René Bartos: I am so excited to be able to chat with author/illustrator Deborah Freedman today! Welcome to Writers’ Rumpus, Deborah! Can you tell me a little about what inspired you to write and illustrate for children and your journey into the kidlit world?
Deborah Freedman: Hi René!
It keeps things interesting, doesn’t it, that people enter our field from so many different directions? I’m actually trained as an architect, and then, like a lot of kidlit writers, I reconnected with picturebooks after having children. While we spent hours at the library and read books by 100’s, I fell in love with the picturebook as an artform—so simple, but at the same time so deliciously complex—layering writing and art and design, all things I love! I started by making tiny, personal books for them, and then played around for years before I finally started taking my work more seriously—putting together a portfolio, sending it around, joining SCBWI—you know, all the things. Eventually, an editor at Knopf saw my artwork at a conference and invited me to send her work, which lead to my first book, Scribble.
RB: Your latest book Tiny Dino published by Viking Children’s Books was released on April 19, 2022. This book is so inspirational and full of heart! Could you share with us what sparked the idea for the book? Were there other children’s books that inspired you or were mentor texts?
DF: While I was doing research for something else, I stumbled on an article in Scientific American, “How Dinosaurs Shrank and Became Birds.” By now I know that young dino fans these days are all aware that birds are dinosaurs—but I’d never learned that. It was news to me! I was fascinated by this information and my brain immediately lit up with the idea for Tiny Dino.
I was primed for it, because I’d been thinking a lot about trying nonfiction, feeling inspired by my friends who write it and how they manage to find a story thread in stacks of research on their topic. Before I stumbled on the Scientific American article, I’d even read Melissa Stewarts 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books, and was fascinated by all she had to say about nonfiction and the many forms it can take.
Then, once I was actively working on Tiny Dino, I was directly inspired by not just the masterful writing and art in Giant Squid, nonfiction by Candance Fleming and Eric Rohmann, but also the dramatic pacing—particularly how the story begins on the first several pages, before rolling into the title page.
RB: Tiny Dino is such an adorable book. What a gift you have for writing, illustration, and presenting information in a kid-friendly way! I love informational picture books, and in Tiny Dino you have woven in both science and social emotional learning themes so beautifully. I recently read a review of Tiny Dino: “Freedman also folds in lessons on both science and the dangers of assumptions. An innovative introduction to the relatedness of all animals that will delight budding biologists and dino mavens alike.”-Kirkus, starred review. What a great tribute to your work! Do you have any advice for those of us working on children’s nonfiction and informational fiction?
DF: I’m so pleased that you and the reviewer, “get” what I was after! I don’t know that I’m the author to ask about nonfiction, since all of my books are officially classified as fiction, though it’s true, even that often requires a certain amount of research. For instance, in Carl and the Meaning of Life, my main character is an earthworm who goes around asking other animals about their purpose in life. Worms, mice, rabbits, foxes… don’t talk. So it’s fiction, obviously. Still, my world has to be believable. So my worm did not, for instance, talk to a bird—because I didn’t want to create unwanted tension for any reader aware that many birds eat worms! It might have taken them out of the story. So I’d say writing fiction isn’t an excuse to do any old thing; it’s still important to maintain a certain amount of internal logic.
My challenge for Tiny Dino was finding the right balance between the story and the facts layered into it. I wanted the story to flow with or without the sidebars, hopefully to engage both young fiction and nonfiction lovers.
RB: The illustrations in Tiny Dino are charming! Would you tell us a bit more about the illustrations? Do you have a favorite spread?
DF: Thanks, René! I had a lot of fun with this book. In the illustrations, I wanted to differentiate between the hummingbird—a contemporary dinosaur—and the extinct dinosaurs it’s related to—so I created all of the extant characters in watercolor, and the extinct dinosaurs and informational bits as white line drawings. The spread below is probably most representative of that.
RB: Please tell us more about your overall creative process. Do you sketch illustrations first or does the text of a story come to you first and then the illustrations? Or do you work a little on both simultaneously?
DF: As I always tell kids, I write with words and pictures. So even when I pull one out to work on alone, I never stop thinking about the other. I begin working out my story by spilling my brain onto the pages of tiny notebooks, and then move onto thumbnails and typed out text which I can show to my agent or editor. I stay in this quick, messy space for a long time, until the final story is worked out. I don’t like to get too precious with my sketches yet, because that might discourage me from doing the rewriting and rewriting and rewriting that needs to happen!
RB: You have published several other books for children. Could you tell us about some of these? Do you approach each one differently in terms of developing the text and illustrations?
DF: Tiny Dino is my ninth book, and honestly, I thought this writing thing would be easier for me by now! While I definitely know more than I did starting out, each book is its own thing with its own set of challenges and learning curve, maybe because I can’t resist giving myself new challenges each time.
For instance, with my book Shy, I wondered if I could tell a story where the main character doesn’t appear visually until the end of the book. I mean, independent readers read books without pictures all the time, right? Could I even do a few really abstract spreads, with no characters at all? I was curious to see how much could I get away with in a picturebook. Along the way, I learned a lot about color, and how much work color alone could help me drive the emotional arc of the story.
That color exploration also influenced This House, Once, since I was working on it and Shy at the same time. I also tried experimenting with structure in This House, Once. Then, more recently, in Is Was, I challenged myself to think of the text almost like background music for the illustrations—as close as I’ve come to making a wordless picturebook.
RB: Do you have any advice for author and/or illustrators new to the kidlit business? Any helpful tips or best practices to share with us?
DF: I always think of something my husband said to me back in the beginning, when I was getting frustrated by rejections, etc… I asked him, “when do I just give up on this?” And he said, “give up? Why would you do that? You love making books. The question you should be asking yourself is, why are you doing this in the first place?” 20-something years later, it still centers me to have an honest think on that why question periodically.
RB: Such wise advice. If you love it, keep creating! Could you share with us how you find support in writing and illustrating? Do you have a community of writers or critique groups who help to inspire your work?
DF: I treasure our wonderful community in children’s literature. I joined our local SCBWI chapter just as I sold my first book, and wished I’d done it sooner! It’s a circle of love and inspiration that I didn’t even know I needed and now means the world to me; I’ve made dear friends and am in two spin-off groups that meet sort-of regularly. Pre-Covid, I also loved going to conferences and widening the circle even more, getting to know authors and illustrators (and teachers and librarians!) from all around the country.
RB: Yes, having those supportive circles is so important! Do you have any other children’s books in the works? We look forward to seeing more!
DF: Oh, I always have something in the works, including challenges to myself that I may totally fail at! But yes, there are books actually in the pipeline — I’m in the editing phase of another informational-fiction picturebook with Viking, and also finishing up illustrations for a collection of poetry by Georgia Heard and Rebecca Kai-Dotlich, Welcome to the Wonder House. It’s my first time illustrating someone else’s words, which are taking me to all kinds of new places.
RB: Thank you so much Deborah! We look forward to enjoying more of your work in the future.
Thank you, René, for your thoughtful questions. And thanks, Writers’ Rumpus!