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: 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)