The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Barbara DiLorenzo
Barbara DiLorenzo’s first picture book was Renato and the Lion, which received a starred review from Booklist and was named a Bank Street Best Book of the Year, a Junior Library Guild selection, and a CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People. She is also the author and illustrator of Quincy: The Chameleon Who Couldn’t Blend In, a finalist for the Crystal Kite Award. A graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, she has taught at the Arts Council of Princeton and the New York Institute of Art + Design.
She loves working with traditional and digital mediums to tell stories. Barbara also loves people in creative communities–the open-mindedness and acceptance of unique people feels so good to her. She’s also a wife and a mom, with two smart and funny children, five chickens, and two mischievous cats.
Her newest picture book, One Thursday Afternoon, releases tomorrow.
Welcome back Barbara!
Thank you for inviting me to chat with you today. I continue to love your blog!
Thanks! Where did the inspiration for One Thursday Afternoon come from?
This is a tricky question to answer. If I’m speaking to children, I honestly don’t know what I will say. But with adults, I can share that in 2018, I experienced two events where I had to shelter in place to keep safe from potential gun violence. I don’t want to add to anyone’s anxiety, though, so I won’t go into the details of each situation. But one person died in the first event, which definitely impacted me.
But it was the second event at a school where I was doing an author visit, that moved me to write this story. After the alarm went off, I hid with the librarian and parent volunteers, and we waited for a long time. All I could think of was the squirmy kids that were wonderful but anything but quiet in my assemblies. How were they handling this experience? How were the teachers holding up? I had to use the restroom before the lockdown, so I was really in need of the bathroom after 45 minutes. How were the kids and teachers handling that too?
Finally, when we got the message that we were safe, we learned that a threat had been called into area schools-so there was no intruder in our building that day. I felt relief but then realized my son in high school was most likely affected by the lockdown too. I texted him to find out and to reassure him. While his school was affected too, he seemed completely calm, replying that they were sheltering in place, but it was fine. I didn’t understand why he was nonchalant while I felt as if I’d aged a decade in that singular day. I talked to him later at home and realized this has been his reality for years. Clearly, I had not been paying attention.
The second experience haunted me for the next few months. I kept thinking about how we have so many books to help young readers face the first day of school, a new sibling, a food allergy, a bully–but nothing on the shelves existed to help young children understand lockdown drills. Of course, there is a good reason for that - I’m still not sure I know how to explain them to a small child. In fact, I finally did explain lockdown drills to my 5 1/2-year-old daughter because I could tell she had picked up on conversations about my book, One Thursday Afternoon. I took a breath and started by asking her what she thought was happening in those drills. I could not bring myself to use the word “gun” when it was my turn to explain. I just said sometimes we need to learn what to do in case a person tries to hurt us. Even though she is going into Kindergarten, she’s actually been doing these drills since 2019, when she was only 2 1/2. However, her school does a great job preparing the students without frightening them.
In fact, I’m sure that most schools and teachers do an incredible job preparing students while not causing additional anxiety. But students have older siblings, and they do hear snippets of news. Anxiety can creep in from a variety of sources. While many students have grown up with this reality and compartmentalized it well, some have a lot of anxiety.
The daughter of a friend of mine (age 10) shared her experiences of that day when she heard us talking about the book. She mentioned that the lockdown (not a drill) was hard for her. She also shared that her sister was still upset with their mother (my friend) for not showing up at school during the emergency. However, I watched as this young girl put into words the logistics of a shooter on the premises and loads of parents showing up to rescue their children. It was so hard to hear her logical assessment, and conclusion that her mother had done the right thing to follow the advice of the police. (This was prior to Uvalde, so it seemed clearer to us at the time.)
At some point in the conversation, this articulate, creative, and amazing young girl said, “I’m so glad you wrote this book. Maybe it will stop school shootings.” I hadn’t shown her the book, so she wasn’t reacting to the actual text. I had a lump in my throat as I said I wish that would be the case more than anything in the world, however, I didn’t think that was a possibility.
Her hopes for the book made me so sad. I felt so powerless. I wondered what this book would accomplish. I really have no idea, still, what to tell children about these senseless events. But the core message of the book still gives me hope - we should listen to our children. Their experiences are not our experiences. We don’t have tidy answers to any of this. We need to listen and offer support.
Maybe with enough adults listening to young children, something might change for the better. Even a little course correction to a kinder, more empathetic world, would be amazing.
Ours was, fortunately, a false alarm and my kids much older. But nerve wracking and scary, nonetheless. I am SO glad you wrote this book and totally agree that listening is so important. Thank you! Was your illustration process or style different with One Thursday Afternoon than your other two books? Did you use the same medium?
In the previous books, I used traditional watercolor that was touched up digitally by the publishers. But for this book, I decided to use Procreate on the iPad. I wanted to get better at character consistency, and color harmonies. The landscapes were so important to the feeling of calm throughout the book–I didn’t want to have color mistakes in my painting process. Working digitally allowed me to create the colors and consistency that I needed for the project.
You definitely succeeded in creating a feeling of calm and safety. What is your favorite thing to do outside?
Painting! I love going outside to work on a drawing or painting. We call that, “en plein air.” When you complete a picture in one sitting, that is known as “alla prima.” If I bring a snack and my art supplies outside for an hour or two, even if the work is lackluster, I still feel so good. Listening to the sounds around you as you paint–be it birds or someone’s conversation–adds to the creative experience. Crunching leaves under our feet and the feel of tree bark bring more information to an artist painting outside. Smelling the plants or water or even someone’s barbecue in the vicinity is an additional sensation that indoor painting can’t provide in the same way. Breathing fresh air always helps too. In a city park, it might not be as clean, but on a crisp, fall day, it’s still invigorating. Closely observing a landscape in front of you, it’s hard to see simple gray shadows. I often see blues and purples, reds, and greens in the dark shadows, and I paint them in my work.
A picnic outside always tastes better. There truly is no such thing as a bad painting day when you get to work outside.
You have a great way of portraying this experience - and while I might not paint, I'd love to spend the time daydreaming and writing with you. What's something you want your readers to know about One Thursday Afternoon?
I want readers to feel validated in whatever they are thinking and feeling. I also want readers to know that they are not alone. Finding someone to talk to is so important. Sharing what’s on our minds with a trusted friend or family member can go a long way in making us feel better. In addition, focusing on creative work can help so much. One of my adult students has been painting chickens in a large series–and she just admitted she does it while listening to the news. It’s her way of coping with all the big things beyond her control. The chicken paintings make her feel better–and they are amazing! (I want one!)
Black-capped Chickadee/House Finch/Steller's Jay
© Maria Marshall, 2020-21.
I also think it’s important to find some bit of nature to help us feel connected to the world. Even if a reader lives in a city, a bird on a branch outside a window can be beautiful and somewhat meditative to watch.
I totally agree with you. If you couldn't guess, I love watching birds outside my windows! And find even a walk around the block, watching the subtle shifts (especially as fall approaches), can be centering and rejuvenating. Did you find any differences in the way you shifted between illustrating and writing when you created One Thursday Afternoon?
The illustrations for this book needed to be calm and peaceful. If a prereader picks up this book by themselves, they will see Ava and Granddad and scenes of nature. I didn’t want anyone to be triggered by the art in this book, let alone a very young reader that might be frightened by illustrations of a lockdown.
The writing was a beast. The arc remained in place almost from day one. But with the help of my editor, Jeannette Larson, the language changed to reflect the sensitivity of the subject. I could not have done this without her help.
You both did an amazing job and definitely created a book that can reach a reader where they are and where they need the book to be. I adore the notion of being quiet, together. Which was your favorite spread to create?
Text & Image © Barbara DiLornezo, 2022.
The spread with Ava and Granddad painting the bridge originally was my favorite. Then I really enjoyed the bird’s eye view of them painting together. But now, my favorite is Ava hugging Granddad. The abstraction of the leaf patterns and the color palette worked to create the feeling of love and validation that I wanted for Ava.
I have to admit, I am hard pressed to pick a favorite, too. This one is precious in so many ways. What was the toughest aspect of writing, illustrating, and/or revising One Thursday Afternoon?
The toughest part of making this book was actually writing it down in the first place. I kept wanting to make the book to help young readers but then walked away from it because it was so challenging and sad. I had a chance to ask an editor, Luana Horry, about this topic and whether it could ever work for a picture book. She told me to write it down, and that it was needed. That green light in January 2020 made a big difference. I had been sitting with the story in my head for more than a year. I took her advice, then shared it with my agent, Rachel Orr. I love Rachel, but most of my work does not pass her desk without significant time in the revision process. This one, however, was approved in only a few weeks–a record. However, when it went on submission originally, the world was going into a different kind of lockdown. The pandemic hit in March, and Rachel and I decided to pull the submission because everyone was so overwhelmed - this book wasn’t helping.
In the spring of 2021, we decided to send it out again. Jeannette Larson simultaneously reached out to Rachel to ask for manuscripts to help children handle fear. By the time Rachel mentioned this to me, we had received rejections from bigger publishers that said they loved the story, but this and other stories like it had crossed their desks -and they didn’t know what to do about this topic.
My hope is that One Thursday Afternoon broke the ice for other voices to share stories to help children regarding this part of life.
I am so glad you listened to your heart and stuck with it. And do hope that you have opened the door for others to offer their stories to kids and adults. Many illustrators hide treasures in their illustrations. Did you do this in One Thursday Afternoon? If so, can you share one or two with us?
Ha ha… You know me well. I hid a few things in my other books, too. But in One Thursday Afternoon, there are some Easter eggs. The girl in the wheelchair on the first page is a nod to my friend from childhood, Beth Miller. Her hair is brown in real life (the art director asked me to change it at some point), but her favorite color is purple. She has Spinal Bifida, but as a kid, all we knew was that Beth could pop wheelies in her cool wheelchair.
The name Ava came from a student of mine. I have already given her a book and mentioned that while the character isn’t her directly, I was inspired by the quiet strength of the real Ava.
While Granddad seemed a logical character for Ava to talk to, I realized after the book was done that I had revived my childhood experience with my father. He would listen to me talk about anything. We talked about religion and politics and muppets all in the same conversation. He would ask questions to prompt deeper thinking on my part. He didn’t treat me like an adult, but he did make space for my unique opinions. He died in 2020, and I miss him so much. I hid his name in the back endpaper in the style of our favorite Boston Sunday Globe illustrator, Al Hirschfeld.
Something that isn’t hidden in the front endpaper–Pluto. I asked my brother, an astrophysicist, what the deal with Pluto is these days. He said that scientists realized there are a lot of similar-sized bodies in that area, so if we include Pluto, we’d have to include a pile of new ones. It pained me to exclude Pluto in that little solar system, but there you go.
What a wonderful tribute to your father. Thank you for sharing about the other Easter eggs, as well. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
Yes! I’m working on pitching a new book about a girl whose family is facing homelessness, but she finds her strength in a community performing arts troupe. It’s inspired by my work with HomeFront (helping families facing homelessness), and their partnership with Trenton Circus Squad. Once a week I teach art to HomeFront students ages 5-18 at the Arts Council of Princeton. Sometimes our students also participate in the Trenton Circus Squad, an animal-free performing arts group. I’ve seen how art can bring confidence to children whose lives are wildly out of their control. Instead of showing it through visual art, I thought the performing arts would be more fun. I am trying to make a book that inspires creativity, while also showing what many kids experience. One in 5 students is food insecure in the United States. One in 30 is homeless. That means roughly one child in each classroom is coming to school from a shelter or a relative’s couch. It’s not an equal playing field.
Similar to One Thursday Afternoon, I didn’t want to touch this subject at first, even though the Trenton Circus Squad performances inspired me. But since I’m game to tackle hard things now, apparently, I think this issue deserves attention. For older readers, Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate is an amazing book on this
I hope and editor falls in love with it. I can't wait to read it! And thank you for the book recommendation. Last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
I love them all! My son has about 35 Junior Ranger badges from our cross-country camping trip in 2011. My daughter is just beginning her Junior Ranger badge journey - she only has two so far but she intends to best her brother on this.
However, I will say that Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado brings to life the stories of Early Americans in the Southwest about 800 years ago. I loved Cliff Palace! [I do too.]
© Maria Marshall, 2020.
Yellowstone is otherworldly. On our first night camping in the park, a thunderstorm erupted around 3 am. I woke up my son, and we got in the car to seek shelter. As I was driving around, we listened to Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas by Jules Verne. Lightening lit up the sky, and plumes of smoke from thermal vents wafted across the road. The sulfur smell was intense. As the dawn approached, we saw bison and elk. It was an awesome experience.
Thank you so much for coming by again, Barbara. It’s always a pleasure to talk with you.
To find out more about Barbara DiLorenzo, or contact her:
You can see Barbara in person at:
HIGHTSTOWN, NJ - FREE Reading & Craft for Children + Adults
To start the book tour of making art with readers, I will visit the Hightstown Library–where you can spy a mural I did which includes one of my book characters!
DATE: Saturday, September 10, 2022
TIME: 10:30 - 11:30 am EST
Registration is required prior to the event.
LOCATION: Hightstown Library, 114 Franklin St, Hightstown, NJ 08520
BOOKS AVAILABLE: at JaZams of Princeton, NJ. Order ahead and pick up the day of the event (if you want them signed).
MONTCLAIR, NJ - FREE Art in the Park for Children + Adults
All are welcome to join me to enjoy drawing and painting in the park. Sketching/painting materials offered for free, but artists are welcome to bring supplies from home, too!
DATE: Saturday, September 10, 2022
TIME: 3 - 5 pm EST - Drop in anytime to draw/paint.
ART IN THE PARK LOCATION: Verona Park, Porcello Ln, Verona, NJ 07044
At 4:30 pm we will show our work to each other.
At 5 pm I'll head over to the Montclair Book Center (7-minute drive from park) to give them my drawing/painting to celebrate the day. Feel free come to the bookstore to share your art as well. :-) If you want a signed book, you can order it from Montclair Book Center ahead of time and pick it up on our event day.
BOOKSTORE LOCATION: 221 Glenridge Ave, Montclair, NJ 07042
Photo courtesy of KellyMarie Braun
SCBWI WEST/CENTRAL NEW YORK - Virtual Webinar (for adults)
For authors and illustrators, this event includes a presentation on writing about sensitive subjects for young readers. In addition, portfolio critiques are available.
DATE: Monday, September 12, 2022
TIME: 7:00 pm – 7:55 pm EST
For other "Art in the Park" events & locations in PA, NJ, & NY from September 17th to November 13th visit her website: https://www.barbaradilorenzo.com/
*Additionally, Barbara has set up a series of ten FREE virtual art sessions on zoom for anyone that wants to make art on Thursday afternoons this fall.
DATE: Thursdays, September 8th to November 10th
TIME: 4:30 - 5 pm EST
Here is the link: