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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Jennifer Black Reinhardt

Enjoy your imaginations, create,

and celebrate your unique wonderfulness!

~ Jennifer Black Reinhardt

Jennifer Black Reinhardt grew up in a cozy town in the mountains of Pennsylvania, surrounded by creative artists and quirky collections. Drawing from that inspiration, Jennifer graduated from Carnegie Mellon University where she received a degree in Illustration.

Trading the mountains for the prairie, Jennifer now lives in Iowa City, Iowa. She happily works in a comfortably messy studio in her home.

Jennifer is the author/illustrator of Blue Ethel (2017) and the illustrator of several other books for children including; Gondra’s Treasure, by Newbery award winning author Linda Sue Park (2019), Sometimes You Fly, by Newberry award winning author, Katherine Applegate (2018), Yaks Yak by Linda Sue Park (2016), The Inventor’s Secret; What Thomas Edison Told Henry Ford by Suzanne Slade (2015), Rabbi Benjamin’s Buttons by Alice B. McGinty (2014), and The Adventures of a South Pole Pig by Chris Kurtz (2013).

Her newest book, as author/illustrator, Playing Possum, released July 7th.

Welcome Jennifer,

ME: 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?)

JENNIFER: Hi and thank you so much for inviting me here today!

When I was in second grade, I drew a series of characters based on my family and friends. One day, I put a caption underneath my drawing. When I wrote, “My brother needs a haircut… NOW!” my drawing, which looked like an enormous pile of hair, made sense and was funny! I felt empowered by putting words with pictures and pictures with words. My teacher (Mrs. Snyder) gave me my own wall at the art show.

It was from that very young age that I knew I wanted to write and illustrate picture books.

What a great teacher! What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

I like things inside things.

Hmm, my mind went to chocolate chips inside everything. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

My favorite picture book was, Never Tease a Weasel, written by Jean Conder Soule and illustrated by Denman Hampson. I adored all things Beatrix Potter, Tasha Tudor, and Holly Hobby. And I was mesmerized by Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.

Thanks Jennifer, I hadn't seen this one. Now, if everyone stays really calm & quiet, we have quite the surprise for you! Hello there Alfred, I am glad you joined us. Can you tell us what you did do to capture Jennifer’s attention?

ALFRED: Well, you see, I have this nervous problem that she noticed. When I’m tense I freeze and play dead. I can’t help it. And it makes it very difficult to meet friends and enjoy the fun things in life. Others thought I was weird, and I became very lonely. Jennifer thought if she could show me that many of us struggle with all kinds of challenges and handicaps, I might not feel so alone.

She introduced me to Sofia, who is an armadillo and curls into a ball when she feels uncomfortable. When Sofia and I saw that we had the same kind of challenge in common, it made us feel strong and safe, knowing that we had a friend who understood our situation and would be there for us.

It is so special to find such a great friend, Alfred. How long did it take before you were happy with the way Jennifer wrote and illustrated your story?

It took forever. She says four years. I guess it’s kind of a hard thing to figure out what to show in pictures and what to say with words. She would have big gaps in the middle. I asked her questions and she would realize that she needed to explain things a bit better.

It was a good thing you were around to help her, then. How nervous were you in suggesting she make changes?

Well, given my nature, I suppose the playing dead when I got anxious thing might have slowed down her process a bit? I’m kind of always nervous like I told you. But she was fairly patient and would wait for me to unfreeze.

I am so glad that you trust me enough to talk with me. Sounds like you, Sophie, and Jennifer all have a good dose of patience in common. Did you and Sofia get to visit Jennifer’s beautiful studio for a cup of tea? Or were just the Yaks invited?

© Jennifer Black Reinhardt, 2020.

There seems to almost always be someone stopping by her studio. Which makes me very jittery. Yes, there are the yaks. They are enormous and don’t smell very good. There’s a rainbow colored cat (cats make me incredibly tense) who stopped by more often than I was comfortable with. And a dragon--- I was afraid she would sneeze and ignite my fur.

Sofia and I finally did visit a few times after Jennifer promised that we would be the only ones there. [*smiling*]

Uh oh, I think the dragon was a bit too much, Alfred's frozen. So, back to you Jennifer. Do you prefer being the illustrator or author/illustrator? Which is harder?

I love doing both. For me, they feel like two different processes. When I illustrate someone else’s words, I problem solve within the parameters set by the author. But when I can do both, I really rely on smart editors to help me navigate when the pictures should lead, or when the words need to carry the load. For me, doing both is a bit more challenging because of the myriad of options and choices. I’m not always the most decisive person in the world.

I find it fun enough being solely an author. Adding another set of options and possibilities might blow my mind. Of the books you’ve illustrated for others (Gondra’s Treasure, Sometimes You Fly, Yaks Yak, The Inventor’s Secret; What Thomas Edison Told Henry Ford, Rabbi Benjamin’s Buttons, and The Adventures of a South Pole Pig by Chris Kurtz), which was the hardest? And I bet you know the next question - Why?

I think I might say Sometimes You Fly. It was challenging to tell a whole story in a page turn. We started with the before scene on the page, but then the reader had to understand that a lot of ‘work’ happened in between that and the after scene on the next page.

I just looked at it again and I can definitely see the challenge for you. But you did a great job! The Inventor’s Secret; What Thomas Edison Told Henry Ford and Rabbi Benjamin’s Buttons seem to have a real different style of illustration than your other books. Is this because of the texts or your personal preference? (or another reason?)

That’s funny that you say that because it wasn’t intentional, and I’m not certain that I see it. Those were two of my first picture books and maybe I was figuring out how to work with art directors and what their expectations were? I think people are often surprised to learn that the illustrator and author usually don’t communicate during the illustration process. The illustrator is brought in to give their ideas and insights. This usually entails book size, page layout, text breaks, etc.

One of the hardest things that I have tried to overcome as an illustrator is to give myself permission to make the artwork look like I want it to look---how I see it. And to not worry about ‘getting it correct’ or having the perfect perspective. I love contrasting areas of detail against loose, textured paint and have been doing that more and more in my recent books. I also have always enjoyed collage and have had fun finding ways to incorporate bits of it into my work. I hope that my artistic voice will always change and evolve, but still be recognizably mine.

I see a definite whimsy and humor throughout your books. Jennifer and Alfred, what's something either or both of you want your readers to know about Playing Possum?

Jennifer: As Alfred's still playing dead, I’ll go first. My mother taught me to love and appreciate picture books. When she read to me (which was very often) most of the time was spent pouring over the details in the illustrations and looking for secret finds. I really enjoy doing that with my books. In Playing Possum, I have hidden many of Alfred and Sofia’s friends in almost all the pictures.

Alfred: I’m back. I would like readers of my story to recognize that they are not alone in their struggles. I hope that if they see a chance to treat someone with kindness and understanding they will do so. It’s good for everyone and is what needs to happen in the world.

I adore this facet of Playing Possum. Jennifer, which is easier for you the writing or the illustrating? Which comes first?

Almost always a character appears (doodle) and I write something next to it. For Playing Possum I drew a ‘playing dead’ possum and wrote, “Alfred was a very lonely possum.” My books are often based on a real-life event. Playing Possum grew from seeing a playing-dead possum in our trashcan one night.

I think the drawing probably comes easier to me. As I said, with the writing I am often uncertain how much I need to explain.

Alfred, as a fellow artist, what is your favorite illustration in the book?

© Jennifer Black Reinhardt, 2020.

Alfred: I think I like the one of me and Sofia skipping through the sunflowers. I look happy. I really had never felt happy like that before.

And Jennifer, do you have a favorite illustration?

© Jennifer Black Reinhardt, 2020.

Jennifer: The one where Alfred and Sofia realize they have something in common. There’s a lot of white space on the spread and it’s the first time that they appear together on a page.

Such joy and tenderness! I love both of those images. Jennifer, what is your favorite medium? Your least favorite?

Watercolor is my favorite. Pastel, charcoal, or any dry medium that you rub to blend is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.

Ouch! What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child or now as a writer.)

My mom, and her mother, who taught me to revere picture books as an art form.

What a special gift. Many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Playing Possum? Could you share one or more with us?

Yes, I love doing this and do so in almost all my books. In Playing Possum, I added animals or things which represent people to me. So, these appear throughout the book, sunflowers (my daughter), bees (my mom), hummingbirds (my grandmother), and bunnies (a dear friend) to name a few.

Look where I found three of these. Jennifer &/or Alfred: Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

Alfred: Jennifer has a book she wrote and illustrated (without me!) called, Always by My Side, that will be out next spring. I’ve been continuing my portrait work and always enjoy painting sunsets. [releasing March 16, 2021]

Sorry Alfred. We'll have to keep our eyes open for this book and your pictures. Jennifer, having gone through a number of 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/would you do/try differently this time? Though not necessarily b/c of Covid. )

I think it’s important to enjoy and savor the whole process. It is a loooooooong team-work-filled journey. It’s difficult to find the line between making people aware of your book release and making them hate reading one more post about it. My advice would be to realize that how much promotion you do at launch time will not make or break the sales and lifespan of a book. It’s readers who will do that. I believe that the trick is to write a well-crafted story that resonates with readers who will want to come back to it time and time again. And that’s done by creating endearing, relatable, authentic characters.

One last question for you both. What is your favorite animal? Why?

Jennifer: I don’t have one (there’s that decisive problem again). I like bugs and insects and moths because of how many different shapes, colors, patterns, and sizes in which they come. And the quirkier the animal, the more I like it.

Alfred: Armadillos. They are nice.

I'm sure Sophie will be glad to hear that, Alfred! And I definitely agree with you Jennifer on the 'quirkiness' factor! Thank you so much for coming by to talk with me Jennifer and Alfred. It was such a pleasure to talk with you both.

Thank you so much for having us---We had a wonderful time!

Be sure to come back by Friday for the #PPBF post featuring Playing Possum.

To find out more about Jennifer Black Reinhardt, or get in touch with her:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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