The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with John Ledda and Joanna Rowland
John Ledda is an illustrator and graphic designer living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has a Masters in Fine Art from the Academy of Art University and specializes in a variety of media, including pen, ink, watercolor, and digital. He enjoys telling stories through images.
This is his debut as a children's illustrator.
Joanna Rowland grew up in Sacramento, CA where she liked to play in the creek looking for crawdads and tadpoles, as well as daydream and participate as a synchronized swimmer. Joanna earned a BA in Child Development, followed by her teaching credential, and is currently an elementary teacher by day and a writer by night. She lives with her husband and their three daughters in Northern California.
She is the author of When Things Are Hard, Remember (2021), Stay Through the Storm (2019), The Memory Box: A Book About Grief (2017), The Monstructor, written with Melissa Goodman (2017), and Always Mom, Forever Dad (2014).
Their picture book collaboration, Big Bear Was Not the Same, releases tomorrow.
Welcome Jon & Joanna,
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write/illustrate? How long have you been writing/illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate?)
John: I’ve been making art since I was a kid, but it’s only been in the past couple of years that I’ve been focusing on breaking into picture books. I work as a graphic designer during the day, so most of my work takes place in the evening, which suits me just fine. My favorite place to draw is a comfy chair in our living room, and since I do everything on my iPad it’s very convenient to just sit down and start without much fuss or setup. I love illustrating stories that have a lot of heart, with plenty of room for humor, and space for me to add my own ideas and interpretations.
Joanna: I teach during the day so either early in the morning or later at night I find a comfy chair by a window at home to write in. Whenever we can get away, I visit a family cabin that has no TV and read and write all weekend. I try to go up there a couple times a year. I’ve been writing since 2009. It was actually the Writers Workshop Training my school district provided for teachers, that helped me find my love of writing. My first book published in 2014. I love writing picture books on difficult topics in a hopeful way.
I can see why you were the perfect team for this heartfelt book full of hope, with a dash of humor. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
John: Becoming a children’s book illustrator was not a goal of mine until after I graduated from college. I grew up really wanting to be an architect and even won a local drafting competition, and when I went to college I started out as an engineering major. However, I eventually realized that engineering would completely kill my artistic side, and so I switched to Studio Art at the end of my sophomore year. It wasn’t until my senior thesis that I moved towards narrative illustration. It was definitely an “Ah ha!” moment when I realized the deep influence children’s books, comics, graphic novels, and animation have had on my artistic sensibilities and so I set my sights on one day being a published illustrator…and here I am today!
Joanna: When I was younger, I used to dread writing. I daydreamed so much in school that when it came time to write, I’d second guess if I knew where all the proper punctuation like commas went so, I’d simplify my sentences to avoid them. But not writing things down exactly how I thought them because of that fear, made me dislike my writing and I never thought of myself as a writer until my thirties.
Thank you both for sharing this with us. John, what about the Big Bear Was Not the Same manuscript snagged your attention or captured your imagination? Who or what was the inspiration for your illustrations?
John: Big Bear Was Not the Same is the first book I’ve ever professionally illustrated, and so at the beginning of the project–before I knew any real details about the book–I was very nervous it would be some terribly grueling process, or that I wouldn’t connect with the manuscript. However, as soon as I read it, I just felt like I was bursting with ideas. I couldn’t wait to get started! I was immediately reminded of a trip I took to Yosemite last year, and all of the beautiful forests and landscapes. Trying to capture the variety of settings you find in a beautiful place like that was a fun challenge.
I think you did an amazing job. Joanna, what was the inspiration or backstory for Big Bear Was Not the Same?
Joanna: I had been working on a name origin story for my dad, who has a unique name, for almost a year. My grandfather had given him this unique name after going through some very traumatic experiences. Some feedback I got on the name origin story was that I was trying to fit two stories in one. I needed to either focus on the name origin story or a story about trauma. It was actually in January of 2020 when the title Big Bear Was Not The Same came to me during Storystorm hosted by Tara Lazar. And I needed to answer the question – Why wasn’t Big Bear the same? And four months later, it sold.
Wow! Storystorm is such a great challenge. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
John: As a kid I loved anything by Bill Peet. My mom must’ve read me almost every book that he’s made. The stories and the art made such an impression on me and I can still remember them so clearly. I think they’re so charming, and they continue to inspire me as a storyteller and as an artist.
Joanna: When I was little, I loved my signed copy of Good As New by Barbara Douglass, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr and Eric Carle, and Corduroy by Don Freeman. Writing this I realized all books are about bears. It must be destiny.
I think you might be right! Is there anything special you want your readers to know about Big Bear Was Not the Same?
Joanna: There is a secret cover under the jacket, but I’ll let John tell you about how he came up with that. I love it!
John: I felt so fortunate that I really got to go all out on my first book and was able to do endpapers AND a secret case cover! It was the last illustration I did for the book, and is definitely one of my favorites. I won’t spoil the whole thing if you haven’t seen it yet, but beyond the charming moment between Big Bear and Little Bear there is special significance to the constellations in the sky, if you’re familiar with their Latin names. A special Easter egg for all your astronomers out there!
John, you definitely outdid yourself. It is stunning and absolutely amazing! If any of you haven't seen it yet, go to - Joanna's Instagram post (https://www.instagram.com/p/CSA9pAWl6SS/). Joanna, when you first saw John’s illustrations, did anything surprise or amaze you? What is your favorite spread?
Text © Joanna Rowland, 2021. Image © John Ledda, 2021.
Joanna: There is so much I adore and love. What first amazed me was the expressions John Ledda gave to Big Bear and Little Bear. We get to see how brave and strong and playful Big Bear is before the forest fire and how that changes when Big Bear is triggered by things that remind him of the fire. I love all the creative ways John told a story beyond the words. When Little Bear tries to cheer up Big Bear, John used four different attempts in a unique spread layout that I simply adore. John knows how to play with the page gutter and use white space in such creative ways. What made me tear up was discovering the secret cover under the jacket.
Little Bear is so cute, what a great imagination! John, many illustrators weave (hide) treasures in their illustrations. If you did this, can you share one or more with us? What is your favorite spread?
Text © Joanna Rowland, 2021. Image © John Ledda, 2021.
John: There is a spread where Big Bear and Little Bear are observing some kids sitting around a campfire roasting marshmallows, and over on the picnic table are a bunch of camping objects. Several of these are items in my own home including the little yellow radio and the cooler. My partner and I enjoy camping and these two come with us every time. It’s so hard to pick a favorite spread, but I really loved how the title page turned out. It’s so evocative of Yosemite Valley to me, and I’m a real sucker for illustrations with wide open skies
As with the rest of the book, John, this page is stunning. So, what was the hardest part to illustrate or write? Why?
John: The hardest spread was where Big Bear was trapped up the tree with the fire down below. I went through quite a few iterations trying to figure out what the fire should look like. I didn’t want it to feel too scary, and I also didn’t want it to feel stylistically different from the rest of the book. In the end, I’m very happy with how it turned out in both regards!
Joanna: This book really took a village. It was at the in person SCBWI LA Summer conference in 2019, where Anna Shinoda led a workshop about writing about mental health responsibly. I knew with this story that even though I’ve had some training working with children that have experienced trauma, I needed someone that had more expertise on trauma and PTSD. Debbie McJimsey, who wrote the backmatter page on trauma, read every version and her input helped me change the story along the way. Most of my other stories I’ve written in first person in which you don’t need dialogue. It was one of my critique partners that helped me see dialogue would make this story come to life. And my editor Naomi Krueger helped me see that we should look at it through the perspective of Little Bear during edits.
Now, for a slightly unusual question - If you could meet anyone, real or imaginary, who would that be and why?
John: I would love to meet Taylor Swift. I illustrated this book while listening to her latest albums Folklore and Evermore on repeat. The narrative thrust of these albums was beautiful, and I think her talent as a songwriter is astonishing. The music was the perfect ambience for this project, and I would like to thank her for keeping my ears occupied while scribbling away on my iPad for months.
Joanna: Back in 2009, I was going through a difficult time, and I turned to reading as an outlet. I read all the Twilight books by Stephanie Myers. After I finished them, I had this moment of sadness of what am I going to do now and that was when the light bulb moment came where I knew I was going to write a book. So, I’d love to meet her as a thank you for being part of my journey to discover my love of writing. And just for fun, I adore everything Emily Blunt is in and I think it would be so fun to meet her too.
Interesting choices, these three haven't been mentioned yet. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
John: I’m currently illustrating a yet-to-be-announced book coming out in 2022 that is all about a little boy learning how to meditate. It’s been a challenge in an entirely different way than Big Bear Was Not the Same, but I’m very happy to see it finally coming together and hope to be able to share some of it later this year.
Joanna: I’m on submission with a fun informational text and a lyrical story. I’m currently working on a gratitude story. Fingers crossed.
I am really excited to see these books! I'll keep my eyes out for them. How have you been staying creative these days? What are you doing to “prime the well?”
John: I’ve really been trying to honor my mind and body when it says it needs a break. Working on paid projects can definitely put a damper on making personal work, which I then end up feeling guilty about. But I remind myself that rest is important, and I won’t be able to make anything if I’m burnt out. I also try to stay active in the #colour_collective challenge on Twitter when I can. It’s a lovely weekly challenge that I really enjoy doing when time allows, but even when I can’t I love seeing the ways other artists interpret a color.
Joanna: I was actually at a writing retreat on March 13, 2020, finishing Big Bear Was Not The Same when the world shut down. Usually, I write on difficult topics children face, but with so much uncertain, I couldn’t write about hard topics for over a year. I needed to explore humor and inspirational writing.
I think we've all had to practice (or learn) varying degrees of self-care. What is your favorite animal? Or one that you are enamored with at the moment? Why?
John: As a lifelong swimmer I’m drawn to pretty much any aquatic animal, but I have a particular soft spot for sea otters. They’re just so cute and graceful when they swim. But like Joanna this book has really moved bears very high up my list of “favorite animals!”
Joanna: I’m obsessed with bears now. I even ordered cute mask with bears mouths on them for the book launch.
Joanna, that sounds like fun! Thank you, John and Joanna for stopping by and sharing your about your selves and your book. It was wonderful to chat with you both.
Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Big Bear Was Not The Same.
To find out more about John Ledda and Joanna Rowland, or get in touch with them: