The Picture Book Buzz - Interview of Nell Cross Beckerman and Rachell Sumpter w/Review
Even with the craziness of Covid, this has been an amazing year for picture books. I've been double booked most months reviewing books and interviewing authors. Occasionally, some great ones slipped past. So, I'm doing an extra post this Saturday to highlight a special book released in April. In addition, I also get the extreme pleasure to share with you a bit about both the author and the illustrator.
Nell Cross Beckerman - grew up in California. She developed her love of beaches and animals, wandering the San Diego beaches with her biologist dad. And her love of books from her librarian mother. She was lucky to have two parents that valued creativity.
Nell’s mission is to share her enthusiasm of the magic of the world, and inspire connections—connection to yourself, connection to others, and connection to the world. Her other mission is to have fun!
Rachell Sumpter - is a painter and illustrator living in Seattle, Washington. In addition to creating illustrations she’s also an art professor and shows work in galleries. She has been the artist in residence at O Magazine for over three years. Rachell enjoys reading, nature, music, indy films and spending time with my partner and our two children.
Their debut picture book, Down Under the Pier, released from Cameron Books on April 7th.
Welcome Nell & Rachell, thank-you both so much for stopping by to talk about your debut picture book, writing, and illustrating.
NELL: Hi Maria, thank you so much for having me!
RACHELL: . Thank you for reaching out.
ME: Tell us a little about yourselves. (Where/when do you write or illustrate? How long have you been writing or illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate?)
NELL: Some stuff about me: for years I was a TV producer in NYC, where my specialty was very short stories for shows like 100 Greatest Kid Stars on VH1. Looking back, it is where I learned to tell a short story using visuals with my words. Even though it may have been about Danny Pintaro from “Who’s The Boss?” I made sure there was a beginning, middle, and end. [Wow!]
TV production hours were not compatible with becoming a parent, so I took a break. But I just didn’t feel like myself without being creative. It took a while, but I finally found my way to picture book writing with a class at UCLA Extension Writers Program taught by the amazing author, Michelle Markel. It was in her class where the first draft of Down Under the Pier popped out. I absolutely love being part of the kidlit community, adore my writing group, writing picture books (perfect for my short attention span), and feeling like my work is meaningful.
RACHELL: Mornings are great, the sunrising and the quiet time morning provides is perfect. I have been a professional illustrator for about twenty years more or less.
What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
NELL: I love hip hop dance and performed with an adult dance company a few years ago. Somebody commented that it was inspiring to see me get out of my comfort zone which made me laugh—dressing up in gold flashing shoes and dancing to Bruno Mars IS my comfort zone. [*smiling*]
RACHELL: Some people are mountain people, some people are city people, some people are desert people, some are forest, some are hills, some are valley, I’m a water person. Sleeping on the deck of a boat or on a tiny island surrounded by salt water is just fine with me. [I agree - and I love being a Seattleite, because in 45 min or less I can be on the water or in the mountains!]
Nell, what inspired you to write Down Under the Pier?
It was a very lucky thing of being in my writing class, and Michelle having us do an in-class prompt where we were focusing on poetic language. Inspiration struck and I got immediate positive feedback. I drew on memories from my childhood wandering around tide pools with my dad and going under Crystal Pier in San Diego, and experiences I had taking my own kids to the Santa Monica Pier.
And Rachell, what intrigued you about the Down Under the Pier manuscript?
The space that it gave for the illustrator to envision something, also that it read like a song. I could easily visualize the images as I read the manuscript—- that is helpful.
I think you beautifully expanded on that song feeling with your illustrations. Nell, what was the hardest part of writing Down Under the Pier? Would you consider it a lyrical free verse poem or lyrical prose? Did you ever try to write in rhyme?
I consider it lyrical prose. It’s funny, I always had an aversion to poetry. I loved Shel Silverstein, but more adult poetry just didn’t appeal to me. But I learned there is a difference between a poem and a poetically told story, and that is the space that calls to me. I love language and the way you can play with internal rhymes, meter, alliteration and assonance. And just to be transparent—I only learned these terms AFTER I wrote the story. I’m a fan of books but was never a fan of studying writing in school. For whatever reason, it took the magic out of it for me. In college I majored in French and Art History. I love language and I love art—writing picture books feels full circle in some way. There were also many years where I didn’t read much but I listened to a lot of music, and I think everything from the Beastie Boys to Fiona Apple really sunk in with how they play with language.
After my first messy draft of PIER, I worked with an amazing freelance editor who was a master at pulling out the lyricism of my story and suggesting a structure to it that made it even more poetic. I was finally ready to study writing from her and she taught me a lot. And now I can’t get enough of learning about craft.
I can’t say any part of writing it was hard—it was all so fun! I wrote at least 30 drafts but I never got tired of it. The most challenging part was trying to make it educational without it sounding weird and dry. I tried to use the term “intertidal zone” in the text and it just stood out like a sore thumb. So, the book ended up being a sensory trip, with the more educational stuff in the back matter. I never tried to write it in straight rhyme, that just isn’t how it came out. My biggest mentor text was Kate Messner’s Over and Under the Snow. I’m obsessed with that book for so many reasons, one of them being the final spread, asleep under the stars. I definitely tried to have that same sort of ending feeling in mine.
Your turn Rachell, what was the hardest part of illustrating Down Under the Pier? What medium did you use? How long did it take to capture the light and the magic in these images?
With children books you work with a team of people, and the process is much slower than editorial illustration. It took some time getting used to the schedule and working though team critiques, but the people at Cameron are great and know their stuff so I was able to trust that I could follow their lead. I had researched ahead of time what the workflow was like, but it was a little challenging for me since I’m used to diving into cold water and swimming as fast and hard as possible. This was more of a wade— which is a perk of illustrating for children’s books. Just something I was not used to.
Interesting way to describe the process. Was this different than other illustration work that you’ve done? Three of your other covers Published by Penguin Threads appear to be embroidered. (The Wind in The Willows, The Wizard of Oz, and Little Women).
The timeframe was extended for this.
Those Penguin covers were a completely different animals and I do not intend on illustrating more embroidered pieces, maybe when my kids are grown, but not now.
They are amazing covers! Was that the inspiration for the kelp/seaweed wrapping on the child’s arm when they display their treasures?
I have two children and they love to play at the beach. Most pages were inspired by life experiences.
Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
NELL: Some of the picture books that I returned to again and again were Swimmy by Leo Leoni, Corduroy by Don Freeman, Who, Said Sue, Said Who? by Ellen Raskin, Noses and Toes by Richard Hefter, plus loads and loads of Shel Silverstein. I also had this huge Golden Treasury of Children's Literature that had all sorts of amazing illustrators that I read over and over. And one of the most influential, given by my dear feminist mom, was Girls Can Be Anything by Norma Klein. Super illustrations by Roy Dotty—I wish they would reprint this one! It was way ahead of its time and I’m grateful that it was part of my upbringing.
RACHELL: There are so many! I really loved Goggles, but I think I am a Bunny is my all-time favorite. Books that conjure that feeling of being in a world that is in a child's realm or mindset- like Winne the Pooh, at the end where Christopher Robin lets go of some of his toy friends is what I am trying to capture here. Just thinking about it and what that part meant, the moving on to real world things, letting go of the magical, brings tears. I love Winnie the Pooh. Long live Winnie the Pooh.
There is nothing quite like Winnie the Pooh! Nell, now long did it take from the first draft to publication? What was the hardest part of the publication process? The easiest?
The first draft was written in the spring of 2016, it was sold in summer of 2017, and it came out in the spring of 2020. The hardest part—easy—launching in the early weeks of the pandemic! All the hard work of all the in-person visits I had planned—poof! It took me a very long time to finally put on a virtual launch party. I am currently developing a school visit for it and hope to give it another push going into next summer, so hopefully it will get its proper due.
I hope this post introduces it to any who missed its release. Did anything about the illustrations surprise you (when you first got to see them)? [Did you have any illustrator notes in the manuscript?]
Rachell Sumpter’s art is pure magic and elevates the story to such a dreamy, ethereal level. A choice that surprised me was you don’t see any adults supervising the kids. I love this support of the free-range kid. Rachell has said she drew them old enough to have this seem plausible. I don’t think I had any illustration notes in the manuscript. During the process I made a few comments like, in one sketch there were sweet helium balloons floating away, which I knew environmentalists would not be happy about because balloon releases can result in ocean garbage and animals eating the balloons. I’m sure they don’t even sell helium balloons on the pier for that reason. So, they took those out.
I totally agree that the illustrations are magical. I wonder Rachell, is there something you want your readers to know about Down Under the Pier?
I think it's helpful that they know it is not meant to be, at least in my mind, a concrete place. It is based on the Santa Monica Pier, but really I wanted it to be a safe place for wonder and exploration. A place where children can look and imagine themselves being in that space as well as going on an adventure. Adventures are so important.
I like the universal feeling you created. Many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Down Under the Pier? Could you share one or more with us?
On the stairs page, you can see many little sea creatures in the sea spray.
I'm so glad you shared that; I'd missed it at first. So, do both of you have a favorite spread?
Text © Nell Cross Beckerman, 2020. Image © Rachell Sumpter, 2020.
RACHELL: I think the final one with the sunset.
NELL: I have two favorite spreads—when they are under the pier investigating the animals (I love how art director Melissa Nelson Greenberg placed the text in vertical columns in-between the pier pilings), and the final spread with the massive sunset. Divine.
I like this one too. But I adore the magical one where their feet first touch the water. What has been the most frustrating aspect or period of time as a writer or illustrator for you? Do you have any advice for unpublished and/or un-agented authors or illustrators?
NELL: I actually got an agent very quickly but then later decided to make a move. I spent a year just writing, researching other agents, and taking time. I amassed what I thought were really good submittable stories, I had two sold manuscripts, but was very humbled when I had a lot of difficulty going out and querying agents. So many didn’t get back to me, or just quickly said no—and not even an ask to see other pieces. That really shook my confidence and made me start to panic a bit. My ego definitely got put in check! But, I ended up with the agent I was meant to be with all along. We had met early in my search and felt a real connection, but I took a long time to finally submit, and then she took a long time to respond, but I think both of us knew we were meant to be a team—when we finally had “the call” it lasted for three hours.
So, my advice is to be patient and don’t give up—nothing new but very true! Also, join the 12x12 Challenge—an amazing community of writers who offer support and advice, with monthly informational webinars by industry experts and the opportunity to upload your stories for critiques. I’m a huge fan!
RACHELL: I wish I had more time to work and engage with other illustrators but two children homeschooling during pandemic, it is challenging so I have to be very picky about what work I choose to take on. There are only so many hours in a day. I don’t have a children's book agent. Though I would love to have one because I don’t fully grasp the legalities of things these days. It's much better if there is someone that says “No, that’s illegal,” or “Yes, that was part of our agreement.” I know basics but it would be nice to have a pro handle it. I think I would be less stressed and more creative if I didn’t have to worry about it so much.
My advice? Being a professional artist is different than being an artist and the professional part is roughly 50% of the job (promoting, invoicing, emailing, revising). Your portfolio is your most important asset but if you are not a nice person it will not matter, be nice to everyone and have good communication skills, learn to see your work as separate from your person.
All great advice, thanks. How are you both staying creative these days? Or what things that you are doing to stay sane?
NELL: I would be nowhere without my writing group. We have multiple group texts and Slack channels and we pump each other up every day. We also have a full meeting every three weeks with manuscripts due the week before. This structure and accountability is everything!
Making abstract expressive art fills my creative tank. I was lucky enough to discover a watercolor class that was all about just being in creative flow right when the pandemic started, so every day I logged in to a new lesson and was in heaven. People in the class were all over the world, and every day we posted our art with an Instagram hashtag. It was the first time I felt the real beauty of what social media could be—uniting strangers all over the world making art admits a global pandemic! More info about the class here https://www.faithevanssills.com/abstraction-bliss.
Later in the summer my teen introduced me to acrylic pouring, which results in fabulous swirling art—way up my alley. She learned about this method from my teacher at the Playful Art Studio - http://www.playfulartstudio.com.
The other thing I started that has helped my sanity during all this is running almost every day. My daughter started virtual cross-country training over the summer for PE credit and I just copied her workouts and it really helps my mental health!
RACHELL: This is a good but complicated question and I apologize if my response seems incomplete, we could all write pages about the pain contained in 2020. I take it one day at a time. Right now, I am trying not to plan too much because of the uncertainty. I have faith that things will get better(come what may) or we will just have to get better at managing the stress, try to be a willow tree.
Practicalities, exercise for 20 minutes every day, be grateful, do not look at the news more than one time a day, drink water, and if possible meditate. I’ve been trying to share more uplifting content on social media so I don’t feel sad or spread the malaise to others. Right now, being white, and displaying sadness feels like a selfish privilege. I'm trying to be the light to myself and the people in my life. I have children, I have students and they rely on me to set the standard, and so I will do that for as long as I am able.
Thank you both for answering a tough question and for sharing your methods of coping. Here's an easier one - are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
NELL: Yes, I have a lot of poetic texts in the pipeline! I’m awaiting my first round of editor notes for a recently acquired story that is also inviting an adventurous exploration in nature—really excited for it! I have a story out on sub that is an empowering, lyrical meditation I wrote after being inspired by a celebrity who is also a yoga instructor—she co-wrote it with me which was fun. Fingers crossed it will find a home. And I’m about to go out on sub with a fully rhyming text, one I am super proud of, inspired by seeing Men Fox at last summer’s SCBWI conference.
RACHELL: I just finished an illustration for a longtime client, the British Royal Academy of Dance. Also, I'm working on a new book with Cameron books (hooray for returning clients).
I am definitely going to keep my eyes open for these books! Is there something you wish you could tell your younger self or kids today?
Nell: Keep focused on being creative and all areas of your life will be better. In the same way you need to eat healthy foods and exercise to keep your body healthy, you need to find creative outlets to keep your spirit and soul healthy—and that will just make you a happier person.
RACHELL: Be kind, be grateful, this will pass.
Great advice. What is your favorite animal? Or one that you are enamored with at the moment. Why?
NELL: I love elephants because they live in matriarchal herds and seem like deeply sensitive, intelligent souls. A lifetime highlight was spending hours watching them in the wild on safari in Botswana. [Wow! What a special moment.]
RACHELL: I like cats, I think I was a cat in my past life because I am so much like them! I also like songbirds, especially Swainsons Thrush, what a beautiful song to hear in the middle of a forest. Bears are cool but scary, same with seals. I used to live in La Jolla and they have a Seahorse Aquarium there and I was obsessed with Seahorses for a bit. I guess I like a lot of animals. [My daughter went to UCSD & I loved visiting the Birch Aquarium - there are so many types of Seahorses and baby seahorses are so cute!]
Thank you, Nell & Rachell for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to chat with you both.
NELL: This was fun, thank you! And please tell your readers to sign up on my mailing list on my website where I share other sources of creative inspiration and news and will announce my school visit availability.
RACHELL: Thank you!
To find out more about Nell Cross Beckerman, or get in touch with her:
Watch the Down Under The Pier Book Celebration Replay:
Sunday, June 7 10-10:30 AM PDT Virtual book celebration party on Crowdcast.
Review of Down Under the Pier
I loved spending summers at my grandparent's house. Just a few blocks away from the beach in Seaside, Oregon. Though we occasionally wondered into the touristy areas around the pier, we preferred chasing waves, examining tide pools, searching for treasures, and creating hours of fun and games on the beach. It always seemed magical and freeing.
To this day, the sound of the ocean, wading in the waves, or searching for shells and rocks always reminds me of my grandmother. I was drawn to this book by the cover. It looks just like summers I remember. But I was hooked by the lure of going down under the pier at low tide, down where I always find wonder. This book is a glorious celebration of the intertidal zone and summer fun on the beach.
Down Under the Pier
Author: Nell Cross Beckerman
Illustrator: Rachell Sumpter
Publisher: Cameron Books (2020)
Adventure, beach, marine life, and summer fun.
There’s lots of fun to be had up on the beach pier, but it’s down underneath where the true—and totally free—magic happens There’s lots of fun to be had up on the pier—the Ferris wheel, the rollercoaster, Skee-Ball and Whac-A-Mole, cotton candy, copper coins, the carousel. But it’s down under the pier, at low tide, where the real magic can be found. The best part? It’s free. Nell Beckerman’s poetic text and deep love of the intertidal zone, and Rachell Sumpter’s dreamy, “endless summer” art make this the perfect beach book.
Up on the pier,
we ride the giant Ferris wheel,
we scream on the roller coaster,
we gobble clouds of cotton candy.
Wood planks creak as we walk in the sun.
What I LOVED about this book:
Although the book begins as a fun, colorful, loud summer day at the pier, full of rides, games, and food . . .
Text © Nell Cross Beckerman, 2020. Image © Rachell Sumpter, 2020.
the entire mood and color scheme shifts, as the kids "slip down the stairs when the tide is low, away from it all," to the most magnificent illustration that captures the magic of time on a beach. That first moment when your feet squish into the sand and the water playfully tickles your toes.
Text © Nell Cross Beckerman, 2020. Image © Rachell Sumpter, 2020.
The combination of winsome watercolor images and vivid, lyrical text perfectly capture the kids' sense of freedom and joy as they romp in the waves. Full of sensory details, occasional rhyming, and fun phrases, like "festoon a forest of pilings," this book is fun to read aloud. And it has the best ending line - "Fun is free, and the world is ours."
Craft note: This book will make a great starting point for a discussion of the plants and animals found around pilings, or in tidepools, during low tide. It's a beautiful introduction to a STEM marine life unit, a visit to an aquarium, or a trip to the beach. Nell includes a great starting series of questions that these kids ask as they explore: "Is it alive? Will it bite? Will it pinch? Will it pierce? Will it do anything at all if we just gently poke it?" Additionally, the back matter guide not only discusses the adaptations and predators of things found down under the pier, but adds in a little bit of math.
This delightful book brings back memories of time spent exploring beaches and fosters dreams of getting to do it again soon. It's one that kids and adults will enjoy reading again and again. One I hope finds its way into every library.
- research what animals, plants, & shells could be found during a trip to your favorite beach and make a treasure hunt list. Can you find them all?
- can you make a tower of seashells, rocks, and driftwood?
- draw a picture of, or write a story about, something you wish you could find during a visit to a pier or tidepool.