'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Author/Illustrator Interview: Laurie Keller

Our guest today is American author/illustrator Laurie Keller. Laurie has written a number of beautiful picture books, and you can see more of her work on her website, lauriekeller.com. Warning: you won't be able to resist her gorgeous, cheeky illustrations!

Tell us a little about you: what’s your background, your story? Growing up in Michigan, I always loved drawing and writing. After high school I enrolled at Kendall College of Art and Design and majored in Illustration. I got a job as an illustrator at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, MO. It was a fun job and I worked there for 7 1/2 years but what I really wanted to do was write and illustrate picture books.

I wrote my first story, The Scrambled States of America, and went to New York City to meet with some publishers. I fell in love with NYC and decided to move there to become a freelance artist. The week after I quit my job as I was packing my things to move, I got a call from Henry Holt and Company telling me that they wanted to publish my story (WOOHOO!). I've worked with them ever since. I loved living in NYC but moved back to Michigan several years ago and now I live in a teeny cottage in the woods along Lake Michigan with my boyfriend and two felines.

What genre do you write in? So far I have just done picture books. Many of them have an educational element to them which I like to include when I can.

What other genres have you written in? I'm trying to come up with an idea for my first chapter book (7-9 year age group). I think a chapter book would be a good format for all the little cartoons and asides I like to include in the margins of my books. I'm excited about it but haven't come up with an idea that I love yet (I'm open to suggestions!). I'd also like to do some books for pre-school age kids as well.

What made you decide to write and illustrate children’s books? When I was working at Hallmark I used to spend many lunch hours and weekends in a really great children's bookstore called The Reading Reptile. I spent many lunch hours and weekends there. I hadn't looked at children's books in many years and was so inspired by all the wonderful books I was seeing. I especially loved the books by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, Maira Kalman and my very favorite author/illustrator, Petra Mathers. Since I loved to draw and write it seemed like the perfect job for me - and it is!

What do you love about writing for kids? I love making kids laugh and if I can help them learn a little something in the meantime that's even better. I get great emails from kids on my website and there's just not a better feeling for a children's book author/illustrator than hearing from kids telling you they love your books. I also love how kids are willing to suspend belief for awhile. Like if someone wants to write a story about an onion who wants to compete in the Tour de France, they're like "why not?!" (hmmm, did I just come up with a new book idea?)

What are the greatest blocks or obstacles you have experienced on your book-writing journey? The biggest challenge has been learning to deal with critical reviews (ouch, those hurt!) but even worse, those pesky critical voices in my head that tell me everything I write is "garbage". I always have to send them on a long vacation so I can finally get some work done.

What’s a typical writing day? I don't write every day like many writers. I'd like to train myself to write for at least a couple hours a day. A typical workday for me is different depending on which stage of the writing or illustrating process I’m in, but eating peanut M&M's is an integral part of any stage (I'm totally convinced that they get the creative juices flowing!).

The writing stage usually is a long process for me. It involves a lot of sitting there feeling stumped, writing down a bunch of babble and crumpling it up and starting over. Once I get my story idea blocked out and roughly written, I spend a LOT of time re-working it. I always look back at what I’d written before I’d made the changes and think, “Man, that was awful!” It’s a great feeling though to finally get the story chiseled down to where it “feels right”.

When I start painting the finished illustrations, I always end up working extra-long days (about 16 hours or so) every day for about 3 months until it’s completed. I always think the next time will be different, that I’ll get so organized that I’ll be able to have a normal life with weekends off, but so far I haven’t been able to do it. I'm still working towards that though!

What advice do you have on writing and illustrating? *Read as much as you possibly can. Some people don't think that it helps you become a better writer but it does. It helps you sharpen your skills as a writer.

*Look at other author/illustrators websites for inspiration.

*Work at developing your own unique "voice" with your writing and your own "look" with your illustrations. Editors and art directors aren't looking for someone who writes or draws like someone else - they're looking for new voices and styles.


If you couldn’t be a writer and illustrator, what would you be? I would be an M&M taste-tester - I am very qualified in this field and know I would excel beyond anyone's expectations. Other than that, I'd love to be a dancer either on Broadway or for a company like Piloboulus. And I think it'd be cool to be an interior designer. I would reach world-wide recognition by being the first interior designer to use JUST the M&M peanut color palette (can't you just see it?).

What are your all-time favourite kids’ books? Theodore and Mr. Balbini, Sophie and Lou and the Lottie books all by Petra Mathers, The Stinky Cheeseman by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, The Happy Hocky Family by Lane Smith, Traction Man by Minnie Grey and Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin and Harry Bliss, Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich by Adam Rex and Put Me in the Zoo by P.D. Eastman to name a few.

I also love the Captain Underpants, Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Just Grace series'. I have so many favorite books I can't even name them all. My favorite book as a kid was My Father's Dragon and it's still a favorite to this day.

What else do you like to do, other than write and illustrate books? I love spending time outdoors, walking on the beach, camping, hiking, going for walks, reading, doing yoga, spending time with my 5-year-old niece and trying very hard to learn how to play the banjo.

What would be your perfect day? My perfect day would be sipping coffee outdoors and then walking in the woods or playing at the beach on Lake Michigan, then building a fire on the beach and cooking vegetarian hot dogs and marshmallows over the fire. My birthday was a couple of weeks ago and that's pretty much exactly what I did!

What five words best sum you up? *animal-lover *vegetarian *adventurous *curious *word-nerd

What’s next for Laurie Keller? I have a book coming out this fall called Birdy's Smile Book. It's about a girl named Birdy who talks all about why smiling is so important (there are lots of silly things in it, too). I'm in the beginning stages of another picture book and I'm trying very hard to come up with an idea for a chapter book. Guess I better start consuming more peanut M&M's to get the creative juices flowing!