Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Expressing the Depths of your Heart and Sustaining yourself Economically


Cory brought me peonies mixed with chamomile flowers. We stood on my porch and the clouds were grey and heavy with rain, making our city in the desert feel quiet and still. Cory is a professional musician with the San Juan Symphony and works with an independent group of flamenco dancers called Spanish Broom, dancing in a bistro in the Corrales Village adjacent to Albuquerque.

With flowers and an open heart, Cory thought critically out loud about why he's doing what he does.

He ruminated about hearing professional musicians from national orchestras sighing with relief that their work was at a still when the pandemic put a pause to the world. He felt certain that music to him meant more than a job, that there was meaning in creativity. That there was reason to make music outside of professional accolades, and that there had to be a balance between expressing the depths of your heart and sustaining yourself economically.

I wonder a lot, too.  My first book in progress Where Butterflies Fill the Sky (Bloomsbury 2022) is from my deepest heartbreak and anguish. It's about the love I have of people and home and the luck of coming to a city where people treat me as an equal. It's a short expression of a bureaucracy that robbed me of a normal life among my family. Full of symbolism like bulls from ancient Dilmun art as background characters and walking fish to accompany the main character. It's deeply personal, and something which affects my life every single day, still.

Though I wonder if I have anything else to offer as a writer and artist. Another personal story that I can craft into something dream-like? Or something strictly imaginative, creative? Am I able as a person to make a book about toast? Dinosaurs and pancakes? Or is all I have to offer is stories from the margins? How have I come to hold these matters as parallel to each other? I often feel very lighthearted and happy, and wonder how to explore those feelings in my art, while otherwise no matter where I am in the world I have to explain how my fringe belonging fits in society.

I make small, single illustrative watercolor vignettes almost daily to express things like Cory's flowers and honest heart. Or things like “Summers like Boars Far from the Sea” expressing a change of time, change of place, the joy of having a close friend and even witnessing the end this friendship. Playing with reality and imbuing it with imagination.

Snapping at ideas like a lobster at a butterfly.

Exploring brave figures from cultures I currently reside with, like Cesar Chavez, and thinking of my illiterate grandparents.

Or a friendship like an octopus rolled up in sea shells.

A look at my cousin Abbass when he came across two stray macaws.


Exploring the pain of losing a parent and their appearance in a dream.

Trying to figure out how to build these ideas into larger works, like a piano in water, wishing I had been brave enough to go home sooner.

I wonder what club soda really is. What it's like to be a part of a low-rider procession. To be a garlic farmer and what those flowers could look like. If I continually have to betray myself for the comfort of others.


Learning that pink dolphins exist in rivers, or translating poetry into art.

Under the weight of locusts and grief, people saw him burn his old coat among the jasmine flowers.” Or reducing the importance of men visually in my Grandma's portrait.

And continually building strength. Rejection after rejection after rejection.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Picture book master studies

Master Studies. 

As artists, I think most of us have heard the term “master studies” used to train and develop budding artists in different mediums. For those who don’t know, the concept is going to a museum (or studying a high resolution reproduction/digital image) and trying to recreate a painting of a historical artist who was well into their established technique--a master of their painting style. We can learn different things from doing this: composition, color palette, how to use color and dark/light to focus the eye, how they apply the paint, etc. In some museums, there would be days where you could set up your canvas IN the museum and paint/recreate the artwork en plein air.

But how does one do a master study of picture books? I decided to try and find out. 

First, I had to establish parameters. How do I find books to read? How do I find artists? What types of books am I reviewing? I knew that I was specifically interested in studying INTERNATIONAL picture books as opposed to just books in the American market. I started with two books that I purchased when I traveled internationally: one purchased in Italy, one purchased in Japan. Researching these illustrators led me to looking at blogs, international picture book conferences, international picture book journals, and, more specifically, awards and lifetime achievement lists created by these organizations. While awards can be both very politicized and very subjective, most tend to include a jury of peers or industry professionals. I figured this was a good baseline for trying to determine and define a MASTER picture book creator. 

Here’s a selection of sources that I have or will source names of authors/illustrators from:

Second, build a list. You will probably grow your list faster than you are able to research/read books created by these authors or artists. I have a Google Keep list I started to specifically track award-winning international illustrators.

Google keep list of picture book creators

Third, research. This takes a lot of time, but can also be a lot of fun when you go down the rabbit hole. The type of research also comes in multiple forms. When I find an artist I want to study, I first go and see which of their titles are available to be checked out through my local library. Alternatively, if you want to own the books you study, you can see what is available for purchase in your country by that creator. I also try to research the artist online, reading wikipedia entries, interviews, and occasionally stumbling upon a video about the artist and their creations, such as this interview with Satoe Tone.

Fourth, acquire your source material to study. I usually try to check out 2-3 books from an artist if they are available to get a sense of the type of books the author/illustrator creates and just in case the book(s) they are known for are illustrated books that do not fall within my self-determined parameters of “picture book.” I decided that I would focus on books that fell within the parameters of a traditional/classic picture book: larger format with minimal words; approximately 32-48 pages, occasionally slightly longer; not a graphic novel/comic book format; not a board book aimed towards the youngest age range (0-2 years); not a chapter book with illustrations. 

Cover image for La Carota Gigante by Satoe Tone
Cover of La Carota Gigante by Satoe Tone

one interior spread of La Carota Gigante showing rabbits carrying a giant carrot, with handwritten notes below book.
interior spread for La Carota Gigante with my notes in progress

Fifth, study your source material. Read. Read it again. And again. Study it. Thoroughly. This stage loops back to how you define your original parameters: WHAT are you studying within this book? HOW are you tracking what you are studying? 

Cover for Ojos by Iwona Chmielewska
Cover for Ojos by Iwona Chmielewska

Studying the role of die cuts and page turns in the picture book Ojos. The book is open to a spread with one line of text on the lower left hand page and two eyes staring at you from the right hand page.
Studying the role of die cuts and page turns in the picture book, Ojos

The same spread as the previous image, this time with a hand lifting the page and poking a finger through the hole to show the eye shapes cut out of the page on the right hand side.
As you turn the physical page, the die cuts become apparent

The following spread in the book Ojos that reveals a present on the left hand side and two flowers on the right hand side. The center of the two flowers made up the pupils of the original eye image.
Layers unfold in the story when the eyes are revealed to be more than what is expected at first glance.

I originally defined my research project as studying “international picture books” and then my coworker sent me a digital picture book from India. I read it, it was a beautiful book, but in doing so, I realized there was something missing in this book: what I REALLY wanted to study was “international picture books in their tangible, printed format.” I was curious about the decisions on trim size, paper stock, binding types, typefaces and sizes, color palettes, special finishes, and the physical page turn effect of the book. You know, all the geeky, design-oriented decisions that were made in producing the physical product that is a picture book. Just the thing that this geeky graphic designer and illustrator loves. 

I began to document my research in what will probably be my one-and-only meticulously organized sketchbook. I wanted each book study to fill a single page and I broke down my categories to fill in on each page as follows:

  • Sketch of cover art

  • Color palette: what 6(ish) colors were the most dominant in this book?

  • Title: In both original language and English, if possible

  • Author: Who wrote the book?

  • Illustrator: who illustrated the book? Is this the same as the author?

  • Publisher(s): more than one if it’s a translation; you can often find the original publisher name on the copyright page

  • Country/Countries: Where did this book originate and/or where was this creator from and/or where was this translation from? Sometimes they are not the same.

  • Theme: VERY brief summary of what the book is about

  • Pages: length of book

  • Cover: is there a dust jacket? Is there a printed illustration on the case bound books that differs from the dust jacket? Special finishes? 

  • Endsheets: Are these just plain pages of a contrasting color/stock? Are there illustrations on the endsheets that expand on the story?

  • Text: font choice(s)? Font size? Font color? specific/repeating placement on the pages? Are the lines of text broken into poetic stanzas? Are there varying sizes/colors/fonts to emphasize or represent different things?

  • Illustrations: what materials do they use? Is there a recurring pattern to how the illustrations are presented? How many are double-page spreads, single pages, vignettes? 

  • Other: a little information about the artist or awards this book won

  • Translation format: If not printed in English, I typically used Google Translate to comprehend the text well enough to get a sense of the book as a whole. While there is definitely an elegance of words and cadence lost in translation, my primary focus is from the visual/artistic standpoint of the book including how the text VISUALLY appears on a page. 

  • Origin of book: usually checked out from LAPL, but occasionally a purchased title

Image of sketchbook with handwritten notes analyzing the book Little Bird by Germano Zullo, illustrated by Albertine. On top of the notebook rests an issue of Bookbird journal. Listed on the cover is "2020 Hans Christian Anderson Award Winners
Using the journal Bookbird to discover creators, specifically their annual issue highlighting Hans Christian Andersen Award Winners and Finalists. Underneath sits my handwritten notes documenting my research of a book illustrated by Albertine, one of the creators interviewed in this issue

Close up of the title of an article within Bookbird 2020 vol. 58 no. 3, entitled "I am an author who draws: an interview with Albertine, Winner of the 2020 Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration" side by side with my handwritten analysis of Albertine's artwork in Little Bird by Germano Zullo. The notes include a thumbnail sketch of the cover, 6 circles of color showing the main color palette and detailed notes about the book.
An article on Albertine lead to my reading Little Bird by Germano Zullo and illustrated by Albertine. These articles can give you more insight into the breadth of a creator's work and some of their thought process that goes into each creation. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Becoming a Creative Jedi

You know how whenever just about anyone first hears that you make picture books, their immediate follow-up is, "oh! I've always had this idea for a picture book..." Guess what? - Me too. Having ideas and getting them on the page are two very different beasts. I have a baby animal petting zoo of ideas, but growing them into full-fledged manuscripts and dummies is a job for the Mother of Dragons. As an illustrator first and an aspiring author at present, I've struggled to write to the finish. Stringing those ideas together like pearls feels impossible. Or, at least it did. 

I was going to call this post something like "Harnessing Your Creative Morning Magic." Since today is May the 4th, it is now, of course, titled "Becoming a Creative Jedi." 

I'm early in my training, but after years of trying to harness my frenetic creative energy, I've been successfully nurturing two Jedi-level mind tricks to conquer my personal Darkside.  It's my goal to help you harness your Force.  After all, we're our only hope.

Lesson 1: Commit Your Life

"A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one, long time have I watched. All his life, he has looked away to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing." --Yoda 


Today is all we have. You hear this all the time, but for me, one day, it clicked. I like big pictures. I like minutia. Like many artists, it's the mid-field that gets me in trouble. I can ace my to-do list in the morning, make sure to get to bed at a reasonable hour a few days a week, write for a bit here and there when it feels good, and hit the gym Monday - Wednesday, but somewhere along the way, things fall apart. I have lofty and grand "somedays" in my mind, but they distract from the simple beauty of my to-day.

Putting this together at last, I set myself to task. I decided that I was going to dedicate myself, body, and soul to the making. All I needed to do was have One Perfect Day. For me, a perfect day means not forgetting to eat until I'm mumbling and mad at 2 in the afternoon; it means working out, so I'm tired enough to go to bed at a decent hour, that way, I can get up out of bed when my Muse is ready to go at six am. With ONE PERFECT DAY activated in my life, I never miss sitting with my Muse because they've grown tired of waiting in my studio while I sleep off a 2 am TRUE CRIME binge. ONE PERFECT DAY means living the life I imagine a writer to live, and the key here - is writing every day. 

Every night I sit down with a little black book and plan my ONE PERFECT DAY. Everything serves the books in some way. I am happy and fulfilled, and for the first time in my life, my mind is where I am, what I am doing - here in the studio, where I'm living my most profound commitment. 

As an aside, as an artist living in a pandemic with a spouse who is in close quarters too, sharing my OPD plan with my husband has eliminated the daily struggle for creative space I've had since last March. Everyone in the house knows that I have a perfect day ahead of me. No one expects me to go to Trader Joe's with them at 11 am on a Thursday anymore. Jedis do not go to TJ's before noon on a weekday. They are in training. 

I challenge you to attempt ONE PERFECT DAY. Design your day to serve your Muse and your purpose. Take it up with complete sincerity. I'm convinced you'll find it astonishing what your Jedi can do. 

Lesson 2: Ask the Right Questions

"Which way is the right way?" Ezra asks as he steps inside the Jedi Temple. 

To which the tiny wise master Yoda responds, "The wrong question, that is."  



For years I have worked half-heartedly following THE ARTIST'S WAY, by Julia Cameron. The thing that stuck with me was Morning Pages. I do them when I'm struggling emotionally or artistically, and they always help. In the past month, I've started using them as my figurative lightsaber. This idea came to me, like nearly all my good ideas do, during morning pages. For those who aren't familiar with the practice, morning pages are simply three pages of longhand, a stream of conscious writing, done first thing in the morning upon waking up.*

"They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind - and they are for your eyes only." - Julia Cameron

I've come to realize that my natural inclination when I hit a creative snag is to talk about it. I grew up as an apprentice to my fine-artist father, and now he lives downstairs in my house - he's clever about this stuff, so is my chef husband and my mom, who all live here too. My best friends are all writers and illustrators of picture books, and they're all just a phone call away. 

Guess what writing is not? Writing is not talking about it. I've been living with this nasty habit, and I hadn't even recognized it. The only way I can access my Muse is by talking to them. The less crazy way to do that is through longhand writing three pages in the wee hours of the morning before I'm fully awake. 

When I'm writing my pages, I intentionally open myself to asking creative questions and answering them. I do it half paying attention, letting my subconscious run the show. When I finish the day's pages, I take out three highlighters, turn to yesterday's pages, and highlight each sentence or thought I scrawled about my book. I highlight each new idea with a different color. Then I type those ideas out and cut them into strips. Like spaghetti confetti, I toss the strips into a bell jar on my writing table. If I hit a wall in my work, I fish out a strip of paper or three. The answer is almost always sitting in that jar at my elbow. I've never experienced anything like this magic; I'm almost nervous about sharing it, lest it stops working. Unseen, it's hard to believe a creative force exists, but wave your hand, and read what you wrote yesterday. Just like that, your manuscript will bend as easily as a stormtrooper under the spell of Obi-Wan. 

I have tried to access this process with my conscious self. Nope. Doesn't work. I 100% believe I'm more brilliant in pages. That's where I meet my Muse. The Muse is your personal Yoda, and you ask the wrong questions, you do. 

I hope that these two practices can come alongside you on your journey to control your Force. 

I want to remind you of one critical Jedi thought you should carry in your pocket all year, not just on this particular day. 

In this business, I find there to be a fair amount of doomsaying. I was a member of SCBWI when the publishing industry was convinced the Kindle was going to send us obsolete, and again when no one could fathom how you'd possibly sell a graphic novel. If your Muse is there for you in your studio on your ONE PERFECT DAY, do NOT second guess them! 

"Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future." --Yoda,

I wish you all the best as you set out to conquer your Darkside, and, of course, today especially, May the 4th be with you! 

Below you'll find a bit of an early draft to something a nerdy, struggling writer once hoped might turn out cool.


Amber Alvarez is the illustrator of Diana Murray's WILD ABOUT DADS, published by Macmillan Kids books, and the forthcoming MY MAGIC WAND, written by Pat Mora, and published by Lee & Low Books!

See more of her work at AmberAlvarez.com and on Instagram @SheSureisSketchy

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Accountability groups and time boxing to help find focus

When the pandemic hit last year, I struggled to focus as society and the world as we knew it changed before our eyes. I had deadlines to meet, and projects to finish, but I was perpetually distracted, sleeping badly, and anxious. And it makes sense -- nothing this past year has been normal and it's even less normal to push through it and work anyway

In those early weeks, all I could do was draw coloring pages for families stuck at home, posted to Instagram, as some small way to help someone out there who might be struggling, too:

I'm part of the community at You Belong Here, an arts and co-working space here in San Diego. Last March, when I presented my focus problem during our entrepreneur meetups (now happening virtually on Zoom), my friend Nic enthusiastically suggested: CAVE DAY! Cave Day runs 1 and 3 hour work sessions on Zoom (like a silent study hall) facilitated by trained guides who lead participants through stretches and refreshing periodic breaks.

This combination of accountability and time boxing -- has really helped me, and maybe something like this will help you if you're struggling with focus, too.

A painting by Susie Ghahremani, created during Cave Day virtual co-working sessions

Accountability to me means setting goals or making plans with others in the same position. 

At Cave Day, hundreds of people working from home join sessions daily, all hoping to move the needle on our projects or work. Our cameras are all on as we video conference in silence together. We are a community of people who want to improve our focus and to have better boundaries around our work. At this point, I typically participate in Cave Day 5 days a week, and have logged hundreds of sessions. They continue to be helpful to me.

Accountability can also look like joining a group like 12x12, Storystorm, entering your work in a SCBWI manuscript review or portfolio show, a 100 Day Project, or taking a class -- all of which meet a specific challenge with SMART goal criteria.

What are SMART goals? SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-based.

For example, in the 12x12 challenge: it's writing / revising 12 picture book texts during the course of a year. For Storystorm, it's generating a picture book idea every day for 30 consecutive days, in January. Specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based -- with a community engaged in the same.

Time Boxing for me means dedicating a specific time to a specific task. By signing up for a 3 hour session on Cave Day, I can plan the work I want to do during that period of time. That has helped with the toxic feeling of Always Needing To Be Working. It also helps me set up an actionable plan around when I'll focus and what I'll accomplish. It also helps me to time box things like learning, revisions, working on new artwork, emailing, using social media, etc.

One hallmark of this past year is that time has felt basically meaningless when every day feels exactly the same, so time boxing helps with that feeling as well. Here's more info about time boxing.

It's hard to believe we're coming up on a year of pandemic life. During this time, folks here at KidLitArtists have continued illustrating, writing, creating, and releasing new books, while also tending to their kids and parents and friends and communities and mental/physical health. It's a lot! It was a lot even before the pandemic.

If you're not able to focus -- or you're feeling like you're just barely getting by -- you're not alone. Hope these tips help you, and please share your tips in the comments!

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Susie Ghahremani (@boygirlparty) is the author and illustrator of picture books STACK THE CATS and BALANCE THE BIRDS

She is also the illustrator of WHAT WILL GROW by Jennifer Ward, WHAT WILL HATCH by Jennifer Ward, LITTLE MUIR'S SONG by John Muir, SHE WANTED TO BE HAUNTED by Marcus Ewert, and LITTLE MUIR'S NIGHT by John Muir.

She paints with gouache, wanders in forests, listens to vinyl records, and snuggles her baby nieces.

Find her at: Boygirlparty | Patreon | Etsy | Fb | Twitter | Instagram | TikTok

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Online Portfolio Showcase Winners from the 2021 SCBWI Winter Conference

 by Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Congrats to everyone who submitted portfolios to the SCBWI Winter Conference Portfolio Showcase! Whether or not you won an award, kudos for putting yourself out there. Editors, art directors and agents have been looking through your work, as well as fellow creators.

For those who missed it, you can still browse all portfolios until March 31st, 2021.

You can find a list of the winners of the SCBWI Winter Conference Portfolio Showcase on the SCBWI Winter Conference Blog, but here is a list along with links to where you can find out more about everyone's work.

Portfolio Showcase Grand Prize Winners:

Leanne Hatch - LeeanneHatch.com. Represented by Janine Le at Sheldon Folgelman Agency. You can find Leanne on Instagram at @leannehatch_illustration. Previously Leanne won the SCBWI Narrative Art Award in 2020 and an Honor Award at the 2020 SCBWI Winter Conference.

Xin Li - LiXin.no.  Xin is a freelance illustrator based in Norway, born and raised in China. You can find Xin on Instagram at @lixin.illustration and Twitter at @lixinmakesart.

Portfolio Showcase Honors:

Anne Appert - Also on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Represented by Charlotte Wenger at Prospect Agency.

Reggie Brown - Also on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Represented by The Cat Agency.

Lenny Wen - Also on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Represented by The Cat Agency.

Estrela Lourenco - Also on Twitter, Instagram. Represented by James McGowan at Bookends Literary Agency.

Congrats to all!

You can find more news and takeaways from the 2021 SCBWI Winter Conference at the SCBWI Conference Blog; I was on Team Blog this year!


Debbie Ridpath Ohi is the author and illustrator of SAM & EVA and WHERE ARE MY BOOKS?, both with Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers. Her illustrations have appeared in books by Michael Ian Black, Judy Blume, Aaron Reynolds, Linda Sue Park, Rob Sanders, Lauren McLaughlin and others. You can find out more about Debbie and her work at DebbieOhi.com, Twitter at @inkyelbows and Instagram at @inkygirl.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Art & Fear— Wisdom for Working Artists PLUS: Book Giveaway

 by Dorothia Rohner

Recently, I reread a book that my mother gave me years ago. Since then, I have referred to it many times on my artistic journey. 

Art and Fear–Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of ARTMAKING. An Artist's Survival Guide. By David Bayles and Ted Orland

This book is filled with nuggets of wisdom that discuss the importance of finding your own work. The authors explore the nature of being an artist and pose questions and offer suggestions for those of us who have a passion to create.

Each time I read the book, it helps me to examine why I create, what I am trying to achieve and how I want to execute the work. Making books for children takes patience, determination, imagination, grit and patience among other traits. This books discusses why some artists keep going and some fail to find the courage to forge on. 

I have selected eight quotes to share with you here. I hope that these quotes will remind you that you are not alone on your creative journey and give you the courage to keep making books for children. 

The world needs more books made by kind and gentle people. 

Book Giveaway: 

I will be giving away a copy of Art and Fear.  Scroll down to see how you can enter to win.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Parallel Stories

 After attending Toni Buzzeo's wonderful workshop at The Writers' Loft on picture book structures, I started noticing them everywhere – Mirror, Circular, 3-tries, and Parallel stories: this is where the plot follows two characters on separate journeys through the story. Sometimes the two characters come together at the end, and sometimes they don't but their experiences echo each other. You see a lot of compositional mirroring that is frequently found in any plot where there is a lot of symmetry either between characters or between parts of the story.

Todays examples are all from author-illustrators! Toot and Puddle by Holly Hobbie, Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey, and Emma and Julia Love Ballet by Barbara McClintock.

Toot and Puddle by Holly Hobbie: 
This story follows two friends: one who is a homebody and one who likes to go adventuring. Puddle stays home and enjoys life there, while Toot travels the world and sends back postcards. The months of the year serve as a framework, and at the end of the year Toot comes home.

A typical spread shows a scene with Toot and a postcard on the left, and a scene with Puddle on the right. The two stories progress side by side.

I personally think this is one of the most perfect parallel stories I've ever read. This story alternates the two main character's adventures: first you see Sal eating blueberries with her mother, then Little Bear follows in almost exactly the same fashion. A lot of humor comes from anticipating that what you just saw happen to Sal will now happen with Little Bear, or vice versa. The two main characters never meet, but a great amount of delight can be found in reading about their two, almost exactly the same, adventures. 

Image © Robert McCloskey
Image © Robert McCloskey
Image © Robert McCloskey

Image © Robert McCloskey

This story involves a day in the life of the two title characters: Emma, who is a little girl taking ballet lessons, and Julia, who is a professional ballerina. At the end, Emma goes to Julia's performance, which sweetly ties the characters together as well as ending the day. 
Image © Barbara McClintock
Image © Barbara McClintock

Image © Barbara McClintock

I hope you find exploring story structures to be as fun and helpful as I do! 

Jen Betton wrote and illustrated HEDGEHOG NEEDS A HUG (Penguin-Putnam) and illustrated TWILIGHT CHANT by Holly Thompson (Clarion-HMH). Her newest book, BARN AT NIGHT, written by Michelle Houts and published by Feeding Minds Press will be published in winter 2021.

You can find more of her work here: