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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Barbara DiLorenzo

Today, I get to offer you a treat! Returning for a second interview, to celebrate the release of her newest book, Barbara DiLorenzo candidly compares her experiences in creating, publishing, and promoting her first two picture books.

For some basic information on Barbara, see our earlier interview (here).

Welcome back Barbara! So excited that your second picture book Quincy: The Chameleon Who Couldn’t Blend In releases tomorrow (April 2nd)!

Happy Book Birthday! !

ME: How did the process of creating and publishing Quincy: The Chameleon Who Couldn't Blend In differ from that of Renato and the Lion?

BARBARA: Quincy and Renato and the Lion were both in development off and on over the same set of years. Quincy was my main focus from 2012-2014–but the editor who loved the story just couldn’t get the acquisitions committee on board. Through working with her, I noticed that Quincy was not universally understood. People either got him and loved him–or they couldn’t understand his problem at all. I started to wonder if the people who resonated with Quincy had difficulty fitting in socially as children–and the people who didn’t understand him had felt more accepted (which is good for them–I’m happy they didn’t suffer in that way).

Discouraged and tired of hammering the plot into shape, I took a break to write a more complete version of Renato and the Lion in early 2014. Once I had all the historical pieces of the puzzle, Renato and the Lion fell together in a way that felt natural–and allowed the publishers to see my vision for the book. In contrast, Quincy was a jumbled mess, and I was extremely lucky that I met the right art director (David DeWitt) at the right time and had enough time and space to have a completely honest discussion about the way the character was designed–and also the challenges in bringing the story together.

In both experiences, I wasn’t the only one bringing the story together. I relied on the teams at both publishers to make the illustrations and words word together. But the one thing that was so refreshing and wonderful after working on Renato and the Lion for so long–I didn’t have to do nearly as much research for Quincy. I could just draw freely. And I could play with brighter colors. I departed from realism a bit, and embraced a more light-hearted palette. The difference was a lot of fun. Sometimes kids ask me which book I like better–but like movies of different genres, a preference is usually dictated by the mood you are in. Sometimes you want a movie that brings you to a place and a time that feels beautiful and old and full of magic. And sometimes you want to a movie that makes you laugh and cringe at the social awkwardness of the character (and love him all the more for his tortured journey).

Wow, thank you Barbara for being so open and honest about the process of bringing these books to life. I love your comparison to watching movies based on your mood. That is so very true for me as well. Since you mention that some people didn't connect with Quincy, where did the inspiration for Quincy: The Chameleon Who Couldn’t Blend In come from?

I was Quincy. I was not someone who ever fit in socially in school. I had a few close friends, who were a lifeline in those early years. We loved to laugh and be adventurous. And we had so much fun together. But when I was in the company of the main group of socially accepted peers, I would get painfully shy–or blurt out something lacking in confidence. More than anything, I just wanted to blend into the group–wear the right things, say the right things, have a family that seemed in line with what other people experienced. Instead, I was a bit of a mess. Perhaps I had ADHD–every report card until 5th grade commented on my daydreaming or chatting with other kids in class. Perhaps my brain just worked differently. It wasn’t until I found my ability in art, that I finally found some confidence. And a bigger tribe of people who understood me.

I am so glad you found art and your kidlit tribe! We are all the better for it. Was your illustration process different between these two books? Did you use the same medium?

I used watercolors in both, with gouache for touch-ups. But I had two different palettes. For Renato and the Lion, I used a palette with more earth tones and purples. For Quincy, I put together a very green, bright palette. I also heavily consulted research photos for Renato so that the scenes would be accurate. Something as minor as a soccer ball had to change from 1944 to present day. I learned that the older version was brown leather only–and though the illustration is quite loose, I had to make the details correct. When it came to Quincy, a school of chameleons lived in a world of my own creation. I got to make up the rules–which was a lot of fun.

Did you find much of a difference in working with these two different publishers?

I’m sure that all publishing experiences, even within the same house, with the same editor or art director–vary book to book. That said, I definitely found differences between working with Viking Children’s Books and little bee books. In both cases, I gained entry into their world first through the art directors. With Renato and the Lion, the editor and I had a long journey to get the story to where it is today. The art director and editor at Viking brainstormed with me in their office a few times–which was so cool. We wrestled with the text for a year I think–which sometimes felt scary as we missed our first deadlines. It took a while, but eventually we nailed down our text, and moved on to the illustrations. Because the timeline was off, my final artwork was completed in a compressed amount of time. However, work done all in one burst has a nice consistency. (This is what I kept telling myself.) Throughout this first experience, I was very aware that I am a small fish in a very exciting and big pond.

With Quincy, which happened after Renato and the Lion, smaller edits were given, but the changes felt more like a chiropractor nudging vertebrae into place. The story was immensely better after this adjustment–a testament to the skill and efficiency of Jenna Pocius–which is why she is mentioned in the acknowledgements. Actually, Sarah Lyu–the first editor I worked with–was a big part of Quincy’s journey too. She was from another publisher at the time. She met me at the SCBWI EPA conference in 2013 and worked with me for months to explore Quincy’s arc. The process with her was so wonderful because despite being busy, she made time to have a phone call every now and then to brainstorm. I learned a lot about building a story with her, and her kind words gave me confidence. She made me believe that Quincy would make his way out into the world. When she left publishing, I was so disappointed to lose a champion for Quincy within the industry. But happily, David DeWitt and I met at a Prospect Agency Soiree in 2016, where I found a new champion in him for Quincy. (I credit my agent Rachel Orr and her team at Prospect for this great event to meet publishing people.)

Interesting. I imagine the experience is very much driven by the book and its needs. What's something you want your readers to know about Quincy: The Chameleon Who Couldn’t Blend In?

I want people to know that a real-life version of Quincy might show up in their own lives. Keep your ears alert to stories of people having trouble blending-in. If someone has difficulty, be kind. Let them know it’s ok to look and feel different from the crowd. I know this is very basic information to most people–but we all need a reminder from time to time.

Especially now, it seems. Perfect timing for Quincy's release! We can all use a dose of kindness. Did you find any differences in the way you shifted between illustrating and writing between these two books?

I wrote Renato and the Lion without words initially–which is the version the publisher fell in love with. Quincy always had text with images, which may be why it was easier to edit the manuscript throughout. Renato and the Lion required extensive research for both the story and the visual imagery. I felt it was important to be accurate, even when the stone lion comes to life. The path that he and the boy walk together is something a visitor to Florence can do on foot. (The lion leapt up to the rooftops to stay out of sight.) In contrast, Quincy was a world that I made, so all I had to do was keep true to my own rules. That was a lot easier.

Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I am working on a dummy for a book about the young Leonardo da Vinci. I just put together a version that I feel good about, and my agent and I are tweaking it now. This is in line with Renato and the Lion–there is historical information, but a bit of magic too.

I also have a book about arctic and antarctic animals starting a restaurant together. This is more in keeping with the tone of Quincy.

Ooh, I can't wait to see the da Vinci book and your restaurant one sounds intriguing, too. Having gone through a book release and associated readings and school visits, do you have any advice for those just learning their book is to be published? (What will you do/try differently this time?)

My experience with my first book was clouded by exhaustion–I had just given birth to my daughter three months prior. I did everything and anything I could do to get ready for the debut release, but there was so much I couldn’t accomplish because my baby was little, she always wanted to be on me (sleeping or awake), and I couldn’t afford childcare except for when I was teaching. The kindness of friends and strangers made a huge difference to me. People reached out to interview me (including you, Maria-thank you!!), while others formed a book group online for debut books–and promoted me. My friend Virginia Law Manning came to visit once a week for two hours at a time, to watch my baby while I focused on illustration–for over a year now! This kindness deserves a book dedication. :-)

Had I not had a baby, I would have energetically planned a book tour. I held back a little because it was summer– a June 20th release, and I wasn’t sure how to travel with a little one. This time around, for Quincy, I planned a mini book-tour to New England, New York and New Jersey. But I haven’t been as proactive about traveling to book festivals and such. I hope that as my career unfolds, I will have more opportunities and less obligations with childcare–and can do conferences, school and book store visits, as well as festivals. I love talking to people about books, and hope that the future holds more of this!

Although it might be tempting to look at my baby as a unique challenge, I would suggest that authors and illustrators can get derailed by all manner of life events–positive or otherwise. Books develop over years, so a lot can happen from the beginning until the final publication date. While I can’t prescribe the best practices for promoting your book out of the gate, I can offer that the whole experience is doubly overwhelming if other important life events are demanding your attention at the same time.

As hard as it is, be patient with yourself. Do what you can and let go of the “if only’s.” To have a life challenge occur at what feels like the height of your career, can make you feel sick that so much time/effort/money/dedication, etc. … was invested only to have your momentum stunted. Ask for help from those around you. Graciously accept when people give you help. And then, pay it forward when you are on your feet again. And know that many people experience this issue, expressed differently through various life challenges. You are not alone.

Congratulations on your two beautiful books and adorable baby. I am sure your advice will resonate with many writers & illustrators. I know I have several friends currently experiencing "life challenges" as they write and release their books. I very am glad I was able to help in any small part with Renato's release. I love that book!

Thank you so much for coming by again, Barbara. It’s always a pleasure to talk with you.

Stop back by for the Perfect Picture Book Friday #PPBF post for Quincy: The Chameleon Who Couldn’t Blend In.

To find out more about Barbara DiLorenzo, or get in touch with her:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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