"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 self-publishing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label self-publishing. Show all posts


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.


A Conversation with Emma Walton Hamilton

Emma Walton Hamilton
Emma Walton is the author of several books for children, including the popular "Very Fairy Princess" and "Dumpy the Dump Truck" series. and non-fiction works such as "Raising Bookworms."

I would imagine she grows weary of having this pointed out, but she also happens to be the daughter of Julie Andrews, a fact only pertinent because the two of them have collaborated on several books.

I met her through the promotional efforts of the people behind Picture Books Summit 2015, where she will be speaking on the topic of "Is Your Manuscript Truly Submission Ready?"

The conference will be held on October 3rd, 2015 and should be a big deal. More information can be gleaned at their site!

Emma was good enough to answer some questions about the industry and her career.

How has the picture book industry changed? Was a submission-ready manuscript in 2005 the same as a submission-ready manuscript in 2015?

I have seen the industry change quite a bit over the last 16 years since my first picture book was published. The word count has shrunk tremendously - where 1000 words was more or less the norm back then, now the ideal word count is somewhere between 250-500 words.

There’s also much greater pressure on sales numbers. When my mother and I first started writing together, a good general sales number to aim for was 15,000 units in order for a picture book to “earn out.” Now, that number is closer to 50,000.

On the plus side, I’d say that we’ve seen the pendulum swing back toward picture books in terms of their popularity in the market place, and as a result they are being taken more seriously in the industry. They are being appreciated for the works of art that they often are.

When a picture book marries the perfect text with magnificent art, it’s a rare pleasure for readers of all ages.

From a writer's point of view, it seems almost counter-intuitive to storytelling to have to take into account as-yet non-existent illustrations. Shouldn’t a story work regardless of whether it is illustrated or not?

Remember that they are called “picture books” for a reason. The pictures are as important, if not more so, as the text. The idea is for the young reader/listener to glean as much from the art as from the narrative - the art should complement and further the story, not be a mere mirror or reflection. With this in mind, the goal should be to write as much as you need to initially to get the story down, but then to whittle it down to its most economical form.

If you are fortunate, you may be asked for your input when the time comes to pair you with an illustrator. For instance, we were able to convey to Christine Davenier, the wonderful illustrator of our Very Fairy Princess series, that we hoped Gerry might have red hair and have her socks around her ankles and holes in her tights, in contrast to her wings and tiara. Fortunately she was open to this and ran with it. But there are other illustrators who prefer to have autonomy,  and the rewards are often surprising and delightful.

In my experience, picture book texts are best when they focus on character and action, rather than description - in other words, nouns and verbs rather than adjectives and adverbs. The wonderful author/illustrator Dan Yaccarino, who taught for the Southampton Children’s Lit Conference that I am fortunate to helm, says, “The illustrations are the adjectives!”

The way I work - and the way I advise my students and editing clients to work - is to write the story first, using as many words as it takes to get it out there. Once I have a first draft, which is always much too long, then I make a “dummy”... in other words, a mock-up of how I think the text will lay out across the 32 pages, assessing where the “page turning” points are and imagining what the illustration(s) will be that accompany each page. This is the single most valuable revision tool I know of for picture books, and I invariably end up slashing and re-writing and learning so much about how to improve the text from this exercise. Then I convert it back to narrative prose format for further revision and submission. 

Dumpy the Dump Truck

Do you encourage the traditional publishing route, or is self-publishing a viable alternative?

Self-publishing is a viable alternative for some, but I don’t recommend it - yet - for picture book authors.

The vast majority of successful self-publishing ventures are in the realm of adult non-fiction - Self-Help books, and the like. There are also a few success stories with respect to Young Adult (YA) novels, but there are still very few successfully self-published picture books.

There are several reasons for this. The first is that there are still a lot of “gatekeepers” in the world of children’s publishing - reviewers, booksellers, schools, librarians - who have a good deal of power with respect to how and where a book gets sold or reviewed, and they maintain high standards with respect to the quality of the picture books they will advocate for. They still believe strongly in the value of the editorial process and the “vetting” that a traditionally published picture book goes through.

As you know, there are certainly some very high quality self-published books out there, but there are many more that are not - and there isn’t yet a system to help booksellers or librarians - or bloggers! - distinguish between the two when they are presented with so many to choose from each year. So they often resort to a blanket rule that they won’t review or sell self-published books. 

The other issue is the challenge of marketing and promotion. Writing and publishing a book doesn’t mean anyone will know it’s out there. There are tens of thousands of books published each year - so unless you have the skills and resources to invest in some significant promotional efforts, there’s a slim chance of it being found amidst all the other noise. Just because a book is available on Amazon, for instance, doesn’t mean anyone will find it or know to look for it, no matter how wonderful it is.

The exception can be books that speak to a very specific niche market. This is one of the reasons that adult non-fiction/self-help does better with respect to self-publishing - they tend to have a specific audience to reach out and promote to, or who are actively looking for books on a specific topic. The same is true of YA - that readership is hungrier and more likely to go looking for something fresh or different.

Remember, too, that YA and adult readers buy their own books, but picture books are bought by "middle-men" - parents, grandparents, teachers, librarians - not by their intended audience. Those buyers tend to be too busy to do extensive searching. They tend to buy what they a) have heard good things about, or b) are drawn to on the bookshelf, not by doing internet or Amazon searches… unless, again, it’s a particular topic or “niche” they’re looking for. 

All this may change, down the line, which is why I say “yet.” Publishing is undergoing sea-changes, as everyone knows, so it’s possible that trends may move toward better supporting self-published picture books. But I don’t think we’re there yet.

The Very Fairy Princess

How did you first become interested in writing picture books?

I was an avid reader as a kid, and very aware of how much I learned about the world from reading. I also spent long hours writing stories as a child, and all the way through my teens, so I think it’s been an interest from day one.

Even in my early adult years, when I was working as an actress and then a theater director and producer, I wrote a lot of stories - often in verse. My work in theater then led me to dramaturgy - helping playwrights with their plays - and later to teaching playwriting to middle and high school students. That taught me a lot about story structure, since the principles of good storytelling are the same whether you write fiction, plays or screenplays.

My mother wrote two middle grade novels in the ’70’s, and was later asked if she might consider writing a picture book series. She felt she didn’t know much about picture books, and I was a young parent at the time with a lot of interest and insight into the picture book format, so she invited me to partner with her. I jumped at the chance. Eventually I left the theater to pursue writing, editing and teaching full-time.

Emma Walton Hamilton and Julie Andrews

How is it to write with your mother?

Our process is very organic. We brainstorm ideas together, and then rough out an outline before we start writing. We need to know what the central dramatic question of each book will be, what the theme and plot will be, etc. Then, when we start writing it’s literally a process of finishing each other’s sentences. We talk it through out loud, and I type as we talk.

We tend to overwrite to begin with, so once we have a first draft, we go back through it together and revise, revise, revise. We make dummies of our manuscripts so we can visualize what the illustration progression will be, what the balance of text per page is, etc. and we tighten and trim and polish, then convert it back to narrative format.

It takes a long time to get it to the point where we feel ready to share it with our editor, but thankfully it’s usually a mutually respectful and creative process.

How heated do the arguments about the fate of Dumpy the Dump Truck become?

I’m happy to say that we seldom get into arguments or debates. We think very similarly, and generally live by the motto that “the best idea wins.”

In your book Raising Bookworms, you talk about getting kids to read. So you've now approached the topic from two different sides - from the point of view of the child reading for pleasure, and now from the point of view of the author writing for the child reading for pleasure. How do you see these two as being connected?

I see reading/literacy and writing for children as being intricately intertwined.

Children’s literature is one of the few writing genres where you have to take your audience deeply into account as you write, and keep them in mind at all times -- and this is true across all formats. With picture books, you have to keep two audiences in mind: the very young child who is most likely studying the illustrations and listening to the story as it is read aloud, and the adult who is reading the story aloud to the child/children. You have to keep in mind the vocabulary and emotional development of your youngest reader, in order to engage them and allow them to take the emotional journey alongside the hero or heroine, without ever talking down or preaching to them. You also have to – hopefully - write in such a way that the story is “reader proof.” In other words, the adult reader, no matter how comfortable they may or may not be with reading aloud, can convey the spirit and story you intend to deliver. 

With chapter books and novels, you no longer have the middle man, for the most part, but you still need to be cognizant of your audience’s level of development, and how that impacts their ability to absorb ideas, language, imagery, themes, etc. My good friend Patricia McCormick, who writes YA novels that are often quite dark, says something I love: “I am always aware that I am writing for other people’s children.”

Writing for children and young adults carries with it a unique responsibility, one which doesn’t necessarily exist in adult literature.

For more about Emma, visit her website!

Part of our Conversations with Storytellers series.


A Conversation with Cheryl Johnson

Cheryl Johnson
Cheryl Johnson is a life-long Mainer and the author/illustrator of several picture books, most of which feature Mish, a talking mushroom, including Mish the Mushroom Man, Mish's Winter Celebration, and The Three Mishkateers and Dot.

She does everything herself, including her own marketing, which has taken her down a rather strange path of late... 


If I am understanding you correctly, you are currently dressed up as a giant mushroom, walking about Portland, ME, trying to sell copies of your picture books?

I did it for four hours today and got a lot of attention - and a lot of strange looks! But I did make a couple of sales. It's pretty hard on the neck – the mushroom cap is heavy - but I intend on doing this until October of this year, or whenever my outrageous student loans are paid off-whichever comes first.

Having a student loan debt which has risen to $90,000 dollars is making me very desperate.

At 38 I started art college...oh my goodness...big mistake, that! I graduated with $38,000 of debt and the interest has driven it up to $90,000 - by this time next year, it will certainly be $100,000. The interest rate is 9 ¾% and there is just no way I can make over $750 dollars in payments every month until I'm 90! I owe so much money now, it's destroyed my security and my credit.

Was art college necessarily a complete mistake?

I loved it. I went to MECA from 1993-2000 and was on the dean's list for most of it. But I made no meaningful, long-lasting contacts that furthered my art career. They didn't even offer illustration at all back then, so I had to take oil painting as a major.

I thought I'd be able to teach art after I got my BFA and found out that nope, I needed $30,000 more to get my masters or teaching certificate. Crum!

I had to find jobs immediately to pay my mortgage and support myself and the two children who were still at home. Then I was diagnosed with cancer! Go figure!

Wow. It's like you're the Breaking Bad of the picture book world.

Cancer, the cause primarily of all my financial woes, is something I live with every day. I had breast cancer, diagnosed less than 6 months after I graduated, so I took two back-to-back deferments to figure out what I was going to do. I had two sons still at home -12 and 14 - and I was a single parent. I watched my mom die in less than two years of fighting cancer, you know: chemo, radiation and surgery... over and over and she still died a miserable death.

The oncologists gave me a 50% chance of survival if I did their chemo and radiation. The odds were not good enough so I opted instead to find less destructive ways to cure myself. I found a book here in Bridgton by a woman named Hulda Regher Clark called The Cure For All Cancers. 14 years later I'm still here.

Sidley's Story
From Sidley's Story
The Three Mishkateers and Dot
From The Three Mishkateers and Dot

The Three Mishkateers and Dot
From The Three Mishkateers and Dot


So you only published your first book last year? What have you been doing artistically for all those years previous?

As a teenager, it's all I did, hours and hours every day. But raising four children and working minimum-wage grunt jobs in order to survive, I didn't have the time or the energy to pursue my real passion.

At the moment I work for Stave Puzzles, located in Norwich, Vermont. They are wonderful people and I have loved working for them, but I cannot make a decent living working for them, as a freelance and someone who does not do my own cutting, I have to wait for a person to cut my designs, test them and get back to me.

The process is slow as molasses and doesn't pay me for many hours of work. Last year I made about $3,000,including the royalties. My best year was about $8,000, still not enough to begin to pay my bills. It's very technical drawing, I have to stick to a strict criteria.

I'd rather draw children's books.There are 6 so far-since last October. I am working on 2 more.

Why a mushroom? Where did the idea for Mish come from?

I really have no idea. When people ask me that, I've started responding "Why not?" I mean....Sponge Bob Squarepants? Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Mish is just...well...Mish. I have a glass mushroom bank on my bureau that I've had since I was about 8 years old… maybe that's where I got the initial idea.


Did you immediately go the self-publishing route?

I always wanted to publish books but I never had a clue what to do. I had written Mish years ago and I sent it out to about twelve different publishing houses. Not even a personal rejection, just form-letters saying thanks, not interested.

I then contacted a vanity-press publishing house who said they liked my story and were willing to pay for part of the initial printing and also market it, but they wanted one of their house artists to draw the cover and they wouldn't do the first printing in color. The premise of that story is color!

I'm a bit territorial about my art.

Self publishing seems to be the answer at present. There is no start-up money involved, Createspace even issues the ISBN freehand all I have to do is create!!! Awesome!

I am praying that someday a national company will pick me up. I wonder how many books I'll have to sell before someone notices? I've sold about 600 so far, since October.

Cheryl Johnson
A young fan approaches...
Cheryl Johnson

Cheryl Johnson


Between being on the street and working various jobs, how do you find the time and energy to create?

When I'm pressing to finish a book, I draw day and night. It's not unusual to devote 15 hours a day to drawing. I get up and stretch often, walk three miles every day, that's when new stories come to me. I don't really know where I find the energy sometimes, except that I just feel compelled to keep at it.

My children - once a major distraction - and working minimum wage exhausting jobs both kept me from doing much creating before. Now I have more me time. I'm 59. If I don't do "my thing" now, when am I? At 80?

My neck and back start hurting towards the end of a couple 15 hour days but I work through it. I am in a creative headspace 24/7 so no, it's not hard to get back to it. When I'm not doing my thing, I have withdrawal.

What has been your approach, being out on the street?

When I was dressed as Mish last Wednesday in Monument Square, I just stood by my cart and smiled a lot, waved if people looked my way. Many people were curious enough to come right up to me and ask, "What is going on?!" So I got to tell my story over and over.

People took lots of pictures of me and asked if their kids could stand beside me.

Has it given you a different view of Portland?

I sit on my little mushroom stool these past few days, observing the people walking by, sitting on benches... Yesterday, a girl with a hula hoop did her act in front of the monument, it was very cool.

To me, it's like being in a free-form impressionist moving picture, the colors and forms changing continually and over lapping into each other.

I love Portland, as a city. Lots of good energy there.

What advice would you have for a young artist contemplating art school?

Have rich parents.

For myself, I'm hoping I get to hang around the planet a few more years so I can give back to the universe a little more.

For more information about Cheryl, please visit her website, Mish and Friends.

She also has a GoFundMe page!

Cheryl Johnson

Part of our Conversations with Storytellers series.
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