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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Cori Doerrfeld

Although many of you think may think you know about her, I like to introduce you to the award-winning Cori Doerrfeld.

She lives in Minneapolis, MN with her husband and two children. She received her undergrad degree in Studio Art from St. Olaf College and her Post Baccalaureate from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

Cori is perhaps best known for her picture book The Rabbit Listened (2018), which was named a Notable Children’s Book of 2018 by The New York Times and winner of the third annual Anna Dewdney Read Together Award. But she has written and/or illustrated nineteen picture books, her own MG graphic novel series, as well as two other graphic novels.

Her newest picture book, Goodbye, Friend! Hello, Friend! releases tomorrow.

Happy Book Birthday!

Welcome Cori,

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?)

CORI: I have always loved to draw pictures and make up stories. As a child, I spent hours copying my favorite cartoon characters and I have folders upon folders of stories I wrote throughout my school years.

My professional career started about twelve years ago after I was offered a job illustrating a book written by Brooke Shields. Since then, I have helped create several books with both national and local publishers. I usually get to work first thing in the morning when I have a book project. We have a very small house, so I have a partially finished room in our basement just big enough for my computer table and drawing table. It is not ideal, but it gives me the space I need. Even when I don’t have a book project, I feel that I am always writing. Ideas are always swirling around me and I have scraps of paper all over with notes, or little doodles for potential books and characters. As for a favorite type of book, I enjoy fiction books that rely heavily on a visual narrative. I love creating emotive characters and drawing expressions. I especially love drawing animals.

How great is that? To start your career by illustrating a book written by Brooke Shields. And then get to do a sequel. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

I’m not sure a lot of people outside my close friends and family know that I had my first child at the same time I started my career. Since the beginning, I have been a full-time mom and a professional author/illustrator simultaneously. Back when my kids were home with me, I mostly worked at night and on the weekends. Now that both of my kids are in school full time, I cannot even imagine how I handled such a schedule. I will never forget moments like rocking a baby with my foot while I painted!

Yeah, I get that. I think we all just do what we have to at the moment. But looking back, it's pretty darn amazing what we could do. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

My favorite book as a child was Barbapapa, the original one by Annette Tison and Talus Taylor. I loved the first few pages where you can see Barbapapa growing underground. My other favorite was Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig. It made me think about what I would wish for, and of course what it would be like to turn into a rock!

Thank you for introducing me to a new book. Do you prefer being the author or the author/illustrator of a book? Why? [By the way these are the books Cori's illustrated.]

I have never exclusively authored something, but I would love to try it someday. Being both the author and the illustrator does come with its perks, however; because you control the entire book and vision of what it’s supposed to be. When visual narrative is so crucial to a book, I can’t imagine not having a say in what’s happening in the art.

There are many times I wish I were the illustrator for that exact reason. What is your favorite medium to work with? Your least favorite, hardest, or one you’re excited to try?

Currently, I love working digitally. I used to work with acrylic paints, but it became really frustrating when I had to stop to help my kids because the paint would dry up or I would feel like my groove was messed up. Working digitally not only gives me the freedom to start and stop whenever, it makes editorial changes SO MUCH EASIER!

I used to have paintings shipped back and forth from New York and it was so stressful! I think at some point I might try using paint again, or maybe chalk? It would be hard to go back to traditional mediums after working digitally for so long!

Much less of a problem if you're "just" the author. But shipping artwork would be nerve wracking. What is the hardest thing for you, writing or illustrating? Which comes first in your process?

The hardest part for me is figuring out the story, whether that be the story in the text, or the story in the illustrations. When I “write” a book, I work on both the words and the images at the same time because they affect and change each other. Once I have the text and sketches nailed, the part where I actually create the finished illustrations is far easier. I can even listen to podcasts while I work!

What was your inspiration for Goodbye, Friend! Hello, Friend!?

There are many moments in my life where I can remember how important friendship was. I can also remember all the times something changed, and I had to cope with losing close friends. Whether I moved to a different city, a different school, or a different state, I had to learn to put myself out there once again and make new friends.

Most recently, my two best friends moved away from me. Since making friends as an adult can be so difficult, especially if you aren’t from the area, I felt stuck for a long time simply feeling lonely. But then I thought of all the times I had been in that position before. My kids were also at the age where they were forming their first best friendships. Watching them, I realized that I had to open up again. I started talking with a woman at the school bus stop which lead to me joining a local mom group. These women come from all different backgrounds and situations, but never have I seen such support between people! Now I cannot imagine my life without their friendships. Goodbye, Friend! Hello, Friend! is a tribute to both the power of friendship, and to the power of always staying open to the next possibility.

Friendship and flexibility, two things we definitely need right now. How is Goodbye, Friend! Hello, Friend! similar or different from your other picture books Little Bunny Foo Foo: The Real Story (2012), Matilda in the Middle: A Bunny Ballet Story (2015), Maggie and Wendel: Imagine Everything! (2016), The Rabbit Listened (2018), Good Dog (2018), or Wild Baby (2019)?

Goodbye, Friend! Hello, Friend! is different from my other books in that it takes place in a completely real world. The characters are all humans and there are no imaginary or fantastical scenes. Nothing in the book, from the settings to the emotions being expressed, is exaggerated or made up. It is all meant to capture what a real friendship feels like. I still think, however, it is in line with the tone of some of my other books. It hopefully connects with people on an emotional level, and as with all of my books, I hope people see themselves in the pages.

I don't think that's a worry. How challenging is it to switch from picture books to your MG graphic novel series, Cici: A Fairy's Tale? Is there something that appeals to you in each genre?

It was difficult, especially since I had never written a book like that before. It took me some time to learn the different pacing and how dialogue heavy a graphic novel is. It was also tricky learning to work with my husband who did all the layouts and pencil roughs for the Cici books. We had to learn how to work together and not step on each other’s toes as we each completed our part of the project.

In the end, I really enjoyed working on the Cici books because it was a chance to create a more expanded universe and storyline than is typically possible in a picture book. I hope to have more opportunities writing/illustrating graphic novels. That being said, I will always love how picture books make you focus on one specific topic. When you don’t have as many pages, you really get the chance to dive into every piece of artwork.

I like that distinction. If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?

I am always trying to spread a message that took me a long time to come to terms with. You are your own worst enemy, which really means you are ultimately the one who defines your success. I have spent a great deal of time feeling like I wasn’t good enough because I wasn’t asked to a certain event or didn’t live up to what others were achieving. But then I realized that this line of thinking is so toxic. It is only when you try to keep your mind and your heart on what you can do, that you can finally be your best.

Great advice. Something I need to post above my computer. What's something you want your readers to know about Goodbye, Friend! Hello, Friend!?

I want them to know that I simply love the atmosphere and “mood” of this book. Even though all the characters and scenes reflect reality, I tried so hard to capture the magic that exists all around us. Maybe it sounds corny, but there is so much power and potential in everyday transitions. Simply watching the sunlight become starlight is a reminder to be grateful, to always see potential, and to embrace the mystery of it all.

Wow. Basically, the proverbial "slow down and smell the roses"; don't just note they exist. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer and/or illustrator.)

I think the people and stories around me are always my greatest source of inspiration. As a child, I wrote lots of stories and made lots of drawings that mimicked my favorite books and movies. I loved classic animators like Chuck Jones and Bill Peet. Now, I find that my writing and illustrating reflects my experiences with other people. My family and friends are always making my wheels turn with the things they say, do, and create. I can never keep up with the bizarre and unique creations my kids come up with!

Oh, to stay "kid-like" forever. As the illustrator of other writer’s books, what was the greatest gift or most exciting thing an author did for (provided) you?

The greatest gift I ever received was from the late author, Kate Dopirak. I did the illustrations for her book, Snuggle Bunny. As a thank you, Kate sent me a surprise package filled with the sweetest and most thoughtful items, all of which related back to our book. There was also a handwritten note thanking me for my work. Before Kate, I had never been personally acknowledged before by an author. As an illustrator, I always wonder if I did a good enough job, or if the author is happy with how the book turned out, so receiving Kate’s kind gesture made me feel so seen, so affirmed, and so appreciated. I will never forget it.

Pay attention authors, a tiny bit of kindness goes a long way! Would you say you have a common theme or thread in your books?

I admit my books are all very different. But, I do believe there is a common theme, especially in the more recent books. I feel they are all reminders to connect with those around you and that you are never alone in your experiences. More and more people in my life discuss feeling anxious. I feel that this is caused in part by people feeling lonely or overwhelmed by their obligations, emotions, etc. I hope my books help people remember that you can always relate to someone. I believe it is in finding the connections between ourselves and other people, other animals, and other situations that we ultimately find purpose.

A theme we need more and more these days. How hard was it to have two books release in 2018 and in 2019? Did you find one overshadowed the other? Was it harder to market both of them?

I am always excited to have a book come out, so I never thought about this in a negative light. I also understand that a lot of what makes the book successful is the publisher and what they do to promote a book and what is trending with critics and librarians.

If anything was a little tricky for me, it was having The Rabbit Listened truly be one of the first books that lots of people noticed. Some people even thought it was my very first book! I have at times felt that The Rabbit Listened suddenly defined who I am as an author/illustrator and set up expectations for what my previous and upcoming books would be like. There is a big piece of my heart and soul in every book I work on, so I support them all equally. I do, however, acknowledge that sometimes a book, like The Rabbit Listened, hits just the right note at the right time. I have been so humbled and honored by how that book has been received.

I have to admit that this was one of my favorite books for 2018! Many illustrators leave treasures throughout their illustrations. Did you do this in Goodbye, Friend! Hello, Friend!? Could you share one or more with us?

So many things in this book are references to people and friends that mean the world to me. The names, the settings, the pets, all of it and more relate back to real life situations. For example, Stella and Charlie are the names of my daughter and her first best friend. The dog is my friend Crystal’s dog, Georges. The names on the school cubbies are all people from my life. The stuffed bunny in some of the scenes belongs to my friend’s daughter. I hope details like this make the friendship seem that much more real to readers and helps them connect with the characters.

Thank you. It's so fun to learn of these nuggets within the illustrations! Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I just finished illustrating a book written by Ame Dyckman that was a lot of fun. I also have a few of my own story ideas I am trying to polish up enough to submit to an editor. Most of them focus once again on navigating difficult emotions, but I would also love to do another book where I get to draw lots of animals!

I will be on the look-out for these books. Is there anything about getting your agent, writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or are glad that you did not know?

Looking back, I think I am grateful that I knew so little. Ignorance truly can be bliss. It alleviated some of the pressure since I didn’t know anything about starred reviews or best seller lists. The more I learn, the more I doubt myself and my abilities so I try really hard to stay focused on what I can personally control. I can always make new art, I can always write another story, and I can always be professional to work with. I try to let go of the things I cannot control like reviews, accolades, being invited to events. It’s not always easy, but it helps.

It is VERY hard; but I agree it's important to try for your own mental health and creativity. What is your favorite animal? Why? Or maybe a current animal you are enamored with?

For a long time now, rabbits have held a very special place in my heart. Someone from my past found great comfort in rabbits after his brother passed away. The way he discussed them and viewed them, left a great impression on me. Seeing a rabbit always makes me feel more connected to everyone and reminds me that I am not alone. Otherwise, other favorites are elephants, dogs, and most recently pangolins. I love how a pangolin is so tough on one side, yet so vulnerable on the other. It reminds me a lot of what it’s like to be an author/illustrator!

Love that thought! Thank you, Cori for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.

Be sure to stop by on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Goodbye, Friend! Hello, Friend!

To find out more about Cori Doerrfeld, or get in touch with her:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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