Interview with ShinYeon Moon, Illustrator of LaoLao’s Dumplings

ShinYeon Moon (she/her/they/them) is an illustrator based in New York. Moon holds an M.F.A. from the School of Visual Arts in Illustration as Visual Essay. She currently teaches at the School of Visual Arts and Fashion Institute of Technology. She has received accolades from different illustration publications including 3×3 Magazine, Society of Illustrators, and Communication Arts.

I had the opportunity to interview ShinYeon, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Hello! My name is ShinYeon Moon (Shin) and I am a Korean-American freelance illustrator and educator based in Brooklyn, New York. I graduated with my MFA from the School of Visual Arts for Illustration as Visual Storytelling and am currently teaching in the BFA department there.

What can you tell us about your latest project, LaoLao’s Dumplings? What was it like to work on this book?

It was such a great honor being able to work on the illustrations for Laolao’s Dumplings. This was my first illustrated picture book and being able to work alongside such fantastic and supportive people was truly such a gift. The team (writer Dane Liu, art director Aram Kim, assistant editor Kortney Nash, and editor Laura Godwin) made the entire process feel very warm and welcoming and I felt constantly reassured that I was in good hands. Because food, community, and inter-generational traditions are some of the beautiful topics that this book aims to cover, I took a lot of inspiration from memories of my own family around the kitchen table and nights eating out with friends. I began the project by exploring Manhattan’s Chinatown and taking in all the sights, sounds, smells, and (of course) tastes that I could, so that I could better manifest them into this book. There is a dumpling recipe from Dane’s family included in the book, so I also attempted to make my own dumplings from scratch. From there, I worked on trying to figure out the character designs for Millie and her Laolao (grandmother). After the team gave the go-ahead for the character designs and rough sketches of the book’s spreads, the rest of the process felt relatively intuitive and magically flowed.

As an illustrator, what drew you to your medium? How would you describe your artistic background?

My undergraduate background was in oil painting, so it took a long time for me to trust the digital process and feel comfortable working in this medium. I will always prefer the traditional medium’s aesthetic and the tactile quality of paint/pencil on canvas/paper, but I have very much come to appreciate the immediacy of digital tools (thankful for Command+Z) and its ability to allow me to work from anywhere, as well as the beauty there is in being able to make infinite decisions and changes to better transform your piece. For this book in particular, I ended up creating the majority of my illustrations on my iPad Pro using the Procreate app and did some final touch-ups in Photoshop.

Growing up, were there any books/stories in which you felt touched by/ or reflected in? Are there any like that now?

I grew up reading (and watching) and being tremendously moved by the series titled “Anpanman.” This series was created by Japanese artist Takashi Yanase and is about a red-bean-bun-superhero and his team of bread-superheroes and bakers that help feed the hungry and fight cavity gremlins. The main superheroes save those in need by gifting them actual parts of their faces. Food has always been a language of love, a source of comfort, and a great tool for learning about other cultures for me, and this show really emphasized these elements and continues to inspire me today.

How would you describe your general creative process?

I like to make sure that my workstation is relatively clean before I begin working on a new project. It helps to clear my mind when there is less clutter visibly in front of me. I also like to put on random background noises (whether it be a tv show or a podcast or music) so that I can tune out the world and focus on the paper or iPad right in front of me. If I am having an off day or an art-block moment, I try to go for a walk or specifically head to bookstores or art museums to refresh my brain and eyes and try to get the creative juices flowing again.

As a creative, who or what would you say are some of your greatest artistic and creative influences and/or sources of inspiration in general?

The creation of something out of seemingly nothing, inspires me. I think people’s creative abilities and their obsessions/cravings for making art is exciting to me – when I see my students or peers or mentors/heroes get moved by something they are working on, I too feel very much motivated to keep going. In terms of specific influences, I have always been inspired by 2D-animation. Off the top of my head, Hayao Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon, and Yoshiaki Kawajiri are a few animation directors whose works I respect and am very much influenced by – from the worlds they have conjured up to their character development, their films constantly surprise and energize me no matter how many times I re-watch them.

What are some of your favorite elements of illustrating? What do you consider some of the most frustrating and/or challenging?

I think the potential of a blank piece of paper is something that still excites me. Coming up with characters and finding out who they are as you sketch away is one of my favorite elements of illustrating. Rough lines and random shapes can turn into a jolly witch or a disgruntled kitten or whatever else you feel like creating that day. When it comes to challenging moments, because I am a highly sensitive and anxious person, my imposter syndrome constantly comes into play while I illustrate. There can be a lot of moments where I feel like I am not good enough or that I am lightyears behind my peers, and because this profession is so isolating, you are constantly with your own (sometimes negative) thoughts, so some days end up becoming “bad art days.” I’ve found having a solid group of friends/community within the industry has been essential in feeling like you have the support and validation to continue forward with your own forever-growing art journey.

Aside from your work, what are some things you would want others to know about you?

I get heavily invested in different kinds of crafts as I always have to be doing something with my hands. This past year I got into needle-felting and the basics of jewelry making. I feel like it has been very important for me to have a creative outlet that is solely for the purposes of experimentation and fun, rather than for work/business.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but that you wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?

What is your dream project? I have many, but I would love to be able to work on an animated short film. I would also love to be able to work on more longer-term projects like a graphic novel or a permanent mural installation.

What advice might you have to give for other aspiring creatives?

Aside from “never give up”, I would say it is essential to continue to make work for yourself and work that you absolutely love to make. I think it is always best to channel the reason as to why you began drawing in the first place. When artists create something that is so uniquely and genuinely theirs, it can be nothing but inspirational and I think people will naturally gravitate towards that.

Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

At the end of 2023, I handed in final images for a book that is coming out this year, “Once Upon A Friend,” written by Dan Gemeinhart and published by Henry Holt and Company/Macmillan. Its book birthday will be June 18th of this year.

Finally, what books/comics/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

This is such a difficult question because there are so many to recommend! From what I see currently on my shelf…“Grass” by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, “How To Be Happy” by Eleanor Davis, “Skip” by Molly Mendoza, “The Magic Fish” by Trung Le Nguyen, “Big” by Vashti Harrison, “The Arrival” by Shaun Tan, “Stages of Rot” by Linnea Sterte, “The Queen in the Cave” by Julia Sarda… there are so many and I can keep going, so I will stop here for now.

Interview with Meeg Pincus and Meridth McKean Gimbel, creators of Door by Door: How Sarah McBride Became America’s First Openly Transgender Senator

Meeg Pincus (she/her), M.A., is the author of 26 picture books in the trade and school/library markets. She’s been a nonfiction writer, editor, educator & diverse books advocate for over 25 years. She lives, writes, sings & homeschools with her family in coastal Southern California. Meeg is represented by Jenna Pocius at Red Fox Literary.

Meridth McKean Gimbel is an illustrator, author, and world champion taco cruncher whose work has received several fancy schmancy awards such as the National SCBWI-LA Mentorship award. They are passionate about creating books that are like a snuggly blanket, an open window, and a very accessible door. (Meridth is also passionate about donuts, corgis, and ghost stories.)

I had the opportunity to interview Meeg and Meridth, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Meridth: Hello Geeks OUT! Thanks for having me! Believe it or not I used to be a competitive discus thrower and weightlifter. I had a serious injury in college, where I couldn’t walk for 6 months, that permanently took me out of competition. As a kid I had always wanted to be an illustrator or writer, but that type of career was highly discouraged. Losing the ability to pursuit one of my passions gave me the push I needed to pursuit the other. I’ve been illustrating as a freelancer for 15 years now and this is my debut as a children’s book illustrator.

Meeg: Thank you so much for inviting us, Geeks OUT, so happy to be here! I’m Meeg Pincus (she/her) and I write “solutionary stories” – nonfiction picture books for kids about solving problems for people, animals, and the planet. I’ve been a writer/educator for 25 years and I’ve had the joy and honor of publishing 27 picture books.

I also do lots of other things: sing with a women’s acoustic group, volunteer/advocate with LGBTQ+/trans-related nonprofits, cook plant-based food for my family, talk on the phone with my besties (yep, the actual phone!), read and share diverse books, make art, manage chronic illness (my own and my kids’) and my kids’ homeschool studies, eagerly await new seasons of Queer Eye and The Great Pottery Throwdown

What can you tell us about your most recent project, Door by Door: How Sarah McBride Became America’s First Openly Transgender Senator? What inspired you to create this book?

Meridth: Door by Door is a picture book biography about Senator Sarah McBride written by Meeg Pincus, illustrated by me. I get teary eyed every time I read it. In this biography we read that two things were very clear to Sarah, as a young child. She always wanted to change the world through her leadership and service, and that although she had been assigned male at birth, Sarah knew she was a girl. The story follows Sarah as she grows into her leadership roles, and as she embraces her gender identity, eventually sharing it with her loved ones and the world. Senator McBride became the first openly transgender person to address a national convention, to work at the White House, and to become a state senator. This story shows, as Senator McBride has said, “[that we] can grow up as [ourselves] and dream big dreams all at the same time.”

Senator McBride is such an inspiring, well spoken, and graceful person so it’s been neat to illustrate a book about her life. And I will say that as a non-binary kid growing up in the 80s and 90s, I didn’t have the privilege of reading about gender diverse characters who did great things. I’m delighted I get to be part of this team that created such an important book.

Meeg: Please see Meridth’s answer for a beautiful description of this picture book biography of Senator Sarah McBride. I was inspired to write it amidst a decade-long journey that began with reading Sarah’s coming out story in our college alumni magazine in 2012 and realizing with great emotion that, while I’d been working for gay rights for 20+ years, as a cis woman, I really didn’t know much about trans rights or trans experiences. So, Sarah’s story inspired me to dive in and learn from other trans stories, which then made a huge impact on my own life when a very close loved one came to me for support around their gender identity. I had such better understanding and resources to offer than I would have without those stories.

As I had the honor to walk alongside my trans loved one on their transition journey and to get involved in the trans advocacy community, I kept thinking back to Sarah’s story. As a children’s book author, I knew hers was an important story that kids could relate to, and I approached her about writing it – before she became a senator, actually! Fast forward five years, and we have Door by Door!

How did you find yourself getting into storytelling, especially picture books? What drew you to the medium?

Meridth: I have always loved stories and art. I went through a series of traumatic events in my childhood, and when I was in the thick of it, I didn’t really know who to turn to, so I turned to books. Books were my lifeline then. I know how important and powerful books can be. So, I find it really fulfilling to make books that can help kids feel loved, empowered, and seen.

Meeg: I’ve loved books and have been writing and illustrating stories since before I could even read! My parents were professors and I used to take their extra “Blue Books” – little lined booklets for written exams – and make stacks of my own books, first with scribbles and pictures and then with actual words. I have one in which I wrote my own author bio, at probably age six, that says “[Meeg] loves books. She can hardly stop making them.” (Ha!)

I’ve been working with words and books professionally my entire career, from journalism to academia to book editing, and eventually I found writing children’s nonfiction to be the perfect blend for me as a writer, artist, researcher, and educator.

How would you describe your creative process? And what went into collaborating with others for Door by Door?

Meridth: At my core, I love to research. I read Senator McBride’s memoir Tomorrow Will Be Different, which is so moving. I also read a lot of articles, watched documentaries, etc. on trans history for the spread that talked about trancestors. (I will say that one must research carefully. Trans history has not always been respectfully represented.)

I submitted rough sketches and then my final illustrations to my editor, Kelly Delaney at Crown Books for Young Readers to review. She then would share my art with Meeg Pincus, the author, and most importantly with Senator McBride. I think because of the personal nature of Senator McBride’s journey of embracing her gender identity and life aspirations, we could not have done this book without her feedback. Senator McBride was really generous with her time and an integral part of helping us create a respectful representation of her life, including her pre-transitional moments, which needed delicacy.

Meeg: When I get an idea for a nonfiction picture book, the first step is research, research, and more research! Reading books/articles, watching documentaries/video clips, interviewing people.

Once I have what I feel are enough facts on the subject, I dip into my creative mind and try to come up with an innovative approach to sharing it with kids. For some of my books, that means poetry, for others lyrical storytelling, some are more serious and some more lighthearted. I let the subject and the voices of the subjects guide me to how to write it – within the picture book structure that I’ve studied and practiced and is now second nature to me!

Again, Meredith gave a great answer about our collab on Door by Door. Every picture book takes a village to create, which is why I love writing picture books! I teach a workshop for picture book writers that compares it to writing stage plays, and a big part of that is that the writer is just one piece in a full visual production. All the pieces must work together cooperatively, and every piece is crucial, to create the final artwork. In picture books the main players are the author, illustrator, editor, and art director but also like a theatre, there are all the people on the business side that get the artwork to the public as well.

Meeg Pincus

As a creative, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?

Meridth: Oh goodness, there are too many to name. Here’s a very condensed list of some creatives that I love:

  • Author/Illustrators I adore: Vera Brosgol, Adam Rex, Isabelle Arsenault, Lorena Alvarez, Carson Ellis, Luke Pearson, Anoosha Syed, Wallace Tripp, Tomi Ungerer
  • Authors whose books I love to read:  Neil Gaiman, Charles Dickens, Angie Sage, Terry Pratchett, Kate DiCamillo, Kelly DiPucchio,
  •  Illustrators: Julia Sarda, Ivan Bilibin, JC Leyendecker, Kay Nielson, Eyvind Earle, Luisa Uribe, Maribel Lechuga
  • Animation: Cartoon Saloon (Studio that created Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea), Laika (Studio that created ParaNorman), Over the Garden Wall

… Hard to stop, there is so much to be inspired by.

Meeg: My first creative influence was children’s author/illustrator Richard Scarry, whose books I just loved. (I even wrote to him in Switzerland when I was five and was over the moon when he wrote me back!) Judy Blume was also a huge influence for me as a kid. My mom’s best friend was a fine artist, and she was a great influence and encouragement to me as a creative as well.

Later, influences include so many writers and fine artists I don’t even know where to begin! I’m drawn to art that gives me a visceral emotional response – that can be anything from joy to tenderness, grief, rage, existential wonder; and it can be any art from writing to sculpture to collage to theatre to music to cartoons.

Growing up, were there any stories in which you felt touched by/ or reflected in? Are there any like that now?

Meridth: When I was a kid, I was a mega fan of Roald Dahl. Mostly The Witches, Matilda, and The Twits. I loved the absurdly dark and twisted nature of the worlds he created. It really resonated with me, and it felt really empowering to read about how kids in his stories confronted the baddies. (I still love his books, but he has a complicated legacy that can’t be overlooked.)

A lot more stories have been published featuring gender diverse characters since I’ve reached adulthood, which is so exciting. Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe is one of those books I needed growing up. I feel like a lot of cis folks don’t understand what it means to be non-binary. It would have given me a lot of peace and validation in my youth.

Meeg: Two books I read many times over were The Diary of Anne Frank and Judy Blume’s Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. I related so much to these Jewish girls who had so much emotion, so much to express, so much they were afraid of; they didn’t know where they fit into the world, but they wanted to be brave and make a difference somehow. Clearly, I saw myself in them, and I still relate to them!

These days, I love reading memoirs, particularly by people who may not “fit in” to the mainstream dominant culture – be that due to their race, religion, sexuality, gender identity, disability, body size, immigration or ­socioeconomic status, etc. – people grappling with these same kinds of struggles and finding their voices through telling their stories. I love getting to know different people’s life experiences, which I always find opens my eyes to new ways of seeing and reminds me how alike we all are in so many ways at heart.

Besides your work, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

Meridth: If we’re going to be friends, I need you to know that I’m a big fan of sweets. One of my favorite tasty treats are alfajors. It’s a yummy chocolate covered cookie/sandwich that I discovered while living in Argentina. My husband makes pretty good homemade alfajors, which I am always happy to consume.

Meeg: Hmmm. I worked as a character at Disneyland as a teenager, and I cannot go a day without eating dark chocolate?!

Meridth McKean Gimbel

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were (and the answer to that question)?

Meridth: The question, of course, is what superpower would I have if I could have just one? I would have the ability to stop time whenever I feel like it. And I would use my superpower in the most boring way. There would be no crime fighting for me, thank you very much. I would just be really productive and take a whole lot of naps.

Meeg: I guess a question about the current book bans of LGBTQ+ and race-related children’s books. Given my roles personally and professionally — in the queer, publishing, and education communities — these books bans are weighing heavily on me, and I’m extremely concerned about them. Cutting off children from seeing themselves reflected in books and learning about others with different experiences and identities than them in books, and from learning about important history and social movements, is cruel and dangerous to a healthy, inclusive, democratic society. It’s a very intentional step toward just the opposite.

What can we do to stop these book bans? Most are taking place locally, so showing up at school board, city council, or library board meetings to oppose book bans makes a huge difference. We can write letters to decision makers, purchase banned books to show publishers we want them, donate banned books in communities where access is cut off in public schools and libraries, and donate to organizations fighting book bans. What we can’t do is let the loud minority trying to ban these books and topics win just because they’re the ones showing up.

Are there any other projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?

Meridth: Currently my projects under the radar, but I am finishing up a zany picture book proposal, and I have a dark graphic novel pitch coming down the pipeline too. I love to write and illustrate stories in a wide variety of genres. I want to make silly, dark, serious, nonfiction and fiction, picture book, middle grade, and graphic novel stories.

Meeg: I’m working with some theatre folks who are adapting a few of my books into stage plays for children, which is exciting. I’m teaching workshops with The Writing Barn to picture book writers, which is motivating. And I’ve got a picture book in the pipeline for 2024 (a collaboration with the Smithsonian’s wildlife conservation arm), a true story about a crane who doesn’t fit in with her species but must help save it, which I realize is fitting, given my other answers!

What advice might you have to give to aspiring creatives, to both those interested in making their own picture books one day?

Meridth: Who you are and all the experiences you have had, good and bad, have given you a specific point of view. We need your stories, told from your perspective. Believe in yourself, take your craft seriously, and do the hard work.

Meeg: I’d say immerse yourself in the picture books you love. Read them all, study them, figure out what works about them for you. Remember that creating picture books is a craft that takes study and practice, and dive into it. And, most of all, write and/or make art about what you are most passionate about, what’s deep within you, and that will shine through.

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

Meridth: Again, I’ll try and narrow it down;

Meeg: I curate all the book lists for the nonprofit Trans Family Support Services (TFSS), so I would encourage you to check out the TFSS Bookshop (which supports TFSS and indie bookstores) to find all kinds of books specifically about trans experiences and issues: https://bookshop.org/shop/tfss.

I also have my own Solutionary Stories Bookshop, and here’s my list of nonfiction picture books by and about LGBTQ+ solutionaries: https://bookshop.org/lists/great-nonfiction-picture-books-about-lgbtq-solutionaries.

And I hope to be adding more and more books to these lists every year!

Interview with Helen H. Wu

Helen H. Wu is a children’s book author and illustrator, as well as a translator and publisher. She is the author of Tofu Takes Time, illustrated by Julie Jarema (Beaming Books, 2022) and Long Goes To Dragon School, illustrated by Mae Besom (Yeehoo Press, 2023). Helen is the Publisher of Yeehoo Press, an independent children’s book publisher based in San Diego, California. Being fascinated by the differences and similarities between cultures, Helen loves to share stories that empower children to understand the world and our connections. Born and raised in Hefei, China, Helen moved to the US in her 20s. Currently, she resides in sunny Southern California, with her family and two kids. You can follow Helen on Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok.

I had the opportunity to interview Helen, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Thank you so much, Michele for having me!

I’m a children’s book author, illustrator, translator and publisher. My books include Tofu Takes Time, illustrated by Julie Jarema (Beaming Books, 2022) and Long Goes To Dragon School, illustrated by Mae Besom (Yeehoo Press, 2023). I’m the Publisher of Yeehoo Press, an independent children’s book publisher based in San Diego, California. Fascinated by the differences and similarities between cultures, I love to share stories that empower children to understand the world and our connections..

What can you tell us about your latest book, Long Goes to Dragon School? Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

My new picture book, Long Goes to Dragon School, was inspired by my own experience as a minority immigrant student. It follows a Chinese dragon who struggles to breathe fire in his new Western dragon school, only to discover he must carve his own path to finding a sense of belonging. In this story, Long’s name is based on the Chinese word for dragon, “龙(lóng).” Like in Western culture, dragons are intricately intertwined with Chinese culture. However, Chinese dragons do not typically breathe fire. Instead, they are known as water spirits. I have always been fascinated by the differences and similarities between cultures. And living in America, I’ve realized that everyone is different and that learning from others helps you discover your own talents, while still allowing you to find your own path.

As a first-generation immigrant, I’ve felt impostor syndrome ever since—including throughout my journey as an author. But here’s the good news: while I don’t think these thoughts will ever go away completely, I’ve learned to control them. In fact, I’ve learned to let them motivate me to think outside the box and find my own unique path in writing and publishing.

I managed to use those feelings of insecurity to motivate myself to keep learning, keep going, and seizing every opportunity that came my way. A few years ago, I was invited to talk about publishing and my stories on a podcast. I was so nervous and my English wasn’t as fluent as I wanted it to be, and unfortunately, the recorded podcast wasn’t aired. Despite feeling discouraged, I also realized that I had taken a brave step by accepting the opportunity to be on the podcast. This experience pushed me forward and taught me to embrace every small success. I learned that taking even a small step forward is a significant achievement and should be celebrated.

So eventually, I embraced my multicultural identity and began to tell stories that were not only personal to me but also unique and universal.

I identified with Long’s story because I could relate to feeling like an outsider and struggling to find my place. I wanted to write a story that celebrates cultural differences and encourages readers to embrace their individuality.

In Long Goes to Dragon School, Long struggles to fit in with his classmates because he cannot breathe fire like the other dragons. This mirrors my own experience of feeling inadequate because I did not have the same background as my peers. That’s why I wanted to include the theme of growth mindset in this story. Long is a water dragon and he can’t match his fire-breathing classmates. But he keeps practicing and finally manages to turn water into something surprising. By persisting with a growth mindset, he discovers his own unique talents. I’m very honored that this book has received some glowing reviews. “Using a dragon as the main character strengthens the overall message that everyone is different and has unique gifts to share. Besom’s appealing watercolor illustrations wonderfully complement the text, clearly representing the story’s events. From beginning to end, the images will likely enchant youngsters as they get to know Long’s world.” –Kirkus Reviews. “An insightful picture book in which a young dragon with unique abilities struggles to fit in.” –Foreword Reviews. Like Long, I found my own unique path and learned to embrace my differences. I hope readers of all backgrounds will be able to relate to Long’s journey and find inspiration in his perseverance and self-discovery.

How would you describe the process behind this book? How would you describe your general creative process?

I had the opportunity to serve as the editor and be involved in every single step of the process – from text editing, illustration thumbnails, sketches, and coloring, every revision to graphic design. I provided a lot of input into the layout design, cover design, and jacket design. In fact, I even came up with the idea for the poster on the back of the book and designed it myself. Working so closely with the team was an incredible experience, while effort-consuming. I always appreciate the efforts from a publishing house, including the editorial team, design team, marketing and sales team, that goes into making a book possible and ensuring that it is the best it can be.

Chinese dragons are typically visually different from western dragons, with their long snake-like bodies. However, in this book, the focus is not on their physical differences but on their unique inner abilities. To bring each character to life, I designed them with distinct personalities and body shapes, and Mae Besom’s exceptional talent made them even more captivating with her mesmerizing illustrations. Mae’s specialization in drawing cute childlike Chinese dragons, coupled with her mastery of traditional Chinese watercolor art style, added another layer of beauty to the book. When our team pitched the story to Mae, she immediately jumped on board and brought her artistic magic to the project.

Collaborating with Mae Besom is an absolute delight! During the character design phase, she meticulously explored each dragon’s background and personality, and the results were breathtaking! From Camila, the fiery dragon who loves to read, to Willy, the hilarious double-headed dragon who breathes lightning, and to Mia, the fluffy dragon who spews lava – each character had a unique and captivating design that perfectly matched their distinct personalities. Mae’s artistry was truly remarkable, making the characters jump off the page and into our hearts! I’m thrilled that Mae’s talent and passion contributed to the project and that people of all ages can now enjoy the story and its characters.

What are some of your favorite things about picture books?

Children’s picture books have the potential to pass on the joy from generation to generation. Picture books are one of the channels that children can learn about the world when they snuggle on the laps of parents and grandparents. As an art lover, I also find it’s very entertaining and soothing to simply enjoy the artwork of picture books.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)? 

Can you briefly speak about the Kickstarter campaign of the Dragon Plushies? What is it like seeing these characters come to life and holding actual merchandise of your book characters?

Children’s picture books have the power to spark joy and curiosity in young minds, and with Long Goes to Dragon School, we wanted to take that experience beyond the pages of the book. That’s why we created these adorable dragon plushies that can bring happiness to not just kids, but also teenagers and adults. Made with super-soft premium plush fabric, these huggable toys are perfect for playtime or as a comforting companion during difficult times.

But that’s not all – we’ve also expanded our product line to include pins, stickers, key chains, and animated gif emojis that can be used on social media. Our hope is that these cute and loveable dragon characters can become more than just book characters, but also everyday companions for people of all ages. And with their heartwarming message of self-discovery and self-love, these plushies and accessories can help spread kindness and compassion in the world.

What advice might you have to give for aspiring creatives, especially picture book creators?

As a creator, I believe in the power of imagination and bringing ideas to life. Pursuing your dreams takes hard work, dedication, and the courage to take risks, whether it’s creating a plushie, writing a book, or starting a business. But the rewards are incredible. When you see your idea come to life and hold the finished product in your hands, it’s a feeling of accomplishment that is priceless. That’s what motivates me to keep creating.

As I create, I’m inspired by the endless potential of what could be. I hope to inspire others to take that first step towards their own dreams, to believe in themselves, and to take that leap of faith towards something they love. Remember, the world needs your unique ideas and creativity. Anything is possible if you believe in yourself and put in the effort to make it happen.

Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

Currently, I am working on expanding the product lines of plushies, pins, and keychains, as well as developing a few other picture books that showcase Chinese culture. Stay tuned for more updates!

Finally, what books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

OPAL’S SPRINGTIME BIRDHOUSE written by Emily Matheis, illustrated by Albert Arrayás

MY GRANDPA, MY TREE AND ME written by Roxanne Troup, illustrated by Kendra Binney

HUMPHREY THE EGG-SPLORER written by Nadia Ali, illustrated by Valentí Gubianas

Interview with Artist Sabina Hahn

Sabina Hahn is a Brooklyn based illustrator, animator, and sculptor who loves stories and tall tales. Sabina has been drawing from before she was born; she is a master of capturing subtle fleeting expressions and the most elusive of gestures. She is a co-founder of Interval Studios. Pineapple Princess is her debut picture book.

I had the opportunity to interview Sabina, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

My name is Sabina Hahn. I love words and pictures and clay. And cats. I moved to New York from Riga, Latvia when I was 17 and I have been here ever since.

What can you tell us about your most recent project, Pineapple Princess? What was the inspiration for this story?

Pineapple Princess first appeared as a drawing of a surly kid; then the title  “Pineapple Princess” dropped into my head like a gift. They kind of melted into one and soon I started to idly think of her and where she came from and what she liked to do. I kept drawing her and writing small snippets. Soon I felt curious enough about her to sit down and write her story. I wanted to know more about this kid who knows she is a princess and is also sticky and surly and sure of herself. 

How did you find yourself getting into storytelling, particularly picture books? What drew you to the medium?

I fell in love with books when I was 4 or 5, the first time I read “Alice in Wonderland”. The combination of earnestness and absurdity really spoke to me. For me, the best children’s books have that quality because kids tend to think in leaps and sometimes those leaps happen sideways or upside down. I like to stay in touch with my inner child and children’s books are the easiest way to do so. 

I personally started to write kid’s books when I decided to change my career from animation to something else. Books seemed like a logical place to go to. It appealed to me that I can make key frames and then the reader does all the in-between work inside their mind. 

How would you describe your creative process? 

Meandering. Very very meandering. I have a small notebook where I jot all of my ideas for stories, no matter how small or vague it might be. Generally, one or two stories are particularly interesting to me or close to my heart. And so I will start writing a little, sketching a bit and also – very important – “researching”. ‘Researching’ is what I call all the rabbit holes I jump into. It is a great joy to me. One of the best things about being a New Yorker is our library. I love working in the libraries – this year, my favorite has been the Main library with the lions. I go there and write, and when I need a break I pick up a random book to be inspired. 

I tend to alternate between drawing and writing. Then, when I have the bones of the story, I start doing both at once.  Afterwards,  I make a book dummy. It is a great way to see the flow of the story and to tighten it up where it is needed. I might have anywhere from 3 to about 7 book dummies of various degrees of sketchiness by the time I am finished with a story. 

As a creative, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration? 

Anything that makes me stop and wonder is the source of  inspiration. It is people sometimes, overheard conversations, misheard words, books, art – anything and everything.

What are some of your favorite elements of writing/illustrating? What are some of the most challenging? 

I find writing challenging. I want to use all words and no words at once and have a hard time balancing that dichotomy in my books. When I get discouraged, I remind myself of these words by Felicity Beedles from “Thud” by Terry Pratchett : “‘… how hard can writing be?  After all, most of the words are going to be and, the and I and it, and so on, and there’s a huge number to choose from, so a lot of the work has already been done for you.’ ”

My favorite things about creating (be it words or images) are the moments of wonder. Every once in a while I am surprised by what I create. It is as if it has a life of its own and I am the lucky one who gets to spend time with it.. 

Besides your work as an author/illustrator, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

I love working with clay. It brings me joy and equilibrium. You should try it too. 

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were (and the answer to that question)?

‘What is your favorite animal’ is a question people over a certain age (11 maybe) don’t get asked enough. At the moment my favorite animal is a hog nose snake who very dramatically pretends to be dead when it is scared. So much drama!

Are there any projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?

A lot of my stories I am working now are in their caterpillar cocoon form. I am afraid to disturb them while their existence is so precarious. But one of the characters that keeps showing up lately when I am daydreaming is a cat in a cat suit. What it is doing or what it wants is unclear, but it’s pretty persistent. 

What advice might you have to give to aspiring creatives, to both those interested in making their own picture book? 

Read, read, read! When you get tired of reading, make, make, make. When you get tired of that, connect with other similarly minded people. And then show your work; be present in the world you want to inhabit. 

Finally, what books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

I tend to read pretty widely, so here are some of my favorites from the last few years. 

Paradise Sands by Levi Pinfold (picture book)

Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch (picture book)

Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascot  (graphic novel)

Shadow Life by Hiromi Goto (graphic novel)

Wolf Doctors by Sara June Woods (poetry)
The Gray House by Mariam Petrosyan (because it’s one of my all time favorite books)

And all of Terry Pratchett too.

Nature of Oaks by Douglas Tallamy (non-fiction, one of the books I read for my research, so interesting!) 


Header Photo Credit Anna Campanelli

Interview with Holding On creators Sophia N. Lee & Isabel Roxas

Sophia N. Lee grew up in the Philippines. She wanted to be many things growing up: doctor, teacher, ballerina, ninja, spy, wizard, journalist, and lawyer. She likes to think she can still be all these things and more through writing. She looks a lot like her lola Benita, but she inherited her love for writing from her lola Josefina, who worked as a principal and an English teacher. She is the author of Soaring Saturdays; What Things Mean (2014 Scholastic Asian Book Award grand prize winner); and Holding On. She has another picture book titled Lolo’s Sari-sari Store forthcoming from Atheneum in the summer of 2023. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from The New School in New York City and works as a creative writing instructor for kids, teens, and sometimes, grownups too. 

Isabel Roxas is the author-illustrator of The Adventures of Team Pom: Squid Happens. She was born in the Philippines and raised on luscious mangoes, old wives’ tales, and monsoon moons. She learned so much from her lolas Fe and Venancia: how to shine the floor with a coconut, navigate a palengke (wet market), and make a scrumptious bowl of ginataan. You can follow Isabel on Instagram @StudioRoxas. 

I had the opportunity to interview Sophia and Isabel, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourselves?

(SL): Hello, Geeks OUT! Thank you so much for having us. 

I’m Sophia N. Lee, an author of books for kids and teens. I was born and raised in the Philippines and was raised within a huge extended family so I’m constantly inspired by memories of growing up around a multitude of Lolos, Lolas, Titos, Titas, and countless other cousins. 

When I’m not writing, I teach creative writing classes for young people. 

Outside of that, I’m most often getting lost in a book, researching new places to visit, or traveling by taste through kitchen experiments. I’m currently geeking out on Kdramas, which I fell into early in the pandemic. 

(IR): Hi there! I’m Isabel Roxas, author, and illustrator of books for young readers, and like Sophie, I was born in the Philippines and raised on a steady diet of old wives’ tales and mangoes. I’m now based in Queens, New York. 

When I’m not making pictures or cooking up stories, I like to make small objects in clay, bake desserts, and go exploring. 

What can you tell us about your latest book, Holding On? What inspired this story?

(SL): Holding On is a picture book about a girl and the many summers that she spends in the Philippines with her Lola, which is the Filipino word for grandmother. 

This book is incredibly personal for me because it was inspired by my own summers spent in the province with my paternal grandparents. The story shows how a young girl learns how to hold on in different ways – first by observing how others around her do so (belting out songs on the karaoke machine, cooking favorite dishes, framed pictures on the walls), and then by teaching herself new ways to celebrate treasured memories and time spent with the ones she loves. 

The story is also deeply personal because it mirrors my own story as I learned how to navigate my own Lola’s loss of her memories after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and early-onset dementia. After all those summers of being cared for by her, I wanted to honor her and those memories of feeling so beloved by telling this story.

(IR): The images were inspired by the Philippine countryside and feature my favorite fruits and treats – Taho (a warmed tofu treat with brown sugar and tapioca pearls), fresh mangoes, pastillas de leche, and sinigang (a deliciously sharp sour soup).  

What drew you to storytelling, specifically to picture books?

(SL): Deciding to write literature for young readers came easily. I wanted to write the kind of stories that made me fall in love with reading and that helped shape my identity. I think children love the books they read early on differently – as readers, they’re still on the cusp of becoming who they are, and if you’re lucky, as a kidlit author you get to have a hand in helping shape that young mind. 

(IR): I loved picture books as a child and never stopped reading and collecting them. The fabulous worlds in those stories were intoxicating and often a refuge from the messy complexities of life. I too wanted to create neighborhoods that young people wanted to jump into and characters that they wanted to befriend. I love the picture book form in particular because it challenges us to communicate with depth and clarity with just a few words and images. 

What are some of your favorite examples of picture books growing up and now?

(SL): Growing up, I loved books that made me feel safe, that reassured me that I’d always have a place in the world no matter what. I remember reading P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother? over and over, and finding comfort when the baby bird finally makes its way back into the nest and finds the mother there. I felt the same way reading Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece – I was so happy after the circle could sing again because it allowed itself to let go of the piece it had sought out for so long. 

Now, I’m always looking at books that show me how to say more with a lot less. I like when there’s space left in between the lines for the child’s mind to nibble on. I love classics like Owl Moon, written by Jane Yolen and illustrated by John Schoenherr, and Ida, Always, written by Caron Levis and illustrated by Charles Santoso. 

New favorites are Big Mean Mike, written by Michelle Knudsen and illustrated by Scott Magoon, about a tough dog who discovers that he doesn’t have to be tough all the time, and The Ocean Calls, written by Tina Cho and illustrated by Jess X. Snow, about a young girl and her freediving grandmother in Korea. It’s such a beautiful story, and an excellent study on how a topic that’s culturally specific is able to also feel universally relatable, because of how the intergenerational bonds in the story are depicted.    

(IR): The first book that I remember loving was A Light in the Attic.

The picture books I love now include: It’s Useful to Have a Duck by Isol, which is an accordion-style board book that you read from two distinct points of view. It’s an inventive and playful book that encourages empathy in a very simple, creative manner. Another book that I’m currently loving is The Way Home in the Night by Akiko Miyakoshi.

How would you describe your general writing/drawing process? What are some of your favorite/most challenging parts for you?

(SL): For me, so much of the work behind my own writing is mental. I’m most challenged when facing the blank page, and trying to figure out what kind of story I want to tell, and the best way for me to tell it. 

When I get inspired by an idea, I’ll often obsess about it in my head for a really long time. When I do, it often feels like I’m walking into a messy room, and it’s on me to figure out which mess to sort out first.  I’ll start making a mental list of things that would be interesting to put together. I’ll think about how to rearrange every memory I want to reference, every inspirational peg, every plot point that I know so far, until it feels like something that I can picture more fully – almost like a room or a space where my main character can walk into or exist in. 

And then, I’ll think about how best to get that story on the page. That to me is the most painful/challenging part: finding the right structure to hang your story on, whether it’s a theme I want to run throughout the story, or a form that I want to experiment with, or an idea that I want the reader to be consumed by. But honestly, it’s also the most thrilling part of writing for me. 

(IR): If I am drawing from a manuscript (by another author), I usually go through the entire story and try to sort out the rhythm of the book with thumbnail sketches. Then I try to find out who the characters are – I develop their personalities which then informs what they would wear, how they move, and what the palette will be. Then I fill in the rest of the world. When I am illustrating something I am writing myself, it usually starts with a piece of inspiration – either a news item or something I observed on my way to the train (or ON the train). I make a few sketches and sometimes dialogue comes along with it, other times it’s just a mood. 

My favorite part of book creation is making a big mess in search of the look and heart of the book. It is probably also the most challenging part of the process. 

Aside from your work as a writer/artist, what would you want readers to know about you?

(SL): That I love learning! I really enjoy teaching, but I think I’m happiest when I’m in a classroom setting figuring out things and learning about how other people go about their lives and solve the problems they encounter. If I could figure out a way to be in a class of some sort learning something forever, I would! If you’re reading this and looking for a sign to take up a class in that (obscure or otherwise) interest, this is it! 

(IR): Like Sophie, I love to learn too! I am curious about the world, people, and making things. Making books is the perfect excuse to explore new things because every project requires research and following new leads whether it is an educational book about race, a book about voting, or a humorous book about pigeons. 

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?

(SL): A question that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is: What’s the closest thing to real magic in our world? 

I think it would still be our capacity to hold on and to celebrate and pursue the things we love, and even the things we dream of. I think it’s that part of us that pushes us to create new things – whether it’s a candle scent to remember someone or something we miss, or it’s a story to immortalize a shared history, a song to commemorate a heartbreak or a book that imagines a world that’s far better than the one we have. I hope we never run out of that stuff. 

What advice would you give to other aspiring creatives, especially those who may want to write/draw a picture book themselves one day?

(SL): Read a lot, and read widely! That’s the best way for any type of creative to discover the kind of stories they want to tell and even the tone in which they want to convey their story. Also: read closely. When I find an amazing book, I’ll read it several times to see what parts of that work I’m responding to the most – is it the world-building? The cadence? The dialogue? The authenticity of the characters? Being able to identify those and studying what makes them successful is so helpful for my process as a writer. 

(IR): I second Sophie’s advice and would add: Follow your instincts, embrace your faults and weirdness, surround yourself with good people, don’t give up, and always have snacks handy. 

Are there any other projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?

(SL): I’m so excited to share that I’ll be coming out with another picture book titled Lolo’s Sari-sari Store, illustrated by Christine Almeda in the summer of 2023, also from Atheneum. This book is so special to me because my huge extended family co-owned a sari-sari store (similar to a convenience store, often operating out of one’s home) in our village, and my cousins and I would take turns working at that store every summer. 

In the Philippines, sari-sari stores offer more than just convenience for the people they service – often, they’re also community hubs where people go not just to get daily essentials, but to share stories, eat together, and just be among friends in the neighborhood. It was a great place to spend the summer and a great place to learn about people and about life. 

(IR): I’m working on the third installment of my graphic novel series The Adventures of Team Pom, and this time the girls will be trying their hand at archaeology! I am also working on a small exhibition of the art behind Team Pom that will open this summer at the Youth Wing of BPL’s Central Library. So visitors will get the chance to see how a graphic novel is made form its inception to publication. The series is really a love letter to neighborhoods and New York, so it will also feature things like bodegas, the underground newsstands, and of course, pigeons. 

Finally, what books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

(SL): Hello, readers of Geeks OUT! Here are some titles I’m excited about right now. I hope you check these out and find something in them that sparks excitement in you! 

Arnold Arre’s Mythology Class

Eliza Victoria’s After Lambana

Alternative Alamat: Myths and Legends from the Philippines, edited by Paolo Chikiamco 

(IR): Here are some books I highly recommend: 

The Queen and the Cave by Julia Sarda

The Paper Flower Tree by Jacqueline Ayer

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny View

Alison by Lizzy Stewart

Interview with Author Chana Stiefel

Chana Stiefel is the award-winning author of more than 30 punny and poignant books for children. She loves to visit schools and libraries to share her passion for reading and writing with children. She earned a Master’s degree in Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting from New York University. Chana is represented by Miranda Paul at Erin Murphy Literary Agency. You can follow her on Instagram for updates on her work.

I had the opportunity to interview Chana, which you can read below.

CW: Discussion of the Holocaust and religious intolerance.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Thank you so much for having me! I’m a children’s book author from New Jersey. I’ve published 30+ books for kids, both fiction and nonfiction. I love to swim, hike, read, travel, spend time with family, and visit art museums and indie bookshops (not necessarily in this order). My pediatrician husband and I just published our first co-authored book. It’s called Mendel’s Hanukkah Mess Up, illustrated by Daphna Awadish (published by Kalaniot) about a character who always messes up, but learns that sometimes mistakes can be marvelous.

What can you tell us about your latest book, The Tower of Life? What was the inspiration for this story?

The Tower of Life is a picture book biography about Yaffa Eliach, a Holocaust survivor and historian whose mission was to restore humanity to the victims of the Holocaust. I first learned about Yaffa when I read her obituary in the New York Times in 2016. She was born in a Polish town called Eishyshok in 1935. Her grandmother was one of the town’s photographers. In 1941, nearly the entire Jewish population of Eishyshok was murdered by the Nazis. In just two days, 900 years of history were uprooted. Miraculously, 6-year-old Yaffa and her family escaped to the forest. Yaffa tucked some family photographs in her shoes and held on to them throughout the war and beyond. 

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter reached out to Yaffa to help build a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Washington, DC. (By then, Yaffa was a professor and a trailblazer in Holocaust education.) But Yaffa didn’t want to focus on death and darkness. Her photos reminded her of people of her beautiful town and the lives they led. Did relatives who had left Eishyshok before the war save photos too? 

Yaffa set out on a mission to find the survivors and rebuild her town, not brick by brick, but photo by photo, story by story. Over 17 years, she traveled the world and collected over 6,000 photos of nearly every man, woman, and child who had lived in Eishyshok in the 100 years before the war. And she created the Tower of Life (also known as the Tower of Faces), a three-story high central exhibit at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, shining a light on the lives that were lived. On dignity, not disaster. It’s a story about community, empathy, hope, and resilience. 

As a writer, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically children’s books?

The first memories that come to mind are sitting on my mother’s lap, listening to her read books like Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal. I remember that closeness and love that comes from reading a book together. My mother and I still share a love of reading and talk about books all of the time.

After college, I went to journalism school at NYU. I had an internship, which developed into a job as an editor, working at children’s science magazines at Scholastic. I loved writing for kids so much, I never looked back. My first 15 children’s books were nonfiction, sharing the wonders of science and cool (sometimes yucky) history with kids. 

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 to translate that into a book?

Unless you’re a celebrity, writing children’s books can be a long and arduous journey. But I have to say, the kidlit community is incredibly warm and supportive. For every challenge, whether it’s getting a manuscript critiqued or finding a shoulder to cry on after a pile of rejections, there is always someone to turn to for support. 

Interestingly, in trade publishing, authors and illustrators generally do not communicate at all during the process. It’s an unwritten rule that publishers prefer that authors give illustrators creative freedom. Sometimes, we can recommend illustrators for our projects. We may include some illustrator notes for clarity and occasionally we’re given an opportunity to review sketches and offer feedback. But until the book is released, we generally work separately. It’s just how the industry runs.

Growing up, were there any stories in which you felt touched by/ or reflected in, in terms of personal identity? If not or if so, how do you think this personally affected you as a writer? 

I grew up in a home that encouraged creativity. I remember that my father and I once climbed onto our roof, poured paint onto a canvas, and splattered the side of our house. My parents encouraged me and my siblings to follow our passions.

My parents were also very involved in social justice, particularly when it came to the Jewish community. Many young people today are not aware that during the 1970s and 80s, nearly two million Soviet Jews were trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Practicing religion was forbidden, but at the same time they were refused exit visas. Thousands of dissidents (also known as “refuseniks”) lost their jobs or were imprisoned just for applying for visas, speaking out, or demonstrating. 

Living in Miami, my parents not only spoke to us about these injustices, but became very involved in the worldwide movement to save Soviet Jewry. We joined phone calls to refuseniks, attended rallies and marches, and wrote letters to Congress. Legislation was passed to link trade with human rights. My parents even traveled to the USSR in 1975 to secretly meet with refuseniks and bring back important information. On December 6, 1987, my sister and I joined 250,000 people marching in Washington to show solidarity for Soviet Jews. 

These are some of the examples that my parents set for me and I hope that I am transmitting these lessons to my four children. As Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I am working on a book about this period of history to ensure that it is not forgotten. It is a piece of modern Jewish history that actually has a happy ending. 

As a writer, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration in general? 

I admire the persistence of authors like Jane Yolen (author of more than 400 books for children and adults), whose advice to writers is BIC (Butt in Chair). Books don’t write themselves. I have a Post-It next to my computer with a quote from Jane reminding us to take joy in our writing. 

What are some of your favorite elements of writing? What do you consider some of the most frustrating and/or difficult? 

Favorite element: When you have that “aha” moment of how to solve a tricky line or passage or when you come up with a fresh idea that gets you writing.

Frustrating/difficult: We all get rejections. They’re not fun but they’re an unfortunate part of the publishing process. The best ones are the “champagne rejections,” when you’ve come close and an editor gives you some praise, encouragement, and some advice on how to make your story better.

Aside from writing, what are some things you would want others to know about you?

I have seen Kilauea pour lava into the sea, snorkeled in an undersea crater, kissed a giant stingray, hiked on a glacier, and watched in wonder as brown bears dug for clams on an Alaskan beach. All glorious! But give me a blanket, a cup of coffee, and a good book…bliss!

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but that you wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?

What’s my next picture book? BRAVO, AVOCADO, coming from HarperCollins on March 28, 2023. It’s about an avocado at the Farmers’ Market who has a pit in her stomach. She wants to be Today’s Special. It’s about finding your self worth and uplifting your friends.

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

Write your story! Only you can tell your story…and somewhere in the world, there’s a child who needs to hear it.

Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

I’m working on a book about stereotypes and how to avoid them—but in a funny, kid-centric way.

Finally, what books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT? 

Too many to list! Here are a few recent picture books that shine a light on the LGBTQ+ community.

BLOB, by Anne Appert, Harper Collins, 2021.

STITCH BY STITCH: Cleve Jones and the AIDS Memorial Quilt, by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Jamey Christoph, Magination Press, 2021.

MY PAATI’S SARIS, by Jyoti Rajan Gopal, illustrated by Art Twink, Kokila/PRH, 2022.

WHAT ARE YOUR WORDS? A Book About Pronouns, by Katherine Locke, illustrated by Anne Passchier, LittleBrown/Hachette, 2021.

PRIDE: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag, by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Steven Salerno, Random House, 2018.

TWO GROOMS ON A CAKE: The Story of America’s First Gay Wedding, by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Robbie Cathro, Little Bee Books, 2021.

A COSTUME FOR CHARLY by CK Malone, illustrated by Alejandra Barajas, Beaming Books, 2022.

Interview with Author Kyle Lukoff

Kyle Lukoff is the author of many books for young readers. His debut middle-grade novel, Too Bright To See, received a Newbery Honor, the Stonewall award, and was a National Book Award finalist. His picture book When Aidan Became A Brother also won the Stonewall, and his book “Call Me Max” has been banned in schools across the country. He has forthcoming books about mermaids, vegetables, death, and lots of other topics. While becoming a writer he worked as a bookseller for ten years, and then nine more years as a school librarian. He hopes you’re having a nice day.

I had the opportunity to interview Kyle, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Thank you! I worked at Barnes and Noble for a decade before becoming a librarian, and now I’m a full-time writer. For years now my whole life has basically been “books” and “gay,” and that becomes more accurate all the time. A lot of my friends have been involved in Geeks OUT over the years.

How did you find yourself getting into children’s literature, both picture books, and middle grade? What drew you to these mediums?

I’ve worked on all different kinds of projects–fiction and non-fiction for adults, short stories, poetry, I just like to write. The first time I seriously tried to get published it was with a young adult manuscript, and when that didn’t go anywhere I decided to try submitting this picture book idea I came up with not long after college, which had been languishing in my inbox for about a decade. I love writing for kids and am really glad that’s where my career ended up, but it seems more like a matter of luck than intention. 

As a writer, you are well-known for your work, When Aidan Became A Brother, one of the first picture books with a trans male lead. What was the inspiration for the story?

A couple of people had asked if I knew of any picture books with a trans boy character, and I was having a hard time thinking of one. The idea of writing one myself was always there, but I was resistant to the idea until this image of a little boy telling us about his room popped into my head. The story unfolded from there, but it took a long time before it became “Aidan.”

What does it mean for you as a writer having created this picture book as a trans man yourself?

I love knowing that when someone says “Can you recommend a picture book about a trans boy?” they can get one by an adult trans man who’s a professional writer. Now, all we need is more! 

For those who are unfamiliar with how a picture book is made (or are hoping to write picture books themselves) how would you describe the process?

Like any writing project, you sit down and come up with the words you need to tell the story you want to tell. Though picture books have more in common with formalist poetry than, say, short stories. Another important point to note is that, unless you are also an illustrator, you will likely have no control over who illustrates it or what it looks like.

What are some of the best ways/resources to learn more about making a picture book?

From Cover to Cover” by KT Horning. I also recommend reading as many picture books as you can, and carefully analyzing how they’re structured. 

As a writer, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?

I am mostly influenced and inspired by the books I dislike, and the books I wish didn’t take up such prominent space on bookstore shelves or on reading lists. I want to supplant them with stories that I think are better, which include (but are certainly not limited to) my own. 

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)? 

So far no one has really asked me about the main character’s mom in “Different Kinds of Fruit,” who I wrote based on many of the queer fat femmes I have been lucky enough to know and love. I just think she’s so cool, and I really wanted Annabelle to look at her mom and think “I hope I look like her when I grow up.” 

Aside from writing, what do you enjoy doing or learning about in your free time?

I love riding my bike and embarking on complicated cooking experiments. I used to do a lot of jigsaw puzzles, but not so much now that I live with my boyfriend. I still love to read and am always excited when I find a book that makes me feel like a reader again, not a writer half-analyzing the craft. 

Are there any projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

I can’t talk about the one I am currently working on, but I can be excited about my first board book coming out next summer. It’s called AWAKE, ASLEEP and it’s a very complicated rhyme scheme that will be very easy to read aloud. I also have an epistolary picture book coming out called DEAR ZOE, about how to apologize. That one was hugely challenging and extremely fun. 

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers, especially those who want to create and publish queer narratives, too?

Give up if you want to, and if you can’t give up, don’t. 

Finally, what LGBTQIA+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

Ooh I love Leah Johnson, her two YAs are spectacular and she has a middle grade coming out too! I’m also a huge fan of Lev Rosen‘s YA fiction, Lisa Bunker‘s middle grade, everything by Brandy Colbert, and I adored THE WITCH KING by H.E. Edgmon and am excited for the sequel.

Love, Violet Interview with Charlotte Sullivan Wild & Charlene Chua

Charlotte Sullivan Wild is the author of the picture books LOVE, VIOLET, illustrated by Charlene Chua (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Jan. 4, 2022), and THE AMAZING IDEA OF YOU, illustrated by Mary Lundquist (Bloomsbury, 2019). She has previously worked as an educator, bookseller, volunteer radio host, and creator of children’s literature events. Originally from frosty Minnesota, she lives wherever her wife is stationed, most recently in San Antonio, Texas and now in Italy! 

Charlene Chua has illustrated many things over the years for kids of all ages. Her illustration work has won several awards, while books she has illustrated have been nominated for OLA Forest of Reading, USBBY Outstanding International Books, OLA Best Bets, Shining Willow Award, and Kirkus Best books. 

I had the opportunity to interview Charlotte and Charlene, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourselves?

Thanks for hosting us!

CSW:  I’m the author of the picture books Love, Violet and The Amazing Idea of You (Lundquist, Bloomsbury, 2019). I’m also a former educator, bookseller, and planner of kidlit events. I adore hiking, singing, and “aunting” (arms loaded with books). Just before Amazing Idea debuted, I became chronically ill with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME/CFS), a disabling energy disease. I can no longer do most of the things above or leave home much, but through careful pacing, I’ve gradually regained the ability to write. Originally from frosty Minnesota, I now live wherever my wife is stationed, recently in San Antonio, Texas, and now in Italy. You should also know we are proud mama-roosters to The Eggyatrixes, four adorable, opinionated hens.

CC: I mainly illustrate books these days; some of the books I have illustrated are the Amy Wu book series (Kat Zhang, Simon & Schuster) and Pinkie Promises (Elizabeth Warren, Henry Holt & Co.). I mostly spend my time illustrating; when I’m not drawing for work I’m drawing some personal comics or other art stuff.

What can you tell us about your latest book, Love, Violet? Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

CSW: Love, Violet is the tender story of a crush between two girls and the courage it takes to share your heart—even when it’s pounding! Better yet, see for yourself!

CSW: Growing up, I never saw stories about the kind of love I experienced. But I was inundated with romantic fairy tales that–let’s be honest (or as we say at my house, “lesbi-honest”)–only promise happy endings to “certain” people. Those tales of love excluded many because of skin or body, ability or culture, harmful gender rules or queerness. But as a kid, I swallowed those poisoned stories whole. I longed for their promise of partnership. Yet, I also worried… would this happen for me? Somehow, I suspected I wasn’t quite right.

I was also surrounded by Evangelical Christian culture, which promoted pretty horrifying pictures of queer people, essentially: we were all male, pedophiles, and/or addicts spiraling toward early death. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this preacher’s kid and people pleaser suppressed her orientation DEEP until her thirties. When it finally clicked (and wow–was it obvious), I was already married and a professor at a religious college. Coming out meant blowing up my world. But in that chaos also came relief. Joy! I made sense! But also, a hard question.

How had I not known this basic thing about myself? Frankly, the question terrified me. Looking back, I recognized queer crushes all the way back to preschool. That was then I realized the full power of those children’s stories to frame reality for me, of what and who were possible, acceptable, or not. My views of gender and sexuality changed dramatically as I matured, toward acceptance and equality. But my own sense of self? It didn’t budge. My identity had crystalized in the 1970s and 80s, in that miasma of Disney and Evangelicalism, when I didn’t yet realize that I could exist. Early stories are so powerful. They kept me in the closet years after I’d rejected the prejudice that created them. 

So, I wanted to write a new story. One full of those first-crush thrills, the heart cartwheeling. A story inspired by falling head-over-heels for my spouse one snowy winter. A story about kids, at their level, but in a world in which love is love. People are people. Equal and accepted. A true love story to break the poisoned spell of hate. A story to say to every kid in an unsafe place: 

You are not alone. This love, this happy ending is for YOU.

In previous interviews you had discussed what the book meant to you as a queer adult who didn’t grow up with much queer representation. Would you mind speaking about that a bit here and what it means to you to create something like Love, Violet?

CSW: Welcoming Love, Violet feels indescribable. In a way, like reclaiming my childhood. And also, touching history. Standing on a bridge between the brave trouble makers on one side who made my family and this book possible, and the new children on the other, beginning their journeys with affirming stories like this one. It’s like passing on gifts passed to me. Sacred.

I’ve been overwhelmed by the personal responses. One reviewer’s daughter decided Love, Violet was her favorite book and commenced making valentines back in November! I couldn’t even picture queerness at her age, much less acceptance! And the personal stories people are sharing about their lives, about “ugly” crying, feeling seen–I will treasure this forever. 

That said, I would be remiss if I didn’t point to the tsunami of organized attacks on curriculum and books sweeping US schools and libraries right now. The target? Any information or books concerning people of color, queer people, those with disabilities, or any minority identity. The message is not subtle; it is LOUD. Educators’ jobs are being threatened. Children are being shown that THEY are not acceptable. Well, I have strong feelings about this. As should we all. I hope you’ll speak up wherever you live, support all kids, and the weary educators working for ALL their people. To have Love, Violet launching into this storm is a reminder of just how precarious and hard-won change is. 

It’s so important to resist this type of cultural violence because it causes real harm. I’ve written about the human cost of queer erasure, specifically, and how it nearly prevented Love, Violet from coming out (“No More Ghosts! A (Queer) Picture Book Love Story” in We Need Diverse Books Blog, 16 Nov. 2021). I also explore how cultural bias affected my creative process HERE and about writing against the cultural grain HERE. Erasure is not new. Or simple. It is the ancient tool of all oppression. Sometimes we use it against ourselves. Right now we need to stand up for each other and against every version of erasure targeting already marginalized groups. The only remedy for this hate is truth. Humanizing stories. And most of all, LOVE. 

In this sense, despite a decade of waiting for this book, Love, Violet feels right on time. 

Want to help? Find organizations supporting rainbow kids here (scroll down). Also, check out, buy, or share diverse children’s books with kids today!

How did you get into picture books? What pulled you to the medium?

CC: While I didn’t start illustrating intending to be a children’s illustrator, my work has always caught the eye of clients who work with children’s products. I illustrated my first picture book in 2007 I think; but I didn’t specialize in book illustration until 2015 or so. I enjoy working on books, and working with talented authors like Charlotte. It is a great privilege to be entrusted with bringing these special stories to life. 

CSW: (Shucks.) You brought Love, Violet to life so beautifully!

I’​​ve always loved poetry and art, which are the essence of picture books. But I also love music, theater, and film. What these forms share are performance and collaboration. Picture books are a mash-up of all of that. You write a score, a screenplay that, if you’re lucky, a talented artist like Charlene Chua will imagine into a visual narrative. A reader (perhaps the weary parent) performs your script, with the drama of page turns and vocal expression for a live audience. And that audience is just discovering everything for the first time! They are curious, honest, and impatient—so you have to perform! Yet, they can spin a handful of pictures and words into a whole universe. What a collaboration!

Plus? Picture books are inherently designed for togetherness, whether snuggled up at bedtime or circled on carpet squares. They are about sharing something–exploring, feeling and wondering together. It is one of the most powerful experiences we ever have, closeness and a story. How could I not love this form?

How would you describe your writing/ illustrating process? What are some of your favorite things about writing/ illustrating?

CSW: I usually start with daydreaming, gathering odd notes. Once an idea takes on life, I make messy outlines or charts (I describe charting below). Only then do I draft. Next, I revise a bazillion times, chart, revise, seek feedback. When my agent feels a piece is done, she submits it to publishers. If a publisher buys it there are more revisions, but so far, those have been light. Once I see the text and art together (which is thrilling!), I do a final sweep for flow or to cut anything now conveyed in the art.

I love creating! Yet the entire process involves discomfort. Whatever I’m working on isn’t done. So, even when I love something, part of me is always cringing! There is nothing like that final pass on book proofs when every last detail falls into place. It’s kind of like Violet snipping and glittering and “When it was just right, she signed her valentine, Love, Violet.” Ahhh! DONE!

CC: For books, I usually read the manuscript and let it simmer in my head for a while. Then I do character sketches (not that many, compared to some illustrators). I enjoy working out the rough sketches, especially with the text in place. For me, the picture book is meant to be a guided experience, so the placement of the text (and how it’s broken up) affects how the story will be read and interpreted along with the visuals. So I like concepting the artwork around that, and at this stage the art is very rough so it’s possible to imagine how things will work in different ways more easily. Once I have something in place that I like, it’s on the sketches, then later the final artwork. I mostly work digitally but for some books I do use traditional media. Love, Violet was mostly painted in watercolors and color pencil, then edited in Photoshop.

What are some of your favorite elements of writing or art?

CSW: Well, I’m an outlier here. I almost always enter through setting. Stories usually come to me through how they feel in the senses and the heart. Maybe because I’m a poet? (Or very likely ADD?) My antennae are highly over-tuned to everything. Which makes me a terrible sleeper, but maybe a better artist? As I developed Love, Violet, I became obsessed with that wintery atmosphere. Yes, I’m a Minnesota girl. But when I think about it, winter matches those whooshing, upside down feelings of new love. (Also possibly related–seared into my memory is a certain wintry night of my heart flopping, feeling SO ALIVE in my long red coat outside a cafe as a certain gal tugged her wool cap just so, caught my eye with her crooked smirk, the snow swirling through the lamplight, collecting on our eyelashes, salt crackling beneath my red shoe, the scent of damp wool and snow and baking croissants…. Sorry. I need to go make a valentine for my wife—)

Could you describe your artistic/writer background in some detail, like how did you get into art and what your art/literary education was like?

CSW: I loved writing from the beginning. Well, dictating, before I could write–I had a lovely kindergarten teacher, Miss Connors, who called us up to her typewriter to tell stories, which felt important. Whenever possible, I went to creative writing camp or took that community class. Later, I made a living teaching, which left little room for my own work. Eventually, I was able to cut back my load and earn an MFA in Creative Writing at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN, which was pure joy! Their MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults (MFAC) didn’t launch until I was nearly done, but I did nab a few lecture passes, which helped. When I first became interested in picture books, specifically, I didn’t know where to turn. Now writing/ illustrating resources are everywhere. There are infinite ways to train yourself. All of them involve studying form and craft, finding your process, trading feedback, and practice. I’d also include developing confidence in your voice. 

CC: I didn’t go to formal art school; I do have a degree in Illustration though the program was somewhat different from typical art school. Most of what I know, I picked up along the way from books (and later, YouTube videos) and just drawing a lot over the years. I did a bit of a design diploma when I was younger, and worked as a designer for some years. While I don’t do graphic design anymore, I think the skills I picked up there were invaluable especially for books – it helps when considering the type on the page, and also makes communication with the art team at the publishers much easier.

What are some of your favorite examples of picture books growing up and now?

CSW: As a kid I loved Tootle about a baby train who leaves the tracks to frolic in a field of buttercups (Gertrude Crampton, illustrated by Tibor Gergely, Golden Press 1945). But when I looked it up just now, I discovered it’s really about Tootle “Learning to Stay on The Tracks No Matter What.” Eventually the villagers fill the field to wave red flags and drive Tootle back to the tracks. WOW. It’s strange. What I remembered from this book is Tootle’s joy in the meadow, the flower garlands. Yet, what I lived out was obedience to all the red flags of gender. I stayed on those tracks, even as my heart longed for buttercups. Coming out felt exactly like finding that field. Books are subtle, powerful things. I hope Love, Violet will wave a GREEN flag to kids, reassuring them that joy comes from authenticity and honest connection.

My favorite books now? Ah, so many! Here are two recent favorites: 

When We Love Someone We Sing to Them / Cuando Amamos Cantamos by Ernesto Javier Martínez, illustrated by Maya Christina Gonzalez, is a sweeping “reclamation of the Mexican serenata tradition” as a young boy creates the perfect love song for another boy. And Papi helps. Gorgeous.

The Most Beautiful Thing, a moving generational story by Kao Kalia Yang, illustrated by Khoa Le (2020), flows like poetry with honest, kid-oriented details and illustrations I get lost in for days!

CC: Growing up… well I have a terrible memory so I really only remember the ones that I still have! One is Emergency Mouse by Bernard Stone and Ralph Steadman. I mostly remember it for the illustrations… as a child I just thought they looked weird and cool. It was only as an adult that I learned that Ralph Steadman’s other more famous work (he is frequently noted for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson)

Currently… there are so many to choose from, I could go on and on. I’ve sorta slowed down on my new picturebook reading due to the pandemic unfortunately; hopefully it’ll be a bit better this year. I think the last picturebook I purchased was a special order from the UK – Nen and the Lonely Fisherman (by Ian Eagleton and James Mayhew, Owlet Press)

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 Love, Violet?

CSW: Unless someone is an author-illustrator, the text comes first. After my agent sells a manuscript, the publisher finds the illustrator, who works independently. We don’t communicate directly, which allows illustrators to imagine freely. Yet the art and words still collaborate, like a dance. And from the beginning, I write in anticipation of illustration.

First, the text needs to break easily into a 32- or 40-page book (12-16 spreads). That requires distinct, illustratable beats (which is harder than it sounds), though I don’t decide the page breaks. I also create patterns that an illustrator might translate into visual layouts. For example, to convey Violet’s main problem, I use a mini-story (beginning, middle, end) within the story. Kids aren’t abstract thinkers yet, so they need to see and experience this problem for themselves. Here, I use a set up (“But whenever Mira came near…”), then three quick scene examples to show the problem is ongoing (Mira approaches Violet three times), and a final statement of the problem: “Violet went shy.” But for this simple text to truly spring to life, we need the art, layout, and even page turns to complete the experience.

In this case, Charlene places “But whenever Mira came near…” right before a page-turn to drive the suspense. Next, three spots (surrounded by white space) highlight the dynamic between the girls, yet keep us moving until–BOOM–the hammer drops–“Violet went shy.” The full bleed (no white space) of poor Violet cowering behind that tree overwhelms us with Violet’s despair over her problem. (Heart clutch!) The stronger the emotion, the more I like to pull back the language so the art can SING. (And how!) This is the essence of picture books. The images and text create the meaning together

CC: The process, at least on the illustrator’s end, is pretty solitary. I get the manuscript, sometimes I go over it with the art director, but not always. I’m just left alone to come up with the art and I quite like it that way. All the art is sent to the art director or designer on the book. I usually get feedback from them several weeks later. To be honest I am not sure when the author sees my art – I leave it up to the publishers to decide how best to liaise with the author. In my opinion it works best this way, as what I get back is usually edits that are concise and actionable (e.g please make the character on this page a bit smaller). Occasionally there are bigger things to fix (usually at the sketch stage), which do take more back and forth between me, the publishing team and the author. It is really rare for me to speak directly with the author during the illustration process. The exception are books that have special visual needs (e.g cultural depictions) that we feel would be better clarified upfront with the author.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)? 

CSW: What’s the most surprisingly hard thing about writing picture books?
For me? To get a narrative right, I inevitably must tap deep emotional spaces. It feels vulnerable. “But it’s just a picture book!” you say. Yes. And it must feel True. Alive. With a handful of words. To work, a book must convey something deeply human that transcends age. Even for humor. It’s like one of my favorite childhood picture books, The Monster at the End of This Book (Jon Stone, illustrated by Michael Smollin). Our dear Muppet Grover does everything possible to keep us from turning pages BECAUSE THERE’S A MONSTER AT THE END OF THIS BOOK! AHH! (Spoiler: it’s just “lovable, furry old Grover”!) Which is true of all my books. To finish, at some point, I must face the monster, the closet, the secret reason I’m writing this book. (Spoiler: The monster is usually ME.)

CC: Oh… there are so many questions I know I wish people would ask me, but right now I’m drawing a blank? 

Um…

Oh I know! “Do you have a queer slice-of-life comic with adult characters in a modern-fantasy setting?”

Please ask me that because the answer is YES. 

CSW: Okay, now you HAVE to tell us more….

CC: Aha… I’m not sure how much more I can say right now. It’s under development and currently only on my Patreon (note: my Patreon is mainly for my comics and non-kidlit artwork). Best I can do is say the comic is something like Nimona meets Heartstopper, but with adult characters. 

CSW: You had me at Nimona. But I’ve seen your comics and I am smitten. I want to see these on glossy paper!

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers/illustrators, especially picture book writers?

CSW: ​​Read picture books aloud with kids as much as possible. How kids react, drift, what they notice is so instructive. It’s important to hear and feel how texts perform. Do they flow? How do the page turns add suspense? Picture books are designed to be read aloud a bazillion times by exhausted adults. Your text needs to stand up to that. Also, study current picture books. Scores, hundreds of them. Type up the text with the page turns. Notice how the voice works, how words don’t describe the pictures; they do more. How the pictures say more than the text. 

Every writer is unique, but for me, “charting” picture books has transformed my process. My sketchbook is full of 4X4 story grids, one box per spread (a spread is 2 facing pages). This is actually a method from illustrators. I simply drop into each box an image or a few words to represent the content and layout of the page (say a half spread, or a page with three spots). This allows me to “see” the whole book visually. I can check pacing or focus, cut/ add scenes easily, without the distraction of language. I also chart published books to study them. I chart new ideas before I draft. If a story isn’t working, I chart it to identify the problem or to work out a solution. Charting has shaved months (years) off my process! I wish I’d known this trick when I started Love, Violet back in 2011!

CC: Pretty much what Charlotte said. As an illustrator, I always make a dummy book, even if the first draft is just pretty much stick figures. It helps in the same way charting does, but I find it also helps me figure out what descriptions I can cut out. A lot of things can be ‘described’ by the images so once I have a stick figure in place, I find it easier to trim out unnecessary words.

I should also add that unless you are self publishing, you do not need to look for nor hire an illustrator. The publisher usually chooses AND PAYS the illustrator. 

Also – be a nice person? The industry is pretty small, we all want to work with nice people. Be aware of how you use your social media especially; if you want to be an author, then it’s probably not great if the first thing people see is a list of all the books you hated, for example!

Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

CSW: ​​I have a Halloween-ish book on submission about a monster-loving kid and her puppy who discover that mishaps and scary feelings are no match for monster love. Another project just going on submission features a child from a beautiful queer family who finds new ways to cope and connect with a parent while they are away for a long time, something I know TOO much about as a military spouse. As to other projects, here in Italy the fairy tale vibe is STRONG. (Also. Charlene keeps daring me to write a chicken book….)

CC: As far as confirmed projects go, I am working on Amy Wu and the Ribbon Dance (by Kat Zhang, Simon & Schuster), Boys Don’t Fry (by Kimberly Lee, FSG) and an upcoming chapter book series called Hocus and Pocus (by A. R. Capetta, Candlewick). 

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

CSW:

Jessie Sima’s picture books!

Joy Michael Ellison and Teshika Silver in Sylvia and Marsha Start a Revolution! (PB)

Mariko Tamaki, especially Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me with evocative illustration by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (GN)

Flamer by Mike Curato (who also makes GORGEOUS picture books)(GN)

The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen (Trungles)(GN)

Pet, an exquisitely terrifying novel by Akwaeke Emezi is one of the most stunning novels I’ve read. Masterpiece. Top read last year. (YA)

Kaycen Callender, novelist for young people, wizard of voice. (MG, YA)

Definitely check out magical, lyrical novelist Anna-Marie McLemore (YA)

CC:

Nen and the Lonely Fisherman (PB)

Grandad’s Camper (PB)

Estranged (GN)

Blob (PB)

Anzu the Great Kaiju (PB)

Lilla the Accidental Witch (GN)

Thanks for hosting us!

Interview with The Big Bath House Creators Kyo Maclear & Gracey Zhang

Kyo Maclear is a critically acclaimed author whose books have received starred reviews, appeared on numerous “Best of” lists, and been published in multiple languages around the world. One of her picture books, Virginia Wolf, has been adapted for the stage, and another, Julia, Child, is currently being adapted into an animated television series.

Gracey Zhang is a freelance illustrator and animator. She graduated with her BFA in Illustration from the Rhode Island School of Design. Her first author-illustrator picture book, Lala’s Words, will be published in 2021 by Scholastic.

I had the opportunity to interview both Kyo and Gracey which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourselves?

KM: Thanks so much for inviting us. I’m Kyo and I live in Toronto (Tkaranto) where I write books for big and little people, across genres. 

GZ: Hello! My name is Gracey Zhang and I’m an illustrator, originally hailing from Vancouver, Canada and am now based in New York.

How did THE BIG BATH HOUSE come to be? Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

KM: The story came from childhood memories of hanging out with my Japanese family in Tokyo. There were lots of aunties, cousins and an incredibly strong and kind obachan (grandmother) whom I adored. Every visit would begin with a trip to the local sentō (bath house) where we would disrobe and catch up. I wanted to share this magical matriarchal world with kids. 

GZ: I was passed along the manuscript for THE BIG BATH HOUSE and fell in love with it immediately. My mother had spent her university and young adult life in Tokyo, Japan so she often brought me there when I was younger to revisit her friends and life there. I remember a memorable trip to a bath house with my mother, younger sister, and a family friend. It was such a nice change to openly soak in the nude without embarrassment, something that wasn’t readily available growing up in a small town in Canada.

How did you each get your start in children’s literature? Do you remember any stories that resonated with you growing up?

KM: I wrote my first kid’s story as a chapbook. It was stapled paper in an edition of 30 copies. It was called “Spork” and I created it with my partner for friends and family to celebrate the birth of our first child. Spork is a hybrid—part spoon, part fork—and imagines a multi-cutlery world. It’s a parable about the limits of categories and it eventually became a published picture book, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault. So, my entry into the world of kidslit was unplanned but, looking back, it makes so much sense. I’ve always loved visual storytelling. My faves as a child included the Peanuts and the Moomin stories. I love Charles Schultz for the small but profound way he captures big existential questions. And I love Tove Jansson for her trippy world of protean creatures who are always willing to extend a welcoming hand.

GZ: I recently published my first book last summer, while working on it I also had the opportunity to illustrate the stories of so many amazing authors. It’s been exciting to see them being put out in the coming months! 

One of your previous books, the graphic novel Operatic, discusses queerness with a gentleness I really appreciated (and an element that seems to permeate throughout your work.) Could you discuss some of the inspiration and craft process behind that book?

KM: Thank you. That’s nice to hear. Operatic was sparked by my sons’ middle school music teacher. He ran the LGBTQ+ lunch club and rock band club and created a canopy for a lot of students who were coming out and/or transitioning. He also introduced my sons to a broad history of music. 

I knew I wanted opera to be a theme in this book because I think it stokes such strong reactions in people. As someone who generally tends to veer toward the spare and lo-fi, I used to find opera over-the-top. The performances seemed almost laughable, like badly acted musicals with people shouting into each others’ faces simultaneously. But my partner loves opera and over time the form’s strangeness and unlikeliness has receded. What I like about opera is how it gets to emotional essence and deep feelings as quickly as possible. Wayne Koestenbaum has been so brilliant at capturing the affinity between gay men and opera and celebrating the oversize, lavish, ‘too-muchness’ of the genre. So, anyway, opera seemed a perfect backdrop for a story set in middle school where passionate emotions are the norm, where days are mini epics. Opera is basically social realism—I mean, who at age 13 or 14 doesn’t kind of feel like dropping to one knee and announcing a crush in a yelly voice? 

The character of Maria Callas intrigued me because she did not have a conventionally beautiful voice. The Callas voice was considered too melodramatic, too imperfect, even “too manly”. She was thought to wobble on her high notes. I thought she was a great figure to think about what it means to be ‘flawed’ or ‘too much.’ I’ve always been drawn to historical figures who test boundaries and who can’t be tamed into easily acceptable categories. 

I worked with an illustrator, Byron Eggenschwiler, who did a great job translating music into a visual language. We also knew the story would not resolve in a traditional way with a couple riding off into the sunset. It ends with an ensemble of characters to celebrate the power of friendship.

Having read previous interviews, it seems like this project is personal to you both in similar ways. Mind you discussing that a bit?

KM: The story came from childhood memories but I chose to use second person narration to immediately steep the reader in the experience and, hopefully, get away from a touristy lens that might see the bathhouse as ‘other’ or ‘exotic.’ I wrote it with diasporic, immigrant, Asian communities in mind because I think a lot of kids have shared a similar experience of bonding with family despite barriers of language and distance. I also wrote it for my mum, who has been dealing with illness. 

GZ: There’s such a strong difference in the way nudity is treated in the two cultures I grew up in. I remember seeing how many Asian aunties navigated the showers at pools in Canada and how differently it contrasted with peers of mine who grew up in Canada. As a child, it was pointed out to me by a classmate who thought the openness of nudity should be something to be hidden behind changing rooms. It was an observation I hadn’t thought too deeply of at the time, especially as a teenager who kept her swimsuit on religiously while showering and changing at the pools in Canada. Though now I’m quietly delighted when I’m at the YMCA and see New Yorkers of all ages and origins walking and talking in the nude. 

When it comes to body positivity in children’s literature, it seems we’re still at an impasse in the West when books like Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen keep getting banned for showcasing nudity. How did it feel touching this subject directly in your book?

KM: Sigh. I know. Why the impasse? Why this weird puritanism? I recently blurbed a graphic memoir called My Body in Pieces by Marie-Noëlle Hébert that delves into body image issues and what really struck me about it was how seldom I see work that represents different body types, let alone work that openly addresses the violence of fatphobia. 

In The Big Bath House, I didn’t set out to deliver any direct or grand message about body positivity but I realize it’s there unapologetically, particularly because of Gracey’s amazing art. I love seeing Asian bodies take up space on the page and seeing Asian women caring for each other. We live in a culture that promotes beauty dogma and body hatred from such a young age so I am always looking for ways to challenge ideas of what beauty is. I want us to embrace and show all the parts of ourselves.

GZ: One of the first questions I asked when I received the manuscript was “Can I draw the people fully nude, front and back?” It felt important to me to show the bodies without having to hide or sneak in ways of censorship. The bath house is such a place of communion and relaxation and having to cover any part of the body felt antithetical to the spirit of it.

As Geeks OUT is an LGBTQ+ website, I’d feel it be remiss not to mention that when it comes to spaces like hot springs and open baths, there’s still much anxiety for many in our community, though some spaces have been becoming better. What are your thoughts on this and how inclusive these spaces can be in general?

KM: Thank you for raising this. It’s so important! The world I wrote about in our book is an old one and it has been a while since I visited Japan. I hope that the onsen and sentō are becoming more hospitable places for LGBTQ+ visitors, especially those who identify as transgender and nonbinary. Bath houses could and should be places of healing for bodies that have borne so much, over centuries and lifetimes. (The history of backlash against queer bathhouses is a whole other issue but maybe not unrelated to the way marginalized people have been denied spaces in which to self-tend, flourish, and practice community sexual health.)

GZ: I try to show and illustrate stories based on lived experiences and memories but also worlds that I want to see and live in myself. The hope is that they give a sense of belonging to those looking for it or give a wider lens to those unfamiliar to it.

I hadn’t known of the The Rainbow Furoproject (mentioned in the second article) but was so happy to see this initiative! Unfortunately in many cases, familiarity comes before inclusion but it gives me a lot of hope that there are many putting in the work to foster safer and inclusive spaces, especially in environments like a bathhouse that are supposed to nurture and heal.

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 to translate that into art?

KM: Writing children’s books, I realize, isn’t just writing words that go with pictures on each page. I need to imagine the entirety of the book as part of the experience of the story. All of the visual elements (images, lettering, endpapers, etc.) are an important part of the narrative and I always want to leave room for the illustrator to do at least half of the telling too. This means I try to pare my words back as much as possible. Sometimes I write brief art notes but I try to do so sparingly because I don’t want to over-direct things. Part of the joy is surrendering to the collaboration.

GZ: I like to let a manuscript sit with me for a bit and let the imagery ruminate before I commit anything to paper. The sketch process changes for each project, I like to do research and find references for objects, environments, (looking up clothes from different years and eras is also a minor obsession). Certain scenes feel concrete to me as soon as they’re sketches out and some are constantly changing, though sometimes you realize that initial sketch was the one that worked the best!

What are some of your favorite elements of writing/drawing?

KM: Leaving things unfinished so the illustrator can come in and work their magic. I like watching the chemistry that occurs when word and picture meet in unexpected ways.

GZ: Being able to create a world that exists beyond yourself, just like Sims but limitless character options.

What advice would you have for aspiring picture book creators? 

KM: What I love most about picture books are their outlaw possibilities. I think children’s publishers, or at least the ones I work with, are willing to take risks. I encourage creators to test cultural conventions, marketing expectations, literary prejudices, narrow preconceptions of form and audience. I have always been drawn to work that jumps fences and am happy when my picture books appeal to adults, too.

GZ: Create for yourself, be critical but don’t let that hold you from getting separate eyes on it. Reach out to others (publishing people are extremely nice), take some time away from the work and sometimes the blur becomes clearer when you’re a few steps back.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?

GZ: What my favorite toppings are for shaved ice in the summer! I’ve been craving it as well as warm humid summers—my favorite toppings are mung bean, chewy glutinous rice and taro balls, sweet stewed peanuts, and barley. 

Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

KM: I just finished a picture book called Kumo, illustrated by Nathalie Dion, about a shy cloud who, one day, is called upon to take the main stage. I also have a picture book coming out next year about cities, both real and imagined. It’s called If You Were a City and it’s illustrated by Francesca Sanna. On the adult side, I am completing a hybrid memoir about plants and family secrets.

GZ: Something with lots and lots of yeowling, howling, furry four legged friends.

What books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

KM: I am a huge fan of Shadow Life by Hiromi Goto and Ann Xu. It’s a beautiful and fierce graphic novel about an older queer Asian woman named Kumiko who is being stalked by death. Kumiko is tough and ingenious and the story moves between literary realism and poetic fabulism with hints of Miyazaki and mukashibanashi. But Hiromi makes the story entirely her own. It’s so, so good. And it’s a portrait of aging I’ve seldom, if ever, seen.

GZ: My choice of literature has been a little all over the place as of late, I recently read Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi that I never wanted to end. All of Taro Yashima’s picture books are beautiful and I’ve been attempting to collect them all. I’ve also been finding solace from the cold in a lot of YA romance fiction. Penelope Douglas has been sustaining me and a few friends for the past few months.