"Today the greatest challenge in publishing is distribution and discoverability. As a result, sites like [PictureBooksReview] are more important than ever to discerning readers, new authors and independent publishers."
-Steve Floyd, chief executive officer of August House books

"The interview is so amazing! I appreciate you picking up on all these aspects of what I've been doing. It's always great to talk with someone who understands what goes into these things."

- Jose Lucio, self-published author of Heave Ho!
Showing posts with label Conversations. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Conversations. Show all posts


A Conversation with Terry John Barto

Before writing children's books, Terry John Barto directed and choreographed more than 200 regional theater productions. In addition, he was the creative mind behind numerous television and cruise ship shows throughout the world.

He currently lives in Los Angeles and was good enough to talk about two books he wrote which I reviewed recently:
Nickerbacher, The Funniest Dragon and Gollywood, Here I Come!

What themes connect these two books?

Following your dreams, perseverance, and being true to yourself.
What was your own journey like? Was working in theater something you wanted to do as a child?
I'd always put together little shows in the living room when I was young, making tickets and charging admission for my family to come. The productions became more elaborate and I forced my little brother to perform on the pool's diving board.

In High School, I was in a singing group that got me interested in performing. I trained as a dancer and performed in theater productions and various roles at Disneyland, then choreographed a group called The Great American Entertainment Company founded by Bob Jani, who had created the Main Street Electrical Parade! I continued choreographing several musical theater shows and a few years later was directing as well.

So having worked in theater, why did you decide to pursue picture books?

While I was directing a show, an actress had asked me to be part of her new production company. She thought I had good story-telling abilities - as a director - and wanted me to help hone her ideas. We developed scripts for animation and out of one story, we created dolls. The company only lasted a couple of years, but I gained so much experience that I could then add to my resume.

I sent it out to about a hundred animation affiliated companies and got a response from the VP of Walt Disney Television Animation. He encouraged me to start developing my own ideas. One thing led to another and along the way, I met an editor who encouraged me and worked with me to develop these picture books.

Do you work with comedians in your theater work? Did any of them influence the character of Nickerbacher?

I performed with someone that had become a comedian, and consulted with her on Nickerbacher. I passed on a bunch of jokes…. some were tossed aside and others were tweaked. The comedy was the hardest part!

I contacted another comedian friend with regards to the overall story. She had a suggestion for the approach that a comedian would take... when Nickerbacher is practicing in his room, I had originally written - He auditioned and auditioned. After awhile, he finally got his big break. My friend told me that comedians practice on audiences and prepare, so that line became - After many hours of practicing and preparation, he finally got his big break. 

On a side note; In Nickerbacher's room, the pictures on the wall are supposed to be his idols, and they are my comedian friends that helped!

How much back and forth did you have with the artist with regard to character design and the overall look of the books?

For Gollywood, Here I Come!, I tried to get an artist who was extremely busy so I worked out all the scenes in advance. Ultimately, she couldn't do it and I ended up with a great artist from Italy, Mattia Cerato. I e-mailed him the scenes that I had already developed and for reference, sent him a book about Southern California in the 1950's. I had specific ideas for each of the characters, even the smaller parts.

With Nickerbacher The Funniest Dragon, Kim Sponaugle and I created the scenarios over the phone. We went page by page, then she set out to draw preliminary sketches. Before she did the coloring, I offered suggestions and insight.

Is writing children's book been just a part time hobby for you, or has it become the new focus of your career?

I continue to focus on my writing career and have other projects I'm working on.

For example, Nickerbacher, The Funniest Dragon has evolved to a newly released chapter book called (just) Nickerbacher. This time I've taken a step further of what comedians do. They speak from personal experience and truth., so Nickerbacher learns that being a comedian is more the puns and jokes. It's about telling a compelling story. All 3 books can be found on my author page at Amazon. amazon.com/author/terryjohnbarto

 Part of the Conversations with Storytellers series.


A Conversation with Agatha Rodi

Agatha Rodi
A couple of months ago, I was pleased to review Amelie Gets Busy, written by Grecian author Agatha Rodi. The story concerns a young girl and her relationship with her grandmother, or yiayia. I was curious about Agatha's real-life yiayia, and also how the Greek financial crisis has affected her life and career as a picture book writer.

You dedicated the book to your mother and grandmother. Did your grandmother live on a farm similar to the one in the story?

Oh yes, my grandmother still lives on a farm in our village! She is around 93 - though her real age is not known to family members. You see, back then parents registered their kids years after their birth!

My yiayia's name is Athanasia, meaning Euthanasia. She's a very sweet Greek-type yiayia, thinking only of cooking and cleaning. Her witty remarks can make you wonder for days, and although she is illiterate, her comments on serious issues are very wise! I always admired her courage when she lived up in the mountains, without electricity, only having water from a spring far from the peak.

I also admired the way she confronted life in general. I would choose the word stoicism to describe her attitude towards life's dramas and great joys. I always have her in my mind, thinking of her daily life when visiting her, the way she reacted and how she treated her animals with tenderness. She was a real devotee and she introduced all her grandchildren to farm work and to the secrets of good cooking! The smells and the images are always there, even after so many years! Her cooking is still exceptional, that's why I couldn't resist writing about cookies, spinach pie and Feta cheese. She prepared dairy products on her own in the traditional way, too.

When recalling her special bond with trees and animals, I can only tell you she was very affectionate and respectful towards nature. She taught me to take care of everything and be patient till the fruits or food came out in their season. Her yard was full of chickens and roosters, birds and smelly roses. I couldn't stop playing with all the animals or not help her with the housework. I love my yiayia for being so alive and realistic about life, she is a true philosopher for me. She has been deprived of a lot, but she enjoys life's moments in a unique way, every time she has the chance.
My mother Nikolitsa has faced similar challenges in her life, and I dedicated my first book to both of them since their determination and persistence are truly exceptional. I could not do differently but refer to these two Greek warriors!

Τell me how the Greek financial crisis has affected you.
It is for us a constant reminder of tensions, stress and a fear which changes face almost every day. This is the simple truth of how people of any social status feel about our situation here. The feeling of insecurity prevails over any type of decision and makes you wonder about tomorrow and the future in general. Being both a school owner and a teacher working full time, even on weekends, to keep my school while paying new added taxes every month makes the situation unbearable and it has been 5 years now that this is happening.
There is no chance of economic recovery when the unemployment rates have risen frantically. Families are supported by in-laws, grandparents, close relatives or volunteers in every municipality, getting food and if they are lucky enough, finding a place to sleep. Unemployment means homelessness since mortgages aren't paid, then banks seize the houses. Is it a Greek Drama? Well, yes, unfortunately these two words fit best to what we experience.
It is unfair for all the Greeks who have worked very hard in their course of life, to struggle to have a decent life. The ongoing austerity measures from the government's part along with sentiments of disappointment and excessive frustration displayed by the Greeks, facing lack of peace and health problems are apparent. From my point of view, the Greek Financial Crisis functions as a means to steal everybody's joy and hope.
I personally don't intend to let this happen, no matter what the obstacles will be. I can't surrender to it. Here is a challenge to everybody, learn anew to compete with challenges that favor as well as the growth of character and wisdom!
 My grandmother Athanasia and my grandfather Gabriel outside their mountain home. 

How has it impacted you as a picture book author?
It is a fact that Greek publication houses face significant issues. The most renowned of them were forced to close down after being around for many decades.
The imposition of Capital Controls brought a freeze in the market so this has caused a series of events including writers, too. At the same time there has been a very promising community of entrepreneurs, either publishers or writers, whose purpose is to urge new writers to come out and are open to new things. Children's books sales were not affected so much, but books' prices have lowered so much that books are sold mostly at bazaars or at open markets for 2 euro. Financial crisis doesn't permit Greek buyers to give 15, 20, or 25 euro to buy a book from the bookstore.
If a Greek writer considers all the above seriously, then s/he may find no purpose on pursuing their writing goals. But this is not the case. My thinking is that a writer exposes their personal experiences on their book's pages and speaking for children's stories, they offer a vision to learners and a perspective. Although the Financial Crisis has left its scars I could never stop writing my children's stories.
I am surrounded by different age groups at my school on a daily basis. Both younger kids and teens dream big of their future and most of the time are impressed with what they have read in a book, asking for more details or even making inspirational comments. I teach English and French, so the texts used in different age groups cause a stirring of discussions and comments!
This kind of curiosity sparks my own imagination, both as a teacher and a writer. I need to escape from the harsh reality, to imagine and learn more from my stories. When I want to write, I forget the financial crisis and whatever is involved with it, I only expect to lose myself in the story. I consider myself lucky for being able to write what I like, to give hope and offer joy!

As a teacher, are you paid by the Greek government? How does that work out?

I am paid by the parents of my students. Although English and French Language is taught at primary, High School and Senior High School, the Greek educational system doesn't provide the kind of knowledge and practice needed for a Certificate or Diploma in a foreign language. This gap is covered by the private Centers of Foreign Languages that have mostly their students from kindergarten till Senior High school years. Parents have to pay for the annual fees and some of them choose to have private lessons at home.

It may sound strange but this is what happens here in Greece, having the Centers of Foreign Languages (CFL) being in a turmoil, especially this year when for three months, a special tax was imposed to parents who were obliged to pay 23% added tax for their kids teaching. After a great struggle, both by the parents and the CFL Owners, the tax was annulled at the beginning of December 2015 but the damage was already done.

Due to the financial crisis, unemployment, and the 23% tax, the CFLs had a 50% reduction in the number of their students.
 The view from my grandmother's house to the village of Santameri,
How is your yiayia dealing with the crisis?

You may think I am joking but I have asked her so many times about how she thinks of her children and grandchildren experiencing this situation, and how she feels about the future. Any time I recall her face and deep gaze, there is no sign of worry.

You see, for her it's the third time in her life she’s experienced economic destruction. The absolute poverty she experienced as a child can't be described or even compared with that of today, when she feels like a queen in our village house, having all the necessary provisions to live a decent life.

Her answers show us that she worries a lot, because she wants us to be happy. At the same time, her eyes tell us not to give up. When she is pressed - especially by me on how to overcome the whole situation since there is no way out - she chooses to pose questions to me, making me wonder about life's worth. She repeats that things will get better and I only have to be strong and not to lose hope or my inner energy. The future may be far away for her, but her belief is that things will be better since this is how life is.

"Everything is a circle and this one is not completed yet, so stop wondering and let's do what kind of chores we have for today!" What can I say? My grandmother Athanasia is one of a kind!

And what does she think of your writing?

Well, at the beginning - about 7 years ago - it seemed to her like a task I was assigned at school, or maybe she connected it with my job as a teacher. When I started interviewing her on clarifying certain information about our customs and celebrations, and daily village routines, she answered me in detail, but wondered who would be interested in those things.

She now has a smile of gratitude and an amazing spark on her face, this says so much than any words spoken. I do believe she is happy about me and feels very proud of what I do. As we say, her eyes' smile is Love winking at me!


A Conversation With Christopher Stanley

Christopher Stanley is the author and illustrator of the beautiful self-published picture book, The Tree Watcher, which I reviewed on the site last month. The focus of the story is the beauty of trees, as seen from the point of view of a child. It was his first picture book, but not his last!

Can you describe the day you had the idea for the book?

It was mid-summer, and there were many things on my mind. From issues at work, to dealing with simply trying to keep my house clean when four children live there, I felt very distracted and was definitely not being mindful of my many blessings.

I decided that I wanted to walk down to the park, and I took Sam along so that he could have a change of scenery. As we started walking, I wasn’t really paying attention to my surroundings. When we were down the street a bit, I looked down at Sam to see how he was doing - and that's when everything changed. You should have seen his face! Here was this baby boy, all of 9 months old, teaching me about wonder, joy, and mindfulness. The way he was looking up at the trees, I could see how amazed he was.

And he was right! I stopped to look as well, and it was really quite extraordinary. We are fortunate enough to have many mature trees in our neighborhood, and I was overcome with their beauty and just their... dignity.

As we continued along, I joined Sam in being mindful of my surroundings, and many of those questions and scenarios from the book happened on this walk. It's truly amazing what we can experience just by paying attention.

You were a fan of picture books to begin with?

Indeed! They have always had such an impact on me. I remember getting The Eleventh Hour by Graeme Base when I was about 10 years old, and I was just obsessed!

In seventh grade, I read MAUS for the first time – and that changed my life! Reading this graphic novel, which really is just a fancy picture book, set me on the path toward becoming a history teacher.

As picture books were such big parts of my life, I always wanted to make my own. I made simple ones as a child, but I really started wanting to make a picture book when I was 26. I had a good idea, and even wrote an outline, but never did anything with it. It really wasn't until that walk with Sam that "The Muse" spoke to me, as it were, and I decided to actually follow through with my life-long dream.

So it took almost ten years, but I'm happy to report I'm following through. What a walk that was, huh?

I'm a fan of Art Spiegelman as well, and I like that you conflate graphic novels with picture books. Do you use picture books / graphic novels in the classroom?

I did! I used Maus quite frequently. In fact, my local comic shop has an entire section devoted to educational graphic novels on many different historical topics. I fully support the use of graphic novels in the classroom - it makes learning so much fun for everyone involved! What a great way to relate any story!

How did you create the images for you book?

My artistic medium has always been photography and digital art. For this story, I decided to capture some of the actual trees that Sam and I had encountered on our walk. So over the course of a couple of months, I took pictures. Some I had Sam pose in, others not.

The image from the cover is actually a Beech tree in my front yard! One of my favorite pages, the page with the autumn leaves, is on a street by my eldest daughter's middle school. I turned down the street and knew right away I needed this picture for the book. So after I took the photos, I started manipulating them on my computer.

Some photos took little time and effort, while others I spend a lot of time getting what I wanted.

Overall, it took about four months to get them all done.

As you manipulated them, what exactly were you looking for?

I was looking for images that were both aesthetically pleasing and which captured the essence of the message.

For the page that accompanies, "Can you feel the branches whisper with the wind?" I didn't really know what I was looking for, but knew I couldn't find it. Then one day at a park I don't normally frequent, I saw this row of trees lined up at an angle with the sun shining through the outer branches and the wind lightly blowing across. I knew I had found it!

"Can you feel the branches whisper with the wind?"

From there, I attempted to have the branches appear to be "reaching out" upon the wind - I think that page turned out well for accomplishing both goals. I was going for a surreal effect - I wanted the reader to feel a touch of magic when looking at the pictures, because it was magic that I felt that day on the walk.

What do you generally do with your graphic art, if not for picture books?

I used it a lot for teaching/educational purposes, and then mostly on items that I turned into gifts for my family and friends. This was certainly my most ambitious project, and it was quite the educational experience. I really felt like I was creating something, and putting a little bit of myself into each page. A friend suggested I should start creating puzzles out of some of my pictures, so who knows, maybe I'll add that to the list someday!

And now you have another book coming out? Is it thematically connected in any way?

I do! It's looking like around the end of February/early March and it's called, I Dreamed I Was a Bird. It's from a poem I wrote, where I imagined what kind of things a child would see and do if they had a dream where they turned into a bird. It's not thematically connected to The Tree Watcher, apart from being able to see things from a different view than we normally do.


A Conversation with Barry Dunlap

Barry Dunlap
Barry Dunlap lives near Baton Rouge, Louisiana with his wife and four children. He earned a Master's of Arts in English at Southeastern Louisiana University, where he studied under Tim Gautreaux. Barry's poetry, stories and reviews have been published in a number of literary journals.

Most recently, he has ventured into the world of picture books with Mr. Mosquito, illustrated by Ellen Howell.

Why picture books?

About seven years ago, I participated in a training on The Six Traits of Writing. I’d been working as a consultant with the Louisiana Department of Education. It was a "Train the trainer" model. I was trained in order to provide training for teachers in 15 school districts.

The 6 Traits are for all genres of writing. The trainer - Bev Flaten - used different picture books to illustrate different strengths. She used several Cynthia Rylant books, some Margaret Wise Brown… many more. As a result, I developed an appreciation for the medium.

And so where did this particular picture book come from?

It just came to me one morning as I sat at the computer with a cup of coffee. I'm guessing I had probably swatted at a mosquito during the night. My wife and I had discussed in conversation weeks earlier the tidbit about female mosquitoes being the "biters," so I just thought about the humor of a poor, misunderstood male mosquito.

The beauty of the picture book is that big ideas can be communicated through just a few images. Mr. Mosquito conveys the concept of something being threatened because of ignorance. That idea is present, but really, I intended it to be a short, fun way to communicate a fact that many people don't know... that male mosquitoes do not bite.

Mr. Mosquito

It seemed to me that the illustrator really imbued the character with a lot of personality beyond what your words suggested.

Ellen Howell and I have been friends for over ten years. I knew she did fabulous work and had illustrated at least one other children's picture book, so I contacted her to see if she was interested. She told me to send the draft to her and she would see if it inspired her.  It's obvious that it did.

I shared a few descriptions concerning how I envisioned Mr. Mosquito, and her wonderful illustrations made the character come to life.

Why French?

There's a ton of French influence here in south Louisiana, and I thought it would be appropriate to have the mosquito-- what we jokingly call the state bird-- speak with a French accent. Then, I thought, subtitles would be a great way to introduce young readers to the French language. Finally, in hindsight, I think the Henri Le Chat Noir videos had some subliminal influence on the character's accent.

Mr. Mosquito

What would be your dream come true for Mr. Mosquito?

I would love for the book to be used by educators and parents to introduce the French language to their English-speaking children. A friend who has three young children told me recently that when the kids see a mosquito that doesn't try to bite them, they say, "There goes Mr. Mosquito!" Hearing something like that is a real treat to me!

Part of the Conversations with Storytellers series.


A Conversation with Matt Bergin

Matt Bergin was born and raised in the Bronx, and is the author of two picture books, both illustrated by Zach Wideman, Blank Slater, the Boy with the Dry-Erase Face and Lesky Lee, Monster of Monsters, which I reviewed here.

It was a good fit for the blog, as Halloween is now just around the corner, and it is crammed with classic movie monsters. As I stated in my review, the key moment - for me - comes when the heroine, Lesky Lee - having successfully defeated the monsters which populate her nightmares - turns to the reader and says, “Bored now.”

It's a funny moment, a clever moment, and seems to pinpoint the tone of the whole book.

I asked Matt if he agreed with my astoundingly insightful opinion.

That moment is certainly the point where readers should realize things are never so simple. Lesky had a relatively straightforward problem - ack! nightmares! - and she came up with a very direct solution: beat them up. But what she is left with after that (spoiler!) is a dull dreamscape lacking any excitement or color. On the surface, she got exactly what she wanted: monster-free dreams. But really, it was only what she thought she wanted. 

There are several takeaways from the story that all tie back to that moment: be careful what you wish for, don't make rash decisions, compromise trumps conflict. It is a tiny twist in a fairly short tale, which I hope readers appreciate both as a moment of levity and as a challenge to their expectations. The "one act" version of Monster of Monsters would end before "Bored now" with a simple moral of "face your fears" or "stand up for yourself"... but Lesky would agree, simple is boring.  

Fun fact: Attentive pop-culturists should know that "Bored now" is a nod to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, although Lesky is clearly more Buffy than Evil Willow (for whom it is a foreboding catchphrase). 

And speaking of pop culture, my oldest daughter (who was my only daughter when I first wrote Monster of Monsters, is an October baby, so her birthdays have often had a Halloween theme and she's always gravitated towards things like Scooby Doo, Monster High, Universal Monsters, and Goosebumps. Inevitably, with so many cartoon creatures filling her brain, she would have occasional bad dreams. Rather than shelter my girl from her fiendish fun or let her succumb to the scares, I focused on teaching her that she was the boss of her brain and that it was up to her to take charge of her dreams.

We made her a "Monster Stick" - a big, polished branch with colored duct tape and stickers - to aid her in any bedtime battles, and I encouraged her to tough it out through the night. This inspired Alexa to stay strong most nights (even at 8, she still climbs into bed with Mom and Dad occasionally). It also inspired me to work out those initial rhymes that turned into the book. The very first draft of Monster of Monsters was spoken aloud to Alexa as a bedtime story, made up on the fly, to help erase any fears she might have over Vamps, Wolfs, or Witches that night. I knew I had to see this book through to publication after my first doodle of Lesky Lee shaving the Wolf-Man. 

Why picture books?

I've dabbled in other forms of writing, but I've always been most drawn to sequential art and visual storytelling. I've written some small press and self-published comics, and continue to tinker with a handful of long-in-development comic scripts. But once I became a father, my focus turned entirely to my child. That meant everything, including my creative energy. It is not that broad of a leap from comic books to picture books, and frankly, I've found my voice writing for my target audience: my kids.

There's also something to be said for the satisfaction of finishing a creative project, which is much easier to do with picture books when your time, attention, and resources are spread thin by a full-time day job and a growing family at home. Picture books, and even the non-illustrated pieces I write and post on my website, are immensely satisfying, but take a fraction of the time to write than even the shortest prose story. I can't imagine locking myself away in an office for all of my free hours hacking away at a novel that may never see the light of day, while my kids grow up and away from me and the world passes me by. With an 8-year-old and an almost-3-year-old vying for my affections, and job and wife competing for what's left of my attention, this is exactly the medium for me. 

What is your relationship with the illustrator, Zach Wideman?

Actually, I hired Zach for my first book, Blank Slater, The Boy With the Dry-Erase Face. I successfully funded that book through Kickstarter, all of the money raised going toward paying publishing fees and Zach's modest page rate. It was my first picture book and Zach was just getting started with his freelance illustrating business, so he was more than fair to me with his price, and we each learned a lot from one another on that project. We were so happy with how that first book came out that we decided to do another one, and I am sure we will do more again in the future (I just need to replenish the warchest -- paying an artist is not cheap, especially when there is no money being made yet!).

My scripts are industry standard picture book scripts - the words you see on the page plus some light art direction for important story beats. I also share my own sketches. From there, I ask him for rough sketches of how he interprets the story, and then we edit.

Writing is revising, and so it goes for writing picture books. Seeing an artist's interpretation of my words might inspire me to add more words or encourage even more sight gags and Easter eggs. Zach and I went back and forth quite a bit on what monsters would appear in Lesky's dreamscape, what each one would look like, color choices, etcetera. While my script was light on art direction, we soon moved into working with a marked up PDF of rough layouts - move this here, add this there, make this pop. We also played around with the visual tone of some of the action - vampire fangs flying through the air made one image too violent, so they were nixed; a test reader thought the wicked witch was bleeding, not melting, so we revised the colors pooling at her feet. Then there's font choice, word placement, and the mechanics of building a digital proof. Quite a bit of back and forth to put something like this together. And believe it or not, it was all done remotely, without Zach and I ever meeting. We still have yet to meet or speak. Honestly, Zach may be a robot!

Great to hear the experience from Blank Slater… was enjoyable enough that you wanted to continue with another book. Were there any lessons from that experience which you've applied here? 

I've enjoyed the process of all of this: from joining SCBWI a few years back, consuming all of the critical information I could from the organization's website, newsletters, live events, and peer members; to trying and trying and trying again to successfully pitch an agent (still trying, by the way); to joining the DIY movement and figuring out how to 'Kickstart' my own self-publishing efforts. And then, of course, I enjoyed writing and refining my Blank Slater script through many incarnations (Blank's gone from comic strip to Disney pitch and a few things in between, before finally finding it's face as the book out now).

I learned everything I could about the picture book industry, best practices for first-time writers, script formatting, query letter etiquette… A huge lesson along the way with Blank was that so much of it was about timing and subjective opinions. That is the lesson that ultimately sent me down the self-publishing path and a successful Kickstarter campaign. When enough people tell you how "great" something is or how much they "love" what you've done, but it's "just not a good fit" for them "right now"... and then you see so many cool creator-owned projects launching in that other sequential art industry next door (comics), you have to make a move. That's what I did with Blank Slater.

And then with Monster of Monsters, I knew I wanted to do another self-published book and to do one more project with Zach. We were energized, we had a good system in place for working together, and I wanted to follow up Blank while that first book was fresh in people's minds and the two titles could support one another. So that was that. The rest of it is what it is. I am still learning. I could have done a million things differently with Blank, I could probably do some things better with Monster of Monsters right now, and I'll encounter a few forks in the road toward whatever becomes my next project.      

Putting "Lesky Lee" at the forefront of the title gives the impression, at least to me, that she’s meant to be an ongoing character. Will there be more Lesky Lee stories?

My next project is something tentatively called Fluffless, A Squirrel's Tail, an ugly-duckling story starring an ambitious but deluded rat. It's a longer piece, prose with spot illustrations. I'll likely release that myself in 2016 and then get back to actively pitching new scripts to agents and publishers.

Nothing officially planned for more Lesky Lee, but there's a very loose idea for a sequel or two. I talk a big game about self-publishing, but it's a not-so-secret dream that the payoff to my putting these two books out myself is that I could sell a publisher on continuing the series. "Lesky Lee, Maker of Monsters" displayed prominently in the front window of Books of Wonder next to a deluxe hardcover re-release of "Lesky Lee, Monster of Monsters" would be awesomesauce. (I should get to work on that 'Maker of Monsters' script, eh?)

What nightmares do you have?

I think real, live, wide-awake humans are way scarier than anything that might creep into my subconscious while I am sleeping. So I don't really have any nightmares or monsters of my own. 

Actually, that's not true! I dedicated Lesky Lee to my two little monsters, my kids. But they're no nightmare.

Part of the Conversations with Storytellers series.

Be sure to visit Matt at his website, and Zach Wideman at his!


A Conversation with José Lucio

Jose Lucio
Photo credit: Stephen Boatright
Jose Lucio is an illustrator living and working out of Savannah, GA. Heave Ho! Is his first picture book.

As I pointed out in my review, he has a great eye for design which elevated the simplicity of the story.

Where do you see the connection between telling a story and your design work?

Yes, first and foremost I am a visual artist, so keeping true to the design principles is always at the top of the list for me.

When I wrote the book, I did the whole thing visually first, and then brought in the text to supplement the visuals. Each page needed to be able to stand on its own as an independent composition, but in addition to that, they had to all relate to one another with a very cohesive aesthetic. Any bigger messages or ideas would be lost if the kids were never captivated by the images to want to read the rest of the book.

What was the physical process of designing the book? It looks to me like cut-paper..?

It is all designed digitally, but of course in a manner to replicate cut paper design. I use vector shapes in Photoshop and then layer up textures and filters to get the proper effect.

One part I really enjoy, and often spend too much time on is figuring out what texture will best portray the subject I'm working on. For example, with the worms I used facial wrinkles from humans to create the wriggly worm essence.

Another key to my style is keeping it educated yet rudimentary. It needs to have a bit of that quirky clunkiness to keep that lighthearted feel. If it gets too polished it tends to lose that visual punch; I feel that way about most art in general.

Heave Ho! almost felt to me like a flipbook. Flipping through it, the illustrations become almost animated.

It was indeed a choice to have the setting in the book remain the same, and all of the characters pile into the frame until the page is just bursting with all that's happening. I really enjoy working in this manner, because it allows young readers to really chart the progress of the story as it works toward the climax. Then they can also see the story wrap up as all the characters leave the pages.

Heave Ho! by Jose Lucio
You've been doing quite a bit of promotion for the book, including cardboard cut-outs of the characters. I'm sure it's a lot of fun to do, but do you think that's the sort of lengths that a self-published author/illustrator has to go through in order to 'get noticed?'

Self-publishing actually wasn't my first choice; I reached out to quite a few publishers, but never got any leads. After that I took a little while to regroup, do tons of research, then decided to self-publish, and then still did a whole lot more research. It is a very hands-on venture, or at least, I feel that it should be. I've always been one to take the Do-It-Yourself approach generally, and once I realized that I was treating the book differently than other creative projects I've worked on, I had to ask myself why that was? I guess I just got hung up on the idea of industry standards, and it was hindering the whole process for me.

In my recent interview with Emma Walton Hamilton, she said that she does not recommend self-publishing - yet - for picture book authors, and speaks of 'the gatekeepers.'

I agree with her completely, Self-Publishing can leave authors missing out on vital experience and understanding that the Traditional Publishing route has engrained in its process. With all of the advancements in technology and social media these days, there is this general vibe that you can do anything you set your heart to... and you can! But along with that we have to subject ourselves to critique, and compare our work with many other works before we push it out into the world.

First off, we as creatives must make sure that we truly understand what quality work looks like; this is very important, and not always as easy as it sounds. It's more that just saying "I like this," or, "I like that"- we have to break things down to the basic principles and get to the psychology of why things resonate. To get to that understanding means studying Color Theory, Design, Creative Writing, Rhythmic Prose, subjecting yourself to critique on a regular basis, studying other writers and illustrators, oh- and of course lots and lots of practice!

As Emma had mentioned, there are still the "gatekeepers" in the Publishing industry who serve to make sure the author's work is ready to be presented to the world. A Self-Publisher must also act as all of those "gatekeepers" initially, and then find others to comb over the work in the same manner. I guess what it comes down to, is that the Self-Publishing author has to replicate the rigors of the Traditional Publishing world, and subject the book to those standards. 

To comment on her thoughts about marketing, it is so true that the challenge of getting the work out there for a self-published author is far greater than the task of creating the book. I've been stumbling through the process for the last 10 months, taking on new challenges as they come, and just like the Heave Ho! worms, trying to use that outside-the-box thinking whenever possible. It's easy to try and rely on the internet to do everything for you, but I've had much more success (and fun) by actually getting out there in front of people. 

This industry, like any industry, is full of standards. Standards about writing, printing, publishing, and marketing. My absolute favorite part about self-publishing has been the creative control. I can put those industry standards to the same critique that I have been subjecting my work to for so long, and then decide what to adhere to, and what needs a more unique touch.

Heave Ho! by Jose Lucio
At the Buffalo Small Press Book Fair

You even went on a 13-city book tour, doing readings at bookstores and participating in bookfairs, including my fair hamlet of Philadelphia.

https://ssl.gstatic.com/ui/v1/icons/mail/images/cleardot.gifI stayed at a great hostel in Philadelphia! It was on the west side of the river in Fairmount Park. The second day I was there I walked from the hostel and toured all over the city on foot.

I camped as long as I could, which lasted up until Louisville, then it started to get a little chilly. I would always stay out exploring the city I was in until fairly late, then have to drive out to the edge of town in the dark and set up camp to the chirps, hoots, and howls of all kinds of creatures, the whole time hoping I was in the right area. It was always hard to tell because it was so late and dark.

Thank you for noticing and addressing the dedication I put into the tour; I would actually hear that quite often from other authors and folks I would meet along the way. It surprised me that they were so surprised about what I was doing. For me as an artist, it's not just about making a book and putting it into the book industry, or making a painting and putting it into a gallery- there's a need to play with ideas and concepts, mixing genres and fields together to suit the project. 

We were driving the whole time, the car packed up with lots of books, art supplies, and a big worm and bird cutout. The whole tour went pretty smooth, no big mishaps except racking up a ton of tickets from toll booths and parking meters in PA, man they were draining us!

Heave Ho! by Jose Lucio

How did you come to make the decision to offer the entire book for free on your website? That seems like a tricky business decision!

I just want to get it out there- that's what the tour was all about, selling enough books in Birmingham to make it to Athens, and so on all the way down the road- but getting people to talk about it and spread the word is the real payoff from that venture. In any creative field like this, you have to be doing it because you love it, and that's not to say: set your sights low because you'll never make a living, but to say: it takes a lot of time and effort. You need to have that creative drive to be able to stay with it during that process.

I really just see the online version as a preview of the book. I suppose there are some folks out there who are content to just read it online, but they're really not getting the whole experience, and kids, if your folks are only reading you books online, it's time to speak up and say, "Take me to the library! Please!"

Visit José at his website and order Heave Ho! directly from him!

Part of the Conversations with Storytellers series.

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