Tooting the horn for ELEPHANT’S BIG SOLO and a Giveaway!

I’ve come to value Twitter and Instagram as wonderful places to find new books. Thanks to one of them (can’t remember which!) I found today’s delightful picture book, ELEPHANT’S BIG SOLO, written and illustrated by Sarah Kurpiel, and published a few weeks ago by Greenwillow Books. I had an instant crush on Sarah’s work because, like me, she’s self-taught. UN-like me, she already has several writer-illustrator credits under her belt. (Illustrator credit coming soon, I promise!)

I could relate to Sarah’s main character because I too suffered from stage fright at recitals when I was a teenager. Weird, since I went on to do lots of dorky, show-offy things in community theater, but somehow performing as MYSELF — rather than in character — was always a little more scary. Sarah agreed to stop by — on very short notice, I might add! — to chat about her characters and their road to publication. Readers: don’t forget to comment below for a chance to win a copy in a random drawing!

(Kim says: Raise your hand if you love end papers as much as I do!)

KIM: Since I’m self-taught at pretty much everything in my publishing career, I’m enchanted by the skills you’ve compiled along your picture book writing and illustrating journey. Can you tell us more about that?

SARAH: For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved to draw. Growing up, I would borrow books from the library to learn new techniques, draw people I found in magazines, and doodle characters I dreamed up. But I didn’t pursue a career in art or design because I have a progressive disability that significantly limits my arm strength. So, drawing stayed my hobby, a way to relax at the end of the day. Then, during my first job as a librarian, A Sick Day for Amos McGee crossed my desk. Erin Stead’s gentle illustrations stopped me in my tracks. I read the book right there and then. It reminded me how much I loved picture books growing up. I knew these were the kind of stories I wanted to make, I just didn’t know how—or even if—I could do it. Starting in 2016, once I had settled into my librarian career, I taught myself how to draw digitally, read lots of contemporary picture books, read online articles on how to make a picture book dummy, and started posting my drawings online. I played around with Photoshop features and digital brushes until I found my favorites, watched digital artists draw on YouTube, followed loads of kid lit illustrators on Instagram, and participated regularly in Instagram art challenges that stretched me to draw things I had never drawn before. Eventually, my style emerged—though it’s always evolving. As for writing, picture books themselves have been the best teacher. I try to read as many as I can. There is always more to learn! I feel so lucky that I have the opportunity to create books for kids.

KIM: I couldn’t agree more, Sarah. “Check out at least 100 library books” is the first advice I offer those who want to make a start at picture book writing. What sparked the idea for this book? Like me, do you deal with some of Elephant’s issues yourself?

SARAH: ELEPHANTS BIG SOLO all started with a single line: “Elephant had a way of standing out, even when she’d rather not.” I got really emotional about that line. I read it aloud to myself over and over. Then, the story poured out of me—a very rough draft, anyway. The book is about an anxious, music-loving elephant pressured to perform a solo on stage. Originally, it focused more on competition. Over time, with editorial guidance from my agents and the book’s editor, the story changed quite a bit. But that first line has always remained the same. Like Elephant, I sometimes experience strong situational anxiety at odds with the very things I love to do. It’s a tough situation for anyone at any age, but especially for kids. What I hope kids take away from the story is that there are people around them who are willing to help and stand by their side and that there’s more than one way to shine.

KIM: So far, all your books are with HarperCollins’ lovely Greenwillow imprint. Brava! They do such gorgeous books! What was the road to publication with Greenwillow? (Which, I know, means discussing your debut book, which we’d love to hear about, too!)

SARAH: In 2018, an illustration account with a big following on Instagram shared one of my drawings (an elephant drawing, in fact!). Thanks to that stroke of luck, I was contacted by Allie Levick and Rebecca Sherman at Writers House, who became my agents later that year. Their guidance and expertise was (and continues to be) invaluable. They helped me get my debut book—LONE WOLF—submission-ready and secure a two-book deal with a wonderful editor at Greenwillow, Martha Mihalick. In the months that followed, I went through several rounds of revision with Martha before starting the final art. Since I work digitally, the final art wasn’t really final. With guidance from the art director, I made further color changes and other alterations after turning in the final art. LONE WOLF came out in May 2020. From first draft to publication, it took about 2 years. The publication process can feel long at times as it fluctuates between rushing and waiting. It’s helpful to have another project to focus on during the waiting part. Since LONE WOLF, I’ve worked with Greenwillow on ORIGINAL CAT, COPY CAT, ELEPHANT’S BIG SOLO, and the forthcoming SNAKE’S BIG MISTAKE. Greenwillow puts out wonderful books, and I’m glad they took a chance on a first-time, self-taught author/illustrator!

KIM: I am, too! Your writing is strong enough that I think you could have sold those manuscripts even if you had no plans to illustrate. How cool that you could do both, so early in your career! (Speaking as a slacker who is only just now, after more than 20 books in print, feeling brave enough to illustrate, even with 40 years as a graphic artist under my belt!)

SARAH: With encouragement from my agents, I started as an author/illustrator from the get-go. While my illustration skill level is nowhere near the level of the amazing picture book illustrators I admire, illustrating is my favorite part of the process. I struggle over the story text, always second guessing myself. So, I tend to start with a concept or a loose plot and then start doodling to see if there’s something there or not. I especially love the early stages of the process: designing characters and thumbnailing pages. It’s fun to explore layouts and page turns. Nothing is set in stone yet. Everything seems possible. Without fail, new ideas emerge during those early stages, which is another reason I usually leave the exact words until later.

KIM: As a graphic artist, I’m always interested in the production process of a book. The cover design (including the typeface) of Elephant’s Big Solo is so integrated with the illustration, it makes me wonder if you were not only the illustrator but the designer, too, as it were? Or was it more of a collaboration with the Greenwillow art director and designer?

SARAH: Like you, I love book design details! Typefaces, page layouts, the spine, endpapers, paper type—all those things really interest me. When I was a kid, I was drawn to very old books as unique, physical objects. It wasn’t until college that I learned about the antiquarian book trade and the field of rare books and special collections, which I went on to study in library school. Over the years, I’ve had opportunities to handle rare manuscripts and early printed books, and I personally collect late-19th-century books with cloth art nouveau bindings. But I digress! All that to say book design interests me, but I’m not the designer. I work with Greenwillow art director Sylvie Le Floc’h, who I believe selected the typeface used throughout ELEPHANT’S BIG SOLO. For each book I’ve done with Greenwillow, they’ve invited me to hand letter the title, which I enjoy doing. For this book, I originally planned to hand letter the title using narrow letters and thin lines. With feedback from the Greenwillow team, however, I ended up going with much thicker lines that formed into various musical notes and instruments. They also encouraged me to make Elephant larger on the cover. In the end, both were good decisions. Elephant and the title stand out much more than they did in my original cover concepts. Overall, the design is a collaboration.

KIM: And, of course, we all want to know: why is the main character an elephant?

SARAH: Wow, what a great question! 😊 First of all, elephants are and always have been my favorite animal. I love to draw them. A few years ago, I drew a whimsical picture of an elephant playing a French horn. I liked the way the instrument resembled the elephant’s curled trunk. From that moment on, it was hard to picture any other character leading this story. It was that picture I was thinking about when I wrote the first line I mentioned above: “Elephant had a way of standing out, even when she’d rather not.” While Elephant isn’t me, I do relate to the way she naturally sticks out just for being who she is. I use a power wheelchair, and I’m usually the only wheelchair-user in any room I’m in. Blending in isn’t really an option. And that’s okay! But it’s also nice to get to choose how you stand out now and then—and that’s what Elephant gets to do in ELEPHANT’S BIG SOLO.

KIM: Thank you so much for stopping by, Sarah! Readers, as I mentioned above, Sarah has generously offered a signed copy to one winner randomly chosen from among those who comment on the post below. What’s YOUR favorite instrument or animal? Since I always forget to pick a winner on the date I post as a deadline, let’s just say comment anytime before my next post, which goes lives October 11th.

Congratulations to Elayne Crain, winner of last month’s MUSHROOM RAIN! And looky looky, y’all! Any minute now, dear, patient Vijaya Bodach will be opening a box with HER prize from my post a couple of months back, the refurbished vintage train case. Check it out! I’m happy with the way it turned out! Vijaya lives on a coastal island so I went with a beach theme.

  • Today’s featured author, Sarah Kurpiel is a librarian by day and self-taught picture book author/illustrator by night and weekend. Her stories are inspired by animals, nature, and everyday life. Sarah’s debut picture book, Lone Wolf (Greenwillow, 2020) received a starred review from the School Library Journal and was a Summer Kids’ Indie Next Pick. Her book Original Cat, Copy Cat (Greenwillow, 2021) was a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection. Sarah’s latest picture book, Elephant’s Big Solo (Greenwillow), hit the shelves in August 2022 and will be followed up by Snake’s Big Mistake in 2023.
  • Website: https://sarahkurpiel.com/
  • Instagram: @sarah.kurpiel (https://www.instagram.com/sarah.kurpiel/)
  • Twitter: @SarahKurpiel (https://twitter.com/SarahKurpiel)

Kim Norman

Kim Norman is the author of more than twenty children’s books, already or soon to be in print, published by Sterling; Scholastic; Penguin/Random House; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Candlewick, and Abrams. Calling herself a “Bedtime reading evangelist,” Kim has been invited to countless schools around the US and even wrote a book on the subject with the embarrassingly mercenary title, SELL BOOKS AND GET PAID DOING AUTHOR SCHOOL VISITS. The parents of two grown sons, Kim and her husband live in Smithfield, Virginia, with two dogs in a little house shaded by giant pecan trees. Read more about Kim and her books at kimnorman.com.

49 Comments:

  1. How fun! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Delightful book and interview! I love the design of the book, and the whimsical characters.

  3. I enjoy Sarah’s art on Instagram and was excited to read this interview.

  4. I love Elephant and your art style, Sarah. As an author-only, it’s so instructive to see how illustrator’s approach ideas and draft with loose sketches. As a former school librarian, I love all the details of picture books. Congrats on ELEPHANT’S BIG SOLO!

  5. I love that first line, and I enjoyed reading about your publishing journey. Your book sounds and looks lovely. I can’t wait to read it! Congratulations, Sarah!

  6. I have band practice this evening and new solos to perform in front of my band, so I know Elephant and I will share many feelings. I love the art and can’t wait to read this fun book.

  7. The cover won my heart as soon as I saw Sarah’s name written as notes on the music staff! Bravo! Encore!

  8. Kim and Sarah, what a wonderful interview. Thank you. I love even your sketches at the very end. How you manage to just make a few deft strokes with so much personality is a wonder! And your story of writing and illustrating right off the bat is so inspiring. I love elephants too and my favorite instrument is the French horn so what a delight to see it on the cover! And yes, I love endpapers too. I’ll be looking for your books now–always so thankful for PBB for introducing new writers and illustrators. And Kim, I await my beautiful makeup case!

  9. Love it! I agree that the first sentence is PERFECT! I love oboes but played the saxophone for a bit. My favorite animal is a cat. I’m sure that says something…Congratulations, Sarah!

  10. Can’t wait to get my hands on this one! Thanks for sharing.

  11. I love it! I did an ABC series of animals playing instruments – so this hits me right in the heart!

  12. LOVED this interview about the journey of the story and art for this book. I am glad the first line of the story stayed as is – it so beautifully invites the reader to nod in agreement and keep reading! And the accompanying illustration makes the reader say, “I see what you mean!”
    My favorite animal is the walrus. Walruses make so many noises that a herd can sound like a discordant symphony. A male walrus has an air sac in his throat that lets him make deep bell-ringing sounds while underwater!

  13. My favorite instrument is a Tuba!
    Book looks great, hope we win!

  14. Jilanne F Hoffmann

    As someone with anxiety, this book looks like it was written for me! Love the illustrations and the fact that Sarah taught herself to be an illustrator. Amazing! Congrats!

  15. Sheri Delgado-Preston

    I can relate to elephant. What a great story. Congrats Sarah!

  16. I love the elephant. I shared the title with all my music teacher friends.

  17. This book tugged at my heart. Congrats on your accomplishment(s)!!

  18. I know that there are many students at my school who will relate to Elephant!

  19. Can’t wait to see how you build the tension in the story, with words and with illustrations. Thanks.

  20. This looks so fantastic! Thank you so much for sharing the story behind this story! My favorite instrument thesedays is the trumpet because my 11-year-old has started to play (which you would *think would make it NOT my favorite! Oy, it’s loud!) but I love how devoted he is to learning and practicing and putting in the work to get better, so when I hear him play I just think of how awesome he is. 🙂

    • Oh what a wonderful attitude that will keep him engaged. My husband plays the trumpet. Not often, but several times a year in a quartet at church. Which means the dogs don’t hear it often. As soon as he starts tuning up, one of them heads for the hills. lol!

  21. I’ve JUST discovered Picture Book Builders…and while I’m feeling a little late to the party – and perhaps even slightly underdressed – I predict I’ll be that guest who stays long enough to help you clean up the guacamole in hopes of injesting just one more delicious morsel of kitlit know-how.

    This interview was rich with information to help me find my way as an author/illustrator. Like Sarah Kurpiel, I too am self-taught, with a decades-long, voracious appetite for creating meaningful books for kids and the grownups who guide them.

    I’m not sure if I have a favourite animal to illustrate, but elephants, bears, ducks, mice, dogs, and pigs sure seem to show up a lot!

    Thanks for what you’re doing with Picture Book Builders, I’m wildly eager to learn from your work!

  22. Oh my gosh, Lauri, what a wonderfully entertaining comment. So very very glad you found us! Welcome to the party! I’ll try to keep the guacamole on my chip so there won’t be much cleaning up to do. lol!

  23. Thanks! I loved hearing about the illustration process even though I am most definitely an author, NOT an illustrator! Favorite animal? River otter.

  24. Congratulations on this delightful-looking book, Sarah! Thanks for sharing your author/illustrator journey so far. It’s hard to pick a favorite instrument. Though I don’t play, I’ll go with the piano.

  25. You had me at the first line!…a super adorable book!

  26. Great illustrations and fun book!

  27. Sarah, I totally understand situational anxiety and am looking forward to reading this book! And how great that your beautiful work is the result of being self-taught–wow! Kim, thank you for sharing–and I’m psyched about Mushroom Rain! 🙂

  28. Pingback: How to be a successful children's book author: Kim Norman tells all - Build Book Buzz

  29. Natalie Lynn Tanner

    SARAH: I TOTALLY RAISED my hand to LOVING endpapers, TOO! Yours are ADORABLE! I LOVED reading about discovering your creative voice in both words and illustration. Learning about your journey as a self-taught artist is TRULY INSPIRING! I ESPECIALLY APPRECIATE your wisdom: “Eventually, my style emerged—though it’s always evolving.” WHAT A GREAT reminder to ALL OF US! With each word and brushstroke, our style keeps growing and developing–as do we! THANK YOU! I am SO IN LOVE with this book and CAN’T WAIT to see it on my bookshelf–ESPECIALLY as I am a HUGE ELEPHANT-LOVER!

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