The Picture Book Buzz - An Interview with Jessica Petersen
I am fortunate today to have debut picture book author Jessica Petersen come by and share with us some insight on her process of photo illustrations and a bit about herself.
Her picture book, Old Tracks, New Tricks, released last week. Kirkus describes it as "A jaunty rhyme and inventive toys-come-to-life spin on challenging the status quo , with especial appeal to fans of all things Thomas."
Jessica: Thank you so much for inviting me to talk with you about Old Tracks, New Tricks. It’s been a very exciting week, with the first copies of the book going out. I’ve been so honored to see photos of kids getting inspired to play in new ways based on words I wrote and illustrations I created.
ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)
Jessica: I started taking writing seriously about eleven years ago. After college, my best friend suggested we take a year-long genre fiction writing course together. I initially signed up just for fun, but I quickly realized I wanted to dust off my childhood dream of being an author and get serious about writing. I worked on fantasy novels until my son was a toddler, at which point I decided to try writing picture books and signed up for the excellent Writing for Children program through the University of Washington Extension.
There I learned that it’s extremely difficult to write a good picture book (which anyone who tries soon learns!), so I went back to writing fantasy novels, in the YA realm this time. But I kept coming back to picture books. I started developing my illustration skills as well, just in case being an author/illustrator helped my chances, so when the opportunity to do Old Tracks, New Tricks came up, I was thrilled.
At home, my office does triple duty as writing room, photography/video studio, and playroom. Parenthood is a great opportunity to learn how to work in short spurts, slipping in and out of your story between distractions. I also spend a lot of time working in coffee shops.
What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
When I was a kid, I didn’t have an imaginary friend; I had an imaginary sheep herd. Which is kind of funny, because we had a herd of very real goats who were quite happy to follow me around. I’m not sure if the problem was that they weren’t sheep, or that they weren’t imaginary.
Who was your favorite author and/or favorite book as a child?
In middle school (and high school…and college, for that matter), I was such a huge fan of Brian Jacques, the author of the Redwall series, that my parents ordered the books from the U.K. for me (they came out six months earlier there). This was back when it took an international call to do that, not a few clicks on a website.
He did a library event in my hometown, and I was amazed to hear him do all the voices and accents of all the different animals. He and his wife recognized the British covers on my books, and they made a big deal about it, which made me feel so special. He’s an inspiration to me not just because of his richly descriptive writing, but also because of the way he knew how to connect with his young readers and make the kind of impression on them that lasts for decades.
What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (As a child or now as a writer or as an illustrator.)
When it comes to writing picture books, it’s my son — the things he loves, his vibrant imagination, what makes him laugh, the things he struggles with in life.
One thing I love about writing picture books (as opposed to YA manuscripts) is that I can share my work with him and the whole process of making a book. I love that he thinks of Old Tracks, New Tricks as our book. He’s in a couple of the photographs in the story, so I have him sign it with me when we’re at events together. That’s a huge thrill for a seven-year-old.
As a photographer and illustrator, I find a lot of inspiration in the physical objects I’m working with. I think the part of my childhood imagination that I’ve held onto most successfully is the ability to imagine inanimate things — especially toys — as alive. (This makes it very hard to part with toys that my son outgrows!) Through the camera lens, I look for the angles that bring out that life, that sense of personality and intention and motivation, and convey it to others. I also really enjoy emphasizing those qualities during the photo editing process. My goal is to have the photographs tell the story even before I added the characters’ faces.
Did you submit a dummy with photographs? How/when did you decide to illustrate the books with photographs?
The photos were an integral part of the book from the very beginning. I’d shared my idea to write a STEM-focused book for preschoolers about wooden train tracks with my publisher, and I was asked to write it and illustrate it with photos similar to the ones I post on my train blog, Play Trains!
I agreed immediately, but while I’ve always been one to love the challenge of working within creative limitations, I was worried that I wouldn’t think of a story I could tell that way.
Somehow, it came to me about twelve hours later. A couple of months earlier, I’d created a pattern for a fabric design challenge featuring a sad wooden train track crying after being left out of a circle of happy wooden train tracks. I proposed writing a story about a wooden train track who decides to play in new ways after not fitting into the regular train layout, and I sent over a sample image with a face digitally drawn on a photo of a real train track. I think the title came to me that same day.
The story changed in the telling — one main track became three, and the trains, rather than the other tracks, emerged as the antagonists — but essentially all the elements were there at the beginning.
What was the biggest challenge in using the photographs? Would you do it again?
Aside from just the time it took to set up, take, edit, and add faces to each shot, it was sometimes very difficult to get the toys to behave in front of the camera.
I was adamant that every time I showed the tracks doing a balancing trick, they balance unassisted, so that readers could potentially replicate anything they saw in the book. The circle of tracks on the cover would not stay standing up while I was getting the composition figured out and approved. But when it was time to take the final photo, the tracks balanced on the first try, and they stayed balanced for several days before I finally decided it was okay to take it all apart.
Of course, that shot was a piece of cake in comparison to figuring out how to photograph a line of track dominoes that were supposed to be in the middle of falling over!
I would definitely do it again. It was a lot of work, but I had a lot of fun, and I think that the story wouldn’t have worked without the photos.
ME: This sounds like an equal mixture of fun and frustration, which produced amazing illustrations.
What's something you want your readers to know about Old Tracks, New Tricks?
One thing I’m really excited about is that the book has a full website — oldtracksnewtricks.com — with lots of other fun activities for kids. My favorite part is that kids can get a grown-up to submit photos of their own track tricks and adventures through the website, and I’ll be picking at least one every week to illustrate with faces, just like the illustrations in the book. I’ve already done a few, and it’s a blast to get to collaborate with the kids!
What projects are you working on now?
I’m developing another picture book with the same photo/illustration style, but with a different subject. I also have a half-finished YA novel I was working on when I switched gears to do Old Tracks, New Tricks. I’d like to get back to that eventually, but for right now, I’m really happy making picture books.
What do you know about writing, illustrating, or publishing now, that you wish you had known when you started?
I wish I had known that a terrible, choppy rough draft is worth a million polished sentences. My kidlit critique group makes a big deal about celebrating extremely rough drafts, and that has made a huge difference for all of us in the group.
ME: Thanks Jessica, this sounds like a great tradition that other critique groups might successfully adopt.
What is your favorite animal? Why?
For most of my life, it’s been cats, but it’s hard not to love meerkats along with my son. We go on lots of adventures with the two plush meerkats that have been his closest companions for most of his life
To find out more about Jessica Petersen, or get in touch with her:
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/playtrains/ and
Thanks again for stopping by to share with us.