The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Ellie Peterson
My books actively encourage children to question
HOW they know what they know.
~ Ellie Peterson
Ellie Peterson is a picture book author, illustrator, and science educator living in the Seattle area. In fact, she taught my daughter sixth grade science. I know, small world, right? Ellie's books are inspired by her experience teaching STEM, upbringing as a biracial army brat, and adventures in parenting.
She's the illustrator of Bea's Bees, by Katherine Pryor. And author/illustrator of It's A Round, Round World! the first book in The Joulia Copernicus Books with Kane Press. Her newest book, The Reason for the Seasons, releases tomorrow.
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? How did you get started? What is your favorite type of book to write?)
I’ve always loved to draw and even created my own comics and popup books when I was a kid. Though I went down the career path of becoming a science teacher, the idea of creating picture books was always on my mind. I considered it a pipe dream until a colleague I had at the time, Mark Holtzen, published his first picture book, A Ticket to the Pennant. His success and encouragement convinced me this was a dream worth following. Over the course of the next five or six years I took classes from Craig Orback and Dana Sullivan, joined SCBWI, and found two wonderful critique groups: the Broad Strokes and the Night Writers.
My books are largely about STEM topics, but I love to write anything with heart, humor, and moxie.
I think that defines you, too. Full of heart, humor, and moxie. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
I’m a steampunk romance geek. When I’m not reading picture books, or middle grade novels, or some other New York Times best seller everyone tells me I should be reading, I’m reading cheap, seamy, self-published steampunk junk. I just can’t help myself.
That's a fun image! Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
I loved Richard Scarry books when I was a child. Especially all the books about Busytown. I pored over those scenes filled with see-through buildings and anthropomorphic animals. Scarry always has multiple storylines going through those books, which keeps readers coming back again and again. It’s fun to see that Cars, and Trucks, and Things that Go! is still hugely popular with kids, especially my own. To this day though, I find it rather strange that Lowly Worm was the same size as Huckle cat. Can you imagine a worm as big as a cat?
My favorite chapter book was (and possibly still is) the BFG. Roald Dahl invented such a fun and unique language for the BFG and I still marvel at Quentin Blake’s loose lines and comical faces.
That cover brings back memories of reading it to my kids. It's funny, we never questioned Lowly's size. Talk about the suspension of disbelief. Where did the idea for the Joulia Copernicus series and specifically the book The Reason for the Seasons come from?
The Joulia Copernicus series is born out of the inquiry-based lessons I teach my students. After 17 years of teaching, I’ve learned the right questions to ask children, the questions that lead to a deeper understanding of the concepts. After publishing It’s A Round, Round World!, I knew I wanted the next Joulia Copernicus book to be about a major scientific misconception children have. Many children (and adults) believe the seasons are caused by earth’s proximity to the sun and are minimally aware of Earth’s tilt and its role in the seasons. I wanted to create a book that conceptually helps children understand the cause of the seasons, but also validates their questions and reasoning skills.
I think you totally succeeded! Do you prefer being the illustrator or author/illustrator? Would you ever illustrate another author’s book again?
I prefer being an author/illustrator because it’s so much easier for me to marry the words and pictures when the words are my own. However, I have illustrated another author’s book, Bea’s Bees by Katherine Pryor [Schiffer Publishing], and I would certainly consider doing it again. Working directly with the author is atypical in most publishing scenarios but was a great experience for us both. Katherine’s input throughout the process helped me with image accuracy and transitions between spreads. She really respected my artistic vision for the book and in many ways, saved me a lot of work in the long run. Plus, we’ve become great friends!
That is really unusual. What a great experience for your first book. What's something you want your readers to know about The Reason for the Seasons?
The Machu Picchu scene near the end of the book was inspired by a photograph my brother took when he and his wife went to visit her family there. I remembered my sister-in-law remarking one time how much she enjoys living in the Pacific Northwest because, unlike her home country Peru, we have distinct seasons here. That memory stood out for me as I thought of describing how seasons might work in other places in the world.
© Ellie Peterson, 2020.
Also, Joulia’s handwriting on the endpapers was actually done by my 10-year-old niece.
That is an awesome tidbit to learn. Thank you. Which is easier for you the writing or the illustrating? Which comes first?
Both and neither. Ha! I guess it just depends on the story. Most of the time my books start like this: A few lines or phrases get stuck in my head. I jot them down on paper. I scribble a doodle next to each. Boom. Story born. (Sorta.) These lines and scribbles usually become the bones of my manuscript. After that I move on to storyboarding, though sometimes starting with the storyboard and then writing a manuscript feels more natural. One day, I might have a better system for all of this, but I doubt it.
It's hard to put limits on those muses. What is your favorite medium? Your least favorite?
Thus far, all of my books are created with traditional media: hot press paper, watercolors, and colored pencils. But more and more I am working digitally and hope to publish a book that combines both traditional and digital methods. I have specifically been working in Procreate, a drawing app, on my iPad. I find it to be really intuitive and it fits well with my busy teaching/mom lifestyle. I try to squeeze art into every free snippet of time and it’s so much easier to bring an iPad while waiting for your kid’s ballet lesson to end, than busting out all your watercolors.
I can definitely see that. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child or now as a writer.)
I love Marla Frazee’s work. Her illustrations are so soft and lively and she leaves just enough work for the reader. I guess I mean that she makes figuring out the story an interesting challenge. (If you haven’t read Boot and Shoe or A Couple of Boys have the Best Week Ever, put them on your list!) I had the opportunity to meet her at the SCBWI conference in LA last summer I was seriously and embarrassingly star struck. “Oh my God, Ms. Frazee. I love your work. Can I get a picture with you?!” Ugh, I’m cringing just thinking about it.
Okay, let's be honest. Who else has to add this to their TBR list? Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
Here’s a teaser: a pufferfish with a need for personal space, monarchs on the move, and a poetic exploration of light.
What a great teaser! Is there anything about writing or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or maybe something you are glad you hadn’t known at the time?
So many things, Maria!
That there would be some painfully difficult critiques. Those critiques really hurt to hear but made me so much better.
That I would find such a supportive and enriching community through SCBWI. I would have joined so much earlier, had I known.
That the evolution of your work does NOT. EVER. STOP. I’m so much better at this today than I was five years ago. I’m better at this today than I was last week! I look forward to the writer and artist I’ll be five years from now.
You are so right; we never stop growing. And those critiques, even (or especially) the painful ones, help us grow. Having gone through two book releases 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?)
Get to know your local booksellers! Brick & Mortar books has hosted two launches for me (and will soon host a third on February 22nd) and they’ve been real champions for me and my books. Owners Dan Ullom and his mom Tina have recommended me to school librarians who patronize the store and I’ve booked a number of school visits through them.
Third Place Books, Queen Anne Books, Green Bean Books, Mercer Island Books and Secret Garden have all been wonderful to work with as well and I highly recommend you get to know them.
What is your favorite animal? Why?
Sea otters. They’re just so stinking cute with their diamond black noses, fuzzy bodies, and playful personalities. Plus, floating onto your back, while eating clams off your belly? Mad skills. I’ve always wanted one as a pet, though I’m sure that would be a complete disaster.
Thank you so much for coming by to talk with me Ellie. It’s always a pleasure to talk with you.
Be sure to stop by on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on The Reason For the Seasons.
To find out more about Ellie Peterson, or get in touch with her: