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)!


Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Book Birthday Blog with Patrick Flores-Scott



Welcome to SCBWI-MI's Book Birthday Blog!

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


Congratulations to Patrick Flores-Scott on the release of No Going Back


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

I grew up in a small town very close to a youth prison. I remember summer sleep-outs and scaring each other with stories we’d make up about kids escaping the prison and going on a rampage. Looking back, our take on these kids was pretty dehumanizing. After college I worked for a short time as a drama teacher in that same prison. And then did an author event there. I also did presentations in a psych ward in a hospital where my father-in-law worked. Through these experiences, I began to wonder about the real lives impacted by incarceration. What societal forces bring people to prisons? How does that time inside impact their lives, and the lives of their families? What happens when they get out? Inside prison, every aspect of an incarcerated person’s life is controlled. There are very few choices to make inside. And one of the primary lessons taught in prison is to not trust anyone. How does that experience translate to real life when they are released? I don’t think No Going Back answers those questions. But the process of writing the book was an exploration of those questions. There are literally, sadly, millions of real stories of prison experiences out there right now in this country. No Going Back is just one broad, fictional, allegory that I hope leads to more questions and conversations about youth incarceration.  

What was the most difficult part of writing the book? 

Originally, I tried to write the book entirely in verse. I couldn’t quite figure out how to match the tone of Antonio’s backstory with the genre-ish, ticking-clock of Antonio’s post-prison present. There were a lot of dead ends. At one point, I bailed on the verse altogether and told people I was working on a “self-help novel” in which Antonio told his story as a cautionary tale, with advice for others so they wouldn’t end up in the situation he was in. It was fun to write, but in the end, it was one of several attempts that just didn’t work. Years into it, my agent, Steven Chudney, rescued me from my lost walk in the desert, and got me to write a hundred pages of straight prose with simple backstory poems. That’s the version that ended up selling. The book was a long time in coming, but I know that there is no way I would have ended up with what I have now without all the writing twists and turns and dead ends and restarts. 

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

First off, I just hope readers can hop on and ride the roller-coaster of Antonio’s first (and last?) weekend out of prison. And for a little while after the read, I hope they walk around with the questions the book brings up about forgiveness, amends, restitution, family, justice… 

Where can we find the book? 

The book can be ordered via any indie bookstore and all the online platforms. And check out the audiobook recorded by the amazing, Ramon de Ocampo. 

(audio snippet:

What's next for you? 

I went back to college at the age of 53. I’m in my second semester at Eastern Michigan University getting my MA in creative writing. So, what’s immediately next is a lot of reading, some experimental prose writing, and a research paper in my Young Adult Literature Class. I’m also working a couple graduate assistantships with the literary journal and the writing center.
Beyond that, I’m wrestling with a near future dystopian novel, in which fascism has taken root in individual states in the U.S. Inside of one of those fascist states, a group of improv drama kids become a resistance cell when they free political prisoners from a secret detention center in their town. It’s tentatively titled, Love in the Underground.

More about the book . . . 

It’s a Friday afternoon. After a year-and-a-half in prison for setting up his friend, Gary Jr., to rob his drug-dealer dad’s boss, Antonio is being released on parole. He is ready to start life over, dedicated to the 12-step process, and yearning to make amends to his mom, Carmen, and his lifelong best friend and crush, Maya Jordan. 

Antonio’s immediate plan is to lay low for the weekend, prepare for his Monday morning meeting at school with his Counselor and parole officer, and not break any terms of his parole…Antonio must stay sober, must attend school, may not have contact with his father

The plan goes awry when Gary Jr. contacts Antonio, telling him that he buried the money right after the robbery. Now that Antonio is out, it’s time to dig it up and split it. And his chaos-agent father shows up with the warning that his boss is coming after Antonio for the money.
Over the course of the weekend, Antonio must break his terms of parole in order to fix the problems that prison could not. Will Antonio be sent back to prison?

Publisher: Christy Ottaviano Books, Little Brown Books for Young Readers/Hachette 


More about the author . . . 

Patrick is a former public school teacher from the Seattle area. His 2013 book, Jumped In, was a YALSA BFYA pick, a Bank Street Best Book, won the Washington State Book Award, and was an Amelia Walden Award Finalist. American Road Trip (2018), was a BFYA pick, a Banks Street Best Book, and made the Printz Award long list. Patrick lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wonderful family and two cute, quirky dogs.