I am so happy to welcome back Melissa Iwai and her husband Denis Markell for the second year of Writing with the Stars. Some lucky mentee will get expertise times two (maybe three if their son Jamie helps, too). Melissa is the author and illustrator of the recently released PIZZA DAY, SOUP DAY, and the illustrator of many more. Denis is the author of two picture books, HUSH LITTLE MONSTER and THE GREAT STROLLER ADVENTURE (both illustrated by Melissa), and the wonderful middle grade novel CLICK HERE TO START. Their efforts helped their mentee from last year polish her dummy and land an agent.
We will start with Melissa.
Your book, SOUP DAY, was inspired by your son but the MC is a girl! Why did you decide to change the gender?
MELISSA: I actually dreamed of a scene in SOUP DAY before I wrote it—in my dream I saw a woman cooking with a little girl, and cutting onions. I had a vision in my head of the artwork. So I combined that image with my experience cooking with Jamie, and decided to stay true to the dream vision.
You have been very open about your injury to your drawing arm. You taught yourself to use the other hand. Are you all healed now and, because you can now use both hands, are you alternating?
MELISSA: Thankfully, I am 98% back to normal. I still do my physical therapy exercises daily to avoid a relapse, and I’ve really changed my diet to reduce inflammation. When I was drawing and painting a lot with my left hand, I started to have a flare up in my left shoulder from an old rotator cuff injury, so I quit. Now that I am stronger and healthier, I should try and do that again! I often switch sides using the mouse on the computer, and occasionally force myself to eat with my left hand, though.
You have a DIY birthday activity book coming out in 2020. Are you a big DIYer and what inspired you to make this book?
MELISSA: I am a big crafty and cooking person. This book was born out of discussions I had with my editor, Christy Ottaviano, at Henry Holt/Macmillan. When Jamie was little I would always do theme parties for him, complete with a themed cake, foods, décor, games, etc. Denis and he and I would brainstorm together. Sometimes they were kind of random —Jamie was really into Jeopardy one year, so we did a whole party revolving around that. One year it was Greek Mythology. Christy had the brilliant idea of doing a collection of twelve themed parties – one for every month. In it, I’ll be sharing ideas for décor and crafts to do at the party, as well as recipes for cakes and party foods. I’ll be designing and photographing and illustrating it, so it’s going to be quite a huge project!
What is the most important thing you would you tell artists interested in getting into children’s books to do?
MELISSA: Read a lot of picture books! Read them out loud. Read them to kids, if you can. Figure out what you like. What works. If you are more focused on the art side of things instead of writing them yourself, do the same—look at a lot of picture books. I can’t emphasize that enough. Even if you are not writing the text, you are telling a story with your images. Familiarize yourself with the language and the visual language of children’s books.
Did anyone specifically mentor you or help you when you were starting?
MELISSA: Yes! I was fortunate to have Marla Frazee as my Children’s Book Illustration instructor at Art Center College of Design where I studied in the mid-90s. She also helped me to find my agent, Chris Tugeau, when I moved to NYC after graduating. Many years later, when I wanted to start writing stories I took a wonderful class at the School of Visual Arts taught by Monica Wellington. Soon after I took her class, I sold SOUP DAY.
You have been doing this illustrating gig for a while now. Is there anything you still find challenging about illustrating picture books?
MELISSA: Seriously, each book has its own unique challenges. I just finished completing one that was totally out of my comfort zone (non-fiction, 40 pages, different style). It actually required tons of research and even accurately painting actual military aircraft and submarines. There were days when I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do it—that I was going to fail miserably. Thankfully I had Denis and Chris to talk me off the ledge! But there were many days when I felt like I didn’t know how to draw or paint. So, yes, I think the uncertainty and doubt never completely goes away. Each story has its particular needs and spirit, and so the job of caring for it and giving it what it wants is kind of a minefield of uncertainty, I think! The good thing is that it never gets old—it never gets boring!
And now questions for Denis:
My son read and loved your novel, CLICK HERE TO START. We are looking forward to your new one, THE GAME MASTERS OF GARDEN PLACE (July 2018). The pitch of “Dungeons and Dragons inspired adventure that will appeal to gamers” sounds so nerdy (in a really good way). Can you tell us a bit about it, and what inspired it?
DENIS: Sure! It’s actually based on the real D&D group my son was in for years. I took some of the attributes of the real kids (who are all amazing, by the way) and changed a lot of the details, but the basic thrust of the story stems from kids creating an adventure together. I started to learn more and more about RPGs (Role Playing Games like Dungeons and Dragons) and how they are unlike any other gaming experience in that the players not only work together as a team to solve the puzzles and counter adversaries, but also are essential in helping the person leading the game (the Dungeon Master in D&D and the Game Master in other RPGs) create a unique story. And then when Jamie had played for a year, he said to me, “Wouldn’t it be neat if our characters came to life?” and well…that was all I needed to hear to get the idea for the book!
Are you a big gamer in real life?
DENIS: I’m actually not that big a gamer myself, more of an observer as my son spends many hours playing various games and going so far as to build his own gaming PC! I do love escape the room games, and still play them when I need a break. And I do appreciate the skills game playing can give to kids, especially when it comes to problem solving. You learn that just because you can’t figure something out right away, with practice or another approach, you might just find the answer!
You are the author of two picture books, HUSH LITTLE MONSTER and THE GREAT STROLLER ADVENTURE (both illustrated by Melissa). Do you have plans for more picture books in the future?
DENIS: I would love to write more picture books. They’re not my priority right now, but so many of my best friends in the kidlit world are picture book writers and illustrators (I’m even married to one!) it makes me want to get back to it. But I need to find the right story, one I can tell in a way no one else could.
What was the hardest scene you ever had to write?
DENIS: Wow! I’ve never been asked that one before! Hmm….let’s see…I’ll change it to scenes. There are scenes in the new book which take place in the fantasy realm, and that’s a genre I really haven’t written before. I loved writing them, but it was hard to not to fall into the trap of just imitating Tolkien or C.S. Lewis. The readers will have to decide if these scenes ring true or not. I hope so!
Besides kidlit, what other types of things do you write?
DENIS: I started out writing for theatre with a partner, who moved on to become massively successful writing for politicians and corporate events. He brings me in occasionally to write these sorts of things, which are fun and pay pretty well. Also, we have worked and continue to work with certain celebrities to give them material for talk shows and interviews. And I hate to say it, but most of the writing I’ve been doing when I’m not writing books is tweeting, which is both very addictive, and not exactly profitable!
What is your favorite under-appreciated novel? Picture book?
DENIS: Hmmm. Is James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks under-appreciated? It’s my favorite novel for kids and has been ever since it was read to me as a little one. Can a novel sell a zillion copies and still be under-appreciated? I think Tom Angleberger’s Origami Yoda books are the best Middle Grade series, bar none. Sadly, most adults (including many librarians and teachers) have only read the first one, if any at all. I could go on and on about how many big topics these books tackle while staying light and fun. They’re really masterful.
As for picture books, I don’t think Marc Boutavant is not nearly well-known enough in this country (he’s beloved in France). He has a book called Around the World with Mouk, which our whole family adores. He’s better known for his Ariol series of graphic novels he’s done with Emmanuel Guibert, which are about a little donkey and his school friends.
How do you structure your writing time every day?
DENIS: That depends on where I am in the process. If I’m drafting a book (I’m about to do my third Middle Grade next month), I am very disciplined and try to write between 1,850 and 3,000 words a day, averaging in at 2,000. If possible I do this every morning, which works out when our son is at school, harder when he’s hanging around.
If I’m revising or outlining, I’m more flexible and grab time during the day where I can. I don’t write in coffee shops or libraries (too self-conscious), and like to have no distractions other than music. Revising is a little easier. As is rewriting. But getting it all down on paper, even in the messy, badly written first draft, is for me a solitary activity, and I don’t show it to anyone at this stage. Then I hand it off to my editor (unless it hasn’t been sold, in which case I’ll give it to my agent) and wait for the verdict!
Do you think living with another creative is a big plus? Are there any negatives?
DENIS: I like to think we inspire one another, and it is essential for me to be with someone like Melissa who is also creative and who I think is gifted and good (okay, brilliant) at what she does. The only negatives are when your partner has something happen in their career that is disappointing (a rejection, a bad review, a book going out of print) and you really can’t do anything but be there and be supportive. But with us, when the other person gets good news, it’s the most wonderful feeling in the world.
And I need to correct the question: Is living with two creatives a plus? Our thirteen-year old son is a fantastic writer and artist (when he wants to be, ahem) and also a very astute critic of my work. He doesn’t pull any punches. Considering he’s my target audience right now, it’s been hugely valuable!
I love it and am so grateful I can always talk to Denis about what I’m working on, what’s going on in kidlit, a problem I’m trying to solve, etc. We both work at home, so we see each other constantly, and it’s a blessing that we don’t get sick of each other! We are also aware of each other’s space as well. I really can’t think of any negatives!
(NOTE FROM DENIS: It’s a good thing you asked about creative stuff. Melissa LOVES to cook all sorts of food, and I am a famously picky eater, so if you asked her about that there would be a whole lot of negatives!)
Thank you, Melissa and Denis for participating in Writing with the Stars! Please remember to support the author mentors by buying their books, leaving online reviews and telling your librarians.
inside spread of PIZZA DAY