Danna Zeiger: As a pre-published picture book (and other kidlit) writer, the end process of how picture book text becomes enriched with an accompanying visual story in illustrations is still somewhat of a mystery! Of course, I know what I envision when I’m writing my text, but I also know that author’s visions seldom come to fruition as many brilliant minds come together to create a book.
I had the unique opportunity to interview author Jennifer Chambliss Bertman and illustrator Holly Hatam about their new picture book, A Good Deed Can Grow: a visually rich, engaging, and empowering picture book with separate stories in text and illustrations. It was such an honor to ask them about their process and journey together! My kids and I enjoyed reading the book and came up with questions together. I hope you’ll find this interview helpful!
Questions for the Author: https://jenniferchamblissbertman.com
DZ: What inspired such an impactful idea as a good deed spreading? I read it with my kids, and my son described it as “infectious good deeds” and was so intrigued!
JCB: I love that description, infectious good deeds! The idea was inspired by a bad morning I was having that was turned around by the simple kindness of a stranger. That got me thinking about how small things can make a big difference, and how there is a ripple effect in the ways we treat each other, and how that ripple effect will travel in ways we won’t ever know the full extent of. As I thought about this, a phrase popped in my head: The Good Deed That Grew. It felt like the title to a story, and I began putting my ideas into writing. (Eventually the phrase changed into A Good Deed Can Grow.)
DZ: How many illustrator notes did you include in the original manuscript? The stories from the illustrations are so beautiful, and they’re also quite distinct from the text!
JCB: No illustration notes from me. There wasn’t anything beyond the theme and sentiments expressed in my words that I felt was essential for an illustrator. There were a lot of directions I think an illustrator could have gone with my words, and I was excited to see what Holly would create.
DZ: When you wrote this manuscript, did you have a vision for what the illustrations might look like? How is the end-result consistent with your vision, and where does it differ?
JCB: One of my most favorite picture books is All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee. So if I had a vision it was along those lines: a story that has a universal feel but is depicted through illustrations that show a community and a variety of ways people connect with one another and spread kindness. I think that’s exactly what Holly did!
DZ: How much of the original manuscript changed during the editorial process? Did any of the text change during the illustration process in order to integrate with the visual story?
JCB: Very little changed. The manuscript I submitted to my editor is what was sent to Holly, and then I tweaked the wording here and there during the illustration process. Here’s an example . . .
In the final version, there are these lines:
“A smile that calms worries and nerves,
warms hearts . . .
or welcomes you home.”
The original version was:
“A smile that calms nerves,
warms a room,
or welcomes you home.”
The illustration was set outside, so I changed warms a room to warms hearts, which I also felt flowed better when read aloud. I added worries so each phrases began with the wuh sound (worries, warms, welcomes). And the comma was changed to an ellipses to work better with the page turn.
DZ: Since this isn’t your first book, and your other books have enjoyed success, is the publisher submission process different now than when you were a debut author? Any advice for us debut authors out there?
JCB: I’ve worked with my editor, Christy Ottaviano, on all five of my published books. The submission process is different now in that my agent and I typically would give her an exclusive first look. If she’s not able to buy a project from me, then the book would go on submission in the same way Book Scavenger did. I imagine now having a publishing track record, versus when I didn’t with Book Scavenger, might help in some ways, but a publishing track record alone isn’t enough. An editor has to really love a project, and sometimes even that isn’t enough for a book to sell! I think there is always an element of serendipity in play for any book on submission, that the right story is read by the right editor at the right time. And I know editors are always looking for new voices, so being a debut can be an advantage.
My advice for debut authors would be the same advice I try to follow today: Always work to level up your writing. Be brave and send your work out there. If it’s not received the way you hope, persevere. Keep trying. “Trying” might look like another revision, it might look like a fresh take at a story that didn’t sell, or it might look like writing something new. But if it still matters to you, don’t give up.
Questions for the Illustrator: https://hollyhatam.com
DZ: This is such a beautiful book with an inspirational message. I can imagine feeling excited and compelled to work on this. How did you feel the first time you read the manuscript?
HH: This manuscript filled me with joy! Its message of kindness, a fundamental theme in much of my art, aligns perfectly with one of my core values as a human being. As I read through its pages, vivid illustrations sprang to mind, and I felt a surge of inspiration from the very beginning. The manuscript truly stirred my soul, and I couldn’t wait to bring its message to life through my art.
DZ: How were you approached to illustrate this book? Do you ever turn down book manuscripts if they don’t resonate, and/or do you need to pitch ideas for illustrations during the illustrator hiring process?
HH: My agent presented me with this manuscript. Little Brown had approached them, specifically thinking of me as the illustrator. For me, accepting a manuscript is about feeling a connection to the material and having a vision for the illustrations from the first time I read the manuscript and that’s why I’ve declined offers in the past. But when I do feel inspired from the beginning, I know that my illustrations will flow from me with joy and passion. And while I’ve had to pitch ideas for my own written and illustrated works, it’s a different experience altogether when a manuscript is given to me – in this situation I don’t have to pitch ideas.
DZ: Can you share your process of developing your illustrations for a particular manuscript? Can you walk us through the start to finish, from getting hired, to completing all illustrations for this book?
HH: When I’m hired to work on a book, I usually start by creating a character sketch and development, but since there was no main character in A Good Deed Can Grow, I skipped that step. Instead, I read through the manuscript, wrote down ideas that came to mind, and then went back and expanded on them. I brainstormed concepts, compiled color palettes, and sketched out layout designs, ensuring that each illustration captured the story’s emotional beats. My sketches are detailed and refined, and often resemble the final illustration.
Once the sketches are complete, I send them to the editor and creative director for feedback. Sometimes, there’s a lot to revise, and other times, just a few tweaks here and there. This step can take a while, and I sometimes have to go back and forth with the team a few times before everything is just right. Once we’re all happy, it’s time to start painting!
I use Illustrator and Photoshop to create my illustrations, and painting is my favorite part because I get to add all sorts of textures and tiny details to my art. The painting process can take months because I add a lot of textures and intricate details to my illustrations. Once I’m done, I send the illustrations for more feedback, and I also work on finalizing the cover, endpapers, and title page.
When everyone gives the final illustrations the green light, I send all my files to the designer, who lays out the text. And then, I sit back and wait for the book to be printed and bound. It’s always an exciting feeling to finally hold the book in my hands after working on it for so long.
DZ: What artistic medium did you use to create the illustrations for this manuscript? As somebody with little artistic technical experience, I’d love to understand more about how you bring your illustrations to life.
HH: When I’m creating illustrations, I start by sketching them out in Adobe Photoshop. From there, I bring the sketches over to Adobe Illustrator where I can vectorize them. Once they’re vectorized, I bring them back to Photoshop where the real magic happens – painting!
To make my illustrations come alive, I use a library of different photos and textures that I’ve collected over time. Most of the photos and textures are public domain, but if I can’t find the perfect one, I’ll go out and take the photo myself.
My go-to brushes in Photoshop are watercolor and gouache. But, I like to keep things interesting, so I make a lot of my own brushes too.
DZ: Especially in a book like this, where there are stories being told in the illustrations that are distinct from the text, how did you develop, create, and build that aspect of the story? Did the art director come to you with notes, or did you ideate the visual story?
HH: When I was given the opportunity to illustrate this book, the art director gave me complete creative freedom. I knew right away that I wanted each spread to have plenty of white space. That way, the good deeds could shine and breathe on the page. But, there was one exception. On the final spread, I intentionally filled every inch with a colorful scene that showed all of the characters from the story coming together to show kindness to the Earth and to each other.
To connect each spread, I included tiny yellow heart flowers that float from page to page. They symbolize the good deeds from one page blowing over to the next. Plus, every character in the book is wearing an item of clothing with a heart pattern on it. It’s a small detail, but it ties everything together perfectly.
My goal was to create good deeds that kids could easily achieve and be inspired by. You don’t need to do something grand to make a difference. A simple act of kindness can create big ripples of positive change.
DZ: Where did you get your inspiration for the appearance of the various characters? How do you decide what each character looks like?
HH: Diversity and representation is a fundamental aspect of my work as an artist. Growing up as a person of color, I never had the chance to see myself reflected in the books or TV shows I consumed. Now, as a mother of a biracial child, diversity has become even more crucial to me. When I create characters for my books, it’s effortless for me to include kids from every culture and ethnicity. It’s just a natural extension of who I am as an artist.
I’m especially drawn to creating quirky characters. My little boy, with his eccentric sense of style, serves as a major inspiration. Seeing how confident he is in his fashion choices is something I find so inspiring. As a result, my characters often wear the wildest outfits and hairstyles, reflecting the beauty and diversity of the world around us.
Questions for both Author and Illustrator!
DZ: How much contact/interaction did the two of you have during the illustration process? Have you kept in touch since? Do you ever go to book signings together?
JCB: All communication about the book was done through our editor, which I think is typical for most picture books. (But Holly would know better than me as she’s published so many!) We’ve kept in touch via social media and recently did a virtual event with Books of Wonder, which was lots of fun. I’d love to meet Holly in person or do a book signing, but as we live in different countries, the logistics for that would be tricky. But maybe someday!
HH: We didn’t really communicate during the creation of the illustrations, which is how things work in our industry. Typically, authors and illustrators don’t have much interaction. But I make it a point to connect with the authors I work with, and in most cases, we’re already fans of each other or connected on social media. In Jen’s case, I was a huge fan of hers for years and had read all of her middle-grade books. So when my agent approached me with her manuscript, I was thrilled!
Recently, Jenn and I did a virtual book event together with Books of Wonder, which was a lot of fun. Hopefully, we can meet in person someday!
DZ: A huge thank you to Jennifer and Holly for their thoughtful replies!
Very interesting to hear from both the author and the illustrator. Great interview!
Great interview! Thank you for sharing! 🙂
Loved this interview! Can’t wait to get the book.
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Thanks so much, Carol! 🙂
I love how small changes to a PB MS can make a big difference in how it feels to the reader. And I love how the illustrator intentionally changed to full color for the final spread. Terrific interview! I’m loving my copy of this book!
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Right?? I love noticing these little easter eggs and surprises too. It’s so fun to read about the creative process. The book is beautiful!
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Great interview! I especially liked hearing about how Holly worked in little details at the end to tie the illustrations together thematically.
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Thanks so much, Hilary! It was eye-opening for me, personally. I love hearing from both creators :-).