Today I have the distinct privilege of doing a joint interview with two amazing Kidlit creators - author Heather Gale and illustrator Mika Song.
Heather Gale grew up in New Zealand. While she worked fitting arms and legs, and designing braces to help people stand, walk, and run, she really wanted to write. She now lives in Toronto, Canada with her husband, family and dogs, Molly and Cooper. Heather writes nonfiction children’s picture books, and her debut book, HOʻONANI: Hula Warrior, released October 1st.
For more information on Heather, read her wonderful interview on Susanna Hill's Tuesday Debut post (https://susannahill.com/2019/11/12/tuesday-debut-presenting-heather-gale/?fbclid=IwAR358UN-_6EQ5N-uLU09TxHR3ZCkBNLj9lFPdnfPNHespyyBZFfqVnPtvtM).
Mika Song is a children's writer/illustrator who makes stories about sweetly funny outsiders. She grew up in Manila, Philippines and Honolulu, Hawaii before moving to New York to study at Pratt Institute. She studied animation and worked as an animator before getting into children's books. She’s the author/illustrator of two Oliver books and has illustrated 5 other picture books, including HOʻONANI: Hula Warrior.
Check out my earlier interviews of Mika Song (here) and (here).
Welcome Heather and Mika,
ME: Heather, 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?)
HEATHER: Hi, Maria! Thanks for having us here. I’ve been writing seriously for at least 6 years and my absolute favorite time of the day is 4 - 6 am. There’s something special about those hours. The air is fresh, and the day feels calm with an endless stretch of unfilled hours. At the moment my favorite type of book explores social issues, but I have just as much fun working on some fiction pieces as well.
Oh my gosh, Heather, you're an early riser! Mika, do you still feel “pretty new” to children’s books, after illustrating 4 books in 2017, 1 in 2018, and 2 in 2019? How has your writing and illustrating changed now that your daughter is 4?
MIKA: Hi Maria! Thanks for having me back. It does still feel new to me. The books I’ve illustrated are all very different and different publishers have different ways of doing things and many of them are changing the way they do things.
My kid started school full time this summer so I've really been enjoying the extra time to work on my personal projects, like self-publishing mini-comics and doing comics workshops with kids. I’ve been making my own sketchbooks out of scrap paper and playing around on my drawing table. I feel much more calm while I work.
(Here's a peek into her studio during creation of HOʻONANI: Hula Warrior.)
I love your workspace! What is something no one (or few) knows about either of you?
HEATHER: I love to cook with what’s in the cupboards and because baking is an exact science, I struggle with not tweaking that recipe to then see what happens.
MIKA: I grew up in the Philippines and my mother is Filipino. My father is Japanese-American. My grandfather was born in Hawaii. My great-grandfather immigrated from Japan to work in the plantations. But my last name is Korean because of my husband who is Korean-American.
Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
HEATHER: I had so many favorites. I loved Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin and we always had Little Golden Books on our shelves. The story I remember returning to most was The Big Brown Bear, a bear who gets into so much trouble when he finds the beehive he’s been warned to stay away from.
MIKA: I have so many favorites but there is one in particular that floated into my head when I read Heather Gale’s manuscript. It was a picture book I had as a child about the Filipino folk dance the Tinikling. All I remember about it was that I loved the drawings. I thought it was set in the Philippines, with Birds of Paradise that start dancing. I recently found it on the internet and ordered it. It’s called Felisa and it’s actually set in Hawaii, which I didn’t realize as a child. I can still remember how strong and beautiful the main characters in the book looked. I think that’s the first picture book I saw with an illustrated female Filipino main character.
Thank you, those are two books I was unfamiliar with. If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?
HEATHER: Great question! Here’s what I’d share with my younger self: feel the fear then embrace it.
My younger self was so scared to step outside the comfort zone and I admired everyone who stretched their abilities. This important character development is critical for self-esteem and confidence, no matter your gender.
MIKA: Pay attention to the things you enjoy.
Stretch yourself and do what makes you happy, got it! What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer or illustrator.)
HEATHER: For me, it is nature. While out walking the dogs in the city’s ravines, I’m inspired by new ideas and nine times out ten, it’s an epic fantasy story. Very few thoughts survive long enough to make the pen-to-paper stage, but I’m always left with that sense of being recharged.
MIKA: I get inspiration from working with and being around kids.
Heather, what was the inspiration for HOʻONANI Hula Warrior? Can you explain the difference between nonfiction and “based on a true story?”
Ho'onani: Hula Warrior was inspired by the PBS documentary, A Place in the Middle and is written ‘based on a true story.’
In other words, I used a little creativity to create the story version. If you turn to the opening spread in the book, Ho'onani’s parents are watching her play ukulele in the school playground. Her mother says, “she is who she is!” and her father says, “she does what she wants!” Her sister, Kana, crosses her arms and says nothing.
This particular scene was not in the documentary, yet it establishes some facts: Ho'onani is comfortable being herself and has unconditional parental love, friendships, and respect while there seems to be an obstacle, her sister, Kana.
A true nonfiction picture book would not have opened with that same scene.
That is a very important distinction to make and thank you for the concrete example.
Mika - what about the HOʻONANI Hula Warrior manuscript snagged your attention or captured your imagination? Who was the inspiration for your illustrations of HOʻONANI?
I like how layered the themes are but how focused the story is. She’s a bit like every Hawaiian kid but also a confident musician and performer and non-binary.
I think the way her family and teacher are shown supporting her is very inspiring. They create this space for her to do her best. We should try to do that for all children and especially for children that are different.
How much, if any, collaboration did you two have? If you communicated, did you do so through the editor? How much did the text change after the illustrations were completed?
Heather: Our editor, Samantha Swenson communicated between us and she must have done a fabulous job because we changed very little.
Mika: I received everyone’s feedback through Sam, the editor at Tundra.
Heather, what’s the biggest thing/lesson you’ve learned as a debut author? The most amazing?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is, every cog in the wheel takes time to fall into place and I’m both surprised and impressed with how many plates a publishing house keeps spinning to get your book, not just on the shelves, but noticed.
It's definitely a complicated business. Mika – do you prefer being the illustrator or the author/illustrator of a book? Why?
The process honestly feels the same to me. But I work much harder promoting and marketing my author/illustrator work because I know I am the only one who will do it.
Good point. With the two of you there is double the marketing opportunity. In general, what is the hardest thing for you both of you about writing and/or illustrating children’s books?
Heather: For me, that depends on the story. A manuscript I’m working on right now has some sidekick humor and I’m learning how hard it is to write ‘funny’ for everyone.
Mika: It’s hard not to overwork things and be confident in your voice.
Knowing when to stop tinkering is something many strive to master; I know I do. Heather - what's something you want your readers to know about HOʻONANI Hula Warrior?
I’d love readers to know how important Mika’s illustrations are to this book.
The story begins with an introduction to ancient Hawaiian culture showing two leis together. One is white (female), the other yellow (male). Later Ho'onani wears both colors in honor of who she is, Mahu. Then, look at what Kana wears on the second-to-last page! Spoiler alert . . . this symbolizes absolute acceptance of her sister, Ho'onani.
Text © Heather Gale, 2019 . Image © Mika Song, 2019.
It definitely takes both halves to make an outstanding picture book. And, in case you all wondered, I asked. Mika did all the research and planning/devising of this important visual strand (and others) within the book. So, what was the toughest part about the writing or the illustrating of HOʻONANI Hula Warrior for both of you? How many revisions did you each have to do? How much research did either of you have to do?
Heather: The toughest part was making sure each story layer was subtle yet complete. For me, it’s important kids at different ages understand a seemingly simple yet complex story at their own comfort and comprehension level.
I’ll give you an example of what I mean. You could read this story as an 11-year old girl trying out for the school’s male-only hula chant, supported by parents, a teacher and environment that care, respect and value each other. There’s just one snag – her older sister. Over the course of the story Ho'onani must prove to everyone, including herself, she’s the right choice.
Then you could explore a deeper layer within this same story, which, I think, is better explained in the documentary, A Place in the Middle
(https://aplaceinthemiddle.org/). When Ho'onani remains true to herself, she also learns to embrace, then empower, the Mahu she feels inside.
I think some stories, especially those with fluid topics such as gender diversity, need more than one take-away and picture books excel at this! They give adults and children an opportunity to develop deeper levels of empathy and understanding without judgement or question.
Mika: I was finishing up my sketches and I thought I should take a break and get some inspiration. My friend, author/illustrator Aram Kim (No Kimchi for Me) got beat up in a tae kwon do class while working on her upcoming book. So I signed up for a hula class.
There were a few online but I couldn’t have been luckier in choosing Na Pua Mai Ka Lani Nuioka in Queens. They are a seriously inspiring halau teaching traditional hula with diverse members. They should have a documentary about them. I showed the teachers and members the sketches and listened to their feedback. Through them we found a Hawaiian language professor to review the book. [maybe you should do a Hula picture book?]
The editor also sent the sketches to Kumu Hina and the Kamai family for approval. Which I was so thankful to get. I had a bunch of revisions for everything and that’s typical for me.
Thank you both so much for sharing with us both the work to create varied layers and the outside research needed to pull this book together. Heather - though you lived in New Zealand, have you gotten any push back for writing about a Hawaiian girl and her culture? Or about writing a “between” character?
No, I didn’t get any resistance. Perhaps it helped to have lived in a country rich with Polynesian history; so I understood the importance of respecting a story whose origins came from a culture and traditions long ago.
Mika, many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in HOʻONANI Hula Warrior? Could you share one or more with us?
I drew Queen Liliuokalani into the top left most seat in the audience because she was a composer and loved her people.
That's an extra special touch! What is your favorite spread in HOʻONANI Hula Warrior?
Text © Heather Gale, 2019 . Image © Mika Song, 2019.
Heather: I have quite a few so this is a super-hard question. One of my many favorite spreads is when the troupe have chosen Ho'onani and the look on Kuma Hina’s face carries so many emotions! She’s serene, all-knowing, proud, gracious, and respectful.
Text © Heather Gale, 2019 . Image © Mika Song, 2019.
Mika: I like the spread of the kids in assembly listening to Kumu Hina. I grouped the students and positioned Kumu Hina to look like islands. The islands seen from the water are long trapezoids. I think it’s a steady and comforting shape. I use that shape often in the book. I like to start the book with blue. It’s the color of cool lava rock. In the middle of the book everything is more red like lava and then it cools again into green lushness at the very end.
Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I just submitted my final art for Donut Feed the Squirrels, a graphic novel about a squirrel donut truck heist. It comes out in September 2020 from Random House Graphic.
We'll be keeping an eye out for it. 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?
I’m glad I didn’t think too hard about illustrating a picture book about a living person and how the person might react to the image.
I imagine that would have been nerve wracking. What is your favorite animal? Why? Or maybe a current animal you are enamored with?
Heather: Great question, – I’ve always been fascinated with wolves and their relationship with our healthy ecosystems. We can learn so much from the animal kingdom!
Mika: Bats. They are city animals and country animals.
Thank you, Heather and Mika for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you both.
Be sure to came back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on HOʻONANI Hula Warrior
To find out more about Heather Gale and Mika Song, or get in touch with them:
Website: https://heathergale.net/ & http://mikasongdraws.com/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/writergale & https://twitter.com/mikasongdraws
*Be sure to comment below and/or Friday's post to be entered in the giveaway.*