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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Joanna Cooke

Joanna Cooke writes about nature and our human connection with it.

Author photo of Joanna Cooke in the woods.

As a child, she dreamed of becoming a park ranger. When she grew up, she spent ten years in California’s Sierra Nevada, including eight years as an environmental educator for Yosemite Institute and two summers as a ranger in Yosemite National Park—her dream come true. Joanna holds an MFA in Writing for Young People from Lesley University and writes books for young readers about people and nature.

Joanna lives in Jackson, Wyoming, where a good day involves reading, making macarons with her son, and snuggling with her cats.

Composite image of Joanna's six published books.

She is the author of 6 books, including Superstitions Surrounding Salt (Scoop on Superstitions) (2023), Using Wind Turbines to Fight Climate Change (2022), Energy from Wind (Energy for the Future) (2022), Call Me Floy (2020)[debut middle grade novel], and The Sequoia Lives On, illustrated by Fiona Hsieh (2018).

Her newest picture book, Fire Shapes the World, releases next week on June 13th.

Welcome Joanna!

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? )

I started writing about fourteen years ago, and as boring as it is to say, I mostly write at my desk! Nowadays, I have a standing desk, which keeps me moving. Sometimes, one of my cats will sit near/on me and keep me company. This can be comforting or very distracting! Sometimes I will go to our local library, which happens to be right next door! My favorite fiction book to write is definitely set in nature somewhere and might be historical. My favorite nonfiction book to write is a picture book about some very abstract concept like wilderness. I love a good challenge!

How awesome to have a library next door! What is one of the most fun or unusual places where you’ve written a manuscript?

For one of the books (a YA novel) that I have now on submissions, I did revisions while at a conference in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Think canal coffee shops, 17th century architecture, and gouda cheese!

That sounds amazing! What was your inspiration or spark of curiosity for Fire Shapes the World?

Cover of Fire Shapes The World

When I worked on The Sequoia Lives On with the publisher, Yosemite Conservancy, we all loved the concepts and visuals of the restorative burn in a sequoia grove. Fire is critical to sequoia trees and seed germination, and so YC added it to a potential list of books I could submit to them.

How long did it take from the first draft to publication for Fire Shapes the World? How does that compare with your other books?

It took me about 2.5 years to write a submittable draft; there were so many variations I had to work through. I had to figure out the main idea I wanted to get across and the thread that would tie it all together. Then It took 3.5 years from submission to published book. The Sequoia Lives One was a tight two years from lame draft to submission, so that’s pretty fast. Call Me Floy was also quite quick. I sold YC a synopsis in late 2018 and the book came out mid-2020.

It's interesting how each book's journey is so variable. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book when you were a child?

Composite image of four covers of the Black Stallion series

I devoured any horse books, especially Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series.

Oh ME, too! I am so glad someone finally mentioned them. What was the hardest part of writing Fire Shapes the World? Why?

It took a while to figure out what angle I wanted to take. Would the book be fiction or nonfiction? Would there be a strong narrative arc or something broader? I ultimately went with a lyrical, very big picture nonfiction approach.

Nailing down the format of a book can be quite a challenge. Is there something you want your readers to know about Fire Shapes the World?

When I was researching and working on early drafts, I heard an interview that said that many (all?) books are love stories to their topic. It made me think about how I wanted readers to feel, if not love, then wonder and an openness about fire. Love, of course, is complex. But that’s what I’m trying to offer readers here, a sense of curiosity, wonder and love for this complex, yet critical element of the world we live in.

I love that sentiment. Going to add it above my computer. Did anything surprise or delight you when you first saw Cornelia Li’s and Diāna Renžina's illustrations for the first time? Which is your favorite spread? I love Cornelia’s sense of a stylized world. The trees in the early spreads were especially exciting to me. And then when we first saw Cornelia’s cover, Wow! The swirls and color and texture were amazing.

!st internal spread - a forest of trees and multi-colored whirls of smoke and flame.

Text © Joanna Cooke, 2023. Image © Cornelia Li & Diāna Renžina, 2023.

We had an unusual path to illustrating this book. Cornelia did extensive research and sketched all the images. Then, due to unforeseen circumstances, she had to leave the project. I’m so happy we were able to work with her as much as we did. Diana entered the project to render Cornelia’s sketches into colorized, final images. This, I imagine, was tricky work! She really worked very hard to bring the images to life. She surprised us with a new idea for the final image (of the young girl and her mother by a campfire), as we hadn’t found the right image. Diana saw the story’s conclusion in a new way, and that was so critical to closing the story!

I hope Cornelia's okay. As a team, they created stunning illustrations. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

While I’ve got no projects currently lined up for publication, I’m currently working on a middle grade novel that will explore climate change, the loss of glaciers, and all the emotions young people are feeling about the future. It’s been a lot of fun to start work on this new project.

I look forward to seeing it. Good luck with it. What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

Photo - Mount Owen and the Grand Teton viewed from the North Fork of Cascade. NPS Photo/J. Bonney

Gosh! This is a stumper! Yosemite will always have a special place in my heart, as it’s where I “grew” up as a young adult. My time there absolutely framed my connection to the natural world and helped me become the naturalist I’d always wanted to be. Grand Teton (and adjacently Yellowstone) are where I raised my son, and so those landscapes mean something entirely different. As for where I’d like to go next—all of them?! Is that an answer? But first, all the Alaskan national parks.

Have to have at least one tough question! 😊 I like your answer- "all of them"! Last question, what is the best advice you’ve ever gotten - whether it’s regarding writing, publishing, or not ?

When I first writing The Sequoia Lives On, I wrote a draft that the YC editor didn’t think was for kids. I LOVED it, and was pretty stuck. I was convinced she should love it too. My sister, who is also an artist, told me I had an opportunity. I could hold onto the draft I loved, not get it published by YC, and risk not having it published anywhere. Or I could dig a little deeper, be more open to my editor’s comments, and take the risk of trying again. I took my sister’s advice, and because of that openness to the process, and collaboration, I’m now a published author!

Book cover of Fire Shapes the World

You have a smart sister! Thank you, Joanna for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.

Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF Sneak Peek review of Fire Shapes the World.

To find out more about Joanna Cooke, or contact her:


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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