Tag Archive for Andrew Karre

5 QUESTIONS with Elizabeth Zunon, illustrator of “Don’t Call Me Grandma”


I believe in Elizabeth Zunon. In fact, if we were at a roulette table right now, I’d gather all my chips and push them forward onto the square labeled “EZ” and let that big wheel spin. Elizabeth is a sensitive, perceptive artist who is just beginning to scratch the surface of her potential. Come, let’s get to know her better.



Did you immediately know that this story by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson was right for you?

Yes! I could immediately picture what Great-Grandmother Nell would look like, and what kind of person she might be, both based on her memories and the fancy, frilly things she had in her bedroom. There are many strong women in my family who have been present all my life, and I’ve amassed some of their jewelry and baubles that I knew would be great reference for creating Great-Grandmother Nell’s world.

This book is about a young girl’s relationship with her great-grandmother Nell, who is a little scary. She’s not outwardly affectionate. And I see that you dedicated it to “all the strong and powerful ladies” in your life. Were you able to draw upon personal experiences while telling this story through pictures?

Maybe not actual personal experiences of being afraid of my own great-grandmother (nor my grandmother and great-aunts, who were all pretty affectionate), but I drew on my experience of having these strong, powerful, independent ladies as role models in my life. I was always enthralled at their stories of “the old days” and I used to love (and still do love) looking at old pictures of them, especially since they are no longer here to share their wisdom.

Your art rewards close scrutiny. The deeper I look, the more I see. You seem to enjoy textures, fabrics, working in layers, and yet your illustrations convey simplicity and immediacy. I wonder if you could select one piece and try to explain your process. I’m sorry, I guess I’m trying to ask the question: “How the heck do you do it?”


Sure, let’s see how well I can verbalize my process . . .

I use my full-size sketches as the basis for my final illustrations. I placed the sketch for this spread onto my light table, and placed a piece of brown Canson paper on top (this paper is the skin color of Great-Grandmother Nell and the little girl). Next, I traced the sketch in pencil onto the brown paper, removed it from the light box, and used a brown brush pen to draw over all of my pencil lines. I used black pen to draw over the eyelashes, eyebrows and nostrils. I added highlights on the faces with pastel colored pencil, and painted the little girl’s hair with acrylic paint. I then traced the rest of the shapes in the image onto tracing paper (the clothing, pillows, bed, lamp, etc.) and rifled through my collection of colored and patterned paper to find the best fit for each item: lacy white paper for the pillowcase, solid magenta for the girl’s shirt, etc. I cut out each of those items in their chosen paper and glued them onto the illustration . . . . It’s a lot of tracing and cutting and gluing!

The book gives us a child’s glimpse into the mysteries of the adult world. Could you relate to Nell’s fascination with her grandmother’s “special dresser called a vanity”? That scene where she learns how to apply lipstick seems like a rite-of-passage for every young girl.


I had a fascination with my grandmother’s dresser, which was not a vanity, but where she kept her jewelry box. She had pretty earrings and many elegant brooches she would wear on her coats and scarves. I don’t recall ever being taught to put on lipstick as a rite-of-passage . . . my equivalent would probably be getting my ears pierced, which I didn’t get done until I was thirteen. I’ve been collecting and making funky earrings ever since!

Maybe I’m thinking of my own life, where my sisters taught their little brother how to do it. The way you’d have to pucker the lips inward. There was always something cool about that. But of course you are right, that first ear-piercing is a big moment. Did you go to Crossgates Mall?

Yup, at Claire’s!

When the book shifted to the great-grandmother’s memories, you changed your style of illustration and went with a very wet watercolor. Tell us about that decision.

That was a suggestion from the Art Director Andrew Karre and Editor Carol Hinz. We needed to show that these memories were not as crisp and real in Nell’s mind as her current day life. I love playing around with watercolor (usually outside when I’m near a body of water) and it was great fun to try to create an actual illustration with watercolor.

I imagine that your workspace is just a mess. You are holding scissors –- snip, snap –- surrounded by decorative papers and fabrics. Am I correct? Do you have a photo you can share?

Desk1 Desk2

Ehhhh, well it’s not a total mess. I try to keep it organized. Big messes stress me out a bit.

Thanks for those terrific photos. I see now that are precise, neat, everything is in its place — but sometimes it takes a mess to get you where you need to go.

I keep my big pieces of paper in a flat file, and scraps in plastic scrapbooking bins. When I’m collaging (is that a word?), my desk is definitely a mess of scraps of colorful paper and scissors of various sizes. If I happen to be working on collage in the living room, forget about keeping it neat. The tiny scraps of paper take over . . . the couch . . . the carpet . . . and I get these little ridges on my right middle finger and thumb from gripping the little nail scissors I use for intricate shapes . . . but that’s all part of the package! Vacuuming those tiny scraps out of the living room carpet once I’ve finished a project is an essential part of keeping my sanity.

You were born in Albany, NY (where you now reside), but spent much of your childhood in the Ivory Coast in West Africa. How do you think that influenced your aesthetic? Your sense of beauty?

Growing up in the Ivory Coast shaped my color palette and my love of pattern and geometric shapes. I miss living in the tropics! The warm winds, the beautiful mangoes, bananas, flowers, the bright, handmade clothing and everything else displayed at the market that I would pass on my walk to school every day all made a mark in the colors and shapes I use . . . and the palm trees! God, I miss palm trees . . . big fan palms, planted all in a row, lining the roads! Using warm colors and geometric shapes are just a part of me I guess! That nostalgia for my childhood home is a heavy feature in my work.


But now in upstate New York you get all those shades of gray. Bet they didn’t have that on the Ivory Coast!

Not that I remember. There were gray days of course, but never cold and gray. Warm and gray is easier to take.

How did you come to children’s books? Can you identify any favorite books or illustrators?

Two of my favorite books as a kid were The Snowy Day written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats, and Cherries and Cherry Pits written and illustrated by Vera B. Williams. I took many art classes at Guilderland High School, and at the encouraging of my art teacher Ms. Brown, I applied to the Rhode Island School of Design (and other schools). I got into RISD and just went for it!

The Talking Heads went there. That’s what I think of when RISD comes up.

Yes, they did, haha! Ahhh, art school . . .


I decided at the end of my Freshman year there that Illustration was what I wanted to study. I discovered many more illustrators there, including the work of Kadir Nelson which I really admire. I took many children’s book illustration and writing classes, and upon graduating in 2006, moved to Jersey City, NJ, found a day job working in a flower shop in Manhattan, and submitted my art portfolio to book publishers and sent out postcards, hoping to get illustration work. I attended monthly SCBWI meetings and events, and went to an SCBWI conference (I think at the Society of Illustrators?). There, I had a few person-to-person portfolio reviews with editors and agents. Lori Nowicki, agent of Painted Words, saw my portfolio, asked if I’d had any illustration jobs (I hadn’t landed anything yet), and said she knew which publishers my work would fit with. I signed with her and she’s been my agent ever since! A few months later, I lost my job at the flower shop, decided to move back to Albany, and within two weeks, Lori had gotten me my first book contract! That was My Hands Sing the Blues: Romare Bearden’s Childhood Journey written by Jeanne Walker Harvey, published by Marshall Cavendish (now Two Lions Press).

I always want illustrators to write their own stories. I know it can be intimidating for some, out of their comfort zone. Do you have any plans to write?

Oh yes! I’m working on my first authored and illustrated book right now! It’s called Grandpa Cacao, due to be published by Bloomsbury Books in Spring 2019. I love language and the written word, but the images come to me first. Grandpa Cacao is a picture book about a little girl and her dad baking a chocolate cake while learning about the girl’s grandfather, a cacao farmer in the Ivory Coast who harvests and prepares the cacao before it becomes chocolate. It’s based on my father’s childhood memories of being on my grandfather’s cacao plantation.

I’m so glad to hear that. In addition, you have a new book that just came out, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, The Legendary Miss Lena Horne. If you don’t mind, please tell us a little bit about it.

liz-1It’s the story of African American singer, actress and civil rights leader Lena Horne. She’s probably most known for her movie (and song) “Stormy Weather”, but she had many other successes, including being the first black actress to sign a contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer film studios. She refused to play stereotypical black roles like maids and mammies in films, and was one of the youngest member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (at age two!). I loved illustrating Lena Horne’s story, especially since I listen to music when I work, and this is the first project where the person I was drawing and painting was the one actually singing to me!

Thanks for stopping by Elizabeth, I’m so happy for your much-deserved success.


In addition to her career in children’s books, ELIZABETH ZUNON also works part-time for the Albany Bureau of Tourism. No, not really. (Maybe she’s just not a winter person.) Elizabeth keeps a great website and Google’ll get you there.

Authors and illustrators previously interviewed in my “5 Questions” series include: Hudson Talbott, Hazel Mitchell, Susan Hood, Matthew McElligott, Jessica Olien, Nancy Castaldo, Aaron Becker, Matthew Cordell, Jeff Newman, Matt Phelan, Lizzy Rockwell, Jeff Mack, London Ladd, John Coy, Bruce Coville, Matt Faulkner, and Susan Verde. Coming soon: Robin Pulver and Susan Wood. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function. 


5 QUESTIONS with JOHN COY, author of “Their Great Gift”



I don’t know what it is with Minnesota, but there’s a lot of great children’s book people from that state, and John Coy is a shining example of all that is great and good in the land of lakes. Each year John quietly adds new quality work to an already outstanding career. Ask anybody in the business about John Coy, and you always hear the same thing: Big Respect. But on the basketball court, they say: No Hops. Today I’m happy to talk about his timely book, Their Great Gift: Courage, Sacrifice, and Hope in a New Land, featuring the photographs of Wing Young Huie.


John and Wing.

John and Wing.


Hi, John. In a way, this book began on a basketball court twenty-five years ago. That is, through friendship. Give us a little bit of background on your relationship with photographer Wing Young Huie and the genesis of this book.

Wing and I met each other playing pick-up basketball in St. Paul. We were often on the same team and he’s got a deadly outside shot. I learned quickly that getting him the ball with the game on the line was a good way to keep the court. Later I played with him in a weekly game for years and we’d go out afterwards as a group. I’ve been a fan of Wing’s extraordinary photography for a long time.

That’s great. I share that in common with you. I play in an old men’s baseball league — hardball, still — and I value so much that companionship of men from assorted backgrounds. It’s an escape and a release and a pure joy. But tell me. Why did this particular topic of immigration speak to you?

Hmong boy scouts

This book had a much different process than any of the other picture books I’ve made where I have not known the artist. I was having lunch one day with editor Andrew Karre and he said, “I’ve always wanted to do a book with Wing Young Huie.” I told him that Wing and I were friends and that I’d love to do a book with Wing. Andrew suggested I write something that would work with Wing’s photographs. Wing has over 35,000 photographs, but I knew he had many of recent arrivals in Minnesota and I’d always wanted to do a book about arriving in a new land.

For Their Great Gift, the photos came first. It was your task to write something that pulled it all together. Is that right?


Actually, the text came first. I wrote it thinking about the stories I’d heard of different people in my family coming here. After Wing saw the text, he and I got together and he suggested changes to make it broader and more inclusive. I talked with people who had come here from other countries and incorporated their suggestions as well. Our goal early on was to make the story open so people could bring their own thoughts, experiences, and questions to it.


In order to write this, you had to think deeply about the nature of America, and the role that immigration has played in our country’s development. What did you discover in the process of writing this book? Did anything surprise you? Did you feel sadness? Inspiration? Pride?

This is a subject very close to me. My uncle didn’t speak any English when he started school and I was brought up hearing stories about how difficult it is to give up a life in one country and start anew in another one. I also heard about
how hard the immigrant experience could be and how some people were not welcoming to new arrivals. As I got older I read more about it and realized this is a very old story in the United States — who is welcome and who is not. I also became interested in how often aspects of being an immigrant are passed down in families, often without us even being aware of them. In terms of emotions, yes sadness, inspiration, pride, but most of all a deep appreciation of the struggle so many people go through to get here, so often so the children and grandchildren will have greater choices. Just typing that sentence about sacrifice brings tears.


I don’t think most people can fully appreciate how difficult it is to write simply about a topic of great complexity. What was the process of winnowing down like for you? I mean, after you removed your forehead from the plasterboard.

I’ve been thinking about this story for twenty years. I’m sure some of that winnowing was going on in my mind, but I also knew the power of Wing’s photographs.

You had that ace up your sleeve.

Right away, I knew the less text the better so that people could bring their own family stories to the topic by seeing the photographs.

Same spread.


Interesting, so the text had to be sparse, leaving an open space for readers to enter with their own stories. But even so, you still had to try to arrive at the essence of the immigrant experience. And that means throwing away a lot of images and pages and pages of text.

Yes, that’s exactly the process. Wing and I would discuss a single word for over an hour trying to get it right. Once Wing and I settled on text, he began the process of choosing images for particular pages. We had a wonderful team with his gallery director Stephanie Rogers and editors Andrew Karre and Carol Hinz and designer Danielle Carnito at Lerner. Since we all live in Minnesota, we could get together and discuss text, images, fonts, and design. Together, we went through many discussions before arriving at the place that felt right.

There’s a great power to Wing’s photographs, the simplicity of just “giving face” to the contemporary immigrant experience. Do you think that’s the ultimate takeaway for this book? A recognition that these are real people seeking the same basic things for their families?


I always want readers to choose their own takeaways. I will say that when I read this book, I have never had kids and adults pay more attention than I do with Their Great Gift. Wing’s images are so powerful that they speak directly to us and cut through so much of the noise around us.

Okay, let’s address it. Were you ever concerned, in this time of heightened sensitivity to “cultural appropriation,” that this wasn’t your story to tell?

Yes, this was a discussion that Wing and I had from the beginning. I started out telling the story from my own personal experience and then tried to move outwards to make it as broad and open as possible so that others could see themselves in the story. I am very grateful to all the people who shared their stories in the process.

Did you any have specific sources you went to for inspiration? Books, speeches, images? I’d guess that you started writing this book . . . by reading?

This book started in listening to people’s stories. The more we’re able to listen to other people’s stories, the more we’re able to understand who we are.

As a writer, I had this experience only once, when I wrote Bystander. I could imagine the book being discussed, to the point where I thought of it as a “talking book.” I saw the novel as a means rather than an end, sensing that the conversations after would be more important than reading the book. I feel that way about your book too, John — a good way to begin an important conversation.


I think that there are a number of conversations happening that are long overdue. Sometimes the conversations aren’t easy, but that’s what happens when there are things we haven’t been talking openly about for a long time. I’m appreciative of people who’ve made their own sacrifices to bring these conversations forward.

Your book ends with a question. Did you always know that’s where you were going to end up?

That question was there in the first draft. I’d given a talk at a young authors’ conference and discussed the people who’d come before me that allowed me to be in the position I was. I asked students to think about who in their family had made a significant sacrifice to provide them the opportunity they had. And then I asked them to think about what they were going to do with this gift.

UnknownYou’re a good man, John Coy. Before I let you go, could you please tell us a bit about Gap Life, your new book for YA readers?

Thanks for asking. It’s the story of Cray Franklin whose parents will pay for college but only if he studies what they want. That’s not what Cray wants and he struggles to find his own way. I’ve been fascinated by how many people have told me stories about not being able to study what they wanted and how deep this goes. Cray meets some remarkable people who help him get to places he didn’t expect.

I’ll add it to the reading list. And again, congratulations on Their Great Gift.

Thanks for asking me to answer these questions. I really enjoyed thinking about it. Very glad to be on the same team with you making books.


The “5 Questions” Interview Series is a side project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function, which works swimmingly. 

Authors and illustrators previously interviewed include: Hudson Talbott, Hazel Mitchell, Susan Hood, Matthew McElligott, Jessica Olien, Nancy Castaldo, Aaron Becker, Matthew Cordell, Jeff Newman, Matt Phelan, Lizzy Rockwell, Jeff Mack, and London Ladd. 

Coming soon: Elizabeth Zunon, Bruce Coville, Matt Faulkner, Robin Pulver, and more.