Getting to Know: Elise Matich

 

Recently, while visiting the Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center, I was fortunate to meet author-illustrator Elise Matich, who was signing her picture book SEW SISTER: THE UNTOLD STORY OF JEAN WRIGHT AND NASA’S SEAMSTRESSES (Tilbury House Publishers, 2023). As quite the bonus, Jean Wright herself was there too! I loved learning Jean’s story, and also learning how Elise turned it into such a fascinating book:

Me: I’m so glad I discovered your amazing book! As someone who also just wrote and illustrated a picture book about an untold story involving the improbable subject of cloth in space, I feel like we may be on the cusp of a trend (a very small one, but still). What inspired you to write this book?

Elise: Thanks, Jonathan. Congratulations on your book! I’m thrilled that the role of fabric in space exploration is having a well-deserved moment. I decided to write SEW SISTER after meeting NASA seamstress Jean Wright during a visit to the Kennedy Space Center with my family in 2019. Jean was working as a docent at the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit, explaining the ways in which heat shield blankets were used to protect the orbiters. I had no idea that the shuttles were covered in fabric, and was fascinated by Jean’s story, so I contacted her the next day, and asked if she would be interested in collaborating on a children’s book.

 

Me: So many of the details are fascinating: from the use of a 1914 sewing machine to seeing how Jean and her team helped guide a repair of the Atlantis shuttle while it was in flight! Do you have any favorite facts from your research?

Elise: My favorite nuggets from the Sew Sisters’ story are those that reveal just how much the shuttle program depended on old-fashioned skills and tools to execute its cutting-edge missions. The 1914 Singer sewing machine is a great example. In keeping with NASA tradition, it was given a nickname (“Lurch”), and was used to create the dome heat shield blankets that ring the shuttles’ three main engines. Not only was the machine an antique, it had originally been used in making another type of transportation technology—saddles! Although the Sew Sisters used machines, much of their stitching was done by hand. I was particularly delighted to learn that some of the blankets, such as the wheel-well thermal barriers, were sewn, by hand, directly onto the shuttles themselves.

Me: Your illustrations are a lovely combination of realism laced with numerous stitching designs. Is there a significance to the patterns you used? What is your illustration process?

 

Elise: The patterns were all inspired by actual quilting patterns, and reflect a technique known as free-motion quilting (sometimes called doodle quilting or meandering). The technique involves creating repeated patterns or pictures to fill a particular space. Each stitching design in SEW SISTER is meant to compliment the image it embellishes. For example, in the spread showing Jean sewing clothes for her dolls as a way of escaping a difficult family situation, I used a leaf pattern to liken sewing to the peaceful shelter of a tree.

Me: How did you get into writing for kids?

Elise: As a teacher and parent, picture books have been a part of my daily life for many years. I’ve created little booklets for my students and kids, and always hoped to be able to write a book of my own—I just needed the right story. SEW SISTER was it!

 

Me: Can you share what you’re working on next?

Elise: Sure! I’m working on a book about prehistoric life and evolution.

Me: Hey, don’t tell anyone, but one of my works-in-progress involves evolution too! But in funny, graphic novel form.

Thank you so much for chatting, and wishing much success to your book!

To learn more, please visit: Elise Matich

Getting to Know: Leah Moser

 

The good news is, author Leah Moser spoke at my school about her debut picture book, I AM A THUNDERCLOUD (Running Press Kids, April 2024)! The not so good news is that her assemblies were planned during my art classes, so I only got to hear about 10 minutes of her presentation as I dropped students off. The good news is, I caught up with her afterwards to learn more:

Me: Congratulations on your powerful debut! It literally starts with a BOOM! And then takes us through a storm of feelings before helping us find our way out. What inspired you to write this book?

Leah: I wrote the first draft of I AM A THUNDERCLOUD in 2020 when I had A LOT of my own emotions. Of all the strong feelings, anger can be challenging for children to manage and work through. I wanted to write a book connecting children to their own booms, roars, crashes, and crackles while providing strategies to calm the internal storms.

 

Me: How did you get into creating books for kids?

Leah: As a child, I enjoyed writing and creating my own stories. After taking a Children’s Literature course at George Washington University for my Masters in Elementary Education, I began taking this passion seriously. I joined SCBWI, connected with multiple critique partners, started attending conferences, and realized that I wanted to pursue a path in writing picture books.

Me: As I saw in your presentation, you (like all of us kidlit creators) have to face lots of criticism and rejection. How do you deal with the storm clouds that is such a part of our profession?

Leah: You hear NO so often on the road to publication. As you saw in my presentation, I had my color-coded spreadsheet filled with rejections or non-responses.

Sometimes it’s easier said than done, but I try to focus on the positives – a maybe, a no with strong feedback, a not-right-now-but-we-loved-it response. Additionally, I continue to work on new stories or revise older ones so I’m not just sitting around, waiting for an email to come through. I also take short breaks to reset – like cleaning my house, playing tennis, walking with my children and dog, or getting a coffee with writing friends.

Criticism can be hard to hear. I’ve learned to accept all feedback, then go through my notes later and decide what elevates my manuscript and what doesn’t. You are the author of your work. But I’m fortunate to have excellent writing partners and an editorial agent who provides strong, helpful critiques of my work.

 

Me: The stunning illustrations by Marie Hermansson really bring the moods and feelings to life. What did you feel when you saw them? What kind of collaboration did you have with her (if any, knowing authors and illustrators are usually kept apart)?

Leah: Marie Hermansson did such a fabulous job on this story. As a writer, I had no art notes at all on this manuscript. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what I was even envisioning when writing the words. Since the whole book is a metaphor, I was hoping for something whimsical and colorful with metaphors throughout. Marie knocked it out of the park!

Children connect with the character, the colors are vibrant and beautiful, and the emotion on each page is powerful. During the process, Marie and I didn’t speak directly but only through our publisher and agents. However, we often correspond now as this has truly turned into “our book.” Soon, we have joint school and bookstore visit in Raleigh, North Carolina. Since I’m located in the DC area, I thought we were just too close to not meet in person at least once!

Me: Can you share what you’re working on next?

Leah: I’m working on many projects at once. A few stories are on submission (fingers crossed!) I’m revising several manuscripts in different stages of readiness – a few SEL stories similar to I am a Thundercloud and a humorous one. I’ve been editing other authors’ manuscripts, both in my critique group and through my paid editing services (https://www.leahmoserwrites.com/editing-services). I’ve been traveling around the DC area reading at bookstores and presenting at schools. And in the Moser household, spring sports and end-of-school wrap up is in full force!

Me: Thank you so much, Leah! Wishing your book much success!

To learn more, please visit Leah Moser Writes | author

 

Getting to Know: Marta Magellan

 

One of the joys of having a garden this time of year, especially with lots of native plants, is seeing the all the bees and butterflies attracted to the flowers. If any Monarchs come through, it will be later in the season. In the meantime, I can prepare by reading Marta Magellan’s beautiful new book UP, UP AND AWAY MONARCH BUTTERFLIES (Eifrig Publishing, April 2024). I caught up with Marta to learn more:

Me: Congratulations on UP, UP AND AWAY MONARCH BUTTERFLIES! It’s a great introduction to our four-winged peripatetic friends, both the joys and the hard realities. What inspired you to write this book?

Marta: To tell the truth, I had a contract to write a series on pollinators and garden helpers, so of course butterflies had to be included. I focused on monarch butterflies because they are arguably the most popular of all insects, and so recognizable in their orange and black colors.

Me: Do you live near migration routes or did you travel to observe the butterflies in person?

Marta: Florida, where I live, is sometimes visited by monarchs on their migration routes, but it is also the home of monarch butterflies that never migrate. They’ve got all the sunshine and milkweed they need right here. Monarchs are all over our gardens and yards here, so just like retirees, they become residents. There are four that look so much like monarchs, they had fooled me into thinking I was seeing monarchs. That’s why I included a section on the residents as well as one on the imposters beginning with, of course, their incredible migration.

 

Me: How did you get into creating books for kids?

Marta: I’ve always liked to write, so I made my career out of writing. I taught Creative Writing, Composition at Miami Dade College. I was inspired by my brother Mauro’s three published books back in the ‘90’s to develop a Survey of Children’s Literature course. It was in that course that the importance of books for children became clear to me, and I wanted to be a part of it.

Me: The illustrations are a great mix between photos and lovely photo-real paintings by your brother Mauro. Can you share about his process?

 

Marta: I’m sure he can do a better job of talking about it than I, but we have done presentations together, so I can give you a general overview.

For Up, up, and away, Monarch Butterfly, as well as for my Bee Catastrophe book, Mauro used realistic illustrations. For Dragonflies, Water Angels, and Python Catchers he used cartoon illustrations. For the realistic ones, he had to reproduce each butterfly or bee using several close-up photographs. He starts with sketching with pencil and paper. He colored the cartoon ones by hand and the realistic ones (bees and butterflies) he added color on the computer. Here are some samples:

 

 

Me: Can you share what you’re working on next?

Marta: I’m hoping to write about hyacinth macaws (the big blue ones). They were almost extinct once due to the legal and illegal pet trade.

Me: Looking forward to it. And wishing your new book much success!

To learn more, please visit Marta Magellan – Children’s Book Writer and Speaker

Getting to Know: Mara Rockliff

 

As an artist, I’m inspired by other artists. As an art teacher, I’m inspired by other art teachers. After reading Mara Rockliff’s and Melissa Sweet’s new book SIGNS OF HOPE (Abrams Books for Young Readers, April 2024) I became immediately inspired by artist and teacher Sister Corita Kent! I caught up with Mara to learn more:

Me: Congratulations on your inspiring new picture book! I’ll sheepishly admit I’d never heard of Sister Corita, but through your book and further looking, both the artist and art teacher in me are wowed by her art and teachings. What motivated you to write her story as a picture book for kids?

Mara: I was also wowed! There are a lot of picture books on famous artists, but Sister Corita wasn’t just an artist; she was a teacher who had such an impact on her students that even today, sixty years later, you’ll meet art educators who say, not “I studied with Corita” or even “My teacher studied with Corita,” but “My teacher’s teacher studied with Corita, and it changed my life.”

As someone who writes historical picture books, I’m always looking for that magic combination: a subject that is fun for kids but also meaningful to the adults who will be reading it with them. So it might be the story of a gingerbread baker and spy (danger and dessert!), and at the same time, an immigrant who used his language skills to help our country win the Revolutionary War. Or it might be Ben Franklin going head to head with a spooky hypnotist waving a magic wand, but it’s also about using the scientific method to figure out what is and isn’t true. Or, in the case of Signs of Hope, it’s an awesome teacher showing students how to fill their lives with joy and color and make art through play, while for the grownups…it’s an awesome teacher showing students how to fill their lives with joy and color and make art through play.

 

Me: What’s your process of research and writing?

Mara: With Corita, I was lucky that a number of books have been written on her life and work. Once I had that overview, I looked for ways to get closer to her. I watched footage from her classroom, listened to her interviews, and searched for anything I could find in her own words. Those words turned out to be a key part of the illustrations, and also gave me a title for the book. Corita said, “The person who makes things is a sign of hope.” I realize that her stenciled posters were, literally, “signs” of hope, and she and her students were signs of hope, too.

When I’ve done enough research to see how a story might come together, I make drafting notes. My notes for Signs of Hope started like this:

What is the purpose of this book?

  • Introduce the art of Corita Kent (show her style)
  • Teach what she taught—look at ordinary things in a new way, be playful, see beauty
  • Include some of her messages? love, peace, hope, joy, faith, energy, light, justice, equality, optimism, gratitude

After that, I outlined what to write about and in what order:

  1. How she sees: other people see the ordinary, the common, the ugly (billboards, store window ads, street signs) but Corita sees art.
  2. How she collects: taking photos, cutting out words from magazines, etc.
  3. How she designs…

And so on. Surprisingly, the finished book closely follows that outline, though the manuscript went through many drafts.

The biggest challenge in revising was finding a way to make the story feel more immediate. Originally, I’d started it like this:

  • What do you see on this city street?            
  • People in the 1960s passing by see ordinary street signs,
  • ugly billboards, and too many window ads to pay attention to.

My editor suggested that I focus on Corita’s students, and I realized they could tell the story, speaking in a collective voice:

  • Sister Corita teaches us to see
  • what everybody sees
  • but doesn’t see.
  • Ordinary street signs,
  • ugly billboards,
  • posters no one pays attention to.

…so readers, too, become Corita’s students, peering at the world through “finders” to discover something new, then returning to a noisy, messy, and exciting classroom to make art.

 

Me: I love how she tried to get students to really see, and that your book is told from the point of view of her students. Writers also have to be careful observers, but has working on this book changed the way you’ve looked at things visually or in other ways?

Mara: Corita said, “One purpose of art is to alert people to things they might have missed.” She looked at the same things as everybody else, but saw them differently. If she picked up a loaf of Wonder bread, she took the big red WONDER on the bag as an invitation. Then she’d transform it into an eye-catching, unexpected piece of art that made other people wonder, too. She told her students, “Always be ready to see what you haven’t seen before.”

Groundbreaking artists have often rejected high-flown “artistic” themes in favor of the everyday, whether it’s peasants in a field or cans of soup. What interests me is how that changes over time. Corita saw the value in the commonplace, but what was ordinary, even ugly in the 1960s is now old-school cool. If she were alive today, what would she be noticing and turning into art? Sometimes I look around a supermarket parking lot and wonder if our grandchildren will get nostalgic over scenes of shopping cart corrals, sweatpants, and SUVs.

Me: Illustrating books about art and artists can be a particular challenge, but illustrator Melissa Sweet’s interpretation is stunning. I know authors and illustrators are often kept apart, but did you have Melissa in mind when you wrote this? How did your collaboration work?

Mara: When Courtney, our editor at Abrams, wrote to me about finding an illustrator for Signs of Hope, she talked about the tactile, collage-like quality of Corita’s art, her engaging and often surprising use of color, and the way she played with type. Then she pointed out that all those things were also true of two-time Caldecott honoree Melissa Sweet. I certainly didn’t need any convincing. My only thought was, Will she really say yes? My agent said, “Shoot for the moon, why not?” And here we are.

It’s true that authors don’t collaborate with illustrators in the sense of sitting down together or even communicating directly. Anything we want to tell each other goes through the editor and the designer.

At the same time, our work is obviously intertwined. Kids learn that the illustrator makes the pictures and the author writes the words. But I don’t just write the words that appear on the page. I also need to explain what’s happening in the scene, share visual details and photo references, and generally try to give the illustrator what she needs to do her job. And the illustrator, likewise,  can have a big impact on the text. Melissa asked questions, made suggestions, and found ways to let me trim the text by packing more of the story into the art. She also did research of her own, and came up with several of the quotes incorporated in her illustrations.

 

Me: Can you share any other projects you’re working on now?

Mara: I’ve got a very different picture book with Abrams coming out next fall, hilariously illustrated by Gladys Jose. It’s called All at Once Upon a Time, and it’s a goofy fractured fairy tale where stories like Jack and the Beanstalk, Goldilocks, Little Red Riding Hood, and Cinderella are all happening at once—but not exactly as they used to, once upon a time. At every page turn, readers have a chance to guess what’s coming next. (Hint: not what you expect!)

Me: Wow, can’t wait! Thank you so much for chatting. Wishing Signs of Hope much success!

To learn more, please visit: Mara Rockliff | Children’s author | Mara Rockliff, children’s author

Getting to Know: Gabi Snyder

 

I love to look at the world. I love to look at books. And I find I’m really loving to look at the stunning new book, LOOK (Paula Wiseman Books/S&S, April 2024) by author Gabi Synder, which is all about – you got it – looking! I caught up Gabi to learn more:

Me: Congratulations on your wonderful new book, LOOK! As an art teacher, one of my main goals in training young artists is getting them to really SEE, so I’ll definitely be using this in my classroom. What inspired you to write this book?

Gabi: Thanks, Jonathan! Getting ourselves to really see the world around us can be challenging. It can be easy to walk through our days with a kind of tunnel vision, not really noticing much. I wrote LOOK as an ode to paying attention to patterns in the world around us, both in the natural world and in the world of human-made things. I’ve always enjoyed looking for patterns. As a child, I found patterns both fascinating and calming. Discovering a pattern can feel like unlocking a mystery or solving a puzzle. Patterns help us make sense of the world around us. And seeing or creating a pattern is intrinsically satisfying and reassuring – like being able to predict the next note in a song. I hope the story provides an example of how tuning into the world around us and paying attention to all the patterns we share can help us feel centered and connected.

Me: I’m not sure if it’s because I have an artistic sensibility, but I always find great joy just looking at things; the play of light, shadows, reflections. What do you find the most joy in looking at?

Gabi: I agree. There’s so much joy in looking at things. I love seeing the dance of light – sunlight or moonlight – across water. I love dappled light through trees. And starlight and constellations can be mesmerizing. And rainbows! Seeing a rainbow – or a double rainbow – always feels magical to me. In terms of patterns, I especially love fractals. Look at this Romanesco broccoli. The way the pattern repeats at different scales is simply beautiful!

Roman broccoli extreme close up

 

Me: The illustrations by Samantha Cotterill are stunning to say the least. How did you two get paired? Is there anything you can share about her process or your collaboration?

Gabi: Samantha Cotterill’s illustrations took my breath away! I suspect that we were paired because my editor knew that Sam’s intricate diorama style would be the perfect match for my manuscript with its focus on patterns. I love the intricate 3D worlds Sam creates, and I’m totally smitten with her super-saturated colors and exquisite lighting.

I know child me would’ve loved spending hours inside this book – seeking all the patterns, some easy to find and some hidden, within Sam’s art. And there’s a whole extra layer of story told through the art that’s only hinted at in the text. We see packed boxes and a “sold” sign on the family’s house. And we can see that the boy in the story will soon have a new sibling.

 

In terms of Sam’s process, she’s shared that she decided it would be “best to illustrate LOOK in a more realistic manner…one that would enable a smooth transition for the reader from the book to their own world surroundings” when looking for patterns. She also shared that before this book she did not enjoy drawing flowers and was avoiding the flora in this book for while. But what an incredible job she did with the flowers! Here’s Sam’s favorite from the book’s cover.

 

And a beautiful boat.

 

Me: How did you get into writing for kids?

Gabi: I dabbled in writing for several years before I took a leap and studied creative writing, with a focus on writing fiction for adults, at the University of Texas. After earning my MA, I took a succession of jobs that used writing (like grant writing and instructional design), but I struggled to find time for my own writing.

Fast forward to 2013: when my kids were little (3 and 5), we moved from Austin to Corvallis, Oregon. With a break from work following the move, I found time to get back to my own writing. Only by then, I’d become immersed in the world of picture books and fallen in love with this form of storytelling. In 2014, I wrote my first picture book drafts.

Me: Can you share what you’re working on next?

Gabi: Currently I’m working on a story about dreaming and another about starlight. And I’m (very slowly) revising a middle grade manuscript with a touch of magic realism that’s set in Seattle.

Me: Intriguing! Thanks so much for sharing. Wishing LOOK much success!

BONUS! A few more days to enter this fun giveaway:

LOOK PRE-ORDER GIVEAWAY!

Illustrator Samanatha Cotterill is offering an amazing LOOK pre-order giveaway!

Link to giveaway — https://www.formpl.us/form/6484744827437056

 

“I am excited to offer two glossy 5 x 7″ art prints from our upcoming book when you pre-order a copy from anywhere books are sold. Simply submit your proof of purchase (a simple photo of the receipt with sensitive information crossed out will suffice), and I will send you two prints, a doodle, AND enter you in to win one of 5 free custom journals to mark your own observations in! (Prints and journals will go out the first week of May. This giveaway ends April 15th at 11:59pm EST)”

And to learn more about Gabi, please visit: gabisnyder.com