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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Have I got a treat for you! The amazingly warm and welcoming Vanessa Brantley-Newton.

I had the privilege to meet her at the Oregon SCBWI Conference in 2018. Her keynote speech was inspiring and heartfelt. But what made the conference special for me was Vanessa's generosity with her hugs and time (she ate and talked with a group of us for two hours!). That warm, welcoming smile in the picture below and her easy conversation is entirely genuine!

Vanessa is a multi-award-winning illustrator and author/illustrator of twenty-five books. Her books span the gamut from fiction to nonfiction, picture book to middle grade, but almost all of them feature music or dance in some fashion. “As an illustrator, she includes children of all ethnic backgrounds in her stories and artwork. She wants all children to see their unique experiences reflected in the books they read, so they can feel the same sense of empowerment and recognition she experienced as a young reader.”

Her latest picture book, The King of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes, releases on July 2nd.

Welcome Vanessa,

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

VANESSA: I am a Brick City Girl (Newark, NJ). l have been drawing since the age of 3. I am self-taught, but I did attend FIT( The Fashion Institute of Technology and The School of Visual Arts, NYC). I never graduated from either.

I am dyslexic and I also have something called synesthesia. The ability to hear, see, feel, taste, and smell color.

I have been married for over 25 years. I have a daughter named Zoe who is also a fantastic writer. I have a cat named Stripes who runs our house. I am a child at heart and soul. Perpetually stuck at 5. Wanting to connect with children and adults giving them a do over through my artwork and books.

I like rainy days and when I am not working on books I am reading lots and lots of children’s books, listening to Audible books, crafting, sewing, brushing up on a skill or my favorite, COOKING! I love to cook. All kinds of food and If I were not doing children’s book I would be a chef I love cooking just that much.

I imagine many are glad you create children's books. I know I am. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

If there is a bug in the room I can find it. My Spidie senses kick in and I can feel them somehow LOL! One day, my car was stolen outta my driveway and I spent the whole day trying to find it. Was in my girlfriend's Hoopdee (big old car) and we drove right up behind my car. There is the guy who stole it driving it around having a good old time. Now I don’t suggest anyone doing this. We followed him and then called my dad to meet us at the apt building where we found the car. My dad jumped in and sped off and I got my car back. True story.

Oh my, I'm glad you got the car back and no one got hurt. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

My favorite book as a child was The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. Keats was and still is my favorite children’s book illustrator and writer.

I remember you saying that was the first time you saw yourself in a book. What captured your attention or imagination with The King of Kindergarten?

The magic of a child’s first day of school. This little boy being encouraged by his parents about this first day of Kindergarten. The surprise of meeting and making friends, learning, and then coming home to tell your family about your first day. It is just magical and special. That is what captured my imagination.

Sounds like lots of great elements in the story to capture one's imagination. Many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in The King of Kindergarten? Could you share one or more with us?

Yes! There are few places in The King Of Kindergarten where I do that. Derrick and I are really good friends. More like family. I have had the joy of sitting at the dinner table with his family and Nambi, who is the youngest of Derricks 4 boys, is the muse for the book. Really the story is about Nambi. Derrick refers to his boys in a number of ways, (The Mighty 4) but he calls Nambi, (Prince Nambi). He became my focus while illustrating. His sweet little smile and gestures made it easy to bring the character to life.

There are elements of the story that come from my own childhood memories as well. A couple of the scenes like when the teacher greets him at the door is straight from my memories of Kindergarten when I met my first teachers. Also, the piece where we see him learning about the alphabet and things are moving around on the pages and have now taken on a hue of blue and chairs are floating around with trains and books flying in the air and the teacher is even a part of the magic. This is straight from my own experiences as a child. This is what it looked like for me on my first day. PURE. SIMPLE. MAGIC. It was fun.

Oh my gosh, they couldn't have found a better illustrator for this book. What is the hardest thing for you about writing and/or illustrating children’s books?

Sketching it all out. There are hundreds of ideas flying around in my head and I want to do every single one of them and I bring that feeling to my desk which can be so overwhelming, as I feel deeply about the work.

Getting people out of my head and listening to the creative voice inside that says, “Come on! Let’s play. There is no judgement only creativity.” Sometimes I can feel the fear that wants to overtake me. The voices that say, “You are only as good as your last book. There are so many illustrators that can do it better than you can.” These are the voices that I quickly have to shut down and do me. Sketching sometimes can be very hard for me. I want to just go straight to finish, but I have learned over the years that sketching it a great part of the processes and I am learning to embrace the process more and more as I create books.

The other thing is that books are not created like back in the day. The deadlines are much quicker and there seems no time for creativity. The idea is that, because it was done on a computer it somehow makes it different or easier to have been created. Since you are creating these pieces digitally it should go faster, but this is not the case. It can take up to 16 hours for me to create one piece on my iMac. Sometimes I have to let a piece of art sit for a couple of days and then go back and rework or add more or take away something to make it shine. I want to give them what they are looking for in a beautifully detailed illustrated book.

So, whether you're illustrating or writing, sometimes you have to let things marinate. And it seems no one is immune to those devious, critical voices. Having illustrated and or written a number of fiction and nonfiction books, do you find that you need to do research for both types? Did you need to do research for The King of Kindergarten? Which was your toughest book to illustrate in terms of requiring research?

I do research on both actually. I like to know what I am working on as I am working on books. I study every single thing. If it is a period book then I want to know what people wore. The colors that they might have worn. The places where certain events took place.

When I illustrated The Youngest Marcher, I went back to my childhood and remembered certain fashion elements that had to be in there. The hair and clothing just had to be right to give it a retro feel and look if you will. I wanted it to feel like you had just stepped back into time.

It was the same for King Of Kindergarten. I study people. Especially kids. I looked online for hours and days. Looking at pictures of children running, jumping, even thinking about their first day of Kindergarten. What would a face of wonder look like? I looked at classroom set ups and even visited a few classes and took pictures for reference. And even while I use my imagination, I still want to give children the feeling that I’ve just peeked into their world. I love to hear them say, ”Ms.V., that picture that you drew looks like me and my family or my teacher."

You've created mirrors for many children, just like your inspiration Ezra Jack Keats. Do you prefer being the illustrator or the author/illustrator of a book? Why?

I actually love illustration and while I struggle with writing at times I love both processes. I love to illustrate other people's books. Bringing to life the words and thoughts of other writers. It’s a lot of fun and stretches me as an illustrator. A kinda, "I see what you say" kinda thing.

I love writing as well. While I am dyslexic, I still have a voice and so I love to express my thoughts not only through pictures or illustrations, but also with words. Poetry is my way of expressing myself. Sometimes when I am not writing it down on paper, I speak it into my tape recorder. So, since you asked which comes easier for me, I will say the illustrations. I really do love both, though.

How is The King of Kindergarten different from (or similar to) your other picture books? Was it more (or less) challenging than your previous books?

Every time I sit down to do a new book it’s as fresh as the day that I did the first book. They are all new and exciting to me. I read and re-read the story over and over again until a picture is formed in my imagination.

This book is different because it is the first time that I am doing a story about Kindergarten with a little black boy being the center stage character. It was challenging only to find exciting ways to express the character and to play with Derricks words. Derricks words where so beautifully written and it gave me pictures that I couldn’t wait to put onto paper.

Sounds like it was a great collaboration. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer or illustrator.)

People. Children. I am a people watcher. I follow a couple feet behind families in the supermarket to see how children act with their parents and then watch children play with friends and even how they express themselves, when by themselves. They are pure inspiration.

As a child I was inspired by TV cartoons like Hanna Barbara, Looney Tunes, Courageous Cat and Mighty Mouse. If It was a cartoon and had a theme song, it had me.

I am inspired by anything retro of the late 50’s and 60’s. The sounds, colors, textures and all. I am also inspired by fashion! It’s my thing!!!

[If you have any doubt about that, look at these covers!]

Man, I haven't thought of Mighty Mouse in a long time. What's something you want your readers to know about The King of Kindergarten?

That they can also be Kings and Queens of Kindergarten as well! That they are Kindergarten Royalty too.

That is a great message. If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?

That it’s okay to different, just be true to yourself. And then be kind to yourself. When you are kind to yourself, you can be kind to others as well.

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

There are always many projects on my desk. I am working on a book right now about two boys who are different from each other’s, but each is Just Right. I am also working on my own kind of Madeline narrative with the wonderful Nancy Paulsen.

I can't wait to see these books! Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or are glad that you did not know?

Don’t share your ideals with everyone you don’t trust. Speak for yourself and don’t let anyone speak for you. Do it scared, but do it. Take your time and do awesome work so they don’t send it back to you over and over again. Don’t quit your day job until you have enough work coming in to sustain you and your family. If you should fall down at least fall forward.

You've got a whole seminar right there. I can't even pick one piece of advice to focus one - they ALL spoke to me. What is your favorite animal? Or maybe a current animal you are enamored with. Why?

Otters!! I think they are the cutest animal ever! I just love their faces!

Here are a couple of otters from the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.

© Maria Marshall 2019.

Thank you Vanessa for spending time sharing with us! It is always such a pleasure and a gift for me to spend time with you.

Be sure to stop back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book Post #PPBF on The King of Kindergarten.

To find out more about Vanessa Brantley-Newton, or get in touch with her:

Agency Website:


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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