Julie Danielson

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Sun and Moon Have a Tea Party, a charming picture book about what we gain when we look at the world through someone else’s eyes, is author-illustrator Yumi Heo’s final book and was illustrated after her death by Naoko Stoop. BookPage spoke with Stoop about how she became involved with the project, finding inspiration during times of hardship and what she would serve at a tea party with Sun and Moon.

You have illustrated picture books that you’ve also written, and you’ve illustrated picture books written by other people. Is your illustration process different for each of those situations? What parts of the process are the same? What do you enjoy about each? 
I appreciate both situations. Illustrating what’s in my mind gives me more freedom in many ways because I don’t have to guess what the author wants to express or emphasize in each scene. But I learn and discover more and stretch my drawing abilities further by illustrating stories written by others. I have been very lucky to be paired with wonderful authors including Patrick McDonnell, Kate Banks and Yumi Heo. Those experiences definitely gave my illustration skills more depth.   

What was the experience of illustrating Yumi Heo’s final book like for you? How did you get involved, and what did the project mean to you?
In the summer of 2017, I received a manuscript with a notation that the author, Yumi Heo, had passed away. Although I immediately knew I wanted to illustrate this beautiful story, I also knew that this was going to be challenging, because it was Yumi’s final book.

I never met Yumi, unfortunately, but I did some online research about her work and watched videos of her interviews. I realized we had quite a bit in common. We both grew up in East Asia and started our art careers in New York City. In one interview, she talked about what it was like to be a foreigner in her early days in the city. I could relate to what she said. Maybe our shared experience of crossing cultural bridges brought us both to this place.

We have created a book that speaks to what it is like to not understand people who are different from us, but to learn about them and to reap the rewards of that understanding. 

What was your favorite part of creating the illustrations for Yumi’s story? Do you have a favorite image or spread from the book?
There is a spread showing a busy square in a city. I enjoyed drawing all kinds of people, giving it a sense of diversity—just like in my circle of friends here in New York City. 

You often paint on plywood or brown paper bags. What do you like about painting with objects from everyday life?
I didn’t have formal art education. As an adult, I was playing around with my art at the beginning, just for my own pleasure, so I didn’t really need to worry about presentation. I painted on anything I could find. I especially loved drawing on brown paper bags from the grocery store and on leftover scrap plywood from a nearby factory. I think I just wanted to express myself, and those perfect materials were right there.

Authors and illustrators aren’t able to visit schools right now—at least not in person—but when you are able to share this book with young readers, what are you looking forward to talking about with them?
It has been a strange time. It’s hard to see children without school life. Although we are lucky enough to be able to keep communicating online, it’s never the same. I hope they can go back to school and study with teachers and friends in the same room again soon.

This has been a good time to learn about different perspectives. We only know what we know, and we have a lot to learn. Sun and Moon get into an argument in this book. We learn that we should not judge others before we know their story. 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Sun and Moon Have a Tea Party.

How do you find inspiration during times of challenge and hardship?
I have been really grateful that I have a roof over my head and food to eat, and that I am healthy and working. During times of challenge and hardship like this, fear and anxiety can easily take over, but I find that if I stay focused on what I have and how that makes me happy each day, I find inspiration everywhere in small things.

During the stay-at-home period, I started a no-soil veggie garden on my windowsill, I started walking with my cat daily, and I met some neighbors I never knew before through walking her. I started bird-watching in my urban backyard; I spotted a pair of cardinals, along with other birds I can’t name. I now know how to cook more dishes, how to sew colorful masks and how to use new technology to connect remotely with people. . . . All of this inspires me.   

What’s next for you? Are you working on any new illustration projects that you’d like to share?
Currently, I am working on a storybook written by Donna Jo Napoli. It’s about a Japanese girl who has recently come to America and begins a friendship with the girl next door. Children are open with each other, even without a common language or cultural heritage. We have a lot to learn from them.

If you could have a tea party with Sun and Moon, what kind of tea would you like to have? What kind of cookies would you bring?
Just like in the book, it would be an Asian-style tea party with green tea and seaweed rice crackers. There would be iced tea for Sun to cool down and strong coffee for Moon to stay wide-awake all night! And I would bake cupcakes decorated with the sun and moon on sugary whipped-cream clouds. Yummy!  

Author photo by Rocco’s Photo Tavern. Illustration used with permission of Naoko Stoop.

Naoko Stoop discusses her experience illustrating Yumi Heo's final picture book and shares how she finds inspiration during times of hardship.
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Denene Millner is a publishing powerhouse. She's a bestselling author, an award-winning journalist, the founder of a successful website and blog for Black parents (MyBrownBaby)—and in 2020, she launched the inaugural list of her eponymous imprint at Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing. BookPage spoke with Millner about the challenges and rewards of creating and running an imprint, how she finds talented new Black voices to work with and why she believes publishing still needs more books "that show Black children doing regular things."

How would you describe the work of an editor to someone who doesn’t know much about the publishing industry? What does running an imprint add to that work?
An editor is to a book as a doula is to a baby: Both usher a beautiful creation into the world. An editor’s job is to find the jewels—or devise the ideas that would create them—and then usher them through the publishing process: making sure the story is structurally sound, interesting and beautiful; finding illustrators and ushering them through their storytelling process; creating the tools needed for sales; working on the marketing and publicity plans and executing them, which means doing interviews and making speeches for librarians, booksellers and readers; and holding the writers’ and artists’ hands as they take the journey toward being published. And that’s just the basics.

Each of these things together can make a book, but if you’re falling down on any part of those responsibilities, chances are the book won’t find its legs. Being an editor, then, is about making every part of the process personal—and that's even more the case if you’re running your own imprint. The stakes are high because my name is on it, sure, but also because I desperately want success for the authors and illustrators and the books they’re birthing.

Your imprint, Denene Millner Books, launched its first season with Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing in the spring of 2020. What have been some of the highlights of this first year at S&S for you?
Well, I have to say, it’s been quite the challenge, actually, because it’s 2020. We’re in the middle of two historic moments—a global pandemic and a modern-day civil rights movement. Both of them have made the simplest things a Herculean effort. Entire systems had to be changed to accommodate the fact that people are not in their offices, making the way we moved equally urgent and painstakingly slow.

Getting attention for the books while every pen and camera seems to be trained on COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement is hard, too, and so the launch was much more quiet than perhaps it would have been had access not changed so drastically. A lot of the attention was trained on anti-racist books—books that focused on the history of Black people or on teaching lessons about racism and how, specifically, to be better humans when it comes to understanding, talking about and dealing with race. Denene Millner Books' offerings do not focus on these things, and so that also made our launch less than ideal.

Still, the highlight for the imprint is that we’ve published some beautiful books and built a list that speaks directly to the mission of the imprint; each celebrates the everyday humanity of Black children and families. The books may have entered the market quietly, but they are still quite mighty in their storytelling and focus. I also acquired more gorgeous work by first-time authors and hired first-time illustrators, opening the door for creative people who’ve yearned to bring their art to the children’s publishing world. I’m really proud of that.

“The books may have entered the market quietly, but they are still quite mighty in their storytelling and focus.”

What’s the most joyous part of running your own imprint? The most challenging part? The most surprising?
Oh goodness, I still get excited by the beauty of a story and watching it come alive. There’s nothing like the discovery and its unearthing—collaborating with the authors to build on the stories, watching the illustrations grow from sketch to color on the page. My heart still beats fast when I finally get to hold those books in my hands. They’re so lovely.

The most challenging part remains navigating the publishing process during a pandemic while being new to the processes at a Big Five publisher. (Editor's note: The "Big Five" publishers are Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan and Hachette.)

The most surprising is just how much time it takes to run an imprint. There’s so much work to be done, and the reach requires careful thought and a kind of coordinated waltz to usher the book to the shelves. That can be quite the juggle when you’ve got 20 other jobs.

I read that you were introduced to illustrator Gordon C. James by author Derrick Barnes (for readers who aren’t aware, James and Barnes would go on to create the award-winning Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, which you published) and that you enjoy seeking new Black talent. How do you go about finding fresh voices in writing and illustration?
As a writer, I know quite a few writers who have stories to tell, but not necessarily the access it takes to have them published. So a lot of what I do outside of reading submissions is tapping people like Sili Recio and Cozbi Cabrera and Karen Good Marable and asking them what deliciousness they have on their computers. Those inquiries yielded three amazing picture books: Recio’s If Dominican Were a Color, a story that gently examines colorism in the Latinx community, specifically in the Dominican Republic; Cabrera’s Me & Mama, a gentle, gorgeous story about the day a little girl spends with her favorite person ever, her mother, and; Good Marable’s sweet story, YaYa and the Sea, about a little girl who witnesses her mother and aunties celebrate spring and renewal in the waters off the shores of New York City. A lot of the books come to me this way—just hearing a rhythm in voice, a poem, a snippet of a story and saying, “I wonder how that would manifest itself on the page.”

Illustrators, I find, believe it or not, trolling Instagram. There are so many beautiful artists showing off their work there—proving they can tell a story through pictures. I have a folder and I save posts that catch my eye. I can get lost for hours reveling in the art and plotting who would be the perfect pairing for the stories that come my way, especially if they’ve never illustrated books.

What are some things on your publishing “wish list”—elements or characteristics of books you’d love to acquire and publish, but haven’t yet?
I’d love to publish a love story between two Black teens—a book that explores the complicated feelings that come from first love, with Blackness and culture as its backdrop. I’d also love to publish a picture book that’s an unapologetic celebration of Blackness, full stop. I wouldn’t be mad at a super cute picture book series with a spunky character who’s just curious and funny and a bit of a troublemaker, like a Black Eloise. How fun would that be?

“I might be a bit of a punk in that way, keeping my edits light and suggestive, instead of heavy and insistent.”

Can you give us a glimpse into some forthcoming Denene Millner titles you’re excited to share with readers?
I mentioned Me & Mama and If Dominican Were a Color earlier—I’m so excited about them because they tell good stories, they make great points, and they’re really pretty books. Cozbi wrote and illustrated Me & Mama, and her celebration of the bond between mother and daughter shines a light on Black motherhood in a way that is both familiar and revolutionary. It’s a simple but factual story of the love between Black mother and child, but how rare is that exploration in children’s picture books? Similarly, how rare is it for a children’s picture book to celebrate Blackness in the Latinx community, where colorism is every bit as complicated and fiery as it is in the African American community? That Sili translated the book into Spanish and we’re publishing that version, too, is something I am super proud of. Earlier this year, too, I had the honor and pleasure of publishing the great Alice Faye Duncan, who penned Just Like a Mama, a beautiful mediation on the love and care a little girl feels by the hand of a woman who is not her blood but is her mother all the same.

And then my first YA novel debuts early next year—J. Elle’s fantasy novel, Wings of Ebony. It’s a magical story about a Black girl who discovers she is half-god, half-human, with magical powers she uses to liberate her beleaguered inner city Houston, Texas, community from the hands of racists who are flooding it with crime and drugs. It’s a thrill ride—think Black Panther meets Wonder Woman—and the first book in a series. I’m super excited for that book and for J. Elle, who is a dynamic debut author.

And this is just the beginning: I have picture books about little Black boys who want to dance ballet (Kaija Langley's When Langston Dances); little boys who have bad days and learn to work through them (Aliya S. King’s Keep Your Head Up); a picture book that imagines a little girl’s journey to the constellations, which are fashioned after African gods and goddesses (Breanna McDaniels’ Impossible Moon); a picture book series featuring a spunky little girl who stays in the middle of shenanigans as she plots out a plan to not have to go to sleep (Clothilde Ewing’s Stella Keeps the Sun Up); and a heartwarming Christmas story from celebrity chef Carla Hall (Carla and the Christmas Cornbread), which, yes, includes a kid-friendly recipe for cornbread and cinnamon butter for Santa!

In addition to your work as an editor and publisher, you’re also an author of books for both children and grown-ups. How do you think having been in your authors’ shoes influences your work with them?
I know what it feels like to have a vision for your story and to want to tell it just so, so I tend to trust the writer and his/her storytelling. I might be a bit of a punk in that way, keeping my edits light and suggestive, instead of heavy and insistent. That’s a holdover from my days as a writer and magazine editor, when I learned how to respect the writer’s voice and ability to tell the story. And of course, I love it when editors understand my voice and how I choose to tell a story, so I show that same respect to those who write books for DMB.

Two years ago, you wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times about the scarcity of stories about “the everyday beauty of being a little human being of color,” asserting that too many children’s books featuring Black people depict stories of degradation and struggle. What do you see that has changed in the time since you wrote that piece, and what hasn’t?
Well, there’s still a predilection by all-too-many to publish books that chronicle slavery, the civil rights movement and Black firsts, as if there just could never be enough books about Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman and Muhammad Ali. There is, of course, room and use for those books, but I still maintain that more room needs to be made for books that show Black children doing regular things—learning how to ride a bike, hilariously trying to keep the sun in the sky, being loved on by their mamas, dancing ballet, flying with the stars and kissing the moon, employing magic and being the heroes of their very Black, very beautiful communities.

I’ve seen more of these kinds of books, of course, and that brings me joy. It brings children everywhere joy. Now if we could get those books the same kind of attention, spotlight, reviews and coverage that is afforded books about MLK, we’ll be doing something. We’re not there yet. Not even by a stretch. I’m looking forward to the day.


Photo of Denene Millner by Audra Melton

Denene Millner shares the joys and challenges of launching her eponymous imprint at Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing.
Interview by

LeUyen Pham's picture book Outside, Inside addresses the COVID-19 pandemic with sensitivity and compassion for young readers. BookPage spoke with Pham, a 2020 Caldecott Honor recipient, about the origins of her project, which began as a series of sketches during the early days of quarantining at home, as well as the real-life inspirations behind the feline guide who appears on every page of her book.

Your author’s note describes how you began “sketching moments from each day” during the early days of quarantine. When did you realize that your sketches could become a book?
I had to find a way to make sense of the sudden shift of the world, and I began collecting these thoughts in my head. They sort of spilled out on paper that way. I didn’t know exactly what it was that was happening, but after creating so many picture books, my mind automatically molds thoughts into that format. Still, I don’t think I was seeing the forest from the trees yet.

Out of sheer desperation, I called my editor and told her that I had something going on in my head. I didn’t know what it was—it didn’t have a form, it was just a series of disconnected dots. I remember her explaining very carefully to me that there was a difference between communicating strong feelings and telling a strong story. She wanted me to go for it some more. I called my agent, Holly McGhee, as well, and she encouraged me to just keep putting things down, that eventually the dots would connect, that something inside had to come out and I should just let it.

I think the moment for me when I suddenly saw it as a book was when I started binding the pictures together with words. Then it became more clear to me.

“We were always writing it from the perspective of the future, struggling to make sense of this time. The wild part is that we were making sense of it while we were going through it.”

Outside, Inside balances the feelings of sorrow, fear and loss many people have felt during the pandemic with unexpected silver linings, such as moments of connection and community. Was this a difficult balance for you to achieve?
It was as difficult to achieve on paper as it is to achieve in real life. Early on, we understood that this pandemic was going to affect different people in different ways, that while for some people it would require an adjustment of working from home and balancing your family’s life with your own work, for others the change was dramatic and suddenly put their livelihoods at stake. Even to say the words “silver lining” was insulting to a large portion of the population and indicative of the privilege of the person saying it. How do you allow for moments of goodness in such dark times?

In the end, I think we were able to get away with it because the book is a documentary of sorts. It’s a collection of moments happening in real time. I recorded what I saw at the time, without fully understanding how amazing those chalk drawings and window signs and neighborhood shopping trips were. I was overwhelmed by how much community I witnessed during a time in which we were essentially ordered to stay away from communities.

Outside InsideWhen I look at the book now, there’s a rhythmic pattern in its fluctuation between sorrow and connection. I'm chalking that up to my brain going into automatic children’s book mode, my editor’s gentle guidance, my agent’s encouragement and some universal wave we were all riding. We were all looking for that balance. Drawing it into pictures just clarified it all.

One spread in the book depicts scenes in hospitals and medical facilities. Was this a difficult spread for you to illustrate? How did you decide on all of the different scenes it includes?
This was one of the most difficult spreads I’ve ever illustrated. I simply could not process what these amazing health care workers were facing in those early days, when little was understood of the virus, supplies were short and emergency workers were finding workarounds with duct tape and plastic wrap.

These groups of frontline workers absolutely blow me away. What they were and are subjected to on a daily basis, at huge risk to their own lives, all in assistance of others, is simply unfathomable to the average human. I watched news stories of nurses, doctors, EMTs and even janitors and cleaners witnessing firsthand what this virus could do, but finding humanity in these desperate situations and giving hope, kindness and connection to those suffering from a virus that isolates you at the end of life. So many interviewees likened the situation to a war zone, and I could understand why. When people complain about losing their freedoms by being forced to wear masks, I wish they would look at the cost of rejecting that minor act, at the undeniable impact on these workers and their patients who are at the tail end of that decision.

I cried all the way through drawing this spread. It is truly the one scene in the book that I hope people will spend time on. All the images are based on real people and real situations. There is a scene depicting a woman in a hospital room with nurses coming in with a birthday cupcake for her, which is based on the real story of a woman who turned 82, I think, on her third day in the ICU. She died the next day, and the nurses were her stand-in for family. There is an image of doctors and nurses who are exhausted and suiting up like they’re entering a war, an image of a nurse staring with dismay at a ventilator that she hopes will work and an image of a man holding up a sign outside the hospital, projecting his love and gratitude to the nurses and doctors who saved his wife’s life. I don’t remember how I chose the images. I just remember that there were too many to share.

“I didn’t have to paint evidence of love, I simply had to record it. That’s the best way I can explain it.”

I noticed that you’ve chosen to write the book in the past tense. Can you talk about that choice?
You know, no one has asked me that question before, and I had to think about it. Which means, of course, that the idea to write in past tense was a foregone conclusion at the time the book was made. I don’t think anyone on my publishing team even questioned that the book could be written any other way. What does that say about all of our mindsets at the time?

I truly believed that by the time of the book’s publication, this would all be past us. Remember, the book was made over a six-week period of time in June and July. I remember my editor stressing its value beyond this time frame—that we had to find lessons that were timeless, stories that went beyond the current situation, to make it worthy of being a book. I was always writing it from the perspective of the future, struggling to make sense of this time. The wild part is that we were making sense of it while we were going through it. Trying to wrap my head around that is like listening to Mrs. Who explain to Meg what a tesseract is in A Wrinkle in Time.

We’re still in the middle of this, but eventually our world will catch up to the past tense of the book.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Outside, Inside.

Can you talk about some of the ways you used color in these illustrations?
I used color to communicate ideas that simply couldn’t be put into words. I think the first two spreads are the best representation of this. The opening spread reveals a busy and colorful crowded street scene, with bright saturated colors and lots of reds and yellows. The next spread shows the world shut down, and the imposing grays and lack of colors illustrate that. From that point on, the book is painted in muted colors and grays. I wanted that to be felt immediately, that shift in color as we shifted to this new reality. The book gradually moves back toward color, as the world grows and signs of spring emerge.

A spread toward the end of the book talks about why we went inside and shows groups of people standing together. Some are in full color, and some are painted in a muted light blue. This is a spread of real people I found articles about at the time. The people who are painted in full color survived the virus. The figures painted in blue did not. The heartbreaking ones are the people in full color who stand in the arms of the people in blue.

And of course, the last spread of the book, the gatefold, opens to full color at last, as spring has finally returned. That’s an image that hasn’t yet come to pass as this book comes out into the world. It’s still a hope, as it was when I painted it this past year.

I love the character of the black cat who is featured in every illustration, including the cover, the endpapers and the title page. Do you have a cat? Was this cat part of the book from its inception? Can you talk about the role that the cat plays in the book?
I do have a cat. Her name is Sardine, and she’s a lovely striped tabby, not the sleek elegant cat of this book. I considered using Sardine as a model, but her colors are rather muted and would have made her hard to find in the grey images. I needed a little slip of a shadow, a figure who could weave in and out of the images without calling too much attention to itself but could be clearly seen.

The cat was always meant to be part of this book. She wasn’t in any of my original sketches, but I think her presence was felt even early on, before I’d turned it into a book. I knew I needed to have a narrator of sorts, a figure that children could enter the book with, a figure that couldn’t be human and could be relatable. At first I thought the animal should be a dog or a bird. But then I realized that of all the pets we have, the cat is the one animal that is allowed to have free rein both inside and outside. She was the perfect animal to follow.

I wanted her in the story because I needed there to be a stable presence on each page, someone that kids could follow through the scenarios with, could look for in some of the heavier images, a reliable force on the page. There’s something, even for adults, that is very reassuring about seeing this little creature on each page. It is, after all, a children’s book. It’s meant to comfort, to guide, to make you smile. That’s the job of this little cat.

“During these dark moments, I also saw evidence of more humanity than I ever suggested in my books.”

I want to ask about one more statement from your author’s note. You write, “My career has been devoted to drawing the world as I would like it to be, my version of a happy world. This is the first time that I have catalogued the world as it is.” How would you describe what it looks like and how it feels when you draw “the world as [you] would like it to be” versus “the world as it is”?
I’ve always drawn the world as though it exists without prejudice. Every book I’ve ever made, from my earliest picture books to my latest graphic novels, feature diversity and acceptance.

When I was growing up, I didn’t see myself in books very often. Being a person of color, and of mixed race at that, it was hard to identify with most picture and chapter books. I made it a goal for myself early on to reflect as much of the world’s population as I could within the 32 pages of a standard picture book. I chose stories that reflected people and characters caring for one another, which I wanted to see reflected more often in our society. I like to think I create a utopian world where everyone is accepted. When I illustrated God’s Dream by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, he often commented that he had selected me as his illustrator because he loved to see the love in my characters for one another. I guess you’d call it my own little artistic bubble—paint the world as you want it to be, and it will become that way.

It’s fair to say that the real world isn’t always this way. Outside, Inside was the first time I really allowed myself to paint exactly what I saw. The world is filled with injustice and disinformation and much more anger than I’d ever allowed myself to believe. But during these dark moments, I also saw evidence of more humanity than I ever suggested in my books. The human spirit, when put to the test, can be quite amazing. I didn’t have to suggest a utopian society this time, because there were elements of selflessness and graciousness and simple kindness that I witnessed every day. It’s a reminder that perhaps the fantasy we tell ourselves and the reality we choose to live can be one and the same. I didn’t have to paint evidence of love, I simply had to record it. That’s the best way I can explain it.

The book’s back cover is an illustration of a kitchen scene, with a loaf of what looks to be sourdough bread on the table. Did you get into baking your own bread during quarantine? Did you pick up any other new hobbies or ways of spending time?
Who didn’t get into baking during this time? It’s the one thing the rational side of my brain could latch onto and feel like it was accomplishing something. Yes, I make bread now. I haven’t gone so far yet as to make a starter. From what I hear, they’re almost like pets, because you need to devote so much time to feeding them every day. But it’s been nice discovering how pliable my kitchen is.

We also take lots more walks together as a family, just around our neighborhood. I’ve gotten more creative with cooking. We’ve introduced the kids to “The Twilight Zone”; we don’t have our television hooked up to regular broadcasting, so they’ve never really watched TV shows before. I’ve learned to cut hair. But for the most part, I’m sticking to making books.

Photo of LeUyen Pham by Anouk Kluyskens. Illustration from Outside, Inside used with permission of Macmillan Children's Publishing Group.

BookPage spoke with LeUyen Pham, a 2020 Caldecott Honor recipient, about the origins of her project, which began as a series of sketches during the early days of quarantining at home, as well as the real-life inspirations behind the feline guide who appears on every page of her book.

Interview by

Peter Sís is an acclaimed author and illustrator who is well known for his picture book biographies, including Starry Messenger, The Tree of Life and The Pilot and the Little Prince. In Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued, he movingly intertwines the lives of Nicholas Winton, a young Englishman who helped arrange train passage for hundreds of Jewish children out of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s, and Vera Diamantova, one of the children Winton saved.

You’ve created a number of picture book biographies. What draws you to this category of nonfiction? How do you approach the creative process differently when you’re working on a nonfiction project versus something fictional?
I have liked biographies ever since I was a child. The explorers, the adventurers, the dreamers. Only later was I drawn to stories of people struggling to advance humanity—Vincent Van Gogh, Marie Curie.

Creating nonfiction requires a lot of research, and it’s sometimes difficult to distribute that throughout the book (for example, Charles Darwin went around the world and then stayed home for 50 years). In my new book, both Nicky and Vera experience a traumatic event and then, again, live their lives peacefully for 50 years. But perhaps that is the rhythm of life; each project, just like poetry, has its own tempo.

Did you consider intertwining Winton’s story with the story of a different child? What made you decide to feature Vera Diamantova in the book?
Vera’s book, Pearls of Childhood, was a surprising source of inspiration for how to tell the story of Nicholas Winton, which I had been thinking about for quite some time. Vera, with her love of life, her family, her country, was a representation of the 669 children Winton saved. She was saved, but her family perished. She was able to meet the man who saved her. I knew it was the way to go.

I think we all know what heroism is—we just have to think about it.

In the book, you describe how Winton did not speak about what he had done during the war because he believed no one would be interested in the story. As you worked on the book, did you gain an understanding of why Winton would have believed such a thing?
It’s difficult to say. In her book, Winton’s daughter Barbara writes that he was that kind of man. He said, “If you can swim and you walk by the river and someone is drowning—of course you save that person. It is your duty.” That is one way to think about what he did. It is also possible that he was devastated that the last train, which carried 250 children, did not make it. Once WWII broke out, there was nothing more to say.

You have said that there is always a “dark, impossible moment in every project,” and that it feels good to solve it. Was there such a moment in the process of creating Nicky & Vera?
Oh, there were plenty of crossroads with this project. At one point, I had Vera’s and Nicky’s lives after the war mirroring each other. There would be a half page of Vera’s house, half page Nicky’s. They both had families, so in this draft, they might walk in the same street next to each other, not knowing what connects them. That was intriguing, but it was for a different book. It was hard to let it go.

Another really dark moment was when I read many books about children and the Holocaust—the darkness and sadness of it all, and thinking about how to mention it in the book. I have to be grateful to Simon Boughton, my editor, for keeping us focused.

Can you talk about how you compose a spread? What drives your initial choices? How do you balance detail, composition and clarity?
I always get one or two images stuck in my head when I start to work on a project. Like Galileo in the court of cardinals in my book Starry Messenger, or the whirling train from Prague to London in Nicky & Vera. This is not necessarily helpful in case you need to shift or reshape the story, because it becomes the unmovable object of sorts. My artistic choices are driven by my ability, my intuition and stubbornness. I wish I could say clarity.

What is your favorite illustration in Nicky & Vera? Why?
I think that coiled train from Prague to London. It is my favorite cobalt blue hue, and the Prague-to-London train was a wishful dream when I was growing up behind the Iron Curtain.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Nicky & Vera.

Nicky & Vera depicts moments of intense horror that are representations of actual historical events. How do you care for yourself when working on a book that depicts such darkness?
This is a very good point. I did not think about this cloud of darkness. I reread Anne Frank and other books on the Shoah. I watched films about Simone Veil and Theresienstadt. Once again, I wondered how and why this could have happened, and that made me appreciate Nicky even more.

This is a story about heroism, about who we call heroes and what heroism really is. What do you believe heroism is? Did working on Nicky & Vera change it?
Yes, it is about heroism in a very human way. I think we all know what heroism is—we just have to think about it. It is solidarity, empathy, kindness—quiet acts in our time of very loud proclamations. It makes me think about times I could have done something and just did not dare to think differently.

Photo of Peter Sís courtesy of Jan Slavík © DOX Centre for Contemporary Art.

In Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued, acclaimed children's book creator Peter Sís movingly intertwines the lives of Nicholas Winton, a young Englishman who helped arrange train passage for hundreds of Jewish children out of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s, and Vera Diamantova, one of the children Winton saved.

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Mornings With Monet is the fourth picture book collaboration between children’s author Barb Rosenstock and illustrator Mary GrandPré, all of which have explored real artists and their art. Their book about young Kandinsky, The Noisy Paint Box, received a Caldecott Honor in 2015, while their book about Chagall, Through the Window, received a Sydney Taylor Honor in 2019. Mornings With Monet depicts the impressionist painter Claude Monet at work on his riverboat studio on a bright summer morning.

Whom can we thank for the idea to include a reproduction of Monet’s signature in the title on the book’s cover?

Barb Rosenstock: It wasn’t me. I don’t think to ask those “who did what” questions because picture books are the ultimate team sport. We all work with and around each other’s ideas and opinions for four years, and then we wind up with a book—so I don’t know, but it is perfect.

Mary GrandPré: It was my idea. I like to design the title type while I am in the concept stage of the cover art, and the Monet signature seemed like a good way to bring that feeling of brushstrokes into the cover.

Barb, this is one of many children’s books you’ve written about real figures in history. How do you choose your subjects? What sparked your interest in Monet?

Rosenstock: Most of the time I tend to write biographies backward. There will be a topic I find interesting (in this case, the idea of the work of making art), and I find a person or event whose story can represent that idea. After spending 10 days in Paris, I thought I was writing about the impressionists’ first group exhibit in 1874, and the book wasn’t going to be a biography so much as a “Let’s put on an art show” picture book. But as I researched at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Ryerson Library, the work ethic of the group’s leader, Monet, became more fascinating than the group as a whole.

Typically, picture book authors and illustrators don’t work directly with one another. Have your books together become more collaborative over time?

Rosenstock: Yes, but not in the way people might assume. Except in rare circumstances, Mary and I don’t discuss the specifics of text or art in conversation beyond an initial email like, “Hey, I’m thinking of Monet, are you interested?”

But for me, it has become more collaborative because I believe I have a better understanding of what portions of the text Mary tends to be drawn to visually. I actively try to focus on those in the story as much as possible—color, shape, texture. At Mary’s level of artistic ability, there is no such thing as writing something she can’t draw, but I am always thinking about how to write just enough text, never too much, so that I’m leaving space for her freedom to expand the story.

GrandPré: Barb thoroughly researches the life of each artist she writes about. In sharing that, she provides me with a vast amount of information that is extremely helpful, including details about place and time period, appropriate fashion, details about the artist’s lifestyle, as well as parts of the artist’s family history, the influences of other artists and what may have been going on socially or politically at the time. All the information Barb brings to the table gives me a more solid base to draw from.

Barb, I love the structure you’ve given Mornings With Monet. We spend one morning with Monet as he heads out onto the river to paint and then comes home and inside for breakfast, and you incorporate biographical information into this primary narrative. Did you know right away that you wanted the book to have this structure? If not, how did you get there?

Rosenstock: I wish! It took almost a year to know what I was writing about, and my laptop holds eight or so separate manuscripts to prove it. Once I began focusing on Monet, I kept writing drafts that started in his childhood, which is a typical way to connect a young reader to historical biography. I soon realized that Monet’s childhood would bore children, because it was boring me!

When I asked myself what I thought a young reader would find interesting, the answer was the boat. Why would you paint on a boat? How do you paint on a boat? What happens when you paint on a boat? I went in search of Monet’s relationship to his studio boat, which brought me along on his lifelong love affair with the Seine. Eventually I found an 1898 essay in La Revue Illustrée by Maurice Guillemot. Guillemot stayed with Monet in Giverny, in northern France, and in the essay, he details part of a morning spent with Monet on la bateau atelier, his studio boat. That essay guided my structure. I’m proud of having written a nonfiction picture book that begins and ends in four hours. Yes, it’s work. Yes, it’s magic.

Mary, is it difficult to capture the style of another artist—in this instance, Monet’s soft color palette, impressionist brushstrokes and the precise way he captured light?

GrandPré: Capturing the style of an artist is both challenging and enjoyable. Monet’s work is all about color and light, so my challenge for this book was to bring that same focus to the illustrations. I studied his paintings of the Seine, the fluid strokes, the sparks of color in the shadows, the soft neutrals with bits of underpainting showing through, and all of it was a joy to discover.

Monet has become one of the most well-known and widely reproduced artists in the world. Barb, as you researched the book, what did you learn about Monet as a person or about his art that surprised you?

Rosenstock: Well, first, let’s not make him out to be any kind of saint. One of the reasons I settled on the book’s structure is because spending one morning on Monet’s boat seemed doable compared to addressing his many missteps and flaws in a single picture book. I can make a straightforward case that he was a misogynist, a user of people, an anti-Semite and a glutton, just for starters.

What surprised me was something that readers need to understand about creativity of any kind. Monet, long after he was world famous, was an immensely hard worker who was consistent in his practice, much like a world-class athlete. Talent is overemphasized in our society; most success is due to work.

How did working on this book change the way you see Monet and his art?

GrandPré: I came to appreciate Monet’s art more. I discovered more about his sensitive use of color and the amount of layering that each painting holds. I also came to appreciate Monet’s dedication to truly capturing the light and the water. This had to be a very challenging thing to do, particularly with weather being unpredictable—not to mention painting all those paintings on a small studio boat. That’s commitment and being true to your vision!

Rosenstock: Visiting the impressionist wing of the Art Institute of Chicago has always been a part of my life. I knew since I was a child that these masterworks by Monet, Renoir, Degas, Sisley, Pissarro, Morisot and others were gorgeous. Now I see their individuality—the thousands of brushstrokes, hundreds of color decisions, thoughtful highlights and brooding shadows. I see the time and the work dedicated to the creation. It doesn’t take away from the overall beauty, it adds to it.

What’s something you each love about each other’s work in this book?

GrandPré: I love that Barb is true to the artist’s vision and that she sees the beauty in the creative exploration of the painter. As she takes us through the morning, she sensitively describes colors and how they change with the time of day, from the soft gray violets before the dawn to the warm yellows that break through the fog. I love that she can take a single morning with Monet and give us an entire journey in which we discover the power of light and color, as well as Monet’s steadfast dedication to capturing the ever-changing character of the river.

While Barb’s writing is true to the history of Monet’s life, her understanding of the artist’s inner struggle and their passion to create is what makes her stories so enriching. As an artist, I especially appreciate that part of Barb’s writing.

Rosenstock: Mary’s art always, always brings other levels of thought to the text. She’s one of our great children’s illustrators because her art tells its own story, not just my text’s story. For Mornings With Monet, I confess I was worried. Monet’s style is so familiar that I wondered how Mary would illustrate the book without copying it. But her artistic process informs our understanding of Monet’s process while remaining wholly original. Mary’s extensive visual research, her hints at relationships and the moods of the river are what I love best. And that “magic” spread near the end of the book—it’s truly magic!

Mornings With Monet is the fourth picture book collaboration between children’s author Barb Rosenstock and illustrator Mary GrandPré, all of which have explored real artists and their art. It movingly depicts the impressionist painter Claude Monet at work on his riverboat studio on a bright summer morning.

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