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

Getting to Know: Dave Roman

 

One of the many fun things about always attending the Gaithersburg Book Festival has been getting to know perennial guest, Dave Roman (who comes down from NYC!) When I first met Dave, he was working on his cool series ASTRONAUT ACADEMY (hmm, guess I like books about kids going to school in space). But now he has a new hero: Unicorn Boy! I caught up with Dave to learn more:

Me: Congratulations on your awesome new graphic novel, UNICORN BOY (First Second, March 2024)! I love the mix of magic, talking muffins, friendship and – spoiler alert – the power of cats! How did you come up with this epic tale?

Dave: All my books are just big mashups of cartoons, movies, and books I’ve thrown into a blender and frapped into something with my own weird flavors added in. I initially started making a “fractured fairytales” anthology type book for all these random ideas that kept calling for attention from my sketchbook. I had drawn a simple doodle of a boy with a Unicorn horn and as I began fleshing out a story for him, I started to identify with him in ways I didn’t expect. It grew into a chance to do a very traditional hero’s journey story but with a personal connection.

 

Me: Can you share a little about your writing and illustrating process?

Dave: Usually, I write scattershot over the course of a long time! Ideas will come to me at random times, and I just jot them down in a notebook or google doc until enough of them collect into something that starts to excite me and take over my brain. Comics are visual so it’s often something about the characters that seem like they would be fun to draw! Sometimes I start with a short outline and other times I dive in and start sketching out rough comic pages to get a better sense of what this project could FEEL like. Best case scenario I don’t start to second guess myself too much! So often I’ll be really into the idea at first and then as I’m writing an inner critic takes over and dissects every aspect of the initial idea. Too often I shelve my work in progress and never show it to anyone. It takes a lot of disconnect from reality before I show a pitch to my agent or even close friends! Most of my comic pages still start off with pencil drawings and I used to ink with a brush and India ink. But about 100 pages into inking Unicorn Boy book one I started experimenting with inking in the Procreate app on an Ipad. I’m still getting used to it, but it was a chance to try something new and it allowed me to ink at the park and over friend’s houses which was good for my mental health!

Me: Editors always help improve work, but since you also edit graphic novels, what’s it like being edited yourself?

Dave: Ha! Yeah, I’m a really harsh editor on myself! I’m always reading and re-reading my work-in-progress and looking for story issues, better ways to say things, sometimes replacing entire scenes at the last minute! But even then, I can miss glaring issues, so I’m grateful to have the help of folks like Steve Foxe and Samia Fakih to keep my stories from going (too far) off the rails!

Me: “But that’s a story for another book…” Does this mean that we can expect a UNICORN BOY 2?

Dave: Yes! I was very fortunate that First Second said from the start that Unicorn Boy should be (at least) a three book series! It’s exciting and overwhelming because it means no breaks between drawing books! I’m halfway into drawing book 2 and currently feel like it’s one of the most fun things I’ve ever made. There’s a ton of new characters and the ones from book 1 get to really mature in heartfelt and also hilarious ways!

 

Me: Any other fun projects lined up?

Dave: I wish I had time to draw other projects! Unicorn Boy has totally taken over my life. But hopefully by the time I’m drawing Book 3, I’ll be able to sneak off a bit and play with some other characters waiting patiently for attention. I also have all these ideas for silly podcasts that I never get around to!

Me: Hey, I never get around to most ideas too! Guess that’s the nature of things…

In the meantime, wishing UNICORN BOY much success! And see you at this year’s GBF on May 18!

To learn more about Dave and his books, please visit: it’s yaytime! | dave roman

Getting to Know: Leslie Barnard Booth

 

Next up in my interviews with fellow STEAM TEAMERS (a group of kidlit authors and illustrators bonding over STEAM titles we have releasing this year) is Leslie Barnard Booth, who beautifully chronicled the life of a little found rock in A STONE IS A STORY, and now tackles the life cycle of a tree. I caught up with Leslie to learn more:

Me: Congratulations on your stunning new book, ONE DAY THIS TREE WILL FALL (Margaret K. McElderry Books, March 2024). As a tree and nature lover, I really appreciate how you present a holistic look at how trees fit into ecosystems at all stages of their lives and even beyond. What inspired you to write this book?

 

Leslie: Thank you, Jonathan! I’m so glad those themes resonated with you! Yes, a tree’s life (and death) can’t be separated from the forest ecosystem! And a tree is itself a whole ecosystem! The seed of this story came from a few places. At the preschool my children attended and where I worked for a time, a group of kids were doing this amazing study of a rotting stump. They were dissecting it and learning about all the little critters that lived inside it. At the same time, I was reading Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees. This book made me think of trees differently—as responsive organisms with dramatic life histories. The incredible drama of a tree’s life is often hidden from us because it occurs on a timescale too long for us to observe and appreciate. But in a book, we have all the time we want! We can spend 1,000 years watching a single tree! So, I knew I wanted this book to cover a tree’s whole life, and to be dramatic—to show the tree’s active struggle to live. I decided I wanted the reader to care about the tree, to love the tree, to identify with it, so that the idea of the tree eventually falling and dying is sad. But then, I wanted to prove to the reader that trees live on, even after they die. Which is true! A dead tree, as those preschoolers discovered, is absolutely chock full of life. So, knowing that’s what I wanted to accomplish, it occurred to me to set up the story of the tree almost like a cradle to grave biography, but one where the concept of “grave” is upended. Because, in the context of a forest ecosystem, a tree’s story has no end.

Me: I have favorite trees I like to observe (and say hi to). Do you have any favorite trees?

Leslie: I love that you asked this question (and I want to meet your favorite trees!). I most certainly do have a favorite tree. I walk past this tree on my everyday neighborhood walk. It’s an old, gnarled maple with great big strong twisted arms and a hollowed-out heart. If you look in that hollow (as I do each day in greeting 😊) you’ll see that it’s full of beautiful bracket fungi! And word to the wise: sometimes when you peek in, you may also encounter a surprised squirrel!

 

Me: The illustrations by Stephanie Fizer Coleman really bring life to the tree and its setting. How did you two get paired? Is there anything you can share about her process or your collaboration?

Leslie: Yes, isn’t Stephanie’s work amazing! The publisher paired us, and I am so grateful for it! It’s been wonderful to see how Stephanie took this text and deepened it by showing the tree from different perspectives. I also love her portrayal of the wildlife in this book. She does a phenomenal job bringing animals to life—showing the bounce of a squirrel on a branch, the cuddling of owls, the connection between a woodpecker and her chicks.

Me: How did you get into writing for kids?

Leslie: I’ve always been a huge admirer of picture books, but I transitioned into writing for kids when I had young kids of my own. At home, I was completely immersed in picture books! I read them day in and day out—and sometimes in the middle of the night! So, I set aside the novel I’d been working on for years and got serious about learning how to write picture books. I attended SCBWI events and started submitting work to children’s magazines. That’s how it all began!

 

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

Leslie: My next book, I AM WE: A STORY OF SURVIVAL, releases with Chronicle in fall 2025, and it’s all about crows! During lockdown my children and I started paying more attention to our neighborhood crows. We began to really enjoy their daily rhythms. We noticed that huge flight lines of crows would stream west over our area at about the same time each evening. This spurred my interest in crows’ roosting behavior. I learned that in winter crows gather together by the thousands to sleep. After lockdown I was in downtown Portland one night, and I finally got to see for myself where they were all gathering. It was an unbelievable, heart-thundering spectacle of thousands of chattering birds. I AM WE explores this phenomenon!

Me: Can’t wait to see it! I love to watch the huge gathering of crows that flies here across Rockville, Maryland each day, often over our house. Cool concept! Wishing all your books much success!

To learn more, please visit: Leslie Barnard Booth | Children’s Book Author | STEM | Portland, Oregon