.

Do you try to deliver a variety of approaches?

Definitely! I remember intentionally keeping one sketch without the emoji that Mike was looking for, just in case. I also varied the amount of literal vs conceptual elements in each one. But over all, telling different stories with each concept shows the design team that I’m flexible, and not super stuck on just one idea.

 

 

Finally, the publisher selects one and says, “Perfect! This is exactly it! We just want you to change a few things . . .”

That did happen! At first I made Mary look a little too young, which wasn’t that difficult to fix. I also had the speech bubble display some indistinct text, which was replaced by the blurb that’s seen in the final deliverable. Thankfully this was a very straightforward project—Mike was really easy to work with!

“The final deliverable.” It’s that kind of insider lingo that keeps a Nation of Readers coming back to James Preller Dot Com! I have to tell you, Deborah, I’ve shared our cover on Facebook and your work has received so many compliments. People seem to really to be intrigued by the cover. There’s a sense of mystery to it that, I hope, will draw readers into the story. That is: Thank you!

And thank *you*!!! I’m so glad it resonated with everyone—especially with how little the cover reveals about the story.

So what else are you up to? Have you done other covers? Do you hope to illustrate your own books? Hang in fine museums? What’s next? 

Whew, so since 2018 I’ve been working on my debut authored/illustrated graphic memoir called In Limbo with First Second/Macmillan. It’s the most daunting and laborious project I’ve ever been took on—I treat that project alone like a day job and a half.

Oh, my goodness. That looks incredible. Just a staggering amount of work. I want it now. 

All-in-all, it’s a rewarding process and I can’t wait to see it in full by Spring 2022.

Could you tell us more about it?

In Limbo covers my time during high school as a severely depressed and abused teenager with an identity crisis as one of the only Asian-American kids in my year. It’s dark—so much so that my editor at First Second/Macmillan had to remind me constantly to put in lighter scenes in the beginning stages of the draft! While I’m not complete with the final pages yet, I can already say that this book has taught me not only the graphic novel process, but also it brought a ton of insight about myself. Basically the longest therapy session ever. I’m very grateful to have been given this chance.

Sounds like a story you had to tell. I’ll be looking for it.

And while I work through that one, I’m illustrating another graphic novel (authored by Tina Cho) for Harper Collins called The Other Side of Tomorrow, which is publishing around 2023. I’m very lucky to be working on these projects—and for now I’m most looking forward to having physical copies of both books in my hands!

Yes, that’s a beautiful moment in the life of a creator. The first time holding it in your hands, the satisfaction of, “I made this.”

As for covers, I have done one other before this for a middle-grade book called Invisible Boy. That one was tricky—it talks a whole lot about child trafficking, so I had to be careful with how I depicted that. And again, one of my favorite kinds of projects. Crossing my fingers for more of these!

 

 

Well, Deborah, it’s been a pleasure to get to meet you. Such an exciting time in your career, just as you are lifting off into the stratosphere. I’m absolutely positive that we’ll be hearing a lot more from you in the future. I’m glad all those Jigsaw Jones books did you some good. I wish you the best of luck — and thanks, again, for our book cover. It will always connect us, and for that I’m very glad.

Haha, thank you so so much!! (I’ll be needing it!)