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 Writing Process Blog Tour

Posted June 9th, 2014

Have you ever been on a blog tour? This is my first time being part of one. Blame Children’s Poet Laureate, Kenn Nesbitt. He’s the one who roped me into this! Seriously, though, I’m happy to join the My Writing Process Blog Tour. I hope you can take something meaningful from my responses to the four questions posed.


bk_bronxAs always, I’m juggling projects. I seem to be allergic to working on one manuscript at a time.

First, I’m waist-deep into a Bronx Masquerade sequel, which means I’m too far in to turn back, but not so far that I’ve ceased shaking in my boots for fear I won’t be able to live up to my own expectations, let alone the expectations of my fans. Yikes! But I press on.

I’m also working on a novel-in-verse for Boyds Mills, publisher of Words With Wings.

Planet Middle SchoolLastly, I’m writing a middle-grade collection of poetry inspired by poems/poets of the Harlem renaissance. This last is for Bloomsbury, publisher of my novel-in-verse Planet Middle School.


First of all, I work in more than one genre, so there’s that! Besides that, I’m not sure this question is answerable, at least not by me. I know that my work is distinct, perhaps in part because it is character-driven. Or perhaps it is that my poetry is compact, yet always delivers an emotional punch. Yes. That’s it. In any case, it is this aspect of my work that is most often commented on, so let’s go with that.


In general, I look for subject matter that allows me to address those issues I feel affect the lives of young readers, and that I believe need to be discussed and explored. I wrote The Road to Paris because I didn’t find many books tackling the often-difficult experiences of children caught up in the foster-care system.

Road to Paris Almost Zero Words with Wings

I wrote Almost Zero: A Dyamonde Daniel Book to address the subject of entitlement because I see this trend everywhere, and it disturbs me. I felt compelled to speak into it.

I wrote Words With Wings because I fear this generation has forgotten the value of daydreaming and I’m hoping my book will spark discussion of this topic, and perhaps inspire a bit of daydreaming, along the way.

Chasing FreedomSometimes, of course, I write a book simply because a certain story captures my imagination or curiosity. Chasing Freedom, a book coming out next year with Orchard Books, is one such title. It’s an imagined conversation between Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony, inspired by my fascination with both women, and the fact that their extraordinary lives happened to have intersected, a fact which still gives me tingles!


Every book is different. Since I write across genres, and age ranges, there is no one, consistent pattern to the way I work. However, I suppose there are a few commonalities.

Let’s see: I focus on writing a complete draft before I do any editing. In fact, I muzzle my internal editor during that original draft. She is not invited to the party, nor is she allowed to speak until I begin work on the second draft! From then on, I’m in revision mode.

With each draft, I try to focus on something specific throughout, whether that’s tense agreement, converting plain prose into more lyrical language, or transforming informational passages into more dynamic dialogue, and so on. With each pass, I’m honing in on one particular element.

I revise and tweak an annoying amount—just ask my editors! As a rule, I know I’m done when I find myself making changes that are no longer improvements.

What else? Hmmm. As a rule, I don’t try to write sequentially. I approach my stories like jigsaw puzzles. I concentrate on developing the individual pieces of a story, then figure out how those pieces best fit together. This approach keeps me from feeling overwhelmed, especially if the story I’m working on is quite complex, with lots of moving parts. (This saved me from losing my mind when I wrote Bronx Masquerade, a novel in 18 voices!) In fact, this approach helps me when writing picture book texts, as well. It certainly aided me while I worked on Poems in the Attic, a Lee & Low title that comes out this fall. Okay! I think that’s it for process. If you want to get any more out of me, you’ll have to attend one of my workshop intensives!

I hope you’ll read Kenn Nesbitt’s article, my predecessor in this Writing Process Blog Tour.


It’s Raining Laughter

Posted October 16th, 2012

It's Raining LaughterIf there’s such a thing as a backwards approach to creating a picture book, I’m something of an expert. On three separate occasions, I’ve crafted books in precisely that way. First, there was Something On My Mind, with art by Tom Feelings. Next came From a Child’s Heart, with art by Brenda Joysmith. And last was It’s Raining Laughter, with photographs by Myles Pinkney (yes, that’s right, of the Pinkney clan, a dynasty in the children’s book world). The latter is the subject of this week’s blog.

It’s Raining Laughter is a collection of color photographs and poetry, organized around the theme of joy. Mind you, when I first began work on this project, there was no theme. There were no poems. There was not even the hint of an idea for a book, as far as I could see. It’s Raining Laughter began with the visuals.

An editor at Dial Books, with whom I’d published previously, sent me a binder of photographs by Myles Pinkney and asked me to consider creating a storyline to turn these loose photographs into a book for young readers. I liked the photos I saw, but didn’t find any connecting theme that I could work with. Was it possible, I wondered, if Myles could send me additional photos? The answer was yes. The problem, though, was knowing what kinds of photos to ask for. I wasn’t at all sure since I had, as yet, no theme. “Just start sending me photos of children,” I said to Myles, “and I’ll tell you when to stop, all right?” This was a very unorthodox way to work, but Myles graciously agreed.

As the photos came in, I taped them to a wall of my apartment, eventually covering the wall completely. I probably had close to a hundred photos by the time a germ of an idea began to form.

Day and night, I studied the photos, and I found myself drawn to the images that were happiest, images of children playing, running through sprinklers, climbing, exploring, and laughing. It suddenly came to me that joy was the element that connected them all, and so that became my theme.

That decided, I culled the photos I most wanted to use, then focused on creating a narrative about the child, or children, captured in each photo. I drafted the narrative in paragraph form, at first, then worked to craft each narrative into a poem.

Once I had the polished draft, I sent it to my editor. She and the art director made the final selection of photos, but they did end up using roughly 85-90% of the photos I’d chosen.

What a fun project! I love the idea of marrying poetry to art or photographs. I look forward to doing so again.

Have you ever read It’s Raining Laughter? Here’s one of my favorite poems from the collection.

The Laughing Bug

I caught the laughing bug
the other day.
Who spread the germ to me
it’s hard to say.

My brother told
a yucky monster story,
and had to laugh himself
it was so gory.

My sister squealed
with joy, and giggled when
Dad tickled her. Did I
start laughing then?

Someone infected me
with glee that day.
I wonder if God’s love
could spread that way.