Jeanne Walker Harvey studied literature and psychology at Stanford University and has worn many job hats, ranging from being a roller coaster ride operator to an attorney, a middle school language arts teacher, and a long-time docent for school groups at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She is the author of several books for young readers, including the picture book biographies Dressing up the Stars: The Story of Movie Costume Designer Edith Head, Ablaze with Color: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas, and Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines. Jeanne lives in Northern California.
Diana Toledano is an illustrator, writer, and educator. She is also a Pisces who loves children’s books, patterns, and dancing her heart out. Originally from Spain, Diana (pronounced the Spanish way: dee-ah-na) grew up in Madrid where she studied art history and illustration. Now she lives in San Francisco with her husband and two fluffy cats. Her mixed media art seeks to capture the magic of the ordinary. Diana’s product designs, picture books, board books, and chapter books have been published and sold all over the world. Diana also teaches workshops for kids and adults. She enjoys doing school visits and speaking at conferences.
I had the opportunity to interview Jeanne and Diana, which you can read below.
First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourselves?
JEANNE: Thanks so much for inviting us to Geeks OUT! I really appreciate the opportunity to talk with you and your readers about books and writing. I’m living a dream come true by writing children’s books, particularly about creative people. I’m the classic author who majored in English literature. I also studied psychology at Stanford University which I think connects to why I choose to write children’s biographies of intriguing people. I’ve worn a variety of job hats – from roller coaster operator to software licensing attorney to middle school language arts teacher to long-time docent for school groups at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). And I’ve always been writing in my free time ever since I was a little girl.
DIANA: Hola, it’s so nice to be here! I’m Diana Toledano, the illustrator of Dressing Up the Stars. I’m originally from Spain and I immigrated to the US 10 years ago. Now I live in Sacramento with my husband, our baby, and two rescue cats, but I spent a few years in San Francisco before that. I’m a big fan of dancing my heart out, sketching wherever I go, and eating good food.
What can you tell us about your latest book, Dressing Up the Stars: The Story of Movie Costume Designer Edith Head? What inspired you to create this book and write about this person?
DIANA: I will leave this one for Jeanne since she is the bright mind behind it.
JEANNE: Haha! Not sure I’ve got a bright mind, but here goes … Dressing Up the Stars is a picture book biography that tells the story of how Edith Head, a shy girl living in remote mining camps, became one of the most legendary costume designers in Hollywood. She always knew she wanted to move to a place full of people and excitement. And even though she didn’t know how to draw or sew costumes, she talked her way into a job sketching costumes for Paramount, the Hollywood movie studio. With talent, perseverance and dedication, she became the first woman to head a major Hollywood movie studio costume department and went on to win eight Academy Awards for best costume design (more than any female has received). I was inspired to write this book because as a girl growing up in Southern California, I would watch on TV the Academy Awards being filmed in nearby Hollywood. My mom and I would look for the easily identifiable Edith Head with her round dark glasses, blunt haircut and stylish gowns she designed for herself. I’ve always loved all those classic movies with wonderful costumes, and I thought she would be a fascinating and inspiring person to feature in a children’s book.
Would you say either of you two have a personal connection to fashion yourselves?
DIANA: For a while when I was a kid, I wanted to be a fashion designer. I drew lots of outfits and paper dolls. And just like Edith, I had a bag with fabric scraps that I used to sew costumes. Unlike Edith, I never dressed up a cactus or a horned toad, but my dolls looked… interesting! Let’s just say that’s not where my talents lay. But I want to believe I’m pretty fashionable. I’ve been told I dress just like my drawings!
JEANNE: That’s so great to think you dress like your drawings, Diana – that’s lovely.
I too love fashion! Beautifully sewn and creatively designed dresses with gorgeous fabrics fascinate me. I recently visited the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and it was such a delight to see those amazing dresses up close. I sewed a lot of my clothes during high school, including my prom dress, but I never approached the workmanship and flare of true fashion. In researching this Edith head book, I can’t tell you how great it was to watch classic movies featuring Edith Head costumes and study photos and her drawings of her costumes.
What drew you to storytelling, and what drew you to children’s books specifically?
JEANNE: I’ve wanted to write children’s books since I was a girl bringing home piles of books from the library. I dreamed about seeing my name on the cover of a book (which is always a thrill). And children’s books are a perfect fit for me because I love interacting with children at school, library, and bookstore events. I really missed that during the pandemic. In person, there’s always such an energy and joy shared by the children. And inevitably they say something so funny or insightful or charming.
DIANA: I’ve always loved books and dreamt of being a writer and illustrator. Other dreams came and went, but that one stayed. Like Jeanne, I also love interacting with children and I have a background in museum education. So I went from teaching kids in museums and art classes to doing events in bookstores and schools.
What are some of your favorite examples of picture books growing up and now?
DIANA: I grew up in Spain, so the books I remember fondly are not ones readers in the US will recognize. I especially loved books that questioned traditional gender roles or defied authority. Abracadabra, pata de cabra, by Mira Lobe and Javier Vázquez is not a picture book, but it was one of my childhood favorites. In it a wizard and a witch argue about having a baby boy or a baby girl, and they end up having a… I won’t give away the ending, but I highly recommend it! My favorite picture books now are Un regalo del cielo, by Gustavo Martin Garzo & Elena Odriozola, and The Journey by Francesca Sanna. And I love most anything by Isabelle Arsenault, Julie Morstad, Carson Ellis and Beatrice Alemagna.
JEANNE: I was a huge Dr. Seuss fan. I learned to read with Hop on Pop. I loved the craziness of the Dr. Suess illustrations and plots (or non-plots) – I just wanted to jump into those worlds. And Harold and the Purple Crayon was a favorite of mine. I mean who wouldn’t envy Harold’s magic purple crayon that could draw on the walls and then create one’s adventure out in the world? And now? I have piles and piles of favorite books—too many to list. I’m honestly so amazed at the quality of picture books these days.
For those curious about the process behind a picture book, how would you describe the process? What goes into writing one and collaborating with an artist/writer to translate that into a book?
JEANNE: I think something that often surprises people is that the author is not the one who chooses the illustrator of a picture book. The art director and editor of the publishing house that purchases the manuscript hires the illustrator. And I believe that’s a perfect arrangement because they are so well-versed in what will be a good fit for the text. I’ve always been extremely pleased with the illustrators that have been chosen for my books. And I absolutely adore the talented Diana Toledano’s illustrations for Dressing Up the Stars. From the moment I saw the first sketch I knew she was the perfect illustrator for this book — she perfectly captures the essence of Edith, not only as a young girl but as a successful costume designer. Diana’s illustrations have such wonderful whimsy and interesting textures and patterns.
DIANA: Most times illustrators and writers don’t communicate while working on a project together. This allows the illustrator to infuse the story with their own point of view versus trying to translate into drawings what the writer sees in their mind’s eye. But this book was a little different… It was so fun collaborating with Jeanne! She helped me with the research to make sure Edith Head was as real as possible, but she respected my process and my vision for the book.
JEANNE: The creation of a picture book is truly a collaborative effort. I’m so impressed by everyone at Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster for everything they’ve done to create our book, especially the amazing Andrea Welch and Danielle Collins for their insightful editing and gentle guidance. And as always, I’m very appreciative of my agent extraordinaire, Deborah Warren of East West Literary Agency, who connects me with the editors and always believes in me (even when it can take a long time and a lot of patience to find the right fit for a book).
DIANA: Yes, there is a big team behind this book! A big shout out to art director Lauren Rille too!
How would you describe your general writing/drawing process? What are some of your favorite/most challenging parts for you?
DIANA: I really love finding the right look for each project. To find inspiration I play with art supplies, flip through art books, watch movies and sketch. I keep exploring until my drawing style and color palette match the writer’s voice, the characters and the story.
JEANNE: I guess I would say I’m someone who first spends a lot of time just steeping myself in the topic. And in my case, the topic is usually some creative/artistic/ interesting/intriguing person. The first challenge is seeing if I can find enough fascinating information about that person to write a book. I need to find a theme, a throughline, for the story that I feel will hopefully capture the interest and hearts of children. I was excited when I found out that Edith Head grew up in remote mining camps and since she didn’t have nearby playmates she used her imagination instead. She played make believe games, including dressing up her pets, desert animals, and cactus. And then I found out that the nearest town was Searchlight, Nevada. There I had it! The ending of the story could be Edith arriving one star-filled night at the Academy Awards ceremony and waving to the crowds beneath the Hollywood searchlights. And I also was drawn to the double meaning of the word “stars” (both in the sky and the actors in the movies) that reflect Edith’s life and career. I write in the book that “Edith wished she could transform her life. Every night, she stared at the vast sky of sparkling stars. She dreamed of moving far away from the desert.” And she did – to the land of the Hollywood stars.
As an author/illustrator, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?
JEANNE: What an interesting question! I would say my mother. She was a Renaissance woman – she painted, read volumes of art books, but also studied science and was constantly inventing gadgets and solutions. She always encouraged my creative interests in writing.
DIANA: Before going to art school, I got a degree in Art History. I’m profoundly inspired by art around the world and all through the ages: cave paintings, Byzantine mosaics, Pre-Columbian art, Medieval illuminated manuscripts, art nouveau buildings, contemporary art, folk art… Being out in the world is also inspiring. Sometimes I draw people’s clothing, or write down a funny interaction I see. Inspiration is everywhere!
Aside from your work as a writer/artist, what would you want readers to know about you?
JEANNE: I love to dance! I’ve missed taking dance classes, particularly Zumba classes, during the pandemic. So I’m hoping to sign up again soon.
DIANA: I love teaching. When I’m not working on a book, I’m helping kids and adults access their creativity and learn about children’s books. And like Jeanne, I love dancing! I do a movement meditation practice called 5 Rhythms Dance.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?
DIANA: You could ask “Would you like to come over to my pool?”, the answer would be YES, PLEASE. – I know, it’s silly, but it’s very hot here and all this Pisces can think about is being in the water.
JEANNE: Oh, that’s a fun question! I would ask — who did Edith Head particularly like to design costumes for? Barbara Stanwyck who was also her close friend. In The Lady Eve, Barbara had 25 costumes to highlight her two very different characters as a con artist and as a British aristocrat. As Edith Head said, “What a costume designer does is a cross between magic and camouflage. We create the illusion of changing the actors into what they are not.” And I enjoyed learning that in Edith’s final picture, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, she revised a dress design she created for Barbara Stanwyck to be worn by Steve Martin.
What advice would you give to other aspiring creatives, especially those who may want to write/draw a picture book themselves one day?
JEANNE: Do it! If you have the passion, you’ll find a way. But just like any other endeavor, it does take a lot of time, effort, patience and luck. I submitted manuscripts for years before I was first published. But I love to write so I know I would still be writing even if I hadn’t been published. I highly recommend joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (scbwi.org) which also has local groups throughout the country and world. The organization is the absolute go-to place for information, classes and connections for children’s authors and illustrators. I learned so much from the many classes I’ve taken, conferences I’ve attended, and people I’ve met through SCBWI.
DIANA: That’s great advice, Jeanne. If money is an issue, you can also check out your local community college. Before the pandemic, I was teaching children’s literature at the City College of San Francisco. The class was perfect for beginners and it is an economical option. I’m sure there are similar classes in most community colleges. I also share free resources and articles with tips on my Illustration Blog.
JEANNE: For aspiring authors, I always suggest typing up the text, including the page breaks, from picture books that particularly impress you. You get a feel of the pacing of a picture book. Remember that the words and illustrations carry equal importance in a picture book. The writer should study what the illustration is conveying that doesn’t also need to be in the text.
Are there any projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?
DIANA: I’m currently finishing up the third book of the POLLY DIAMOND chapter book series, written by Alice Kuipers. It’s a fun project, with a hundred black and white illustrations per book.
JEANNE: I’m always thinking and working on new projects. I often circle back to old ones if I get a new idea or learn more about that person. I do have another picture book biography in the works about a creative person, but I can’t announce the deal yet. But please stay tuned!
Finally, what books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
JEANNE: Since I focus on reviewing new picture book biographies on my blog, True Tales and A Cherry on Top, I’d love to share with the readers of Geeks OUT these picture book biographies, all published in 2022 that I’ll be featuring: Strong (by Rob Kearney and Eric Rossman) introduces readers to Rob Kearney and his journey from an athletic kid trying to find his place to the world’s first openly gay professional strongman. Kind Like Marsha: Learning from LGBTQ+ Leaders (by Sarah Prager and Cheryl Thuesday) celebrates 14 amazing and inspirational LGBTQ+ people throughout history. The Harvey Milk Story (by Kari Krakow) is an inspiring biography of the historic gay activist. I also want to recommend another terrific picture book biography from a few years ago. When You Look Out the Window (by Gayle E. Pitman) tells the story of Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, one of San Francisco’s most well-known and politically active lesbian couples. The book shows how one couple’s activism transformed their community — and had ripple effects throughout the world. I particularly like that the book includes a Reading Guide that provides helpful historical context, and a Note to Parents, Caregivers, and Educators about the importance of teaching LGBTQ+ history and culture to children.
DIANA: I have a soft spot for Young Adult books. Sometimes I read and sometimes I listen to audiobooks while I work. Here are a few of my favorites: The Smell of Other People’s Houses, by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock. The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas. Marina, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell. Unbecoming, by Jenny Downham.
JEANNE: Many thanks again for this wonderful opportunity! I hope your readers get a chance to read and enjoy our Dressing Up the Stars: The Story of Movie Costume Designer Edith Head. I’d love to hear from them!