Q & A with Jackie Azúa Kramer and Maral Sassouni

I met author Jackie in 2012 while I was still living in Nice. I was in New York for a work conference and Marcie Colleen invited me to their critique group. We met on the terrace outside the 42nd St New York Public Library. Later that year I had the privilege of critiquing an early version of The Green Umbrella, about sharing  and full of empathy.

I have been a fan of Maral for quite sometime and already interviewed her here on Miss Marple’s Musings. You are in for a treat today, as for The Green Umbrella blog tour, I decided to interview them both.

[JM] Jackie, what made you want to tell this story?

[JAK] I discovered these sweet illustrations which revolved around a green umbrella and it instantly became my muse. If I passed someone with an umbrella I wondered where are they going? Or, I’d see these oversized umbrellas and think what a cozy place to tuck under and have some tea. So it’s interesting you ask what ‘made’ me tell this story. Even when I slept, I dreamed of umbrellas…flying umbrellas, boats as umbrellas, and I had to put these thoughts and ideas down on paper.

[JM] How do you strike the balance between including too many illo notes and trusting the illustrator?

[JAK] I’m not a fan of art notes in my stories. I feel I haven’t done my job as a writer if I need to tell the illustrator what to draw. I keep to the writer’s ideal of ‘show, don’t tell’, and only use illo notes to convey what isn’t apparent in the text. I love to imagine the different layers of storytelling that an illustrator can reveal from my story. For example, in Maral’s art for The Green Umbrella, I could never have imagined the mood that’s created by her color palette or that the Elephant walks on all four legs, when the Cat walks upright. Or visualized the setting for the start of the story as an exotic land from a tale of the “Arabian Nights”.

That being said, one of my upcoming books, “The Boy and the Eight Hundred Pound Gorilla” (Candlewick Press, TBD) was one giant illo note or what I referred to as, ‘visual interpretations’. In a story about the loss of a boy’s mother, at 240 words, there was almost nothing in the text that described to the reader– setting, action, time, even character, without the illo notes. 

[JM] What are the 3 most important things you keep in mind when developing a marketing plan for your picture books?

[JAK] A lot is expected from an author these days. For example, what I’m doing right now by visiting your blog. I feel it’s important to share with others one’s writing journey and creative process. In addition, to choose some form of social media. I enjoy Twitter and Instagram because it’s fast, fun and informative. Most importantly, to connect in whatever way, with kidlit’s greatest advocates–educators and librarians. Whether it’s via school or library visits and/or attending conferences, the shelf life of a book will live on forever in the dedicated and passionate hands of librarians and teachers.

[JM] What did you have trouble sharing when you were little?

[JAK] Ha! Attention. I was a middle child between two sisters and one brother and it was often hard to be heard or stand out. My childhood served me well as a writer because I learned to entertain myself easily with my imagination.

[JM] What do you love sharing now?

[JAK] There are two things that I feel equally passionate about sharing–friendship and knowledge.

[JM] Which is your favorite imaginary use of this green umbrella?

[JAK] I studied theatre at NYU and my favorite shows were the musicals. I’d like to imagine the umbrella as a wonderful addition to a song and dance number. Perhaps I fly over the stage singing and then softly land to dance a ‘soft shoe’ with the umbrella.

Jackie earned her Masters of Education from Queens College. She is a member of SCBWI and has written for the SCBWI Bulletin. In 2014, she was invited to be a member of the Bank Street Writers Lab, Bank Street College. In 2015 Jackie was a presenter at the 1st nErDyCamp Long Island.  Her picture book, The Green Umbrella (North South Books) debuts February 2017 in English/German. Out soon –The Boy and the Eight Hundred Pound Gorilla (Candlewick Press, TBD) and If You Want to Fall Asleep (Clavis Books) in English/Dutch. Visit her jackieazuakramer.com Twitter @jackiekramer 422

[JM] Maral, the expressions on each animal are some of my favorite moments in the book. Were any of these animal expressions drawn from real animals (or people)?

[MS] The animals’ expressions were actually derived from looking at my own face in the mirror. Putting myself in each character’s place, I tapped into emotions I thought they might be feeling at that point in the story.  Then I made that face myself and drew it onto the animal’s features. With that as my springboard, I redrew and refined until I got what I wanted.

(by the way, I got the idea for this when I was an animation student: old-time animators have done this since the beginning! http://www.boredpanda.com/mirror-facial-expression-disney-animator/  ) 

[JM] Did your wonderful color palette come to you immediately or did you have to experiment a lot to find the right fit for this story?

[MS] I did a good bit of trial and error and a lot of color studies, but when I hit upon the color scheme, I knew immediately it was the right one. My starting point was the rainy town, and I wanted to use a cool, almost monochromatic palette to convey the damp and the chill.

Then I wanted to contrast these cool colors (which depict the more everyday reality) with the warm vivid colors I used in the scenes of imagination and adventure described by the animals. The aim was to create a visible difference between the two realities.

At the same time, the colors reflect the progression of a day —we start in the morning, we end at twilight. Bedtime, kids!

[JM] What unique skills/opportunities do you think an illustrator can provide to/for the marketing of a picture book?

[MS] Before a book’s release, a substantial amount of the marketing seems dependent on the visuals. The cover design is splashed around on promo materials, along with characters and details from the interior art. They would be used for things like posters, bookmarks, postcards, buttons and badges (and all kinds of swag), as well as the online visual presence. In addition, the animated book trailer relies heavily on the illustrator’s work.

The text comes into play only later, once the book is reviewed in trade publications. At that point, there would be some direct quotes or catchphrases, as well as a brief synopsis of the text. The written story comes into its own once the reviews begin — then it’s evaluated and examined by reviewers and bloggers. Once it is released, people will find out what a lovely read-aloud The Green Umbrella is!

[JM] What did you have trouble sharing when you were little?

[MS] I don’t think I had so much trouble sharing toys or other things.  Though I do admit that with two younger brothers, there were inevitably skirmishes and scuffles on a regular basis.

On the other hand, sharing my space was not so easy. I needed my “Room of One’s Own” even as a kid. So I would always seek out my own private places where I could go daydream and make stuff and think my thoughts in peace. These were rooftops, attics, under-the-house spaces and the branches of trees. To this day, I’m on the lookout for places like that… 

[JM] What do you love sharing now?

[MS] Things that make me laugh— that’s what I love sharing most of all!
When I find something funny I can’t wait to tell others and roar with laughter all over again!

A close second is books. When I find a book that I love, I become like an evangelist — I have to tell all my friends about it and insist that they read it IMMEDIATELY. Or, better yet, I’ll buy a copy for them! 

[JM] At what part of the process did you create the endpapers ?

 [MS] The endpapers came pretty early on.  That was because the publisher wanted to decide on the cover art very early. And what I wanted was to create a linked set of images—the cover, endpapers and the title page — in order to set the scene before the story begins.

So, instead of using a pattern, the endpapers use the image of the rainy town setting which begins on the cover, and then continues in the first spread and beyond. 

[JM] And can you please share your favorite spread with us?

Spread 6 (Bear in flight)

One reason is I’ve got soft spot for unlikely contraptions and rickety jalopies—I love drawing them! I also liked the collage landscape of open fields and a tumbledown village in the distance.

(And an extra bonus reason: this image was selected by the Society of Illustrators (of L.A.) and currently on exhibit in their gallery. So glad they liked it too!)

Maral has been an illustrator for over 20 years. In the recent past, she won the SCBWI 

Portfolio Grand Prize in 2013. Her work was selected by the Society of Illustrators (NY) in 2014 as well, and also honored by the 3×3 Picture Book Show in 2012, 2013 and 2014. In addition to this, my art has been exhibited in group shows of children’s illustration all over the world. The Green Umbrella is also her debut picture book. Based in France since 1992, she splits her time between Paris and Los Angeles. Visit her at Maralsassouni.com and Twitter @Maralsassouni

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2 Responses to Q & A with Jackie Azúa Kramer and Maral Sassouni

  1. Patricia Nozell says:

    I love that you’ve shared both perspectives in this post, Joanna. And I especially love that you shared an earlier draft of the manuscript & can share its evolution. I look forward to reading The Green Umbrella.

  2. I really enjoyed hearing from both Jackie and from Maral about their approach to writing and illustrating THE GREEN UMBRELLA. I loved the inspiration and imagination behind developing a story centered around the common every day umbrella. The book cover is so much fun and appealing. It says buy me.

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