Interview with Jyoti Rajan Gopal, author of My Paati’s Saris

Jyoti Rajan Gopal is a writer, mom, and Kindergarten teacher. Growing up, she lived in Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, India and China. She now lives in New York, in a quirky old Victorian in Yonkers, with her husband, where they raised their two daughters. Her favorite place in the house is the wrap-around porch where she loves to gather with family or friends, read, write, and drink coffee.

Jyoti writes stories that speak to her heart,  that reflect her multiple identities, that she wishes her daughters had growing up, that she wishes her students had now.
When not writing or teaching, she loves to read – a lot! – work in her garden, dance and explore the many New York State Park trails. 

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

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

Thank you for having us! I’m a Kindergarten teacher, mom to two daughters, and most recently, a writer.  I grew up in Bangkok, Jakarta, Myanmar, China and India and moved to the United States 29 years ago. As a third culture kid, I’ve spent my life straddling multiple cultures and sometimes that’s a challenge, but mostly it’s been a gift.

What can you tell us about your latest book, My Paati’s Saris? What inspired this story?

I wanted to write a book about saris because it’s such an important part of my desi identity and I love saris so much. But I had no idea what that book was going to be until the day I brought saris into my classroom to share with my Kindergarten students. I noticed one little boy draping the sari over himself and smiling and twirling and that was the spark for the book. That moment took me back to days of playing dress up with my brother, of the love I had for my paati, who was such a giving, kind person, and that feeling of joy that wearing saris still gives me!

What is something you hope readers will take away from this book?

I hope they take whatever they need from it! This is a story about family, about acceptance, about Tamil culture, about saris, about the freedom to explore and play, about transformation and belonging. The illustrations are a visual feast with thoughtful details and layers– so I think readers will find lots of ways that this book can be a window and a mirror!

What drew you to storytelling, and what drew you to children’s books specifically? 

Having lived and breathed picture books as a Kindergarten teacher and mom, and loving them as I do, it was the medium to which I gravitated to tell the stories I wished I had had, that I wished my daughters had had. The interplay of text and illustrations – how the words sit on the page, where the blank spaces are, how the pictures fill the page, what they reveal and what they do not, when the page is turned – the fusion, the tension, the balance of the two feels like a metaphor for who I am, someone who’s always balancing all the different parts of me.

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? Are there any stories you can connect to now?

Growing up, I devoured books, whatever I could get my hands, on in the countries that we lived in. Many of my favorite authors were either English or American – Enid Blyton, Edgar Rice Burroughs, James Herriot, Alexander Lloyd, CS Lewis, Laura Ingalls Wilder to name just a few.  None of the books I read had Indian characters (except as peripheral notes like in Tarzan or The Secret Garden) but I loved them anyway and identified with the characters. I loved the stories and imagined myself in those worlds.  My parents would make sure on trips to India to introduce us to Indian stories, like Amar Chitra Comics, and picture books in Hindi, but it wasn’t until I was much older that I became familiar with Indian authors like R.K. Narayan, Vikram Seth and Rabindranath Tagore. I didn’t realize what I had been missing!

I started writing to fill that gap – to write the stories that I didn’t have as a little girl, that I couldn’t find for my daughters as they were growing up here, or for my students.

For those curious about the process behind a picture book, how would you describe the process? What goes into writing one and collaborating with an artist/writer to translate that into a book?

I am blown away by Art Twink’s illustrations for My Paati’s Saris and am so grateful for their partnership.  A picture book is truly the result of collaborative work but it’s not just between the writer and the illustrator. The editor, the art director, the copy writer, the design team, the sales and marketing team, our agents, there’s a whole team behind every picture book. And team Kokila has been amazing!

As a picture book writer, you don’t have a lot of words to tell your story, typically 500-700. So, every word you write has to count. Some of my stories write themselves very quickly. Others go through many, many revisions before I discover the structure the story needs or the heart of what I’m trying to say. If it’s a non-fiction picture book, there’s research involved, after which I have to sift through all the information, decide what stays and what goes, and how I’m going to synthesize all that information to tell the story in just the right amount of words.

As a writer, you also have to make sure as you write, to leave room for the illustrator, so that they can bring their own perspective and viewpoint to the story. Typically, how the collaboration works is that after a publishing house buys your text, they start thinking of illustrators who would be a good match. The illustrator is sent the text to read and if they like it, if it resonates with them, and if they have time in their schedule, they’ll take the project on. The art director communicates separately with the writer and illustrator, while sketches go back and forth. From acquisition to book release, it usually takes about two years, sometimes even longer!

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

I don’t have a single process. Some books flow out of me (these are few and far between!). Somehow, I find the words for the story easily, the structure is clear to me, and the revision process is more of a tweaking. These are my favorite times. With some books, I struggle and struggle with figuring out how to write it. I usually have to put it away for a while before coming back to it much later, when I hope time and distance create some clarity.  I will say that when I finally do find a structure that helps me figure out how to tell a story, that’s a great moment too. I love that feeling!

Sometimes, I’m quite taken with a story I’ve written and think it’s the best thing ever (lol!). Thank goodness for my writing partners and my agent Wendi Gu who keep it real for me, because I rely on them to give me honest and constructive feedback! 

The most challenging part for me as a writer is when I have an idea for a story, but I have no idea how to write it. That can lead to a long phase of zero writing. That’s a scary time when I think I’m never going to write another thing again.

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

Ooh such a great question!  Many of my stories are inspired by my daughters, my students, my desi heritage and my curiosity about the natural world.

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

I love the outdoors. Gardening, kayaking, hiking, visiting national parks are all things I love to do. I’ve recently discovered snorkeling which I absolutely adore.

I love music but cannot write or read with it because it’s too distracting. I end up dancing and singing with the music, and getting no work done.

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

Do you know how to make sambar?  (It’s a dish that Paati is making in the story)

I do know how to make it, but have I ever gotten it right? No!

I cook a variety of South Indian cuisine, but so far sambar, which I love, has been my nemesis.

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

Just do it!

Read lots of picture books. Study them. Type them out to get a sense of how words fill a page, how the page turns feel, where the pauses are, what word choices the author made.

Take picture book writing classes.

Join a community of writers like The Writing Barn or 12×12 Challenge.  Or SCBWI.

Join a critique group. 

And write, write, write!

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

I’m working on a number of different projects, both fiction and non-fiction.  I sold two picture books this past year that I am very excited about. One is non-fiction, and the other is fiction – and that’s all I can tell you. But I can’t wait to share them with the world so keep an eye out for announcements!

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

There are so many wonderful books out there I couldn’t possibly name them all, but these picture books are favorites in my Kindergarten classroom!

Neither by Airlie Anderson

Calvin by JR and Vanessa Ford illus. Kayla Harren

Introducing Teddy by Jessica Walton illus. Dougal Mcpherson

My Rainbow by Trinity and DeShanna Neal illus. Art Twink

Sparkle Boy by Leslea Newman illus. Maria Mola

Love Makes a Family by Sophie Beer

Lovely by Jess Hong

Call Me Max – a series by Kyle Lukoff illus. Luciano Lozano

Strong by Eric Rosswood and Rob Kearney illus.  Nidhi Chanani

Ritu Weds Chandni by Ameya Narvenkar

Big Wig by Jonathan Hillman illus.  Levi Hastings

Interview with Adam Rex, Author of A Little Like Waking

Adam Rex is the award-winning author and illustrator of more than forty books including the New York Times bestsellers Frankenstein Makes a SandwichSchool’s First Day of School, and Chu’s Day, as well as The True Meaning of Smekdaywhich was adapted for film by DreamWorks. He lives in Tucson, Arizona, with his cat, dog, son, and wife.

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

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

Hello! I’m Adam Rex, an author and illustrator who used to mostly illustrate games like Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, but who now mostly makes books for kids of all ages. I live with my son and physicist wife in Tucson, Arizona.

What can you tell us about your latest project, A Little Like Waking? What was the inspiration for this story?

It’s a funny adventure romance about a young woman, Zelda, who discovers her reality isn’t real—that her life is but a dream—and just as the dream starts getting good. She meets a boy who has her feeling things she’s never felt before, and it makes her question everything. So she and the boy and a talking cat set out to find out who’s dreaming the dream, and what to do about it.

As creatives, what drew you to the art of storytelling, both as a writer and illustrator?

I was always an illustrator—I didn’t know that was the case, but most kids are. They draw pictures, and if you ask them the right questions, you’ll get the story their picture is telling. I didn’t write stories much myself until later, but both a keen interest in comics and a rediscovery of picture books as a teenager started to narrow my path a bit. Then I think it was a confluence of things. I fell in love with kid’s books while working after school at a Waldenbooks. And I often think about this birthday present my mom got me when I was seventeen or eighteen.

She knew I liked comics, even if she didn’t get the appeal herself, and she somehow found a shop that was selling original art in 1989 or 90. She bought me two pages—I’m ashamed to say I no longer have these pages, but one was definitely a Marc Silvestri X-Men page from near the end of Inferno—and just looking at them made the whole notion of a career in professional art feel attainable and real. Here I could see that the art was pencil and ink on Bristol board. That it was created much larger than the printed size. That it had white-out on it. It was like an artifact from a land of mystery, there to tell me that the legends were real.

How would you each describe your creative process?

Like trying to bake a cake in an unfamiliar kitchen in the dark. Or something.

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

Douglas Adams was a big deal to me in my formative years, and I think I discovered a lot about authorial voice and just what language can do from reading him. More recently, while trying to figure out how to write a romance, I read a lot of Rainbow Rowell.

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

Looking back, I think Peter Parker hit so close to home that I was an X-Men fan instead. I don’t think I could deal with just how much the early Spider-Man stories tapped into my feelings of standing apart, and believing kind of desperately that I had a power and appeal that no one understood.

Now? I don’t know. I think I’ve grown steadily wiser over the years, and with that comes more of a capacity to find myself in nearly every character and every story. Now I think I feel most reflected in the stories that feel like something I could have written myself, had the stars aligned.

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

I love to write something I think is genuinely funny, and it’s a great gift when you can invent something and actually make yourself laugh. And my kind of humor can’t be for everyone, but it’s fantastic when someone tells me my book made them laugh, too. It’s a connection that’s hard to fake.

Thing is, I’m usually also trying to break your heart, and that’s harder. At least it is for me. Of all the reviews I’ve received of A Little Like Waking, it’s the ones that acknowledge both that really make me think I might have written what I set out to write.

Whats a question you havent been asked yet but that you wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?

Probably a question like, How are you so naturally handsome? Something like that. There’s an obvious reason why no one’s ever asked it.

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

I also have a brand new chapter book series starting up for younger readers! The first is just now coming out, and it’s called The Story of Gumluck the Wizard. It’s narrated by a raven named Helvetica, and features a tiny ghost with amnesia, and it’s about a silly little wizard who really wants to be a hero, but everyone thinks he’s a noodlehead.

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

I haven’t read many books lately that have grabbed me as much as How Long ’til Black Future Month? by N. K Jemisin or Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri.

Interview with Sophia N. Lee and Christine Almeda, Creators of Lolo’s Sari-sari Store

Sophia N. Lee grew up in the Philippines. She wanted to be many things growing up: doctor, teacher, ballerina, ninja, crime-fighting international spy, wizard, time traveler, journalist, and lawyer. She likes to think she can be all these things and more through writing. She is the author of Soaring Saturdays; What Things Mean, which won a Scholastic Asian Book Award’s grand prize; Holding On; and Lolo’s Sari-sari Store.

Christine Almeda is a Filipino American freelance illustrator and lover of sunshine from New Jersey. Lolo’s Sari-sari Store is her first picture book. Christine believes that, through the power of creativity and storytelling, art can make life more beautiful.

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

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

SL: Hello to the readers of Geeks OUT! I’m Sophia N. Lee, a Filipino author. I write books for kids and young adults.

I was born and raised in the Philippines, and I grew up around a huge extended family – on my mother’s side, I have 11 other aunts and uncles, and what must be close to a hundred cousins, nephews, and nieces by now. On my father’s side, I have a lot of lolos and lolas, because my grandmother had eight siblings that lived close to where she did in the province. It was really fun growing up around so many colorful individuals – so many of my story inspirations come from my memories of being with them.

Last year, I released a picture book titled Holding On, written by me and illustrated by Isabel Roxas. It’s about a girl who visits her Lola (Filipino for grandmother) in the Philippines over the course of different summers, and how she learns to love and to hold on by observing the way her Lola does it. This year, Christine and I released a second book titled Lolo’s Sari-sari Store, and we’re so excited to share it with everyone. It’s about choosing kindness, and learning to build community, no matter where one finds themselves in.

CA: Hello! I’m a Filipino-American freelance illustrator from NJ with a love for children’s media.

How would you describe your literary/artistic background? As a creative, what drew you to writing/illustrating, especially picture books? Were there any books that inspired that storytelling path?

SL: Even from a young age, I have always been writing – especially growing up in a family like mine, there were always lots of stories to observe. But I think too that growing up in a household that had so many people in it led me to becoming a reader. I loved the quiet that books afforded me. I loved being able to escape into these different worlds beyond what I was able to imagine. Because I was also surrounded by the books everyone else in my house was reading, I learned to read widely at a young age. While I was raised on Nancy Drew and devoured most of The Sweet Valley series, in secret I also started reading many of my dad’s hard-boiled mysteries, my older cousins’ Sweet Dreams books, and my Titas’ collections of Harold Robbins, Danielle Steeles, and Judith Krantz books. I thought – how cool to be able to live all of these different lives and to understand people in deeper ways. I appreciated being able to tell a lot about a person based on the kind of books they were reading.

Once I started developing a keener sense of what I liked though, I realized that the books I naturally gravitated towards, the ones I read over and over for comfort, were the books I read when I was younger. I loved that books always afforded me a safe space to kind of learn and figure out the kind of person that I wanted to be, and so when I began dreaming of becoming a writer, I knew that I wanted to write stories for young readers. I think there’s something really special about the way a child or even a teen loves a book – when a young person reads a book, they themselves are wide open, and I think parts of the characters you create live on in them.

That’s why it’s both so hard and so important – it’s such a delicate balance, and you always want to get it right, because the stakes are so high.

CA: I grew up loving anime and animation, as well as reading a lot of manga – it definitely still influences how I draw. I went to college thinking I wanted to work in animation/visual development, but illustration and books was what I always gravitated towards.

Sophia N. Lee Photo Credit Faith Santiago-Paz

What can you tell us about your latest book, Lolo’s Sari-sari Store? What was the inspiration for this story?

SL: Lolo’s Sari-sari Store is one of those stories that I’ve carried with me for a really long time. We had a sari-sari store in our family when I was growing up, and in the summer, my cousins and I would take turns watching the store. As a kid, I loved being able to have access to all the snacks I wanted, but what I especially loved about watching the store is how I’d be able to see almost the entire community passing by. Our sari-sari store was a community hub, just as many sari-sari stores around the Philippines are. People go there to get what they need, but they also go there to be with people they’re at home with.

My Lola’s eldest sister Aurora also had a sari-sari store in the province, and when I was there, one of my favorite things to do was to run her store with her. She didn’t have children of her own, but it was almost like the whole town was her family – people came to tell her stories, and to ask her for advice, to share good news and bad with her. She would let me go home from her store with whatever I wanted.

We had “sukis” or regulars who trusted us to always carry what they needed. We made sure to stock up on goods at different price points to cater to everyone in the community. From a young age, I understood that things like sachet packets (the smallest unit of shampoo or conditioner or lotion one could buy) existed because not everyone would be able to afford entire bottles or packages of those products. I knew what “lista” (Filipino for keeping a tab) meant, and I understood that those were kept for people who didn’t have money to pay for their purchases until a certain date. I learned so much about kindness, empathy, and generosity from how the grownups around me ran our store. I knew I would want to write about those stories someday – and I’m glad that I’m able to share a part of that with everyone.

Looking at Lolo’s Sari-sari Store and the other books you’ve both worked on, it appears Filipino representation seems to be an important element in your creativity. Could you tell us what it might mean to you to see that representation on the page?

SL: Being able to see characters that look like me in books means the world to me. Growing up just after martial law ended in the Philippines, there weren’t a lot of stories written by and for Filipinos. As a child, I had this silly notion that all books came from America, because everything I had access to only ever featured mostly white, blonde, blue-eyed characters – and they never lived in towns like ours, or had incredibly large extended families that looked like mine. I couldn’t articulate then how worried I was about what that meant – weren’t we meant to be heroes in stories? Were our stories not good enough or not interesting enough?

I’m glad to see that’s changing – but sometimes, I feel as though it’s not changing fast enough. We’re still learning how important it is for kids to see themselves represented in the media that they consume. In the Philippines, we’re still battling remnants of colonial mentality – whether it’s through colorism, or from thinking that Western ideas and products are better – I’m so glad that I can put a Lola, a Lolo, a sari-sari store front and center in a story. It’s such a privilege to be able to contribute in this way.

CA: It’s always fun to see and relate to something in a book, especially if you’ve never seen it on a regular basis while growing up. So I hope people are just as excited as I am to see more Filipino representation in their books.

For Lolo’s in particular, it’s been so nice to see the reaction from the parents and adults who read the book to the children in their life. The feeling of homesickness in the story really speaks to their own story of immigrating from the Philippines. Children’s books are for all ages.

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

CA: There are SO many illustrators whose work constantly inspires me. This includes artists like Dung Ho, Elizabeth Shippen Green, or Matt Rockefeller. In terms of subjects or story, I’m usually inspired by my family, food, seasons, and childhood memories.

Christine Almeda Photo Credit Michael Vitales

When you’re writing/illustrating picture books, what typically goes through your mind? And how would you describe your creative routine?

SL: For me the most difficult part of writing the story, especially for picture books, is coming upon a good idea. I can go for months just thinking about concepts in my head – from memories I want to explore, to stories that I’ve admired, to things that I think would make for good stories. It’s never easy to come upon an idea that will translate well into a picture book format, because you’re striking a balance between having the words and the pictures tell the story. Once I’m able to find that idea and figure out how it works, at least in my head, the next step is deciding how best to tell the story – how and where does it begin? Where do I want it to go? Once I know that, the actual writing part goes really quickly. For example – it took me months to figure out everything I wanted to say for my picture book Holding On, but once I did, the actual writing of the first draft took about 30 minutes. From there, I tweak until I feel like the text is the best version of itself, and then I share it with readers I trust before sending it off to my agent Wendi.

CA: I try to let the story play out like a movie or show in my mind, so my process involves a lot of sketches and various compositions. I want to see the character arcs, the passage of time, and bring a different angle to each page.

As a creative, who has collaborated with various illustrators/writers for the picture book projects you’ve worked on, how would you describe the collaboration process? Or the general process that goes into making a picture book?

SL: After I’ve turned in the manuscript to my editor, I try to be really hands off. I try to give the illustrator as much space as they need to bring the story to life visually. I know I’m not an expert in illustration. I don’t want to ever impose my vision on theirs while they’re working on the art because I trust that they know how best to enhance the story. I think if I ever had an art note, it was just to emphasize that I wanted to make sure the characters were depicted as kayumanggi or brown-skinned, the way the majority of Filipinos are. Everything else, we go back and forth on – I love seeing how spreads change from the tweaks we make. So far – this approach has paid off for me. I’ve been so lucky to work with talented illustrators, art directors, and editors. I’m so proud of the books we’ve made together – I know I’m biased, but they are so beautiful!

CA: As the illustrator, I typically work with the art director or the editor. We go back and forth about the art with notes and feedback that they’ve discussed with the author. This part is so valuable to me as I always want the art to get better, which can be achieved with different creative perspectives.

Many creatives would say one of the most challenging parts of working on a book is finishing one. What strategies would you say helped you accomplish this?

SL: Every time I face a blank page, it’s a challenge for me. I think that’s why for me, so much of writing is mental work. I like to think of the story and its parts for weeks, sometimes even months, before I actually get to writing. It’s almost like the story takes place in my head first, and I don’t get started actually writing it until the story takes on a clearer form in my mind, and I have a solid idea of how I want it to flow. Sometimes, the writing will take me elsewhere, but having all of those mental markers is a bit like a roadmap for me. It lets me move forward and get things down on the page.

CA: Time management and staying organized – still learning how to do this!

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers/illustrators?

SL: Don’t be afraid to let yourself be curious about things. Wherever you find yourself, take a moment to see what stories are taking place around you. Also – don’t let your fear of being bad prevent you from getting things down on the page. Every first draft is imperfect – but if you edit yourself before you even finish, you’ll never be able to get to the heart of your story. Embrace being bad, have the heart of a beginner, and don’t be afraid to experiment!

CA: It’s definitely not always going to be easy, but if you’re going to draw – draw what you love!

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

SL: I just started on a picture book manuscript inspired by my Lolo Tom, who was a photographer. I’m also working on a YA novel manuscript that’s about food. So excited for everything to come together.

CA: “Box of Dreams” written by Faith Kazmi, coming out May 2024- so glad to have illustrated another Filipino-American story, this time about balikbayan boxes and returning home.

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

SL: Candy Gourlay is an author that I admire so much – I think everyone should read her newest book, Wild Song. Other books I’m excited about are Chloe and the Kaishao Boys by Mae Coyiuto, Freddy & the Family Curse by Tracy Badua, and Marikit and the Ocean of Stars by Caris Avendaño Cruz.

CA: “Maribel’s Year” written by Michelle Sterling and illustrated by Sarah Gonzales.

Interview with Richard Ho and Lynn Scurfield, Creators of Two New Years

Richard Ho is Chinese, Jewish, and an author . . . in any order you wish! His previous books include The Lost Package, illustrated by Jessica Lanan, and Year of the Cat, illustrated by Jocelyn Li Langrand. He loves to craft stories about diverse cultures and the delightful ways they intertwine. He and his proudly multicultural family live in the melting pot of New Jersey.

Lynn Scurfield‘s work is defined by bright colors, fun textures, and strong emotions. In their spare time, Lynn enjoys knitting, watching tours of beautiful houses online, and going on hikes with Taro, her small (but barky) dog. Lynn resides in Toronto, Canada.

I had the opportunity to interview Richard and Lynn, which you can read below.

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

Richard Ho: Thank you so much for having us! I’m Richard, a Jewish-Chinese-American author of children’s books. I was born and raised in New York, and currently live in New Jersey. For my day job, I work as an editor for an educational website—and then I write in whatever free time I can wrangle! Two New Years is my fourth published picture book, and the first to explore my dual cultural identity.

Lynn Scurfield: Hello! My name is Lynn Scurfield and I’m a mixed media illustrator currently based in Toronto, Canada. I’ve been working as a freelance illustrator for about 7 years now and my clients include Google, Amazon, Macmillan, Chronicle Books, Puffin UK, Panda Express and the New York Times. When I’m not drawing I’m usually knitting or walking my very anxious, barky dog named Taro.

What can you tell us about your latest book, Two New Years? What was the inspiration for this project?

Richard Ho: My children are the inspiration for just about everything I do, but that’s especially true for this book! The idea for Two New Years came from the realization that our kids are growing up in a home in which two different cultures have been present from the start. Whereas I chose to convert to Judaism as an adult, my children were born Chinese and Jewish. When they look at the customs and traditions of both, they don’t focus on the differences—they see the similarities and how they intertwine. Some of the most compelling examples of this duality can be found in how both cultures celebrate the New Year, and that’s what I wanted to capture in this book!

Lynn Scurfield: Two New Years is a very heartwarming book about a Jewish-Chinese family who celebrates both Rosh Hashanah and Lunar New Year. It aims to highlight not only how those traditions are different but in the many ways they’re very much alike. 

There’s a couple of key inspirations for the art. The characters are loosely based on my own life. I’m an older sister and I have a younger brother so I had to include an older sister and younger brother in the family. 

As for the art –  my biggest inspiration was papercut art. I was really into making papercut art after working on my previous book, Friends are Friends, Forever (written by Dane Liu). It’s very common to hang up papercut art during Lunar New Year and I wanted to keep making that kind of work. While I was doing research for Two New Years I came across the fact that Jewish Marriage certificates (Ketubah) are not only marriage certificates but they’re pieces of art that have been traditionally made using papercut methods. It was the most wild, serendipitous research I came across and it ended up shaping the entire look of the book.

How did the two of you come together to work on this story?

Richard Ho: After Chronicle Books acquired the manuscript, editor Feather Flores sent me a shortlist of illustrators the publisher was considering. (Ultimately, the choice of illustrator is up to the publisher, but authors often get to chime in with their thoughts on the potential candidates.) Lynn’s breathtaking artwork stood out from the start—their style is so vibrant and colorful! And when I learned about Lynn’s Chinese and Jewish background, I knew this would be the perfect match. I’m so glad Lynn agreed! 

Lynn Scurfield: Feather Flores, our first editor for Two New Years, was the one who reached out to me seeing if I’d be interested in illustrating the manuscript. Typically the author and illustrator don’t talk to each until after the art has been finalized and the book is in the marketing phase so I didn’t meet Richard until much later in the process!

Can you give insight or advice into what goes into making a picture book?

Richard Ho: One thing most people don’t realize is that the author and illustrator (when they’re not the same person) generally don’t communicate directly during the illustration process. That doesn’t mean we don’t collaborate! The editor serves as a go-between, passing along any necessary feedback. And once the final illustrations are done, and it’s time to start promoting the book and planning for launch, the author and illustrator often get in touch and start doing that work together.

In general, my advice to any author is to not be so precious about “your vision” for the story, and recognize that the illustrator is an equal partner. The manuscript is merely a starting point—the illustrator brings their own creative vision that can take the story in surprising new directions, often elevating it beyond the author’s wildest dreams! That potential is what I find so exciting and invigorating about the collaborative process in picture books, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Lynn Scurfield: My advice for illustrators is appreciate the research phase! Research for me is the most fun part of the process – I love spending hours reading articles, gathering images and/ or watching videos on my book topics. I learn so much from drawing these books. It’s also the part of the process where you can just go wild imagining what this book could be. What will it look like?! It can be anything! So really dive into the research, go down those rabbit holes and see what you learn from them.

Also keep a very good art/ time tracker so you hit all your deadlines! 

As creators who come from both Chinese and Jewish backgrounds, I imagine this story feels quite a bit personal. Could you tell to us about what it meant for you to work on Two New Years?

Lynn Scurfield: So my step-family is Jewish, I wasn’t born and raised with Judaism, but I feel extremely lucky to have been so warmly welcomed into my step-family. I’ve been very fortunate enough to be included in a lot of the holiday celebrations and they are the biggest supporters of my work. Really to draw this book is to give a big celebration and thank you to both sides.

Also, as an obligatory question, what are some of your favorite New Year (Chinese or Jewish) foods and traditions?

Richard Ho: On the Chinese side, I always associate Lunar New Year with tangerines. Tangerines are a symbol of prosperity because the Chinese words for tangerine and gold are phonetically similar. Many families have a custom to place tangerines around the house as decorations, in order to usher in success in the new year! On the Jewish side, one of my favorite Rosh Hashanah customs is dipping a piece of apple into honey on the first night of the holiday. The sweetness of this delicious combination of foods is a reflection of our sincere wish for a sweet year ahead!

Lynn Scurfield: For Rosh Hashanah the blowing of the Shofar is always a magical moment. Plus you really can’t go wrong with a nice warm bowl of matzo ball soup. As for Lunar New Year – it’s dumplings for me. Making dumplings, eating dumplings. It’s the best!

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

Richard Ho: I love storytelling in all formats, so when I’m feeling stuck creatively, I often turn to the examples of strong writing in picture books, novels, television, film—anything that makes me say, “Wow, I wish I wrote that!”

Lynn Scurfield: My longest and greatest creative influences are Alphonse Mucha and Kay Nielson. They’re classic art nouveau, decorative artists and I still love how beautiful their commercial work is. 

Recently I’ve been finding more inspiration in music – specifically artists such as Four Tet, Baths and Masakatsu Takagi’s Marginalia songs. I think there’s something about getting a bit older and listening to more instrumental work haha. But in all seriousness the layering of sounds, the sampling and the emotional quality of music is something I try to emulate and transform into a single image. 

As a writer/illustrator, what are some of your favorite elements of the creative process? What would you say are some of the most frustrating/difficult?

Richard Ho: One of the most satisfying parts of the creative process is seeing the impact of the final product. When a reader tells me that one of my books made them laugh, or brought them to tears, or introduced them to ideas they had never considered before, it makes all the hard work worthwhile. On the flipside: writing is hard work! As much as I enjoy the creative process, it requires discipline, time, and effort to see an idea through to completion—all of which can be in short supply when juggling the demands of a day job and family life. That said, it’s a privilege to have all those wonderful things to juggle! The challenge is figuring out how to prioritize writing without sacrificing in other areas.

Lynn Scurfield: I think I have a tie for my favourite part of the creative process. One is the “eureka!” moment of finding the tone/ the look of a long-term project (such as a book), and the other is getting into a flow state. When I’m in that flow state I can create for hours and it’s so immersive that you don’t feel time pass. 

The most difficult part for me is creating work I’m passionate about on a deadline. In my perfect world I would spend a month on every image I’m commissioned for. I love to sit with my projects and think about them. But commercial work isn’t like that, you have to create on a deadline and it can be tricky to create work you really enjoy or work that pushes your craft while trying to hit a deadline.

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

Richard Ho: I love sports, and when I graduated from college, I had every intention of becoming a sports journalist! As preparation, I had written for the school newspaper and even did an internship in the media relations department of a local professional sports team. But I never ended up covering sports, instead landing jobs writing about comic books, movies, and advertising before getting into education. It was during my first job at an educational company that a colleague suggested I try my hand at writing children’s books. I’m certainly glad they did!

Lynn Scurfield: I love to knit and I’m currently learning how to crochet. I’m only making granny squares right now but my next goal is to crochet a nice summer shirt with buttons and everything. I also want to get into sewing but I’m more intimidated by that. 

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

Richard Ho: People might wonder if the family in the book is my family. The answer is that it’s loosely based on mine—an Orthodox Jewish family with a Chinese father, a Caucasian mother, and adorable mixed-race kids. But there are some differences, too. For one thing, we have a bunch of boys, not one boy and one girl!

Lynn Scurfield: Oh man. I’m not sure if I have one! I am not that creative.

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

Richard Ho: I have several picture books coming out in 2024, starting with If Lin Can from Charlesbridge Publishing in April. It’s a biography of Asian American basketball star Jeremy Lin, illustrated by Phùng Nguyên Quang and Huỳnh Kim Liên. That will be followed by A Taste of Home from Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan in August. Illustrated by Sibu T.P., it follows a group of kids who explore the food of several cultural neighborhoods in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I can’t wait to share more about these and more as we get closer to publication!

Lynn Scurfield: Yes! I’m currently working on a book for Bloomsbury called Quest for a Tangram Dragon written by Christine Liu-Perkins. It’s coming out next year and so far it’s pretty cute! 

I’m also collaborating with an extremely talented illustrator, Allegra Lockstadt, on making some art for Panda Express.

What advice might you have to give to any aspiring picture book creators out there?

Richard Ho: Read widely! There is so much innovation and inspiration to be found in your local library or independent bookstore. Reading as many books as you can is a great way to learn craft and discover which types of stories resonate with you the most.

Lynn Scurfield: Illustration careers can take a while to get off the ground. If things are slow don’t beat yourself up over it. If being a kidlit artist is something you desperately want, be stubborn and try a lot of things. Put you and your art out there, and keep experimenting. One day something will stick and it’ll be easier.

For the illustrators who have made a couple of books and don’t have an agent: try looking for a lit agent. It’s worth it.

Finally, what books/authors, including any Jewish/Chinese titles, would you recommend to the readers of GeeksOUT?

Richard Ho: Lynn would never recommend her own book, so I’ll go ahead and sing the praises of Friends are Friends, Forever, a lovely picture book written by Dane Liu and illustrated by Lynn! It’s about a girl from China who moves to the United States, leaving her best friend behind and starting a new life in a strange and unfamiliar country. As for Jewish titles, one recent favorite is Awe-some Days, a collection of poems about Jewish holidays throughout the year. Written by Marilyn Singer and illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte, it includes wonderful introductions to even the lesser-known holidays, and also beautifully showcases diversity within Judaism.

Lynn Scurfield: Oh jeez I am truly ashamed to admit how little I read. A couple of books that I think are really cool are:

  • Spork
    • Written by Kyo Maclear
    • Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

Amazing Asian American and Pacific Islanders is a great intro into some really cool and inspiring AAPI people while Spork is a really cute book that talks about being mixed-race.

Interview with Deborah Hopkinson and Paul O. Zelinsky, Creators of Cinderella and a Mouse Called Fred

Deborah Hopkinson is the author of many highly acclaimed picture books, including A Letter to My Teacher, which received two starred reviews, and the modern classic Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, which the New York Times called “inspiring.” Her other books include Sky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book; and Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek: A Tall, Thin Tale, an ALA-ALSC Notable Children’s Book. She lives in Oregon with her family.

Paul O. Zelinsky is the acclaimed illustrator numerous children’s books. He received the Caldecott Medal for his illustrated retelling of Rapunzel, as well as three Caldecott Honors for Hansel and GretelRumpelstiltskind, and Swamp Angel, written by Anne Isaacs, along with countless other awards. He is also the illustrator of the New York Times bestselling movable book, The Wheels on the Bus. Most recently, he illustrated Emily Jenkins’s All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah, which received six starred reviews and was hailed as “dazzling” by The New York Times. Paul lives in New York with his wife.

I had the opportunity to interview Deborah and Paul, which you can read below.

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

DH: Thank you for having us!  I’m Deborah Hopkinson, author of Cinderella and a Mouse Called Fred, illustrated by the one and only Paul O. Zelinsky, winner of the Caldecott Medal.

I live near Portland, Oregon with my family and pets. I like to put my dogs and my cat into books. However, in this case, Fred is the much more adorable cousin of some recent unwanted visitors to our garden.

PZ: Thanks from me, too.  I am the illustrator of that book, and thank you Deborah for introducing me! I live in Brooklyn, New York, with my beautiful wife and no pets. And I’m glad to say, no mice.

What can you tell us about your most recent project, Cinderella and a Mouse Called Fred? Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

DH: I’m an avid gardener and also love history. The inspiration for the story came from my garden. I became curious about the beautiful French heirloom pumpkins nicknamed fairytale pumpkins since they look so much like Cinderella’s coach.  I decided to make up a fun story about how they got this nickname. At first, I tried telling it from the point of view of the pumpkin, but then Fred popped into my head one day.

PZ: I’m so happy that Fred popped into Deborah’s head! If you want to know about my inspiration, obviously it was Deborah’s Fred and his dilemmas first. Then I wanted to think about how all of that should look, to make it as funny as I could, and to keep some sense that the Cinderella story is classic, and sort of historical.

Deborah Hopkinson

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

DH: I first decided to be a writer when I was ten. When I began reading picture books to my kids picture books seemed a more realistic goal than writing a huge long novel while working full time and raising a family. Over the years, I’ve written a number of picture books about history, but this is my first with talking animals.  I love picture books because I’m always astounded by all that an artist brings to the words.

PZ: As a child I had no idea of becoming a maker of children’s books, but I loved looking at them. When my mother took me shopping with her in the nearby mall, I’d hang out in the bookstore there and browse through the children’s books. And I never stopped doing that. So my career turns out to be no surprise.

How would you describe your creative process? And what went into collaborating with others for Cinderella and a Mouse Called Fred?

DH: The best way to describe my creative process is SLOGGING! And, as I often tell students at school author visits, not all my ideas become books. Failing (a lot) is part of the process.  For Cinderella I worked closely with my extraordinary editor Anne Schwartz. A couple of times she passed on some suggestions from Paul. It’s really such an honor to be paired with an illustrator of his caliber, and I couldn’t be happier with how the book turned out.

PZ: Well, that is high praise from Deborah, who is no slouch of an author herself!  Most of the collaborating on a picture book happens with an editor working first with the writer, and then (with art director joining in) with the illustrator, so there was a lot of collaboration here, including some between Deborah and me. I did a fair amount of flailing around at first, too, but it was our editor Anne’s suggestion  that put me right: I tried to make my pictures feel like one of my very first picture books, one that was inspired mostly by 18th century embroidery or crewel decoration on fabric. I created all of the art on my laptop, drawing on a digitizing tablet and watching the images on my screen.

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

DH: When I speak to students I tell them learning about ordinary and forgotten people and stories in history has always been my greatest inspiration. I also tell them how essential it is to tell their own stories and the stories of their families.

PZ: I love looking at art, and I think inspiration just comes when something really great bowls you over. My inspiration also came from my mother,  a medical illustrator—her very realistic drawings didn’t tell stories, they showed the insides of people— bones, muscles and organs. A surgeon who invents a new operation needs to show other surgeons how to perform it, and drawings can do that far better than photographs.

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

DH: Well, as mentioned, I do love gardening and staying up late at night with a good book.

PZ: My work is making children’s books, but the world of children’s books is so wonderful that there aren’t many parts of my life now that have nothing to do with it.  But aside from books, I have two terrific daughters (one lives in Australia) and one amazing grandson, and if all goes well, there will be three grandchildren soon. Grandchildren have not yet appeared in my pictures, but their mothers have!

Paul Zelinsky

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

DH: Question: “Do you plan to retire?” 

Answer: “No. Writers write until they croak.”

PZ: Question: “Do you like to wear your books?”

Answer: “Yes, after I finish illustrating a book I like to create a repeating pattern from its art, and I have a shirt made for any events I can attend and talk about it. This is the pattern I’ll be wearing for Cinderella and a Mouse Called Fred: it includes tiny copies of thirteen of the book’s double-page spreads.”

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

DH: I’m excited about my next picture book with Knopf coming out in 2024 entitled Evidence! How Dr. John Snow Solved the Mystery of Cholera, illustrated by Nik Henderson. It’s very different from Cinderella! It tells the story of the 1854 London cholera epidemic and Dr. John Snow, the founder of modern epidemiology. That’s another great thing about picture books—they can be silly or serious.

PZ: I’m working on art for a picture book by Alex London, who mostly writes for older audiences, but “Still Life” is a very funny piece about what you will never, ever find in a still life painting.

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

DH: My advice to people who love to create is pretty basic: Just keep trying, don’t give up, and immerse yourself in your field of interest.  Read widely, be a lifelong learner—and remember, no one can tell your story but you.

PZ: What Deborah said. Also, remember to take pleasure in the act of creating, and in the wonderful things you can create. A desire for recognition is natural, but don’t get trapped by it, especially by wishing for fame or wealth. Those things don’t bring happiness, nobody can count on them, and there are lots of other fields where you’d be more likely to get even partway there, if that’s what you really want. Also, if that’s what’s driving you, you won’t be doing your best work.

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

DH: I’m sure your readers are familiar with Heartstopper (We love it in our family!). They may be less familiar with the incredible David Levithan, an author I highly recommend. His novel Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist was made into a film, and you can find more of his wonderful books on his website.

PZ: There are so many good writers and good books, I hate to have to pick. I think I’ll recommend my upcoming author Alex London. For picture books, one brilliant inventor is writer Antoinette Portis, and one illustrator who should have won a Caldecott Medal many years ago is Barbara McClintock.

Interview with Alyssa Reynoso-Morris

Alyssa Reynoso-Morris is a queer Afro-Latine/x Dominican and Puerto Rican storyteller. Her ability to weave compelling stories has opened many doors for her as an author, speaker, and resume writer. She is also a mother and community organizer. During the day she works with community members, non-profit organizations, and government officials to make the world a better place. Then she puts her writer’s hat on to craft heartfelt stories about home, family, food, and the fun places she has been. Alyssa was born and raised in The Bronx, New York, and currently lives in Philadelphia, PA with her partner and daughter. She is the author of Plátanos Are Love, The Bronx Is My Home, and Gloriana Presente: A First Day of School Book. She hopes you enjoy her stories.

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

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

¡Hola! Hello! Thank you for having me! My name is Alyssa Reynoso-Morris and I am a queer Afro-Latiné/x Dominican and Puerto Rican storyteller. My ability to weave compelling stories has opened many doors for me as an author, speaker, and resume writer. I am also a mother and community organizer. During the day I work with community members, non-profit organizations, and government officials to make the world a better place. Then I put my writer’s hat on to craft heartfelt stories about home, family, food, and the fun places I have been. I was born and raised in The Bronx, New York, and currently live in Philadelphia, PA with my partner and daughter. I am the author of Plátanos Are Love, The Bronx Is My Home, and Gloriana Presente: A First Day of School Book. I hope you enjoy my stories.

What can you tell us about your most recent book, Plátanos Are Love? Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

In Plátanos Are Love, a little girl learns about the ways plantains shape Latinx culture, community, and family from her abuela. The book begins in an open-air market with the following lines:

En el mercado, Abuela says, “plátanos are love.”

I thought they were food.

But Abuela says they feed us in more ways than one.

My love of my Abuela, her stories, and the food we made together inspired Plátanos Are Love. After the initial idea and inspiration, I did some research. Market research is important for writers because we need to write original and engaging content. My research revealed that there were dozens of picture books about potatoes, soup, and other foods, but zero books about plátanos. A book about plátanos and how our ancestors passed down their recipes, as a form of cultural preservation, did not exist so I knew I had something special. Fortunately, my agent Kaitlyn and my editor Alex agreed and then we got to work on bringing the book to life.

Do you yourself have any personal connection or story related to plátanos you would like to share?

I have been eating plátanos since I was a little girl so it is hard to pick just one memory or story… After much thought, my favorite plátano story is the first time my daughter ate a tostone. It was her first solid food and she was obsessed. It brought me so much joy to know tostones were her first solid food.

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

I wanted to be a writer since I was 7 years old because I grew up with my Abuela – the original storyteller. She had a second-grade education, but that didn’t stop her from telling the best stories that captivated EVERYONE’S attention. I remember looking up to her and wanting to be like her. I think she knew that because she would rope me into “helping” her tell her stories. I actually still have the first book I ever wrote when I was 7 years old with the help of my mom and share it with students during school visits.

I have done some cool things like building water purification systems in other countries, researching witness protection programs for the Tribunal of Rwanda, and organizing multilingual COVID-19 clinics at the height of the pandemic. But I love telling stories and never stopped reading and writing. I am glad I get to reinvent myself and that I am now able to focus more on my first love – writing.

I love writing picture books because as a mom and former teacher, I know firsthand how SMART and KIND kids are. It is an honor to write stories for kids, because they are the future. Writing stories rooted in LOVE and hope is my way of making the world a better and more empathetic place.

Can you give insight or advice into what goes into making a picture book?

Making a picture book takes a lot of time. Below are some steps involved.

  1. First, you need to come up with your idea.
  2. Second, you need to do your research to make sure your idea and approach are fresh and new.
  3. Third, write the book (keeping word count, voice, plot, character development, and literary elements) in mind.
  4. Fourth, edit the book. Share it with critique partners that can provide you with honest feedback.
  5. Fifth, edit some more. And then some more. And then some more.
  6. After all that repeat steps 1-5 with at least two more story ideas. WHY? Because to get a literary agent you need to have at least 3 polished picture book manuscripts.
  7. Sixth, write a clear and personalized query letter to get a literary agent. Keep writing while querying and mentally prepare for rejection. It is normal and NOT personal at all. There are hundreds of reasons why an agent might not offer representation. You got this. When you get an offer for agent representation. Make sure you do your homework and work with someone that will be able to advocate for you.
  8. Seventh, work on the manuscript with your agent to get ready for submission to editors at publishing houses. Keep writing while on submission. The rejection is not over yet. Keep writing and don’t get discouraged.
  9. Sell your book. Work with your agent to get you the best deal.
  10. Edit the manuscript with your editor.
  11. Let the illustrator work their magic.
  12. Learn as much as you can about marketing to get your book in as many hands as possible.
  13. Do it all over again 😀

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

Growing up, I enjoyed reading books by Julia Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros, and Jacqueline Woodson. Their books helped me feel seen, heard, and validated.

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

A few fun things I will share are that I love to sing and dance. You can often find me by putting on a song I love and I will either start singing it or dancing to it or both. I used to sing for my church when I was a kid and was in the musicals at my high school.

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

A question I have not been asked is, “If you could add more to your book Plátanos Are Love, what would that be?” Picture books are short with a total of 40 pages including the title page and dedication page. I could not include a few more ways I enjoy eating plátanos which include mofongo, pastelon, and yaroa.

What advice might you have to offer to aspiring creatives in general?

If it brings you joy, please carve out the time for it. You deserve to be happy. Advice for writers is: first, read a lot. Second, keep writing no matter what. Third, do your research.

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

I have two more books coming so I will be busy promoting those too. On October 24th, 2023 my second book The Bronx Is My Home comes out, and my third book Gloriana Presente: A First Day of School Book comes out in 2024.

The Bronx Is My Home is a picture book celebration of hometown pride including the history, landscape, cuisines, cultures, and activities unique to this vibrant community. Welcome to the Bronx, New York, where you can see bodegas and businesses bustling on every street, taste the most delicious empanadas in the world, smell the salty sea air of Pelham Bay, and pet horses at the Bronx Equestrian Center. From sunrise to sunset, Santiago and Mami have many treasures to enjoy in their neighborhood on a beautiful Saturday, including colorful birds on the Siwanoy Trail and fresh cannolis on Arthur Avenue. This energetic and joyful family story offers both a journey through and a love letter to this special borough. The Bronx Is My Home is a triumphant celebration of hometown pride, as well as a heartfelt invitation to all, for readers of My Papi Has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero, illustrated by Zeke Pena, and Saturday by Oge Mora.

My third book Gloriana Presente: A First Day Of School Book is a bilingual picture book that features a Dominican American girl overcoming anxiety and finding her voice in the classroom.

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

  1. Belle of the Ball by Mari Costa
  2. Beauty Woke by NoNieqa Ramos
  3. The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante
  4. Ghost Squad by Claribel Ortega