AUGUST 2023 FEATURE INTERVIEW WITH CHILDREN’S AUTHOR, JESS TOWNES, conducted by Chelsea dicicco

Author Bio   Jess Townes is the author of several picture books, including the forthcoming Sometimes I Cry. A lifelong storyteller, Jess has worked in public education, non-profit development, birth, and lactation services, as a freelance writer and actress, and currently works as a bookseller at Main Street Books in St. Charles, Missouri, but her favorite part of any job is the connections she builds with other people. She believes there is no better path to those connections than through our stories. Jess lives outside St. Louis with her husband, two teenagers, and two black cats.

Beginnings

It's time for another great FEATURE INTERVIEW. Today, we're welcoming guest Jess Townes to the blog. It’s such a pleasure to have you with us, Jess! I loved learning about your colorful and varied work experiences as a doula and advocate for Spanish speakers in the public school district as well as your history with nonprofit fundraising, among other cool things. So, tell me, what was the series of events that landed you here in the wonderful land of children’s book writing?
 
There's an expression about endings, I think it originated with Aristotle, that says they should be "surprising, but inevitable," and that's sort of how I feel about landing in the world of children's literature. I did not grow up wanting to become an author. I'm not sure it ever made my list of what I wanted to be when I grew up, and that list was long and varied, from journalist to Rockette to the first female Catholic priest (for the record, I wasn't even Catholic). Yet, I fell in love with children's books at a very young age and never fell out of love long past the age that our culture dictates I should have. I've always been a storyteller, and most of my work has involved advocacy for children, so in a way, though it was a surprise, it was perhaps inevitable that I eventually paired my love for story and my connection with children in this way. 

I saw on your author’s website that you memorized Richard Scarry’s illustrations. So, I’m guessing books played a large part in your young childhood. Can you tell us more about some of your favorite childhood book memories and how they influenced you then or maybe still influence you today? Books were a foundational part of my childhood. In early elementary school, I was completely obsessed with The Babysitters Club. I loved and admired all of them. Kristy's leadership, Claudia's artistic talent, Maryanne's empathy, and Stacey's ability to adapt to change. They felt like friends to me, and when I was going through difficult moments in my own life, I turned to them for comfort and consistency. As I got a little older, I discovered Judy Blume, and her books were a revelation. She wrote things that nobody talked about but everyone experienced, and reading them stripped away shame and self-doubt. I believe she shaped the future of children's literature through her vulnerability, and so many of the books I love and sell as a bookseller today might not have ever been published had she not paved the path for them. Another thing I wanted to talk with you about is your day job! I remember you mentioning that you work as a bookseller at an independent bookstore in St. Charles, Missouri (which is so cool)! It seems like a very fitting job for someone who enjoys reading and writing. I work in a library, and I love being surrounded by books and book lovers. I imagine you do too! Can you tell us a little more about the bookstore where you work and what it’s like working there? I love my job at Main Street Books! We are located on a historic cobblestone street in St. Charles, Missouri, where many of the buildings are over two hundred years old. It's a vibrant tourism location that hosts multiple festivals every year, from a floral festival in May to Halloween to Christmas. The street is charming, and you really get to know your neighbor merchants. We are a general interest bookstore, which means we have a little bit of everything, and our staff reads across all genres. I love getting to know our local readers as well as meet people from all over the country who are visiting. Working as a bookseller gives me a behind-the-scenes peek at the other side of publishing, which I find helpful in understanding the industry. And it's always so exciting when I get the chance to sell one of my writer friend's books!

Books & Writing

When it comes to your own writing… do you ever host storytimes or book signings of your books where you work?

Yes, I launched both of my first books with a signing/storytime at Main Street Books. It's my bookish home, so it feels right to start there. 

Speaking of your books… let's talk more about those! I know you have Spellbound, which came out in January 2022; Groundhog Gets it Wrong, which came out in January 2023; and your next book, Sometimes I Cry, is coming out THIS Fall! Can you tell us about your newest book? 

Sometimes I Cry is definitely the most vulnerable of the books I've published so far. It's an exploration of all the different kinds of moments in life that can move us to tears, and as an easy crier myself, it hits very close to home. Growing up, I sometimes felt ashamed or embarrassed by how easily I cried (I'm that person that cries during commercials, for example), but once I had my own kids, it became important to me to model crying as a normal, healthy part of being human in a complex world. I started to notice the ways that boys, in particular, were discouraged from crying and wondered what our world would look like if men were able to access and express their full range of emotions in healthy ways. This book was born in my part from my desire to help create that world, and I really hope young readers see themselves on its pages. 

So now that we've wandered into the territory of one of my all-time favorite topics- books- I'd love to hear a little more in-depth of the behind-the-scenes of the creation of these stories. Can you share a little about how your books were born? What was the inspiration behind them?

Spellbound was inspired by my work as a doula. I had the privilege of watching many families welcome a new baby into their homes and the varied reactions of the existing children. While some became immediate caregivers, others took some time to adjust to a new sibling, and I wanted to honor that reality in a playful but honest way. Groundhog Gets It Wrong was inspired by a winter in my region where the groundhog called for an early spring, and it actually came true! It made me wonder how often this rodent gets it right, which got me thinking about making mistakes and the aftermath of those mistakes. 

Book Publishing Territory & Timeline

I know I have a lot of readers who are at different stages of writing and publishing. Some are just starting out with finding a home in the writing community and joining their first critique groups. Others are already a part of the writing community and now have polished manuscripts that they are querying to find an agent. Some are now agented but don't yet have book deals. And others may be agented with multiple book deals. So, I like to ask questions that help give more information about each stage.
 I'll start with the beginner questions.

When you first started writing, can you tell us how/where you discovered your writing community? Were there any groups or things that helped, in particular?

There were two groups in particular that were an enormous help to me as a beginner children's writer - the 12 x 12 Picture Book Challenge and SCBWI. I met my first critique group through SCBWI, and they remain close friends and writing partners to this day. I attended workshops and conferences through SCBWI, eventually becoming a Co-RA of my local region. It's hard to imagine my publishing journey without this organization that I have learned so much from. Likewise, 12 x 12 continues to be a huge part of my writing life! The program helped me challenge myself to write drafts and practice craft on manuscripts that I knew would never be published, which for me, is an essential part of the process. But more importantly, I meet writers through this community that understand the ups and downs of the publishing journey and the specificity of picture book writing. I currently serve as a Critique Ninja for 12 x 12, and I am honored to give back to a community that has given me so much. 
 
From the time you first started swapping manuscripts and getting feedback on your work, how long did it take you to start querying agents, and what was that process like?

It took me a long time to be ready to swap manuscripts and seek feedback on my work. I wrote privately for a couple of years before even joining SCBWI and learning about critique groups. Once I did have those groups in place, I started querying agents about six months later and was fortunate to sign with my agent very quickly after that.
 
Once you started querying, how long did it take you to find your agent match?

I received an offer to revise and resubmit from my current agent within a month of querying agents, and I ended up signing with her a few months after that. 
 
Once you found your agent, how long did it take to get your first book deal?

Much longer! I was with my agent about a year and a half before we had our first offer. We had a couple of other manuscripts go through acquisitions more than once, so I got a lot of experience in getting oh-so-close to a deal but not quite crossing the finish line. This is a part of the process even after multiple book deals. Each time on submission is like starting over. 

Discouragements, Set-backs, Words of Wisdom

We've gone over the timeline. Now let's talk a little bit about the in-betweens.
Were there any points throughout your publishing career that you felt discouraged? If so, what/who helped you overcome it?

Yes, of course. So much of publishing is outside our control, and keep in mind that my own publishing timeline fell in the middle of a global pandemic. There has been near constant uncertainty about everything from shipping to supply chains, sales, a changing market, the fate of brick-and-mortar bookstores, book challenges, and bans, the future of AI, etc. I try to remind myself that I can only impact so much. The things inside my control are the stories I write and, to a smaller extent, the ways I share my work in the world. I try to focus on what I can control, as well as the joy I find in the craft of telling a story, instead of the many things outside my control. 
 
What were some of the struggles you faced during your writing career?

Because writing is not my full-time job, it can be a struggle to give my stories the space and time they need to grow into what they could be. Balancing work, family, health challenges, volunteering, and the many things life throws at us with an extra job like writing can be a lot. Sometimes, writing is able to take the front seat and other times, it has to wait patiently in the background. I miss being away from my stories in those seasons, but I trust that something new will always be waiting. I think a lot about this advice from Stephen King -  "Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room. Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around." 


Are things all breezy and easy now? Explain.

If you've read this far, you probably already know my answer to this! Of course not, but I don't expect there will ever be a season in my writing career where all things are breezy and easy. This is an ever-changing industry with new challenges every day. The best we can do is honor our craft and adjust the best we can. We can remind ourselves of why we write in the first place and follow that "why" as long as it makes sense to you and your life.

 
Is there anything you know now that you wish you had known earlier on that you think might be helpful for other writers?

This is a hard question because what motivates one person can discourage someone else. I like data. I like understanding the reality of the publishing industry. For me, working as a bookseller has opened my eyes to the absolute miracle it is to get a single book published, ever, much less have that book find a lasting place on the shelf. I know the numbers, I know the odds, and for me, this helps me understand why it is that so many beautifully crafted stories have a hard time finding a publishing home. Recognizing that this is out of my control is freeing to me as a writer and artist. But I always hesitate to share those numbers in a concrete fashion because I've seen it have the opposite impact on others.
 
Anything else you'd like to share?

I want to thank everyone who has ever shared one of my books with young readers. So much of this process, in the beginning, involves other adults reading your work, but there is something so deeply gratifying about the moment you finally get to share your book with kids. Their reactions, connections, and responses to my work have been the best part of this journey, so thank you to all of you who help make that happen. 

Fun questions:

Favorite book(s)- and why? (I'll allow up to 5 because I know choosing favorites is hard).

Impossible! I'm a bookseller! How could you do this to me? ;) How about instead, I name five picture books from recent years that I've loved sharing with young readers?

After the Fall by Dan Santat
Little Witch Hazel by Phoebe Wahl
The Vamos! books by Raul the Third
The Longestletsgoboy by Derick Wilder and Catia Chien
Big and Small and In-Between by Carter Higgins and Daniel Miyares

Favorite color?

Green
 
Favorite place, real or imagined?

Grand Teton National Park
 
Favorite quote?
 
"Instructions for living a life. 
Pay attention. 
Be astonished. 
Tell about it." 
― Mary Oliver 

Thank you, Jess for joing us today. And now it's time for...

THE GIVEAWAY PRIZE

This month, Jess is offering multiple-choice prizes.
A signed book of your choice! Or, if you’re a teacher or librarian, a 30-minute zoom call with classroom/patrons. (This could be a fun storytime idea!)

QUESTIONS-ANSWERS

How do I enter the giveaway?

Simply like August’s Feature Interview post (the one you’re reading now) and subscribe to the blog. And that’s it! You’re entered.

How long will I have to enter the giveaway?
The entire month of August 2023
Deadline: August 31st

Already subscribed? Awesome! You’re halfway there!

Did you enjoy this interview? Support this author by purchasing one of their books below! Using these direct purchase links also supports this blog.

GROUNDHOG GETS IT WRONG 
SOMETIMES I CRY
SPELLBOUND

FEBRUARY 2023 FEATURE INTERVIEW WITH LOCAL ARTIST AND ILLUSTRATOR, ALYCIA NEIGHBOURS

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 alycia.neighbours@gmail.com, 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.

Instagram alicyia.neighbours 
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! 

Sneak peek… 
Join us next month for our FEATURE INTERVIEW with Kidlit Author Janet Sumner Johnson.