This is the book I didn’t know I needed right now. A story of siblings, seasons, and seeing the bright side of any day, More Than Sunny put a smile on my heart from start to finish and I am so happy to have the opportunity to chat with author/illustrator, Shelley Johannes about her picture book debut!
KC: I’m going to start by saying we are big fans of your Beatrice Zinker, Upside Down Thinker chapter book series in our house! Where did you get the idea for your picture book debut, More Than Sunny, and did you always want to write picture books?
SJ: Thank you, Kim! And thanks so much for having me on Writers Rumpus today. I’m so excited to be here!
One of my favorite things about writing Beatrice has been connecting with so many awesome readers who are fellow upside down thinkers and kindred spirits.
The spark for More Than Sunny came (eight years ago!) when my son Matthew was working on a first-grade weather chart. Instead of choosing one of the standard options on his paper, he looked outside and declared, “Hey, it’s sunny and birdy today!” His unexpected answer brought immediate joy as we pressed our noses to the window and watched the hilarious birds playing in our pine tree. His simple turn of phrase made us pay attention to the good things right in front of us, and transformed weather into more than weather. When he dubbed the next day “windy and squirrelly”, I knew it had to be a book someday.
As a kid I dreamed of becoming a writer or an artist when I grew up. The yearning was very vague though, and seemed impossible. . . until I became a parent and fell in love with picture books, the perfect combination of words and art. The winding road to making books involved a decade-long career in architecture, then another in freelance illustration and parenting, and looking back, every step of the journey was so necessary to helping me become the author/illustrator I am today.
KC: How wonderfully observant of your son! I’m sure he is a constant source of picture book ideas! Can you share a little bit about your process for writing/illustrating More Than Sunny?
SJ: So much of the creative process is about trust. Trusting yourself. Trusting the journey. Trusting your collaborators. For this book, I really trusted the creative back-and-forth with my (insert a thesaurus of gushy adjectives here) agent Stephen Barr. The trick with More Than Sunny was discovering how to create a clear and seamless narrative with only dialogue word pairings—and the key was to keep playing, round after round, until all the right words found their place.
The artwork was an exercise in trust and play too. It took me awhile to find something that felt distinct from my Beatrice Zinker illustrations, but that was loose and joyful and equally me. I created the final art on layers of tracing paper with pencil, markers, colored pencils, crayons and lots of different (new to me) pastels, then pieced everything together in Photoshop. The whole process was a joy from start to finish and taught me so much about how I work best.
KC: What process do you find more challenging, writing/illustrating picture books or writing/illustrating chapter books?
SJ: Picture books definitely fit into the rhythm of life a bit easier right now. When I’m working on a longer manuscript, I need larger blocks of time to concentrate and often spend ten hour days at Starbucks or Panera. With picture books, I make lots of progress in the ebb and flow and margins of my day-to-day. I can keep playing around and working things out while I’m driving, or showering, or making my kids smoothies. When I get interrupted, it’s so much easier to jump right back into a picture book for me. That said, I love both formats so much, and the exhilaration of trying new things, so I could never actually pick a favorite!
KC: 10 hour stretches to write sounds equal parts wonderful and exhausting! Do you have a specific writing schedule or any helpful writing habits that you’ll let us in on?
SJ: I’m not very scheduled or habitual, but I have lots of tricks! For me, most creative success is about winning the mental game and not psyching myself out. I’m all about anything that keeps me in “play” mode rather than “get it right” mode. Trying new art supplies is one of my favorite tricks for that. Or working in just one color for the day. I keep sketchbooks and art supplies everywhere—all over the house, in various car compartments, jackets, bags, and pockets—so sketching is a natural part of life. I also love using my studio walls to pin constantly-evolving storyboards. So much gets accomplished by glancing at the pages as I walk past them throughout the day. There’s something so helpful about having the book be that physically tangible. I’m also a big fan of non-committal sticky notes to play with ideas!
This year, I’ve returned to being creative for non-productive purposes, and it’s magical. I’ve been writing poetry and learning to play the guitar and birding and watching tv shows—just for the joy of it—and making new things can’t help but flow out of that.
KC: That sounds really magical- I love it! What are you working on now/next and where can people follow you online?
SJ: I’m about to dive into final art on my second picture book, which I’m really excited about! I get enthusiastically geeky about all the decisions and exploration that happens at this stage. Beyond that, I have a couple other book ideas always spinning in the background of my brain.
Shelley Johannes is the author/illustrator of the Beatrice Zinker, Upside Down Thinker chapter book series. A former architectural designer, she has a fondness for tracing paper, process, and accidental discoveries. She and her family live in Michigan with a trio of feathered friends, who make every day sunny and birdy. More Than Sunny is her debut picture book.