Illustrating Poems in the Attic

Posted March 31st, 2015

Poems in the AtticA picture book is not complete without the art, and I’ve been fortunate to have my books illustrated by some of the finest artists in the children’s book business.

My newest picture book, Poems in the Attic, was illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon. Recently, I asked her a few questions about this project, and why she chose it. She responded by giving me a peek into her process! Enjoy.

Q: What made you want to illustrate this book?

A: I really identified with the theme of travel during childhood! I was born in Albany, NY, but my father is from the Ivory Coast, West Africa. My family and I lived there until I was twelve years old but came back to the States almost every summer, so it seems like we were always hopping on a plane to go somewhere! I also identified with the daughter learning about her mother’s life through her childhood poems. When I was in college, I was given a box of letters written by my mother to her parents while she was in college. I discovered that my mother and I had a lot of the same thoughts and feelings about life!

Elizabeth Zunon

Elizabeth Zunon, illustrator

Q: What were your primary challenges in creating the art for Poems in the Attic?

Making sure that the mother looked like herself, slowly aging from childhood to teenage-hood to adult-hood on the last page took a lot of little tweaks. Also, keeping the two stories separate on each page was a very interesting design challenge to solve. But it was great fun! Illustrating each page was like trying to put together a puzzle.

Q: Do you find poetry easier or harder to illustrate than prose?  Why/why not?

Yes, I do find poetry a little easier to illustrate than prose. I find that my mind’s eye wanders a bit further while reading poetry, giving me more freedom when I’m making the corresponding art.

Q: What was your process for creating the art for Poems in the Attic?

I first looked at many reference photos of the places in the book, as I’d never been to most of them. ( I did go to New Mexico and visit the White Sands National Monument after finishing the book, though!) Next, I drew little thumbnail sketches (with very simple shapes) of each page to figure out the design and composition of each image. I then took photographs of myself posing as the characters in each illustration so I would have realistic reference images to work from. I drew detailed sketches for each page, then transferred my sketches to special paper and proceeded to paint the illustrations. Lastly, when all of the oil paint was dry, I added cut paper collage elements to the illustrations featuring the little girl reading her mother’s poems.

Elizabeth Zunon

Elizabeth Zunon in the midst of an illustration for Poems in the Attic, featured here with the permission of Elizabeth Zunon.

Q: What do you have coming up next?

I’m working on a book about a little girl spending time with her great-grandmother, who is very prickly and a little scary on the outside. The girl learns that great-grandmother is this way because of all of the history she has lived through as an African-American growing up in the United States. It will be published by Lerner in 2016.

At Break of Day

Posted October 23rd, 2012

At Break of DayHow do you retell a story that’s been told a thousand times? How do you make it new, and fresh? Those were the questions I asked myself when I got the idea to write a creation story. But I didn’t get to that point on my own.

I hadn’t been sitting around thinking about writing any kind of creation story. It was nowhere in my file folder of ideas. But one of my publishers asked if I could apply myself to the retelling of a story from the Old Testament. They were thinking more like David and Goliath, or Noah and the Ark, but no bells went off in my head at the thought of those well-told tales. The creation story, though, was something I believed I could sink my teeth into. In other words, it was the greater challenge, and, as I’ve said elsewhere, I love a good challenge!

I opened the Bible and reread the creation story in Genesis, making notes as I went along. Apart from Genesis, I remembered several references to the creation story throughout the New Testament, as well, most especially in Hebrews. There it says “God…in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.” In other words, the Son, Jesus, was involved in the creation. This idea is reiterated in other books of the Bible, as well.

The key, then, to telling this old story in a new way, was perspective. I decided to write this story from the points-of-view of both Father and Son.

At Break of Day

A detail from one of Paul Morin’s mixed-media paintings in At Break of Day.

My original text was more than matched by the textual, mixed-media illustrations of Paul Morin. He spoke life into each scene by creating mass, and depth. In one painting, for example, he imbedded lace in the shapes of flowers and butterflies, which he then painted over in brilliant colors. He laid pieces over a tree, as well, and used lace in the leaves to remarkable effect. This kind of texture lent great weight to the story.

At Break of Day made the CCBC Choices list, as well as the CBC Not Just for Children Anymore list. Reviewers said of the final product, “A lovely and poetic recasting of the Biblical creation story in a modern spirit…” (Kirkus) “Overall, a vigorous addition to the Creation canon.” (Booklist) “…I find myself once again prowling the children’s section, looking for magic, for lightening in a bottle. I may have found it in At Break of Day.” (Bookpage)

This title remains, to this day, one of my favorite picture books. It’s hard to choose a passage to share with you, but this one is special to me. Have you read this book already? If not, enjoy!

At Break of Day

The son could hardly wait for the fifth day to begin. At
dawn, he headed for the seashore. Then, while his father
watched, the son filled the seas with sharks and seals, starfish
and stingrays, whales and walruses, and short-finned and
long-finned creatures that glided through the clear water

The father nodded his approval. Then the son whispered,
and the word he whispered became a feather, and the
feather traveled on the warm wind of his breath.

In an instant, the whir of wings beating the air echoed
through field and forest, and scores of birds soared and
skimmed and swooped across the sky. The birds looked
left and right but could not find the place where the wind

Aneesa Lee and the Weaver’s Gift

Posted August 31st, 2012

Aneesa Lee and the Weaver's GiftI’ve been working in textiles since my late teens. First, it was sewing, then crocheting, then on to knitting. Along the way, I’ve made beaded jewelry, done peyote beading, made handmade books and journals, decorated wooden boxes, and collaged handmade cards. I continue to make cards, pads, and journals, and knit now and then. But I’ve never tried my hand at weaving, though I find this skill particularly fascinating.

One of my best friends is a consummate weaver, and I’ve had the opportunity to watch her work: hand-dying her own yarn, dressing her loom, and producing a rainbow of cloth from which she’s gone on to design jackets, vests, scarves, and more.

One thing I’ve discovered by attending to the lengthy process of weaving is that, unlike other forms of textile art, it requires a high level of mathematic acumen. (I’m no math whiz, so I troubled my friend to explain it all to me, more than once. Clearly, my decision to leave the art of weaving to someone else was a smart idea!) The more I learned about the process of weaving, the more I wanted to write about it. Aneesa Lee and the Weaver’s Gift was the result.

Nikki Grimes and Ashley Bryan

Ashley Bryan and me at a conference

Aneesa Lee is a young girl who is born into a family of weavers. She is just beginning to discover the joy of weaving for herself. Along the way, she not only develops the skills required, but also learns that the loom can be a place where she can give vent to her emotions. In so doing, she transforms even dark thoughts into brilliantly colored cloth, with intricate patterning.

One of the challenges in writing this book was figuring out a way to best describe the process of spinning yarn. Not every weaver spins, mind you, but many do. I called a friend who spins and asked if I could come by and watch her work. She obliged, and demonstrated spinning using a hand-held tool, and then sitting at a spinning wheel. It was her time on the wheel that, ultimately, gave me the poem “Aneesa at the Wheel.” The rhythm of her movements at the wheel reminded me of dance. Once I realized that, I was off and running.

Aneesa Lee

This lovely painting now hangs on my wall.

Artist Ashley Bryan brought the journey of Aneesa Lee to life, both for me, and for the readers. Who better for the job? One of the lovely paintings form the book hangs on my wall, and it always makes me smile.

Aside from “Aneesa at the Wheel,” one of my favorite poems in this book is “Sunset.”

Thoughts of Grandma make Aneesa smile.
 But sorrow’s shadow hangs there all the while.
Aneesa weaves her sad and sweet remembering. 

Through heddles, shed, and reed,
Joy and sadness blend.
The beater presses them together,
End to end.

Aneesa leaves her sorrow in the cloth
And, when her evening handiwork is done,
Glowing pin and coral from the loom,
Appears a woven square of setting sun.

I hope you’ll discover, or rediscover this book. Like most of my other titles, you’ll find a teachers guide for it on my website.