CAROL GORDON EKSTER: At a family event, my cousin and his daughter approached me wanting to connect me with the daughter’s friend who was having a picture book come out. When you’re in the business of children’s books, lots of people approach you, many of them telling you they always wanted to write a book. But when I looked up Hannah’s website and read her debut book, PACKS: Strength in Numbers, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020, I wanted to interview her here at Writers’ Rumpus. The book is beautiful. Hannah is obviously such a talented author/illustrator and her book is an inspiring celebration of how togetherness helps many creatures thrive, in both human and non-human communities.
CGE: Hannah, how did you come to be on this path of creating books for children?
HANNAH SALYER: I have always loved making books. From a very early age I was pasting together pages filled with my drawings and stories. I was incredibly lucky to have a family that always supported and encouraged my creative pursuits. When I got to art school, I knew I wanted to be an illustrator. However, it wasn’t until I took a Children’s Books course with Pat Cummings that I remembered just how much I loved telling stories through art, and what a huge influence the books of my childhood had on me. Pat is a tour de force. Not only is she an accomplished author and illustrator of many #kidlit titles, she is a hardworking organizer in the #kidlit community, and she is an incredible teacher. Pat challenges her students by giving them assignments that are small, albeit very realistic doses of what to expect working as an artist and writer in the publishing industry. She expects everyone in her classes to rise to the occasion, and encourages them every step of the way. I am four years out of her class and anytime we meet to catch up, I still get “homework assignments” from her! Always to my benefit, of course– Pat keeps it real.
Narratives embed nearly all of the artwork that I make. Once I began to consider the notion of creating art for children’s books, I never looked back. Between supportive friends and family, a few incredible mentors and peers in art school, working as a bookseller at Books of Wonder, and continuing to make personal work beyond school, I was able to begin carving out my own path.
CGE: PACKS: Strength in Numbers is not only gorgeously illustrated, but it is obvious that every word was intentional. I love the repeated line, “Together, we…(nurture, build, dance, etc.) Did this story go through many revisions? Did you have a critique group? An agent?
HS: I think that the most major revision actually happened after my publisher, HMH, picked up the book. The concept of “strength in numbers” was there from the very beginning, but the art led the way on the project, as I wanted it to do the heavy lifting for the story. The refrain and repetition came after chipping away at the first draft. The idea for the book initially came from my agent, Kirsten Hall, of Catbird Agency, after seeing a piece in my portfolio at our first meeting.
CGE: Tell us more about this book’s journey to publication and what inspired you to write this story? And can you tell us why elephants lead into the book on the recto end pages and people riding bicycles lead us out of the book on the verso end pages?
HS: After graduating from Pratt Institute in 2017, I knew I wanted to do illustration and creative work full time, but that I wouldn’t be ready to jump into freelance right out of the gate. I ended up taking a bookseller job at the inimitable children’s bookstore, Books of Wonder, in Manhattan. I thought I knew about children’s books before, but when I started work there, I got totally schooled! They make it a point for all of their employees to actually read the books that they are selling, and be conscious of both classic and modern picture books, middle grade and young adult titles. All of my coworkers knew I was an aspiring #kidlit illustrator, and it was actually my former manager at BoW (now friend), who introduced me to my agent, Kirsten Hall, as Kirsten would come into the store often. After looking at my portfolio and speaking with me, Kirsten agreed to take me on as her client. She pointed to a piece I had done during my senior year of college and to my surprise, told me she thought I should create a story around the piece. It was a standalone illustration of wolves, running and weaving tightly into each other. That image was the impetus for PACKS. At the time I was dumbfounded– I had worked on the piece, put it into my portfolio and didn’t think much more about it.
But Kirsten has a knack for doing just this with her clients, and will encourage people to explore stories and ideas that she sees in their art. She brought the pitch to my current editor at HMH, Kate O’Sullivan, who is an absolute dream to work with. She gets exactly where I am coming from, and she brings her sensitivity and deep reverence for other species to the table when she edits. I am so grateful to have worked with her on my debut book.
As far as the end pages go, I wanted to place subtle hints in the book about our place in the ecosystem. So often we forget that humans are indeed animals, and the erasure of this fact allows for the othering of species that we share our planet with. This book isn’t merely about how isolated groups in nature use teamwork, it’s about the importance of togetherness. Whole ecosystems rely on every member to function well. Biodiversity is key; science has shown us time and again that “all together, we are better”. There’s a nod to this concept under the book jacket as well.
CGE: Have you done any marketing and promotion to get the word out about your book? Are you comfortable doing school visits or book store events? What is your favorite part about creating books for children?
HS: Leading up to my pub date, I assumed it would be entirely on me to coordinate events and promotion for PACKS. I had already begun reaching out to various bookstores about holding events when I learned that I would have a publicist at HMH to help me. John Sellers has been wonderfully hands on, and has helped PACKS catch the eye of various newspapers, bloggers and trade reviews. I used to babysit and still teach art classes for children, so I have a direct line to various local schools and that’s how I got some of my very first school visits. Between myself and the team at HMH, we are able to promote the book and continue to schedule events. It has definitely become a collaborative effort!
It’s a very strange time to be navigating book promotion, but I am grateful that my book launch happened back in January. I was able to celebrate with friends, family and some new faces at a couple book stores and schools right before the bottom fell out in regards to COVID. From March on, all of my events went virtual, which was bittersweet. I was glad that they could still happen, but missed the in-person experiences. I think some of my favorite events so far have been school events. The kids are in their element; so excited to engage and ask questions.
It is an incredibly high honor to carry on the tradition of creating books for children. I was not prepared for the profound experience of working hard in isolation on a story, then watching children have their own experience with the finished book. I think my favorite part about making picture books is watching children engage with the story, ask questions and be inspired to create art of their own.
CGE: Can you tell us about your process and schedule?
HS: For me, book ideas often need one fully fleshed out piece of art to really light a spark. I might quickly jot an idea down, but then I give myself space and time to explore the concept visually. Sometimes it looks like different art tests over periods of months, revising till I get it to an exciting place. And other times it happens more quickly, like with PACKS– the idea had been hiding in plain sight. Once I get deeper into the process, I go back and forth between the art and the writing because I find that they feed off of each other and help push the story and editing process forward.
For better or for worse, I don’t have much of a set schedule! Though, when my books get picked up by a publisher, I start to get a little more organized with my time. I’ve found that if I make a rough schedule outline for myself, I never end up sticking to it exactly, but it still helps arrange my thoughts and pinpoint various pieces of a project that I need to accomplish. I like to make sure I do lots of preliminary planning and sketching. This helps my editor and art director understand what I’m going for in the book dummy, but it also helps me later down the road. When moving into the final artwork, the concept and structure are nailed into place– all I have to do is dive in.
CGE: Can you give new writers and illustrators advice that helped you break into children’s publishing?
HS: I think one of the most important things to realize is that everyone has their own timeline and path. This is something I am constantly reminded of. Sometimes things come together in the blink of an eye, and sometimes it is years before a project will come to fruition, or the right connection is made. It can be tough playing the waiting game, but I think it’s important to never stop creating work; in the long run, it will help you refine your craft and have work to show for it.
I’ve found that it is invaluable to insert yourself in spaces that directly connect to the craft. My time working at Books of Wonder was formative. By working there, I opened the door to a microcosm of the publishing industry, and I walked away better for it; having joined Catbird agency, made friends, and expanded my knowledge of kidlit.
Make sure to read, know and honor work from the lineage of artists and writers who came before you. There’s so much art and writing that has informed and shaped children’s books over time, and it can be incredibly useful to go back and look at what certain authors and illustrators were doing. In the best studio moments, where things are really coming together and time might fall away while working on a piece, I feel a direct line to those creators.
I also think it’s really important to surround yourself with a community of other writers and/or artists who are working towards the same thing; whether it be within SCBWI, an independent critique group, or when in art school. It really helps to have a group of fellow creators that will support and uplift each other throughout the process.
CGE: What does the future hold for Hannah Salyer?
HS: I am incredibly excited to be working on my next book with HMH, slated to be published in the spring of 2022. It will focus on early human art; paintings, drawings and etchings on rock faces and caves, holding the earliest pieces of human history. I am deeply grateful to be able to work on a picture book about our enduring creative spirit. It is something that I have been totally besotted with ever since I was a very young kid, and I am looking forward to helping young readers explore and engage with ancient rock art.
I also have a few other story ideas that have been simmering on the back burner. I am excited to put some time into those, make some art and see where they lead.
Thanks so much for this interview Carol, and for your lovely questions!
CGE: Thank YOU, Hannah, for your great responses and beautiful work. I can’t wait to see more of your creations. And before this posted I saw in the Horn Book that Packs: Strength in Numbers was one of the books in the Calling Caldecott list. Amazing! Congratulations!
And if you’d like to connect with Hannah, you can do so here: