Thursday, April 25, 2024

Book Birthday Blog with Mary Morgan



Welcome to SCBWI-MI's Book Birthday Blog!

Where we celebrate new books from Michigan's authors, illustrators and translators.


Congratulations to Mary Morgan on the release of Escape on the Lewis and Clark Trail


You've visited over 61 national parks and written a series of books. Which national park inspired your book?

This is book number ten. For Escape on the Lewis and Clark Trail, I relied on my trip to Oregon and Washington in the summer of 2021. Covid restrictions were letting up, so we flew to Boise, ID, where we met up with friends and traveled by car to the west coast. En route we rode a steam-wheeler paddleboat up the Columbia River which runs between the two states. Lewis and Clark navigated the river in 1805 – but they did it in hollowed-out canoes which they made with the help of Indians. We went to Fort Clatsop in Astoria, Oregon, which is close to where the Columbia runs into the Pacific Ocean. We spent hours listening to re-enactors tell how President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Lewis and Clark in 1804 to find a waterway which went all the way to the west coast. They traversed many rivers, carried their boats over the Rocky Mountains, finally reaching the Pacific Ocean eighteen months later in November of 1805. The men built the fort in nineteen days and wintered there for three months. All but twelve days, they were rained on. The Lewis and Clark Trail begins in Pittsburgh, PA, and runs for 4,900 miles. The Team of Explorers had to learn survival skills as they faced animals they had never seen, Indians who didn’t speak English, foraging for food, and performing first aid. I was impressed with the significant role Sacajawea played getting them safely to the west coast and then back east again. We walked to the river landing where the explorers went ashore and dealt with the Clatsop Indians. We went to the beach where they saw a 120’ beached whale and learned to make salt from the ocean water. All this sparked my interest in teaching young readers how they could develop survival skills at a Wilderness Camp.

At the time, I did not know the Fort was going to be the setting of a book, but I took many pictures, picked up brochures, maps, and the Junior Ranger book which I always incorporate in my books.


Early last year, I remembered that Lewis and Clark set sail in May of 1804. I made it my goal to have a book ready to read this May, commemorating that 220 year mark.  With the help of our Buttonwood team, it happened.

What are the unique challenges of writing a series?

When I started writing, I had no idea how extensive it would be. In 2011 when Stolen Treasures at Pictured Rocks came out, my publisher ordered 1,000 copies since he got a good deal for that quantity. I stared in disbelief when he delivered them, saying I could keep them at my house, and when half of them were sold, we would publish book two. Well, nine months later, they were gone and another 1,000 were ordered. I finished The Face at Mount Rushmore and 1000 more were added to the others in my basement.
A challenge is finding new readers as my book fans grow out of the 7-11 age group. Interestingly, each year I have older teens find me at craft shows to get the new book. Another challenge is that the content of a book might not be as popular as others. Each book has a different theme, like the triathlon families can do in the 3 sections of Everglades, a family reunion at Phantom Ranch down at the Colorado River in Grand Canyon, the discovery of sharks at Mammoth Cave, and a winter rescue at Yellowstone where they can get up to 50 feet of snow. Coming up with new ideas take a while, but eventually an inspiration hits me.  When I interview rangers, I ask for their park’s worst crime, and then determine how my characters can become the heroes in helping to solve the mystery.
Another challenge is finding new character types. Having six siblings, I use personality traits that I remember of our growing up years and use them in my characters. Just like the plots, each character is different.

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

Back in 2011, I had a Lansing elementary principal read the Stolen Treasures at Pictured Rocks manuscript for age appropriateness. She told me it has all the history and geography that Michigan students learn in third to fifth grade, and every Michigan student should read my book. Her words have never left me. I do a lot of research about each park and weave history, geography, and science into the plots, so kids learn as they read. I have an F.Y.I (for your information) section in the back with important facts, people, places, camping recipes, etc. for added value.
I also want families to develop a passion to travel to these parks and explore them too. It is working because I am now getting postcards, emails, and actual letters from kids who tell they use my books as a travel guide as they search for the landmarks, and then live out the adventure like the kids in the book do. It doesn’t get better than this!

What are your marketing plans for the book and where can we find it?

**My publisher took our books to craft shows, festivals, wherever he could get a booth, in order to get the books into the hands of people. I have continued doing that as I have time. 

**Being a member of SCBWI, I take advantage of the opportunities to join in with other authors and exhibit at events that are offered. I met Renee Bolla at one such event in Novi last December, and now I am part of her after school literacy program where students learn about reading and writing and buy our books. 

**Because March is Reading Month in Michigan, I go into schools as a Michigan author. I send a digital order form to the librarian two weeks before I do a presentation. They send me a list of books and names two days prior to me going to the school, so I can autograph and personalize them to take with me. That has been very successful.

**I do other school events like sponsoring a lollipop tree at an Ice Cream Social and sell my books at the same time. 

**Homeschool families love my books because they travel to national parks on extended vacations and use my books as a study guide. I now speak and sell at four of their big conferences each year, extolling the educational benefits of visiting national parks. 

**I contact bookstores near the parks I have written about, and some are now selling those located near them. My Gettysburg book is sold at the Heritage Center in Gettysburg, and they called asking me to do a book-signing over Memorial Day weekend. 

**I use real kids in my books and put their pictures in the back section, so now I have kids from around the country sending me their fifth-grade pictures. My former artist has some family health issues which need attention, so I am reaching out to new artists to give them an opportunity to get their artwork in a book. Students have asked if they can submit artwork, so I let them draw pictures for the FYI section. All of these new families buy a lot of books because their kids and artwork are in them.

**I feel I have a great website when people Google national park books for kids. We are set up with PayPal and I am learning about Venmo. It is a challenge to stay on top of new technology, but our sales are over 35,000 books, so we are happy with how it has all come together. 

**I can be reached at: 
Facebook - Mary Morgan National Park Mysteries

What's next for you?

This is a hard one to answer. When we set up our table, it is full, but I always have a story in my head. I wrote Tugboat To The Rescue, because little ones wanted another book too. It is in the production stage, using another artist who dreamed of having his artwork in a book.
As far as another national park book goes, I think one set at Crater Lake National Park in Oregon might be an introduction to a breath-taking place many people don’t know about, except seeing it on a calendar. The 1900 feet deep, ice-cold lake was formed after a volcano eruption. They stocked it with fish, so I thought a plot centered around a fishing competition between girls and boys would be fun. It might be called Hook, Line, and Sink Her.

We just experienced the awesome total eclipse last Monday, while traveling through Indiana. Who knows, that might make it into a book too.
For now, I am focused on getting this new book launched. At the places we have been so far, it is proving to be another winner. Kids will learn history of early explorers and hopefully make the trip to Astoria to explore the fort and park for themselves.

Having so many siblings, I use personality traits that I remember into my characters. I use them as main characters in my newest books since I have seen them in action as Junior Rangers.


More about the book . . .

Escape on the Lewis and Clark Trail takes young readers to Fort Clatsop in Astoria, OR, located just miles from the Pacific Ocean where the team of explorers wintered in 1805. Ben and Bekka Cooper, along with sixteen other brave campers, attend Wilderness Camp to learn to survive like Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea. Putting their resourceful skills to the test, camp becomes the ultimate contest to survive in water, foraging for food, and escaping from the wilderness - alive. 

Publisher: Buttonwood Books

About Buttonwood Books: I haven’t always been a book writer. I am a secretary by profession but had a passion to write books for children someday. When my children were grown and I had some free time, I devoted my evenings to writing the book of my dreams. I joined a writers’ group in Grand Ledge, MI, that invited local authors to share their experiences with hopes that we would be inspired by them. My friend was the bookkeeper for Richard Baldwin, a local murder mystery writer from Haslett. My husband and I enjoyed reading his books before we met him, so I asked my friend if he would come and talk about mystery plots and developing characters that would run through the series. He agreed to speak in November of 2010, and I couldn’t help but ask questions during his presentation. Afterward, he asked me what I really wanted to do, and I told him I wanted to write mystery books for kids set in national parks. He liked my idea and told me he would publish my work – even without reading anything I had written. Less than two months later, I finished Stolen Treasures at Pictured Rocks. He liked it and kept his word. For eight years, Buttonwood Press published one book a year, and our readership grew. We had seven National Park Mystery Books for Middle Grade students and The Runaway Lawnmower for children 3 – 5 years old, printed in English and Spanish, both being award winners. Sadly, Mr. Baldwin developed cancer and passed away in December of 2019. Three months later, Covid-19 hit and our publishing flat-lined. An agent pursued me and connected me with a publisher in Mississippi, but I needed my books to be warehoused here in Michigan, not down south. My husband and I decided we would form our own company, use Richard’s editor, artist, and printing company to keep continuity. We tweaked the name to Buttonwood Books, and it has proven to be successful.

More about the author . . .

I grew up in a family of nine in Upstate New York. We took summer vacations to places we had never been, and I looked forward to going on them. I believe that sparked my wanderlust for travel. I have been to all fifty states and sixty-one national parks, rarely returning to the same location, except Hawaii which calls my name. When our two children were young, my husband and I traveled with them to spectacular and historic locations, introducing them to what is out there in our great country, as well as instilling in them the desire to travel.



Now that we have two grandchildren, taking them on mystery trips to national parks is the perfect vacation. When we were riding bikes through Cuyahoga Valley National Park near Akron, OH, a couple years ago, they stopped a ranger and told her I would want to interview her to be in a book someday. She took it in stride and answered all my questions about the park. No ranger is safe when I’m lurking about looking for a new spot and juicy plot.


Friday, April 19, 2024

What I Wish I'd Known: Gail's First-Ever School Visit

 by Gail Kuhnlein

Wednesday, March 20, 2024 — I was so happy to receive a “real” email through the contact link on my author website. It was from Michelle Cox, a Title I teacher at Brick Elementary School, Ypsilianti, inviting me to participate in their Literacy Night. Her enthusiasm radiated off the computer screen and it was contagious. 

We decided that I would read my book, How Happy Is a Lark?, twice over the course of the evening, which ran from 5 - 6:30 p.m. And that I’d lead the activity from the back of my book with the children. This was my first in-person school visit (I’d done one via Zoom to a school in North Carolina, where my niece is the curriculum coordinator) and I was both nervous and excited. I pushed myself, and it all ended up feeling very natural. Initially, I was in a small classroom just inside the main school entrance. I had a number of parents, grandparents and students stop in. 

We started with the activity: 

  1. Think of a simile like “You’re as silly as a goose” or “She’s as cute as a button” (with help, if needed)
  2. Turn the simile into a question “How silly is a goose?” “How cute is a button?”
  3. Brainstorm and answer the question in a fun way 
  4. Draw a picture to illustrate your answer 

One girl, Bella, polished off two so quickly and would have done a third if she’d had more time. Her third idea was “How elegant is a swan?” I would love to see that one!

A fifth grader, Lucas, came up with the sayings, “let the cat out of the bag” and someone who has their “head in the clouds,” both great sayings and while they’re actually metaphors rather than similes, I’m all about flexibility and creativity, so he decided to draw the cat coming out of the bag.

For my first reading, I had about eight to ten people. I try to read with emphasis and emotion and occasionally ask the children questions about something in the book. Some of the things I engaged the children with were: having them laugh along with the hyenas and yell “BUZZ OFF” with me for the angry wasp. I ask if they can find the black cat in the drawing on a dark night, and how many of them have cats or dogs, when I’m reading the pages about cats or dogs. Lots! 

After my first reading, Lucas told me he really liked my book. This made my night, especially since he is older. It’s nice to know that children of different ages enjoy the book. 

Later, a couple of teachers asked if I wanted to move to the cafeteria, where many activities were happening. 

In the cafeteria, there was a tent set up with a paper bonfire out front and lots of pillows inside. My second reading of the night was inside the large tent in the cafeteria. I thought it would be fun to read inside. That seemed to be a popular draw for the kids, who kept on climbing in, to my delight. 

At Brick Elementary School
(Photo credit: Brick Elementary School Teachers.
Shared with permission)

During my readings, I loved to hear laughter, see smiles, and one little girl kind of shrieked and threw herself down on the ground when she heard that the hungry hippo could eat a whole elephant. 

I think that events like these are what it’s all about for authors, introducing more children to our books. If they/their parents like the book enough, they just might purchase one. But that’s sort of a side benefit, a nice one for sure, but not the main point, at least for me. 

Michelle was so kind and appreciative from the beginning — ours was a mutual appreciation club. I donated and signed a book to the Brick Elementary students. Throughout the evening, I met many sweet children and their parents or grandparents and dedicated teachers. 

What I wish I'd known was how comfortable and relatively easy the night would be. As a person who leans toward introversion, I'm accustomed to having a hurdle to get over on occasions like these, especially for the first time. Everyone was kind, and being referred to as "our author" was a bit unreal. 

Michelle invited me to read at two more upcoming events, Reading in the Park and their STEM Career Day. Michelle’s email after the event read, in part: “ … It was a privilege to have you in our school! … I can’t wait to share your book with my students tomorrow!” The following day she told me she’d read my book about 20 times to her reading groups and that the kids love it. Absolutely priceless.

A longer version of this post recently appeared on Gail's Outta' This World blog.

Gail Kuhnlein published her first children’s picture book, How Happy Is a Lark? in late 2022. Gail majored in journalism and public relations at Michigan State University. Most recently, she was the communications specialist for the University of Michigan’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. The publication of this book is a dream come true for Gail. She lives with her husband, Tim, just outside Ann Arbor, Michigan. They have two adult sons, Davey and Trevor. Lark is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, at several local libraries and shops, and a Trinidad bookshop. Her next picture book, Into the Thicket, is anticipated fall 2024. 

What I Wish I'd Known is a new series on The Mitten. If you have a kidlit-related "first" that you'd like to share - the good, the bad, the funny - we'd love to hear about it! Please email if you have one you would like to share. 

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Book Birthday Blog with Pria Dee



Welcome to SCBWI-MI's Book Birthday Blog!

Where we celebrate new books from Michigan's authors, illustrators and translators.


Congratulations to Pria Dee on the release of Little Moe Can't Fly



Please share a little about this book's journey. How did you come up with the idea?

Michigan is resplendent with wildlife and natural beauty. I am fascinated by watching the flocks of birds migrate, return home, create families, nurture them, and then migrate again. Last spring, one little gosling particularly fascinated me as he had a limp and struggled to keep up with his family. Watching his determination inspired the story of Little Moe.

What was the most difficult part of writing the book?

Keeping the book short and appropriate for young readers was a challenge. I wanted to describe all the splendors of Michigan’s seasons and natural landscapes. Still, my editors and critiques convinced me that the audience would get all that from the pictures and that finding the right illustrator was key.

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

Moe’s story is a tale of perseverance. Everyone’s life is as unique as they are, the key is never to give up or stop trying. 

What are your marketing plans for the book and where can we find it?

I am doing a Goodreads giveaway, and I have both BookLife and Kirkus reviews planned. I am going to try using Amazon ads as well.

What's next for you?

Moe’s Story is my 10th book, so having hit that target in my writing journey, I want to focus on another genre and audience: a fantasy middle-grade book.

More about the book . . .

Little Moe is a gosling who cannot master the art of flying. With winter approaching, Little Moe is worried he won’t fly to the warmer southern shores before all the flocks are gone. His mother stays with him, encouraging him to keep trying to fly. With fall and frost on the ground, it seems an impossible task. Moe realizes that it’s up to him and he never stops trying until he finally soars up into the sky in flight.

Publisher: Self-Published

More about the author . . .

Pria Dee is an Indian American author who lives in Michigan. She has published several children’s books based on her own experiences and observations. Her love of animals and children is the focus of many of her books. Learn more about Pria at:



Friday, April 12, 2024

Writer Spotlight: Lynne Rae Perkins

"The Boney Dump," the Newbery, imovie, "twigs and bark," and Shardfest: author/illustrator Lynne Rae Perkins

Charlie Barshaw coordinates our regular Writer Spotlight feature and interviews writers of SCBWI-MI. In this piece, meet award-winning author/illustrator Lynne Rae Perkins

You grew up in Pennsylvania, in a mythic childhood of fields and woods and "the Boney Dump,” tons of same-age kids, and a curfew of when the streetlights came on. How much did that carefree childhood figure into the writer you’ve grown into?

There was a lot of freedom in our childhoods, alongside some pretty firm expectations at home. There was a lot of room for daydreaming, a lot of making our own fun. A lot of sitting on the curb popping tar bubbles with our toes. We had good neighbors; funny, kind people.

There was somehow freedom and being sheltered at the same time, which sounds good except that adolescence really threw me for a loop. I think the writer I am was formed by that mythic but circumscribed childhood running up against growing up and encountering the rest of the world. That’s not unusual, though – we all have to find our own way through it.

You tell the story of meeting Ava Weiss, art director at Greenwillow Books. You were looking to illustrate, but she sensed you had a writing soul that shone from within your art, that stories lurked there untold. She asked if you could put words to your pictures. And you did, resulting in your first picture book Home Lovely. How much did your fortunate teaming with Ava Weiss and Greenwillow Press affect how and what you produced?

Actually, I only thought (at the time) that Ava Weiss saw the writer in me. She told me later that she always asked artists if they also wrote. But thinking she saw that in me made me think it might in fact be in there. When Greenwillow Books wanted the story I sent, I thought, maybe this is something I can do.

I think the best gift, aside from that first connection, has been that Greenwillow has always wanted to see what I’m working on. They have been open to and patient with my ideas, which are sometimes vague and patchy and hypothetical at first. It has made a huge difference to me to know that someone will look at what I am doing.

What motivated you to go from the picture book Clouds for Dinner, to the middle grade novel, All Alone in the Universe? Writing is writing, but how do you think differently when approaching a picture book versus a novel?

I studied printmaking in undergrad and grad school. I had made a series of etchings, collaborating with a printmaker friend in California, and was getting started on another suite. These etchings were visual, of course, but there was writing on them, too. 

As I remember it, I started writing All Alone in the Universe because I was trying to figure out one of the etchings, what it was about. Then I kept writing. Then I found myself in the middle of a bunch of writing and thought, how do I get out of this?

It often happens that way for me – I think I’m going to make something short and simple and then it gets more complicated, which means it’s a novel.

In terms of writing picture books vs. novels, I think you just think about who you’re talking to. But I think kids are capable of handling some complex ideas, if someone helps them along. I always think of my picture books as being read by a child and an adult together.

How did you come to terms with winning the Newbery, the Holy Grail of children’s book writers? Did it affect your writing life? Your author life?

I confess that when Criss Cross received the Newbery, I didn’t completely grasp what a big deal it was. It did feel like a huge affirmation, and I was of course very, very happy about it, but all of the experiences were so new for me – I’m not sure how well I handled it. I could have used a coach to accompany me everywhere. 

There were some super lovely parts, like when Wild Rumpus Bookstore in Minneapolis had someone perform Hector’s songs. And there were some humbling moments, like when I arrived at our local art museum for a reception after a tour, planning on “winging it,” and learned that winging it isn’t something that I personally should count on being able to do. I was more or less speechless.

Perkins' body of work
(so far)

The Newbery did give me the confidence, for quite a long time, that my ideas were good ideas. I think it surprised me to find that for some people, a Newbery book is supposed to be for everyone. And my book wasn’t for everyone. Though I re-read it not too long ago and found that I like it pretty well.

You describe somewhere a car ride as a way to view experience. You’re in a car, you don’t like the music you’re listening to. Now, you’re in the car behind, with better music, maybe more room in the backseat, maybe a better vibe in the car. You see the same things out the window, but you have different reactions to them. Is that virtual-mood-shift-car-ride the secret to your ability to inhabit the minds of different characters?

It’s so interesting to me that ten people can be in one place and there will be ten different experiences of what’s going on. I’m always grateful when someone – a writer, a poet, a friend, a stranger – gives me an insight into a way of experiencing something that has never occurred to me.

Though not too many different ones at once – I get overwhelmed.

Your books and blogs and extra-curricular add-ons abound with creative mind-stretching ways to explore the world around us. Were you ever a teacher? Or do you just love playing?

I think I just like making stuff. One of my favorite books as a child was the Alcoa Aluminum Foil Company’s Book of Decorations (that you could make with a billion rolls of aluminum foil, of course). When our kids were little, we had crafts afternoons with friends. I was always at the table long after the kids had moved on to other games.

How have you evolved as an artist over your years of creating books? Which medium(s) do you prefer to use lately?

I think I’m getting better at it. Maybe. At times.

 I use watercolor more than anything else.

You wrote and illustrated your own books for many years before you got a chance to illustrate for another author. How different is your approach to illustrating when it’s not your words? How many books have you solely illustrated?

I’ve only illustrated one picture book and two novels by other authors. It thrills me when I can make a piece of art that I hope speaks to the spirit of the book, and to the author. But I am always guessing a little bit, in a way I am not with my own books. I think that’s not a bad thing – it’s like how we are guessing a little bit when we have a conversation with someone.

Do you dabble in art “not on the page”? Sculpture, macrame, dioramas, found objects? What kind of art have you NOT produced that you’re still looking forward to tackling?

mouse pastry
Actually, I just finished making some videos for some schools that are reading Nuts to You, and having Young Authors events. I’m having fun figuring out how to do it (iMovie), with little bits of animation, and various tripods, etc.

I also like “stunt food” – rice cubes, checkerboard cakes, cookies that look like mice. Stuff like that.

In Violet and Jobie in the Wild, you give your mice characters human emotions. You’ve featured many furry creatures in your work.  How do you maintain your sense of childlike curiosity and wonder in this jaded world?

Doesn’t everyone give their mice characters human emotions? To be honest, I never expected to make stories about furry creatures, they kind of snuck up on me.

In a way, I think that having animals as characters does something that setting your story in another time period also does – it gives the reader a certain distance from the story, in a good way – it lets the reader look at emotions that might feel too strong if they were set right in our own lives.

Your husband Bill is a craftsman who builds furniture from “twigs and bark.” That description downplays his talent, in that his work has been displayed at the Smithsonian. Is Bill Perkins the reason we’ve got you in Michigan? You said he introduced you to the concept of self-employment. You both seem to embrace the challenge of having yourself as your boss.

Yes, Bill is the reason I am here! And self-employment, as we all know, has its challenges, of course. But I think that by now we are too addicted to doing whatever we want to work for anyone else.

Ed Spicer provided this clipping

In an interview with the Horn Book you describe a morning routine where Bill brings you a thermos of coffee, and you daydream in your room before heading for work in your studio. This state between dreams and reality seems to be your comfort zone. How do you find the right balance between visions and reality?

I might have exaggerated the daydreaming part in that Horn Book piece. I do give myself time to wake up, but then I usually read a couple of poems, write in my notebook, or write a postcard to a friend. More than daydreaming or visions, it’s a time where I let thoughts float in and out of my head, and sometimes write them down. Processing what happened the day before, stuff like that. 

I’m at my most clear-headed and (maybe) generous first thing in the morning. Writing things down helps me think in a straight (sort of) line. And sometimes insights or ideas reveal themselves.

Ed Spicer told me about Shardfest and even supplied a few of his personal photos. Tell us about Shardfest (not to be confused with a music festival in the U.K.)

We built our house on a very uneven, lumpy, hilly lot. (But we got a good price on it!) We needed tall retaining walls to have a driveway, but they turned out to be ugly (brutalist?) concrete retaining walls. 

Shardfest wall, photo from Lynne

Several of our artist friends decided that we needed to spiff them up. They were clay artists, so they brought their broken pieces, aka shards. For about 12 years, we have spent the Monday after the Suttons Bay Art Fair adding to the mosaic. The rule is, if you put it on the wall, you have to grout it.

It's always a really fun day. It’s like parallel play – we each pick our own little project for the day and putter away. Everyone is welcome, all ages. For me, it’s also an exercise in letting go of control – people have their own ideas. Usually, the surprises are happy ones.
photo from Ed Spicer

What amazes me is that I walk between the walls every day, and I nearly always see something I’ve never noticed before.

What’s next for Lynne Rae Perkins?

I just finished an illustrated young novel about a girl who travels with her dad and her grandma to visit an old friend of the dad’s in a Central American country. She learns some Spanish words and makes a friend of her own. The theme that formed in my mind while I was making this book was that tiny friendships hold the world together.

Coincidentally (ha, ha), I have been studying Spanish for a few years now, and have traveled to Guatemala twice. (Where do you get your ideas? people ask . . .)

The book is called At Home in a Faraway Place, and is scheduled to come out next winter.

Here are a few more Shardfest photos, because art:

photo by Lynne Rae Perkins

Shardfest in action
photo by Ed Spicer

Ann Perrigo (left) with other
Shardfest artists
photo by Ed Spicer

Friday, April 5, 2024

Featured Illustrator: Darren Cools

Thank you for being our spring 2024 Featured Illustrator! Tell us about the banner you designed for The Mitten.

A long time ago I encountered a photo of some kids with great (and somewhat hilarious) expressions, eating street food under neon signs. As I was contemplating what to draw for The Mitten blog banner I suddenly remembered that photo. I tried to make something in my own style that was true to the original spirit but had a uniquely Michigan flair (pasties!).


You illustrated two picture books and a parent/teacher guide on computer science that are coming out this summer. Congratulations!  I’d love to hear a little more about that process: 

I’m excited about these books and so grateful to their author, Julie Darling, for everything! She's a librarian, published author, and a STEM, makerspace and technology educator and speaker. Be sure to check out her website and follow her on social media (@authorjuliedarling). I have wanted to be an author and illustrator since I was 9 years old, and thanks to Julie, the author and originator of the books I was so privileged to work on, my life-long dream is becoming a reality.

            The journey of making these books has been long but rewarding. Julie crafted a proposal to her publisher, and once it was accepted, grew her original concept of a single board book to two picture books and a guidebook with educational activities. It was a collaborative process between myself, Julie, and the publisher, involving many revisions and adjustments. We are very happy with the outcome!


How did you get chosen as the illustrator for this project? 

Haha, it almost feels like an accident. My friend Julie and I were talking about writing at the pool in the summer of 2022 (we are both working on YA novels), and she told me about the manuscripts she was developing for picture books about computer science concepts for early learners. I thought her ideas were wonderful, and then she said, “Wait, you are an illustrator, right?” Everything fell into place from there.


What were some things you considered while designing the characters?

We discussed Julie’s vision for her characters before I did any sketching. She wanted a distinctly female but gender-inclusive, multi-racial main character—in short, she hoped to create a character that almost everyone could see a little of themselves in. I made four initial test sketches with a variety of unique features. Then we asked for voluntary feedback from Julie’s students. After poring over dozens and dozens of comments from young people ages roughly 4–14, we brought Zuri to life! One happy result of the feedback was Zuri’s rainbow shirt, which the students liked so much we made real t-shirts available for purchase! Check them out here.


What are the differences between planning a picture book compared to planning the parent/teacher guide?

I drew a number of spot illustrations for the guidebook based on specific requests from Julie. For the picture books, the process was entirely different. Julie left it largely up to me to imagine how to visually interpret her manuscript and make it engaging. I spent a lot of time using my imagination and loose sketches to ‘fly’ through the words and concepts, almost as if I was in a video game or short film, figuring out how to move smoothly and cohesively from one idea to the next. It was highly intentional but involved trusting my intuition—and, of course, my writing group’s thoughtful feedback. Finding the right amount of letting go during the process can bring about a strange magic, where the results are somehow more than the sum of the parts.


What kind of feedback did you get? Did the author provide feedback or did it come from an art director/editor?

I shared early concept art, then thumbnails, then rough sketches, then color as each was completed, and Julie (and other friends) commented and provided feedback at every stage. It was a very personal and intimate process to bring this vision to life, and I feel Julie and I each contributed deeply to the finished product.


Was there any feedback that you disagreed with? If so, how did you reconcile your vision with theirs?

Ultimately, I felt Julie’s vision was so clear and solid that I didn’t disagree with anything strongly. We compromised on a few things here and there, but they were minor, and I believe the end result was better than if either of us had insisted on something without remaining flexible. That’s the power of true collaboration. One character that I originally drew as a boy Julie wanted reimagined as a girl. That became an opportunity for us to create a gender-neutral character, which was a big win! 


How does illustrating a picture book compare to other design/illustration work you’ve done in the past?

My professional design work (day job) is mostly pretty prescriptive—I am given a brief, like creating a map or a mailer or branding for a project, and I use design software and a multi-step creative process to get it done on tight timelines. Illustrating a picture book is a much more expansive experience. The ‘brief’ is to spend weeks and months assembling through lines on paper (or digital tablet) how the words of the manuscript make me feel and what they actually mean, then refining, correcting, altering, and redrawing from that raw, wild, intuitive space. It takes a tremendous amount of time, but I love it. It’s very seat of the pants.


What does your workday look like?

Pretty consistent, and packed! I try to get up around 6 a.m. at least a couple days per week to get some writing done before it’s time to get the kids up for school. Then it’s making breakfast, drinking lots of coffee, transporting kids to school, and sometimes a short stop by the gym before heading home to start work. I work remotely as a graphic designer leading a small creative team on the west coast, so I am usually very busy until dinnertime with my day job. After dinner, it’s hanging out with family, then depending on what writing or art project I have going on at the moment, I may work a little before bed. Weekends usually involve a bit of personal or freelance work I didn’t get to during the week, a happy hour out somewhere with my wife, and some quality family time with everyone Sunday evening.


You’re originally from the west coast. When and why did you move to Michigan?

My family and I moved from Portland, Oregon to Southeast Michigan in December 2020. We were one of those pandemic statistics. It’s too much to go into here, but the big picture is that we wanted a quieter, calmer, more values-driven environment for our kids to grow up in than what we were experiencing on the west coast. I grew up in Washington State, so Michigan still feels strange to me, but I love it. It’s a good place to have landed.


What other writing/illustration projects are you working on?

Too many! I have five picture book manuscripts in various stages of completion, one complete novel I am currently querying, two more novels in process, and several short stories I am shopping to literary magazines, as well as a few ongoing illustration efforts. If you want to see more of my work, visit my website and follow me on social media (links in my website footer).


Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

I love working with people to make beautiful, interesting things. Hopefully there will be more opportunities in the future to help bring words and ideas to life through illustration… I’ve always wanted to paint a public mural (hint, hint)!