Welcome back to CHELSEA’S WORLD OF BOOKS. I'm your host, Chelsea DiCicco. This month, I’m pleased to introduce you to another wonderful children’s book author. She will be the highlight of our April FEATURE INTERVIEW. Please welcome Ellen Leventhal.
Ellen Leventhal is an author and educator in Houston, TX. DEBBIE’S SONG: THE DEBBIE FRIEDMAN STORY is her fourth published picture book. Ellen’s work has also appeared in various poetry and short story anthologies. Ellen’s best days are when she can interact directly with students and spread her love of literacy, compassion, and kindness. To find out more about Ellen’s books, writing projects, and school visits, you can visit her website, www.ellenleventhal.com.
So, Ellen, the first thing I’m always itching to know is the “HOW” AND “WHY” of what led you into the exciting and challenging journey to publication. What got you here? What inspired you to keep going? How long did it take you to get here? And all the bits in between.
First of all, thank you so much for having me here!
So, the HOW and the WHY are kind of intertwined. WAY back when I was a kid, I was constantly writing poems and songs. At the beginning, they were silly rhymes (not very good ones!), and then, of course, as a teenager, my writing was angst-filled. I never really stopped writing, but I also never thought I would write kids’ books. Then when I was teaching, I realized that I could make the curriculum more interesting and just add fun to the day with my writing. My friend Ellen Rothberg and I would go into bookstores and think, “We could do that.” Of course, we had no idea how difficult it really was! But one day, she saw a contest, we entered and won! The prize was publication. After what felt like a gazillion revisions, our debut picture book, Don’t Eat the Bluebonnets, was born. After that, I was hooked. I got involved in the kidlit community online and, when possible, in person. Through that, I found a group of wonderfully supportive people.
Of course, there have been many ups and downs and lots of adventures along the way…good, bad, and ugly. And really funny! I’ve learned to just go with the flow. I laugh when I think about two specific times during a reading at Barnes and Noble. Once, I was trying to read to a group, and some clown (yes…a literal clown who was supposed to do something after me) just started doing his thing while I was reading. Then there was the time during a reading with Ellen Rothberg when, in the middle of our reading, someone drove a scooter around in front of us calling for someone. We both sincerely hope the missing “Shelby” was found. One of the funniest things happened when during a school visit, a few teachers dropped their kids off before there were other teachers to take over. It was the day before winter break, the kids got to wear pajamas, AND Santa was on the other side of the room. HOW could I compete against Santa?! Before the teachers came back, a little boy and girl were having an argument about whether that Santa was real. The girl, who said he wasn’t, turned to me to support her claim. I was in panic mode and not sure what to do. Luckily, that same little girl blurted out “That Santa can’t be real because the real one is at the mall!” Whew! And then we had a great time.
Sounds like a close call! Haha. While we're on the track of school... could you tell us a little bit about your history with education and working with kids?
I’ve always worked with kids in some capacity. In fact, my husband and I met when we were working together at a day camp. I taught special ed back in the70s and loved it. When I moved to Texas, I had two little ones, but I was lucky to find part-time work with kids. Then when my own kids got a bit older, I taught mostly fifth grade for many years. I “retired,” but I was back at the same school working part-time within a few months! Now, although not working at a school, I tutor and enjoy my author school visits. So yes…kids (including my own and, of course, my four adorable grandkids) have always been an integral part of my life.
Here’s a hard question. Do you have a favorite manuscript/story that you’ve written? And is it one that’s currently published? If so, which one? Don’t worry, you can tell us! We won’t tell your other stories…
Ha! Yes, that is hard! At this point, I think A FLOOD OF KINDNESS and DEBBIE’S SONG are my favorite published stories, but that’s probably because they are my latest. I still like my others! However, I do have an unpublished story that I love. I wrote what I thought was a picture book years ago, but it was way too long. I love the story and have been trying to weave it into a chapter book or do something with it. It’s still one of my favorites, and I hope at least some of it will appear in something else.
So, as far as children’s books, I know you have DON’T EAT THE BLUEBONNETS, which came out in 2017; LOLA CAN’T LEAP, which came out in 2018, A FLOOD OF KINDNESS, which came out in 2021 (and is one of my favorites by the way) and you have another story coming out this month, April of 2023, DEBBIE’S SONG: THE DEBBIE FRIEDMAN STORY. Which I’m SO excited to read! Can you tell us a little about this story and what it means to you? Thanks! I’m excited about this one too! Here's a blurb giving you a glimpse of what DEBBIE’S SONG is about: When Debbie Friedman was a little girl, music bubbled up inside her. Notes and melodies. Loud and quiet. Fast and slow. As she grew, she saw things that she believed should change. Debbie dreamed of making music that would include everyone, especially women and young people. It was difficult, but with determination to overcome obstacles and ignore those who sought to deter her, Debbie stuck to her belief that she could make the world better. Debbie's dream came true, and her transformative music changed the landscape of Jewish music forever.However, this book means so much more to me than that blurb. When I was teaching at a Jewish Day School, we sang Debbie Friedman’s music all the time. I met her briefly once but really never got to know her. As it turns out, many people here in Houston did know her, and she touched all of their lives. I’ve always loved the inclusive music she created and sang, but as I dug deeper, I learned about her struggles, which weren’t insignificant, and how she was still there for everyone during their difficult times. Had Debbie lived, she would have been the same age as I am now. Her songs were the soundtrack of my children’s education, and I felt strongly about making sure this generation learned about her and how through her story, they’ll learn that they each have a special spark inside them. Though it may not be the same, through Debbie’s story, they’ll learn that they, too, have the power to make a difference, just like Debbie did.
In your opinion, what is the hardest part of publishing, and the most rewarding part of publishing?
For me, there are two parts that I find very difficult, and they’re related. I have a hard time letting go of my manuscripts and sending them off. I am never sure they’re ready to go, but I’ve learned that it is possible to over-revise and lose the heart, so I’m constantly working on that balance. Then once I jump that hurdle, I find the waiting hard as well as the lack of control. I’m getting better at that second part, but it’s difficult.
The most rewarding is, of course, seeing children enjoy my books. That thrill of seeing a child read one of my books will never go away. The other rewarding part of this journey is my connection to the kidlit community. There is no way I’d still doing this if it weren’t for my critique groups and friends I’ve made along the way.
If you could share one piece of advice with other writers on this journey, what would it be?
This is one that I need to remind myself of sometimes. Enjoy the journey.It’s a tough business, and if you are only focused on the publication, it’s easy to get frustrated. It’s important to step back and just have fun with the process. Don’t let the business aspect zap your joy of writing and storytelling.
Now, because I’m a big-time lover of all things educational and a Children’s Librarian, I have to ask, what are your school visits like? And… do you do library visits too?
My school visits are hopefully educational and FUN! Although I have a description of my presentations on my website, I let the librarians/teachers know that I mix and match and will do whatever I can do to support the teachers in the classroom. I always have some type of interaction with the kids. The goal of pretty much every presentation is to let them know that they all have stories to tell and they are all storytellers.
And yes, although I haven’t done a lot of library visits, I’d love to do more! Here’s where you can find more about my School Visits. What was your hand’s down best experience when doing a school and/or library visit?
Hmm…I’ve had so many good ones. One memorable visit was years ago when the first version of DON’T EAT THE BLUEBONNETS came out. A school in El Paso, TX, made it the monthly read for all their grades, and I was welcomed with writing and art having to do with their book and even a cake with the main character on it! The kids and staff were amazing. This was more than a normal visit because it was the 100th anniversary of the school, and we had a big celebration. We wrote stories and songs together and had a great time.
BUT…that is not to say that I don’t love all my school visits. Every one of them has something wonderful and magical about them that I keep with me. Sharing my love of literacy, kindness, and inclusion is definitely my favorite part of this business.
For other authors who may be interested in offering library or school visits, what recommendations would you give them on where to start?
Honestly, I still struggle getting visits sometimes, so I don’t want new creators to get down on themselves. Most of my school visits have come from personal connections. You need to put yourself out there and meet people at conferences, etc. For me, word of mouth is the best thing. When librarians and teachers like what you do; hopefully, they will pass on your info to others. Don’t be afraid to ask! But honestly, I’ve gotten visits from cold emails too, so you never know. I’d say to start small. When you first start out, you’re honing your presentation skills. Maybe don’t take on a whole school at once. Start with a grade level or two and see what works. Whatever you do, I’d say to be yourself. We all have different personalities, and as with other parts of life, trying to be someone you’re not never works.
And this is a new question that I want to start asking to help spread love and support for our wonderful independent bookstores. What's one (or more) local bookstore(s) that you love? Name it(them) below!
I love Brazos Bookstore in Houston!
Wonderful! Thank you for sharing, Ellen. As writers we know just how important indie bookstores are and we appreciate all their efforts to keep their doors open. I've gone ahead and added quick links to Brazos Bookstore's Twitter, Instagram and official website. If you live local, why not check them out?! And if you don't... you can always order from bookstores online through Bookshop.org.
Okay, now for some silly/fun questions:
If you were a color, what would it be?
Hmm….maybe purple? No real reason except that I love it!
If you could only eat three foods for the rest of your life, what would they be?
So I’ll pretend there is no such things as cholesterol or anything like that for this one. I think I could eat pizza, pasta, and Chinese food. Clarification: I don’t eat a lot of these things, but one can dream.
That all depends on my mood. Sorry…can’t pick just one.
Anything that combines chocolate and ice cream together.
Cat or dog?
Beach or mountains?
For years I’d say the beach, but now I’m thinking mountains.
Thank you, Ellen. We loved having you with us. But wait- it’s not over. It’s that time.
Do you know what time it is?
It’s time for our giveaway prize! YAY!
This month for our GIVEAWAY PRIZE, Ellen is offering a signed copy of her book DEBBIE'S SONG OR an Ask Me Anything zoom call. Winner's choice!
How can I enter?
The winner will be selected from COMMENTER'S below at random. (That's right, all you have to do is leave a COMMENT with your prize choice. That's it!)Please ONLY comment ONCE.
Winners will be announced before or by April 15th, 2023.
Thanks for joining us today! Be sure to like and subscribe to stay up-to-date with all our wonderful Feature Interviews and other blog posts.
To find out more about Ellen, you can visit her website.
Or find her on Twitter or Instagram
Find her newest book, Debbie's Song at the links below!
Brazos Bookstore (Hard cover)
Brazos Bookstore (Paperback)
Or Bookshop.org And most anyplace books are sold.Books by Ellen Leventhal
Debbie’s Song: The Debbie Friedman Story(2023)
A Flood of Kindness (2021)
Lola Can’t Leap (2018)
Don’t Eat the Bluebonnets (2017)
Hello friends, and welcome to the March 2023 FEATURE INTERVIEW. Today we are sharing the floor with special guest Janet Sumner Johnson. Janet is a children’s book author, wife, and mother of three, living in Utah, who writes both picture books and middle-grade stories.
Her debut picture book, Help Wanted: Must Love Books (Capstone, March 2020), was the winner of the 2021 CLEL BELL Read Awards and nominated for both the Colorado and Washington State Children's Choice Book Awards. Her other picture books include Braver Than Brave and A Bad Case of the Almosts, and she has an exciting new picture book series beginning in 2023, The Recess Genius: Open for Business.
So, let’s talk about what got you into writing and when this journey began for you. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
I have always gravitated to writing. In first grade, I was part of our school newspaper. In 3rd grade, I entered an essay in the Reflections contest and took 3rd. In High School, I sent a movie idea to Disney (and got my first rejection letter, lol!). But I never wanted to be a writer/author until after I graduated from college, and I realized that I was always writing because I loved it! With my husband’s encouragement, I wrote my first book and then proceeded to make all the beginner mistakes (querying before revising, thinking I had nothing to learn because I was a natural--HA!). But I stumbled my way into SCBWI, joined a critique group, and spent a lot of years learning before I finally dared to send another query. It was a long path for me!
I’m curious to know, from your side of the desk, which came first, the chicken or the egg? The chicken being your middle-grade stories, and the egg being your picture books- and why?
Love your question! The chicken came first. When I began writing, I actually thought I was writing YA, but after all those years of learning and working with my critique partners, I discovered I’d been writing MG all along. I didn’t even consider writing picture books until having kids. With toddlers, you are reading SO MANY picture books every day, and I think it’s natural that you start to get ideas for picture-book-size stories. I resisted for a long time because I’d learned enough at that point to know just how hard it is to break into the picture book world as a writer. But with so much inspiration and with the encouragement of a critique partner who got me to sign up for Susanna Leonard Hill’s “Making Picture Book Magic!” class, I discovered just how much I love the wordplay of picture books.
Can you tell us a little bit about the mental process for writing in different children’s book categories. Any specific setting or headspace required before you write one over the other? Like, do you need to be sitting upside down, facing north, with just the right amount of wind before you can write a picture book, whereas, for middle grade, you need to hop on one foot, spin around a few times, and have a cup of tea at the ready?
Haha! That’s about right. It’s definitely a different headspace for each category. With picture books, I focus on structure and action to start. I lay out a super quick outline, and once I have that, it’s all about the wordplay and finding fun, lyrical ways to convey the story. It’s very much about the details.
With middle grade, I have to think big picture. I still prepare an outline, which helps me know whether my story idea will work or not without committing too much time (I’m a plotter if you can’t tell). Once I begin writing, I have to block out the wordplay and focus solely on moving the story forward. If I find myself getting caught up in the words or how I’m saying something, I recite this mantra in my head: “It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be written.” It’s all about the big picture.
Do you find it more challenging to write one vs. the other, or are they equally matched? Is there one you naturally find yourself gravitating toward?
This is a hard question because they’re so different. I find that I gravitate to picture books because I love the wordplay so much. I am a bit of a (recovering) perfectionist, so the shorter works allow me to spend the time with words and phrases and play with form in a way that I just can’t do with middle grade.
If you look at how much time I spend per word, picture books are much more difficult. The simplicity of a good picture book is so deceptive. Telling a story is harder when you don’t have as much real estate. However, looking at the sheer amount of time a middle-grade book takes to write, as well as the increased complexity in plot, I personally have a harder time writing middle-grade.
What is challenging to one person may not be to another, so I think it depends on your strengths as a writer. My strengths lend to writing picture books.
Here’s a fun question. Have you ever had an idea for a picture book and realized it would actually make a great middle-grade story instead, or vice versa, and do you have any examples of this?
When I get an idea for a story, the first thing I do is decide who the audience is. Usually, it’s pretty obvious. Sometimes, I think a story could go either way. In those cases, I write the one that sounds more fun. However, every now and then, form and story overlap and make it hard to decide.
So, for example, I recently wrote a picture book that I think might make a better MG graphic novel. The story needed the pictures to carry the gag, which initially pushed it to picture book for me, but once I wrote it, I felt like the gag might be appreciated more by older readers.
I’m still working on that transition, and who knows if I can pull it off because it’s a new form for me, but I love trying new things and pushing myself as a writer. And it’s always fun to see how one story can lay a seed for another. I love playing with stories and seeing how small adjustments can lead to big changes. No writing is wasted!
In numbers, can you tell us between your picture books and middle-grade stories how many you have published now and about how many are in the works?
I have four picture books out in the world and two more announced. Six total.
For middle grade, I have one out and two more coming. Three total.
So far. 😉
Now, in just the past two months you’ve had two new books enter the world. Can you tell us a little bit about both?
A BAD CASE OF THE ALMOSTS released on Jan. 1st. It is about Abby, whose life is being ruined by Almosts! Almost tall enough. Almost fast enough. Nothing seems to go her way . . . until a chance encounter shows her that Almosts might have a bad rap. What if Almosts can actually be good?
I was struggling with my own Almosts, and I wondered if my attitude might be more powerful than I realized. It was a cathartic story to write that helped me change my own perspective. So it was exciting when my editor at Capstone connected with the theme.
Next, THE RECESS GENIUS: OPEN FOR BUSINESS is about Regina Grey, who is no stand-out student, but who loves to read. When she inadvertently solves her classmate’s problem, she is pushed into a new role as the Recess Genius, which suddenly makes it very hard to find time to read—the one thing she’s ever been good at! Can the Recess Genius use her magical power to solve her own dilemma?
This one is an origin story. I imagined a wise kid who other kids could come to for solutions to their kid problems. But I wanted to know how she got there. It took a lot of tries to get this one right, but I’m so excited for everyone to meet Regina!
And I know that’s not all for the new books out this year. You also have a very exciting release this Fall… tell us about that!
This Fall is the release of The Winterton Deception: Final Word. It is the first book in this Mystery Series surrounding the Winterton's—a wealthy dictionary magnate family. My editor called it a middle-grade Knives Out, and I wrote it because I wanted more books like The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. It has family drama and hidden passageways. It has a cut-throat spelling bee and a missing artifact worth millions.
When Hope Smith gets dragged into the Winterton drama by her twin brother, who enters them in the Winterton family spelling bee, she wants nothing more than to get in and get out with the prize. That all changes when a clue to a missing artifact lands in their laps, along with the promise of learning more about their long-dead father. Hope can’t resist the call to solve it, but with millions on the line and others following the same trail, Hope might just be in over her head.
It is complex and twisty, and it was oh-so-fun to write! I can’t wait for the world to meet the Winterton's and all their family drama.
Oh, my goodness. That sounds so good! Did I mention I love Knives Out? Because I LOVE Knives Out. A middle-grade version of this just sounds out of this world exciting to me! Okay… next question.
Do you have any advice for authors wanting to write both picture books and middle-grade series?
Yes! The big question with a series is, what thread do you plan to pull through to future books? Is it the character’s personality (think Olivia or Judy Moody)? Is it a theme (think Creepy Carrots or The Giver)? Is it specific type of situation (like with my book where the kids are seeking advice from the Recess Genius, or even a Series of Unfortunate Events)? Is it a genre (think a mystery series)? What is the appeal in the first story that drew people to it? That is what you want to continue into the series.
And once you have an idea, try writing some pitches for future books in the series. This will tell you if it’s viable as a series and if it’s something you’d want to keep working on (because a series is a commitment, and it can lock in your writing time for years (particularly for middle grade). Are these the books you want to be writing?) Plus, if you are pitching a series to a publisher, they will want to see what ideas you have for the next books. The time you spend planning the series is time well-spent.
Thanks for this terrific advice, Janet.
Now for some fun get-to-know-you questions
Warm (but not hot).
Favorite place- real or imagined, or both?
The beach! There is something about the crashing waves and the beauty of the ocean.
Favorite books- you can include up to 5!
(Thank you for the 5! Here are 5 recent favorites.)
PBs: Pirates Don’t Dance (by Shawna J.C. Tenney); Mother Bruce (by Ryan T. Higgins); A Spoonful of Frogs (by Casey Lyall and art by Vera Brosgol)
MGs: A Wish in the Dark (by Christina Soontornvat); A Place at the Table (by Laura Shovan and Saadia Faruqi)
Fresh laundry. Or Cinnamon Twists. Tough choice!
Dream vacation? No rules.
A River Cruise through Europe. No cooking, I can be as lazy or as go-go as I want.
Favorite tv shows- you can include up to 3!
The Good Place; Phineas and Ferb; Ted Lasso; (Honorable mention to Wednesday)
Phineas and Ferb- YES! Also, I love Wednesday! In fact, I fell in love with her at first sight when I was about 6 or 7, in the 90s THE ADDAMS FAMILY movie. I wanted to look and be just like her.
Siblings? If so, how many? And which number in the line are you?
4. 2 brothers, 2 sisters. I’m 4th of 5.
Thanks so much for being with us today, Janet! It was such a treat to learn about your methods and hear about all your great stories.
Now for our Giveaway Prizes
Yes… you read that correctly. There was an ‘s’ at the end of that word.
Janet has generously offered to give away multiple prizes.
What are the prizes? How can I enter?
Here ARE the answers.
Prize 1 Giveaway: A copy of A Bad Case of the Almosts
Prize 2 Giveaway: A copy of Recess Genius
If you would like to enter to win a prize, leave a comment on this feature interview post with
PRIZE 1 or PRIZE 2 (OR THE NAME OF THE BOOK YOU'D LIKE).
And that’s it! NOTE: This giveaway is international for wherever Book Depository delivers.
Winners will be selected at random and contacted within two weeks of this post.
To see other great interviews, be sure to subscribe to the blog. And if you enjoyed this post, be sure to like it before you leave.
If you’d like to connect with Janet or find out more about her books, you can find her website and social media links listed below. Thanks for reading!
Janet Sumner Johnson, author of:
Not My Circus (Capstone, 2024)
The Winterton Deception MG series (Pixel + Ink, 2023, 2024)
The Recess Genius PB series (Pixel + Ink, 2023, 2024)
A Bad Case of the Almosts (Capstone, Jan. 2023)
Braver than Brave (Capstone, Aug. 2022)
Help Wanted, Must Love Books (Capstone, 2020)
The Last Great Adventure of the PB&J Society (Capstone, 2016)
Find Janet on:
Browse and purchase Janet’s books on her website HERE
February is here! And with it… another FEATURE INTERVIEW! Today, I’m especially excited to introduce you to our guest, Alycia Neighbours.
I have the pleasure of working with Alycia in the library. She is a fantastically talented artist with a very funny (and sometimes unfiltered) sense of humor- which cracks us all up. Of course, most of us gals in the library think we’re hilarious and spend a lot of our time laughing at what some might think is nonsense. But I’m losing focus. *My ADHD apologies.* Speaking of which… something that Alycia and I share is that both of us are on the neurodiverse spectrum. Which is pretty cool.
I have a feeling putting us together for this interview is going to lead to a lot of wandering around on different topics. We’ll see if we get through it. If nothing else… I can guarantee it will be interesting.
So, let’s do this.
*Rolling up sleeves.*
Are you ready, Alycia? And 100 points to Gryffindor if you say, “I was born ready.”
*Cracks knuckles, smirks, and her eyes have a puckish glint* “I was born ready, but I’m unsure if you are.”
Ready or not, here we go!
My bio about Alycia:
Alycia is a very cool librarian with many creative talents and passions. She works with wildlife rescue (we actually have a very funny story about a tortoise she almost stole thinking it was mine. Maybe we’ll tell you about it later…) She’s an artist and now working on illustrations for an upcoming picture book (YAY!) She is neurodiverse (I’ll let her expand on that if she’d like), big-hearted, big-humored, big-mouthed- (Am I allowed to say that, Alycia? I know you would. Just kidding. Kind of.) one-of-a-kind individual with her own unique brand of personality. She is also a mom and stepmom to a pretty gigantic brood of kids. I can’t remember how many there are… What was it, like 50? I know it was a Cheaper By The Dozen Situation at best. Tell me again, how many munchkins you have in total? And all jokes aside, she’s a pretty terrific and down-to-earth human being, who I’m deeply grateful to know.
Alycia’s bio about Alycia:
I am a 46-year-old wife and mother of 8 with 2 granddaughters. A lot of the time, it does feel like there are 50+ kids I am somehow responsible for. Most of the time, it IS extra kids that have come over to play with our menagerie of animals. If it can be a house pet, I guarantee I probably have two of them. If it’s not one of my pets, it’s probably wildlife that I am working on rehabbing; nobody blinks an eye around here about squirrels in a closet, a hawk on the screened porch, a possum in the bed, or watching me set a broken leg on a mouse on the kitchen counter. I am autistic and have a Conure as a service animal. Cricket, the conure, is a small parrot with a growing vocabulary. He has the ability (as all birds do) to sense small, subtle magnetic changes around him. This includes the beating of my heart speeding up. His job is to identify those moments before I do, and then he leans into my neck. His warm body pressing on me alerts me that I need to pay attention to what my body is telling me and use my tools to combat my instincts. When I am not filling dinner plates of food bowls, I am either working at the library, homeschooling 4 teenagers, or creating. Artwise I am a painter, crocheter, knitter, pyrographer, calligrapher, tattoo designer, logo designer, sculptor, and jewelry maker. My other interests are mounted archery, kayaking, working with mustangs or abused horses, hiking, and anything else that can get me into nature.
So, today’s interview (as you can probably already tell) is going to be formatted a little bit differently for a few reasons.
1.It’s Alycia and me- and together, we’re trouble.
2.This will be my first sit-down interview with an artist only! We did have one interview back in December that featured a father and son-author/illustrator team, but this time, we are going to be focusing on art and illustration. And Alycia’s illustration journey is going to be a little bit different because, as I understand it, Alycia is going through a traditional route and was hired by a publishing house. Is that right?
I believe the chain of events that occurred whilst I was peacefully sleeping is that an author actually stumbled into my art via a social media site while she was perusing artwork pertaining to her character. She introduced it to the Powers That Be of Publishing and then began courting me with promises of face-to-face meetings at her hobby farm. How could I possibly refuse a chance to sit down amongst roaming goats, turkeys, floofy dogs, and kitties in need of “scritches.”
I know that in publishing, there is some red tape on things, and it’s important to stay hush-hush until a certain date. So, with that in mind, instead of me asking you direct questions, maybe instead, you could tell us what you’re able to about the publishing experience and project so far.
I can tell you that the publishing house that is working with us is a fantastical beast of making sure everything is absolutely perfect, from making sure the prose is formatted the best for our demographic, the margins are clearer than a guppie’s mind, the artwork being chosen is to not only reflect the passion of the words but to engage all levels of readers. It’s a slower process than Chelsea’s pretend tortoise imitating an arthritic sloth. The author I am working with has a background in teaching and preparing kids not just academically for the world but emotionally. She is in the middle of two books, one I am illustrating in my style because of the subject matter and the other about a whimsical butterfly done by a brilliant watercolorist. It was important to her to choose artists that not only could tackle bringing her words to life but who were passionate about their subjects.
Her deciding factor in choosing me was her book focuses around a crow that has grown up believing his identity was defined by those around him, which was a loving, but aloof family of chickens. He has to embrace who he truly is if he is going to be able to make a difference. When the author found me on social media, not only was she interested in my artwork, but I was also working with an orphaned crow affectionately named Chikyn. I was documenting his life of learning how to be a crow by introducing him as he was maturing to wild crows that nest in the woods behind my home. She knew then that I was the perfect candidate for illustrating this book.
So, now that we’ve talked about your traditional experience let’s talk about your inspiration for art. Have you always identified as an artist? How old were you?
I have always been creative, and at 46 years old, I sometimes feel as though I am just beginning. I work in all sorts of mediums and am usually taking online courses and working with other artists to further my different crafts. As mentioned, I am on the spectrum and am Autistic. One of my superpowers is the ability to hyperfocus on small details that make up the whole. I can get lost for hours creating each blade on a feather, the wrinkle on a flower petal, or the texture of the skin on an elephant. Most of my art focuses on these details, and by working in black and white, I encourage the viewer to ignore the colors that fascinate us at first glance and look closer at the beauty of the structure.
What does being an artist mean to you? And what is your connection to your art?
Being an artist means slowing down to appreciate the complex within the simplicity at first glance. It is taking a millisecond of time and preserving it in a way that invites the viewer to stop for a while and take notice of the chaotic perfection of form and structure.
My connection to art is that is my way of being. I think, hear and process the world around me in pictures. To be able to pull those images from my mind and put them onto canvas is a way of communication for me. It is my window to my soul.
What made you want to pursue illustration?
Pursuing this particular avenue of art allows me to use my connections to my work to help the author give “flesh” to their message. Children especially learn images long before they learn language. When reading an illustrated book on their own or if an adult is reading to them, they take what they have already learned through images and assign language. I feel this gives kids a sense of security to learn language and emotion/intention with a base of knowledge that feels familiar and comfortable.
Outside of this newest publishing venture, have you previously done any sort of commissioned artwork? If so, can you tell us a little bit about that process and maybe about the projects you worked on?
I’ve been doing commissions for the better part of the past decade. I tend to gravitate toward projects that have deep emotional meaning to the recipient. Whether a portrait of their beloved family member, a wood-burned recipe on a cutting board that has been passed down from the grandparents, a sculpture of their favorite pet, a watercolor of their home, a crocheted blanket for their newborn child, or a rendering of their favorite animal; if they are passionate then so am I.
I know what a talented artist you are. I’ve seen your work up close! And I’ve had the privilege of watching you teach a painting class for beginner artists as well, inside the library. Do you have any samples of your work that you’d be willing to share with us today?
Note: so, Alycia gave me free reign to choose images from her Instagram, and of course, my favorite animals are foxes and bats, so I have included them both!
Alycia, your attention to detail blows my mind. I know you usually work with black and white, but I chose one image to share as well with a pop of color. It really is stunning! But, I could talk all day about how much I love your work, and as much fun as that would be… I might lose some readers. So, back to what we were previously talking about: the library…
Recently, you hosted your first program in the library! Back in December of 2022, you hosted a winter painting party. How did it feel to host your first program? Were you super siked to lead an art-based event? Or were you nervous? Or were you a little of both? (Although, I can’t really picture you being nervous. And you handled the class so smoothly, it seemed like second nature.)
I was very excited to bring painting to the library. The main reason I began working in the library is my intense desire to serve people. Not just to serve them but for each person, I come in contact with to feel seen, feel important, and feel connected. Painting and learning painting is not something easily or cheaply done, so many people don’t ever take a chance on themselves becoming artists. The library offering this service for free allowed people of all backgrounds to be risky. I know how hard it is to take a risk and create something that feels so personal, so by teaching the class, I was able to walk right alongside them each step of the way, instructing, encouraging, and celebrating each unique canvas.
I was a little nervous, but that was due to my being in a new situation and a transition from my normal routine at the library; spectrum by-product. However, teaching painting classes is not new for me. I’ve taught personal lessons one-on-one, small groups during parties, and large groups of 100s of children at one time. I’ve learned the reward of seeing all the risk-takers with their paintbrushes is far more powerful than my moments of discomfort.
So, if someone wanted an Alycia original, is that something they could get? Can people approach you with projects they’d like you to create for them? And if so, how?
Absolutely! I am always available for new projects and ventures. Sometimes there are busy seasons, so there may be a wait for your finished project, but I always connect through each stage of the work progress to show the recipient where I am with things an.d if we need to tweak along the way. They can always approach me in person or through email firstname.lastname@example.org, social media sites, or by phone (six one five- four two zero- zero two four four.)
Okay, now for some fun GET-TO-KNOW-YOU-BETTER questions:
Alycia, if you could be any mythical creature, what would you be?
I would want to be a fairy the size of Tinkerbell (which, by the way, is one of my favorite characters) By being so small, I could sit in a flower all day to appreciate each splendid petal or perhaps ride on the wings of bird and see the world through their eyes, or maybe I’ll curl up under a toadstool, pull up my blanket of moss, listen to the cricket orchestra play a Sonata while I nap under a sunbeam.
If you could have any superpower (other than the many you already possess), what would you choose?
Flying. Definitely flying. I am a bird fanatic (autism focus - I can talk about birds for hours and hours) and also have a degree in bird biology.
If you could travel to any point in history, what and where would it be?
I’m going to have to go with the Jurassic Era here. Yes, I am probably going to get smashed at some point, but this girl is going to ride a Triceratops if that is the last thing I do.
If you turned into an animal tomorrow, based on your personality, what do you think it would be and why?
As much as I want to say a bird, I would one hundred percent probably be a cicada. I stay under wraps and avoid all contact until I am forced to come out. Then I begin to scream.
Now for some riddles… no cheating!
Where do sick boats go?
Well, if they had taken their Vitamin Sea, they wouldn’t have to go to the dock.
Tou·ché. However, the answer we were looking for is “the dock-tor.”
Name an expensive fish.
The one that clogs up your toilet and creates hefty plumbing bills.
*Chelsea laughing* Goldfish.
How do you spell COW in thirteen letters?
*Sips coffee, tries to look wise* SEE O DOUBLE YOU.
Alright. Here’s our last one.
If 2 is company and 3 is a crowd, what are 4 and 5?
*Continues sipping coffee*9.
Thank you, Alycia, for letting me pick your brain! It’s been a treat. *Chelsea as a zombie “brains! Delicious.”* And now… does anybody know what time it is?
I’ll give you a hint. It starts with the letter G…
As great as all those things are… it is none of the above. It’s…
Alycia is generously offering a custom artwork giveaway. Think of your favorite animal *fiction or nonfiction* and leave it in the comments below. One lucky winner will be chosen at random to receive a custom piece of art featuring the animal you chose. The commenting window for the prize will last one week from the post date of this FEATURE INTERVIEW. The deadline will be Wednesday, February 8th, 2023, so make sure to get your answers in as soon as possible! Please also make sure to include your NAME and EMAIL ADDRESS in your comment so that we can easily contact our prize winner.
To connect with Alycia or to see some of her amazing artwork, visit her social media, shown below.
Before you go…
If you enjoyed this interview, be sure to like this post and subscribe to Chelsea’s World of Books BLOG for more fabulous #kidlit happenings. You can also follow me on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Thanks for reading!
Join us next month for our FEATURE INTERVIEW with Kidlit Author Janet Sumner Johnson.
The presenters’ common goal in joining together today was to provide mental health aid and support to the community, families, children, and educators. Despite the heavy rains, the group was able to band together and find creative ways to reach their audiences at home. Thanks to Mary’s quick thinking and resourcefulness, she was able to get ahold of her co-host of her Special Needs TV show, and Bridgetti, the show producer, was gracious enough to bring us on live to share our message with viewers.
The rainclouds were filled with silver linings today! Thank you to everyone who came out to support the effort, and if you weren’t able to make it out, you can see our our interviews on Facebook > Special Needs TV > Mental Health Awareness EXPO > posted 09/18/2021.