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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Donna Cangelosi and Amanda (Moeckel) Calatzis

It's always a wonderful day when you have the opportunity to interview a talented critique partner and help celebrate her debut book! But today, I also get to introduce you to the amazing illustrator behind their stunning and heartfelt book.

Donna Cangelosi is a debut author who enjoys writing stories that entertain, enlighten, and inspire young readers. When not writing, Donna works with children in her psychology practice. Like Mister Rogers, she helps kids deal with feelings using play, art, music, and of course, picture books!

Amanda (Moeckel) Calatzis holds an MFA in Illustration from the School of Visual Arts. Her first word was “light,” and her art shows her enduring obsession with it. Her stories for children are uplifting and soulful, with touches of magic. Her work has been featured on The Children’s Book Podcast, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, and other popular kidlit blogs.

Amanda grew up on a lake near an old theme park, in rural Massachusetts. As a grown-up, she hopped from city to interesting city, before finally settling in NY's Hudson Valley last year with her husband, two children, and senior dogs.

She is the author-illustrator of Khalida and the Most Beautiful Song (Page Street Kids, 2018).

Their newest picture book biography, Mister Rogers' Gift Of Music, released on August 23rd.

Welcome Donna and Amanda, thank you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest book and your writing. 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?)

DONNA - I’ve been writing poetry since I was a kid and began dabbling in picture books over twenty-five years ago. After a ten-year hiatus raising my daughters and maintaining my psychology practice, I returned to writing and immersed myself into every aspect of kidlit. I joined SCBWI and a critique group, attended classes and conferences, and started writing whenever I had time and inspiration. I try to schedule several blocks of time to write each week and especially love writing picture book biographies. [Glad you returned!]

AMANDA - I consider 2015 the beginning of my picture book career, but I’ve been making art in some form or another since getting a painting degree in 2001. It wasn’t until I was a bona fide grown-up, around age thirty, that I found the courage to brave the world of children’s books, although this was a dream of mine long before that.

I write and draw in a studio that looks out onto the “Warwick Valley Serengeti,” as a friend has called it. It’s a large field at the base of the Appalachian Mountains, with no other house in sight. On any given day, there is a Noah’s Ark’s worth of animals to watch. My favorite so far, since we moved from NYC a year ago, are the migratory birds. They fly through in the thousands, and stream across our windows for long stretches of time, and it feels as if we’ve been transported to a bird super highway. And at night after hot days, our field fills with fireflies, and it looks as if the twinkling universe has dropped down into our backyard. [Sounds amazing!]

My favorite kind of book to illustrate is one that expands a child’s imagination. I love a book with a world that a child can jump into and swim around a bit, then emerge changed in some way, wanting to do it all over again the following bedtime. The most requested books from my 4-year old, in this vein, are The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen, and The Tree in Me by Corinna Luyken. The illustrations obviously play a huge role in the impact of these books. If a manuscript like one of these came across my desk, I would jump at the chance to illustrate it.

What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

DONNA - I’m a fan of rock-and-roll and can recall the names of countless songs, artists, and lyrics after hearing just a few notes. As a kid, I loved reading lyrics on album covers. Without knowing it, I learned a lot about poetry and writing from memorizing rock-and-roll.

AMANDA - I always keep popcorn in my studio. Hunger really throws me off my game, so if I’m in the flow, I don’t like to stop to go to the kitchen.

Ha! Have both of you found anything particularly helpful in keeping you inspired and writing these past couple of years?

DONNA - To quote The Beatles, “I get by with a little help from my friends!” As everyone knows, the kidlit community is tremendously supportive. I’ve been fortunate to meet other authors, who are now some of my closest friends. Daily walks in nature also help me keep things in perspective and inspires my creativity.

AMANDA - The past couple years have been about mere survival, career-wise, honestly. I have a two-year old and a four-year old, and just a couple weeks ago, we have arrived at the point where they’re both in daycare/pre-k a few days a week. So, as I’m sure is a common experience with other freelance parents of little ones, I’m ecstatic not to have to squeeze work into nap windows and late nights as much anymore. While it’s been tough to find time to tease out new ideas, one incredibly inspiring experience this year was a gathering at the Highlights Retreat Center with the other writers and illustrators from Prospect Agency. It was four glorious days just for writing, critiquing and connecting with kindred spirits. If you do have a chance to go there, don’t pass it up. It’s the most magical place, and they really care for their visiting authors.

I totally second the inspiration of nature and Highlights! Donna, what was your inspiration for Mister Rogers' Gift Of Music?

DONNA - Back in 2016, I was counseling several kids who were being bullied. Feeling frustrated by how widespread bullying is, I decided to write a story about someone who helped children. I started a list and came up with an idea to write about Fred Rogers. Then, I watched interviews and read articles, looking for a hook that would appeal to kids. When I read that Fred used music to deal with childhood illness and loneliness, I knew I had to write a story about him.

And you have created and amazing tribute to Fred Rogers. Amanda, what was it about the manuscript of Mister Rogers' Gift Of Music which captured your attention?

AMANDA - I love illustrating invisible things like music and feelings, so the subject matter is right up my alley. But most importantly, Fred Rogers is a bit of a spirit guide for me, or an anchor. I light a candle with his face on it when I sit down to write. He was so brilliantly in tune with children, and I like looking at the world through his lens when writing. Watching his show as a kid, I felt like he was speaking only to me. That was his magic— to make every kid feel special, seen and understood. So when I got the opportunity to share that magic with a new generation through this book, it was a hands-down, drop-everything-else YES.

Seeing that candle, this MS really was the perfect match for you! Donna, how many revisions did Mister Rogers' Gift Of Music take from first draft to publication?

DONNA - The story went through so many changes and revisions, that I stopped counting. But the more I learned about Fred, the more determined I was to write this story. So, I just kept going.

I'm glad you didn't give up! Amanda, how many revisions did the illustrations for Mister Rogers' Gift Of Music take from thumbnails to publication?

AMANDA - We had two official editing rounds, and a few tweaks after the final illustrations were sent in.

Wow, that seems quick! Donna, with so many books coming out about Mr. Rogers, how did you invent, or re-invent, your manuscript to find a spot for your book? Any advice for others who discover another book releasing on the same topic/person as their manuscript?

DONNA - I initially wrote a picture book focused on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. But my editor asked me to find a new angle to tell the story. I came up with ideas about Mister Rogers’ sweaters, his puppets, and several other concepts. Then, I watched a series of interviews Fred did with Karen Herman for the Archive of American Television in 1999. In one discussion, Fred described music as his first love, the way he expressed himself, and one of his gifts to children. Hearing the passion in his voice, I got right to work!

My advice is to read everything you can about the person or subject you’d like to write about. For biographies, search for videos, letters, and other ways to understand the person’s history, values, and view of the world. Then, find an interesting aspect of the person’s life that you relate to, and which will also resonate with kids.

I think finding that special part that you related to is so very important. Because that gives you the interest and passion to endure the ups and downs of publishing. Amanda, many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Mister Rogers' Gift Of Music? Could you share one or more with us?

AMANDA - I try to put my dogs in all my books, if there’s potential for them. I did find a spot for all three in this one. See if you can find a red Chihuahua, a grey Chihuahua, and a Yorkie. That’s Butters, Ziggy, and Lazaro.

What a fun challenge to find them! Donna, what was the toughest aspect of writing or researching Mister Rogers' Gift Of Music?

DONNA - Writing about someone as wonderful as Fred Rogers felt like a huge responsibility. Researching his life, I found one touching story after another about his generous spirit and how he went out of his way to help others. It was challenging to find words to portray the difference his music and message of acceptance made for kids and parents.

That message is what continues to make him resonate with kids and parents today. (Maybe it ought to play on a loop for Congress?) AMANDA, what was the toughest aspect of illustrating Mister Rogers' Gift Of Music?

AMANDA - The toughest aspect, but also the most rewarding one, was trying to illustrate music in a new, exciting way. In my previous book, Khalida and the Most Beautiful Song, I also illustrated music. But in this book, I wanted to push my style a bit and give the music more of a mixed-media quality. There was a lot of experimenting before I landed on a look I liked. Also, the publisher insisted on putting actual music notes and staves into the illustrations, which I was opposed to at first because that seemed so obvious. But seeing the final product, I completely agree with them. Sometimes I find myself needing to let go of that ego drive to make all art edgy and challenging. In picture books, the obvious and simple thing is often the answer, so young readers don’t get confused and lose interest.

That is a very interesting point for illustrators and authors. As a child, who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book?

DONNA - The King, The Mice, and the Cheese, by Nancy and Eric Gurney was my favorite book when I was very young. To this day, I love the illustrations and the book’s message of finding creative ways to live with others. I’ve also been a life-long fan of Hans Christian Andersen. As a child, I especially enjoyed his story, The Emperor’s New Clothes.

AMANDA- Hands-down, the twin sisters Janet and Anne Grahame-Johnstone were my favorite illustrators. I inherited their books from my mom’s childhood collection from the 1950s. They illustrated many anthologies of classic nursery rhymes and fairytales. The characters in their books were just dripping with emotion, style and attitude. As an illustrator now, I appreciate them even more. Apparently, each sister had a specialty; one was great at clothing and costuming, and the other was great at animals and birds. They both worked on all the illustrations they did, passing them back and forth. They’re such a fascinating duo. I still refer to their books when trying to capture a child’s movement, or a certain pose or emotion.

The answers to this question are always so interesting. I'm constantly learning about new books & creatives! Is there anything you want your readers to know about or gain from Mister Rogers' Gift Of Music?

DONNA - In addition to learning about this amazing man, I hope my story will help kids see that they are important. I often meet kids who measure their worth by their accomplishments and unfortunately, social media fuels this message. I also hope this book will help kids see that all feelings are okay and can be managed.

AMANDA - It would make me so happy if children were inspired to watch episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. His calm, slow sensitivity is a breath of fresh air compared to modern children’s programming, which usually is so fast-paced and dramatic. I would also love it if children began making music or other art inspired by their big feelings, like he did.

I truly hope that your book touches and encourages kids (and even some adults). When you first saw Amanda’s illustrations did anything amaze or surprise you? Which is your favorite spread?

DONNA - Everything amazed me about Amanda’s illustrations. The emotion. The way she captured Fred’s posture and facial expressions. And the way she weaved swirls of musical notes and song lyrics around the scenes. Most of all, I love the heart she sprinkled into every page. I still can’t believe how Amanda showed the feelings I tried to convey in my words.

Text © Donna Cangelosi. 2022. Image © Amanda Calatzis, 2022.

I especially love this spread. It shows how music brought color into Fred’s life, the passage of time, and Fred’s lifelong connection to his piano. It’s also a fantastic introduction to the next spread.

Wow, this is so stunning! Amanda, is there a spread that you were especially excited about or proud of? Which is your favorite spread?

Text © Donna Cangelosi. 2022. Image © Amanda Calatzis, 2022.

AMANDA - I'm especially proud of "A beautiful day for a neighbor…"

Text © Donna Cangelosi. 2022. Image © Amanda Calatzis, 2022.

My favorite spread is "What do you do with the mad that you feel?"

I love the keyboard swirled through the first image and the sharp dinosaur teeth for anger. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

DONNA - I have another music-related manuscript on submission and I’m working on a new picture book biography with an environmental theme.

AMANDA - I just finished the art for my first board book, which was written by one of my critique partners, Monique Aiken. This is her debut book, and it will be published by Schiffer Kids next year. It’s called Are You My Cutie Patootie? It reads as a series of cute and silly nicknames we give our kids, and the illustrations show lots of love and cuddles, with a diverse cast of children and the people who love them.

I'm looking forward to seeing what you both do next. Last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

DONNA - I’ve visited many National Parks and even own a National Parks passport. Choosing a favorite is difficult. I love them all! That said, the one that stands out is Glacier Bay in Alaska—the majestic landscape and the precious wildlife are indescribably magnificent.

AMANDA - I really look forward to bringing my kids to Muir Woods someday. I loved to escape there from the city when I lived in San Francisco. Now I live within a stone’s throw of the Appalachian Trail, so I bet if you ask again in a couple years, I’ll know some more great spots.

Thank you, Donna and Amanda for stopping by and sharing your time and thoughts with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.

Thank you for having me, Maria!

Thank you!

Be sure to come back Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF sneak peek at Mister Rogers' Gift of Music.

To find out more about Donna Cangelosi, or contact her:


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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