It is my pleasure to introduce you to the debut picture book author and illustrator Barbara DiLorenzo. Her first picture book - Renato and the Lion - releases tomorrow on June 20th. Happy Book Birthday!
ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? How did you get started? What is your favorite type of book to write?)
Barbara: As an author/illustrator, my writing sometimes develops through sketches. In the case of Renato and the Lion, the seed of the idea was a visual one. I drew many sketches of a boy and his lion (come to life from a statue) – but had not yet found their context with which to make a story. When I learned about artworks being protected in World War II, the plot fell into place. But although I knew the general framework of the story, writing the pages consisted of a 30-day process of drawing what happened next. I was telling myself the story, from the beginning, only through illustrations. I sold the dummy without words. Because of this, I feel sheepish with a title of writer. I feel like I made a book. Real writers are so succinct with their words. I can ramble.
The one aspect of writing that I do feel I have earned, is that of doing thorough research. I didn’t expect to love this part of the project. Research in school felt synonymous with tedium and deadlines. But this research emerged from a hunger to know more so that my book could have rich layers of actual history. I fell in love with the research, and even used part of my book advance to travel to Italy to sketch on location and talk with locals who were alive during the time period. Even though the lion comes to life, and Renato is a fictional character, I took great pains to make sure the illustrations were accurate and the storyline made sense historically. I would like to do another book like this–though my next book is completely different. Quincy: The Chameleon Who Couldn't Blend In is fairly self-explanatory. In fact, I included an author’s note to explain that I fully understand that chameleons don’t function this way.
My book making focus began in 8th grade, when I made my first picture book dummy. I was inspired by my mother’s journey to have her work published. I also went to art school (Rhode Island School of Design) where I majored in illustration. But I was not able to pull a good story together at this time. I guess I just needed more life experience.
ME: I think you are definitely a writer. Own it!
What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
When I visited Florence to do research for the book in August of 2015, I stayed with nuns to keep my trip affordable. My room was so clean, and the nuns were lovely. However, the day I checked out, I tried to pay my bill with a credit card. They politely informed me that they only take cash. After my ten day stay, my bill was over $500. I panicked, as I had been carefully monitoring my cash so that when I departed, I wouldn’t be carrying a lot of extra Euros. The nuns were firm–cash only. So, I withdrew as much money from the ATM as was allowed, but it wasn’t enough. I offered one of my paintings, in hopes they would accept it as payment. They did, and were so excited about the exchange. I still felt bad for not paying the full amount. But today, I think it’s really cool that Italy continues to place a high value on works of art.
ME: Oh, my word! What a pickle and a great story. I am glad that it all worked out as well. Not only does it say a lot about Italy (and the nun's) valuation of art, it attests to your talent as an artist. Thank you for sharing this with us!
Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
My favorite book as a child was Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White. I loved Lewis, the main character, but I also loved Sam for how at home he felt in nature. I connected with him. I also was obsessed with horses as a kid, and read everything by Walter Farley and Marguerite Henry. Although I love beautiful picture books, I confess my favorite was The Stupids (a four-book series) by James Marshall. I also loved Pinkerton, Behave by Steven Kellogg.
ME: The first thing that struck me about your author photo was your beautiful paintings of the horses. I too was, am, horse crazy and devoured everything by Farley, Henry, and Anna Sewell (Black Beauty).
Your debut picture book Renato and the Lion is due out tomorrow. Where did the idea for this story come from?
The idea for this book came about when I was traveling in Italy with my family. My 3-year-old son reacted to a statue of a lion with fear, believing it was alive. I snapped photos of him walking closer to the lion, at the encouragement of his father. The idea of the lion coming to life for a boy haunted me for about 7 years, and I did lots of drawings of these characters. It wasn’t until I had more historical information regarding the protection of artwork in World War II, that I was able to give these characters a story.
What was the most rewarding part of the publishing process for Renato and the Lion?
The research. Originally, the book was supposed to release in 2016. But Viking had to move their schedule around, and I was a bit on my own for a year. I didn’t want to waste time, so I decided to do as much research as I could. I was intimidated by the process, but at an SCBWI conference in Princeton, NJ, I heard Darlene Jacobson speak about her research for Wheels of Change. I used this information, and her gentle guidance, to start asking museums and libraries–both in the United States and in Italy–for help. The research culminated in my trip to Florence, where I was able to use the Florentine Library to learn more. I also spent every evening of my trip sketching the lion, as well as the Piazza where he resides. This allowed me to really know the space, which made creating the book a lot easier.
What's something you want your readers to know about Renato and the Lion.
I want readers to know that although this book is good to read to a child, and not dependent on knowing the exact names of the conflict or the parties involved – this book was purposefully designed to scale up to older readers. There are numerous Easter Eggs hidden throughout the illustrations that are a nod to fascinating facts from this time period – facts that simply would not fit in the manuscript.
ME: This is indeed tantalizing. Thanks for sharing this tidbit with us. I can't wait to see if I can find them all.
What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child or now as a writer.)
My greatest source of inspiration over the years, besides my mother who taught me both how to draw and how to write, would have to be the SCBWI conferences. Every conference I went to helped bring me closer to achieving my goal. I know it sounds a little cheesy, but those keynote speakers usually left me feeling I could take on the world. SCBWI gave me hope that I could do this if I just didn’t give up, and I learned to take criticism from peers and professionals alike.
Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I have a few projects that I am working on, but the one closest to the feeling of Renato and the Lion is a story I have about young Leonardo da Vinci. I started it before I realized that both of these books bring me back to Florence. So, if I can polish the story enough to sell, I’m taking that book advance, and heading right back to Italy.
Is there anything about writing or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or maybe something you are glad you hadn’t known at the time?
We all know how hard it is to get published. The numbers are daunting. So I think I would share with others that focusing on the odds will only diminish your hope. And you need hope to feel good about submitting your best work. I think I spent too much time trying to figure out what editors want to see. But now I realize it’s up to me to create my best work that resonates with me – then I can search for the person that may want to take it on. Make work that excites you. If an idea is haunting you, especially for years, you need to believe that it can be a book. Go for it.
Something I didn’t consider before being published is that the judgement doesn’t end. Professional reviews and online comments by readers suddenly fill your head space, and you may, if you are like me, want to start writing to cater to their apparent wishes. But this doesn’t work. Just make the work that you love. That’s all.
ME: Great advice. Sometimes, it is hard to remember to write what resonates with you, what you love. To stick with those stories that haunt you and refuse to go away. Especially after racking up the rejections. But it only takes one yes, one other heart that also believes in your story.
What is your favorite animal? Why?
A unicorn. Or a mermaid. For non-fantastical animals, definitely an elephant. Oh wait, no… horses. I love whales and dogs, too. This isn’t a question I can answer. Animals are often beautiful and kind and live with more of a code of conduct than some humans. Internet videos of animals doing kind things for other animals just melts me.
Barbara, thank you for talking with us and sharing part of yourself and the story behind Renato and the Lion. I love the cover and this story touches my heart. What a great way to approach WWII and the precious Italian sculptures. Congratulations on your debut and good luck with your future endeavors!
Please leave a comment below to be entered into the giveaway of a copy of Barbara DiLorenzo's amazing book Renato and the Lion.
To find out more about Barbara DiLoranzo, or get in touch with her: