Nest, Nook and Cranny

I love being able to talk about friends’ new books. But what are the odds I’d be able to brag on ONE book written by TWO of my friends! I “met” Jamie Hogan when she was a student of mine in the Institute of Children’s Literature course and I met Suz while teaching together at the Pacific Northwest Children’s Literature conference (affectionately known as “Haystack” though it’s no longer held at Cannon Beach, Oregon, near Haystack Rock). Both are talented, lovely women who have yet to meet each other, due to the fact that Jamie lives in Maine and Suz in Oregon.
Suz BlackabyJamie Hogan
That physical distance did not hamper their smashing collaboration in a brand new book of poetry, Nest, Nook and Cranny (Charlesbridge) which is available at your local favorite indie bookstore.

Jamie and Suz agreed to chat with me about themselves, their creative processes and their new book. So take it away, gals!

Were you a flashlight-under-the covers or a run-and-play-and-collect-bugs kind of kid?

Jamie: I was a run-and-play kid. Growing up at my parents’ motel in NH, I did a lot of imaginary play off the diving board, in the secret moss forest behind the shuffle board, or climbing mountainous snowbanks in the parking lot. I also drew a lot, and would cover every paper placemat at any restaurant with ridiculous doodles. I loved Go, Dog, Go! and anything by Dr. Suess, and The Wind in the Willows. My grandfather gave me Anne of Green Gables and I drew all the characters in that book.

Suz: On a continuum from bookworms to actual worms, I am closer to the bookworm end of the scale. I had a lot of responsibilities as a single mother to a playhouse full of dolls, but I belonged to a family of readers, and bike rides to the children’s library were part of my weekly routine.

What was the nudge/spark that set you in front of that blank paper to write for children? Or: in front of that blank canvas to illustrate children’s books?
Jamie: I thought I wanted to be a fashion designer until I visited Rhode Island School of Design and saw the sewing machines in the apparel department. Not being a great seamstress (too much drama in home ec) I decided to pursue illustration there instead. One of my professors was Chris Van Allsburg. I was in awe of his work, and his visual storytelling ability.

My career began in 1980 with editorial work published in the Boston Globe. I also illustrated book jackets, packages, magazine covers, billboards, and annual reports. Not until I had my own child and began to read tons of children’s books out loud, did I realize I wanted to illustrate for children. By then, I had moved to Peaks Island and met several picture book illustrators, such as Kevin Hawkes, Scott Nash, and Anne Sibley O’Brien. I fell in love with Barbara Cooney’s books, especially Miss Rumphius. I took a Picture Book workshop at the local art school and created a dummy book. Then I began a writing course with the Institute for Children’s Literature. I began teaching illustration and working on ideas for books, while also illustrating other books, like Rickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins. She is a major influence: a fantastic writer and wonderfully engaged speaker.

Suz: I started out by writing school materials for kids as part of my job. Within the strict guidelines imposed by educational publishing, quirkiness is seldom tolerated, so it was only a matter of time before I ventured outside that box.

Who are the writers/illustrators you read to be inspired?

Jamie: I’m a big fan of Melissa Sweet’s books and also Calef Brown, both Maine author/illustrators that inspire me. I confess I am always drawn by the illustrations first. I consider good illustration to be a visual bait for the story, the thing that catches your eye and compels you to read.

Suz: So many! but in particular: Petra Mathers, Ruth Krauss, A.A. Milne, Arnold Lobel, Jane Kenyon.

Do you have any special writing talismans/tokens in your writing/drawing space? If so, what are they?

Jamie: I have a TON of stuff in my studio. Books, objects, piles of things everywhere. I wouldn’t call them talismans, really, but reminders that I need to always be observant and curious about the world. I am a looker and “thingfinder” (like Pippi), so this collection of souvenir cameras and shells from the beach is on a mantle in my studio.
Thingfinder cabinet

Suz: I inherited the world’s most amazing writing desk from my aunt, and it has plenty of shelves and cubbyholes where I can keep the tschotkes I’ve collected and kept since I was a little kid.
One totally cool desk

I love the title concept explored by Carolyn See in her Making A Literary Life: What do you do that helps you sustain and nourish your creative life?

Jamie: Many things sustain my creative life: my daughter is my number one inspiration. She keeps me in the moment. My husband is also a creator, and we bounce ideas around all the time. Living in a beautiful place like Peaks Island grounds me more than I can say. It is a rocky and rural place: the tide comes and goes, but the community is amazing. It helps that it is not too far out to sea. Portland Maine is a great city for art. I am stimulated by seeing other artists’ work in a gallery or at the excellent Portland Museum of Art. My students at Maine College of Art keep me on my toes, too. Essentially, I can find inspiration just about everywhere in my world, from the urchin shell found at the beach to the dreams my daughter recounts over French toast. It’s all good!

Suz: Wit-gathering in my garden.
Suz’ Garden Hut

What’s the worst writing/illustrating advice you ever received?
Jamie: Back when I was just starting out, I showed my portfolio to a big deal art director at a large ad agency in Boston. Among my school projects, I had one published piece at that point in the portfolio, which made me proud. He asked me how much I got paid for it and snorted when I told him. He said I’d never make a living and my parents had wasted their money on art school. He seemed to relish diminishing me. I left there with more resolve than ever to keep at it. Being a successful illustrator is about way more than money. It’s a creative life without limits.

Suz: “When an editor calls you to tell you that he or she wants to buy your manuscript, hang up. That way, when you call back, you will be in a position of power.” I never followed this advice, mind you. For one thing, I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with this power if I had it….

What was the scariest thing you’ve done as an artist?

Jamie: The scariest thing I’ve done as an artist is teach illustration. It’s an immensely broad field, always changing, and it’s not easy getting up in front of a class full of students who know-it-all.

Suz: Maybe not the scariest, but certainly the most memorably nerve-wracking was my first meeting with the managing editor at Houghton Mifflin in Boston on the hottest day of the year—lost, late, drenched, disheveled, flustered, frazzled, the very picture of a pathetic wreck in a wrinkled linen outfit.

What are you proudest of in your work?

Jamie: I’m proud of my ability to draw from both life and imagination.

Suz: The fact that it gets done at all is huge, really. That sounds flip. It ain’t.

How do you know when you have a story/set of illustrations just right?
Jamie: I can tell when an illustration is just right when it simply looks good to me. It’s a mysterious moment, but often comes after plenty of sketching, revising, and refining.

Suz: I’m not sure you know when you have a story just right, but I think you definitely know when you don’t; sooner or later you’re ready to admit it and get back down to beeswax.

How long was it between “I’ve got an idea” to “We’d like to publish your book”? And what happened in between those moments?

Jamie: This sorta doesn’t apply to me, as my book assignments come from the publisher. As for my own self-published book (Seven Days of Daisy) there was a span of 7 years between the dummy I did in the picture book workshop, submitting it to 10 publishers, getting 10 rejections, sticking it in a drawer while taking the ICL course, teaching, and finally deciding to self-publish it.

Suz: YEARS!! And in between, I wrote about 125 early readers, give or take. And kept on noodling along. And raised a daughter.

What, if anything, in the writer’s/illustrator’s life has caught you by surprise?

Jamie: The perpetual surprise about the illustrator’s life is always what the next project will be.

Suz: I think the generous and jolly spirit of the creative community is one of the best parts of the writing life. People in the field of children’s literature make the jazziest colleagues, and hobnobbing with them is larky x 10.

A series of questions about work habits:

  • Coffee or tea?
  • Jamie: coffee! I love coffee. My studio walls are painted a lovely coffee color
  • Suz: Strong, milky black tea
  • Quiet office or music going?
  • Jamie: quiet studio most of the time….loud funky dance music under sheer deadline pressure
  • Suz: Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suites
  • Desk: messy or tidy?
  • Jamie: messy drawing table!!!
  • Suz: I imagine and aspire to pristine tidiness, but I am really, REALLY messy.
  • Essential writing snack food:
  • Jamie: Today, Girl Scout cookies (peanut butter patties)
  • Suz: Cheezits

About your lovely new book:

Suz — What was the trigger to write about this particular topic, different animals’ habitats?

I wrote an early version of the hermit crab poem at a Haystack workshop with Ann Whitford Paul, and the notion of “home poems” began to take shape. Several hundred napkins, torn envelopes, magazine inserts, and post-it notes later, voila!

And why on earth did you give yourself the major challenge of writing nearly each poem in a completely different style?

Forms give you clever, complicated, and satisfying ways to explore language and to inject variety into what otherwise might become ho-hum, ho-hum poem after poem.
How long did you work on this collection of poems? What was the creating process like? What kind of research did you do? What was the revising process like?

I worked on the collection for a couple of years before I started sending it out. Along the way, I expanded and reorganized and revised again and again, refining each poem and rethinking the presentation. My research was pretty thorough, but the Charlesbridge fact checker found a gap in my knowledge of beaver dams. I had to pick apart the villanelle, correct the inaccuracies, and put it back together again—ay yi yi!
Was it the teacher in you that inspired the informative and lively endnotes?
After 30 years of writing teacher’s guides, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to expand the marketability of the book and tap into my professional expertise. My insightful and invaluable editor, Emily Mitchell, kept adding pages, and I kept adding notes.
Tell us about the thank you to Mrs. Nichols, mentioned at the end of the book.
Mrs. Nichols—now Ann Gagnon—let me spend most of third grade writing poems, and she has been my poetic muse ever since. Acknowledging her inspiration at last has been immeasurably gratifying, and reconnecting with her after nearly 50 years has been pure joy.

Tell us anything else you want to about this book.
I’m so glad that my manuscript found its way to Jamie Hogan’s drawing table. The elegant illustrations are happily accessible to the kids who will read this book, and the cover is exquisite.

Now, to Jamie:
What is it that makes you say “yes” to illustrating a manuscript in general? What made you say yes to this one in particular?
I leapt at the chance to work with Charlesbridge again. Love Susan Sherman, the art director. She lets me do my thing and in this case, it was AWESOME to illustrate poetry, and especially poems about animals and habitats. I’m all about habitat, which is probably why I live on a small island that is home to birds, deer, mice, anemomes, so many critters from Susan’s poems!

Talk about the choice to use pastel and charcoal pencil, please. I have to confess the stunning cover made me long for some color inside, as well!
I use charcoal pencil for my b/w illustrations because it is high contrast and also textural, when drawn on a toothy paper. I would have loved to do the whole thing in color, but the publisher determined that a color cover and b/w interior was in order. Not my choice.

What is your “first
draft” process like? Talk about research, too, please.

My first drafts are in pencil, kinda smudgy. I have a large clipping file of references that I’ve cultivated over the decades I’ve been illustrating. I also find reference online. I visit the island library, where the intrepid librarians always find great books for me. But as much as possible, I like to document my environment. I carry a camera everywhere.

Some of the illustrations – the honey bee comb and the tree trunk on page 28, for example – have life-like texture, as if you did a “bark-rubbing,” if you will. Can you tell us a bit about that process?
The honeycomb texture on page 32 was created by first drawing a honeycomb pattern, then scanning and inverting it in photoshop (white line on black) and printing out 3 copies, and tearing the edges. I wanted to create that layered, papery quality that hives have. I have a strong collage aesthetic that I will work into an illustration when I can. The tree trunk pattern on the Woodland spread is a pattern of cracked earth that looked like bark. I combined cut paper and collage patterns in several illustrations in the book. For instance, the grass on the Grassland spread are shapes cut from those security patterns found inside business envelopes.

Did you do the lettering on the cover and in the section headings? It’s so lovely and evocative. Can you talk about it a bit?
I did not do the lettering on the cover. I think it is a font, but I’ll have to ask the designer! Good question!

What is the one thing you wanted to be sure to say about illustrating this book that I didn’t ask about?
I had so much fun working on this book! Right away, the wordplay tickled my fancy, and I wanted to create something visually engaging to parallel the poems. It was a great opportunity to tune in to my environment. I hope that readers will enjoy the sounds of the poems as well as the drawings and take a closer look at the habitats they share with animals.

Now, back to a final question for both of you: what is your one talent that we might not know about? (Susan Patron confessed a flair for creating flaming desserts; Barbara O’Connor is a tap dancer)

Jamie: I ride a motorcycle, which is almost like a secret because my bike hides in the barn most of the year, here in Maine.

Suz: In a former life I had a spinning and weaving studio in Palo Alto.

Thanks, you two, for spending time with us. I wish you the best with your new book!

No Responses to “Nest, Nook and Cranny”

  1. Kristine

    Nest, Nook and Cranny is such a lovely book! I will think “whiskered boat” next time I see an otter… and “tucked inside a tiny cloister/Once belonging to an oyster” when next I meet a hermit crab.

    Kristine O’Connell George