The Writing Process: Author/Illustrator Blog Tour

Many thanks to my friend, the lovely Kate Berube for tagging me to participate in this blog tour.  Every author/illustrator on the tour is tapped to answer a set of questions and then passes the interview on to two others – kind of a pyramid scheme of goodness.

Kate and I, along with Abbey Marble (also tagged), are members of a small picture book critique group here in Portland, Oregon. I admire Kate’s work because it is so direct and heartfelt. She tells a story with such beautiful, emotional simplicity:

She’s also makes some of funniest character sketches I’ve seen:

Kate is now represented and is very busy these days with a two picture book deal as well as other projects in the works (see Kate, just when you thought nothing would ever happen). Go, Kate, go!

Now on to the questions:

1. What am I currently working on?

As is so often the case, I start thinking I’ve lost my creative way and then something will pop up (sometimes in a dream, as happened the other night) and I’m off.

So this dream… something about a mouse with poor eyesight thinking he sees his mama. He gives the fuzzy apparition a hug and it turns out to be a twitching cat’s tail.

That’s it, just a kernel, but enough to send me to Wikipedia to look up “house mouse”. Did you know mice do have pretty poor eyesight, hence the sensitive whiskers? Mice who are blind from birth have super-normal whiskers to compensate. Mice are great swimmers and climbers and can jump up to 18 vertical inches. They usually try to maintain contact with a vertical surface (wall hugging) out of fear and anxiety. And on and on… fascinating, right?

Images spring to mind and a story takes shape.

The day came when Mama mouse did not return. The babies, now as big as Mama, save one, poked their heads out into the waning light. Blinking and sniffing, their whiskers and noses signaled all that was strange and new.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Sometimes I wish my work was more edgy and ironic – more stylized and trendsetting, alas it is not. Perhaps that is what sets it apart, the traditional bent and sweetness I sometimes wish I could banish.

I attended a small commercial art school out of high school, but the first year focused on the fine art basics, including a life drawing class which fueled my lifelong obsession with a person’s or animal’s gesture (I’m sure this verges on voyeurism!). In my illustrations I attempt to toe the line – depicting nuanced emotion without tripping into the saccharine or maudlin.

3. Why do I write what I write?

I learned to read on my mother’s lap. We didn’t have many children’s books in our home, but my parents bought the World Book Encyclopedia series which included a couple special Childcraft volumes, among them, Storytelling and other Poems as well as Folk and Fairy Tales.

Mom as superhero.

The comfort of being read to by my mother combined with the wonderful illustrations in these books made a lasting impression.

I have no formal education as far as writing goes, nor do I have children (though my dog would beg to differ, when I make him wear his raincoat), and I don’t even have a good memory (except for that time my mom sent me off to Sunday pre-school without underwear), which makes mining my childhood for ideas pretty difficult. But, I do have a firm emotional memory of what it felt like to be a child and can place myself there in mind and body (even without underwear). From this place I hope to create stories with an emotional center and lasting impact.

4. How does my individual writing/illustrating process work?

I think I covered the writing part of this question earlier, so will focus on illustration here.

Once I have a story to illustrate I find a quiet place where I’ll be uninterrupted and read through it, making little art notes in the margins as to where I see an opportunity to enhance or clarify the action or somehow define a character. Then I create a thumbnail storyboard on tracing paper so that I can see it as a whole – the rhythm and bones of it.

If I’ve managed to capture some essence in a thumbnail I’m concerned I might lose by redrawing it, I’ll scan and enlarge the image before retracing it.

I love tracing paper. It’s cheap, not precious. It has nice tooth and enables light to envelop the drawings AND you can work and rework the drawing. It stands up to endless erasures. I prefer a cheap mechanical pencil with an 0.9 (number 2) lead, though I usually redraw some lines or parts of lines with a softer lead for emphasis at the end.

As far as the process of drawing itself goes, I find that it’s a lot like expressing a thought or opinion. I don’t necessarily know what I think or what I’m trying to say until it’s out there. And then it’s “oh, so that’s what I think about that!” (or perhaps I’m not a very deep thinker). So, for me it is a process of drawing and drawing (and erasing and redrawing) and figuring out what the drawings aren’t in order to find out what they are.

So I have a final drawing that I’m happy with, but it’s on TRACING PAPER (how dumb!). But hey, I’ve discovered I can scan the drawing and print it on hot press watercolor paper, let it dry for a day and then I can watercolor over it (not so dumb!). So there’s my big secret.

Also, full disclosure, I am color phobic. All those choices! And I’ve got a drawing I love, why would I want to mess it up trying to paint it (which I can’t erase). I struggle with color, but try to be brave and carry on. Here’s the resulting color “sketch” with watercolor and gouache.

5.   Who are the author/illustrators that you are passing the interview to?

A couple of terrifically talented picture book author/illustrators, again from Portland.

Drum roll, please…

Carolyn Digby Conahan, who discloses the following:

I’m happy to have a job that means I get to explore the world, and any idea I stumble across, or scare up, and call it work.

And Johanna Wright who has this to say about herself:

Luckily enough, I’m now a full-time author and illustrator. It’s the best job in the world and one that I’ve dreamed of since I was a kid. Not only do I get paid to make a mess and make up stories, but I now have a perfectly reasonable excuse for staring off into space for long minutes.

Character, character, character…

I attended a wonderful daylong workshop at Tabor Space here in SE Portland with my picture book crit group (Abbey Marble and Kate Berube) last weekend. It was presented by our Oregon SCBWI chapter (thank you!) and featured Simon & Schuster Associate Art Director, Lauren Rille.

The workshop was focused on children’s book authors/illustrators and Lauren was wonderfully generous with very honest, yet kind, feedback. Sweet with a tangy top note! I won’t say she swears like a sailor, but she was loads of fun and had us laughing like crazy.

My takeaway was that in order to connect with readers we must create characters that tell their story through physical gesture and emotional integrity.

I am always leery of workshops that require participants to draw on command. Ugh. It elicits my performance anxiety and has never been an enjoyable experience. But Lauren loosened us up with her initial intro and focus on examples of illustrators who have mastered their character-driven craft. She gave us a few lightening round illustration assignments with prompts drawn from hats passed among us.

One assignment was to create a character exhibiting an emotion we pulled from a hat and the twist was that we couldn’t show the face of the character. I drew “anxious” from the hat:

I think I harkened back to the nightmare of my skinny legs and the tragic underwear of my youth.

Another challenge was to draw prompts from three hats. The first gave us a physical feature we had to include in the character:

The second piece of this challenge was to create three thumbnails that featured our newly created character and would tell a little story driven by the other two prompts we drew from two hats:

Given that we had a very limited time frame (15 minutes?) to create the character and then the little storyline, I was happy with the result. Plus there wasn’t enough time to get too precious or worry about being nervous with the result.

The very valuable piece of advice I gleaned from Lauren’s workshop was the importance of creating characters that we, as illustrators, and our readers can inhabit emotionally. Whether through body language or facial expression (expressed as simply as eyebrow cant) we can imbue our characters with specific and relatable identities.

I have taken Lauren’s advice to heart and have created a character not unlike my “top hat” boy who is now living a life on paper in my studio and from there, who knows??

Cheers to Lauren Rille!

The “Sitter”… hard at work, hardly working

My friend and fellow children’s book author and illustrator (now that is a mouthful!), Kate Berube, posted a thoughtful link from the NYTimes Sunday Review: Shyness: Evolutionary Tactic? and it set my “sitter” mind to wandering. As the author, Susan Cain, writes: 

“THE psychologist Gregory Feist found that many of the most creative people in a range of fields are introverts who are comfortable working in solitary conditions in which they can focus attention inward. Steve Wozniak, the engineer who founded Apple with Steve Jobs, is a prime example: Mr. Wozniak describes his creative process as an exercise in solitude. “Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me,” he writes in “iWoz,” his autobiography. “They’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone … Not on a committee. Not on a team.””

And so the artistic temperament – lost in thought, lost in observation, protected by a shell of dreaminess and inward-focused free association – is not necessarily suited to the sales pitch.

It seems to me to be so paradoxical that we are urged, as artists, to spend so much of our energy and focus on self promotion. I hope that we can refocus on the shy, watchful, “sitter” approach to creativity and resist the pressure to put ourselves out there as shills for our artistic product. Unless it gives us a thrill. The thrill of the shill? Marketing, schmarketing…

I’m off to the stupendous SCBWI Western WA conference!

I’m all packed and ready to go – picking up my critique buddy Kate Berube tomorrow morning – stopping for a dry cappuccino and heading up I5 to Redmond, Washington for what will sure to be a challenging and invigorating SCBWI conference (they do the BEST job!). 

We’ve signed up for the Friday Illustrators’ Intensive, completed our assignments and are eagerly awaiting our critiques with Anne Moore, Art Resource Coordinator for Candlewick Press. Our portfolios have never looked better and we are ready for our First Pages critiques, our Query Letter critiques and lots and lots of networking with other crazed author/illustrators. Woo, hoo!


The Children’s Book Council is a wonderful online resource for those who publish, write, illustrate or simply love children’s books.

We are lucky here in Portland, to have two of the loveliest specialty children’s bookstores I know of: A Children’s Place Bookstore on NE Fremont St., and Green Bean Books on NE Alberta St. Of course if you visit Portland, the newly remodeled children’s section at Powell’s City of Books in the Pearl District is a must see. The cherry on top of this bounty is a soon-to-be expanded children’s section at the Powell’s on Hawthorne.

friends who illustrate

Abbey Marble

Kate Berube

Deborah Hocking

Carolyn Digby Conahan

Jennifer Mann

Victoria Jamieson


To my husband, Greg Miller, who inspires me with his work and his work ethic. He kicks butt. View his classical guitars.

Many thanks to SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) for creating the connections which made possible the publication of my first picture book, Lucky Boy.

To editor Ann Rider (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s Books), for giving me the lucky nod.

To editor Reka Simonsen (formerly with Henry Holt and Company, now with Atheneum Books for Young Readers), for hooking me up with some great writers whose work I have illustrated (Christine Graham and Wendy Orr).

i so admire

David Small for his lyrical line.

Calef Brown for his laugh-out-loud humor and color.

Cythia Rylant, Kate DiCamillo and Kathi Appelt who inspire me to shoot for the moon.

Alice Munro for being the best storyteller on the planet.