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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/Nancy Whitesides, Tamara Smith, + Review of Grief is an Elephant

I have the wonderful pleasure to introduce you all to a wonderful duo who've created an amazingly touching and tender picture book.

Illustrator photo of Nancy Whitesides.

Nancy Whitesides is an author and self-taught illustrator born and raised in the Philippines; she now lives in the US. Her art and stories are inspired by her love for children and nature.


When she gets the chance, Nancy bikes to the library or to the store. She challenges herself by biking uphill to get home with heavy books or groceries in tow.


Her illustration debut, Grief is an Elephant has been accepted into the prestigious Original Art Show at the Society of Illustrators in New York.


Author photo of Tamara Ellis Smith.

Tamara Ellis Smith lives in Vermont with her family. When Tam’s not writing books for children, she can often be found running on a river trail with her friends and dogs, making soup and chocolate desserts, writing stories for kids, and reading.

Collage of Tamara's book covers.

Tamara is the author of Here and There, illustrated by Evelyn Daviddi (2019) and the middle grade novel Another Kind of Hurricane (2015).


Nancy’s illustration debut and Tamara’s newest picture book, Grief is an Elephant, releases on October 24th.


Nancy and Tamara thank you so much for joining me to talk about your illustrating and writing.


Hello, Maria. Thank you so much for having us on your blog.


Hi Maria! Thank you—I’m so happy we’re here!


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?)


NANCY - I've been drawing ever since I can remember. When I’m working I draw every day, and usually at my drawing table. When I’m not working, I try to draw about four days a week and I usually draw everywhere. My favorite type of book to illustrate is something that has heart. Grief is an Elephant is exactly that type of book. I’m incredibly lucky to have illustrated it.


TAMARA - I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember too. There’s a photo of me at about age three squatting in front of a piece of paper on the grass, with a pencil in my hand and a very serious expression on my face, as I’m “writing.” But seriously, I wrote poetry when I was younger, moved on to writing plays, until that slowly evolved into novels and picture books for kids. And this is where I feel most at home.


I write early in the morning, before my kids wake up for school and before my job, and I am lucky to have an office now, so I write in there or sometimes at the kitchen table for a change of scenery.


I love writing about the ways we are all connected, even when we don’t believe or even know we are. So, my stories often move from someone being more or less alone to trekking on some sort of journey to finding connection, friendship, love.


It's very nice to get to know a bit about both of you. What is one of the most fun or unusual places where you've illustrated or written a manuscript?


NANCY - The most fun place where I’ve illustrated is outdoors in nature. Time goes quickly when I’m sitting on the ground drawing trees or the ocean, or wildflowers. I also love drawing inside museums. I love to sketch anything of Van Gogh’s, but especially his portrait and shoes.


TAMARA - Such an interesting question! When I was doing research for my middle-grade novel Another Kind of Hurricane, I wrote on the top of Mount Mansfield, which is the tallest mountain in Vermont. An important part of the story takes place up there, and I wanted to capture the feeling of being there for real.


Those both sound like lots of fun. Tamara, what was the inspiration or spark of interest for Grief is an Elephant?

Book Cover - girl on her bed in the moonlight with an elephant between her and the window.

TAMARA - Well, the story actually began as Waiting is an Elephant. I was exploring all of the different ways we feel when we wait, like feeling scared when we’re in the dentist’s waiting room or excited when we’re in bed the night before our birthday. But the story wasn’t working. And then two utterly awful things happened. My son’s friend died, and my friend died, and all of a sudden the story changed and Grief is an Elephant came pouring out of me.


I usually begin a story with a question that intrigues me or that I can’t find an answer to, and in this case, I was overwhelmed with the feeling of grief. It kept changing and I couldn’t exactly name it and so I wrote to make some sense out of it.


Later, when I was revising the story for my editor, my dad went into the hospital for a hopeful heart surgery, but it went terribly wrong, and he died six weeks later. At that point, I truly felt grief as an elephant, making it so hard to breathe, and it felt vital to make it into something tangible; something I could capture on paper and hold still.


Wow. I do love the way you captures some of the changing nature of grief. It really resonnated with me. Nancy, what about the Grief is an Elephant manuscript appealed to you as an illustrator?

Title page - empty chair and a vase of flowers on a table.

NANCY - The manuscript immediately drew me in. The title alone that Tam came up with, Grief is an Elephant, is brilliant. When I first read the story, I got emotional. It took hold of one of my heartstrings, and kept pulling and pulling until the whole thing’s unraveled and laid bare. I also love that the story lends itself open to many visual narratives. It is lyrical. Tam did not waste one word in this manuscript. And if those reasons were not enough, Tam also chose the most perfect animals for the story.


I totally agree with you. And I think your illustrations are the perfect encapsulation of the story. Tamara, what was the hardest or most challenging thing for you about writing Grief is an Elephant?


TAMARA - The hardest bit of time I spent working on the story was during those six weeks after my dad’s surgery and before he died. He was in a sort of state of delirium. This was at the beginning of Covid, and no one knew what it was exactly, how to prevent it, or how to test for it, and so we had limited time with my dad: it was one person for one hour once a day at first. I would sit in his hospital room when I was allowed to and both work to try to “wake” him up and work on the story. The whole thing felt surreal and at one point I felt like if I could get the story exactly right, maybe I could read it to him, and he’d come back. That didn’t happen, but I did get to share the revision with him before anyone else (besides my agent and editor!)


That's a special gift and memory to hold onto. Nancy, as your debut picture book, what was the hardest or most challenging thing for you about illustrating Grief is an Elephant?


NANCY - Because it is my debut picture book, I do have this feeling of pressure, and I don’t want to let anybody down. I hope I didn’t. One challenge was finding the balance and the right approach for illustrating the story. I didn’t want the animals to look too scary. They needed to show not only melancholy and sadness, but also empathy and heart. So in the beginning I gave myself enough time to visualize the characters, the story, and imagine how this world of grief will look like. Once I decided how I would do it, I couldn’t draw quickly enough.


You did a great job. The melancholy and empathy in the elephant came through very clearly for me! How many revisions did Grief is an Elephant take for the text or illustrations from the first draft/sketches to publication?


NANCY - Many revisions—maybe over ten, and some spreads took more than that. I’m not sure how to quantify it. I revised and finessed the art as much as they needed to be in the time I had.


TAMARA - Hmmmm, I think I had two or three revisions when it was Waiting is an Elephant and then probably nine or ten when it became Grief. And then I revised it with my editor a number of times too.


Nancy, many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Grief is an Elephant? If so, could you share one or more with us?


NANCY - I placed an animal not mentioned by Tam in one of the spreads. Maybe a young reader will find this animal in the book.


TAMARA - I’ve been searching for that animal, by the way, and I haven’t found it yet! [I think I did.]


NANCY - Another special thing is in the spread with the elephant reveal. Notice how the elephant nestled the tip of her trunk under her ear. From my research, I’ve read this is a way for elephants to comfort themselves. Another treasure is the child’s footwear. They are reminiscent of what I wore when I was little. I wore them on my adventures exploring in the ricefields and in nature. So now this child wears it as they go on their journey in the book.


Those are all such wondeful treasures. Thank you for sharing them with us. Is there something you want your readers to know about Grief is an Elephant?


NANCY - I hope a young reader will see a child like them in the book, a child who also feels angry, hurt, and small. I hope the reader will feel understood and less alone.


I created the art in this book for myself in a way, a grieving child who lost her parent. It is dedicated to my dad. So I treasure this book.


TAMARA - I hope, too, that a child can see themselves in our story. And that it helps them identify and maybe name what they’re feeling. I hope it can be a useful part of a conversation (or many conversations) about grief. I want people—children and adults—to know that grief isn’t one thing. It doesn’t follow a prescribed arc. Megan Devine, who writes, talks about, and guides people through grief, wrote this: “Grief itself won’t make sense, loss itself will not rearrange into something orderly and sensible, but your mind, and your heart, will adapt. This loss will be absorbed and integrated.” I want people to know this is a hard but important truth.


I know, for me (and I believe many others), you have succeeded. Tamara, when you first saw Nancy’s illustrations in Grief is an Elephant, did anything surprise, amaze, or delight you? Which is your favorite spread?


TAMARA - Oh my gosh, Maria, well, when I first found out that Nancy would be illustrating Grief, I immediately went to her website and felt so much incredulous excitement. I adored her art. I especially loved her animals and equally the sweet, soulful way her animals and children interacted. She’s got an illustration of a polar bear sitting with a little girl on the beach, both of them digging in the sand. It’s so tender it makes my heart beat faster.


Then Nancy and I began messaging over Instagram and I was surprised and amazed at how kind of magically we were connected. We both dedicated the book to our fathers. We both know what it’s like to not be able to say goodbye. And we both like lots of emojis 🐘🦌🦊🐭😂.


But seriously, when I saw Nancy’s illustrations for Grief, I cried. They turned the words I had written into this amazing world. They made my words turn into a book. I love all of the spreads. I can’t pick one favorite.


NANCY - Aww, I didn’t know that, Tam. Now I’m crying. 😭🐘🦌🦊🐀✨ .


Nancy, is there a spread that you were especially excited about or proud of? Which is your favorite spread?


NANCY - The spread I am most proud of is the most difficult one, or the one which took the most revisions. It’s the resolution spread with the firefly release. I think it took over eight tries before it was approved for final art. And final art took countless revisions. I thought I would never get it right. It took all my skill to make it.

Internal spread - girl's house and the girl in various places in the yard with each animal. Clockwise - fox by swings, deer in grass, elephant by trees, and mouse by girl's hand.

Text © Tamara Ellis Smith, 2023. Image © Nancy Whitesides, 2023.


My favorite spread is the landscape one that shows the house and all the animals. I drew this scene mostly from my memory of the view I saw from the top of the tallest tree I loved to climb when I was a little girl. To me this view represented home. I wanted to set this tender moment of the story in this beautiful setting and to share it with the young readers of the book.


I adore the firefly spread, but I'll leave it for readers to discover for themselves. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

Book cover - a man mending a watch as his dog looks on.

NANCY - I illustrated another picture book, Small Things Mended, written by Casey W. Robinson, and published by Rocky Pond Books, coming out on March 19, 2024. It is about a kind and lonely man who helps repair toys, gadgets and other valuables in his community, but he himself has a broken heart that needs mending. I drew many characters and a different setting for this book.


TAMARA - I have another picture book manuscript out on submission that I don’t want to say anything about, and I have a middle-grade novel manuscript I’m revising for the umpteenth time that I hope I will send to my agent before the end of 2023. (If I say it, maybe I can hold myself to it!) The story explores generational trauma and the evolution of landscape and features a coyote, a goat, a flock of geese, and an imaginary monster.


Nancy that looks amazing and best of luck with the manuscripts, Tamara. L;ast questions, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park (anywhere in the world)? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

photo of underground river entrance and a mangrove tree.

NANCY -My favorite national park is the Puerto Princesa National Park in Palawan, Philippines. Years ago, I was incredibly lucky to have been able to explore its underground river, mangrove forest, and mountain by its seaside. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It took my breath away. It’s a treasure.

Photo of a forest trail in Portland's Forest Park - DEE/GETTY IMAGES

TAMARA - One of my absolute favorite parks is Forest Park in Portland, Oregon. It’s enormous: 5200 acres with more than 80 trails—all within the city. It feels like you enter another world when you step inside. I like to trail run and did a little there and it was amazing. So many different plants and trees, and it’s a refuge for native wildlife. I long to go back there. And now I’m longing to visit the Puerto Princesa National Park too—with Nancy!


Thank you, Nancy and Tamara for stopping by and sharing a bit behind the scenes with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.

To find out more about Nancy Whitesides, or contact her:


To find out more about Tamara Ellis Smith, or contact her:


Review of Grief is an Elephant


This is an ingenious metaphor for grief aimed at young children. Addressed directly to them as a loving and gentle guide to working through the varying and intense emotions associated with losing a friend, a loved one, or a beloved pet.

Book Cover - girl on her bed in the moonlight with an elephant between her and the window.

Grief is an Elephant


Author: Tamara Ellis Smith


Illustrator: Nancy Whitesides


Publisher: Chronicle Books (2023)


Ages: 3-5


Fiction


Themes:

Grief, love, remembering, and emotions.


Synopsis:

An imaginative and heartfelt book that reminds us that there is no loss without love.


When Grief first arrives, it is like an elephant—so big that there is hardly room for anything else. But over time, Grief can become smaller and smaller—first a deer, then a fox, a mouse, and finally a flickering firefly in the darkness leading us down a path of loving remembrance. This lyrical work is an empathetic and comforting balm for anyone who is experiencing grief, be it grieving the loss of a loved one or losses in the world around us.


Opening Lines:

Sometimes Grief is -

an elephant.


You might hear her heavy pancake-circle feet.

Or she might take you by surprise.


It's hard to breathe under all of that grief.


What I LOVED about this book:

Anyone whose lost a pet, friend, parent, or other family member is well acquainted with this "elephant." What a great analogy for young kids to show how grief can ambush you and feel like a 6,000 pound weight pushing on you. After talking with Nancy (above), I really appreciate the eye of the elephant - not malice, but concern or perhaps empathy. And I loved learning that her trunk in her ear is classic elephant behavior for self-comforting.

Internal spread - girl in bed with an elephant standing on the end and leaning onto her.

Text © Tamara Ellis Smith, 2023. Image © Nancy Whitesides, 2023.


Written in a direct address to the reader, the girl functions as the child's (or adult's) surrogate. The young girl finds that no amount of imagining, yelling, or shoving can make the elephant budge, eventually she makes a dash for it and outruns the elephant. But, as we all know....

Internal spread - girl crouching in a field staring at a deer.

Text © Tamara Ellis Smith, 2023. Image © Nancy Whitesides, 2023.


Still, Grief always comes back.

Only now -

she's a deer.


Walk away slowly.

Backward.

Shhh.


Capitalized in the text and personified as various animals, Grief is a physical entity that interacts, tracks, and inhabits the little girl's world. As with the elephant, the deer does not disappear when the girl hides or wishes on good luck charms. Though hoping "with all your heart" might make it leave for a bit. This time when Grief returns, it's as a fox with feet "that feel soft as corduroy." A little more approachable, the child interacts with the fox; touching the soft fur and trying to offer it tea and toast. Instead, Grief settles in for a nap and leaves when she's ready.


At this point, the girl is faced with a choice of staying inside and waiting for Grief to appear or going outside and having fun. With a wonderful landscape scene (above in the interview), Nancy and Tamara bring together the elephant. deer, fox, and girl playing together in her yard. She is no longer afraid of them and is learning to co-exist with Grief's different intensities. This time, when Grief appears, she's a mouse.

Internal spread - girl holding a mouse against her chest as she sits in a field of flowers near a lake.

Text © Tamara Ellis Smith, 2023. Image © Nancy Whitesides, 2023.


Perfect for snuggling, comforting, and listening as the girl talks and works through her range of emotions. You will love the final spreads; they are so gorgeous, poignant, and comforting. I love that many of the images are slightly blurred, as if seen through tears, hers or ours. This is a wonderful and ingenious book for helping young kids begin to understand and process their emotions. To know that Grief changes, has its own timetable and intensity, and will be experienced no matter how far we run, hide, or rant. But eventually, it shrinks and leaves us a gift.


Resources:

origami mouse and a paper bag mouse

- make your own origami or paper bag mouse to share your feelings and memories with.


- think of how grief feels to you, draw or write a description of the animal(s) you would use to describe your feeling(s)? Or does it feel like a color or type of vehicle?


- pair this with The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld and Ida, Always by Caron Levis, illustrated by Charles Santoso.

Comments


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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