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.

The Road to Paris

Posted October 2nd, 2012

The Road to ParisI spent several years in and out of foster care when I was a child. Little wonder, then, that foster children pop up in my poems and stories. I didn’t explore the theme in a fuller text, though, until I wrote The Road to Paris.

The Road to Paris is a novel about Paris Richmond, a young foster child who is separated from her only sibling, Malcolm, and sent to live in her next foster home, all alone. She has to come to terms with this difficult separation, and must struggle to find a place for herself in a house full of strangers. The novel explores that journey, and the strengths Paris develops along the way.

Of all the foster homes I lived in, myself, the last and best was in Ossining, NY. I chose that as the setting for much of The Road to Paris. And yes, I drew heavily from my own life experience in creating the story of Paris. There are wholesale differences, though. The number of homes Paris lived in, versus the number I lived in, is a perfect example. Before I landed in the good foster home, I had to survive half a dozen hellish ones. That was reflected in an early draft of the book. However, my editor strongly urged me to roll back that number to limit the bad experiences to one or two, and to move the story more quickly to the good home. I grumbled quite a bit, as is my want, but I eventually caved. I wouldn’t do that, today. Too much truth and authenticity was lost in the bargain.

Nikki Foster Care

Here’s a photo of me when I first arrived at my foster home in Ossining, NY.

One thing I definitely wouldn’t change is the ending. In it, Paris is faced with the choice to either return to the birth mother, who has already let Paris down in more ways than she can count, or to remain in the foster home, where she is well loved and cared for. Readers, yearning for the traditional happy ending, were rooting for the foster home. Paris, however, opted for her birth mother, risky though that choice might be. (Her mother struggled with alcoholism.) Notwithstanding, the choice Paris made is the choice I made, is the choice most children make. It is the choice that is true.

Several older readers have asked me about the tag line, “Keep God in your pocket.” I love that line, and it came to me in a moment of pure inspiration. I was looking for a non-intrusive way to express the element of simple faith that sustained Paris on her journey. I wanted something organic, yet something potentially powerful. After all, faith was a critical element in my own survival, and I thought it should be in Paris’s, as well.

Three Children

My foster brothers, Ken and Brad, were the models for the brothers in The Road to Paris.

I wrote The Road to Paris for all children, but especially for those struggling with problems outside of their control. They need to know that, despite their current circumstance, they can come out on the other side—whole, healthy, and happy.

Here’s one of my favorite passages from the book.

The next morning, Paris was on a platform at Penn Station, waiting for the train that would take her to her new foster home.

Paris’ heart beat so loudly, the noise filled her ears. For the first time, Malcolm’s hand was not at her elbow to steady her. His arm was not across her shoulders to calm her. His smile was not there to tell her everything would be all right.

The caseworker tried to hold her hand, but Paris snatched it back. She needed her hand to wipe away her tears. She’d never felt so alone in all her life.

Sometimes I wish I was like my name, thought Paris, somewhere far away, out of reach. Somewhere safe down south or on the other side of the ocean. Instead, she was neither Paris nor Richmond. She felt like a nobody caught in the dark spaces in between. A nobody on her way to nowhere.

The train rolled into the station, and she took one last look around before boarding, hoping to see her brother running to catch up.

Malcolm, Paris asked the wind, where are you?

Comments Off on The Road to Paris