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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Lina Maslo

Before the "She Persisted" movement and mantra overtook the world, Malala Yousafzai stood up to the Taliban and advocated for the education of girls.

Today, I have the honor to introduce you to Lina Maslo whose debut picture book about Malala is a beautiful, poignant tribute to this amazing woman and her devoted, enlightened father. Before this book releases tomorrow, I get to give you an inside glance at Lina Maslo, her process, and her amazing book - Free as a Bird.

Lina Maslo is an author and illustrator with a Degree in Art from New College of Florida. Though she spent most of her childhood in Florida, she was born in Ukraine, and came to the United States at the age of five. Lina is inspired by her experience as well as the experiences and lives of people from other cultures. Lina lives with her husband and four children (two boys and two girls) in South Carolina.

Welcome Lina Maslo,

ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? Draw? How long have you been writing and illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate?)

LINA: I’ve been drawing since I was a child. I think I knew I wanted to be an artist early on, and always took extra art classes when I could. I went to art school, and then pursued children’s book illustration. Writing, on the other hand, was something that I learned to do because I wanted to illustrate my own stories. I always liked writing, and took writing classes for “fun” in school, but I never thought I might do it for a living. Now, I am writing as much as I’m illustrating!

I draw and write from home when my children are in school. My youngest went to school a year and a half ago, and it opened up so much time for me! Before that, I had to snatch moments during naps and weekends, and usually, in the middle of the night when everyone was asleep. (I still do that sometimes. Even with the kids in school, life can get pretty hectic.)

So far, I’ve only written and illustrated picture books, and that is my favorite right now. But, I might attempt a middle grade graphic novel soon!

Wow that sounds fun and ambitious. What inspired you to write Malala’s story?

I picked up Malala’s autobiography and read it. I was so touched by her story that I read the few books that I found on her, watched the documentaries, and read some articles. I was particularly struck by the beautiful relationship between Malala and her father, and even though there were several picture books about Malala at that time, none of them had mentioned or focused on that. I also did an illustration of Malala, and it was well received, so I decided to pursue the idea of writing a picture book about her.

Sounds like it was meant to be. What was your greatest struggle in writing this picture book? Did you get any push back for not being Pakistani?

So far, I’ve had no push back for not being Pakistani. With this book, I tried to focus on topics that are universal regardless of culture or religion: the struggle for women’s rights, the power of words, and the importance of encouraging relationships. I think these are things we can all relate to.

I think my greatest struggle in writing this book was probably having to constantly double-check facts, statements, and quotes, to make sure that I didn’t miss anything or get anything wrong. And doing visual research (for the illustrations) was more time consuming than I thought it would be.

Perhaps I'm prejudiced, but I think you did an amazing job. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

I started reading chapter books early on, and can’t really remember any favorite picture books or illustrators that I loved as a child. My favorite chapter books were series books: The Boxcar Children, The Baby-Sitters Club and Nancy Drew.

I did have a book of beautifully illustrated Ukrainian Folk Tales that I read constantly, into my teen years. I still have it.

What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer and/or illustrator.)

My greatest source of inspiration, I think, is reading about things or people that interest me, watching a show or documentary, or simply observing the world around me. Lately, I’ve been trying to think back to my own childhood to find inspiration. So far, I haven’t had much luck getting inspiration from my children (like some people do)—maybe it’s because I’m still in the throes of raising them.

How do you shift between illustrations and writing? (Which comes first? Which is the hardest?)

Both writing and illustrating are equally difficult in their own ways. Writing biographies and nonfiction requires endless research and reading. Then you write and rewrite and edit and reread. (Maybe fiction is easier? I don’t know yet.) With illustration, getting that initial sketch down can be hard (figuring out the composition, getting the characters to look right). And painting is very labor intensive. I wouldn’t say one is easier than the other. Sometimes, when I’m drawing, I wish I were writing, and vice versa, because it seems that the alternative would be easier!

When it comes to making a book, I will usually take notes, then do a few sketches, then write a bit, then draw some more. But then, I will usually have to write the entire manuscript before I try to sketch out the book. After that, it’s a constant back and forth between writing and illustrating until I find the right balance.

For those of us non-illustrators, can you share a bit about the process of choosing the color palette for Free as a Bird? Did you always intend for Malala and the birds to be the most colorful? (The color palette of her flying is different in your portfolio.)

Yes, I did always intend for Malala to be colorful. When I looked at pictures of her, I noticed her love of bright colors. To me, it was almost a metaphor in itself: vivid colors symbolized hope in a somewhat hopeless world. I decided I wanted a red scarf to be the pop of color in the book, so that Malala would stand out, and teal as a base color seemed to go well with it. I then looked for a bird from Pakistan that might be of similar colors, and I found one! It’s a red-headed bullfinch. Some of the finches also have oranges and yellows on them, so I added those colors to the color palette.

When it comes to choosing a color palette, I usually try to stick with a few colors that complement each other, and then add more only if needed. My original painting of Malala (the one on the website) changed slightly, because I decided to keep her dress teal and her scarf red, like it is in the rest of the book. And then I toned down that turquoise a bit.

© Lina Maslo

You did an impressive job. How long did it take for you to find your special presentation of her story? Did it make a difference that there are several other recent picture books about Malala?

I think I knew pretty early on that I wanted the story to focus on Malala and her father because their relationship is so amazing. And the phrase he said, “Malala will be free as a bird,” appealed to my imagination as an illustrator. The rest of the ideas stemmed from that phrase: using a bird as a symbol, her flying, and so on.

I think the fact that there were other picture books about Malala when I sold my book did come into consideration, but mine was different enough from the others that the publisher still took it on. Any recent books that came out about Malala, including her own (which is great!), was something that we did not foresee. It seems to me, though, that libraries like to have at least a few biographies about important figures, so I think they complement each other.

I wholeheartedly agree with you. Libraries, teachers, and readers all like to have numerous books about subjects. Often because they do all focus on subtle differences or points of view. Because Malala’s story involves great violence, how much time did it take for you to write and create the spreads from the ambush to the hospital?

I don’t remember how long it took, but I knew from the beginning I wanted to handle the violence in an abstract way. I didn’t want to scare young readers, but I wanted him or her to know something terrible had happened. And illustrating her in a coma… well it would be boring to just show her asleep in a hospital, so I thought, why not imagine her dreaming? This is what I love about nonfiction illustration… you’re allowed to use your imagination a bit!

I had not heard that before for nonfiction illustration. I love that idea, too. Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I’m not sure that I can share any actual quotes, but I’m working on The Door to Narnia, a picture book biography of C.S. Lewis that will come out sometime next year. It’s about how Lewis’s life and experiences led him to write The Chronicles of Narnia. It’s been keeping me pretty busy, and I’m really excited about it!

Excellent. I can't wait to read this book! Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started?

Hmm…as someone who went to many SCBWI conferences before landing my first contract, I think I had a pretty good idea going in what it would be like. But I’m constantly having to remind myself to be patient…with the process, with the pace of publishing, but especially with myself. It’s hard to force creativity, and sometimes you just have to give yourself time to breath. Enjoy the journey!

What an excellent mantra to live by. Do you have any advice on querying agents, surviving rejections, or anything else for authors or illustrators?

I think face-to-face meetings are pretty important. For connections, for encouragement…online interaction is great, but if you’re going to invest in your career, try to get out of your studio at least once a year and head to a conference. Regional ones are great, and less expensive. I met my agent at a small gathering at a Highlights retreat (The Super Picture Book Boot Camp).

But there’s a catch: don’t just go to a conference with the same work! Grow between each conference. Write a new manuscript. Add a few NEW pieces to your portfolio.

What is your favorite animal? Why?

Well, we have a dog now, a German Shepherd, so I’m starting to warm up to those a bit.

You are so funny! Thank you, Lina for participating in this interview. I love Free as a Bird and wish it and you great success in 2018.

Thank you for the interview!

Be sure check back this Friday for the #PPBF post of Lina's amazing debut - Free as a Bird.

To find out more about Lina Maslo, or get in touch with her:

*If you're in the area, be sure to check out the book release for Free as a Bird:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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