Archive for Interviews & Appreciations

A Conversation with Debut Novelist E.L. Shen, Author of “The Comeback” — On the Writing Process, Ice Skating & Confronting Racism


Maxine’s goal
was to go to the Olympics
where she would proudly represent
the United States.
But what do you do when people
don’t even think you belong in America?
How do you contend with that?

There’s a long line of things I love — great poems, birds at my feeder, live music, sitting around a fire, a really good chicken salad sandwich, debut novelists, and on and on. But maybe most especially debut novelists (or illustrators, or anyone putting out their very first book into the world). What a moment in a life. It is joyful and thrilling and oddly anti-climactic. Everything and nothing changes. I met E.L. Shen at a benefit for Ronald McDonald House at The Book House in Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany, NY. I came away wanting to know more. And I wanted to point my little beam of light in her direction.

Thanks for stopping by, Elizabeth. I know that you grew up not far from where I live now, in upstate New York. Give us a little background? Did you want to be a writer from a young age? 

Thank you so much for having me! Yes, I grew up in the suburbs of Albany, not too far from Lake Placid, where my debut novel takes place. I think from the moment I was born, I knew I wanted to be a writer. In first grade, I created these little stories that I persuaded (read: forced) my teacher to put in the reading bins. That feeling of creating a story from nothing –- and of seeing other people read and enjoy it –- was addicting.

You got your BA at Barnard/Columbia with a concentration in creative writing. What did you learn there? Confession: I didn’t go to school for writing and I sometimes wonder what I missed. 

Gosh, I learned so much. In my classes, we dissected and deconstructed stories and novels -– not just on a “this flower is a symbol of her love” level, but on a “what was the author trying to do when invoking second person? Why is this paragraph where it is? What can we say about the pacing of the story?” level. We also often imitated authors as well to get a sense of what we liked about their styles and what we didn’t like. Imitation is a great way to fight writers’ block, and a useful tool in figuring out how you like to write, and how your style might stand out from others’. 

And after school, you went into children’s publishing. 

Yes! My turn for a confession: I quickly learned that being a full-time writer does not necessarily offer a lot of job security! I also really loved reading other people’s work and offering feedback –- this led me to deciding I wanted to become an editor. I specifically chose children’s books because I gravitated toward middle-grade and young adult stories in my free time. I love being an editor and an author; it’s a real privilege to see behind both sides of the curtain and to help other writers’ dreams comes true.

How did you come to settle on figure skating for your debut novel? 

So this is a funny story! I was an intern at Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers (FSG), an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, during my spring semester at Barnard. This internship happened to coincide with the 2018 Olympics. I would not stop talking about the Olympics, and specifically about figure skating, to anyone who would listen. I had figure skated from the age of 9 to 15 after watching the very iconic Disney movie, Ice Princess, and loved, loved, loved watching figure skating as an adult. An editor at FSG, Wes Adams, overheard me chattering endlessly about my skating background and my general love for the sport. One day, he came up to my desk (which was literally in the middle of the kitchen –- intern life!) and said he had always wanted a figure skating middle-grade story –- especially one that combats stereotypes about catty skaters. He asked me if I’d be interested in writing a book like this. At first, I thought he was joking. When I realized he was serious, I told him I’d think about it, but really needed to find a job first (after all, I was a graduating senior). Wes was very patient, and several months later, when I was finally ready to write this story, he was all ears.

Tell us about your process for developing the character of Maxine. Are you using index cards and elaborate notes? Sketching out character traits in a notebook? I imagine she’s a curious blend of you & not you. 

Maxine is indeed a blended me and not me. When I came up with this story, I knew that I wanted her to be Chinese American, like me. I also knew that I wanted her to be feisty and passionate –- traits that would help her a lot on the ice, and keep her competitive and ambitious. Like Maxine, I too, grew up in a mostly white suburb where I was bullied for my ethnicity. I knew that whatever Maxine experienced had to be the antithesis of who she was and strip of her power. On the ice, she felt strong, confident, sassy. But at school, a racist bully took all the wind out of her sails, leaving her a shell of who she was. That dichotomy was essential for me to explore –- especially since Maxine’s goal was to go to the Olympics where she would proudly represent the United States. But what do you do when people don’t even think you belong in America? How do you contend with that?

In terms of process, I am a big outliner. I first bullet-pointed plot ideas and notes in my Notes App on my computer because that seemed less scary/permanent than writing in Word (it’s purely a psychological tactic). Once I felt I had a clear idea, I outlined chapter-by-chapter to get a sense of pacing and characterization.  This step was very important in crafting Maxine’s rivalry and (spoiler!) eventual friendship with Hollie, a new girl at her rink. It forced me to me visualize the ebbs and flows of their relationship, and how they would both grow and change over the course of the book. 

Maxine seems to believe she’ll make it to the Olympics. In the book’s first paragraph, 12-year-old Maxine promises that she’ll skate in the Olympics. I read that as delusional. Not the dream but the extreme confidence. Was that your sense of it? 

Honestly, choosing to become a competitive figure skater is kind of delusional. You have to wake up at 5 AM to skate before school, you pay a ton of money on coaches, equipment, costumes, etc., and you give up a significant chunk of your social life to be on the ice. But if you really love it, if you feel like this is the thing that is pulling on your bones every time you wake up, you do it. And for a lot of skaters –- that sacrifice is worth it because they see the dream: the Olympics. For Maxine, she had to really believe in herself and feel extremely confident in that dream to feel like it was all worth it. 

At one point, Maxine blushes and senses that no one can see it through her tan skin. She thinks, “This is basically the only instance where I’m grateful to be Asian.” Was that true for you? Do you think that is true, or was true, for many Asian Americans? 

As a child, I harbored a lot of self-hatred, specifically around being Asian. Growing up, I was not surrounded by people who looked like me –- not in my town, not in media, and not even in books at the time. Unfortunately, I know this feeling of self-doubt is true for a lot of BIPOC kids today –- some have told me this in-person or emailed me about it. But I hope that as our worldviews progress, all marginalized children will become confident in their heritages and their identities. 

Maxine buys Magic Methods Eyelid Tape. I didn’t know that was a thing. Could you tell us about it? 

Eyelid tape is made up of tiny adhesive slivers you can dig into your eyelids to make them “wider” or “bigger.” Asian eyes tend to be more almond, while western European eyes tend to have more eyelid space. If you feel insecure about your Asian eyes, you can use eyelid tape, though I personally find that it often looks ridiculous, and caters to the idea that Western eyes are the most beautiful. It was something I tried to use as a kid and hilariously failed at executing, and it’s a one-two gut-punch for Maxine as she grapples with her bully’s comments about her eyes and her subsequent inability to change them. 

I admired how the book seamlessly transitioned from a discussion about eye makeup to a much deeper questioning about identity. At one point Maxine thinks, “I am not a nerd, but I am a chink.” Is that a thought you’ve experienced? 

It was important to me to highlight how beautiful Maxine was, and how, with the right guidance and support (another Asian skater who could teach her how to do makeup for Asian eyes, for example), she could finally feel beautiful, and take pride in her body and skin. At first, what Alex, the bully, said to her seeped into who she really thought she was, but over the course of the book, she gained pride in her identity –- much like myself!

This leads to a point when Maxine, with Hollie’s help, begins to practice snappy comebacks to Alex’s teasing. Tell us about that idea. 

The comeback list was derived from something I actually created as a kid. I made up insults and wrote down witty responses (and then memorized them!). I forced my friends to practice with me and needless to say, they were not exactly thrilled about this activity. I thought it was such a hilarious thing that I did so I included it in the book. Readers will have to see how that works out for Maxine! 😉 

Maxine is picked on — in subtle and more obvious ways — because she is different. In this case, Chinese. As you’ve said, some of that comes from your own experiences. How do you feel today about those kids who targeted you? How does an individual overcome those obstacles that get in the way of our sense of self-worth and identity? 

Bullying stems from the perpetrator’s insecurities and worldviews, and/or what they’re taught by their parents. There are always deeper things at play. I hope that my bullies have all grown and learned more about the world, and are thriving now. I think the greatest thing you can do when you’re bullied is tell someone –- a teacher, a friend, a parent. You’re not alone. And remember, you’re freaking amazing. No one is you; no one could ever be you, and I think that’s a pretty cool thing.

What’s next for E.L. Shen?

I have a young adult novel pitched as an Asian American Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants coming out in Summer 2023 from HarperCollins! And more middle-grade on the way –- stay tuned.  

Well, Elizabeth, I see that we’ve filled up all the available space on the interwebs. It’s been so nice getting to know you. I’ll be watching and rooting for you from the sidelines, sans skates.

Thank you so much for this wonderful chat! 

Rudine Sims Bishop — Windows, Mirrors, Sliding Glass Doors — and Mike Curato’s “Flamer”

A librarian friend recently passed on a link to a landmark article by Rudine Sims Bishop. The article, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” was first published in 1990. While I was well aware of the ideas in the article, I had never read the original source. 

Bishop is credited with being the first to discuss children’s literature within the context of windows and doors. Most of the concepts are now familiar to anyone who has been paying attention. To quote the opening paragraph:

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.

Skipping down, she later writes:

When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part. Our classrooms need to be places where all the children from all the cultures that make up the salad bowl of American society can find their mirrors.

Those are profound and important points, widely recognized in the children’s literature community (finally), after decades of neglect. We are now witnessing a sometimes awkward but wholly necessary Diversity Movement in children’s literature.

There’s another concept from Bishop’s article that has been somewhat slower to be absorbed. Maybe it’s less obvious. Sure, many of us can easily accept the importance for nonwhites to see themselves reflected in books. But in the absence of those diverse books — an absence that has long haunted American culture — the damage is also felt by the dominant social groups who have always found their mirrors in books.

Writes Bishop:

They, too, have suffered from the lack of availability of books about others. They need the books as windows onto reality, not just on imaginary worlds. They need books that will help them understand the multicultural nature of the world they live in, and their place as a member of just one group, as well as their connections to all other humans. In this country, where racism is still one of the major unresolved social problems, books may be one of the few places where children who are socially isolated and insulated from the larger world may meet people unlike themselves. If they see only reflections of themselves, they will grow up with an exaggerated sense of their own importance and value in the world — a dangerous ethnocentrism.

Go ahead, read that last sentence again.

Here, I’ll help you out:

If they see only reflections of themselves, they will grow up with an exaggerated sense of their own importance and value in the world — a dangerous ethnocentrism.

I believe that we experience a perilous echo of that limited ethnocentrism in the “Great Replacement” theory espoused by Tucker Carlson on FOX News and the white supremacist movement. These fearful, narrow people probably didn’t read enough diverse books when they children.

Along these lines, I now teach an online class for Gotham Writers, “Writing Children’s Books: Level 1.” I began our last session by sharing Bishop’s article and discussing it. The truth is, if I hope to assist less-experienced writers, it can’t only be about encouragement and the development of writing skills. They need to know this information, too. 

Yesterday I sat down to read Flamer, a 2020 graphic novel by Mike Curato. Not strictly a memoir, the book is based on Curato’s experiences as a young gay male struggling with his own confusing feelings, an uncertain sense of identity and place in the world. The book is unflinching in its honesty and directness, including the portrayal of bullies and personal anguish, to the point of suicidal ideation.

Curato’s book is an act of courage and compassion. A triumph in every respect. He writes in the book’s afterward:

Although living is scary when we continue to suffer, I would do it all over again to be able to write this book for you. To hope. To dream. To want love. These are dangerous acts. Fear and hope are bound up together inside of us, alongside our flaws and our divinity. In this darkness, we can find an inner light to guide us. And there is light in you, even if you can’t see it.

Of course, in our often dark world, some folks will rouse themselves to challenge and ban such a book. We can’t have that in our schools. It is currently happening all around us. An act of erasure. The book-banners final solution? To make people like Mike Curato disappear from our bookshelves and our lives.

Returning to Rudine Sims Bishop, she rounds off her essay by recognizing the limits of literature. It cannot feed the hungry or wipe out the scourge of drugs. But, she concludes:

It could, however, help us to understand each other better by helping to change our attitudes towards difference. When there are enough books available that can act as both mirrors and windows for all our children, they will see that we can celebrate both our differences and our similarities, because together they are what make us all human.

Here’s to that better world.

Here’s to books, and diversity, and mirrors and doors, and to librarians who fight the good fight, and the bright light that burns within each and every one of us.

Shine on, my good people. Shine on. Our world desperately needs your light.



“The Most Beautiful Work of All”: Patti Smith & Robert Mapplethorpe

I’ve seen a lot of concerts over the years, but somehow one of my heroes, Patti Smith, always eluded me. But I recently saw her down in Knoxville at the Big Ears Music Festival. Twice, in fact. One show was a standard rock concert with a full band in the Tennessee Theater. The other show, titled “Words & Music,” took place in a slightly more intimate setting, the Mill & Mine. No drums, no bass. Patti on stage with only her son Jackson Smith on guitar and Tony Shanahan on keyboards and various other instruments. A cozier, chattier, more relaxed vibe. Patti performed songs, including covers of Bob Dylan (“One Too Many Mornings”) and Stevie Wonder (“Blame It On the Sun”); she gave brief readings and allowed herself the time to introduce songs at length. It was, as they say, a special night.

One of the things Patti read — maybe at the Tennessee Theater? — was the letter she wrote in 1989 to artist Robert Mapplethorpe who was in the hospital at the end of a long illness. Another bright soul taken by AIDS. Patti explained that she returned home after a hospital visit and composed a short letter to her friend, a relationship lovingly chronicled in her award-winning memoir, Just Kids.

He died the next day without ever having read it.

But you can. We can.


Dear Robert,

Often as I lie awake I wonder if you are also lying awake. Are you in pain, or feeling alone? You drew me from the darkest period of my young life, sharing with me the sacred mystery of what it is to be an artist. I learned to see through you and never compose a line or draw a curve that does not come from the knowledge I derived in our precious time together. Your work, coming from a fluid source, can be traced to the naked song of your youth. You spoke then of holding hands with God. Remember, through everything, you have always held that hand. Grip it hard, Robert, and don’t let it go.

The other afternoon, when you fell asleep on my shoulder, I drifted off, too. But before I did, it occurred to me looking around at all of your things and your work and going through years of your work in my mind, that of all your work, you are still your most beautiful. The most beautiful work of all.


A Conversation with Michael Arndt, Graphic Designer and Author/Illustrator of “Snails & Monkey Tales: A Visual Guide to Punctuation & Symbols”

“I feel creators are vessels.
We fill up with input, ideas, and inspiration
until it spills over
and we empty it out into our work
so that we may fill up again.
An endless delightful cycle.”

Michael Arndt

Every once in a while, a talent comes along who is just . . . different. A fresh perspective, offering a new way of looking at things. As you’ll see, Michael Arndt comes to books from a design background. His work conveys wit, intelligence, curiosity, joyfulness. I didn’t know him at all — and I suspect that you might not either — so I invited Michael over for a chat. As luck would have it, March 22nd, 2022, is the publication day of Michael’s singular new book, Snails & Monkey Tales:  A Visual Guide to Punctuation & Symbols. Congratulations, Michael! I imagine that any lover of language would delight in your handsome new book. Let’s do this interview thing!


You first caught my attention when you started posting minimalistic portraits of celebrities on Facebook. It’s remarkable to me how you can capture the essence of these people in spare yet eloquent details. It’s all about the reduction — seeking out the signal from the noise.

Hi, James. Thank you for the kind words and interviewing me here. Yes, you put that as succinctly as I have ever heard it put. “Reduction—seeking out the signal from the noise is the essence of graphic design.

I think it’s also the essence of picture book writing — something I have not at all mastered!

It is indeed the essence. Many people think designers make things look pretty and that the beauty comes from adding to the material in the same way an interior decorator might add pillows and flower arrangements to a room or the way an artist might add paint to a canvas. Instead, any beauty we contribute comes from providing clarity, much like polishing a rough stone — and that comes from reduction, not addition.

For Black History Month . . .

Less is more.

Yes, more or less. [Insert wink.] Designers are akin to sculptors who chisel away the excess stone to reveal the form inside. My focus with those minimal portraits was on the negative shapes. I often would draw those shapes first (e.g. the faces are usually the same color as the background and therefore rely upon the surrounding shapes to define them). When you work with as few elements as possible, each element has to work impeccably and do double duty, so you have to put the negative shapes to work. For those images, I applied what I learned in my design career about scale, proportion, color, shapes, and composition to help convey the physicality, personality, genre, and historical time frame. In some cases, the color reinforced the name as in the cases of Ruby Bridges and Rosa Parks whose portraits I rendered in hues of reds and pinks…a sort of visual pun.

I appreciate the wit of your work. The humor. I love your Sonny & Cher. 

Thank you. It is funny (no pun intended), but I don’t usually set out to incorporate humor in my books. My last gift book—Minimal New York City: graphic, gritty, and witty (Clarkson Potter, 2020)—did not start out with that subtitle. While the book is catalogued under humor, I was merely trying to juxtapose iconic New York phenomena, visually and sometimes verbally. I read that humor relies upon the element of surprise, the unexpected, so perhaps that is what you and others are picking up on.

Can you give us a little biographical background? Where did you grow up? What brought you to children’s books?

Sure. My own childhood was spent in Kinderhook in New York’s picturesque Hudson Valley. It is an idyllic pastoral historic setting. Our house was built in an apple orchard. I played with my dog, rode my bike, and drew…basically how I spend my days in New York City now! There really wasn’t much else to do. Like many, I wasn’t familiar with graphic design. Instead, I wanted to be an illustrator. At one point, following my year of wanting to be a dentist (much like Hermey in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer), I was convinced that I wanted to do medical illustration. When college application time came around, I applied to various schools. Each had a different program…fine arts, illustration, editorial design, graphic design. In the end the only affordable option was the University of Cincinnati and they only offered Graphic Design…

“I guess I will be a Graphic Designer then.”

Ha, yes. Our grand plans turn like a dime on accident and chance. We’re in boats, we think we know where we’re going, and suddenly a wind fills the sails.

Agreed. At first, I didn’t “get” design. Hated it. Fought it. Wanted to transfer out of it. I applied elsewhere for sophomore year and got in. A professor pulled me aside and convinced me to stay arguing that graphic design was the most solid foundation for anything else I might want to do in the visual field, so I stayed. She was right. About a year later it all clicked and I fell in love with the quiet power of design and the way a few simple shapes or letters could convey entire worlds. It appealed to my yearning for simplicity and minimalism. But I never lost my love and respect for illustration and illustrators.

I hope you send that professor a copy of your new book.

I would like to but haven’t managed to locate her. In the meantime, I have sent copies of my books to my other professors.

Sorry, I interrupted your story.

No worries. I tend to ramble on otherwise. So, to fast forward, I spent twenty years after college designing branding and packaging, and art directing for the beauty and fragrance industry. A midlife crisis arrived right on schedule —

You bought a little red sports car?

I wish!…and yet I don’t, because I would not be speaking to you about books today if I had. You see, I was looking for something that had more personal meaning that would allow me more flexibility to work from home and spend time with my pets, even into my golden years some day. I came up with a series of animal designs that used the letters in the sounds each makes and called them by my own portmanteau “animalopoeia.” They were intended to be my own line of letterpress greeting cards. When I had 24 though, I thought, this is a basis of a children’s book. I put together a prototype and sent it un-agented to Chronicle Books—and to them only—as I thought they were the right publisher for it. To my delight they agreed and they published CAT SAYS MEOW: and other animalopoeia in 2014. That started my book career.

And another spread . . .

I love that book. It’s so clever and original. And obviously that’s because you come to it from a different perspective—you bring that graphic design intelligence to the work.

Oh, thank you, James; that is always nice to hear. I have to say, it will always have a special place in my heart as it was my first book and first time being called an author and illustrator. The field of picture books has a significant number of graphic designers who illustrate…and even write. This is not as strange as it may first appear. Picture books, for those who may not know, are rarely more than the standard 32 pages and the text is increasingly less than it was in books when you and I grew up. Designers are trained to pair images and words in a cohesive way that is visually enticing and communicates a lot in a little space. Often, as in my case, the style tends to be more graphic and typographic, but not always. That all said, designers and illustrators are not the same profession. We are more like siblings or cousins than twins. Illustrators draw, and draw well, very well. They illustrate an idea or story. Graphic designers solve visual communication problems and seek to clarify, inform, and/or motivate. Many wonderful graphic designers cannot draw at all. It is more about thinking critically about a design problem and using the most effective visual tools to solve it. Saul Bass defined design as “thinking made visual.”

I like that. For me, so much of the early stage of writing is about thinking. Which to an outside observer (my wife, for example) looks a lot like doing nothing!

And sometimes, in my case, it is literally doing nothing. My walks in the park with my dog Clooney are times when I ruminate the best. Those, and truly sitting in my apartment and literally doing nothing. They are my ways of clearing my body’s internal hard drive of its clutter and visual noise. Just as music or design or architecture or even nature in the form of Winter needs rest and so-called negative or white space, so do we as thinking, creating beings. Not to get too Zen, but I feel creators are vessels. We fill up with input, ideas, and inspiration until it spills over and we empty it out into our work so that we may fill up again. An endless delightful cycle.

Time out! I’m just going to roll here with a few sample spreads from Snails for my Nation of Readers to enjoy.

Stunning, right?

Michael, are you familiar with the books of Donald Crews? He came at children’s books from a similar perspective, the emphasis on graphic design (in particular, Freight Train, Truck, 10, Flying). I think his graphic vision helped us see those familiar topics in new ways.

I am familiar with his books! Michael Bierut, a partner at the international design firm Pentagram and president emeritus of the AIGA, wrote the forward in my upcoming book. In a personal note to me beforehand, he wrote, “Your books…as good as anything by Don Crews or Mr. [Paul] Rand.” Seeing familiar topics in new ways is a mission of mine—to impart the tenets of visual literacy to people of all ages, starting, but certainly not ending, with the youngest amongst us. A good number of my books are early concept board books for babies and toddlers.

That’s the essence to all art, isn’t it. To help us see or feel the familiar—or the neglected, the unseen—in a new and startling way.

It is, and that is the exciting part for me. It brings out the philosopher and rebel sides of me, but also the visionary and optimist sides. I want to encourage people to see things, their environment, world, and lives, first for what they are and then for what they can be. The first day of design school, our professor said, “the purpose of this class is to sensitize you to your visual environment,” i.e., to teach us how to see. This obviously has its pros and cons, but decidedly more pros. My signature line of early concept books—M books, published by Andrews McMeel—aims to do precisely that. Teach kids, hopefully in engaging ways, the “fun”damentals of visual literacy. We live in an Information Age and today’s generation will need to be visually fluent.

Could you tell us about your new book?

I thought you would never ask! It is called Snails and Monkey Tails: A Visual Guide to Punctuation & Symbols. “Visual” and “Guide” are perhaps the two most important parts of that title for it is decidedly from a graphic design and typography point of view. As such, it will appeal to designers, typophiles, anyone who delights in being visually stimulated or learning visually. That said, it is equally for the word people who live among us. Students, learners of English as a foreign language, teachers, editors, grammarians…. It is simultaneously a primer that covers the basics and what I hope an intriguing journey down the rabbit hole into the origins of the names, shapes, styles, and uses of punctuation and symbols. In this era of short attention spans and “tl;dr” (too long; didn’t read), I wanted to minimize the verbal explanations and maximize the visual elements. I hope I have a created something that is as stylish as it is informative. Did you know that the word glamour” is an alteration of the word “grammar?” I wanted to bring punctuation back by making it sexy.

While the book certainly coheres as a whole, each spread works independently as a sort of infographic.

Thanks. That is just one of the ways I wanted to make the book approachable and accessible. It is definitely not a stuffy or tedious grammar-type book. Conceptually, I wanted to flip the scale in an Alice in Wonderland sort of way. I blew up the usually tiny marks to gargantuan proportions while the body text is discreet and understated. The entire book is in classic, yet modern, black and red for dynamic spreads and the entire package is designed to be a joy to hold and read. Coated paper, matte varnish, and debossed hardcover that feels like holding a Zen river stone.

It’s a book that defies category, at least for me. I’m not sure how or where it fits, exactly, but I know I want it,

That is what in the beauty world we called “creating desire” or the “must-have” factor. In the book world it falls into the gift book category: compact, interesting, affordable books that have enhanced production value and therefore make attractive gifts.

Michael’s dog, Clooney, hanging on the Upper West Side of NYC.

Well, Michael, thank you for your time. I saw your work, we became friends on Facebook, and I just kept wondering, “Who is this guy?” Turns out you grew up not too far from where I live (Delmar, NY) and, maybe best of all, you are a dog lover. I am so impressed with your talent. If I were a children’s book art director, I’d be seeking out nonfiction books for you to “illustrate.” A trip to the zoo, a day at the airport, the first day of school — the possibilities are wide open. I’m excited to see what comes next.

Thank you, James. From your mouth to the ears of art directors, editors, and publishers. I love animals and I love knowledge, so projects like those sound wonderful. This has been fun. Thanks for the chat.

For readers who’d like to learn more about Michael, there’s this thing called Google . . .

As for me, James Preller: You might know my Jigsaw Jones mystery series. My most recent book is titled Upstander, a stand-alone novel that also serves as sequel/prequel to Bystander. It follows Mary’s experiences, enters her home life, and includes a strong Substance Use Disorder (SUD) storyline. I’m proud that both books were named Junior Library Guild Selections — ten years apart. 

Thanks, as always, for stopping by.

A Conversation with Sylvie Kantorovitz: Author/Illustrator of the Dazzling New Graphic Novel Memoir, “SYLVIE”

“My picture book background did help me
a lot with pacing
and the importance of visual variety,
and I will also credit years of reading
graphic novels and comics!”

— Sylvie Kantorovitz


Sylvie Kantorovitz is a true artist from the top of her head down to the soles of her shoes. She’s just one of those rare people where creating art in some form seems as natural as breathing. Sylvie’s latest book, a memoir in graphic novel form, is a triumph in every way. It’s a book that could have been titled, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Child and Woman.” You can’t help but be charmed by Sylvie’s story — her uncanny recollections of childhood — the warmth of her illustrations — and the path of her self-discovery. After I finished admiring the book, I invited Sylvie over to the swanky corporate offices here at the 14th floor of James Preller Dot Com. Let’s meet her!


I can’t wait to talk about this terrific book, so let’s get started. As I understand it, this book was something of a happy accident. You didn’t set out to write a memoir? 

I knew I wanted to write a graphic novel. I knew I wanted to base it on my memories of growing up in France. But I was worried about not remembering enough. At first I called the main character Lisette, and labeled my work “a fictional memoir”. Then I found out I remembered plenty! And one day my agent asked this very simple question: Is it fiction or is it a memoir? And the answer jumped at me: of course it is a memoir!

There’s a minor moment early in the book, four illustrations across two pages. You are circling a favorite tree, stepping on the roots with your brother Alibert, careful not to fall off. And to me, that was absolute perfection. You captured something that felt so right, childlike and authentic. I remember that exact feeling, careful not to fall into the shark-infested waters. 

Thank you! I really love how universal these early childhood games seem to be. Pretending the floor is lava. Or the bed is in the middle of an ocean teaming with pirates and sharks. How thrilling imaginary danger is! 

I want to get at this by avoiding a couple of standard pat answers. We often hear: 1) I’m still a 7-year-old in my heart; or 2) I still have a direct line to my childhood. And while those two things might be true for you, I want to ask: Why do you think those moments still resonate for us, still linger so powerfully in our memories? 

Haha! I am definitely not a 7-year-old at heart any more, nor do I have a direct line to my childhood! For me, as I get older, I want to define who I am, what is important to me. I want to embrace that fully and also decide how I want to use the time I have left. It’s hard work, and my memories are one of the tools that help me in figuring all that out.      

It’s interesting how this creative act opened up a flood of memories for you — forgotten memories, if there’s such a thing.

I was happy to find out that memories have a way of triggering each other. In fact, more are still coming! What became a challenge was what to keep. I chose anecdotes that I thought showed an emotional moment in the story, or allowed me to expand on who a character was. Like showing what happened when my sister fell through a roof, or when my father took me to Paris, or when I messed up on an important school test.

There’s a lot of playing in your book, which I found so relatable. An experience that is at the core of us all, I’d think. Did that come back to you easily?   

Actually yes. The school where my family lived was like a giant playground! We played in the classrooms, spied on the gardener, once had a sleepover in the infirmary. I also wanted to show how similar playtime is for children in another country, including games like hopscotch or marbles.

I could personally identify with the magical visits to your father’s office, where he had a ready supply of paper clips, markers, pens, tape, paper. Heaven for a young artist. As a boy, I used to go to my father’s insurance office. He had something that trumped all that: tracing paper!  

I can’t help wondering: tracing paper in an insurance office? But how about the thrill of using a manual typewriter?  That also was such fun!  

A snapshot of Sylvie in real life, reading in bed in 1968.

Yes, it sure was, though I was dazzled with the first electric typewriter. Wowza! I especially appreciate the variety of images and artwork, the pacing. It’s as if each chapter is its own complete, self-contained picture book, where the artwork flows in different shapes and sizes. Each spread contains a new surprise. You make it look easy. 

My picture book background did help me a lot with pacing and the importance of visual variety, and I will also credit years of reading graphic novels and comics! Growing up in France when I did, I was immersed in a great comics culture which I am so glad has arrived here too.  The variety available now for kids is amazing!

Your mother was tough. She said some harsh things, too. How was it looking back on that now, so many years later? 

Haha! I didn’t wait to write a memoir in order to examine the effect of my parent’s influence on my adult mind. So pondering over my mother’s style was nothing new to me. In the book, I tried to show a balanced view of my mother, such as her also being caring and affectionate. And how confusing those mixed messages are for a child to navigate.

Are your parents still alive? And if so, how did they react to the book? 

My father died many years ago but I think he would have been pleased. He loved all forms of expression, from the classics to popular genres to comics. My mother died during the pandemic, a few months before publication. But I think she would have been oddly proud to figure so prominently in a book by her “American” daughter.  

There’s a lot of cleaning in this book! Are you as neat today? 

Haha! I really am! I love cleanliness and order. It really started with getting that skeleton key to my own little attic room.  I still sigh with pleasure when I think of the orderly little domain I created as a girl.   

Could we see a photo of your workspace (but no cheating — I don’t want you cleaning beforehand!)? 

My two tables:


That’s so cool, thanks for giving us that glimpse. Sylvie follows your life from childhood to college. A journey of self-discovery. What age reader is this book intended for? 

It is listed as a book for children 8 to 12. But I have had a lot of feedback from adults who have loved it, which is great.

I love that very last image of you sitting on a train, a zoomy blur, catapulting into the future. You are on your way! When did you know that would be the final image? 

That scene actually moved from the very beginning — Sylvie thinking back on her youth — to the very end — Sylvie on her way to her future. I think it worked out well, as the theme of the train kept cropping up: waving at trains, taking a train for the first time without parents, loving a song about a train whistling in the night. For me the train is a metaphor for the longing I felt to go places. A longing that eventually brought me to the United States.  

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about your partner, the lovely and talented Barbara Lehman. How is she? 

Barbara is well, thank you. Her latest book came out very recently: Little Red and the Cat who Loved Cake. The Horn Book called it “Another triumph from a master of wordless picture books.” I agree!  It is also very funny.





You are also a fine painter. Is your work available for sale? 

Thank you. At this time, I do not actively try to sell my artwork. At my art table, I can do whatever I want. However, I am always happy if someone wants to own a piece. People often contact me privately and I have sold much art that way through the years.

Last question: you must have learned a lot by reflecting on your life in this way. Stories give it shape and meaning. Did anything surprise you along the way? 

I was delighted to find out my young self was not that different from who I am now. My views on people and life have evolved, of course, but my core values are essentially the same. I also realized how similar I am to my father. And I like that. It is something I hadn’t fully realized before because I didn’t have a reason to reexamine my memories and look at the bigger picture. I am glad I did!

Sylvie, I’m a little abashed by how many questions I asked you. My apologies. I truly loved your book and, of course, I’ve been a fan for many years. Thanks for giving us your life in this format, and your time in this interview.

I enjoyed this conversation, James!  And now, back to the drawing board.

To learn more about Sylvie Kantorovitz, you can find her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or her website. She’s published many other picture books, including The Very Tiny Baby, Zig and the Magic Umbrella, and more.