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Illustrator Interview–Thomas Gonzalez

When Melissa at Peachtree Publishers contacted me about participating in a blog tour for Carmen Agra Deedy’s new book 14 Cows for America, I immediately said yes.  Although I was unable to interview Ms. Deedy, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing the book’s very talenting illustrator, Thomas Gonzalez.  All (two!) of my previous author interviews have taken place via email, but this one was different.  Tom GonzalezI actually had the opportunity to speak to Mr. Gonzalez by telephone!  I was a bundle of nervous anticipation, and while I’m pretty sure I didn’t get everything down that we talked about, I did my best to capture the spirit of our conversation.  Conducting this interview certainly made me regret the day I dropped out of that basic reporting class back during my freshman year of college!  😉  Seriously, though, Mr. Gonzalez couldn’t have been nicer or more accomodating to this little ol’ book blogger.  Many thanks to him and Melissa for this awesome opportunity!  And now, without further ado, a little peek into our conversation:

Hope Is the Word:  Hi!  Welcome to Hope Is the Word.  This is my first illustrator interview, and I am extremely excited about this opportunity!  First of all, tell us a little bit about yourself and your background. 

Thomas Gonzalez:  I’ve been drawing since I was a child.  Growing up in Havana, Cuba, I would visit the zoo or attend baseball games and I would always draw pictures of what I saw.  It was easier to draw pictures than it was to talk about them.  When I moved to the United States in 1970,  I did not know the language, so I drew instead.  I took a high school art class, but I just took it for an easy grade.   I wanted to go to college for advertising and design.  Ironically, I used my painting portfolio for a scholarship. 

Hope Is the Word:   Is this your first picture book, or have you illustrated others?

Thomas GonzalezNo, I’ve never illustrated a picture book before this one.  My background is in advertising.  I’ve done art directing and project design for Coke, Delta, and other companies.

Hope Is the Word:  Can you tell us a little bit about the process of illustrating a picture book in terms of how an author and an artist come together? Did you and Carmen Agra Deedy actually collaborate on the book, or was the writing process already complete before you began your work?

Thomas Gonzalez:  I left my job at Coke in 2007, and I met Carmen after this.  We were actually discussing another project when I saw the draft for 14 Cows for America.  Carmen already had another artist for the book, but that fell through, and I really wanted to opportunity to illustrate it.

Hope Is the Word:  14 Cows for America is set in Kenya.  Did you actually go to Africa to experience what you’d be illustrating first-hand?  What was this process like?

Thomas Gonzalez:  I did not go to Africa, but I did a lot of research to illustrate this book.  We talked to representatives of the Kenyan Embassy, and Carmen actually tracked Kimeli [Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah, whose story is told in the book] at Stanford.  I worked really hard to understand the Masai mentality.  My wife and I watched a lot of movies about the Masai. 

Hope Is the Word:  What art mediums did you use for this book?

Thomas Gonzalez:  I used a little bit of everything for this book, so it’s really a mixed media presentation.  The illustration process went like this:  I did pencil sketches to achieve a frame of reference so that everything would be very precise and the relationship between the objects would be correct.  After the line drawings came pastel drawings, in which I worked in the shapes and shadows.  After this process, I used colored pencils, then airbrush, and finally, ink.

Hope Is the Word:  I usually ask authors I interview about their favorite children’s authors.  However, since you’re an artist, I’ll ask you about your favorite artist and/or your favorite children’s book illustrator.  Who inspires you?

Thomas Gonzalez:  I really don’t have a favorite illustrator.  Instead, I have favorite ideas or concepts.  I am inspired by Maxfield Parrish, an artist and illustrator from the turn of the century.  When you die, his illustrations are the place you’d want to go.  He did some children’s books, stories. 

Hope Is the Word:  Can you offer any advice to any young person out there who is interested in pursuing a career in art or illustration?

Thomas Gonzalez:  It’s not technique, it’s idea.  The best program you learn is your head.  Everything starts with a sketch, so what’s in your head is way more important than learning a program.  For example, I’ve heard that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were first created on a napkin in a restaurant.


As Mr. Gonzalez and I chatted at the end of the interview, I asked him if there was anything about the book he wanted to share with my readers.  He related this about the ending of the book, which is the stunning portrait of  half of a boy’s face with a reflection of the Twin Towers in his eye:  “No one could come up with a way to end the book, but I  had done the sketch that they used as the ending first.”

  He also said that he incorporated symbols of the Twin Towers throughout the book.  For example, on one page which details the Masai tribe coming together under an acacia tree to hear the story of September 11, the illustration shows the acacia tree blurring into a brush of color–fire orange, smoky grey, etc.–all the colors we might associate with that terrible day.  In the book, there is a woman (a part of the Masai crowd) on the far right hand side of the page, but Mr. Gonzalez said that originally there was an illustration of the Twin Towers there, connected by the smoke and fire to the acacia tree.  He went on to point out that on many of the pages, on the right hand side of the two-page spread, there are two obvious objects sticking up (usually two sticks).  These objects represent the Twin Towers.  I told him it is sort of like Where’s Waldo?  😉

There you have it folks–my first live interview with a real, live artist!  I am excited beyond words!  I am really amazed at the creativity and talent involved in something that seems so simple–a child’s picture book.  Once again, I am truly honored that I had this opportunity.

Don’t forget to come back tomorrow to read my review of 14 Cows for America to learn how you can win a copy of this awesome book!

Oh, and one more thing–if you’re interested in hearing Tom Gonzalez talk about the book for yourself, as well as seeing some of his artwork, here’s a little YouTube video clip (hat-tip to Natasha at Maw Books Blog  for this!).  You can even see the illustration with the fire and smoke beginning at 2:24 that I mentioned above.  It’s really interesting to see the sketch that Mr. Gonzalez began with beside the final illustration that is in the book.  The clip is a little slow (it has to reload or something every few seconds), but it is most definitely worth it!  This, and a wealth of other information about this amazing story, is also available at 14 Cows for America.

Hallie Durand Interview

Hallie DurandAs I mentioned earlier this week, I was privileged to interview via email the author of the new Dessert series (my  review of Dessert First here).  Ever since I hosted my first author interview here at Hope Is the Word, I have itched for the opportunity to do it again.  This was the perfect chance for me to communicate with a real, live author and pick her brain a little bit.  Care to listen in?

Hi, Ms. Durand, and welcome to Hope Is the Word. I am extremely honored and excited to host this interview! I was excited to get to read Dessert First before it is even available for purchase, and I really enjoyed it.

I am interested in how you got started as a writer. Have you always been interested in writing? How did Dessert First come to be?

I’m a very big lover of children’s books, but I never really tried to do it myself. What happened was that Dessert came knocking and I started typing. She took over my life!

See, I have a very dear friend with whom I’ve been sharing dessert for almost two decades. For the first decade, whenever the dessert would arrive, I would turn the plate a little to the left or right so that the best part of the dessert “happened” to be staring me in the face . . . you can guess what part is the best—the back side of the cake with all the frosting, the outside of the pie with the most crust—I could go on and on! But then one evening, in a booth at a cozy restaurant, I gently turned the cake like I always did and my friend said loudly, “WHY DO YOU ALWAYS TAKE THE BEST PART OF THE DESSERT?” And I said much more quietly, “Because I thought I was getting away with it.” And that was the beginning of a friendship for life–because we’d told each other how it is, which takes a lot of courage.

Then a couple of years ago, I shared a slice of iced lemon cake with this dear friend, and while we were eating it we started to talk about writing, and she encouraged me to try my hand at writing a story. I said I would, but I didn’t really mean it. Then, to my absolute surprise, as I was walking home that night, just a few hours later, the idea of a girl named Dessert came to me, and I knew immediately that she signed her name with a maraschino at the end. She was right there in my mind, clear as day, demanding my attention. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before and so I began typing that night—I was very much in a hurry to get her story down because I was afraid she might leave as quickly as she came.

I think it’s fair to say that Dessert is a little bit like me (and I’m not always especially proud of that!). But that’s the truth. She’s a little sneaky, she usually gets caught, and, she grows up a little more every time she has to say she’s sorry. Dessert First sprang from delicious food and real friendship, two things that are very important to me.

What is a typical writing day like for you?

I don’t have any typical writing days, but I do carry pen and paper wherever I go, in case I hear something funny or something that has special meaning to me. But most of the real writing happens after a day at Pippin Properties (my regular non-writing name is Holly McGhee and I opened a children’s literary agency named Pippin Properties eleven years ago), after I tuck my kids in, and after my husband and I catch up on our day. Then I sit on the couch with my laptop and see what happens.

If I’m on a roll or if there is a deadline looming, I go away—all by myself, with a suitcase full of food and my laptop.

One thing I liked about Dessert First was the idea of the “food family” and the emphasis on recipes, cooking, and baking—I love to cook and bake, too. Is this something that you’re interested in personally, or were you inspired by someone else?

When I’m not writing I head straight into the kitchen. I love food, I can cook all day long—I even like slicing vegetables. I always feel best when my cupboards are full and the house smells like Thanksgiving dinner.

I was also a big 4-Her, and one of my proudest accomplishments was winning the title of New York State 4-H Bread Champion as a teenager (I got to go on a bus trip to Chicago!). Then in my freshman year of college, I was late getting to the sign-up for the work-study program, and the only job left was a shift from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. in the bakery—but I had to do it because I needed the money. As it turns out, I got to work with this fantastic baker named George and I absolutely loved sticking my whole hand in the bucket of icing and “drizzling” the huge trays of turnovers.

These days, I have a French friend, Christine Snell, who’s like a sister to me. She and her husband own a French Bistro in Brooklyn, and she gave me a big red fondue pot for Christmas a month before Dessert interrupted my life. The restaurant in my book, Fondue Paris, was born of that friendship.

Dessert’s teacher, Mrs. Howdy Doody, is an interesting character. Tell us a little bit about her.

Mrs. Howdy Doody came to me as soon as I started writing Dessert First. She walked around in slippers and was a bit of an outsider, someone who didn’t worry about what anybody else thought. And now I can see that I was inspired by Mrs. Normana Schaaf, who teaches the two year olds at Morrow Memorial Preschool. It’s a coop school, at which parents are helpers on a regular basis. I’m not somebody who fits into groups very well and I’m not an ideal “helping parent” either, but Mrs. Schaaf said to me when she met me, “You can do nothing wrong and your children can do nothing wrong.” That’s one of the many reasons why I love her. She marches to her own drummer, whether she is wearing her pajamas to school, or trying to teach two year olds how to make apple crisp.

The children in Dessert’s family have interesting names. Tell us a little bit about how this came about.

Let’s see. Charlie, the four year old, just came to me as Charlie. As for Wolfgang—originally I had the parents name him after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but I took that out a long time ago—the name Wolfie stuck, though. And Mushy—we used to call our son Mushy when he was a baby. So far in the Dessert books, I’ve only called him Mushy, but I may reveal his full name one of these days!

Are there more Dessert books in the works?

I have completed the second book, Just Desserts. In it, Charlie comes into her own, much to Dessert’s dismay, and we get to know Sharon S., Billy and Donnie B., Bonnie A., Evan C., Pat D., and Emily V. much more . . .

Do you write in other genres?

I do have a picture book coming out from Candlewick Press. It’s about a three year old who won’t go to bed till his father says he can drive there. It’s tentatively called Mitchell’s License and will be illustrated by Tony Fucile, whose first book Let’s Do Nothing is coming out now. I love working with Tony!

Who are some of your favorite authors, particularly children’s authors?

My very favorite author is William Steig, because he always told the truth.

Growing up I loved Madeline, Mary Poppins, The Wizard of Oz, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory more than any other books.

Lastly, do you have any hobbies?

I love grocery shopping with my dad.

ISBN9781416963851In my world, food and books are pretty important, so I think Hallie Durand has created a winning combination.   Be sure to check out her inaugural story, Dessert First.  I’m giving away three copies of an ARC of Dessert First here at Hope Is the Word.  The giveaway ends at midnight on Sunday, May 24.  See this post for details!

Kirby Larson Interview

Hattie Big Sky


Just this month I had the distinct honor of interviewing Kirby Larson, author of Hattie Big Sky and Two Bobbies:  A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship and Survival, as well as some other fiction and picture books.  If you haven’t read Hattie Big Sky, be sure to at least read my review so that the interview will make a little more sense.  And by all means, after you enjoy this interview, be sure to find a copy of Hattie and read it!

Now, without further ado, the Hope Is the Word interview of Kirby Larson:

Hope Is the Word:  Hi, Ms. Larson, and welcome to Hope Is the Word.  Let me just say that I am extremely honored and excited to host this interview!  I have never interviewed an author before, and I am especially excited to interview an author whose book, Hattie Big Sky, was one of my favorite reads last year.

I am interested in how you got started as a writer.  I read in another interview that you first began writing essays for an adult audience, but you eventually began writing children’s books.  Can you share with my readers your journey as a writer?

Kirby Larson:  I have always been a reader and I think that led me to try my hand at writing. My first short story sales were to adult markets but the main characters were generally children. It wasn’t until my children were small and I read them Arnold Lobel’s MING LO MOVES THE MOUNTAIN that everything jelled for me. As soon as we finished that book, I wanted to write a story that would touch other families the way this one had touched mine.

Hope Is the Word:  What is a typical writing day like for you?

Kirby Larson:  If I’m home, I generally start off the day by doing the NY Times crossword puzzle (I feel so smart on Mondays, the easiest day!) and then make a latte and head upstairs to my study. I’m working on two things right now: final edits for a second book with my friend, Mary Nethery and another historical novel. I work at my desk all day, but that includes answering the phone and answering emails and that sort of thing. Lately, I’ve been taking my laptop to a local coffee shop to write, just for a change of pace. (I stole that idea from my good friend and critique group member, Dave Patneaude.)

Hope Is the Word:  One thing I really like about Hattie Big Sky is how many disparate parts are brought together into the one story, much like they are in real life.  For example, we have the element of Hattie being a homesteader and all the hard work she does; the element of the German immigrants and their ill treatment; and the hint of romance between Charlie and the possibility of romance between Hattie and Traft Martin.  Of course, then, there is the overarching idea of family that is developed, as well.  How did you come up with all of these very different ideas to incorporate into one novel?

Kirby Larson:  Wow, to hear you describe it, it actually sounds like I knew what I was doing! Here’s the truth: I didn’t start out thinking I’d write a book. I started doing this research because I was fascinated that my great-grandmother had homesteaded by herself as a young woman. Our family didn’t really know her story, so that led me to read about other homesteaders in the 1915-1920 time period. It seemed like I had enough information to write a story so I thought about writing a homestead story older readers, kind of an older Little House on the Prairie. Then I did more research and learned about the anti-German sentiment. I knew I couldn’t write a book honestly without tapping on that. Basically, all of the elements you brought up grew out of trying to tell this story in as truthful a way as possible. People are complicated, as well you know, so that made the story more complicated. I’m just so thankful I didn’t have any idea about all the things I’d have to deal with when I started out; I might never have written the story, if I had!

Hope Is the Word:  One thing I admired about your writing when I re-read Hattie Big Sky just last week is the great economy you practice with your words.   As a writer, do you have any advice as to how to hone this skill?  I’m thinking particularly of how Hattie is able to distill her experience into a sentence or two in her “Honyocker Homilies” and her letter to Uncle Holt and Charlie.

Kirby Larson:  Thank you for this lovely compliment; as someone who tends to overwrite, I will really cherish this observation. When you look at the pages of Hattie Big Sky, you do see my words but what you don’t see is how they were shaped by so many wonderful people: my critique group here in Seattle (Bonny Becker, Kathryn Galbraith, Sylvie Hossack, and Dave Patneaude;) by my Write Sisters (Tricia Gardella, Helen Ketteman, Mary Nethery, Ann Whitford Paul, Dian Curtis Regan, and Vivian Sathre); and by my amazing editor, Michelle Poploff. All of these people read the manuscript, poking and prodding at it — and at me! — until it was the best it could be. (Though, honestly, if given the chance,  there is still some tweaking I’d like to do!)

Hope Is the Word:  How do you pronounce ‘honyocker’?

Kirby Larson:  I say, “hawny-awker”.

Hope Is the Word:  I know that Hattie is modeled after your own great grandmother, right?  Can you elaborate on how much of what happens in the novel is actually based on your great-grandmother’s life?  Hattie seems so mature for her sixteen years; was your great-grandmother this young when she became a homesteader?

Kirby Larson:  As I mentioned above, aside from learning that my great-grandmother did indeed homestead by herself in eastern Montana, I knew very little about her actual story. I was able to send to the National Archives and confirm that she had filed a claim near Vida, and that she did prove up. She was about 20 at the time. Because this was so intriguing to me, I began to read other homesteaders’ diaries and journals and was completely caught up in the stories I read. As to Hattie’s age in the story, a 16-year-old then had a lot more responsibility than a 16-year-old now. I read stories about 8-year-olds being left to run farms for days, while their parents went to town. So I felt comfortable making Hattie 16.

Hope Is the Word:  What process did you use for researching this historical novel?

Kirby Larson:  The research process was messy and circular and included going to Montana three times, digging around in assorted archives (including the Montana State Historical Museum) and reading everything I could get my hands on. This process has taught me to search out the bits of treasure in bibliographies; it also taught me how important primary resources (that is, letters or diaries themselves) are.

Hope Is the Word:  How is the process for writing a novel different than the process for writing, say, a picture book?

Kirby Larson:  Well, Hattie certainly required more research, but I think picture books are actually harder to write than novels. It took me four years to research and write Hattie Big Sky but it took me ten years to write my picture book, The Magic Kerchief! I spent more time plotting Hattie, however, than I generally do for a picture book.

Hope Is the Word:  Your descriptions of Montana really make it sound like you’ve spent time there.  Have you?

Kirby Larson:  I took three research trips there, once traveling by train; spending about a month in all there. I will confess that my trips were in spring and summer seasons; I never braved winter there!

Hope Is the Word: Hattie Big Sky would make a terrific movie.  Are there any hopes of this?

Kirby Larson:  One can always hope, right?! If this happens, I will be sure to let the whole world know.

Hope Is the Word:  Lastly, do you have any hobbies?

Kirby Larson:  Well, before writing became all-consuming, I was a quilter, like Hattie and Perilee. I don’t do that anymore, but I do knit, garden and watch the birds in my backyard. I also take lots of walks, do yoga and talk my husband into taking me out to dinner as often as possible.

Hope Is the Word:  Thank you so much for taking the time to share a little bit about your life and your writing!

Kirby Larson:  Thank you! Your questions were thoughtful and thought-provoking; I enjoyed our time together very much.

Sigh.  This is seriously one of the highlights of my life so far.  I loved this book so much, and to think, now I’ve actually corresponded with the author!  Thanks to Provato Marketing for the opportunity to participate in their winter blog tour.  You can also check out Kirby Larson’s website here.

It’s going to be hard to go back to regular life now.  ; )