The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Lisa Anchin and Review of The Paper Bird
Lisa Anchin (she/her) has been drawing since she could hold a pencil and making up stories since she could speak. She received her BA from Smith College and took a long circuitous route to an MFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She is often holed up in her studio stringing words together and compulsively doodling, but she also loves meeting other kidlit folks and volunteers as the Illustration Coordinator for SCBWI’s Metro NY Chapter. Lisa lives in Brooklyn with her husband, two daughters, and two studio cats.
She is the author/illustrator of The Little Green Girl (Dial Books For Young Readers 2019). And she is the illustrator of: The Polio Pioneer: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine by Linda Elovitz Marshall (Knopf Books For Young Readers 2020), a Sydney Taylor 2021 Notable Book; I Will Love You By Alyssa Satin Capucilli (Scholastic 2017); and A Penguin Named Patience by Suzanne Lewis (Sleeping Bear Press 2015).
Her newest author/illustrator picture book, The Paper Bird (Dial Books For Young Readers 2021), releases January 11, 2022.
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? How did you get started? What is your favorite type of book to write?)
I’ve been making up stories for as long as I can remember. As a teen, I carried around a notebook and scribbled stories and long form limericks in it. I wanted to be a writer, but somewhere along the way, Grown Ups convinced me that being a writer/illustrator wasn’t a “Real Job.” I ended up taking a long, circuitous path, jumping from work at an open-air, history museum to organizing for Planned Parenthood to a partial PhD before pursuing an MFA and trying to make writing and illustrating books into the career I had always wanted it to be.
Before having children and before the pandemic, my work practices were much more consistent. These days, life is very full and often a little chaotic. I live in NYC and consider myself pretty lucky to have a separate room to work in. It’s a shared office/studio space for both my husband and me. When I can, I work there. I love sitting at my drawing table with art on the walls and supplies at the ready. Most often, though, I keep my sketchbook handy when I’m with my kids and find moments to draw and string words together while they’re busy playing. I actually do a lot of my work at night after they’re in bed.
My favorite stories to write always involve a little bit of whimsy or magic. Maybe it’s a sentient topiary child or a magical paper bird, but I love anything that stretches my imagination. I also particularly love writing picture books. They’re not easy–telling a story in 32 pages is no small feat–but they’re such a wonderful art form. Picture books can be complex and have real emotional weight, and the relationship/interplay between text and image is so unique.
Well, I for one am glad you bucked the naysayers and are creating these magically, whimsical books! What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
Unrelated to writing or drawing, I love tap dancing. It’s been a while since I’ve had a regular dance practice (my knees are getting old). When I was younger, though, I used to tap dance competitively. While pursuing both my PhD and MFA, I took classes for my own enjoyment at a number of the studios around New York City.
That's cool. Too bad knees don't age slower. What was your inspiration for The Paper Bird?
The Paper Bird began as a very different story, originally titled The Paper Woods. In that draft, the main character was busy and overscheduled and didn’t have time for the thing she loved most, art making. The story never felt entirely relatable to a young audience, so I ended up putting it aside for a long time. I originally had the idea in 2014. When I came back to it, literal years later, I was in a doubtful place about my work, and the theme of self-doubt ended up finding its way into Annie’s story.
I think a lot of creative folks can relate to the cycle of doubt that happens in both book and art making. While my doubts are internal, Annie’s doubts about her art are sparked by her classmates. Their voices overshadow her internal, creative joy, and she starts noticing the imperfections and “mistakes” in her drawings. I wanted to write something about learning to be true to your own voice, regardless of what other folks might say.
It is very powerful! I still remember the effect those voices had in second grade. Comparison or unkindness shuts down too many creatives. How many drafts, or revisions, did The Paper Bird take from idea spark to publication? Which was harder, the illustrations or the text?
I had the idea for this story back in 2014, but it sat on the backburner for a while. It wasn’t until about 2018 that I was able to give it a new central theme that ultimately made the story work. In my files, I have ten separate dummies (some with major changes, others with small tweaks) before my editor acquired the book, and I have seven additional drafts/dummies in my post-acquisition folder. Revisions and editing are a key part of book-making.
This story was a tough one to crack all around. While I struggled in different ways with both the text and art, the art was ultimately harder. I ended up having to redo a number of pieces of final art. I had originally planned to do the book in black and white with only five spot colors–turquoise, red, orange, yellow, and violet–for Annie’s bright creativity. I had started black and white ink paintings for the first five spreads and ended up having to scrap all of them.
My brilliant editor and designer suggested that the black and white didn’t serve enough of a storytelling purpose. They were entirely correct, but I had never thought about the book in full color. I didn’t have an overall sense of color. I didn’t even know what color clothing Annie wore. It took a lot of work to figure all of that out at such a late stage in making the book. Reworking the art was the right decision, but in the moment it felt impossible.
Wow! Seven drafts after acquisition. I love your choice of a shift from color to grey scale to follow the character's mood and confidence. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or what was your favorite book as a child?
I was a voracious reader as a child, and my parents, teachers, and librarians described me as devouring books rather than reading them. I don’t have a single favorite book/author/illustrator. There are so many books that I loved as a child, but the one that came to me as I considered this question was Graeme Base’s interactive, illustrated mystery, The Eleventh Hour.
I remember sitting in my elementary school library pouring over the illustrations of Horace and his friends. I was enthralled. Each page is a glorious work of art. The colors are stunning, the compositions are incredible, and the images are lush and fanciful. And the overall story/mystery itself is such a cool concept. It was one of the first books that I saved up to buy myself, and even after I had solved the puzzles, I still wanted to immerse myself in the world. I still have that well-thumbed copy on my bookshelf.
All of Graeme Base's books are works of art. Many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in The Paper Bird? Could you share a few with us? What is your favorite spread in the book?
Text & Image © Lisa Anchin, 2022.
My favorite spread in the book is the opening image of Annie surrounded by all of her drawings with a fresh sheet of paper spread out before her. I love this moment of potential and her pure joy here.
There are a number of small easter eggs throughout the book, but the ones on this first page will only be picked up by a small group of folks. I was privileged to do my undergraduate studies at Smith College, a historically women’s college with an incredible community of alums. As complicated as my feelings are about Facebook, my alum network keeps me there because we have dozens of private groups on all manner of topics. The Parenting group in particular is very active, and the community is nurturing and supportive in a way that is all too rare in online spaces.
While working on the art for this opening spread, I realized I wanted Annie’s drawings to feel authentically childlike, so I wanted to look at drawings made by actual children. In addition to asking about my daughter’s sleep regression and potty training, I turned to my Smithie parenting community to ask if they’d be willing to share drawings by their children, aged 5-7. The response was overwhelming, and that thread still brings me so much joy. I loved so many of the kids’ drawings, I ended up asking specific parents if I could use their child’s drawing to inspire a piece of Annie’s artwork. With the permission of both parent and child, I made my own drawings based on the posted images, and I thanked each child on the dedication page.
Likewise, I drew a handful of my illustrator friends, my spouse, and myself into a few of the larger group scenes. One spot in particular–in the fourth panel of the penultimate spread, Annie is tap dancing next to a red haired child. That bespectacled redhead is me. And not only did I draw illustrator friends, but I also added a few of their books in the panels where the kids are reading in their classroom.
What a wonderful gift and opportunity as an illustrator to be able to incorporate these items/treasures in to the illustrations. What’s something you want your readers to know about or gain from The Paper Bird?
I hope that readers will take heart, knowing they’re not alone in their doubts. I also hope they see the importance of listening to themselves rather than external voices. It can be so difficult to filter out the noise and listen to ourselves, but it’s so important to do so. I also hope they learn to accept the imperfections and the mistakes and find joy in creativity for its own sake.
Then you have to learn to excise that sneaky inner critic. How are you staying creative these days? What are you doing to keep being inspired?
I want to be open about this because it can be really hard being a creative person with young kids. It can already feel isolating, but it’s become especially so because of the pandemic. Before my kids were born, I had a diligent, daily drawing practice. Even if it was just a smudge of color I made a point of putting something on the page. Last year I drew less than I ever have before. I’m trying to return to that practice, but it doesn’t happen every day. Life is far more chaotic than it used to be, and I try to stay present with my kids, knowing that this stage of their lives is fleeting and nearly over.
Honestly, their curiosity and joy is what inspires me most these days. Our lives have shrunk substantially, so I find myself constantly looking for new ways to play and create with my children. A few of the games we’ve made up recently have even inspired some picture book ideas, of course all at very nascent stages.
Like dust bunnies, ideas can wait. Those moments with the kids are fleeting - try really hard not to blink. Are there any projects you are working on that you can share a tidbit with us?
I can’t really talk about most of what I’m working on. I’ve very happily returned to a few characters I created ages ago but never found the right story for. One of them has found her way into an early chapter book that I’ve been having a lot of fun with. The other project is a picture book for a familiar character I often post on Instagram.
We will have to keep our eyes open! Last question, what is your favorite animal? Or one that you are enamored with at the moment?
If you’d asked me a week ago, my answer would be very different, but I’m weirdly having a birds of prey moment. Over just the last week, I’ve seen more hawks in our neighborhood parks than I ever have. I saw one circling while pushing my daughter on the swings at the local playground. On another occasion, I saw one swoop onto a bare sycamore branch as we were leaving the park. And on a walk to the gardens at the end of our block, I spotted yet another hawk perched at the top most branch of a pine. They’re really beautiful birds.
Funny thing, just as I was finalizing this interview, a hawk swooped past brushing the window with its wing. Thank you Lisa for stopping by to share about yourself and your newest picture book.
To find out more about Lisa Anchin, or contact her:
Review of The Paper Bird
It's so easy to compare your work to other's. Seeds of doubt seep in and can totally shut down all creativity in art and writing. Sometimes, it's the imperfect creations which can sing to us through our doubts and respark our joy in creating. This beautifully illustrated book celebrates creativity and self-acceptance.
The Paper Bird
Author/Illustrator: Lisa Anchin
Publisher: Dial Books for Young Readers (2022)
Art, self-acceptance, and joy of creating.
A sumptuously illustrated exploration of the joy that comes with creating art for one's own self
There once was a time when all the colors, from midsummer blue to sunrise orange, lived at the tips of Annie's fingers...
But when her classmates' sidelong glances cause Annie to notice all the tiny flaws in her art, her colorful creative spark fades—quite literally—to gray. With lyrical prose and eye-catching illustration author-artist Lisa Anchin shows readers how to find the beauty in imperfections and celebrate the joy of creation for creations' sake.
There once was a time when all the colors,
from midsummer blue to sunrise orange,
lived at the tips of Annie's fingers...
What I LIKED about this book:
As noted (and shown) above, the opening image that accompanies those lines is full of enthusiasm, a love of creating, a world of possibilities. And not just in the illustration. I love that Lisa's text didn't simply mention blue, red, or orange, but "midsummer blue" and "sunrise orange." Magnificent colors that conjure memories, smells, and images of relaxing and playing.
But the world is rarely kind. As we see Annie's creations elicit snickers and sidelong looks, the text lyrically frames the coming storm - "Then, on a Wednesday like any other, something changed...gray doubt slowly crept in." It's interesting that like their paintings, the other kid's clothing is pastel and muted, while Annie's dress is a deep, rich red. Unfortunately, the reader is left to wonder what caused the sudden change.
Text & Image © Lisa Anchin, 2022.
Like many people, both kid and adult, other's reaction causes Annie to doubt herself and her drawings. Suddenly pages became daunting white spaces, not places of endless possibility. And a gray cloud starts swirling above her head. Soon the grayness overtook her personality and everything around her. The world lost its color. While this could be seen as cliche, self-doubt (and depression) really does suck out one's joy and enthusiasm.
Text & Image © Lisa Anchin, 2022.
After absorbing the quiet aloneness of a gray playground, Annie tries again and again to draw a bird. On her final attempt, she crumbles and tosses aside a lopsided, turquoise image. In a touch of magic, Annie's drawing responds to a real bird and rises into the air, creating a fun turquoise trail and a song of hope. Things don't have to be perfect, to be beautiful.
Text & Image © Lisa Anchin, 2022.
Unable to resist, Annie slowly begins to draw again. And more brightly colored birds join the chorus, as well as a number of animals. Color slowly returns to Annie and with it her self-confidence. The incremental addition of color creates a feeling of progression. Although at the same time, since it all takes place in an afternoon, it does seem a little quick. Even with the mingled element of magic.
The ending uses changes in the kid's clothing to subtly show a passage of time from the next day through a quadriptych of images and then the final spread, as Annie's classmates come to accept her. The final spread and the colored counterpoint to the beginning pages are fun. It is a beautifully illustrated book with some lovely lyrical and expressive text celebrating the joy of creativity.
- draw your own bird and color it. What's something special about your bird?
- if you could imagine the most colorful and amazing forest ever - on earth or any other planet - what would it look like? Draw the forest and the animals in it or write a description of it.
- read The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken and Ish by Peter Reynolds. How are they similar and different in how the main character feels about the artwork?