The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/Abigail Rayner and Molly Ruttan Review of Violet and the Crumbs

I am so excited to interview the dynamic duo of Agibail Rayner and Molly Ruttan about their recent collaboration on the picture book - Violet and the Crumbs.

Abigail Rayner was born in England where they have lots of history and rain. When she grew up, she became a reporter and moved to New York, where she was encouraged to write stories, but not the made-up kind. These days she lives in New Jersey, with her librarian husband, two great kids, two ridiculous dogs, and a neurotic cat. She never gets in trouble for making up stories, although she is subject to the occasional eye roll from the cat.


Abigail is the author of I Am a Thief!, illustrated by Molly Ruttan (2019) and The Backup Bunny, illustrated by Greg Stones (2018).

Molly Ruttan grew up in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. She holds a BFA from the Cooper Union School of Art in New York. She now lives, writes and illustrates in Echo Park, an eclectic and diverse area of Los Angeles. Molly also plays the drums and sings. She is married to her childhood friend and fellow musician Gabe Moffat. They have three awesome kids, one super awesome grandbaby, two dogs, one bunny, and one cat, (although he has such a loud voice he might count as two!).


Molly’s illustration debut was I Am a Thief! by Abigail Rayner (2019). Her author/illustrator debut was The Stray, (2020). Molly currently has two forthcoming books releasing in 2023 and 2024.

For additional information on Molly, see our earlier interview (here).


Their newest picture book collaboration, Violet and the Crumbs: A Gluten-Free Adventure, releases today!


Tell us a little about yourself. (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?


ABIGAIL – I have been writing since before I could write! I have the evidence in some of books my mum kept where I “contributed” to the story in crayon and biro.


MOLLY - Like Abi, I have been making books since before I could write! I love the puzzle aspect of creating picture books. I love deconstructing the story to its core elements and working out the connections. I love figuring out page turns and getting everything to fit and flow in 32 pages—it really is so much fun and can be very challenging. I love the euphoric feeling when it all falls into place— it’s a joy that keeps me going and fuels my enthusiasm as I make the final art. All this being said, I can’t wait for the day I get to illustrate other types of kidlit books as well!


Seems you were both born to this profession. Wish you luck with that dream Molly! Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book as a child?


ABIGAIL – I still have my favorite ones. A book of folk tales that I adored; a beautiful copy of Peter Pan illustrated on glossy pages by Mabel Lucie Attwell; a lovely edition of The Secret Garden whose pages have a distinct smell that takes me back to my childhood bedroom, and the excitement and coziness of reading it under the covers.


MOLLY - There are so many! Some of the picture books I loved when I was a kid were written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey—Make Way for Ducklings, One Morning in Maine, and Homer Price are among my all-time favorites. I loved the Beverly Cleary books, especially Ellen Tebbets, Ribsy and Ramona the Pest, with illustrations by Louis Darling. I discovered Garth Williams in The Cricket in Times Square by George Seldon, and Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban. And of course, I loved everything Maurice Sendak did! Some of my most vivid, cherished childhoods memories are during times when I was read to— curled up on the couch with my sister and my mom at night, or story time at school.


What a great collection of books! Abigail, what was your inspiration for Violet and the Crumbs?


ABIGAIL – the inspiration came from my daughter Franny, who was diagnosed with celiac disease a few days before her 8th birthday. Franny—and honestly the whole family—found the adjustment hard. We didn’t expect the social isolation. She was once uninvited to a birthday party because I asked to bring her own food, which offended the host.

Celebrations at school were miserable. Not only did she miss out on all the fun food, but she was robbed of all the social interactions that happened around the table when kids were filling their plates. She would stand there watching the other kids giggling and bonding, and pairing off, and try to edge her way into a group to sit with. Even when there was food on the table she could eat, all too often it was contaminated by the crumbs from other kids’ hands. There were so many hurtful little incidents and it really wore us down, as did the fact that very few people really understood. Gluten would not cause Franny to have an instantly life-threatening reaction—something we were and will always be very grateful for—but that gave people the impression that celiac wasn’t serious, and it really is. Even the tiniest crumb could cause inflammation and trigger Franny’s immune system. If this happened too frequently, she would be at risk of developing other auto-immune diseases, or cancer. Hence the bothersome evil crumbs in the story.


I am so sorry that Franny, and your family, had to go through this. Molly, what was it about the Violet and the Crumbs manuscript appealed to you as an illustrator and/or what discoveries did you make?


MOLLY - I was so excited when my editor at NorthSouth presented me with another manuscript by Abigail! I knew it would be great, and my heart was in it before I even read it! But then when I read it, I couldn’t believe it. It was one of those manuscripts that I wished had been a book when my kids were little. My family has struggled with gluten intolerance for a long time, and it would have been SO helpful for us. I knew right away that it was an important book and I was all in, immediately!


One of the most surprising discoveries I made when I read the manuscript for the first time was the bit about not feeding ducks bread. We have a park with a lake nearby and my kids and I spent their childhood feeding the ducks bread! We even had a duck bag we’d put all the old crusts and stale ends in, for our next excursion. It blew my mind that we should have been feeding them corn or cooked rice that whole time, instead.


I think there are a lot of kids (and their families) who are going to find this helpful. Abigail, how many drafts did it take for you to capture such a kid-friendly way to describe gluten intolerance? And how long did it take from idea to publication?


ABIGAIL – Well thank you for finding it kid-friendly! I’m not very good at counting drafts, but it did take a while to get the tone right. It was important to give the correct information, but not get bogged down in medicalese. It also had to be informative, but not scary. Ultimately, I wanted to tell a story and create a character that kids would feel empathy for, just as I would with any story. I wrote the manuscript in July of 2019 and I believe we signed the contract the following year, so that’s a bit short of three years to publication—warp speed in picture book terms!


No kidding! Especially with a pandemic going on, too. Molly, I really liked how you created the personalities of the crumbs. How many revisions did it take to create the fun illustrations for Violet and the Crumbs?


MOLLY Like Abi, I don’t count revisions. But I do know that with each book I work on, I find that there is at least one spot that I need to revise multiple times! For this book it was the spread when the kids don’t think Violet is a fusspot for speaking up. I played around with many versions of that part of the story— I think the weirdest was Violet in her superhero outfit, leading her classmates dressed as soldiers into battle! I also changed the page shape and size three times, which required re-working the whole thing. I’m not sure how many versions there were in the end, but there were quite a few!


Interesting that was the toughest part. Is there something you both want your readers to know about, or take away from, Violet and the Crumbs?


ABIGAIL – I hope they will have a better understanding of celiac disease, and that it inspires them to be kind and accepting of differences. I also help it encourages children to advocate for themselves and others, which is not always easy. I really hope the book makes life easier for kids with celiac and their families, and any child with a food allergy or intolerance.


MOLLY –Yes, as Abi says, first and foremost, I hope this book will enlighten readers to develop empathy towards people with celiac disease, and the difficulties they face-- especially kids with celiac disease. Also, Violet’s journey can also be relatable on many other levels when it is seen as a universal one – as a process of accepting something you can't change, being brave and standing up for your yourself & your situation, and ultimately becoming expansive and empowered.


I think you both definitely succeeded. Molly, many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Violet and the Crumbs? Could you share one or more with us?


MOLLY - One of the things that I believe Abigail and I have in common is that our families love bunnies! My house has been filled with both plushie and live bunnies for many years. I always love to include a bunny or two in every book I make! Also appearing in this book is a visual reference to our previous book, I Am A Thief! Can you find the bunnies and the thief?


Text © Abigail Rayner 2022. Image © Molly Ruttan, 2022.


I found the bunny! Abigail, what is the hardest or most challenging thing for you about writing children’s books? How about writing Violet and the Crumbs in particular?


ABIGAIL – the hardest thing about writing picture books is not rambling on! I’m constantly telling myself to give it a rest! My longtime critique partner, Dev Petty, often tells me to work in “broad strokes,” and that has become my mantra.


That's a great mantra! Molly, what was the hardest part about illustrating Violet and the Crumbs?

MOLLY - One of the challenges I faced at the beginning was to figure out how to illustrate the difference between gluten-free and gluten-containing food! Because I was animating the crumbs, I decided to use hovering clouds of crumbs as a kind-of atmosphere, or weather condition, to indicate the presence of gluten. This led me to the rain-gear based outfit Violet creates to protect herself – so what started about as a challenge ended up informing the whole book!


Oh, that's fun. Thanks for sharing that. Abigail, did anything surprise or amaze you when you first got to see Molly’s illustrations? What is your favorite spread?

Text © Abigail Rayner 2022. Image © Molly Ruttan, 2022.


ABIGAIL – That spread of the tummy! It’s genius. The fact that Molly was able to get across so much information, about something so complex, not to mention, potentially icky, with such finesse and sleight of hand. I also love the images of Violet when she is alone and sad [see above],—not because I like seeing sad children—but because it really brings home how Violet feels in those moments, and that’s what I wanted to achieve. Plus, it gives the happy ending more punch!


Molly, is there a spread that you were especially excited about or proud of? Bet you know what I’m going to ask, which is your favorite spread?

Text © Abigail Rayner 2022. Image © Molly Ruttan, 2022.


MOLLY – Oh, hard to pick!! But I guess I to have to say the one at the beginning, with the close-up of all of the crumbs. It was one of the first spreads I did when I was exploring the idea of showing the crumbs as characters, and it inspired how I approached the rest of the book. Once the crumbs were “alive," it freed me to allow them to run loose! I could make them battle soldier cells in Violets stomach; I could show them running around like ants at a picnic. Showing them as annoying little critters really helped me illustrate how invasive crumbs can be in real life. This spread was a touchstone for me as I worked.


It also helps capture the reader's attention and makes it concrete for the younger readers. How are you, or have you been, staying creative these days?


ABIGAIL – I’m pretty good thanks! How are you? I recently began felting, and I’m obsessed. I felted Violet and her animal friends and I have been making stop-motion videos with Tiktok’s handy little app. I’m having a ball!


MOLLY – Oh, I love Abi’s felt animations! She has them posted on her Instagram-- go look them up! As for me, I have a very active critique group. We zoom every week, to chat and to share news, and once a month we turn our chat into a “class” where we all take turns presenting new ideas. I love hearing and responding to what everyone is working on, and it keeps me motivated to work on new material to present to them. On top of this I’ve been recently creating activity sheets, coloring pages, and other swag for Violet. My list of things to work on is always very long!


Sounds like awesome ways to stay creative. Are there any new projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?


ABIGAIL – There’s always a bunch of things I’m working on! I just finished some edits to a novel in verse about a 6th grader with celiac disease, and we are hoping to send it out on sub soon. I love working with NorthSouth, so I’ll probably be doing something else with them. I’m always tinkering with picture books, and I have an endless list of ideas, thanks to Tara Lazar whose online challenge “Storystorm” (PiBoIdMo at the time) taught me the crucial habit of noticing ideas and writing them down!


MOLLY – Wow, Abi! A novel in verse!! I can’t wait to read it! As for me, I recently submitted all the final art for my next author/illustrated book, Something Wild, published by Nancy Paulsen Books. It’s about stage fright—something I have battled my entire life. The book tells the story of a girl who loves to play her violin but is terrified of the upcoming recital. She imagines all kinds of wild things she wishes would happen to keep her from having to perform. It’s a subject very close to my heart and I’m excited about it! It comes out in a year—April 2023. I’m also currently illustrating a new book, and I have a few other projects in the works as well, thanks to my agent Rachel Orr (who is helping me refine a new author/illustrated book dummy) and my critique group!


Yeah Storystorm! We will have to keep our eyes open for these books! Last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?


ABIGAIL – I mean obviously it has to be Jellystone! I would love to meet Yogi and share some pic-a-nic with him. I’m sure he’s cool with GF sandwiches.

[Yogi said he's 'retired,' but "Yellowstone" is still cool!]



MOLLY – Ha Abi I love that! For me, the lesser-known Stanislaus National Forest in Northern California is home to one of my favorite places to camp: Lake Alpine. I took my family there every year as my kids were growing up, and now that a grandchild has recently entered our family, I am inspired to renew the family tradition! This time we will know to pack gluten-free bread & pasta for the family, and corn & cooked rice for the ducks!

© Molly Ruttan


Thank you Abigail & Molly for sharing with us a bit about yourselves and your newest picture book.


You are very welcome Maria! Thank you so much for featuring us on your excellent blog! We really appreciate you giving us the opportunity to share our new book.


To find out more about Abigail Rayner, or to contact her:

Website: https://www.abiraynerwrites.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/AbiRaynerWrites?lang=en

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/abiraynerwrites/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/abigailraynersbooks/


To find out more about Molly Ruttan, or contact her:

Website: http://www.mollyruttan.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/molly.ruttan

Twitter: https://twitter.com/molly_ruttan

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/mollyillo/

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCmS4WTZgoc_jRhhRC3DV-Cg



Review of Violet and the Crumbs:

A Gluten-Free Adventure


Today is the book birthday of a very special book. It is a creative and touching look at the inadvertent isolation and danger that some kids (and adults) with Celiac Disease face on a daily basis.

Violet and the Crumbs: A Gluten-Free Adventure


Author: Abigail Rayner


Illustrator: Molly Ruttan


Publisher: NorthSouth Books (2022)


Ages: 4-8


Fiction


Themes:

Celiac Disease, acceptance, gluten-intolerance, diversity, humor, and standing up for yourself.


Synopsis:

Success has never tasted so good!


The dynamic duo of I Am a Thief by Abigail Rayner (author) and Molly Ruttan (illustrator) have created a new picture book sure to spark conversations about this timely issue.


Violet used to love birthday parties, but now that she has celiac disease, she’s not allowed to eat pizza, cake, or anything else with gluten. Violet feels alone until she discovers that some animals have dietary restrictions as well. While standing up for her animal friends, she realizes she can do the same for herself. And when it’s time to celebrate Violet’s birthday, there isn’t a single gluten-containing crumb in sight!


Filled with pluck and humor, this informative story provides a great opportunity to discuss this increasingly common condition with children who have celiac disease and gluten-intolerance as well as those who know people who have it and are seeking to learn more about it.


Opening Lines:

Violet used to love birthday parties,

but things have changed.

Now she’s not allowed to eat pizza or cake

because of the gluten—it’s even in the crumbs.


What I LOVED about this book:

First of all, as a resource book for librarians, teachers, coaches, and parents, it's important to know this book has been approved by the Celiac Disease Foundation.


I am in awe of Molly Ruttan's ability to capture so much emotion - happiness, agony, isolation, worry all in one spread. It's a perfect pairing of the text setting the scene (crumbs have ruined birthday parties for Violet) and the wonderfully detailed, softly-colored illustrations packing the emotional punch.

Text © Abigail Rayner 2022. Image © Molly Ruttan, 2022.


Followed by a wonderfully child-friendly textual explanation of Celiac's Disease and a humorous, engaging illustration which makes the problem relatable to even the youngest of readers. Just look at the personalities and diversity of those crumbs.

Text © Abigail Rayner 2022. Image © Molly Ruttan, 2022.


Molly does a great job showing how those pesky crumbs can easily hitch a ride on fingers - contaminating both "safe food" (like watermelon), table tops, and even foods meant to be "gluten-free," or drift through the air. Watch for these swirly mists or clouds of crumbs throughout, as a wonderfully visual way to show why Violet feels such angst when she's around others. Worried about being a "fusspot" or hurting other's feelings, Violet just stops going to parties.


I love Violet's "desperate measures" - a rainy day 'superhero' outfit - to feel safe at school. When Violet discovers the gluten in bad for some animals, too, she makes it her mission to save the animals. I love the superhero effects Molly incorporated to show how, Violet changes into an outgoing advocate for animals unable to speak up for themselves.

Text © Abigail Rayner 2022. Image © Molly Ruttan, 2022.


A notice for the Harvest Festival Potluck triggers Violet's dark moment of the soul. Abigail and Molly do a great job showing how Violet felt "like celiac has taken a big bite out of her life." Kids or adults isolated, for any reason, will identify with Violet's agony. When she decides it's time to stand up for herself, she makes a number of discoveries and friends. The book offers a very satisfying ending, along with a very child-friendly note about Celiac's Disease and cross-contact. It opens with an end page highlighting gluten grains and foods and closes with an end page showing gluten-free alternatives. This is a wonderfully lively story which highlights a serious health issue and empowers kids to stand up for themselves.


Resources:

- which crumb do you like best? why? Create your own gluten crumb (s)


? How many arms and legs does yours have?

- do you know of other food allergies? How would you draw the food, or part of the food, that causes the problem? Perhaps a peanut pirate?

- what would your superhero outfit look like? Draw a picture or describe your outfit? Violet stood up for animals who couldn't eat gluten. Who would you help?

- why did Violet stop thinking of the crumbs as "evil"?

- check out Molly's activity and color sheets.

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Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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