I loved Jenny Kostecki-Shaw’s work from the minute I read her books. They are beautifully illustrated with wonderful themes – kid friendly and parent friendly. And when I got to meet her, I felt her warmth from within. She’s a special, talented, amazing lady . Her book Same, Same But Different won the Ezra Jack Keats Book Award and if you like chai tea, you will want to have her Chai Pilgrimage book for your coffee table. It will enchant all who browse its pages. Keep reading to find out more about her and her books.
CAROL GORDON EKSTER: Can you tell us a little about your journey of becoming an author/illustrator?
JENNY KOSTECKI-SHAW: When I was old enough to hold a crayon, I set up a studio inside a cardboard box. I loved picture books and copied the artwork. The one thing I knew for certain is that I would always be an artist. After studying illustration at the Kanas City Art Institute and the Illustration Academy, I worked for 6 years as an illustrator at Hallmark Cards. I was a part of a children’s book writing group with friends who all dreamed of making picture books, too, and for the first time, I dove into writing down stories.
Eventually I left Hallmark to travel, move to New Mexico, and focus on illustration and children’s books. It was a few years before I felt confident enough to show my portfolio around NYC. At the end of an appointment with Christy Ottaviano (my editor now), she inquired if I had any stories of my own. “Well, there is one I’ve been working on, but it’s not finished. It’s a story about me when I was little…and my lazy, or travelin’ eye.” Her response was positive and she asked if I would send it to her when I finished it. I went home energized and after another 7 months, I sent a book dummy to Christy. The very day she received it she left the most DREAMY message on my answering machine in her groovy New York accent that she loved My Travelin’ Eye — and that she wanted to publish it! I still have her message memorized. SO…yes, some luck, good connections (Christy is also other friends’ editor), the right timing, and holding onto a dream.
CGE: Your books My Travelin’ Eye and Same, Same But Different are a parent and teacher’s dream books. They have combined important issues into beautiful picture books. Can you tell us about your inspiration and process?
JKS: Wow. Thank you. Both of these books sprouted from my life experiences. My Travelin’ Eye is mostly an autobiography. I was inspired to start writing about my experience with a travelin’ (aka lazy) eye when my mom sent me a package of photos from my childhood. I laughed out loud seeing my photo from the day I was born with one eye looking straight and the other looking way out in left field. It brought back a lot of memories. Making that book was creative therapy in a way – mostly true but relived with an embellished sort of slant.
The idea for Same, Same but Different was first scribbled down in my sketchbook when I was living in Nepal at a school teaching art and English. The village and way of life was, in the beginning, shockingly different than my life, but it soon grew to feel so normal and comfortable. My students and I came up with a project of drawing pictures with short descriptions to share about their lives in Nepal with my artist friends in Kansas City (many who were my coworkers at Hallmark Cards). We sent picture-letters across the oceans. When I returned home, I had a show of the children’s art and knew there was a book there…somewhere…although it took some years and another trip to Nepal and India to “find” it.
It’s funny, but I often think of titles for books before writing their accompanying stories.
CGE: Until I saw your fascinating presentation about your beautiful book Chai Pilgrimage, I hadn’t realized Same, Same But Different was also influenced by your trip to India. You have an agent and published your two picture books with Henry Holt and Co., yet you chose to self-publish the book about chai. I know other authors and illustrators will be interested in the reason you went that route. Could you please explain and then also tell us a little about this book that you collaborated on with your husband and how that was different from working on picture books.
JKS: Yes, that same trip was also my research trip for SSBD — much more fun than relying on Google Images! One major difference of these two projects is I work conventionally on my picture books with very little digital work. With the chai book, I spent countless hours on the computer, going back and forth between my art table and scanning images to collage in Photoshop and InDesign.
It was difficult finding a publisher to invest in our chai book that didn’t have one concrete place to sit on the bookshelf. Chai Pilgrimage is a travel art and photography journal, a pilgrimage to holy places and “tea country” in Northern India. We shared stories of people we met along the way. It’s also an illustrated cookbook incorporating the healing properties of chai spices. Patrick and I felt passionate about our joint vision for this book and simply had to make it. He wrote the book, we both took the photography, and I illustrated and designed it. Still, we collaborated on every aspect.
It was daunting though, and we nearly didn’t complete it due to time, resources and questioning ourselves. After several years of stop-and-go, we committed to it fully, working nearly every day on it for over a year. I had to teach myself InDesign while a few friends taught me the rules of book and text design (and how and when I could break those rules). We hired two editors – one who I worked closely on every single detail of every page –from text to font styles to line breaks to photo alignment, and I hand-lettered every word. Her commitment to perfection and ability to work so fast and closely with me was crucial to the professionalism of such a detailed book. I am so grateful!
The amazing parts of self-publishing outweighed the overwhelming parts. We had complete creative freedom. When we were nearly finished, we pre-sold almost 400 books and 400 art prints on Kickstarter.com to fund most of the editing and printing costs.
CGE: I happened to have been lucky enough to see your incredible location for your studio in your home surrounded by the mountains of New Mexico. Can you tell us about your working there and whether you have a specific schedule?
JKS: I have the most beautiful life! I am nourished by these mountains. My husband and I work for ourselves (he is a massage therapist and teacher), and we spend a lot of our time at home on our wee, sweet homestead. Our five year old daughter is home with us, and we started homeschooling this year (!) Presently, we have a schedule where I am homeschooling with Tulsi Monday through Thursday and Saturday. I work in my studio on Fridays, Sundays when Patrick and Tulsi are together, and some evenings after bedtime. When I have been in the middle of working on finishes for a book (like Luna and Me, earlier this year), our schedules nearly switched, and I painted four days a week plus long, late nights.
CGE: What has presented the most challenge for you as a picture book author/illustrator? What has given you the most joy?
JKS: Hmm…challenges: my turtle pace and working remotely without a big author/illustrator community.
The most joy: creating, and seeing the books come to life! An amazing editor/book guru who believes in me! Also, connecting with kids around the world and seeing their joy in response to my books. 🙂 How I LOVE when I meet a child at a school who personally relates to Jenny Sue because they wear an eye patch, too, or a girl who told me, “Thank you for helping me to remember my home – Mother India!”, or another child who already knows they are an artist and will make books someday. I am also in awe of my 5 year old daughter’s passion for books and how much she loves to “help” me with my books.
CGE: What does the future hold for Jenny Kostecki-shaw?
JKS: I have a new picture book coming out next year: Luna and Me, The Story of Julia Butterfly Hill (Henry Holt/Christy Ottaviano Books, 2015). I’m very excited about this book and hope to schedule more school visits and Skype sessions next Fall to connect personally with students and teachers.
I’m presently working on a picture book inspired by my dad and me and our shared love for traveling the world. I’m also excited about another picture book biography idea I am exploring.
In mid-2015 I will be jumping out of my comfort zone and offering an on-line picture book class with Carla Sonheim.com
OH! And coming in November, a Baby! I get to be a mama to another baby! And who knows what inspiration for books TWO kids will bring. 🙂
CGE: Thanks for your inspiration, Jenny! Keep creating beautiful stories and art, and I wish your family many future joys with the new baby.