Vicki Johnson is a children’s book author, a former band nerd, White House staffer, and a nonprofit director. Her debut picture book is Molly’s Tuxedo (Little Bee Books, June 27, 2023), illustrated by Gillian Reid. Born and raised in rural GA, she is a proud first-gen graduate of Smith College and Emory Law School, and an MFA student in Writing for Children & Young Adults at VCFA. Vicki is a 2022 Lambda Literary Fellow and the single parent of a college student. Her empty nest is a historic log cabin in Appalachia where she caters to the whims of five rescue animals.
Gillian Reid is a children’s book illustrator, character designer, and life drawing teacher. Originally from the UK, she now lives in Canada with her partner and two cats. She loves to draw, go to the movies, and practice yoga. She likes to dress mostly in black and hopes to add a black tuxedo and bowtie to her wardrobe soon!
I had the opportunity to interview Vicki and Gillian, which you can read below.
First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?
VJ: Thanks so much for having us! I’m a children’s author, and Molly’s Tuxedo is my debut picture book. My bio says I am a former band nerd, White House staffer, and nonprofit director which is my attempt to sum up a long life in a few words. I grew up in rural Georgia, and now, many schools, jobs, and cities later, I find myself once again in a rural place. I live and write in a 200-year-old log cabin on a hilltop in West Virginia. I’m the single lesbian parent of a college student. When we hang out we watch a lot of movies and talk incessantly to the dogs and cats who live with us.
GR: I am a children’s book illustrator, character designer and life drawing teacher. Originally, I’m from Belfast, Northern Ireland but my work has taken me around the world and now I have landed in Ottawa, Canada. Outside of illustration, I enjoy learning new things. At the moment teaching myself piano and taking pottery wheel classes. I also love to go to the cinema, practice yoga and read mostly nonfiction books about the brain!
What can you tell us about your most recent project, Molly’s Tuxedo? What was the inspiration for this story?
VJ: Molly is a kindergartener with big plans to wear her brother’s dashing tuxedo for picture day, but her mom has picked out a dress. Molly has a strong sense of self and her character arc is all about being true to that, even in the face of resistance. This resonates strongly with me. The inspiration for the story comes from my own experiences growing up gay and gender nonconforming in the very conservative world of the Deep South in the 70’s and 80’s. But the impetus for writing this when I did was that I saw a couple of recent news items where girls were being gender policed about their clothes, in one case by her school and in one case by her peers. This ongoing need to control kids’ clothing choices really struck a chord. I wanted to write about how that feels, because I remember it vividly from my own childhood after so many years.
GR: I loved Vicki’s story the minute I got the email from Little Bee Books with the synopsis. I wasn’t really taking on new work at the time, but I couldn’t NOT be part of this story. It hit my heart immediately and brought up so many feelings from my own childhood that I knew I had to illustrate Molly’s Tuxedo!
How did you find yourself getting into storytelling, particularly picture books? What drew you to the medium?
VJ: I was a voracious reader growing up, and when I had my daughter and began reading to her on a daily basis, I guess the idea just clicked in my head that I’d like to try to write for kids. I primarily wrote middle-grade fiction for a long time, but in January 2020 I wanted to take a break from my work in progress, so I decided to try picture books as a side-writing exercise. This is the very first picture book I wrote. Also, I’m a very visual person, and a huge fan of art in all forms, so the idea that I could write words that are interpreted by a (real, human) artist is the most incredible thing I could imagine. And with Gillian’s work, it all came true. Her art is full of joy and warmth and movement. I feel so lucky to have been paired with her by my editor!
GR: After working in the animation industry for over a decade as a character designer, I wanted to try storytelling through illustration to have more ownership of the whole visual of a project. In animation, we work in such big teams and it’s really the director’s aesthetic vision you are creating, not your own. Picture books allow me to have almost 100% of the say in how the illustrations look (with input and guidance from the publishing team of course!)
How would you describe your creative process?
VJ: I’m not sure I have a set process. I go in spurts doing morning pages and writing free hand, which inevitably works well for me to get into a more emotionally connected place. I discovered writing poetry late in life if you can call what I write poetry. But my ideas work best when I am plotless in the initial phase and just try to get a sentence down and then I just continue to write until I’m done with that idea for the moment. It might result in a verse or a paragraph or several pages. From there it may go nowhere, or I may decide to flesh it out more fully.
GR: When working with a manuscript, I read it several times, highlighting keywords throughout the text that jump out at me and generate images in my head. I particularly try to note the tone and emotion of the story as a whole as well as across each spread. Once I feel I have an understanding of the mood of the book, I create inspiration boards on Pinterest, saving anything that appeals to me that may or may not influence me later. Then I go to the drawing board! I work on loose pieces of printer paper and just bash out lots of small, rough thumbnails and doodles, not filtering ideas too much and just letting them come out. I do several passes of the rough sketches until I feel I’ve got something, then it’s taken into Photoshop to sketch out with more information and refinement.
As a creative, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?
VJ: I write about a combination of my own life experiences, things I have observed as a parent, animals I see outside my window, something I read in the news that sparks my interest or ire, and then I find myself typing out a sentence. I feel compelled to write about LGBTQIA+ kids because I was one, so that experience will always be a source of inspiration. I feel inspired to write about brave girls, because I was one, and I survived growing up in a particularly stifling time and place. These are the young people I want to create space for in my work. I’m also drawn to authors of all stripes who write about animals and nature because growing up that was what I read constantly. Animals are so pure in their own existence, and in their relationship to you whether they are companion animals living with you or box turtles sharing the land you live on, or flying squirrels who sneak into your house. Animal stories saved me. They made sense to me and offered a respite. Stories at the edges of where humans and animals interact inspire me.
GR: Animation art is still a huge part of my life, so I frequently get inspiration from animated films and character designers. I’m also building a library of beautiful picture books to teach me new approaches, techniques, and execution. Currently, my favourite illustrators are Marta Altes, Rebecca Green, Matthew Forsythe, Julia Sarda, and Chris Chatterton.
What are some of your favorite elements of writing/illustrating? What are some of the most challenging?
VJ: My favorite part of writing is the meditative effect it has on me when I’m in the zone. The most challenging part is getting there. Getting the flow started. Because once it does, it’s indescribable. But the space I need to get there, from the world around me, can be challenging to achieve, along with a day job, and other responsibilities. I like the generative work better than the editing work for sure!
GR: The best part of the illustration process is right at the beginning for me. Anything is possible at this point, the options are endless and I love doing the research, generating lots of ideas, and then boiling them down to what feels best in that moment. The most challenging part is probably the colouring stage. By the time the colour gets added, I’ve been looking at the illustrations for months and it can be hard to keep the excitement and energy that were present at the beginning all the way through to the end.
Besides your work as an author/illustrator what are some things you would want readers to know about you?
VJ: I’m answering these questions in my Geeks OUT “Strong Female Character” shirt I bought at a con a few years ago. Also, I’ve been vegan or vegetarian for almost 40 years, and I’m a passionate advocate for animals and the environment. My stories often reflect that. I came out as a lesbian in my teens and have worked in or for our community in some capacity for a lot of the time since. The escalation of homophobic, transphobic, racist, and misogynistic rhetoric deeply concerns me and reminds me of how far we have come and how far we have to go. I have a deep well of hope though, and I know the strength of our community.
GR: I am also a life drawing teacher! I spend a lot of time in the life drawing room working with young artists who hope to become storytellers themselves in the future. Teaching life drawing and gestures helps build my skills as an illustrator, so I can be playful with posing characters and building their worlds.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were (and the answer to that question)?
VJ: My question would be: “What is on your writer’s bucket list?” and my answer is: “I have many, but the top three at the moment are: I’d love to be on a panel at a comic con, I’d love to write a graphic novel, and I’d love to write for children’s television.”
GR: “What would my dream collaboration be?” I would love to do a book on the environment with Leonardo DiCaprio!
Are there any projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?
VJ: Currently, I’m finishing up developmental edits from my agent on my middle-grade novel which I hope to be on sub for soon. It features a GNC queer main character and a cast of supporting characters – humans and animals – a camp and a fight for the environment.
GR: Currently I am working on developing my children’s book portfolio to push my style a little more and find out what possibilities lay within!
What advice might you have to give to aspiring creatives, to both those interested in making their own picture book?
VJ: Find something you are passionate about – a memory, an issue, a moment. Take that spark and run with it. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, and let yourself feel what you are writing. That will come through and make it magic. Be as specific as you can in your language but always leave lots of room for the illustrator’s interpretation. It’s a PICTURE book, after all!
GR: Just start! Don’t wait until you have read all the books or done all the courses. If you have an idea just get it started, you don’t need to be great to begin, you just need an idea.
Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
VJ: Oh my gosh, there are so, so many, but I’ll mention just a tiny few.
In young adult fiction, the book I’m most looking forward to reading this year is Jen St. Jude’s 2023 debut If Tomorrow Doesn’t Come. Jas Hammonds’ We Deserve Monuments is on top of my TBR pile. Two other YA debuts at the top of my list are Jenna Miller’s Out of Character and Edward Underhill’s Always the Almost. I loved Erik J. Brown’s All That’s Left in The World. My favorite YA graphic novel of 2022 was Hollow by Shannon Watters and Branden Boyer-White, art by Berenice Nelle. Add Tirzah Price to your must-follow list of YA authors. Also, obviously anything by Malinda Lo, including Last Night at the Telegraph Club! Mike Curato’s Flamer is a beautiful and powerful graphic novel that you all should have read by now. (I love his picture books, too!)
In middle-grade fiction, the 2022 debut graphic novel The Real Riley Mayes by Rachel Elliott blew me away and was my favorite read last year. I love Michael Leali’s work and Molly Ostertag’s middle-grade graphic novels. Anything written by Alex Gino or Kyle Lukoff should already be on your shelf.
In picture books, I adored the ground-breaking picture book Love, Violet by Charlotte Sullivan Wild and Charlene Chua. I recommend the beautiful Grandad’s Camper by Harry Woodgate and look forward to their follow-up, Grandad’s Pride. I read and loved all of Kyle Lukoff’s picture books last year, and there is another on its way, just announced. Hannah Moushabeck has a debut picture book coming soon that I can’t wait to read. And look for AJ Irving and Kip Alizadeh’s The Wishing Flower, and in nonfiction, Sarah Prager and Cheryl ‘Ras’ Thuesday’s Kind Like Marsha.
I honestly hate to leave anyone out, so this is stressful because I definitely did. Okay, that’s all for now. I could list pages and pages of names!
GR: Dare I say my book with Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness, ‘Peanut Goes for the Gold’, featuring a non-binary guinea pig with big dreams of being a gymnast?!