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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Curtis Manley and Jennifer Mann

Curtis Manley grew up in western Pennsylvania and then lived in Ohio, Arizona, California, Arizona (again!), and North Carolina before moving to the Seattle area of Washington state.

Author photo of Curtis Manley.

He knows that books are doors to special places that you can't always get to on your own, whether across the country, on the other side of the world, far back in time, or way out in space.


Combining real facts into fictional stories that entertain is Curtis' favorite way of making the Universe a little more understandable. His interests include birds, bugs, and mammals; trees; tornadoes and volcanoes; planets, moons, and asteroids; haiku; and software—and if he's lucky you will see books that include one or more of those topics in the future...

Collage of the 6 covers of Curtis' boks.

Curtis is the author of The Rescuer of Tiny Creatures, illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins (2021), Just Right: Searching for the Goldilocks Planet, illustrated by Jessica Lanan (2019), Shawn Loves Sharks, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (2017), The Crane Girl, illustrated by Lin Wang (2017), and The Summer Nick Taught His Cats to Read, illustrated by Kate Berube (2016).


For additional information on Curtis see our earlier interviews (here) and (here).


Jennifer K. Mann lives on an island in the Pacific Northwest where she tends chickens, dogs, cats, and her kids and husband, when they aren't tending to her.

Illustrator photo of Jennifer K. Mann.

She once was an architect, but turned to picture books full time after her first book was published. Jennifer draws many of her ideas from her own life experiences, or those of her children—and yes, some of her characters are quite autobiographical.

Collage of the 8 covers of Jennifer's books.

Jennifer’s the author/illustrator of The Camping Trip (2020), Josie’s Lost Tooth (2018), I Will Never Get a Star on Mrs. Benson’s Blackboard (2017), Sam and Jump (2016), Two Speckled Eggs (2014). And the illustrator of Maple and Rosemary by Alison James (2023), Percy, Dog of Destiny by Alison McGhee (2015), and Turkey Tot by George Shannon (2013).


Their newest picture book, Climbing the Volcano: A Journey in Haiku, was released on January 9th.

 

Welcome Curtis and Jennifer, thank you so much for stopping back by to talk about Climbing the Volcano: A Journey in Haiku and your writing and illustration.

 

CURTIS – Thank you, Maria! It’s always fun to talk about books with you!


JENNIFER - Hi Maria, Thanks so much for having us.

 

First off, Jennifer tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you illustrate? How long have you been illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to illustrate?)


JENNIFER - I’ve been an illustrator my whole life, but I started illustrating professionally in 2012, after a fairly long career as an architect. I became an architect because I loved to draw. But illustration is so much more satisfying as an outlet for drawing. 

 

I have a beautiful, spacious, brand new studio filled with daylight in my back yard, but prior to December 15 (when we got our certificate of occupancy) I have been doing all of my illustration work in a very small dark space at the back of my garage.

 

I like to illustrate all kinds of picture books, but especially those that stretch my wings and require that I illustrate in a way I have not ever done before. Climbing the Volcano was just that kind of book. I had never done a non-fiction picture book, which sets up constraints by virtue of it being about a real and verifiable place, not something I could make up to suit my whimsy. And I’d never illustrated a book written in haiku, or any form of poetry for that matter.


Sounds like you got your wish to "stretch" and your studio sounds so much better than a corner of the garage! What is one of the most fun or unusual places where you’ve written or illustrated a manuscript?


CURTIS – With all my manuscripts, I’ll work mostly at my desk at home, but while walking or driving or trying to fall asleep at night I might realize how to change a scene or improve some dialogue. For Climbing the Volcano, however, I actually wrote a large amount of the text while hiking the trails at South Sister volcano, in central Oregon, where the story is set. Of course, when I say “while hiking” I actually mean that I had stopped hiking so I could write a note or haiku poem and then started walking again. If I had kept walking while writing, my handwriting would have been so indecipherable that I wouldn’t have been able to read it and there would be no book to talk to you about! The drawback, though, was that all that stopping and writing made me very slow at climbing the volcano...  

 

JENNIFER - hmmm, I have to say, my new studio, where I sit as I type this, is both fun AND unusual for me, and I hope to write and illustrate many a book in this beautiful, inspiring space. Otherwise, it’s all been done in my grotto/studio in the back of my garage, or on a laptop in my living room or kitchen—not all that fun, or unusual! 


I did do a significant amount of work on The Camping Trip while on a weeklong retreat on Whidbey Island. I brought all my electronic equipment with me and set myself up with a folding camping table (appropriate!) and the extra bed, as work surfaces. I worked really really hard when I wasn’t eating really great food that I had not cooked or teaching the creativity classes I had been invited to teach!

 

A mountain trail and Whidby Island both sound like amazing places to be creative. Curtis, what was the inspiration or spark of interest for Climbing the Volcano: A Journey in Haiku?

Book Cover - boy looking back toward reader as he and famiy pass a lake on way to climb a mountain.

CURTIS – Well, there were actually three sparks. The first was when I was a new graduate student, mumbledy-mumble years ago, and climbed South Sister with my advisor (and the next year I actually did geology fieldwork on the lava domes there for several weeks).


The second spark was when I was new to writing haiku and challenged myself to write haiku while climbing the mountain; my idea was to write what is called a “haiku sequence”— a series of connected haiku poems—about the climb. In 2007 I got most of the way but had to turn back, and I tried again in 2008 and succeeded in reaching the summit.


The third spark was the realization that although I could submit that haiku sequence to a poetry journal, perhaps it was worth seeing if it could become a beautiful picture book. I think that that “perhaps” worked out quite well . . .

  

I'd say it worked out quite well! Must have been all the 'simmering on the back burner.' Jennifer, what about the Climbing the Volcano manuscript appealed to you as an illustrator?

Title page - Lanscape image looking toward the mountain on the horizon.

JENNIFER - I loved this manuscript the moment I read it. Curtis’s words are very very spare, but also so evocative, leaving vast amounts of room for the illustrations to do their thing. That’s an illustrator’s dream!


Also, I adore the Pacific Northwest and its dramatic and deeply varied microclimates, ecosystems, and geology, and a book like this is a little bit of a love letter to our gorgeous region. How could I resist?

 

Aww, I love the description of it as a love letter to this area! Curtis, what was the toughest aspect of writing Climbing the Volcano? The haiku? How many revisions did you end up working through? Was there a particularly tricky one?


CURTIS – Writing a haiku can sometimes be the easiest thing in the world. But most of the time it isn’t. [HA! 😊] Most of the time, even if you have a good idea, choosing the right words and the right order for those words can be a challenge. The writing took about 10 drafts on and off over 14 years, involving the entire draft or just individual poems. I started out with many more haiku poems than could ever fit, and then winnowed them down. But I also had to revise the poems I did keep—including some minor but important changes right at the very end, after all the art was finalized.

 

But a tough aspect of a different kind was getting to the top of South Sister—and back down—when I climbed it again in October 2022, accompanied by the same advisor from grad school with whom I had first climbed the mountain. I was dehydrated after the long drive from Seattle the day before, and my legs seemed unsteady. We did get all the way to the top, and then all the way back down—but finished the hike after dark, much later than expected . . . Even with the difficulties, it was a wonderful day for many reasons.

  

What a wonderful way to complete your personal journey with South Sister - wrapping it all back to the beginning. Jennifer, as the fourth book you've illustrated for an author what was the trickiest or hardest part? How many revisions did it take to create the illustrations for Climbing the Volcano?

Photo of Jennifer holding up one of the plates during the launch. © Curtis Manley, 2024.

*[Jennifer showing one of the plates during the launch. For more images & description of this process, check out Jennifer's FB post (here). © Curtis Manley, 2024.]*


JENNIFER - There was a lot that was hard about illustrating this book—it’s about a 50-120 thousand year-old volcano! There were so many unique ecosystems and a lot of geological variety. I did visit South Sister Volcano and hiked a little more than halfway up. It would have been almost impossible to illustrate without visiting the site and experiencing the arduous hike. The hardest was figuring out a way to illustrate the varied and monumental geology of South Sister Volcano. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to try to draw each and every boulder and chunk of basalt—and I didn’t. I stumbled on a printmaking technique that made it possible to experiment with all kinds of textures, which I layered in photoshop with my drawings and digital paint, to create pretty convincing scenes at all stages of the story.


The sketches for this book really fell into place pretty quickly. Typically, once the sketches are approved, I revise as I go, and although there was a bit of exploration at the beginning of making the final art for Volcano, I got into a groove and made all the art (over many many months) with very little revision. At the very end, there were a few small details to adjust, but no major revisions, thank goodness.

 

I had the privilege to see you demonstrate your printmaking technique at the book launch and it is so impressive and inventive. Is there something you both want your readers to know about Climbing the Volcano?


CURTIS – A haiku poem starts with the writer seeing or experiencing something they want to write about and share. The writer hopes that someone else reading the poem can then relive the writer’s experience—and what the writer felt about it. Many good haiku don’t quite manage to do that, but it is wonderful when one does. For each person who reads the book, I hope at least one of my poems lets them experience what I experienced when I was climbing the volcano.

 

And something else—and this is mentioned in the back matter—is that for haiku in English there is no need to make sure your poems have 5, 7, and 5 syllables in the three lines. The Japanese and English languages are very different, and a 5-7-5 haiku in English can be much longer than a 5-7-5 haiku in Japanese. If you’re writing your own haiku, aim for a total of 10 to 14 syllables—or so. If someone counts your syllables and tells you your haiku isn’t a real haiku, send them to me. [😊!]

  

JENNIFER - I want readers to know that it is life changing to hike in the wilderness, especially in a monumental place, and I recommend it to everyone. There is nothing better for the soul than to be in a place that, in real time and in geologic time, makes our minds expand, as well as our lungs and hearts.

 

For me, the 'butterfly on the rock' haiku definitely accomplishes that goal. And I agree with you Jennifer that it is both invigorating and humbling to spend time in nature. Curtis, when you first saw Jennifer’s illustrations in Climbing the Volcano, did anything surprise, amaze, or delight you? Which is your favorite spread?


CURTIS – I loved Jennifer’s earlier book The Camping Trip and expected her art for Climbing the Volcano to be done in a comparable style. While there are similarities between the two styles—especially in the human figures—the landscape scenes and the wild animals in Climbing the Volcano are just amazing and so very beautiful! South Sister volcano is a real place, and readers who have not been there will get a good idea of what it’s like. Readers who have been there will definitely recognize places they’ve walked and the vistas they’ve seen.

Internal image - kid and family walking along the final bit of trail across a red barren area, just below the mountain's summit.

Text © Curtis Manley, 2024. Image © Jennifer K. Mann, 2024.


All the images, from spreads down to the smaller frames grouped on single pages, work so well with the poems. There isn’t a spread or image I’m not happy with, but there are several that I would count as favorites, so I’ll choose the one where the climbers are approaching the summit: trail not as steep— / I think we’re almost /  there . The colors are gorgeous, the textures rich, the details just right—and of course I’m reminded of what it was like being at that point in the climb, almost at the top, almost at a summit you can’t yet see and have no idea how it will look . . . 

 

Sometimes, this feels like the longest part of a climb. Jennifer, is there a spread that you were especially excited about or proud of? Which is your favorite spread?

Internal image - kid and family pausing by rock face and snow field to let other hikers pass.

Text © Curtis Manley, 2024. Image © Jennifer K. Mann, 2024.


JENNIFER - Honestly, I love all of them. Each is so different from the next. The illustrations really support one another and the text, and I find it hard to separate them from the book as a whole.

 

I chose this one, as it showcases her amazing print making technique with the rocky hillside. Curtis, are there any interesting facts or information you learned about volcanoes which didn’t make it into the story or the back matter?

Photo of a portion of the lava dome on South Sister.  © Curtis Manley, 2024

© Curtis Manley


CURTIS – Well . . . my graduate work was in volcanology, so yes, I know one or two or three thousand things that could never fit into the book. I’ll mention just one example: one of the spreads shows a jumble of lava rock along the trail, paired with this haiku: gray lava domes— / even the youngest rocks / are old.


In the back matter, I mention that those lava domes are about 2,000 years old—but I don’t say that I’ve scrambled around over them and studied them, trying to figure out a few secrets of how the hot, glassy, bubbly lava behaved when it oozed up and spread slowly over the ground. Eruptions of that kind of lava don’t occur often, so scientists have a lot of questions about what happens, when it happens, and why. I solved one tiny piece of that puzzle, but there are many more questions for other scientists to answer.

 

It's so cool that there are still things we don't know about volcanos and the earth. Jennifer, many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or special elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Climbing the Volcano? Could you share one or more with us?

Internal image - two hikers and their dogs passing each other on a rocky trail.

Text © Curtis Manley, 2024. Image © Jennifer K. Mann, 2024.


JENNIFER - The treasure in this book is actually from a request that Curtis made. He asked if I could try to work his geology advisor into one of the scenes. And I did! He appears in the illustration where the hikers have nearly reached the summit. Also, my long-legged dog Zephyr appears in the scene of the hikers with dogs.

 

Maybe that's one of the reasons the 'near-summit' illustration is one of his favorites. Are there any projects you both are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?


CURTIS – There’s the nonfiction picture book about how different rocks form—but I can’t talk about that one yet. And there’s the nonfiction middle grade book that deals with the various ways volcanoes can cause . . . oops! I shouldn’t talk about that one yet, either. Sorry! I guess I just can’t answer your question. 😊  

  

JENNIFER - Right now I am working on the final art for a new picture book that I have written, called The Riding Lesson, to be published sometime next year by Candlewick Press. It’s similar in format, style, and length to The Camping Trip (i.e. early graphic novel) but with all new characters and a stubborn, white pony named Snowball. As with The Camping Trip (and all my books, really) it’s a little autobiographical.

 

Best of luck to both of you with all of these projects. Last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

Photo of red rock arch in Four Corners area.

CURTIS – Not fair! Parks are such wonderful places, and each one is different from every other. Of course, I’m partial to Yellowstone National Park, for all its various features created by volcanic activity (and no, it won’t erupt any time soon). I like lush places like Olympic National Park, but also more austere desert areas, such as Mojave National Preserve, which many people would find unattractive. Probably the area I miss most is the red rock country of the Four Corners area, with its richly colored sandstones, vertical canyons, exposures of deep geologic time—and ancient human history.

JENNIFER - I am pretty partial to the big, beautiful State and National Parks of the Pacific Northwest, but mostly because they are what I know best! And I love to swim, so any park with clean, cold, swimmable water is my kind of park! But, right up the street from my house is one of my very most favorite parks in the world. It was once a strawberry farm, then a marionberry farm, then a Christmas tree farm. Its former owners were Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II but returned to live out their lives on their beautiful property. Now it is a serene and lovely ten-acre park named for them, with a wide variety of plant and animal life, a forest, an orchard, meadows, and beautiful meandering trails. And no parking, and no bikes—you can only find it and enjoy it on foot.

 

The four corners area is so diverse and amazing! I've explored some of it (Arches & Mesa Verde) and look forward to hiking through more of it. And Jennifer, that park sounds heavenly.


Thank you, Curtis and Jennifer, for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to chat with you both.

Book Cover - boy looking back toward reader as he and famiy pass a lake on way to climb a mountain.

Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Climbing the Volcano: A Journey in Haiku,

 

To find out more about Curtis Manley, or contact him:

 

To find out more about Jennifer K. Mann, or contact her:

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Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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