Shelli R. Johannes' CECE LOVES SCIENCE

Shelli R. Johannes and I are friends from way back, so I've watched her struggle and succeed with her publishing career. Therefore, I'm thrilled to share her first picture book, CECE LOVES SCIENCE written with Kimberly Derting and illustrated by Vashti Harrison. I asked her some questions about it...
e: What is your creative process, can you walk us through it?
I usually get an idea quick from something someone says or something I see. I always come up with a synopsis first to see if the story is developed enough in my head. Then I move to a synopsis. If it makes it past that stage, I can see where it is going and outline the whole book. Needless to say I have a lot of synopsis that never made it past that phase. But I can always go back if the spark comes again.
e: What do you think makes an illustration magical, what I call "Heart Art” - the sort that makes a reader want to come back to look again and again?
I don’t know much about Illustrations, but I know that i love to feel something when I look at the art in stories. I will say Vashti brought art and so much heart to our story. WE looked through so many illustrators and when our publisher finally presented Vashti (who was new to publishing at the time), we knew immediately that she was the one. We emailed our editor back within minutes saying “YES YES please”. We did not know then that Vashti’s star was rising so high but we are not surprised. Her art has so much heart.
      CECE is everything Kim and I imagined. Vashti brought CECE to life. So right now, to me, Heart Art = Vashti Harrison :)
e: Is there a unique or funny story behind the creation of this story?
For CECE, My daughter mentioned that she didn’t want to go to science camp because it was for boys! What?! This immediately sparked an idea: “How do we get young girls to focus on science and math instead of being pretty and fancy.” The idea off a “Fancy Nancy Loves Science” came to mind.
      I first pitched the idea spoke to my critique partner (and best friend) Kimberly Derting. As a biology major, she was excited about the idea and we decided to do it together. The book went through many iterations before submission and even after selling. We are thrilled with where CECE ended up today.
e: What is your favorite or most challenging part of being a creator?
I love that I can make up my own people and places and stories. I get to be Gaia for a day create my own worlds and histories and relationships. I get to think about who I want to be, who I am, and what I want to talk about in the world.
e: Is there something in particular about this story you hope readers will take away with them, perhaps something that isn’t immediately obvious?
I think it’s important that we encourage our girls to be smart and sassy (before pretty and obedient) and our boys to be emotional and loving (before strong and sporty). I love that CECE is strong and sassy and knows that science is important and fun! I hope it encourages more kids to love science and to focus on the world around them.

e: What are you working on next or what would be your dream project?
I am working on another YA thriller. I would love to break out traditionally in that market. But mostly, I hope our publisher wants more CECE books because I think this book has an important message and a lot of heart.

e: I look forward to more!

Harvey Nicks in Edinburgh

Fringe is over, scaffolding is coming down, tourists have left, and Edinburgh is getting back to 'normal' - or whatever our wonderful normal is here. We still have crazy things like the display windows at the local Harvey Nichols Department Store - a.k.a. "Harvey Nicks." These aren't great photos, but I figured you may like to see what's reflected in the glass as much as what's behind the glass. Like this girl hanging out in a palm tree, as you do.
Or this woman water-skiing on a clothespin.
Or this guy surfing a wave, with a fellow surfer made out of hangers.
Or this girl walking flying dogs. Can you see them?
And this artist who has become her art.
And then there's my favorite - the reader stuck in an enormous bird-cage whilst sitting on an enormous pile of books.
I love these creative displays and always look forward to what they'll come up with next!

Coloring Page Tuesday - Indian Elephant

     From card to coloring page... A friend of mine is off to India soon for her PhD. She'll be studying and helping at some challenged schools, and she may even see a few elephants! We'll miss her and wish her lots of luck. I made her this card to send her off in style. I know she's going to do so much good!
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     I create my coloring pages to draw your attention to my books! For instance...
my latest picture book, Crow Not Crow - written by New York Times Best-selling author Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple.
     Kirkus calls it "a solid choice for introducing the hobby [birdwatching] to younger readers."
      Also, A Bird on Water Street is now available in Chinese!
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The Greenaway at the Book Festival

I'll admit the weather in Edinburgh has been mostly dreich this summer, with only a few rare sunny days. Saturday's outing was one of them. Sunday's, on the other hand, was back to the rain and an unseasonal cold front. I almost didn't go, as it was raining cats and dogs when I left the flat. But I had a ticket to the Kate Greenaway panel at the Edinburgh Book Festival and I really didn't want to miss it.
     I'm so glad I went because it seemed the majority of those who did make it were simply a big group of hard-core illustrators. They were on stage - Debi Gliori, writer Nicola Davies, and Petr Horacek (who I interviewed on my blog HERE).
     And they were in the audience: Me, Boris Lee, Hannah Sanguinetti, Kate Leiper, and Jill Calder. I also ran into Vivian French on my way out. (Do click on the links for all these folks as there was some amazing talent there!)
     This is what I love about the book festival. I always run into friends, and make new ones. I do wish the weather had been nicer, as I would have done a lot more hanging out to see who I see, and perhaps get to know some of the teachers and librarians who have the fun jobs to moderate the panels. But even so, the book festival is always a great chance to connect with people who I share this crazy book passion with. I look forward to next year! (When I'll have two books out, and who knows, maybe I'll get to be onstage myself! Fingers crossed!)

Tam O'Shanter

I was recently reminded that Robert (Rabbie) Burns' Tam O'Shanter is full of witches and fairies and tricksters and such. But I felt like listening to it. Hm. Not sure it helped much with clarity, but it sure is entertaining! Click the image below to go have a listen and a look at the fun illustrations that go with this reading.

A Gallery Show on Circus Lane - and Books, of course!

Circus Lane is a bucolic little street tucked into the Stockbridge area in the city of Edinburgh.
Not that anyone needs an excuse to visit it, but when you do have an excuse, it's especially nice—an excuse like a gallery pop-up show with one of my artist friends showing her latest work.
You can just see the nose of the doggie greeter in the left of this image - she was a very good greeter. Joanna was displaying happy landscapes of her homeland of Poland.
     From there, Stan and I went to a lovely lunch at The Foundry in the West End. I want to decorate a future home like this place - very lofty cool.
     Then we headed to the Edinburgh International Book Festival to see David Almond and Michael Morpurgo. We also ran into friends to sit with. It was a beautiful and wonderful day!

A Bird on Water Street in Chinese - more!

My publisher recently sent me several copies of A Bird on Water Street in Chinese, and what a surprise was waiting for me!
Not only is the title page with the bird and the title in Chinese gorgeous...
the entire book is illustrated!!!
     As both an illustrator and author, I've been looking forward to the day when another illustrator would apply their vision to my words. And here it is!
The illustration is a bit manga, as seems appropriate. And it's obvious the illustrator put serious care into accurately portraying the scenes in the book. Look at this scene as the pink slips are being handed out.
I especially love this montage illustration which includes a cannabis leaf (something that plays a part in the story).
The Christmas scene is nearly spot on - especially the rendering of the General Lee (1969 Dodge Charger) from The Dukes of Hazzard. I wonder if that television show ever played in China? And have you ever seen a more dour wedding scene than this?
The illustrator also nailed the scene when they find a still in the woods, and go to the tackle shop with their freshly shaved heads (summer haircuts). Truly, it's been a thrill to see this version of my book. And yes, it's still my book. You can tell by the credit given. My middle initial, the "O." gives it away!
I hope you'll order a copy to see for yourself!


e: My friend Brian Lies stops by today to tell us about his latest masterpiece! Take it away Brian!

Thanks for letting me visit your blog, e!  I’m excited to have a chance to talk about my next book, The Rough Patch. It’s my first very serious book, one dealing with loss, anger and hope. In the story, a gardener fox named Evan and his pet dog do everything together. What they love the most is working in Evan’s expansive and lush garden. But when Evan suffers a terrible loss, he can’t bear being in the garden any more, and he slashes it all to the ground. In the place of vegetables, weeds sprout, and Evan finds himself tending the weeds. If he can’t be happy, he’s going to create a garden as dark as his mood. . . and he does. But when a pumpkin vine sneaks in under his fence, Evan finds himself tending that, too—and just maybe, Evan will find hope in his life again.
e: Wow - sounds amazing! What is your creative process/medium, can you walk us through it?
When I’m writing and illustrating a story, it typically arrives as bursts of word and image fragments, which I’ll get down on paper. I collect words and images for a while, and then try to pull them together so they more or less read like a story. It’s a fairly messy process, in which I create a lot more stuff than can ever go into a picture book, and as with many authors, the story can change greatly as I work on it.
First rough sketch, Blue pencil. For content and composition.
In the past, I never sent anything out to publishers until I felt a story was practically ready to publish—I would polish the sketches to a point where all they needed was color.
Inking sketch: after I transfer a sketch to the paper I’ll paint on, I ink in the lines so they don’t disappear under my first wash of color, used to “kill” the white of the paper.
But I’m trying to change that and send things out earlier in the process and rougher, to leave more room for revision. I’ve been putting loose sketches up on my Instagram and FB pages, and that’s helped me get used to the idea of letting people see things that aren’t completely “presentation ready.” It’s difficult to get past my early-in-career thinking that I should only release highly-polished stuff, though!
      The books I’ve done in the last fifteen years or so have all been painted with acrylics on Strathmore Series 400 or 500 paper. What I love about the acrylics is that I can paint in layers and glazes to create deep shadows and bright areas in a way that makes the physical space in the illustrations convincing. I’m fascinated by how we can look at a 2D display of ink on paper in a published and get the illusion of 3D space.
Full-sized tight pencil sketch, tracing paper.
e: What do you think makes an illustration magical, what I call "Heart Art” - the sort that makes a reader want to come back to look again and again?
I think “Heart Art” has to be something that you’ve never seen before, so it’s possibly startling or arresting in some way. But it might also be a little mysterious, so not everything is spelled out literally, and leaves enough space for the viewer’s curiosity. Something magical happens when the viewer is allowed to fill some of that questioning space with her or his own feelings. If you’re not curious about something in an image, it’s very easy to look at it for a moment and turn the page. If you can create an image that arrests the reader, and perhaps elicits a reflexive “Oh. . .!”, then that’s “Heart Art.”
e: Is there a unique or funny story behind the creation of this story?
The Rough Patch grew out of a moment of wry reflection as I struggled with clearing weeds from my vegetable garden. I was getting tired of weeding the same patch of ground, and I thought: maybe I’m doing this wrong. This garden is determined to push out weeds, rather than the vegetables I’m trying to grow. What if I were to transplant these weeds into neat rows, and pretend I cared about them? What would grow up between my rows THEN? I’m not exactly sure when that concept—someone who cares for a garden of dark weeds—turned into a story of loss and hope. But I never intended to write a book on a tough subject, and I’m glad it started with the character and the story first, and then turned into a book about something serious.
The Garden: Here’s one view of my 30’ x 60’ vegetable garden. In the front, left to right, there’s green beans (starting their way up my bamboo trellises), kale, broccoli raab, artichokes and okra. In the back, cucumbers (climbing on lacrosse net), and several kinds of lettuces. Very back, pumpkins (I had to grow pumpkins this year!), and the fencing leading into my blueberry bushes area. To the right: weeds!
e: How do you advertise yourself?
I don’t do a lot of advertising, apart from a presence on social media. When I have a new book coming out, my wife Laurel and I will put elements together for a book tour. In the past, that’s included elaborate props, such as a fully-functioning 13-note PVC pipe organ (think “Blue Man Group”) I built on top of our car for people to mess around with at our Bats in the Band book events. But it seems like book events have changed in the last decade—physical book events just aren’t as effective in selling large numbers of books as they were—and so we’re not planning to be quite as elaborate with our props and things as we have in the past. I’d rather spend three months working on a new book, rather than engineering a pipe organ that collapses for driving. So I’m looking more at social media presence—posting about things I think or see on Facebook, posting sketches on my Instagram, doing a little Tweeting and so on.
Pencil sketch has been transferred to Strathmore paper, and edges have been taped with a low-tack artist tape. Sienna/brown wash gives middle tone for all of the colors to push against, light and dark. Here, I’m beginning to paint the trees and sky in the background.
e: What is your favorite or most challenging part of being a creator?
My favorite part has got to be the “bloodhound on the scent” part, where I’ve had a story idea for a while and it’s been worrying at me, but then suddenly I have a sense of where the story has to go and I start running in that direction with both words and sketches. That’s the part that’s the most full of curiosity and enthusiasm, the least worrying about “is this right?” That’s the phase where everything is a “yes!” Later, when I’m trying to work out sketches or onto the final paintings, it becomes much more workmanlike and serious (though there are still bouts of enthusiasm when a painting is going particularly well or I’ve discovered a combination in my color palette that wasn’t in my original plan for a piece.
I’ve finished the sky. Note Scotch tape, used to create a crisp line at the top of the fence.
The most challenging part, for me, is my own internal editor, who’s constantly looking for what’s wrong, for what’s a cliché or what’s dull and expected. That editor is an important part of the work, but sometimes he gets too full of himself and is a little too present.
Starting in on painting the fence. I could have just painted the whole fence as a single wash of color and then gone in to paint spaces between the “boards,” but I found that painting each one separately, masked off with Scotch tape, gave a much more convincing effect of real boards.
e: Is there something in particular about this story you hope readers will take away with them, perhaps something that isn’t immediately obvious?
It’s useful to booksellers to categorize a story, put it into a simple “box” that might make it easy for prospective buyers to select a book. But that can get very restrictive—some buyers, for instance, have categorized my bat books as “Halloween books,” because. . . well, bats. But they couldn’t be any less Halloween-y! They’re really spring and summer books. I hope that THE ROUGH PATCH won’t be boxed in as a “useful story on a specific topic,” and will be seen more as the story of a fox in a difficult period of his life. I didn’t set out to write a book on a theme or on a difficult subject, so I’d hate for it to be just be seen as a “niche” book. I’d love it if readers could just go along with Evan as he takes his journey, and find it attaches in a meaningful way to some particular experience they’ve had in their own lives.
Closeup of Evan’s face. Starting to model the fur on his cheeks. I tend to paint eyes fairly early on, because they carry so much of the emotional weight of an illustration, and having the finished eyes directs much of the rest of the painting.
e: What are you working on next or what would be your dream project?
I have a number of stories in the works—one is a quixotic project that I’ve wanted to do for over a decade, that would involve very elaborate illustrations done in a variety of media, including carved bas relief, sculpture, oil paintings, etc. I’ve got some other things brewing as well, but they’re in that fragile stage where the slightest criticism could knock them over, so I’m being protective of them.
Fence and Evan are finished, working on modeling the light on the pumpkin (lighting is bad here—the image isn’t this dark in reality)
In recent years I’ve mostly done my own written books, but I do still enjoy illustrating others’ work. I’m hoping that an editor out there sends me that one brilliant manuscript written by someone else—something full of heart, or something wickedly funny that matches my sense of humor.
Final image.
e: Is there a question nobody has asked you about this book?
Does Evan, the main character in The Rough Patch, have a last name? Yes, he does, though his surname ended up getting cut from the story. His full name is Evan Faulstich (I honestly can’t say why—that’s the name that “arrived” when I first conceived of the character). During the editorial process, some people felt that last name was too unusual. They expected it to matter to the story arc somehow, and felt it left something unanswered when it turned out to be just a name. So though most readers will never know his full name, I can’t think of him just as “Evan,” because I’ve been mulling this story over in my head for fourteen years!
Laurel came in while I was painting, and snapped a photo without my knowing. I’m probably listening to Spotify or NPR on headphones, which suggests this is early morning.
the other side of my studio, with finished paintings from the book hanging up. The mess on the desk indicates that I’m very deep into the final paintings, and horizontal surfaces are being used for dumping things.

Greenwillow / HarperCollins:

HarperCollins Children's Books
Greenwillow Books

Book Festival: Dream Panel

The local chapter of SCBWI hosted a wonderful panel at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this year called
It was made up of authors Lari Don, Elizabeth Wein, and Candy Gourlay—all friends of mine. In fact, I ended up sitting with Lari's husband. I hang out with Elizabeth at Jane Yolen's Wayside. And I finally got to meet Candy in person after years of being online friends! They each read from their books, talked about their craft and making time for writing. They also discussed the reading environments they grew up with and writing stories that aren't your own, how each of them felt about that. It was an excellent talk and appealed to the wide range of audience members (teens to adult writers).
As a bonus, I ended up sitting with some publishing friends and also Jill Calder, another of the illustrators who Jane works with. (She takes care of all of us!) Jane and I missed Jill's festival talk when Jane was visiting. We were both bummed. So I thought it ironic that Jill and I ended up meeting after all! So Jane, this is for you: