top of page

The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Donn Swaby

Donn Swaby has written stage plays, screenplays, feature articles, short stories, poetry, and children's books, including writing and starred in the feature film, "Buds for Life," available on DVD.

Author photo of Donn Swaby smiling.

As a volunteer reader in elementary schools, he got to share with students some of his favorite authors, like the late author & illustrator Gerald McDermott, who elegantly captured the magic of folk tales from cultures around the world. Reading to students made him fall in love with the magic of children's books all over again. While it is a joy to read to children, he feels it is an honor and privilege to write stories for them.

Book cover of You’re Everything, Everywhere All the Time

Donn drew inspiration for his debut picture book, You’re Everything, Everywhere All the Time (2014) from the work of the artist Gerald Mc Dermott, who masterfully illustrated folk tales from cultures around the world.

His newest picture book, It’ll be Irie: Staying True to Yourself, releases on July 1st.

Welcome Donn, thank you so much for stopping by to talk about yourself and your new book.

Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)

I discovered story telling at an early age. My Aunt Peggy shared with me her memory of when I was five and I’d shown her a little booklet I’d made from pieces of paper upon which I’d made drawings that told a story.

I remember writing poems in grade school and by junior high, I was writing short stories and also wrote my first one act play on the life of the first female Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor. I’d started playing guitar by the age of fourteen and soon after, had begun writing songs as well.

By high school, I was writing articles for the school newspaper, essays for the art magazine I’d created and prose poetry for the literary magazine for which I’d also served as Senior Editor.

In college, while studying acting, I wrote several plays that were produced in the Boston University Playwrights Festival. Upon graduating, I began writing screenplays as well as short stage plays.

The next twenty years, I’d go on to add political blogs, music and restaurant reviews, feature interviews (as a staff writer for two magazines), and a TV pilot to my writing resume.

It wasn’t until I began volunteering as a reader via the (now defunct) Screen Actors Guild program, Book Pals, that I rediscovered my love for picture books and was inspired to write middle grade novels and picture books.

As a multi-genre writer, I tend to be juggling various projects, giving focus where needed, let’s say for a revision or a submission. With all my other life activities, I carve out time to either write or do something related to my writing career, like promoting my work on social media.

Though I love the long-term process of research, note-taking, story and character development that goes into a novel, there is something so beautiful about finding a story by distilling it’s essence into a finite body of words that are a fraction of the amount usually found in a standard novel, then seeing it married to perfect illustrations that complete the story. Great picture books are magical!

Wow! Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book as a child?

Image of all the "Peanuts" characters.

Although I suppose like many kids, the first author I remember reading a lot of was Dr. Suess. However, my favorite author/illustrator was Charles M Schulz. I read every single Peanuts book I could find at the neighborhood library. I really connected with the character of Charlie Brown, who was this really philosophical kid, pondering aspects of life, so much so that I’d often forget he and the other characters were five years old. Now, it makes sense, as I am a deeply philosophical person who questions and ponders everything.

They do often seem much older. What was your inspiration or spark of interest for It’ll be Irie: Staying True to Yourself?

Book cover of It’ll be Irie: Staying True to Yourself.

My parents, both immigrants to the U.S. from the beautiful island of Jamaica, were my main source of inspiration. I recall my mother telling me about a time in her junior high school in New York where she’d felt self-conscious of her Jamaican patois until a teacher explained the grammatical structure of patois to her classmates, which in turn made her feel validated and seen.

I had the idea one day of a kid who aspires to be American in every way, including how he sounds, in an attempt to bury his Jamaican identity. Whereas my mother had a kind teacher who offered to educate her classmates, Raymond, the main protagonist of It’ll be Irie has his father who helps him not only recall his favorite things about Jamaica, but also bake a Jamaican Christmas cake for his classmates and ultimately reclaim his cultural identity.

The idea of introducing food as a cultural bridge was inspired by memories of my father baking eight to ten Jamaican Christmas cakes every year, then shipping them out to extended family far and wide. He made the most delicious cake!

Yumm! I've sent out boxes of cookies, but never cakes. And what a great tribute to your mother. What is one of the most fun or unusual places where you’ve written a manuscript?

One of the most fun places where I’ve written was at a Picture Book Workshop Weekend retreat hosted by Highlights Foundation at their gorgeous writers retreat facility in Milanville, Pennsylvania. I got to stay in a beautiful little cabin nestled against the luscious backdrop of multi-colored foliage. So peaceful and serene! I not only thoroughly enjoyed working with the esteemed panel of professional editors, writers and illustrators in their workshops, I also thoroughly enjoyed sitting in the cabin quietly revising the picture book manuscript I was working on at the time, Itzel and the Cacao Tree.

Highlights is such a wonderful place to work and recharge. How long did it take from the first draft to publication for It’ll be Irie? How did this compare to your debut book, You’re Everything, Everywhere All the Time?

I wrote the first draft of “It’ll be Irie” in 2018 and it had a different title then. That would make five years from first draft to traditional publication. In contrast, it took a year for me to create what became the final text and illustrations for my first book, You’re Everything Everywhere All the Time, before self-publishing it the following year.

Interesting that you've experienced both "sides" of publishing. What's something you want your readers to know about It’ll be Irie?

No matter your age, it is always good to remember to be yourself!

Great sentiment! Did anything surprise or amaze you when you first got to see Alejandra Barajas’ illustrations? What is your favorite spread?

Internal image of Raymond (on left) admiring "holey" jeans in a store window and his mother giving him needle and thread (on right) to fix holes he cut intop new jeans.

Text © Donn Swaby, 2023. Image © Alejandra Barajas. 2023.

I was very delighted upon seeing Alejandra’s illustrations. They’re very vibrant and colorful! My favorite panel is where Raymond’s mom is handing him a needle and thread to sew back up the jeans he just cut up. This scene was inspired by my real life. When I was fifteen, my mother had bought me a denim jacket and I’d decided to cut the sleeves off to make it look cooler, except I kept trimming the shoulder areas, trying to make them even, and ended up cutting too far into the jacket. When my mom saw me wearing my butchered-up creation, she told me she would never buy me another piece of clothing again! LOL!

Oh my! What was the hardest, or most challenging, part of writing It’ll be Irie?

As this was my first traditionally published book, I was assigned a wonderful editor, Adam Blackman, via my equally awesome publishing team at Cardinal Rule Press, headed by the amazing Maria Dismondy.

Though I was used to receiving notes on my work, having been in many writing critique groups over several decades, it was still another thing to work with someone else in the necessary scrutiny of every word and the trying of all potential possibilities in order to choose the one that will ultimately serve the story the best. Sometimes we did not agree and after carefully listening to each other, we would find a place of common resonance that would help us find a solution that worked best for the story.

Though I love my original title, I understood why it wasn’t used and feel blessed I was allowed to participate in suggesting a new one. Again, there were many I came up with that I loved but the rest of the team didn’t or vice versa. But eventually, we found the perfect title we could agree sums up the essence or vibe of the story, since “irie” is Jamaican patois for “alright” as in “It’ll be alright.”

Thank you so much for giving us a small glimpse into the publication process and for illuminating the title! Are there any new projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I have several manuscripts (picture books, middle grade novels, TV pilot) in rounds of queried submissions and I’ve had several full manuscript requests in the last few months, adding to the several requests for various projects within the past year. Getting films and television shows made can be a many year journey which is where the passion for storytelling comes in, which sustains me over the course of that time.

How exciting. Good luck with all of your projects. What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

Photo of Angeles National Forest - NPS

My favorite park is Angeles National Forest. I love to go hiking up into the mountains for hours at a time. It’s where I go to recharge, alone with Nature, feeling connected to everything. Hiking in parks is cool; I love going to Griffith Park, one of L.A.’s best parks and one of the largest city parks in the country. But there is nothing like a trail leading out into sheer wilderness.

Photo of Joshua Tree National Park - NPS

Joshua Tree comes in a close second. I try to visit often as I can because there is something so magical about that place, the high energy there. It’s palpable and leaves me feeling giddy as I climb across the rocks, a huge grin on my face. I love to climb up high, then find a place to mediate for a while. Gorgeous sunsets and night sky teeming with stars.

Those are both fantastic parks! Last question, what is the best advice you’ve ever gotten - whether it’s regarding writing, publishing, or not?

To take chances when it comes to writing. To surprise myself. That wisdom reminds me to let go of any preconceived ideas of what I think a story should look like and allow it to organically develop.

Thank you Donn for stopping by to share with us your debut picture book and your writing.

It was my pleasure!

Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on It’ll be Irie: Staying True to Yourself.

To find out more about Donn Swaby, or to contact him:

If you are in the area - Culver City & Westchester, California - check out Donn's July 1st book launch events.

Be sure to RSVP to


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

Follow Me

  • Facebook Social Icon
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Instagram Social Icon
  • 1473394675_goodreads
  • Pinterest



bottom of page