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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Suzanne Kaufman

This week's interview is with the talented author/illustrator Suzanne Kaufman. She is the illustrator of One Hundred Bugs: A Counting Book (June 2018), Naughty Claudine's Christmas (2017), and Samanthasaurus Rex (2016), and the author/illustrator of Confiscated (2017), and I Love Monkey (2009).

Her newest book, All Are Welcome, written by Alexandra Penfold, released July 10th. As she also lives in the Seattle area, I was privileged to hear Suzanne Kaufman discuss the story behind the illustrations of this amazing, touching, and timely book at a local SCBWI "Inside Story" event. She has graciously agreed to share a bit of this behind the scenes information in this interview.

Welcome Suzanne,

ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write/illustrate?

Suzanne: If you check out my Instagram you will see I work everywhere. I am always sneaking in sketches in the car, on the train, at my daughter soccer game. When I am deep in final art I just lock myself in the studio.

How long have you been writing/illustrating?

My first book I Love Monkey came out in 2009. At the time I was an animation professor taking night classes to move into film animation. I found I would rather promote my first book over animating.

I joined SCBWI and went to many conferences and masterclasses to improve my portfolio. During this time, I won portfolio honors award at Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference in NYC and a Summer Conference Mentorship. I started a daily sketch post based on a talk presented by the amazing Lucy Ruth Cummins who is now an Executive Art Director at Simon & Schuster Books.

These daily studies were seen in 2014 by Martha Rago who is now the Executive Creative Director at Penguin Random House Publishers who asked me to illustrate Samanthasaurus Rex. Since that book I have been very busy illustrating for Balzer and Bray, FSG, Knopf, Random House and just finished my seventh book in two years.

Your hard work definitely paid off. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

I played cowbell and yodeled in a German folk band in high school.

That is very unique and interesting. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

This is also like asking who is your favorite child is? You can see by my style that I have a huge loved for golden books. I adored anything by Mary Blair, Richard Scarry and H. A. Rey, Margret Rey, Jack Ezra Keats, Gyo Fujikawa, Aliki, Dahlov Ipcar and M. Sasek.

Interesting, you're my first interviewee with this reaction. But I totally agree with you, I can never pick one book. If you could share one thing with kids today what would that be?

I am huge Star Wars nerd and I tell this to kids in my talks all the time.

“Do or do not. There is no try.”

– Yoda

I hope kids just make things, try things, just do. Don’t afraid to make a mistake. Commit to just doing and see what happens.

Excellent advice for us all. Do you prefer being the author or the illustrator of a book? Why?

I love both. I think there is a misconception that illustrators would prefer to do only their own stories. I love both equally and each fills my soul in special ways.

Okay, so which is harder – illustrating someone else’s story or illustrating your own?

They are both hard but that is why I like to do it.

As an illustrator, what is your favorite medium to work with? Your least favorite or hardest?

I would love to use everything but the kitchen sink when it comes to medium. Eventually this all becomes a collage in photoshop.

What is the hardest thing for you about writing or illustrating children’s books?

That first pass dummy is so hard as I need to get all the bad ideas out before I can be free.

Oh, those messy first drafts! How different was the experience of illustrating All Are Welcome from illustrating One Hundred Bugs: A Counting Book, Naughty Claudine's Christmas, and/or Samanthasaurus Rex?

All of these books were amazing experiences. Each book gave me new opportunities to grow as a writer/ illustrator and to be mentored by some of the most amazing editors/art directors in the industry like Donna Bray, Martha, Rago, Dana Wood, Janine O’Mally, Nicole De Las Heras, Erin Clarke, Maria Modungo.

Samanthasaurus Rex really played to my strength as an animator of pose, action, and emotion. It was also the first time I ever did backgrounds.

Confiscated was so fun as it was based on my real life. Anytime my daughters would fight, I would confiscate the item. Yes, many things have been confiscated in my house.

Naughty Claudine allowed me to illustrate my family dynamics and especially the antics of my youngest daughter.

One Hundred Bugs was my first nonfiction. I had always wanted to do nonfiction, but my portfolio didn’t show it. Luckily Janine O'Malley, Executive Editor at FSG believed in me and offered an art test. I was excited that I finished it in a few hours and the rest is history. What I love about nonfiction is the opportunity to take the real world and tell a story. The text was very poetic and left me room to add visual narrative.

Finally, All Are Welcome was the first one where I almost knew what was on every page while making the first dummy except for the magical gatefold. That was all Martha Rago and her art director magic. It was the most organic book I have ever made.

I love how you wove your family and friends into your illustrations. What made you want to illustrate All Are Welcome?

Like many others, I felt helpless after the travel restrictions announcement. My daughters’ school Kimball Elementary is made up of wide range of families from all over the world, from many different backgrounds. I wanted to make a book to let them to know they were safe and welcome at their school. I wanted to make a book that didn’t just support diversity but celebrated it.

You succeeded beyond your wildest dreams! What was it like working with a manuscript your agent had written?

It was a dream. Alex is as sweet and smart as her work. She contributed many ideas to the book, but my favorites were the images of her kid's school with little yarn hearts on the fence.

What/who was your greatest inspiration as a child? What/who is your greatest source of inspiration now as a writer and/or as an illustrator?

My parents were teachers and loved to travel. I grew up with not a lot of money but plenty of art supplies to make anything I wanted. I drew all the time on long road trips. Both things inspired me to be inquisitive and to have a deep passion for books and different cultures.

Now my greatest inspiration is my community and family. This family also includes close kid lit pals like Elizabeth Rose Stanton, Jessixa Bagley, Vanessa Bradley Newton, Jennifer Mann, Toni Yuly, Wendy Wahman, Liz Wong, Julie Kim, Ben Clanton, Corinna Luyken, and Debbie Ohi.

Such a great community of talented writers and illustrators and loving people. What is the best thing an author can do to help an illustrator? The worst?

I think the best thing I have experienced is how supportive authors are with the organic revision process of making a book. I have been lucky to have had wonderful authors, editors and art directors that were very collaborative. I think the worst would be to not trust the editor and art director of a project. To make a great book you must trust each other.

Collaboration and trust go a long way in any endeavor. Can you share with us as many of the special treasures contained within All Are Welcome as you are willing?

Here are just a few secrets behind the illustrations of All Are Welcome:

The Library scene is based on the library in my daughter school. Notice the rows of globes. The librarian was inspired by one of my favorite authors Maya Angelou.

The notorious RBG Ruth Bader Ginsberg is in the book talking to one of my favorite kidlit bloggers host Matthew Winner. Go check out his amazing work at:

And the cover when you flip it over is a free poster.

Wow. Thank you so much for sharing these inside nuggets. It makes the book even more special. Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I just finished Take Your Pet to School Day by Linda Ashman where a group of pets take over a school. It was a book that made me laugh every time I went back to work on it.

These kids (left to right), based off author/illustrator friends Jessixa Bagley, Liz Wong, and Elizabeth Rose Stanton, are the main characters in Take Your Pet to School Day.

Oh boy! I can just imagine the hijinks that a porcupine, a snake, and a cat get into. Looks like it will be a lot of fun. By the way, what is your favorite animal? Why?

My favorite animal is my sweet crazy pup named Pippi. She is all character and was named after Pippi Long stocking. You will find her hidden in almost all my books.

* (Be sure to check out earlier images of Confiscated, Naughty Nadine, and One hundred Bugs to find Suzanne's pup Pippi. Then look for her in All Are Welcome.) *

Thank you, Suzanne for stopping by and sharing with us. It was a true pleasure to chat with you.

Be sure to stop back by this Friday for the Perfect Picture Book Friday (#PPBF) post of All Are Welcome.

To find out more about Suzanne Kaufman, or get in touch with her:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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